While Monica and Edelgard's teams completed their portions of the investigation, Ferdinand's team followed a faint trail of monster prints and bird feathers to a forest west of the monastery. The unsettling silence was occasionally broken by wing beats and the rattling of branches above and around them.
"Hey, Ferdinand," said Caspar, looking around at the dirt-covered trail as their surroundings gradually darkened. "Don't you think we ought to return to the monastery? It's getting pretty late."
"Caspar," whispered Petra, "you must use quietness. We have almost reached the conclusion of the trail, but opportunities for danger are many. We cannot be allowing our enemies to hear us."
Ferdinand pointed to a set of four-toed footprints to his left, spaced almost twice as far apart as his own prints and running in the opposite direction they were traveling. "There do not appear to be any more bird feathers," he whispered, "but I do not remember seeing these footprints earlier. Where do you think they came from? And where do they lead?"
"This is definitely complicating things. I have certainty that the beasts we are following came from this forest. These prints have some freshness, but we cannot be knowing where they are leading unless we abandon our search to follow them."
Caspar pointed downfield to a trio of flickering yellow-orange lights to his right. He couldn't tell if they were coming from torches, but for a moment, he thought he saw three men in dark robes approaching their position. "What do you think they're looking for?" he asked his friends. "I hope it's not us."
"Let's not give them a chance to find out," said Ferdinand. He crouched down and sidestepped toward a large boulder off the trail, and he signaled for Caspar and Petra to follow him before the robed men noticed them. They knew it would only buy them a few moments before their footprints were discovered, but it was their only shot at finding out more information about the monster attack.
"Are you sure we'll find her if we keep going this way?" said one of the men.
"It's probably just a rumor," said another, "but we can't discount the chance that there might be some truth to it. If it isn't, then where else do you think she would go?"
Ferdinand waited for the robed men to continue talking to learn who they were looking for, but they kept quiet as one of them stopped several feet short of the rock upon seeing Ferdinand's tracks.
"We'd best be careful, brothers," said the third man. "We're not alone."
Two of the wanderers reached for the swords on their belts while the third raised his staff and swept it in an arc in front of him, causing one of the lights to move around with it. The light floated over the boulder Ferdinand, Caspar, and Petra were hiding behind, prompting the men to close in on them with their weapons drawn. Despite the light shining brightly above all of them, Ferdinand couldn't clearly see any of the wanderers' faces as they insisted on keeping them concealed with their robes.
"A bit late for you kids to be bumbling around in a forest like this, isn't it?" said one of the swordsmen, whom Ferdinand wanted to call "Saber 1" for the cavalry saber he wielded. His partner, "Saber 2", held a blade that more closely resembled a naval cutlass, but there was little else about him that suggested he was a sailor or a pirate.
The students stood up with their arms raised. When Saber 2 reached for Ferdinand's lance after it fell to the ground, Ferdinand stomped on it to hold it in place.
"I would advise against doing that," said Ferdinand. "We did not come here seeking out a confrontation, but we will defend ourselves if necessary."
"Then you must understand our position as well, for we too must protect ourselves," said the staff-wielder, whom he codenamed "Sage". "If it is not bloodshed you seek, then it is in your best interest to leave this forest immediately and forget you saw us."
"You're just going to attack us and demand we get out without telling us what you're doing here and where you're going? That hardly seems fair," said Caspar.
Saber 2 lowered his sword once he perceived that the students were less threatening than he expected. "How would we know you wouldn't try to sabotage us or slow us down if we told you?" he said. "We've wasted enough time talking to you kids already."
"Yeah. Let's get out of here," said Saber 1.
The three robed men walked away from the rock and continued following the non-human footprints out of the forest, with the two swordsmen holding their torches in front of them so they could see where they were going while Sage kept his magical light behind him to deter stalkers.
"I am not liking the sound of this," said Petra.
"Me neither," said Caspar. "Those robed guys are looking for someone, and it looks like they're headed toward the monastery. We have to go after them!"
"If they are seeking to stir up trouble, then they will not get very far with the knights on duty," said Ferdinand. "We only came here to determine where the demonic beast and its cohorts came from. Any further exploration will have to wait until after we report to the Professor."
Ferdinand, Caspar, and Petra followed several steps behind Sage and the two Sabers, sticking to traveling beneath the trees until they got out of the forest to lower the chance of anyone else tracking them. They managed to stay just far enough out of the wanderers' sight to avoid getting stopped again until they were forced out into the open plains. By the time they reached the monastery, the wanderers were stopped at the gate and argued with the two guards stationed there.
"I hope you realize that you and your archbishop have made a grave mistake," said Sage, who had removed his hood to reveal a head with a full brown mustache and a thin, receding hairline. He and his two still-hooded companions walked off to the south as the guards watched on.
Byleth, who was waiting by the blacksmith's workshop to get the Sword of the Creator repaired, walked over to investigate. "What seems to be the problem?" she asked.
"Er…nothing, Professor!" said the guard to her left, who was clutching her spear tightly and ready to strike. "We just had to tell those three gentlemen that they weren't allowed to see Lady Rhea at this time of night. One of them got snippy when we asked them to identify themselves, so I had to kindly ask them to leave."
"Is that all?"
"Now that I think about it," said the guard to her right, "it sounds like it has something to do with the story about—wait, hold on, someone else is coming. I'll tell you in a minute."
The guard on the right stepped to his right to allow Ferdinand, Caspar, and Petra to enter.
"Did you guys find anything?" asked Byleth.
Ferdinand took the handkerchief from his pocket and used it to wipe the grass stains from his shirt and shoes. "We believe that the monsters came from somewhere in the forest to the west," he said, "but we were unable to proceed any further due to the darkness."
"While we were searching, we had also encountered these men who were wearing hoods and dark clothing," said Petra.
"So, you saw them too, huh?" said the second guard.
"Yeah," said Caspar. "They thought we were going to attack them, so they tried to attack us. Well, at least they were going to… They said they were in a hurry, and we wound up following them back here."
"Oh, yeah! I remember now… Those guys were talking about some young woman from up north who had wandered toward the monastery recently. I heard a rumor that one night, she was being followed by two, maybe three, demonic beasts almost half the size of the ones we fought. The monsters got away from her and tore up a town, killing almost two dozen people!"
Reports from the attack on the monastery varied between a half-dozen and three dozen deaths, with many more injuries and hundreds of thousands of gold coins in property damage. Byleth was less concerned about the reliability of the numbers than she was about someone running around with demonic beasts at their command.
"This girl you speak of…who is she, and what happened to her after the monsters got loose?" asked the professor.
The first guard turned to her right with her back against the arch so she could still see everything coming in and out of the gate. "To answer those questions out of order," she said, "once the monsters were killed and the damage was contained, some of the local knights tried to arrest the girl. I don't know what happened after that, though. What did those guys say her name was? Harpy? Hippy? Hoppy?"
"Hapi," the second guard calmly corrected.
"'Happy'? No, that can't be right. That doesn't sound like a summoner's name at all!"
"I don't think I've heard that name before," said Byleth. "I'll ask Captain Jeralt if he knows something. Thank you for the report."
The two gate guards held their right hands to their chest plates and bowed in salute. Byleth turned to Ferdinand and the others and guided them toward the fishing pond. "I think this is as much information as we'll get on this mission," she said. "Tell everyone else that class is postponed until Saturday. We'll meet in the classroom for a special session early that morning to discuss our next move."
"Yes, Professor," said Ferdinand.
Caspar and Petra, who were used to showing up at the classroom building every weekday and some Saturdays without fail, looked at each other and shrugged before waving to their teacher and returning to their rooms. Byleth, meanwhile, walked back to her office as quickly as possible, waving to any students she passed along the way. Once inside, she closed the door behind her and waited for Sothis to reappear.
A person capable of handling and commanding giant beasts… I have heard rumors of such tales from long ago, but…can someone like that still exist in this day and age?
"It wouldn't surprise me," said Byleth. "Do you think this young woman – Hapi, they called her – has something to do with our mission?"
Until we learn more about her, I cannot say for certain. If what those robed men said was true, then she may be somewhere in or around the monastery.
"Then we'd better prepare ourselves in case they try something."
Almost as quickly as she appeared, Sothis blinked out of sight when Jeralt entered the room, coat slung over his left shoulder with the right sleeve hanging off his back. "Hey, kid," he said. "You've been pretty busy this week, haven't you?"
"Yeah," said Byleth as she sat down on the bed in the alcove next to her desk, which was only visible from the hallway if one opened the office door to just the right angle. She wasn't ready to go to bed yet, but the softness of the mattress tempted her to think otherwise.
"Ever consider taking a day off?"
"Actually, I just did, but not because of this. I think I'm getting close to solving this mystery and want to get it done before we get attacked again." A few seconds after Byleth slipped out of her boots, she felt a lot more comfortable. "There were some strange men at the gate tonight looking for someone by the name of Hapi. Have you heard of her?"
"'Fraid not. What's this all about, huh?"
"Something about her following or being followed by monsters and one of them turning loose and killing a bunch of people."
Jeralt gave Byleth a frustrated sigh. "This situation just got a whole lot messier. If she really is that dangerous, it wouldn't surprise me if Rhea or the knights were keeping her locked up somewhere 'for her protection and ours'."
"If that's the case, where do you think she's being held?" she asked.
"Beats me. Don't stress yourself out over it right now, though. Why not use your day off to go fishing with me and Leonie? She's got a big trip coming up, too, and I think it might do her some good to decompress before she heads out. Plus, it'll give the three of us a chance to bond more and forget about all this school stuff for a moment."
"That sounds like a great idea."
Jeralt smiled at Byleth and gave her a hug before watching her curl up underneath the blanket. The bed was too small for him to comfortably lie in, but it was just the right size for his daughter. To ensure he didn't wake up with a stiff neck every morning, he kept a sleeping bag behind the bookshelves and rolled it out on the floor when he was ready to turn in for the night. He unrolled the bag in front of Byleth's desk, leaving just enough room for her to walk out in case she woke up before him. "Good night, kid," he said.
"Good night, Father."