In hindsight, Ferdinand should’ve known his luck would run out.
Not a year had passed since the war ended, of course there would still be danger on the roads! Those Who Slither in the Dark didn’t care that he was on a mere day trip to visit Caspar and Linhardt before they left to travel Fódlan - they only cared that he was at his most vulnerable.
Better him than catching those two, Ferdinand supposed. Caspar and Linhardt were powerful former generals themselves, but there were only two of them. The professor insisted that he be accompanied by at least a small battalion on his little excursion. Ferdinand shuddered and dared not think of what would happen if the Slitherers chose those two as their targets and not him.
But even so, it was a little frustrating!
“Oh, the roads will be safer at night, Ferdinand! They will not expect it, Ferdinand!” the noble scowled, his voice deep and guttural, mocking a certain dark mage, as he felled three Agarthan footsoldiers with one deadly swing of his lance. “Ferdinand, do not be daft, he said - they will not harm you, he said. Come and tell them that then, von Vestra!”
He was going to strangle Hubert, Ferdinand decided. Of course, in his heart, he knew the man wasn’t to blame for his current situation, but Ferdinand just wanted to visit his friends, Sothis damn it! Evidently, it was too soon for such pleasantries.
A pity, Ferdinand thought. And here he thought things were getting better.
Ferdinand fell back into the habits of war like slipping on a well-worn sweater. Snap the reins, adjust the lance, slash, dart back, rinse, repeat. Hack, slash, readjust - there’s a mage on the left - stab, swing, canter back.
“How many of you are there?!” Ferdinand finally exclaimed as he lost his lance in the chest of a soldier. The soldier just cackled even as blood gushed from his wound and he fell to the ground. But when he fell, he was replaced by more fighters, matching twisted grins on their dry, cracked, bloodless lips.
“We got your back, General!” Ferdinand watched as his men swarmed the Slitherers and took them down with the grace of true soldiers. He made a mental note to personally commend them once they got back to Enbarr. But that was for later - he had to fight to stay alive first. But Ferdinand was a paladin, a fighter on horseback, and Ferdinand could tell that his horse wasn’t going to last much longer.
Giselle, his poor mare, wasn’t made for fighting. Felicity, his warhorse, had been retired to live her life out to pasture once the war ended. Ferdinand had selected Giselle as his next horse, should he ever have to fight again, but it was too soon for her to be in skirmishes. She behaved admirably, like a true Aegir bred horse, but Ferdinand could feel her back muscles flex under his legs, twitching with the strain of the fight. She was going to collapse if he didn’t end the fight soon. “Ah, hells. Cover me!” he called and wheeled Giselle around, galloping into the trees.
He slid out of the saddle with practiced ease and deftly tied the reins to a tree behind a thicket. “There’s a good girl, Giselle,” he soothed, running a gloved hand over her nose. “I’ll be right back, dear.”
With a sigh, he unstrapped his axe from his saddle and turned it over a couple of times in his hands. His expertise was with lances, but he was an Aegir, and an Aegir had to be proficient in all sorts of weaponry. He disliked axes most of all, however. Edelgard was a master with them, which triggered bitter, jealous memories from his childhood. But another, vainer, pettier reason was that he would most definitely be splattered with more gore than he would normally be.
“Of all the days to wear a low collar,” Ferdinand cursed, tugging the collar of his shirt as high as it could go. Instead of his usual high-collared coat, he was dressed in a simple double-breasted coat - no fabric went past the base of his neck and now he felt terribly exposed. To make matters worse, he had opted out of wearing his pauldrons; why would he wear armor for a simple outing? Hubert would scold him for his carelessness when they returned to Enbarr, that much was certain.
There was nothing else to do except to return to the battle, Ferdinand decided and hefted his axe in his hands.
Peacetime had dulled his senses, Ferdinand would think later. Then again, most soldiers would fight with their weapons first, not with their teeth.
Giselle whinnied sharply, a soldier screamed out, and as Ferdinand turned to see what the fuss was about, a Slitherer rushed him barehanded, her mouth wide open, revealing rows and rows of sharp, ghastly looking teeth. Gods, Ferdinand couldn’t even call her mouth a mouth - it was just a gaping hole filled with monstrous fangs. Her lips were stretched tight, cracked and bleeding, struggling to contain the teeth within.
She slammed into his chest, knocking him to the ground, forcing him to release his axe. She was a wiry thing, all limbs, but she had a strength like no other human he had ever faced, which really should’ve been his first warning sign.
Her hands pressed him into the ground, her fingers digging into his shoulders, her knees planted on either side of his torso. If Ferdinand was not concerned with escaping her unnatural grip, he would’ve been scandalized at the position he was in - but propriety was not the focus of his attention at the moment. He kicked and twisted with all of his strength, but to no avail. The Slitherer leered at him, her eyes cloudy with a hazy gleam that Ferdinand had come to recognize as a sign of Agarthan experiments.
And he was at her mercy.
Maybe it was the adrenaline coursing through his veins that was addling his brain, but all Ferdinand could think of in that moment was the lecture he was going to get from Hubert and Edelgard and maybe even the Professor.
The Slitherer’s lips curled up in a cruel smile that was more of a snarl as flecks of saliva dripped from her fangs onto his cheeks. Ferdinand’s eyes flicked to hers and in that split second, she fell upon his neck and there was only pain, pain, pain-!
-and then she shrieked, a long, drawn-out howl, her knife-like nails piercing through the thick fabric of his coat and puncturing his skin, and now Ferdinand was screaming - or was he already screaming? Then she was gone and a familiar head of light blue hair hovered just above him, shouting, “Lin! I found him!”
Ah, so it was Caspar, Ferdinand managed to think even through the pain that threatened to drag him into the depths of unconsciousness. Linhardt appeared in his view, hands already outstretched and glowing with Faith magic. The familiar sensation of Linhardt’s healing magic washed over him, dousing the fire of his raw pain into a dull ache.
“Goddess above, Ferdinand, what happened?” Linhardt murmured as his hands ghosted over his neck wound. “What was that? Was she even human?”
“Looks like it to me - oh, fuck me, that’s a lot of teeth, what the fuck?!”
A loud squelch and a thud. Caspar must’ve taken his axe out of the body and turned it face up. Graceless as ever, Ferdinand supposed, but that’s what made Caspar Caspar.
“Let me see, Caspar, hold her up,” Linhardt took his hands away from Ferdinand’s throat and turned expectantly to Caspar. The paladin huffed a sigh of relief and pushed himself up into a sitting position.
Caspar was planted in front of the corpse, arms stretched wide to block his partner’s vision. “Lin, you really don’t wanna see this.”
“Caspar, I’ve literally put your guts back in your body-”
“No, I’m serious, this is super gross-”
“-I think I can handle whatever it is you don’t want me to see-”
“-like this is disgusting, Ferdinand, back me up here, will you-”
“-this could be a breakthrough in understanding Agarthan magic-”
“-Linhardt, I know you’ve gotten better with the whole blood thing, but this is a whole other level-”
“-so for Sothis’ sake, let me see-!” Linhardt shoved Caspar to the side and promptly fainted dead away.
Caspar caught Linhardt just before he hit the ground and lifted his eyes to the night sky, sighing deeply. “I tried to tell him,” he groaned. “He’s stubborn when he wants to be.” Ferdinand just shrugged and staggered to his feet. Caspar readjusted Linhardt in his arms and got up easily, much to Ferdinand’s embarrassment. So what if he had just been mauled by some Slitherer experiment? He was an Aegir, for the Goddess’ sake!
Caspar turned to him, Linhardt limp in his arms. “So, uh, can we hitch a ride back with you to Enbarr? Lin’s gonna want to research the hell out of whatever that is once he gets over the shock.”
Ferdinand frowned, reaching up to brush his now horribly messy fringe from his eyes as he began walking towards his battalion. “I thought you were going to travel within a few days?”
“Yeah, but there’s no way I’m taking him with that thing running around Fódlan,” The other man shrugged, gently shifting Linhardt so that his head rested in the curve of Caspar’s neck. Linhardt’s face scrunched up and he curled further into Caspar’s embrace. Caspar smiled down at him. “Besides, I know Linhardt would be restless if we left without him taking a closer look at it. Can’t do that to him when he gave up everything to travel with me.”
Ferdinand blinked. “That was… oddly sweet, coming from you.”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean? I’m plenty sweet!”
“Yes, yes, of course you are, Caspar. Come along now, we have a lot of ground to cover if we want to make it back at a decent time - oh,” Ferdinand turned on his heel to glare disdainfully at the limp corpse of his assailant. “We’ll have to find a way to transport the poor thing, won’t we?”
Caspar glanced over his shoulder and made a face. “Yeesh. Well, if you want, we can head back to our place for our wagon.”
Ferdinand sighed and hung his head. “That would be greatly appreciated, Caspar, thank you.”
And then Ferdinand blanched - he had left a sizeable stack of paperwork on his desk that he planned to get to once he returned! Oh, Ferdinand was really in for it now. He had promised to be back before morning, and now with the battle and the detour for the wagon, he was going to be back by midday - and that would be without any breaks!
“Oh, Saints help me,” Ferdinand breathed and followed after Caspar, but not after sparing a glance at the… thing on the ground. Unconsciously, he lifted his hand to cover his wound. His eyes widened slightly as his fingers traced over the marks: two little punctures at the base of his neck.
It wasn’t that deep of a wound, now that Ferdinand thought about it. Linhardt’s magic should’ve wiped his skin clean.
Perhaps it was the excitement, the anxiousness of being back on the battlefield after nearly a year of peace that caused him to err. Yes, that must be it, Ferdinand thought. He didn’t dare allow himself to think of another reason as to why the small wounds still remained. He would just have to ask Linhardt to reexamine him once he woke up.