Edelgard laid back on the grass and watched her beloved Avarine make lazy circles in the air, flying higher up than any daemon should ever go.
Avarine noticed the figure approaching Edelgard first and folded her wings into a sharp stoop, only pulling out of the dive at the last minute when she recognized the black hair of Hubert and the orange fur of Thanily, the fox daemon by his side. Hubert, for his part, was unfazed by the enormous gyrfalcon very nearly digging her talons into his face and merely lifted a hand in greeting.
“Lady Edelgard, Lady Avarine, it is good to see you out in the open air.”
Edelgard folded herself into a sitting position and regarded Hubert with a mild smile. For a moment she debated deflecting what was on her mind, but no. This was Hubert and Thanily. She could trust them. “…Near the end there, I thought I would never see the sun again.”
Hubert merely closed his eyes, and so it was Thanily who took a step forward and spoke. “Lady Edelgard, I must again beg your forgiveness for our failure to rescue you from—”
“Enough, Thanily. You too, Hubert. You would have joined me in those dungeons if you had stayed. In any case you learned valuable information while searching for me down there. And…you saved my brothers and sisters.” A pause. “What was left of them anyway.”
“I did not save them, I killed—”
“They would have thanked you, if they had been able to do so.”
The awkward silence hung in the air until Avarine cried out, “I still don’t understand why. What was the point of kidnapping and torturing El, and my brothers and sisters, and dozens of innocent people, and for what? To shove another Crest into El when she already had one proving our legitimacy? I mean, I know why they did it, but I still don’t understand why they did it! Why does every single nation on this fucking continent have such a fetish for Crests?!” She flashed her wings and screeched.
Hubert sat down beside Edelgard. His face was as impassive and icy as always, but Edelgard could see the way he dug his fingers into Thanily’s fur, had been for the past several minutes actually. “Because Crests are how the nobles and the Church maintain control. The Church makes Crests the sum of a person’s worth, and the nobles enforce it because that is how they maintain power.”
“And on and on it goes, the nobles oppressing the people they are supposed to protect while tormenting their children to fit the mold of the Church, their children grow up doing the same, and all the while the Church steps on our throat and we thank them for it,” Edelgard added. “The ones who tortured me and my siblings are evil and need to be destroyed, but the only way we can make a world where people aren’t chained by a magic birthmark is to dismantle the system itself!”
Hubert simply listened and nodded. “And why is gradual reform not an option?” It sounded almost like the first half to a call and response.
“Because people will continue to suffer and die while ministers hem and haw and do nothing! Not to mention that there is no way the Church would tolerate any separation of religion from state affairs. The moment I publicly call for reform or a deemphasis of crests they’ll at best overthrow me in a coup like what happened to Father or at worst brand me a heretic and publicly execute me after some show trial. And I’d rather not have my head on a pike at Garreg Mach while the rest of my corpse is burned and chucked into the river, thanks.” She scowled. “Come on Hubert, you know this. Why are you asking me?”
“I ask you because, unfortunately, even with your Crest and position as next Emperor, unless both the Sword of the Creator and someone who can use it somehow fall into our laps,”
“—Which they won’t—”
“Then I fear that the only way we can obtain the power to defeat the Church and break this cycle is to obtain the aid of our “friends” in the dark.”
Edelgard and Avarine stared at Hubert and Thanily in horror and disgust. Avarine broke the silence first. “You can’t be serious. After everything you saw, after everything they did?”
Hubert clenched the ground, his nails digging shallow furrows into the earth. “As much as it disgusts me, I am perfectly serious. They had the ability to infiltrate the highest echelons of the Adrestian empire. Some of the information I…obtained while searching for you hinted at moles they have planted within the Central Church itself. If we are going to topple an institution as mighty as the Church of Seiros itself, we need all the help undermining it we can get. And then, afterwards, they will pay. Furthermore, if we work with them, we may be able to curb the worst of their sadistic excesses. From what we know about those who slither in the dark, I doubt your blood was enough to satisfy them."
Edelgard sat up, her face settling back into that mask of determination. Meanwhile, Avarine flew up into the sky screaming profanities into the open air. “I suppose we have no other option then. At least, until we have broken the chains the Church has bound us with. Then we can wipe out our “friends” in the dark from their nests.”
“And I pledge to walk with you every step of the way.” Hubert stood and bowed, low and deep. The effect was somewhat ruined by the fact that he was still a gangly teenager with acne scars pitting his chin, but his intimidating demeanor would come with time.
Avarine, eventually, flew back to Edelgard and perched on her shoulder. Her talons dug into Edelgard’s clothes and she made a mental note to have the tailors reinforce all of her outfits with shoulder padding, now that Avarine was going to be a gyrfalcon for good. Avarine, for her part, just glared a grinning Thanily. “What, what is it?”
Thanily laughed, more of a sinister chuckle than anything else. “Oh no, it’s just funny how big a mistake your tormentors made,” she said. “I mean, look at you, Lady Avarine. You’re a gyrfalcon! They rule the frozen northern skies. They nest on cliffs where none can reach. They chase wyverns out of their skies! Lady Edelgard, that means you’re something of a gyrfalcon too. And they thought they could break you?”
The world took its time fuzzing back into focus. Sound returned first, a distant echoing that pierced the din of battle, the screams and moans of the wounded and dying.
Someone was calling his name. A black-haired smear was a few feet away, or maybe really close, but either way was shouting his name. The rest of the world was still fuzzy, but he could start to feel that his hands and face were wet and sticky and he was gripping the shaft of something and his daemon could smell blood everywhere. But he knew that smear of a black-haired…man, yes a man, shouting his name above the roar of scrambled senses.
“…Glenn?” he asked, almost pitifully. And yet as Dimitri spoke the name soured on his tongue. Something was wrong, something was horribly wrong. There was Glenn but there was only Glenn where was, “Where’s Argentia?”
The black-haired figure froze, snapped straight up, took a step back but Argentia didn’t because Argentia was not there because—
—Because the figure that snapped into focus all at once wasn’t Glenn but Felix and Felix’s daemon was not Argentia but Bismalt and Argentia had been a musk ox, solid and strong, but Bismalt was an iridescent blue Brigidnese fighting fish currently staring at him from inside an enchanted capsule firmly strapped to Felix’s side and Glenn was dead.
And Felix, one of his best friends, a boy he used to go ice skating with in the depths of winter, was staring at him in horror and disgust and betrayal. And Bismalt was staring at Delcabia with the same look on his face.
“Dimitri, what the fuck was that?!”
Dimitri could only mumble in blank incomprehension. What was Felix shouting about? All the noise, the screams, it was so much. He looked down. There was a lance in his hands. The lance was soaked in blood. His hands were soaked in blood. There was blood and worse smeared on his face, spattered over his clothes. Felix had blood on him too, but nothing like Dimitri. Ah, right. The rebellion. They had gone to quell this rebellion. They had gone into battle and he had raised his lance and Delcabia had been by his side and—
“You didn’t answer my question! What the fuck was that?! What the fuck, Delcabia?!”
Dimitri still felt like he was swimming up to the surface of a very deep lake. “Delcabia?” He turned around, and there was his daemon with the same slightly glazed-over look on her face. But his eyes slid a bit further down from hers and both pairs snapped into focus as they realized just what Felix and Bismalt were screaming about.
Ever since…since Duscur…Delcabia had taken the form of bison, moose, large animals with horns and tusks and hooves, great beasts as big as daemons can get that protect their young from the lions and wolves. Delcabia was still one of those forms, a boar this time, but that wasn’t what got Dimitri’s attention.
Her tusks were dark red, dripping with blood.
She had gored people. Delcabia had gored people. His Delcabia, his beloved, wretched, vile Delcabia had gored people.
And he was so lost in bloodlust that he hadn’t even known she had done it.
“Delcabia,” Dimitri croaked, he begged, his voice suddenly hoarse, “Please, become something else. A rat, a bug, anything.”
But Delcabia simply stared at the ground. Blood dripped off her tusks in slow drops. Ghastly hands clawed their way up from the ground to snatch at her hocks, her hooves. Then Dimitri blinked and they were gone. “…I’m sorry Dimitri. I can’t.”
“No,” Dimitri begged, bile building up in the back of his throat. “No, you can’t mean that! Now? From this?!”
Delcabia simply looked past him, helpless, as the din of battle and the exhortations of vengeance from the everpresent ghosts echoed around them both. And then Dimitri and Delcabia heard a laugh from the only other living person around, high and bitter and broken.
“Of course, of fucking course! Dimitri the boar prince; I can’t think of a better shape for you!”
The feast to celebrate Simurg’s settling had lasted well past midnight, and Claude was both exhausted and mildly hungover, but he still found himself hunched over an enormous bestiary with a steaming cup of pine needle tea and a plate of baklava on one side of the tome and Simurg stretched out for inspection on the other. The book was currently opened to a sketch and description of a viper with a broad head, dark zig-zagging bands running down its full length, and a distinctive rattle on its tail. Simurg was a little darker than the image depicted in the book, but there was no doubt. She had settled as a timber rattlesnake.
“Well,” Simurg said, eventually, “At least being a wyvern rider is still an option?”
Claude rubbed the heels of his hands against his face with a groan. It did absolutely nothing to alleviate his headache. “The problem is that you’re a viper. And as much as that’s both badass and completely appropriate in retrospect, it does mean we’ll attract unwanted attention. Well, even more unwanted attention. Point is, if we had trouble staying inconspicuous before, we’re really going to have a hard time of it now.”
“To be fair, I think that ship sailed after what you did to Assar.”
“Hey, don’t pin this on me! The bait was your idea and you’re half of me anyway. And besides, Assar had it coming. If he really wanted to be considered for that post, or really anything with any chance of advancement, then he should have thought twice before trying to blind me out of the line of succession!” That was a stupid rule anyway, saying that heirs to the Almyran throne needed to be physically perfect, whatever that meant. Did nothing but encourage infighting and left a lot of mutilated royals around. There had to be a better way.
Simurg would have shrugged, if she still had shoulders. Instead she just flicked her tail in the air and let the sound echo. She wasn’t sure if she liked this substitute yet. “I’m just saying, this is what we are. Not like I could have hidden it for much longer.”
Claude leaned back in his chair and groaned. “I know, I kn—ow!” His last word broke off into a muffled shout as he tipped his chair back too far and crashed against the ground. Simurg simply slithered down from the desk and over the chair, onto Claude’s legs which still dangled over the now-upturned edge of the chair. She looked down and flicked out her tongue at Claude, who stared balefully up at her with his hair unkempt over his eyes and his arms awkwardly splayed out. He offered her an upturned middle finger in return, then proceeded to continue his thoughts while still toppled over. “It’s just that nobody’s going to underestimate us anymore. And that’s both satisfying and scary. It’ll be harder to stay ahead of our enemies now.”
“Actually…I think we can still outsmart them,” Simurg said. She slithered back to the desk as Claude stumbled to his feet. He sat back down in the chair, made a valiant but ultimately futile attempt at smoothing down his bedhead, and took to sipping his tea and nibbling at the baklava. The tea had a slightly acidic edge to it, and the honey dripping from the baklava was just as sweet against his teeth. He chewed and motioned for Simurg to continue. “Okay, there’s no hiding that we’re a schemer now, but everyone else was figuring that out regardless of what I settled as. But they still won’t know what we’re scheming about.”
Claude sat and chewed his baklava, smiling as he stroked the stubble on his chin that was his attempt at growing a proper Almyran beard. As Claude was all of fourteen the attempt was more a few pathetic bits of stubble than anything else, but his daemon said nothing. Better to let him dream. Either way, the sly smile creeping across Claude’s face was a response enough to her idea.
“We can’t hide it, but we can deflect it.”
“And then lie in wait to strike. Nobody will ever see us coming.”
“We’ll show them just what an outsider can do.”
Claude smiled, Simurg squeezed his arm, and they both went back to reading the bestiary’s entry on timber rattlesnakes. Their lifespan, their hunting habits, their habitats.
“Native to the deciduous forests of eastern Fodlan…Hey, Simi, what do you think about visiting your formsake?”
Something was horribly wrong with his daughter.
Jeralt had dreamt of holding his child for months now. He had dreamt of him and his wife holding a laughing and smiling child, all three of their daemons nestled together sharing in warmth and love. But his wife was dead, and his daughter…might as well be, it seemed. After that terrible day, when Rhea walked out of that room with an unreadable expression and a small bundle in her arms…well, all Jeralt remembers of those gray days is sitting with his breathing but silent daughter in his arms, Domaghar occasionally nudging her listless daemon with his nose and begging them to move, or shift forms, or do anything at all.
Byleth was alive, at least technically. She breathed, she ate, she shat. But that was it. In those first few months she never laughed, she never cried. She barely followed his gaze. And her daemon, Belial, was a disturbingly wan and listless thing, as grayed-out as Jeralt’s world had become and so frail-looking that he was afraid they would crumble to pieces in a stiff wind.
And then he took her to a doctor in town, one not under Rhea’s direct command, and he learned that Byleth somehow had a pulse but no heartbeat—and what the everloving fuck did that mean?!—and he realized with a clawing horror that Rhea must have done something terrible to his baby girl. So that night he started a fire, put what possessions he could onto Domaghar’s back—she was a draft horse, she could easily carry him and his belongings—and took off into the night while clutching Byleth and Belial close to his own hammering heart. It wasn’t until they saw the far southern shores of the Empire that Domaghar slowed her gallop and Jeralt allowed himself to breathe, and finally focus on the near-impossible task of raising a husk of a child alone.
Byleth did improve from those early dark days, slowly. She was smart. She learned to speak, and read, and swing a sword very quickly. She and Belial both had a strange presence about them, something that made people pay attention even through their uncannily empty gaze. She had a knack for teaching others. She didn’t like seeing other people upset, and was good at listening to them. But she still never laughed, never cried. Never expressed any more emotion than the faintest smile or frown. As intelligent as she was, as quick on her feet when it came to rote learning, Byleth was creatively…sterile. She never doodled, or sung to herself, or made up stories, or even expressed the creativity to lie. And Belial almost never changed form without prompting, rarely played with Byleth or Domaghar or any other daemon. Some days they seemed more like an ordinary animal than anything else. Some days Byleth and Belial barely seemed to acknowledge each other, and even on the best days there seemed to be no limit as to how far they could stand to be away from each other. Some days, it seemed like they weren’t aware of anything at all.
Other days were better, and Jeralt soon learned that they tended to be associated with Byleth’s recurrent dreams of a great battle, or a strange young girl with green hair sleeping on a throne. He grew to yearn for the nights Byleth had those dreams, because for several days afterwards both his daughter and her daemon would be more alert and aware, would be closer to, well, normal. They would smile, explore, ask questions, be present in a way they otherwise never were. On those days their seemingly infinite range was invaluable; Belial could easily scout out enemy camps and formations and report back without being spotted. But invariably, after several days, the effects of the dreams would wear off and Byleth would sink back into her torpor.
The years passed, the dreams happened more frequently, and Jeralt and Domaghar learned to read the miniscule emotions on Byleth and Belial’s faces, but his daughter’s heart still never beat. She still never laughed. Never cried. Not even when she was twelve, came up to her father with blood-stained smallclothes, and flatly stated that she was dying. Not even afterwards, during that horribly awkward conversation that ended with Domaghar dragging Jeralt off out of sheer embarrassment and returning with one of his female mercenaries to please for the love of Sothis explain this don’t make him do it. Not even when she was sixteen and a bandit smashed her knee in with an axe, damaged the joint so badly that even with magical healing she would need a brace for the rest of her life.
It was during that time, while Byleth was convalescing in Remire Village and Belial took advantage of their seemingly-infinite range to patrol, that Jeralt took a job in a village in Alliance Territory. While there, he met a brash and excitable girl with bright orange hair who ran right up and begged him to teach her how to fight and be a mercenary.
Well, he couldn’t say no to that, and so Jeralt became an unexpected mentor to Leonie, and sort of a secondary father figure too. It was that second thought he kept turning over in his head as they crept through the undergrowth, Leonie staring at him with unadulterated hero worship while her daemon perched as a small bird between Domaghar’s ears so they could communicate quietly. Jeralt found himself yearning for that kind of relationship with Byleth, a daughter who would grin and laugh and chat about nothing, a daemon who would shift form on their own, perch on Domaghar’s back, and tell stories. And Jeralt found himself grieving, that Byleth would never be able to do any of those things.
He hated himself, a little bit, for that. Byleth was his daughter, the most important person in the world. He loved her more than anything. How could he even think of her being different than she was, of being not her? “Don’t think about it,” Doma had said. “We can’t change it. Dwelling only leads to madness.” And so he tried not to.
Jeralt returned to Remire a few months later to find Byleth fighting off bandits, because of fucking course, and arrived on the field just in time to see Belial, a wolf this time, crush the daemon of the bandit leader between their jaws. The bandit’s daemon disintegrated into golden dust, the bandit fell over dead, the survivors of the gang fled into the night, and Belial never took another form again.
Byleth had settled, and Jeralt swept his daughter into a bone-crushing hug, and everyone in both his troupe and the village cheered and congratulated the young woman and her wolf daemon. There was a feast in her honor, and Byleth gave a tiny smile that only Jeralt knew would have been an ear-splitting grin on anyone else, and Belial wagged their tail once, but that was all.
Just what had Rhea done to his daughter?