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To Those Who Fight For Naught

The damp and chilly evening air of the mountain pass made Lang shiver and pull his cloak tight. How quickly his body grew unaccustomed to his native climes! Just a few years of residing in Ala Mhigo, and the Coerthan alpine winds went from refreshing to uncomfortable. His outer clothing was just ill-fitting enough for cold to infiltrate the layers and assault the thin desert robes he still wore underneath. 

Since he returned to Coerthas, he had been trailing behind the Horde, wandering through the devastation left in Nidhogg’s wake. He trudged from one razed settlement to another, providing aid to whoever he could find. At first, the roads were full of refugees heading to Ishgard, but now he might go a full day without encountering a single soul. Even the Temple Knights had abandoned these lands to rebuild the battlefront further south.

As the sun began to set, he looked for a place to stop for the night. There was a cave high upon a cliff ahead that promised shelter, but as he approached, he noticed the signs of a recent struggle across the road. Swathes of scorched earth, a discarded sword, and blood on the cobbles yet to be washed away.

Lang picked up the sword. It was a beautiful thing with an ornate sapphire-studded hilt, and its craftsmanship made his own blade look shoddy in comparison. It clearly belonged to someone wealthy, Lang thought as he tested its weight. Perhaps a recently knighted noble whose arrogance outmatched their skill. He sighed, and began searching for signs of survivors.

He followed one of several trails until he came across a figure in the underbrush, half-obscured. It was no stripling, but a middle-aged Elezen knight. His armor bore an emblem of a white lion, belonging to some minor noble house Lang didn't recognize. His limbs were stiff and his lips blue, but he was still just barely breathing. Lang gingerly pulled him out and began to mutter a curative spell. The wounds on the knight's body began to seal themselves, and he breathed out a sigh of relief.

The knight gasped and instantly attempted to sit up. Lang reached out to steady him. “Peace, my friend! We’re in no immediate danger.”

The knight turned to Lang with a desperate look. “My men. Where are they?”

“I found you first. Let me tend to your wounds, and I'll search for them.”

"Some are still in that beast's lair! I saw them... Damn it! Damn it all…” the knight rasped before he fell into unconsciousness again.

Lang looked at the cliff. That cave was the lair of a dragon? Thank heavens he narrowly avoided entering it unawares. He finished casting his spell, putting things back the best he could, then he carried the knight out of the woods and up the road until they were out of sight of that sinister maw. He placed the man down in a small clearing and dug out a fire crystal from his satchel to start a quick campfire. He didn't like to spend nights out in the open if he could help it, but if there were more of the wounded about, it would be prudent to be easily spotted, in case any of them managed to make their way to the road.

Warmed by the fire, the man stirred to life again, a little more lucidity in his eyes than before. He groaned in pain and clutched his head.

"I don't know how many are left. By my count six, or five... no, six of my men managed to get out of the cave. Please, help them."

"In a moment. I must see that you're in stable condition first," said Lang. "Who else was with you? What about your lord?"

"What do you mean?" The man looked at him, confused.

"Your master? You're a knight of a noble house of Ishgard, yes?" The man continued to have an expression of total incomprehension. Lang took another stab in the dark. "Or... your charge? One of your lord's children?"

"What? No, no, I'm not- I'm the master of my house. Those are all my knights.”

Lang realized the mortifying error in judgment he had made. "I- oh. My- My apologies, I did not recognize you," he stammered. 

“Ha, nothing to apologize about. I don't believe we've met. And were it not for your timely rescue, I'm certain I would have entered Halone's halls. You have my thanks, Ser…?”

“You're mistaken-” Lang said, before his brain finally caught up to his mouth and helpfully supplied him with the correct way to address a highborn. “That is- I mean- forgive me, my lord, but I am no Ser. Just... just Lang is fine.”

The nobleman's brows knotted. “You’re a clergyman, then?”

“Nay, simply a traveler, my lord.”

“But then- I thought…Forgive me, I cannot think with a clear head right now. How did you find me?”

“I was following this road, and chanced upon the aftermath of a Dravanian attack.” Lang paused. “…My lord.”

“I see.” The noble smiled wryly. “I thought the garrison must have sent you this way, but it seems I was saved by a stroke of luck instead, thank the Fury.”

“Aye, perhaps Halone’s guiding hand was at work.” Lang nodded, relieved that the man did not continue to question him. Remembering the jeweled sword was still in his possession, he quickly proffered it, not wanting to hold onto it for any longer than he had to. “Does this belong to you?”

“Ah, you found Heartbiter!” the nobleman exclaimed, and graciously relieved Lang of the sword. Its fineness instantly conferred an air of dignity to its battered owner. “I am in your debt, Lang, and forgive my presumption for not introducing myself. Ser Sagrameric, Viscount of House Leonguin. My knights and I were pursuing a dragon, but, as you can see, we found ourselves hopelessly outmatched.”

“I… I will look for them. Please remain here.” Lang bolted away before the other man could respond. He did not stop running until he got out of sight of the road. He pressed his back against a tree, gasping for air as his heart hammered in his ribcage. Then, as if on cue to arrive at the worst possible time, a familiar sensation began to cloud his head. He had seconds to drop to the ground and make himself as small as possible before he went catatonic.

As quickly as the vision arrived, it abandoned him, leaving every nerve in his body levin-singed. Lang squeezed his eyes shut and fought to slow his breathing. It had been years since a rush of nerves set off a vision from the Echo like that. The images were already slipping from his grasp, leaving him with only the impression of fresh terror, which morphed into a pit of dread in his chest. He could not say why, but he was absolutely certain that disaster awaited him in the depths of that cave, and no good would come from aiding- nay, ingratiating himself to that nobleman.

Then, was he to run away? Leave a man to die in the night, and however many more who might still be clinging to life? That was not why he chose to remain here. He may have been only one adventurer, but the poor souls abandoned in this no man's land needed someone, anyone, to not give up on them.

A nigh-inexhaustible wellspring of aether, a blessing from the Fury herself, had coursed through him for as long as he knew. With her protection at his back, he rarely feared for his safety, and threw himself against great perils without a second thought. He had never hesitated to protect others with his gift, until he was struck by this sudden fit of cowardice.

"By the Twelve, what's wrong with me…" he muttered, wiping the sweat from his brow. He disciplined his thoughts back towards tracking down survivors.

By the time the sun disappeared, he dragged two unconscious knights and some of their scattered gear to the makeshift camp. He spoke a short prayer over each of the four bodies he found, covered them with foliage, and marked their locations with their weapons. They would have to be given proper funerals later.

"Lang! Stay here." Sagrameric called out as he began to set off again.

"But there are still-"

"You’ll have no luck finding them by moonlight. They are most likely dead within the dragon’s lair. You cannot hope to face a beast that ten men could not take down."

"Depends, were they your best?" Lang bit out.

"Those were all of my men. Fully trained Ishgardian knights, not levied conscripts." Sagrameric gave him a hard look. "You've done all you can, and it is more than I could possibly ask for," he added.

Lang resigned and slumped next to the campfire. In all honesty, he was exhausted and hungry, hardly in a condition to fight. He checked on the two knights, whom they had laid down close to the fire and covered with spare cloaks.

"They’ll live through the night, but they can’t hold on for more than a day or two," he said. "If I'm to head to that fort you speak of, I should go now."

"There is no need,” said Sagrameric tiredly. “I arranged with Lightsteel Keep to send out a search party if we had not returned by tonight. They will arrive by tomorrow morning."

Lang sat for a while, allowing the warmth from the flames to soothe his aching body. In the dim flickering light, he could almost pretend he was sharing his campfire with some friendly vagrants he met on the road, instead of the three grievously injured highbloods he had for company.

"The crystal won't sustain the fire through the night," he said when the next wave of sleep threatened to crash over him, and he had to stand up to shake it off. "I’ll find us some firewood."

Despite Lang’s protests, Sagrameric insisted on getting up as well. He fashioned himself a makeshift crutch from a branch and hobbled around close to camp, gathering handfuls of sticks. When they each had an armful of slightly damp firewood, they set it by the fire and made themselves comfortable as best they could. Lang offered a satchel of dried fruits and nuts to Sagrameric. Sagrameric attempted to have a couple of bites, then shook his head and handed the rest back to him.

“I suppose I won’t be hunting more dragons after this.” Sagrameric winced as he shifted around his weight. “Perhaps ‘tis for the best. It does no good to a house’s reputation, having a lord who neglects his duties to chase after glory on the battlefield.”

Lang frowned. He had slain his own share of Dravanian foes out of necessity, but he had a poor opinion of those who hunted them only for the prestige. “My lord, if I may ask, who is that dragon? What crimes has it committed?” he said, hoping it came off as only idle curiosity.

“If you’re still thinking about going after it…”

“Nay, nay. Only to arm myself with knowledge.”

Sagrameric scowled. “Then know this: he is no common wyvern. That fell beast is Arvakr, a progeny of Nidhogg, and a general among his brood. He has claimed hundreds of lives, and I won’t have you add one more.”

“I understand, my lord.”

Sagrameric still regarded him with narrow eyes, but he changed the subject. "You said that you are a traveler?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Just Ser is fine."


"This is a most dangerous time to be on the road alone. What compelled you to come out here, with the Horde in a frenzy?"

By now, sheer exhaustion draped a heavy veil over the dread lurking in the back of his mind, and Lang could keep himself staring into the campfire neutrally. "I don’t have anywhere else to go," he said.

“What's your family name?"

"It's Dauphinet." His was a common surname with a rustic ring. Difficult to track down, in any case.

"Ah, you're from the countryside. Your folks are… herders or farmers?"


"How long have you been on the road?"

"Two months."

"I meant, since you left your village."

Lang drew his knees to his chest. "It's been twenty years since I left home," he said. From the corners of his eyes he could see Sagrameric appraising him, no doubt trying to add up his years.

“You... must have been quite young.”

“It wasn’t- My ma and pa didn’t abandon me or anything like that. They’re good folks,” Lang protested, feeling the need to defend his family from whatever assumption Sagrameric was forming. “We weren’t well off, there were too many mouths to feed, and they just wanted a better life for me than what they could provide, that's all.”

Sagrameric made a placating gesture. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to pry.”

“Mm.” Lang turned his head away. His face felt hot with embarrassment. He worried he may have let too much slip in his candor.

“Twenty years ago…that was a few years still before my first wife passed on.” Sagrameric mused. “I’m fortunate she still survives through our daughter, I cannot imagine how much harder the years would have been without her too.”

“You’re remarried?” Lang asked. It wasn’t exactly forbidden in Ishgard, but it was unusual.

“I didn’t want to, but then I inherited, and, well. That comes with expectations.” Sagrameric shrugged.

“I’m sorry.” For some reason, that was the first thing to elicit an inkling of sympathy from Lang. He was content to not think about marriage, and he took it for granted that he would marry for love, if it happened.

Sagrameric smiled. “I don’t love my Lady any less for it. She is brilliant. I think Halone must have planned for us to be together.”

Lang did not attribute things to divine providence so readily, but he thought about how utterly different Sagrameric’s life was from his, and how unlikely it was that their paths had crossed at all.

“So... you’ll be going back to Ishgard after this?” he asked.

“Aye, I’m starting to miss her after all. Even all the tedium and window dressing. Have you been to the city?”

“Yes, I- mhm.”

“Ever thought about living there? Take a chance to make a name for yourself? It’s a promising place for a man like you.”



“No! I can’t,” Lang insisted.

“What about your folks? You’re sure you can’t go back to them?” Sagrameric sounded concerned.

"No, I- I don't know." Lang shut his eyes, banishing any images before his mind could conjure them from the flames. "How far south is Nidhogg now?"

"You haven’t heard? Nidhogg’s already returned to slumber,” Sagrameric said with mild surprise. “He got as far as Ferndale, before the Azure Dragoon defeated him."

"Oh thank gods." Lang's heart welled with relief, which soon gave way to tears of bitter sorrow. Yes, he was thankful that some other insignificant village was razed instead of his. Grateful for the devastation to fall on strangers, instead of people whose faces he could picture whenever he closed his eyes.

He felt Sagrameric place a hand on his shoulder. “Listen… things may seem hopeless now, but you don’t have to keep living this way.” Sagrameric paused awkwardly. “Maybe you fell in with the wrong kind of people, but I can see your heart’s in the right place, and if you can find the Fury in there, I’m sure she’ll find it in hers to forgive you.” 

Lang blinked through his tears at the other man’s expression of gruff sympathy, and couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity. “I’m not- I’m not a heretic,” he managed to say through hitched breaths.

“I know you used curative spells without a holy book when you found me. You've tried to hide it, but I've fought enough cultists to know what unsanctioned magic looks like."

“No, it’s not like that!” Lang said hysterically. “Ishgardians see other kinds of magic and think it’s heretical, but it’s all the same. It’s fundamentally the same type of aether manipulation no matter the tool, and once I figured that out I didn’t need a tool anymore. I understand why people are afraid of what they don’t understand, but any type of magic can be used for good or evil! I avoid drawing attention to myself, but I would never- She is in my heart! I’ve dedicated my whole body and soul to the Fury since I was ten!”

Sagrameric withdrew his hand. “All right. I understand that’s how you feel.”

Lang knew Sagrameric was unconvinced, and rightfully so. He sounded like a lunatic. The man across from him could never be made to understand that he could love the Fury deeply, but still revere the other gods. That Halone could be first yet equal in the sacred unity of the Twelve. The doctrine they were both weaned on did not permit such a contradiction. 

For that matter, it would be a pitiful defense if he were to end up before the Inquisition. If he had always been true to Ishgard’s cause, what compelled him to abandon a promising career in the Observatorium for a life of hardship on the road? Why did he spend years studying ancient magicks, some of which were horrific even to their own long-gone practitioners? Why did he go off to fight in a war that wasn’t his, only to return with strange foreign braids in his hair and stranger foreign manners? Why did his heart ache for a home when he was home?

That was all he was to his own countrymen, a heretic and deserter.

“I still owe you a great debt,” Sagrameric said after Lang’s sobs died down. “It doesn't matter where you came from, I would be a right bastard to betray you after you saved my life. On my honour, whatever reward you wish for, I will grant it to you the best I’m able.”

“I’ll… think about it.” said Lang. 

They were both awoken at the first light of dawn by the sound of chocobo riders. Lang bolted upright and spotted the rescue party already cresting the nearest hill. In the middle of the night he had made up his mind to slip away in the morning, then trail the party until he was sure Sagrameric and his knights were safely delivered to the keep. He didn’t expect them to arrive this early.

One of the riders yelled something, and a black chocobo pulled ahead of the pack, barreling towards them at an alarming speed. Lang looked around in a panic, and found no avenue of escape. He was quick, but he couldn’t outrun a chocobo. Any spell he could cast would be too conspicuous-

“Let me do the talking,” said Sagrameric. Lang nodded numbly and sat back down. 

The vanguard resolved itself to be two riders on a massive black chocobo, which was not running but gliding a little above the ground, propelling itself forward with flapping wings. A young and hale Hyuran knight had her hands on the reins, while an older Elezen in a deacon’s robes clung to the back of the saddle, looking nauseated.

“Ser Sagrameric! Thank heavens!” the knight exclaimed. The chocobo landed beside Sagrameric and nuzzled him, chirping and hopping about.

“Oof. Easy there, old girl!” Sagrameric smiled and patted the bird on the beak. The deacon practically fell off the saddle. The knight, still mounted, looked around at the rest of the makeshift camp.

“How many unaccounted for, Ser?” she asked.

Sagrameric's demeanor instantly turned serious. “Three, if they made it out they’d be stranded on that cliff yonder. Down here there are four bodies to retrieve, they’ve been marked with their weapons-” he pointed her to the location of each makeshift grave. “Once you’ve relayed this to the rest, go scout the cliff for the missing. If you can, try to ascertain if Arvakr succumbed to his wounds after all. Ensure no one else approaches the lair under any circumstance, and if that beast emerges, everyone retreats immediately. Got that?”

“Aye, Ser.” The knight wrestled with the reins until the chocobo reluctantly tore itself away from Sagrameric. She casted a questioning glance at Lang, but to her credit, she wasted no time to set off again.

“M’lord, full glad to see you still with us.” The deacon picked himself up and bobbed his head. He, however, did look up and down at Lang and asked: “Who is this fellow?”

Lang's pulse quickened again. He had been frozen in place since the two arrived. A clergyman familiar with healing magic could catch on to something wrong faster than Sagrameric had, and likely not as inclined to look the other way.

Sagrameric answered for him. “Master Dauphinet here was passing by last evening and found me by the road. He selflessly aided me and looked for my men as well. Were it not for him, I would not have lasted through the night.” He lowered his voice a notch. “He fled from one of the villages lost to Nidhogg, and is travelling to the hinterlands to seek shelter with a relative.”

“I see. My deepest condolences,” said the deacon. Lang’s mouth dropped open, but reeling as he was from Sagrameric's barefaced lie, he couldn’t find any words, or make himself stop staring wide-eyed at the deacon. 

The deacon only regarded him with a pitying expression. He then knelt and turned his attention to the unconscious knights, lifting their eyelids and then picking up each of their limbs for inspection. He tsked and rolled up his sleeves. The sickening crack of a bone being reset made Lang cover his ears.

There were several more horrible sounds of joints and bones, a few indistinct protests- though he could still clearly make out Sagrameric howling and cursing the deacon to the icy pits of hell. Then came the faintest rustle of turning pages, and finally, the blissful reverberating hum of healing magic, accompanied by the droning of a prayer.

Four lines in, the words came to him with perfect clarity, cutting through the fog of fear. The verse dredged up long faded memories of stone towers, of climbing countless spiraling stairs every morning, of sitting in an airless room with a dozen other children, reading aloud from the Enchiridion again and again, in that same pattering cadence, until every line was committed to memory. 

“Has he any injuries? Fever?” Lang jerked back at the touch of the deacon’s hand on his forehead. The man’s face was disconcertingly close, peering at him with concern. He realized that without meaning to, he had been reciting along with the verse under his breath.

“No physical ails. He is… you understand.” Sagrameric made a vague gesture. He looked a little pale.

“Mm, touched by the Horde’s wrath. Although, who…” The deacon stared at the two knights, then at Sagrameric, then at Lang again. His face contorted through a series of expressions. “Did he cast these curative spells, m’lord?”

Lang shot Sagrameric a desperate look.

“He was part of a citizen’s militia, had learned a little field conjury.” Before the deacon’s frown could get more disapproving, Sagrameric continued smoothly. “‘Tis a pity these dark times force the common folk to take up arms themselves, Father. They’d hardly resort to such desperate measures had they not lost faith in their lord’s duty to protect them, aye?”

“Aye, but what were we to do…” The deacon sighed. “At least we are past the darkest hour, and more peaceful days lie ahead. I only pray it lasts.”

He stood up and dusted off his robes. “Pardon me, m’lord. I must go tend to the fallen.” He turned to Lang. “And you. I’ll overlook this once for extenuating circumstances. Just don’t do it anymore, understand? Messing about with curative magic when you don’t know what you’re doing is dangerous.”

When the deacon stepped out of earshot, Lang let out a strangled gasp. “Oh gods. I could have killed you. I could have killed any of them.”

“Or I could have bled out long before the good Father arrived, depriving him of an opportunity to gripe.”

Lang felt sick to his stomach. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. Healing wasn’t my role, I had nothing to go off of except what I could remember." 

“Then you did a fine job, all things considered.” Sagrameric attempted to soothe him, but he was too far gone to listen.

“I never should have- We thought- we all heard her voice, we thought we had her blessing, but nothing I did could have changed anything. You were right about me!” he cried. If he was a faithful son of Ishgard, he would at least surrender himself to Halone’s judgment, but he was even more terrified of what that entailed. “Grant me mercy, that’s all I ask for. Don’t throw me to the inquisitors, and I’ll never come back, I swear it!”

“Lang! Get a hold of yourself.” Sagrameric gripped his shoulder. “Look, if you really want to go now, go, and I'll tell them you headed off to continue your journey. I’ll consider the debt paid, and there will be nothing binding between us."

Lang trembled. He felt like the hand on his shoulder was the only thing keeping him from dying.

“Or, you can come back to the keep with me for a hot meal and a bath, then you’ll have a clearer head to think things through. I won’t hold you, you still have my word. How about it?”

In the expectant silence, it was as if a great black chasm opened in front of him. If he stepped over the precipice, he would surely never see light again. Yet, though no executioner was at his back, he was seized by an inexorable urge to give up the last ilm of solid earth under his feet.

He could not even begin to fight this nameless desire. With all the strength he had he still couldn’t resist taking that step forward. It was as futile as a river trying to hold back itself.

“Yes! I’ll come with you.”

Sagrameric patted his shoulder twice. “Well! That settles that. Help me up.”

Lang pulled the man to standing, both of them still a little unsteady on their feet. They watched the chocobos emerge from the woods with the retrieved bodies, regrouping on the road.

Lang remembered something. “Must l pretend to be broken in spirit to play along with your lie?”

“Nay, act however you like. I will not hold you to any more fictions. Say, do you know how to fly a chocobo?”

“No, only ride them.”

“Ah, it’s not so different. I’ll give you directions from the back.”

Lang balked. That Sagrameric would so casually put his own life in his hands again was beyond mad. Perhaps his attempt at healing also did something to the man's head. “Why?! What if I drop you?”

“Not to worry, we’ll fly low to the ground.”

“Shouldn’t you ride with them? Take it at an easier pace, given your injuries?”

“I can take it easy when I’m back at the fort and lying on a warm cot.”

Upon the party’s arrival, Sagrameric once again donned the manners of a lordly commander like a suit of armor. He directed the ensemble with brisk assertiveness, so that before the sun yet reached its zenith, the bodies of the fallen were blessed, wrapped, and loaded onto chocoboback. The injured knights were secured into slings, each carried between two birds. Someone handed Lang a waterskin and some bread.

The young Hyuran knight returned to deliver the grim but unsurprising news. "I'm sorry, Ser, they couldn’t be found. I suspect Arvakr is still alive and lurking in there, but there is no sign of him emerging for now."

"’Tis unfortunate. At least we got him where it hurts, he'll be licking his wounds for a while." Sagrameric shook his head. He didn’t sound convinced that it was much of a consolation. "We'll ride now before we lose any more daylight. I’ll be flying ahead and escorting Master Dauphinet to the keep."

Lang hoped the others combined could outnumber Sagrameric, but they put up equally futile resistance. Once he climbed onto the back of his chocobo, no-one could get him off without the bird hissing and snapping its beak at them.

The young knight made one more valiant attempt to persuade him to be sensible. “Ser, please. If you must go ahead, take the deacon with you instead.” 

“I doubt he could be persuaded to take another flight,” said Sagrameric. "I can live a few hours without him. It would be a relief, in fact."

The knight shook her head, and handed the ends of the reins to Lang. The massive black bird craned its neck to look at him, the feathers of its crest slowly rising.

“Kweh?” It chirped. Lang quailed under its beady stare.

“Come on, it’s just like mounting any other chocobo,” said Sagrameric. Lang steeled his nerves and heaved himself onto its back.

Sagrameric whistled, and the chocobo set off down the road, quickly picking up its pace to a run. Even without flying, it moved faster than any mount Lang had ever ridden. Now and then it shook its head and ruffled its wings in anticipation. 

“Pull down a bit, both hands. More- like that.” On command, the bird took a leap into the air and- just kept going upwards.

“How do I go down?!” he shouted over the whipping winds as the ground receded further under them.

“Pull up!” Sagrameric shouted back. Lang yanked the reins and they lurched terrifyingly. “Not like that, keep her steady!” 

Lang pulled again. Mercifully they began to descend, and leveled out into a glide with the chocobo’s talons nearly scraping the ground. He was clutching the reins so hard his arms trembled.

“There you go. Now just keep going for ten malms or so and take the right at the fork. She knows how to follow the road.”

They spoke very little the rest of the way. Lang kept his eyes trained on the road, and at times the only way he could tell Sagrameric was still alive was the sound of his slow, laboured breathing. He realized the knight’s composure had been a front to hide the full extent of his exhaustion. There was a good reason for him wanting to fly ahead. He wouldn't have been able to stay on a saddle for six more hours.

Only now in the silence did the full weight of the previous night's events sink in. Sagrameric had seven of his nine men just died under his watch. Their lives drained from their bodies while he could do nothing but wait, counting the hours to his only hope of rescue and knowing it wouldn’t come soon enough. Lang had caught only a glimpse of Sagrameric's raw emotions through the Echo. Brief as it was, that terror and rage and despair stuck to him like a burr he couldn’t remove.

And yet, Sagrameric had picked himself up and kept going, betraying nothing of his inner turmoil for the sake of the living around him. Lang saw the way he could don the mannerisms of a soldier, commander, or noble at will, how he kept order with his force of presence alone. He radiated assurance, and had a way with words that could get people of any station to march forward on his beat. It was an ability Lang knew he didn’t possess, a way to move people’s hearts as easily as he moved aether.

They made it to Lightsteel Keep in good time. Sagrameric gave him another round of introductions before staggering off to his quarters somewhere. Lang decided to repeat the story about being a refugee displaced by the Horde. He disliked the pitying looks elicited by the lie, but it kept the more uncomfortable questions at bay. 

He was given a steaming bowl of leftover stew from the kitchen, which he wolfed down. He also got the promised warm bath, and a clean linen robe to replace his inadequate desert clothes. Afterwards he sat by the hearth, where he cradled a mug of warm spiced cider in his hands, and watched the kitchens thrum with activity through heavy eyelids.

None of the people here wore the white lion, he noticed. He made a few careful inquiries, and learned that the keep belonged to the Temple. Their commander had been slain at the time of Nidhogg’s awakening, and Sagrameric was sent here to temporarily fill the role. Similar losses of senior officials all around Ishgard sorely tested the Temple Knights’ capabilities in the past months, and they dispatched whoever was available to keep the chain of command from collapsing.

The soldiers of the keep seemed rather ambivalent about Sagrameric. They spoke no ill of him, mostly just shrugged and said they were lucky to get a replacement who had actual combat experience, so they had nothing to complain about. Lang could tell they still missed their old commander, and Sagrameric couldn’t replace that missing camaraderie. They respected him, but they weren’t loyal to him in the same way as his House knights. To them, the Viscount from Ishgard was nearly as distant a figure as the Archbishop, whom they all swore service to under oath, but had never shared a drink with.

As for the news of his defeat, they shook their heads and said it was exactly the kind of foolhardy plan they’d come to expect from him. It was no secret that he resented the burden of his house, and even now still longed for the thrills of war. Once upon a time he might have even made Lord Commander, had his unexpected inheritance not forced him to retire from the Temple.

The rescue party returned shortly before sunset, muddy and exhausted. Sagrameric had still not left his room by then. Neither did he show up for supper. After Lang had his fill of hearty beet soup and warm walnut bread, he went to the kitchen and offered to take a meal to the Viscount.

Lang knocked on the door to his quarters. "Ser Sagrameric?"


"I brought you supper." He waited a few seconds. "You need to eat. Are you not feeling well?"

Sagrameric's weary voice drifted through from the other side. "Thank you, Lang. You can leave it in front of the door."

Lang frowned and did as he was told.

Deep in the night, he found himself sitting around with a dozen people in the mess hall for late-night drinks. A proper soldier’s wake for the fallen. Someone raised a toast: “To the Azure Dragoon.”

A round of tired cheers went around the table. “To Ser Alberic Bale!” “To his victory!”

It made him cry again, tears of real relief and joy. Nidhogg was truly laid to rest, at least for now. Ishgard would soon enough turn the tide against the Horde, retake the highlands, and the displaced survivors would trickle back to their homes. A few lucky ones might find their houses still standing, others would find that they lost everything. But as long as they were home, there was something they could rebuild from the rubble.

After the first night, Lang’s presence quickly became of little note in the keep. He freely wandered around the place, simply watching people going about. After months of desperate survival, the banal daily activities of the keep was as wondrous a sight as any scenic vista. Occasionally someone gave him an errand to run for a few gil or a morsel from the kitchen. He knew that he would soon itch to do more, but for a day or two, he was content to be as a trapper’s hound in winter, free of worries and lazing underfoot.

Eventually he found himself keeping watch on the two knights in the infirmary. They had finally regained consciousness, and they introduced themselves and thanked him for his aid, but he could read an odd resignation in their faces that went beyond even grief for brothers fallen in battle.

There was a knock on the door, and Sagrameric entered. He was freshly groomed and dressed, with Heartbiter hanging at his hip, polished to gleaming. He looked as unassailable as the very walls of Ishgard.

"Master Dauphinet." Sagrameric said warmly. "Pardon the interruption, but I would like to speak with present company in private.” Lang nodded and excused himself.

He went out to the parapet and gazed at the distant mountains. He hadn’t quite believed it before, but Sagrameric had meant it when he said those nine knights were all of his own forces. It was a pitifully small number even for a minor house, he knew. The high houses each had hundreds of knights under their command.

Now Sagrameric only had two, and even they might never recover well enough to take to the field again. Everyone here knew what it meant for him. A house with no knights was like a manor without its foundations.

By now Lang was quite sure that, contrary to his apparent recklessness, Sagrameric was a man who carefully calculated every step he took. So what drove him to risk everything he had? In the evening, he went to find Sagrameric in his personal quarters.

“Have you thought about the boon you'd ask from me?" Sagrameric asked as he poured Lang a cup of tea. They sat at a small table across from each other.

"I have, Ser.”

"And have you decided?"

"Not yet."

Sagrameric pushed the cup towards him. "I don't wish to pressure you, but I must head back to Ishgard soon. Now would be a good time to make up your mind."

Lang breathed in the steam and savored a sip. He could recognize that sweet floral aroma anywhere. It was the type of tea leaves that only grew in his home valley. 

“Before I do, I have some questions. I ask that you answer me completely truthfully.”

Sagrameric raised an eyebrow. “Go ahead.”

Lang took a deep breath. “Why did you want to slay that dragon?”

Sagrameric looked slightly startled. Lang watched him steadily.

“I told you already, didn’t I? I’m an old fool past my prime, still clinging to my days of glory.” Sagrameric’s searching eyes bore into him. Lang held fast.

“Forgive my impudence, Ser. But I think you are lying.”

Sagrameric chuckled and made a gesture of defeat. “Arvakr has been a blight on these lands for years. House Dzemael wants him gone badly enough that they put quite the price on his head. Much as I would like to claim I only wanted to rid that scourge for Ishgard’s sake, I wouldn't have tried if not for that bounty.”

“How much is it?" Lang asked.

“Fifty million gil,” Sagrameric admitted. Lang choked on his tea.

“Fifty-“ Lang coughed. “What... what would you even do with that much money?”

“It’d go a long way towards paying off all the debts I inherited, but more important than the gil was the honour. Honour is the true currency the nobility trades in. My house has been on the verge of ruin for generations, that one victory would have secured our safety. And if I had died, well...” Sagrameric chuckled humourlessly. “Falling nobly in battle against a dragon still counts for something.”

“In your mind, what were the odds?”

“About even.”

“So you wagered the lives of nine men on the flip of a coin, for gil and reputation.” Lang could not help but sound a little biting.

“Aye, it was heinous of me.” Sagrameric closed his eyes. “I thought I believed life is priceless, but now I know the exact worth I assign to one life.” 

“Did they know the risks?”

“They did. Doesn’t make it any better.”

“No.” By that measure, how much had it taken to purchase Ala Mhigo’s freedom? And how many times more was the price of true lasting peace in Eorzea? Foolish, to think he ever believed any individual could make that exchange.

“Was there really no other avenue? No better way to gain a fighting chance?” Lang asked.

“Perhaps there was. If I hadn’t spent all my life on the battlefield, and studied more politics instead of tactics, I might have come up with a different plan. But alas, I feared the nobility's poisonous whispers more than I feared dragons, so I chose the enemy I knew. I’m at a loss for how to fight a foe I can’t put a sword through.”

Same as I, thought Lang. All that was the answer he needed to hear. He could not ask for what he was about to, if he had not been reassured that Sagrameric was as deeply mortal and flawed as himself. "I have one more question. Do you still believe I'm a heretic?"

"Ha. By all church laws you would be, but you're more pious than most men of the cloth I know, so, who's to say?"

That would have to do. "I have made my decision,” said Lang. He got up and took a knee in front of Sagrameric. “I ask you to take me into your house. I, Iolanger Dauphinet, would fight by your side for the honour of House Leonguin."

It was Sagrameric's turn to look bewildered. “How can you even… if it’s honour you want, you can do much better than casting your lot with me. I could even get you into Count de Fortemps’ household if you wanted.”

Lang shook his head. “You said you would grant me any reward within your power.”

Sagrameric sighed. “That I did, and you must realize by now I have very little of it. I’m not even certain my house will still be standing a year from now.”

“You have all of mine at your disposal.” Lang looked directly into his eyes. “The causes I once stood for have no more use for my power, so let it be yours. Let it be Ishgard's.”

“Bloody hells.” Sagrameric ran a hand through his hair. “I can’t have a soldier running about doing heretic magic everywhere. All right, all right.” He stiffly rose from his seat, and tapped Heartbiter on Lang’s shoulder. “Iolanger Dauphinet, son of Ishgard. By the rights granted to me through the vacant crown, I, Lord Sagrameric de Leonguin, name you my subject. From this day forth you shall be bound by oath and duty to serve your house above all else, second only to your servitude of the Fury, and in return I shall protect you as I would my own blood. Halone be my witness.”

“Halone be my witness.” Lang took Sagrameric’s offered hand and kissed it. “My lord.”

Sagrameric sat down again with a thump. Lang returned to his seat, feeling strangely light.

“You’ll have to be sworn in properly in front of a notary, of course. We’ll have to work on your etiquette, and there’s the matter of… Ah, never mind all that. I take it you’re coming to Ishgard with me?”

Lang nodded. Perhaps he had left a fragment of his heart in his home after all. It had patiently waited for him for all these years, and he ached to be reunited with it. To be made whole again.