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Title: Through These Nights - Chapter 01: Traitor
Genre: adventure, drama
Fandom: Fire Emblem 8
Characters/pairings: eventual Knoll/Natasha, Amelia, Duessel, Cormag, mentions of numerous others.
Summary/prompt: Grado lies in ruin, and a small band of its expatriates sets out to rebuild. In the face of horrors both past and present, they must complete their duties and somehow survive.
Chapter notes: The first, and probably the shortest, chapter of TTN. All chapters of this story will be tagged with the "multipart: through these nights" tag, and labeled in a way that they will remain in order.

Hope, it seemed, was the most priceless commodity in a land as ravaged and barren as the remnants of Grado. Even as disease spread through the rivers and villages collapsed into chaos, it wasn't food or shelter the families scattered through the countryside begged for in their harrowed stares. No, they wanted someone, be it the Renais soldiers bringing supplies or the clerics bringing blessings, to tell them, "It's going to get better. It's going to be all right. All is not lost."

It was exactly the sort of thing Knoll could never bring himself to say.

Hope could not be backed with facts or statistics. It couldn't be found buried in a tome or written on a scroll. There was no proof that hopes would come to fruition, no guarantee at all. It wasn't for him to speak such things. He could never promise something so undefinable, so uncertain. All he could do was recite the ancient spells to slay the bandits that struck near-daily, wave a staff to ease the pain of an injured child, summon phantoms to distract the beasts that lay in wait for the dying. His was not a duty of hope. He left that to his colleagues.

Amelia seemed to always bring a smile to the faces of even the weariest villager encountered in the countryside. Quick to smile and make a joke, even as the horror of the disaster loomed so large in her thoughts. Cormag, broken though he was without his brother by his side, taught his wyvern tricks to do in the sky, just to brighten the days of the struggling civilians. Even Duessel was able to spare a few inspiring words, between his endless patrols of the nearby villages and training with the burgeoning forces devoted to rebuilding the ruined country.

Yet still, the face of hope, more than any of them, was Natasha. Natasha, who spoke of faith and heaven as she touched staff to broken skin. Natasha, who smiled radiantly even as her robes hung, filthy, off her thinning frame. Natasha, who spoke only of forgiveness, even as guilt for the destruction around her played clear in her eyes.

More than he hated himself for letting Lyon go as far as he had, Knoll hated himself for being so jealous. Irrational as it was, he sometimes wondered what it would be like to be regarded with those hopeful smiles, rather than the palpable dread he saw as he pushed his phantoms and spells out into the wilderness. But of course, dark magic was dangerous. Dark magic was blasphemy. Dark magic was the territory of men who consorted with demons, and his resemblance to such a consort didn't help at all.

All these things raced on in his head as he clutched the reins of the horse he'd been afforded for the journey to a desolate village on the outskirts of Grado, near the western edge of Za'albul Marsh. Reports came in early that it had been ravaged by monsters during the war, and the aftershocks of the earthquake had only multiplied their misery. It was a story the beleaguered group had heard far too many times. First war, then monsters, then the earthquake and everything that came with it. No little village could bear such hardship on its own, and so, again, they rode out, supplies and soldiers in tow. Every time, they hoped this would be the last broken village. Every time, they were wrong.

"Master Knoll," came a quiet voice from behind him. He snapped to attention, breaking free of the cycle of gloomy thoughts that so often held him captive.

"Ah. . . yes, Sister Natasha?"

She chewed her lip as she regarded him. It was odd to see her clad in riding clothes, still, though it had been a week ago she'd finally relinquished her habit and robe for practicality. White stained with red and mud-brown hardly seemed holy. He, too, had shed his heavy robes, but was still unused to the lightness, the nakedness he felt without it.

"Are you all right? You look pale."

"Don't I always?" he quipped, sparing her a rare smirk. Her frown didn't disappear for it.

"I mean, you look unwell. Moreso than usual. Is something troubling you? Are you injured?"

What isn't troubling me? he wanted to ask. He'd have to be among the undead to be untroubled by all they had seen. Instead, he shook his head, letting his long, pale hair fall over his eyes. "No, Sister, I am well. There's no need to concern yourself about me. After all, we have much greater worries to be concerned with, do we not?"

Her gaze shifted from his eyes, down to the ground beneath his steed's hooves. "Ah. . . I suppose we do have much to worry about, but. . . Master Knoll, your health is important as well. None of us can help Grado if we are dead."

He often wondered if that was the only thing keeping him alive. "I know. I assure you, I am in good health."

Though she seemed unsatisfied, she nodded. "All right," she murmured.

They rode in silence for some time, with only the clip-clop of hooves on dry, barren land to interrupt the harshness of the wastelands. As he often did, Knoll found himself watching her, studying the quiet determination in her eyes, the firm grip of her small hands on the reins. It was a strength he'd never expected in anyone from the church, never mind a fragile cleric like her. Then again, he was starting to think she was hardly the typical church type. Despite her initial misgivings, she'd never scowled at him for curling up with a book of the occult, or avoided him while he commanded the legions of phantoms. She seemed to offer him the same hope she offered everyone, loath as he was to believe in it.

"Master Knoll," she said again.

"Yes, Sister Natasha?"

Her voice now was quieter, more hesitant. He couldn't tell if it was the looming darkness and heady stench of the marshlands ahead, or if she was just afraid to speak.

"Do you. . . did you ever feel guilty. . . for betraying Grado?"

His answer was immediate.

"No. I only feel guilty for not doing it sooner."

The silence that followed his words persisted until the ruined village came into view. For the first time, Knoll truly felt like a traitor.
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