“How is she?” asked Balthus, drinking sloppily from his tankard.
Yuri’s face was drawn and hollow cheeked as the guildmaster entered one of the inn’s back rooms. “Not good,” they said quietly, collapsing into a chair and drawing a pale hand over their eyes.
“Someone watching her?” grunted the brawler. “If not, I can go and--”
“Some of the girls volunteered. It’s not like we’ll be getting much business in the foreseeable future. Too much of The Mockingbird’s Nest to rebuild at the moment.”
Grunting, Balthus slurped at his tankard again before belching and saying, “We could use that reward from Rhea and Hilda and the rest. I told you I saved Claude, too, didn’t I?”
“Yes, Balthus. That’s only the fifth time. All very well and good, except Constance’s arm is in some wolf’s belly at the moment. There’s no hope of retrieving it. I should have picked it up…!” growled Yuri, slamming their hand on the table in a rare fit of self-reproach. More quietly, he said, “Then I could have healed her and she wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Balthus shrugged, then hefted his bulk off the small stool to pick up his gauntlets, strapping the serrated blades taut across his fists. “Think I’ll do another sweep of town. Try to find Hapi. Or some sign of her.”
“Maybe I’ll come with you, if only to help give her a proper burial,” muttered Yuri bitterly. “We’ve lost half of the Ashen Wolves, Balthus. Just because I was stupid.”
“Hey, boss, you didn’t know,” shrugged the ex-nobleman, stretching through a tight kata in the confined space. “From what everyone told me, the Academy kids threw you off your game. We’ll just have to keep an eye out for that bastard in the future. Hey, maybe if we turn his head back to the Church, they’ll give us more of a reward, eh?”
“Maybe,” muttered Yuri, but monetary rewards were the last thing on their mind at that moment. Constance’s bleeding had been stopped thanks to Yuri’s skill in Faith healing, but all through the night she had been a sobbing wreck in one of the inn’s bedrooms, madly clawing at her bandaged stump, insisting her left hand and fingers were still there, that she could feel them. In between bouts of hysteria and despair, she kept trying to prove she could still cast spells with only one hand, trying to move and trace sigils and runes in the proper order and placement without her other arm. Her last disastrous attempt had nearly burnt down the inn and everyone in it. Balthus had returned by then, evading the packs of monsters that were prowling the ruined and fire gutted streets of the town, feasting on the glut of carrion from the recent battle, and his physical strength was almost necessary to help Yuri restrain the distraught Constance from anymore reckless behavior.
Yuri thought the morning sun shining through a window would bring relief, or at least respite from Constance’s agitation. Instead, she became even worse. Her “sunny” personality was so suicidally depressed that she simply and quietly reached for any and available bedding or pillow with which to smother herself. She had even attempted to grab Yuri’s sword from its sheath, saying that she needed to “finish what dear Emile has started.” Balthus had quickly hurried to close the shutters, baring the room from any sunlight. Between the news of Hapi’s sacrifice and the trauma of her own disfigurement, Constance von Nuvelle was quickly losing her grip on reality.
Yuri checked their rapier in their belt, but soon was leaning hard against the table, their fatigue catching up to them. They looked back when they felt a heavy hand on their shoulder.
Balthus’ dark eyes were full of sympathy. “Hey boss. You really up for this?”
“I have to be,” muttered Yuri, rolling their shoulders, shrugging off Balthus’ hand. “Stay close. I’ll take us to the alleyway outside…” they said, raising the orange glowing armband on their left wrist.
A knock came at the door.
“Enter!” called Yuri, canceling the teleport from his Relic.
Silas the innkeeper peered his shaggy head inside the room. “Master Yuri, some Knights at th’ inn door. Wantin’ to check for survivors, ‘ey said. One of ‘em is a real cuss.”
Yuri and Balthus considered this bit of news. “Who’s the cuss?” demanded Yuri.
“Archer woman. Looks foreign t’ me. Pale and purple hair.”
“Shamir,” hissed Yuri in recognition. They sighed. “I guess there’s no avoiding her. Let’s go, Bash bro.”
“Right behind you, boss,” nodded the brute.
The group followed Silas through the narrow wooden hallways, through the hot and steaming kitchen where the cook and serving boys were already trying to finish breakfast and start on supper. Silas and Yuri slipped through the press with long-practiced ease, but Balthus simply shoved his way through, ignoring the catcalls and curses raining down on his back.
The trio moved into the crowded common room, where tables and chairs were stacked aside to make room for homeless individuals and families, each crowded around their blanket or pallet, dark hollow eyes of misery staring up at the armed figures of Yuri and Balthus. Despite the summer heat, a warm fire full of broken timbers and furniture roared merrily in the large stone hearth, with strings of laundry displayed like banners in front of it. The broken doors of the inn were set aside, and several Knights of Seiros in dark leather armed with bows stood at the entrance, with a pale woman in green with silver shoulderguards at their lead. A longbow and a full quiver of clothyard arrows hung on her back.
Yuri disengaged from Balthus and Silas and stepped forward to greet the archer. It was important to play this just right for the audience. “Why hello there. My name is Yuri Leclerc, and I am the owner of this fine establishment. How may I serve you?”
It was delightful to watch Shamir roll her eyes and play along. “For starters, where did that giant wurm corpse come from that’s outside your street? My men are shooting down the rocs and driving away the wolves with fire arrows, but from what we’ve heard, monsters showed up on your doorstep...first,” inquired Shamir in a cool monotone.
Yuri’s easy smile didn’t falter, but his guard was instantly up. “That’s a discussion that requires some privacy.”
“Then let’s get some, why don’t we? You have half an hour. My men will guard the entrance to the inn. Lead the way.”
Shrugging, Yuri led the way to the cellar, nodding once to Silas and Balthus, catching their eyes. Silas instantly bustled off to his duties, and Balthus took up position by the cellar stairs, his mass blocking the sunlight as Yuri led Shamir down into the dank mustiness, into a small room crowded with wine bottles and casks, amidst bins of root vegetables and barrels of salted meat. Yuri lit the way with a faint glow of anima, the white light nestled in a palm. But once inside, they quickly lit a small lantern, hanging it on a hook from a floor beam overhead. Faint voices and dust rained down on the pair as the people in the common room went about their business.
“What happens in a half an hour?” asked Yuri, turning to Shamir with another loose smile.
“Nothing too drastic. My men pull back to the Monastery and report me as dead. I’d imagine Catherine might take it poorly, however,” said Shamir.
“Well, that’s not a threat to take lightly, is it? She is a little feisty, isn’t she?”
Nodding, Shamir looked over the cellar, examining the floor especially. “Place looks like how she described it. She didn’t really have a good word for you, but I’d imagine Knight Byleth and the students were grateful.”
Grimacing, Yuri apologetically displayed the thin blade on their belt. “A most regrettable situation that I had to leave just at that moment. But as you know, I’m not really built for taking out monsters. That’s more of a job for a Relic.”
“But you can use anima now?”
“Let’s just say I discovered I’m more of a lover than a fighter.”
“That’s right,” replied Shamir. “You were training for the priesthood while still honing your swordsmanship.” Then she tilted her head. “So where did the monsters come from?”
Sighing, and feeling poignant pain in their chest as they did, Yuri began to retell the story of Hapi.
To her credit, Shamir didn’t interrupt, even keeping her smooth mask in place as he recounted the tale of Jeritza’s attack against his own, and the slaughter and battle that followed.
“--and we cleared out after that. She sacrificed herself to take him out. So. Believe it or not. That’s where all the monsters came from.”
“Where did this happen?” demanded Shamir.
“Near the intersection of Rue du Est and the Abysstown farmer’s market.”
Nodding in recognition, Shamir said, “We found some half-eaten corpses and tunnels from where the wurms burrowed through the streets.” Noting Yuri’s pain reaction, she added more kindly, “No signs of anyone like Hapi’s description or...Professor Jeritza’s.”
“Thank you,” said Yuri quietly. “Maybe there’s still hope.”
“Don’t count on it,” said Shamir bitterly, then regret flashed on her face as she saw Yuri’s pained reaction. “Shit. Sorry Yuri. Long day. Didn’t sleep.”
“It’s fine,” said Yuri, turning away. But that had hurt. Yuri, for every mask on their person, still wanted to believe in hope at the end of the day.
And thus was supremely surprised to feel a warm hand on their shoulder, that slightly squeezed.
“It’s not your fault, Yuri,” said Shamir quietly.
Yuri was touched, if they were being honest. Blinking rapidly, Yuri turned with a brave smile and said teasingly, “Careful, Shamir. Cracks in that mercenary facade? You’ll lose your rep.”
Shamir surprised him again by nodding. “You’re right. I nearly lost someone important yesterday too. I didn’t realize how important until almost too late.”
That struck a little too close to what Yuri was feeling at this moment. They turned away, blinking rapidly. “I hate this job,” they whispered.
“You’re strong enough to take it, though,” said Shamir with another squeeze. Then she stepped back. “That’s why you were one of my favorite students.” Then she frowned at them. “Although I’m still pissed you never took your archery classes seriously. With your speed--”
Yuri laughed with a familiar eye-roll. “And this is why you were my favorite teacher at the Academy. No mincing of words. I keep telling you, it’s hard to find the appeal of bows when you can just blast someone with a spell.”
“And I’ll keep telling you until you’re grey, I can put five arrows into someone by the time you finish casting one spell.”
The banter had its desired effect. Yuri felt his dark mood lift and much lighter, smiling back at his old tutor. “Thanks, Shamir.”
The Knight shrugged, all business again. “I’ll let Rhea know how much you and your men have sacrificed,” she acknowledged, then stared directly into his eyes. “You did stuff you didn’t have to do. I’ve always told you you’re either nicer than you look...or you’re the worst thief ringleader I’ve met.”
Yuri smiled, although it was a bit sad this time. “Eh. Maybe a bit of both?”
This time Shamir smiled back. Yuri tried to memorize it and the occasion; they knew it was a rare one, given only on special occasions. “I’ve got to get back,” she announced. “I’ll leave four squads here to help, but I think the monsters are gone. Time to start salvaging what we can.” Then she sighed wearily, her fatigue showing somewhat openly now, rubbing at small bags on her eyes. “If I can get Rhea to listen. They’re still going crazy over Knight Byleth up there. Everyone’s over the moon with her. Anyway. Want to escort me out so your bruiser doesn’t try anything?”
“Sure thing, Knight of Dagda,” winked Yuri playfully.
Her smile turned sardonic. “I’d normally shoot anyone who said that with an arrow, but from what I’ve heard about you recently, you might just ‘dodge’ it.”
“I might. Or maybe I’d take any arrow that you’re offering,” flirted Yuri with a wag of his eyebrows.
“Gods, you’re insufferable. I forgot how much like Sylvain Gautier you used to be.” The Knight gave Yuri a playful, familiar shove up the steps. “Get going, little bird.”
Yuri shuddered as they ascended the stairs. “Oh Goddess, and I forgot that your insults are the worst. I’m gonna need to take a bath from that one. Compared to a Gautier. Ugh.” At the top, a smiling Balthus grinned at their faces and bowed as he let them pass, and soon Shamir had her Knights rounded up. A majority of them followed her back up the hill to the monastery, with four squads splitting into groups of fives, patrolling the streets for looters and other unlawful activity, now that the monsters had been killed or driven away from the streets. Yuri decided they didn’t need to mention that some of his men were already doing that. Four squads was more than was expected. Shamir was being generous for old time’s sake, and they decided it was best to encourage that.
Silas rushed up to him as soon as the Knights left, with one of the girls behind him. “Master Leclerc. You’d better come. She’s trying to cast spells one-handed again, and it’s scaring everyone up there.”
“Ah, shit,” groaned Balthus, burying his face into his hands. “Look, boss, you wanna run up there to the Monastery to collect from Rhea? I can stay and watch her. You know I can heal well enough if things get bad.”
“I’d do it, except Shamir said Rhea was busy with Byleth…” muttered Yuri, trailing off thoughtfully. They turned to confront Balthus. “Hey Bash bro. You met Knight Byleth, right? Why’s everyone making a big deal about her? Besides the whole Ashen Demon bit. Didn’t figure Rhea for a merc lover.”
Balthus looked blank for a second, then his face lit up. “Oh, yeah, sorry! With all the craziness, I forgot to tell you! Um, Silas, here saw it too…”
“Saw what?” the innkeeper demanded, backing away slowly. “I didn’t see nuthin’! What scam are you dragging now, you rogue?”
“Mean. Accurate, but mean,” said the giant brawler with a wounded air. “Ah, I’m talking about when that student got injured? Off her flying horse? Remember what happened after that?”
The innkeep all but sagged in relief. “Oh, that. Yeah, when Knight-General Byleth, the Saint Reborn healed everyone. That’s why you didn’t have much to do back here, Master Leclerc,” explained the tubby man to a gaping Yuri. “She cast a spell and everyone inside the inn was healed. Tip-top shape! Except between poor Lady Nuvelle’s injury and the excitement of keeping the wolves and rocs out all night, we must’ve forgotten to tell you about it…”
“Anyway!” said a cheerful Balthus, picking up his cue. “Yeah, it was pretty awesome. I had a busted leg from that wurm, from where it tossed me in the stupid slick rain, then wham! It flexed back into shape. Didn’t even hurt! Uh...boss…? You okay?”
Yuri was leaning hard against a wooden support column, their purple eyes wide and staring. “A Fortify…” they whispered.
Another girl, Becky, came rushing down the stairs, running up to the group. “Master Leclerc? She’s getting real bad. Clover and Alice are holding her down, but we need help right now.”
Yuri snapped out of their stupor and was already moving up the stairs. “C’mon, B. Let’s go get her.”
“Oh, right! Sorry, we kinda got side-tracked telling that story about Knight Byleth casting that super healing spell. Yeah, Constance needs us right now...”
At the top, Yuri turned on Balthus with a hiss, and their friend took a hesitant step back. “No. She doesn’t need us. We’re taking her up there. We’re going to get her cured,” declared Yuri, their face fixed into a determined scowl.
Balthus’ face twisted in confusion. “Cure...a missing limb,” he stated skeptically.
“Exactly. And I know the one person up at the monastery who might pull it off. And more importantly,” said Yuri with a grim and dangerous smile. “They owe me. They owe me big time.”
Hapi woke in darkness.
Huh. Death is cold and wet. Stinks like shit, too. Awesome.
Slowly, the aches in her joints and the sharp pains in her body convinced her, at least for the moment, that she was alive. She noted her head was sore too, as she cautiously felt along her scalp and hissed as she touched a large swollen knot on her head. Hapi cautiously rolled about, trying to get her bearings without sight, feeling damp straw and cold rock beneath her skin and clothing, trying to remember why she wasn’t dead, either by Jeritza’s sword or fang and claw.
I sighed. I sighed so much they were all going to kill both of us. But then that Jertiza guy just stepped forward to me with his sword hilt--must’ve knocked me out--because I saw nothing but purple lights....
Murmuring an incantation, Hapi reached up and tried to heal her damaged skull. She felt dizzy and sick; while she wasn’t a master of white anima, like Yuri-bird, she could at least make herself feel a little better. Probably concussed by that maniac. Asshole.
Nothing happened as she touched her hair.
Frowning in the inky black, Hapi muttered the spell again, then felt what was cancelling her spell. A pervasive wrongness about her, twisting the intent of her anima before it even had a chance to begin, dissipating the energy harmlessly back into the ether faster than she could channel it. A cold chill stole through her body, one that had nothing to do with the moist and unsanitary conditions.
A magic dampening cell. She was back in one. She had been in ones much like it, for most of her life.
Panic tore through her, bubbling through her throat in an anguished sob, one magnifying and multiplying the pains in her body. “No. No, no, no, no, no, no…” she chanted, stumbling to her feet and feeling along the walls for something, anything. Touching nothing but cold wet stone and eventually, the rusty metal bars of her prison cell. She gave the iron gating a firm shake, flexing her shoulders and biceps as hard as she could. Then again. And again, harder each time, her grunting breathing trying to choke back a scream. She only succeeded in cutting open her hands on the cold flakes of rust coating the metal.
This time she did scream, her voice echoing in the dark. “NO! I won’t go back here! I fucking will not! Do you hear me? I will not!”
She had friends, outside of here. She had escaped this nightmare before, when her imprisoner had become lax and distracted in the days following the Tragedy of Duscar, and wandered the alleyways and backstreets of Fhirdiad for a time. Eventually she had been rescued by the Knights of Seiros, then just as abruptly consigned to the Abyss outside the monastery walls, because she was deemed a threat to the community. At that point, she didn’t much care. After living for so long underground, you slowly get used to it. But she had made a life for herself despite all of that. She had people, outcasts like herself, who accepted her despite the risks. Who wanted to be her friends, despite her flaws. And for that to suddenly be taken away and thrust back into an unending nightmare...she screamed again into the blackness, a raw animal sound of pure outrage and denial, her brain pounding as waves of pain and nausea gripped her and spots swam before her eyes.
The only sounds in return were slow drips of water and her own ragged breathing.
Ignoring all the pain, all her fear, Hapi stood clutching the iron bars with all of her might, and with a long intake of breath, sighed. As loudly and as long as she could.
And again, pouring her soul into the summons.
She stood listening, hopeful, expectant. But as the drips of water continued in the infinite blackness, she realized that nothing was going to happen. The bastards must’ve blocked her access to that power, too.
The void in front of her eyes was nothing like the one now curling inside of her soul, dragging it down faster than a leaden anchor. Giving the iron portcullis one final blind kick of her sodden boot, she dragged her bloody fingers across the bars to the nearest wall and sank down against the harsh cut stone, curling herself and her wet clothing into a posture of misery, trying to maintain what little warmth she had. Trapped. No escape. A prisoner once more. Against people who obviously knew who she was, and what she was. The only thing she had ever been for as long as she could remember.
She stayed there for some time, the chill seeping into her bones, when there was a chitter in the musty darkness, with a skittering sound of tiny feet and nails on stone. Raising her head, she focused with all of her might, trying to listen to the quiet sounds and noises, trying to focus on any magic she could use in this environment. Her mind flashed with the answer of the creature who answered her summons. A long stringy naked tail, with moist matted fur, persistent teeth and a questing nose and whiskers. It was scared and confused, because it had heard something call for it, but could not find anything recognizable. Hapi focused all of her power into her mind, as much as she could, trying to access the small creature’s psyche with her own. Then suddenly, with an intuitive flash, she found she could “speak” with her new cellmate in a limited manner.
The nearby chitters grew louder, more distinct, as they were translated into her mind. <Biglegs? A biglegs speaks to me/we/us?>
Something furry and quick brushed by her hunched feet.
A rat. Hapi stilled her body and reached down a hand, trying to calm herself from the crawling sensation in her skin and focusing on an image of warmth, safety and security. The skittering noise drew closer.
She sighed again, trying to make it gentle and welcoming.
Rough whiskers brushed her fingertips and a small nose took in her scent. The chirrups and trills grew excited as it felt a kinship with her. <Biglegs friend! Biglegs speaks! Good biglegs can get rid of groundteeth, clawegs and barklegs! Biglegs friend one of me/we/us!>
Hapi tried to keep her focus and Crest blood in line with what limited power she had. Her summoning power did work here, but only at the most miniscule level. Maybe she had gotten more powerful over the intervening years, so much that she could overcome the dampening effect, only barely. Still, she would take it. Breathing out a gusty sigh this time, Hapi tried to picture herself as a rat, trapped inside a cage. She projected an image of sadness as she tried to claw and bite her way out, but could not. She would help her small friend if she could, she thought with regret.
She sensed the small creature’s ears drooping and it was sympathetic to her, on some level. <Ohhhh...Biglegs friend trapped.> Then the rat’s thoughts brightened. <But don’t worry! When Biglegs dies in trap, you feed me/we/us! Much food for all!>
Yuck. Gross. But Hapi kept her thoughts from becoming disgusted. Instead, she focused on what she could do with this tiny little summon. Perhaps the rat could bring her things, stuff she could use to escape, like a ring of keys. At this point, she would even take a small hunk of cheese. When had she last eaten? She couldn’t remember, and she was starving. But even more importantly, she had to know where she was to have any chance to escape. An idea, born out of the sharp pain in her fingers from shaking her cell, came to her. Food for thoughtfood? she “asked” the rat. She didn’t know how to explain the concept of “information” to a rat.
She could sense the rat’s whiskers quivering in the darkness as it was briefly confused. <Eat for thinkeat? Biglegs friend strange.>
In response, Hapi held out her hand, squeezing her fist to let her blood drip from her sliced palm and cut fingers, pattering to the ground near the rat. It instantly became interested and started lapping the ground, the chitters turning greedy and satisfied.
<Rich and tangy. Strongpower in blood. Me/we/us change mind. Biglegs friend smart. Smart despite getting trapped.>
Where am I? she quested with her mind, offering more blood to the ground with her other hand, to the rat’s delight.
<Coldstonedark home. Food in warmlights, but guarded by clawlegs and barklegs. Sometimes groundteeth, or badfeels.>
A castle of some sort. The rat was explaining the dance of its existence, of trying to eat anything while avoiding the castle’s cats and dogs, traps and poison. That was encouraging. Now if she could find a landmark, or at least a region nearby. Maybe she could tell where she was by who owned the castle? Many biglegs in castle...er, Coldstonedark? Bad biglegs?
The rat took a moment from its meal to squeak angrily. <Many bad biglegs. They guard food in hardstuff, friends with clawlegs and barklegs. They set groundteeth and badfeels near nests. You only nice biglegs me/we/us know.>
Hapi tried to keep her frustration out of her thoughts, focusing on her only edge in this predicament, this tiny little furry thing which unknowingly held her existence in its paws. She didn’t hate rats, but she didn’t regularly seek their company either. Bad biglegs go clank clank? she asked, thinking about the noises of swords and armour, the acrid smell of oxidized iron. Then she thought of robes and fabric rubbing together, projecting that mental image to the rat’s brain. Or go rustle rustle?
Another timid squeak. <More rustle rustles. Rustle rustle biglegs smell badwrongsick. All me/we/us avoid. Even clawlegs and barklegs.> The rat answered, still enjoying every drop of coppery blood from her, eagerly lapping it up before it cooled.
Oh, damn her soul to the Valley of Ailiel. This was bad. This was very bad. She knew exactly what kind of people that all animals instinctively feared and avoided. She had been a prisoner of one for seven long years. Hapi tried to keep a sense of rising anxiety from bubbling out of her chest, focusing on projecting her sighs and soothing thoughts as a rat to her little furry friend. Do rustle rustle biglegs kill other biglegs? Put them in traps too?
Many squeaks. <Yes yes, but many litters before. Me/we/us eat, grow fat, many pups, no need to eat others to survive. Was lots of dead biglegs to eat then. Always. Then stopped, no more. Forced to find food in warmlights. But you first/one talking biglegs. Offer blood freely. No need to bite and fight for blood. Nice biglegs.>
Congratulations from a rat on being free food. That was suitably morbid considering her circumstances. And it fairly confirmed which group a crazed madman like Jeritza was associated. She had to escape and warn Yuri-bird and the rest of the gang. Hell, maybe even the Knights of Seiros. Let both of these groups of bastards kill each other off, and she could die a happy woman. She returned to her questioning, her “thoughtfood.” And what is outside of Coldstonedark? Hapi tried to picture sunlight and nighttime to the small creature’s primitive mind.
The rat became agitated and frightened in response, forgetting the last drops of blood. <You mean Bigopen Bigsmells! Nonono, Bigopen Bigsmells is bad and scary. Swoopclaws and fastbites are there. Even when Bigopen Bigsmells dark, it too dangerous. Too many swoopclaws, too many fastbites, too many stomping Biglegs everywhere, riding on Hugestomps.>
Hapi tried to formulate her thoughts for her next question, while trying to reassure the small rat that it didn’t have to go outside of its home as it shivered and trembled in fear. But the rat’s answer indicated a town, with maybe a forest nearby if it had owls and hawks, and foxes and snakes. At least that’s what she thought “swoopclaws” and “fastbites” might be. “Hugestomps” must be horses, and a lot of horses meant enough farms and fields nearby to feed them. Is Bigopen Bigsmells longcold or longwarm? She quested again with her magic, trying to picture icy snow on the ground in one mental image, or a hot summer with a blazing sun in the next.
The rat’s nose twitched in the darkness, then it hissed. <Biglegs friend is silly. Longcold is silly. No such thing as longcolds. Wetcolds, yes, but no such thing as longcolds.>
If the rat didn’t know what snow was...she couldn’t be in the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus. Or anywhere in the mountains, and Leceister had an abundance of mountain ranges surrounding it. Adrestia. She had to be in the Adrestian Empire. She acknowledged the logic of that...it made sense that someone named Emile von Bartels, someone Coco had recognized from her childhood, was probably an Adrestian noble. Where was House Bartels exactly? She had no idea. Shit. Coco and Yuri-bird were always astounded by my ignorance of Fódlan geography. I mean, that’s what you get when you’re raised as a prisoner. But Hapi was chilled by her next logical thought.
By the Stars...if they’re in Adrestia...that means they’re everywhere. They’re not just in Faerghus, but here too…
<Biglegs friend very still. Is Nice Biglegs dead now?> The rat was cautiously sniffing her body. <Time to get more me/we/us to eat warm bloodmeat?>
Hapi grunted bitterly, and she rose from the floor, finally tired of her conversation with the rat, growing angry at the thought of being eaten and nibbled and forgotten in the darkness. She knew it was misdirected, but she couldn’t help it. “No,” she responded aloud to the furry vermin. “Not dead yet.” Saying it aloud made her feel a little better. It made it a little more real. Maybe, with the rat’s help, she could do something.
The rat squeaked shrilly at her voice as it skittered away from her. <Biglegs use boomvoice. Not nicevoice. Nicevoice better.>
She noticed there was no “friend” appellation in the rodent’s last statements. She’d have to be careful about that, and be sensitive to the small animal’s perceptions. But an echoing creak of an opening door, and other voices, were soon heard in the darkness, and with her light-sensitive eyes thought she saw something brightening at the periphery of her vision. Channelling her thoughts into a feeling of fear and hiding, she thought to her only ally, Run! Escape! Flee!
The rat chittered and eeked as it scampered off to parts unknown, between the bars of her cell and out into the darkness. It sent out one last appreciative thought. <Bye bye Nice Biglegs. Hope you not food next time!>
She barely acknowledged the rat’s last message, blindly backing up in the cell against the far wall, trapped by the rough unyielding stone. A shining light was approaching her, along with voices that were slowly becoming distinct. The voices of her captors.
“You called me away at a critical juncture, Myson. I had to cancel a date with Grand Duke Rufus. That forced me to inform Thales, and he was most displeased. What could possibly demand warping me all the way down here?”
That voice. She remembered that voice. Instantly Hapi’s breath was freezing in her lungs, and her heart started to pound, overwhelming everything else in another blind animal terror, her thoughts becoming a monotonous repetitive litany. Not her. Not her. NOT HER.
A dark chuckle. “Trust me, Calliope. This prisoner that the Death Knight brought in is worth every moment of your time. I wanted it to be a surprise for you. Thales will understand.”
“Hm. So you say. What could that worthless brute from House Bartels...excuse me, House Hyrm...find of interest to us in the streets of Garreg Mach? It had better not be one of the Blue Lion brats. Any one of them could recognize me in this form, and we would have to dispose of them right here and now.”
Hapi curled up on the ground, shutting her eyes away from the blinding light growing closer, that hated, honey-voiced harpy coming closer towards her, closer. She found herself blinking away hot, unwilling tears, suddenly praying to a Goddess she didn’t even believe in for mercy, for death, for anything except this, oh Goddess and Stars and Anything listening please no please no...
“Oh, this one will recognize you. She’s an old experiment of yours. I remember at one point you were very excited by the possibilities.”
“Really? What are you going on about….oh wait, could it be? Hold the lantern higher, Myson, I do think I know who that lovely red hair and rich dark skin belongs to! Oh! You were right! What a most delicious surprise!”
Hapi hugged herself tightly against the wall, wanting to vomit but too dehydrated to do so. She wanted her heart to stop and her life to end. She wanted to disappear forever. Anything to escape this. Nothing could be worse than this. She sensed the figures stop close near the iron bars, and felt a faint warmth and light shine directly on her face, piercing through her eyelids.
The melodic, crooning, vicious voice spoke again, light and mocking. “Oh, my dear sweet darling Hapi. My lost little Major Crest of Timotheus. I know I taught you better than this. You always must look at me when I’m speaking. Isn’t that right, child? You know what will happen if you don’t.”
Hapi knew. She remembered. She could never forget, damn it.
Slowly, with the greatest reluctance, Hapi opened her red-rimmed eyes from the ground to confirm her worst fear.
Cornelia Arnim, the Archmage of the Royal Family of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, smiled sweetly down at her, next to another pale dark robed mage holding the lantern, who grinned evilly at her from under his black hood. Now that she had some light, Hapi could see every inch of the walls of the cell, from the floor to the ceiling, were inscribed in flowing runic spellwork that shimmered and reflected light from the lantern’s flame. She would have no chance of magically escaping this cell. None. She would have a better chance of chewing through the metal bars with her teeth like a rat.
The rat. Must never tell them about the rat. It was her only prayer now.
Leaning casually against the bars of the cell with her elbows, Cornelia leaned forward intimately and nearly spilled out of her ornate robes. She whispered in a voice of spun like vile sugar, “My little Hapi. Oh, how I’ve missed you. So, so much. But first things first, dearie. You can’t imagine how heartbroken I was to find that you escaped our special little home. You know what that means, don’t you?” The archmage twirled a strand of her light red hair with a finger. “You betrayed my trust, Hapi, after years of learning how to be a good pet and earning your special privileges. So now,” she said in a bright and cheery tone, “we’ll have to start all over again!” The archmage’s face thrust forward suddenly, her forehead and cheeks twisting in a way no human face should, looking more demonic than natural, her lips twisting into a ceaseless promise of cruelty and pain.
“All the way from the very beginning,” said her original kidnapper in a sing-song tone.
Hapi could not have stopped herself from shuddering in fear and disgust if she tried.
The tension in the Archbishop’s audience chamber was so thick it could only be cut with a Relic.
On one side, Jeralt and Beatrix stood side by side with their daughter, who was back to her stoic and reserved self, although something like resignation hung around her face and eyes. She had willingly accepted the tightly wound restraints on her wrists and ankles to prove her cooperation and obedience in light of what had just happened. Professor Jeralt’s eyes were glaring murderously at Rhea, his hand on the broadsword at his belt, while Trips tried to observe as much as she could while trying her best to shield Byleth with her own body, her staff held defensively before them. On the other side, Thunder Catherine stood with her stance wide, Thunderbrand unsheathed, her hands on the hilt and the tip touching the ground, looking moments away from a charge. Behind her stood Archbishop Rhea, who looked uncharacteristically nervous and timid, plucking at the edges of her robes, and High Abbot Seteth, his stern face only more severe and foreboding this morning. To the sides stood Professor Hanneman and Professor Manula, their own poses confused and bewildered.
Seteth looked to Rhea, waiting for her to speak, and take charge of this charged situation, but Rhea appeared almost...afraid of Byleth. She hid it well, but he could read it, deep within his sister’s bright green eyes. Suddenly he wished that Flayn was here, but she was likely still in bed, happily resting after he had given her permission to help heal both student and Knight last night. Even Shamir’s cold-eyed pragmatism would be welcome, as well have the effect of calming Catherine down, whose blue eyes were colder than ice as she stared death at the family before her. No matter her feelings for anyone else, Catherine would not tolerate any threat to Rhea. Even other people she freely admired and respected as friends and equals.
Jeralt rasped out, “Rhea. I want the truth. What did you do?”
The question hung heavily in the air. Rhea was silent, but her face looked to Byleth in silent appeal, as if she was seeking some sign from the young Knight in front of her.
Byleth endured the scrutiny of the Archbishop for a long moment, then shrugged stiffly in response. Seteth was surprised by such a brusque gesture from the young Knight. Just what was going on here?
Even more shocking was Rhea’s response. The Archbishop simply sighed, a heartbroken, defeated sound. Then she said with a mere trace of her usual serenity, “Professor Jeralt. Please step into my study, and I will explain everything to you.”
“No more lies?” growled the Blade-Breaker.
Rhea firmly shook her head, the light green tresses swaying under her tiara. “None, Jeralt. Although much of what I have already told you was the truth, there were...lies of omission,” Rhea admitted. Much more quietly, she added, “And I have already been rebuked for my sinful ways.”
Seteth glanced sharply at his sister at that. A dark suspicious crept into his mind. The Fortify. Has Mother already spoken to Seiros? Through her divine blood?
Jeralt’s face softened slightly as he nodded to his daughter and Beatrix, and moved to follow Rhea into the nearby study. But Catherine blocked his path. “Disarm yourself first,” the Holy Knight demanded, raising Thunderbrand.
“Catherine! Do not presume!” Rhea shouted in command as she whirled to diffuse the confrontation.
Catherine laughed brightly as she ignored her superior entirely. “Sorry, no can do, Lady Rhea. I swore an oath to protect you from anything. That includes your own bad judgement. Until he unbuckles his sword, he’s not going in there alone with you.”
Jeralt looked baffled for a moment, then grunted shortly in amusement. “You really think my sword could do anything to Rhea?”
“Lady Rhea,” the Holy Knight growled back viciously.
“Catherine!” barked an angry Seteth. “Cease this insubordination at once!”
The Golden Deer Professor chuckled as he waved Seteth off. “Fine. It’s fine. Who cares.” There was a brief tug and rip of straps, and the scabbard and blade fell carelessly to the ground with a dull ringing clatter. Jeralt held up his hands placatingly to the blonde woman. “Now it’s just little ol’ me, kid. An elderly ex-Knight. You can stand guard by the doors if you like, but I think Rhea and I need to have this talk.”
“Lady Rhea? Are you sure?” asked Catherine, slowly calming herself and lowering her sword.
“Yes,” said Rhea in a dun tone, regaining some of her regality and presence. “We will speak of this later, child. Jeralt. Please join me inside.” Moving past Catherine, Jeralt followed the Archbishop inside her study, but paused to look back at his daughter, her hands and feet bound and her face a blank mask.
Byleth stared back at her father.
Then winked her right eye.
Her father’s scarred face smiled in delight, and turned to walk into the lion’s den, shutting the doors behind him.
Silence descended on the group after the latch tripped shut.
Byleth bowed her head. “I’m sorry,” she whispered into the stillness.
“Oh, my poor little dear,” murmured Manuela, sweeping forward and awkwardly hugging Byleth across her shoulders. “I don’t have the slightest idea of what’s happening, but I also don’t believe for an instant you’d actually hurt yourself.”
“I know she wouldn’t,” insisted Beatrix by Knight Byleth’s side. “But...well, it’s complicated, Manuela. Byleth may not have been...fully in control of herself.”
Blinking at that, Hanneman tried to hazard a guess at what Beatrix was insinuating. “As in...multiple personalities? Possession?”
“Drugs?” said Manuela sympathetically, hugging Byleth with familiarity again. “Oh, dear, I know exactly what you must be going through, poor thing!”
The discussion was making Seteth extremely uncomfortable. He declared sternly, “There is no need for any supposition amongst ourselves…”
“Yes there is, Father,” interrupted Catherine, leaning on her sword, as Seteth sputtered at her effrontery. She went only relentlessly. “You weren’t there, Seteth, on the Magdred Way. Something strange happened. It all started when Byleth collapsed from exhaustion on our third day in the fog, then an hour later she woke up and knew...a bunch of stuff. About Lonato’s plans, his movements, and...other things,” trailed off the Holy Knight, her blue eyes glaring uncertainly at Byleth and Beatrix.
Byleth was attempting to look stoic, but a hint of fear leaked through as she nodded back at Catherine. “It’s true,” she said quietly. “I know things I shouldn’t. Without people telling them to me.”
Hanneman was all but fluttering his gloved fingers in excitement at this revelation. He instantly produced a quill and notepad from his robes. “Such as?” he asked, his grey mustache twitching.
Shaking her head now, Byleth was starting to look pained. “No. I won’t do it. Not without someone’s permission. That’s mean. I had to do it to Catherine on the road, to convince her, but otherwise, it’s just cruel.”
Hanneman instantly volunteered himself. “Oh I will volunteer! I do believe I have nothing to hide…!”
“Don’t be a fool, Hanneman,” Manuela scoffed loudly. “Everyone has something to hide.” Seteth and Catherine were silent, both quietly watching Byleth.
Beatrix sighed and offered herself, if only for a distraction from the tension. “Fine, in the name of magical research.” She stepped forward and faced her stepdaughter, leaning heavily on her white staff but smiling. “What’s something you know about me I haven’t told you, kid?”
“Mom…” Byleth hesitated.
“You’re fine, kid. You can’t hurt me. I won’t be offended. Pinky swear.”
Seteth silently observed as the young Knight appeared to listen to something, cocking her head to the side as if in an attempt to hear better. It took a long minute, but soon she nodded and said, “Okay. Yeah, this is good. It’s a good one, a happy one. But I can understand why you wouldn’t bother telling me.”
“Oh? Now I’m getting interested. Lay it on me,” smiled Beatrix gently.
Byleth addressed the group. “Trips...um, Lady Beatrix used to live on the edges of Garreg Mach. In the woods. She...wanted to help people, but she liked her privacy too. She wanted to be a doctor.”
Manuela swiveled her green-gold hair to face her colleague. “Oh? I thought you were a doctor?”
“Believe me, it’s been earned since then. I think I know what this is,” grinned Beatrix.
Byleth smiled back. “My dad brought me to her hut, because she had a reputation for curing diseases and helping midwives with hard births and the like. I think…” Byleth tilted her head again, and paused, then continued, “I was nine days old. The nuns at the monastery had been taking care of me. But people were worried, because I was a strange baby. I didn’t cry or fuss at all. I hardly reacted to anything. And the strangest thing was…”
“...you had no heartbeat,” finished Beatrix softly.
Manuela was looking back forth between the two in astonishment. “No heartbeat? I can’t believe it...dear, may I?” she inquired gently to Byleth, holding up a glowing hand.
Byleth shrugged and nodded permission, and Manuela closed her eyes and laid a gentle hand on the left side of her chest, moving it occasionally. She waited and listened for a long time, finally blinking her eyes open in astonishment. “Amazing…” the physician breathed. Laying her fingers to the side of Byleth’s neck, she said, “But you have a pulse! This should be impossible!”
“Like I said,” said Byleth with a shrug. “I was born strange. Dad wanted to know why. So he brought me to Trips.”
“Right, but there’s nothing new here kid,” sniffed Beatrix. “I know your dad and I have told you this story.”
Byleth smirked back. “But what you didn’t tell me...is that you had two patients to take care of that day. Not just one.”
Seteth was beginning to catch on as Lady Beatrix laughed outright. “Oh Goddess, that’s right! Jeralt stumbled into my house carrying you, reeking like a rotten whiskey barrel. He was so drunk I was amazed he didn’t drop you on the way there. I forced him to sleep it off while I took care of you in the meantime.”
“And then when he woke up Trips lit into him for how he was behaving,” snickered Byleth, then shook her head in honest admiration. “You never taught me those insults and threats. I could have used them over the years. Anyway, long story short, is that my stepmom was less than impressed by meeting the Blade-Breaker for the first time.”
“Fascinating,” muttered Hanneman, writing furiously into his notepad over various chuckles. “Yet you were only an infant at the time. How exactly do you have a memory of this?”
Byleth’s features slowly turned stoic once more. “I had help,” she admitted quietly, looking at her stepmother as Seteth absorbed the proceedings. Something seemed to pass between the two women, but he was unsure as to what.
The Crest Scholar inched closer to Byleth, examining her from all angles as if she were a particularly exotic bug. “From your Crest? This might be an unprecedented discovery. A Saint Reborn...that might explain the perfect synaptic recall...do you have any other abilities that you have discovered recently? Aside from your immense talent at White Anima...I believe the Church will want to go into that in detail at some later time…” he muttered to himself.
“Um,” wilted Byleth under the ex-noble’s intense scrutiny. “Uh, well, I think I can tell what Crests people have. Sometimes they glow like little symbols around their heads. Or their hearts. I’ve just started seeing them recently. It’s distracting,” she finished in a mumble.
“Crest empathy?!” squealed Hanneman in delight, losing his monocle in his excitement. It swung about from its fine chain in his sheer excitement.
Beatrix and Catherine snorted almost in unison. Catherine finally replaced Thunderbrand on her back and folded her arms. “C’mon, Hanneman. Crest empathy isn’t that rare among the nobility. Even I have it.”
“But perhaps not this form of it!” Hanneman hastened to correct her. “Even you have to guess sometimes, isn’t that right? And while I, Lord Seteth, and Lady Beatrix know of Knight Byleth’s Crest...I believe you do not--! Unless you care to tell me now?” he challenged.
Not wanting to back down, Catherine examined Byleth for a long moment, even moving closer to her, looking at her from every angle. Then she sighed in exasperation. “Forget it. This is stupid.”
“Oh, please, Knight Catherine. Anything you can give me--!” Hanneman was nearly dancing in agitation.
The woman shook her dirty blonde mane. “No, you’re right. I don’t have any control over it. I can’t tell.” Exasperated, the Imperial ex-nobleman urged her to try harder.
Seteth was now interested himself, despite Hanneman’s pushy behavior. Crest Empathy was still an enigma to himself and his siblings. Only descendants of the original Crest bearers or recipients of Nabatean blood experienced anything like it, all strictly human in origin, and no Nabatean had ever experienced the like. Before their relationship had disintegrated completely after the war, Macuil had theorized that it was as if there was a whisper of Mother’s divine consciousness still in existence, expressed through the remains of their relatives or through the unnatural mix with their human beneficiaries. The discovery only made his half-mad brother even more jealously guard his own blood, refusing to give it to worthy souls in their decades-long war against the King of Liberation, even though it could have hastened their victory. Yet now on many levels, Seteth well understood his brother’s bitterness, and the desire to reject the world entirely after the death of his family.
The horrors of the Red Canyon, and the nearly endless century long war that followed, still haunted his dreams. As well as the sacrifices forced upon him as a result.
He shook himself from his reverie in time to see Hanneman’s cajoling upon Catherine had worked. Running a gauntlet through her hair, the knight said in a low tone, “This will sound crazy, so don’t laugh. But I feel as if Byleth has...all of them? I mean, she’s all over the place. I can’t get a fix on her.” She looked up at the Professors with uncertainty.
Hanneman was beside himself in glee, as the other women backed away from him. “All of them? Yes, yes! Oh, I must do an experiment in a controlled environment soon! Double-blind, of course, under strict third party supervision, screened participants, and we could set it up in my office…”
“Hanneman, you’re starting to embarrass yourself. I mean, even more so than usual when you’re like this,” sneered Manuela, waving the air in front of her nose. “Ugh. Such nonsense makes me glad I don’t have one of the damned things, and was born a completely normal person.”
“You don’t have a Crest?” said Byleth, tilting her head in perfect innocence. “But I can see it. It’s right there on your forehead,” she added to the startled Professor, pointing her bound hands at her face. Seteth covered his face in his hands.
“Byleth, kid, maybe that’s enough,” said Beatrix firmly, trying to prevent another misunderstanding. Too late.
“Now wait just a minute!” said Manuela hotly, glaring back at Seteth, her blonde-green hair flying wildly. “No, I want to hear this! Which Crest do I have, Byleth?!”
“Um...I don’t know. I just see it.”
“What does it look like, Knight Byleth?” said Hanneman at the same time, leaning forward avidly.
“Like, ah, a candlestick? With wings?” replied Byleth helplessly. “Or one of those three pronged trident-candle thingies? I can’t remember what they’re called. Candle-bears?”
“Candelabras, Byleth,” corrected Beatrix her stepdaughter fondly, reaching up to tussle her hair.
Flipping to a blank page, Hanneman quickly sketched out a design and showed it to Byleth. “Does it look like this?”
“That’s it!” said Byleth confidently. “It’s green, though.”
“Manuela! This is proof of my theories! I do believe Seteth’s transfusion has given you the Crest of Cichol!” bubbled the old Professor in joy to a shocked Manuela.
With a vicious oath, the physician started advancing furiously on Seteth, who was slowly backing away in contrition, but Hanneman managed to interpose himself between them. Gripping her firmly by the shoulders, he said excitedly, “My dear Manuela! My lovely singing colleague. If I might trouble you for a slight blood sample, and perhaps also a lock of your exotic new hair…”
Professor Manuela unceremoniously kneed her colleague in the crotch. Ignoring the wheezing, doubled-over Professor behind her, she kept advancing on Seteth until she had cornered him at the far end of the room. Soon they were harshly whispering in low tones, although Manuela’s normally dulcet voice was more of a growl.
“Huh. That’s one way to get Hanneman off your back,” said Catherine in professional admiration at the move. Beatrix shook her head in disgust at the antics but moved to assist Hanneman, holding the older man up.
“This is why I’m sorry,” whispered Byleth anxiously to the Knight. “I just seem to cause trouble by existing. I don’t want people to get into fights over me.”
Catherine grunted sourly at that and looked at the younger woman. “People get into fights over any damn excuse they want, Byleth. I would’ve thought you’d have been a mercenary long enough to see that.”
Byleth shook her head in the negative. “But those fights weren't over me. This is tearing apart my family. It almost tore apart the students I saved. I don’t want it to tear apart the Church. Or anything else. Like you and my dad earlier.”
Rubbing the back of her neck, Catherine looked away in chagrin. “Yeah, damn, already eating my own words here. Um...I just want to protect Lady Rhea. You know that, right? I don’t have the brains for this magic stuff, so it can freak me out.”
“Me too,” agreed Byleth softly, sadly.
Catherine was about to respond when the doors to Rhea’s study opened. Both Rhea and Jeralt looked drawn and haggard.
Jeralt wasted no time. Ignoring everyone else, he marched over to his daughter and gripped her firmly by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “Byleth. Do you want to stay here? Yes or no, kid.”
Byleth gazed up at her father in confusion, then glanced over his shoulderplates at Lady Rhea. The Archbishop sensed the unspoken question at once. “You have my blessing, child, if you wish to leave my service. There will be no objection, or pursuit, or punishment. Your life is your own.” The others in the room grew quiet and solemn as they waited for Byleth’s answer. Seteth focused briefly on Byleth, then once more settled his regard on Rhea. This submissive behavior was most unusual for her. But he suspected it was better to give his sister space and support, instead of demanding answers at this time. Instead he considered the ramifications of a reputed miracle happening after the Battle of Garreg Mach, and then the disappearance of the performer of said miracle. The faithful would be confused and frightened and doubtful, at a time when the Church most needed unity. He prayed, Mother...if you are here...please give this child your guidance at this time. So much hinges upon this…
Byleth closed her eyes and seemed to fall within herself. She made the curious head tilting motion once more, then her ocean-deep blue eyes opened.
“Yes, Father. I do.”
He nodded back and smiled, although it looked a bit sad. “All right. Let’s get these things off you, then.”
“Felix, you are walking too fastly. Your leg was just healed--”
“It feels fine. Stop nagging me.”
“If Ingrid is departing, you will need to ride the nag,” said Petra firmly, keeping his pace.
Edelgard followed two strides behind the couple in the hallway of the Knights’ quarters, a white glove hiding her smile as she listened to the continuing argument. Whatever had happened to these two on the battlefield yesterday was already causing them to bicker like an old married couple. She still was not certain if she approved of the match, but watching their personalities clash was entirely worth it for the time being. She almost tilted her head behind her to make a wry observation to Hubert, but then she remembered, suddenly, that her retainer was not by her side. Instead he was on an emergency mission. A vital one.
Although Petra had rejoined them shortly in the dining hall for breakfast, the overwhelmed staff of the monastery could not serve them, as well as the hundreds of other refugees, in a timely manner. Hating the thought of any idleness, Edelgard managed to find a nearby harried Sister of Cethleann who managed to heal Felix’ knee and Petra’s arm to completion. They saw an exhausted but cheerful Raphael, still helpfully moving boxes of supplies and patients about, insisting he did not feel tired, or even hungry. After their fast, Edelgard noted with some surprise that Ferdinand was also out amongst the wounded, quietly and earnestly helping the Knights and nuns with any assistance he could provide. Perhaps his claims to a spiritual awakening were true and not another attempt of self-aggrandizement. That might prove...difficult...for her future plans.
She managed to see a glimpse of Leonie, along with Casper, the two of them carrying trays of porridge to deliver to their exhausted fellow students who still might be in their dormitory rooms. Edelgard nodded gladly at the sight, and she made sure to speak an approving word to both of them, thanking them for their selflessness. Bernadetta, Dorothea, and Lindhart would doubtlessly need encouragement to eat, along with Lysithea and Marianne, and possibly Ashe and Mercedes as well. One night’s rest could not undo the horrors of battle completely for many of them, and it was important that everyone received a sense of normalcy and routine. Once again, Edelgard’s thoughts turned bitter, angry at her “Lord Uncle’s” machinations. What was the man thinking with this foolish move? The Central Church would be doubly on guard now, and the Officer’s Academy semester was disrupted, possibly permanently. The remains of the Nabateans and Crest Stones guarded in the endless ossuaries and crypts below Garreg Mach would be near impossible to retrieve in light of this attack.
“Sylvain,” sneered Felix suddenly in the hallway, pulling the Adrestian Princess from her thoughts. “What are you doing up so early?”
“It is nearly noontime?” said Petra in a confused voice, looking between the two old friends.
“Heh, good one Felix,” snickered the tall redhead, holding a tray with several empty bowls. “Just trying to do the Goddess’ work, you know me. Was bringing breakfast to everyone in Dimitri’s room.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” scoffed the Fraldarius noble, but he seemed nervous suddenly, looking away to examine the stone wall, as if an ornate puzzle caught his eye. “How is he?” he finally asked, still not looking at his friend.
“Sound asleep and not breaking anything!” said Sylvain in a cheerful manner that was clearly forced. “But I think they’ll try to wake him up soon. How’s your knee?”
Without missing a beat, Felix kicked Sylvain in the shin with his left boot.
Leaning hard against a door and wincing while trying to not drop the tray, Sylvain coughed and muttered, “Ouch. All healed up, I see.”
“Is he located further down the hall?” demanded Edelgard, already tired of the byplay.
“Yep, just a little further, Princess” said Sylvain, moving with a distinct limp past them. “Look for the hundred or so Knights and monks guarding the door. Can’t miss it. See you around, Felix. Petra, you’re a brave woman,” the nobleman called over his shoulder.
Petra turned a beaming face to a steaming Felix. “Did you hear? I have already won the accolades! Soon all will know of the Pride of Brigid!” she grinned, flexing the bicep on her recently healed arm.
“Whatever,” said Felix, shaking his head, but with a small smile that Edelgard could easily see. She knew Petra would as well. “Let’s go.”
Like Sylvain had informed them, they easily found the room where Dimitri currently slept, one near the end of the hallway that belonged to an unfortunate slain Knight. Knights of Seiros in full plate armor stood guard, a full two squads armed with stout batons and loops of coiled, heavy rope secured to their belts. A Knight-Lieutenant squinted suspiciously at Petra, but nodded easily enough to Duke Fraldarius’ son and the Princess of Adrestia. “My Lord. My Ladies. The Prince is resting within, but already has visitors at the moment…”
Edelgard was poised to intercede with diplomacy, but Felix said in a quiet, tense voice, “Step aside. No one is preventing me from checking the health of my future King. Not even the Knights of Seiros. Whoever’s in there can deal.”
Some of the Knights grumbled at the young upstart noble’s words, but the door opened behind them and Edelgard was surprised to see the blonde head of Catherine peek out. “Felix. There you are. Come on in,” the Holy Knight said in a low voice.
Given the Holy Knight’s invitation, there wasn’t much for the red faced younger Knights to do except step aside.
The student trio filtered quietly into the crowded room. More Knights lined the walls, sweating nervously under their armor in the Garland Moon heat. In the center of the room was a table full of medical instruments and pitchers of clean water. Dimitri lay upon the single large bed against the far wall, a white sterile sheet covering his body with his wrists and feet bound to the bed posters, which Edelgard noted had been hastily reinforced. Even the bed posts themselves were anchored to the floor with heavy loose blocks of stone from the battle.
Dedue stood firmly at the foot of the bed like a monolith, his axe traded for a large blunted mace with a steel head as large as a watermelon. The retainer’s dark eyes shone with fatigue and stress, yet his back was straight and his carriage firm as he stood in vigil over his lord. Edelgard noted with a start that Bernadetta was in the corner of the room, sitting on a cot with her arms around the quiet hunched figure of Marianne, whose teal hair was unbraided and undone, hiding her face like a veil. Like Petra and Felix, they had not found the time to change clothing since yesterday, unlike the glittering and floral figure that stood guard over them. Hilda Valentine Goneril stood guard nearby, bouncing a wickedly sharp axe nervously on her shoulder, watching the still form of Dimitri with a scowl, her pink eyes hawk-like for any twitch of movement. Unlike Dedue, it was unclear if she would hold back from using deadly force if Dimitri posed any threat to Marianne or Bernadetta. Catherine moved by her side, speaking to the short noblewoman softly, the faintly glowing Relic on her back casting second shadows across the sunlit room.
That left the two doctors leaning over the bed, their backs to the door. Edelgard frowned slightly at the two figures; Lady Beatrix was immediately recognizable by her omnipresent white staff, but the other was dressed in tight-fitting black clothing, cut off at the elbows and thighs, that left little to the imagination. Shapely curves sharply contrasted with powerfully flexing muscles, and soon the Princess was forced to look away before she was caught staring by Hilda or Petra.
The Princess turned back in shock at the voice.
Byleth stared back at her, dressed in the black outfit. She had missed the dark blue hair. Then Edelgard’s face turned as red as her stockings at her previous thoughts. To her discomfiture, she suddenly realized she had never seen the ex-mercenary without either armor or loose fitting robes. The stuffy air of the deceased Knight’s bedroom became magnified tenfold in her mind.
“Knight Byleth,” she slowly choked out, hoping she gave what would at least appear like a regal nod.
Those ocean-blue azure orbs on the Knight’s face were wide and all-encompassing, and Edelgard found herself drowning in them. Drowning, and not caring in the slightest. Byleth turned to face her fully, her own lips parted slightly and a low flush starting to climb her neck. Then her eyes flicked towards the shorter form of her stepmother beside her and she hastily dipped into a full bow. “I am pleased to see you so well, Your Imperial Highness,” the Knight stammered. “I thought you had…”
“Well, she’s not,” Felix cut in rudely, stepping between them and spoiling the moment. “How’s the boar?”
“Still in a magically induced coma,” said Beatrix, leaning hard on her staff. Clearly, the healer had not slept the night. She nodded to the young Blue Lion. “You can check on him if you’d like. He’s physically all healed up. Mentally…” the woman shrugged.
“He’ll just break the frame,” said Felix dismissively, but moved closer to Dimitri anyway, absorbed in his scrutiny. Petra, sensing that Felix was more irritable than usual, lithely twisted through the crowd to check on her other classmates.
Edelgard moved a slight step behind Felix, behind him to his left to examine Dimitri’s sleeping face, coincidentally bringing her closer to Byleth. The older woman was giving her an uncertain smile, clearly nervous in her presence. She kept shifting her weight on either foot, a far cry from her normal stoic facade from days past. Edelgard felt the same nervous energy she was expressing, but had far more practice in concealing it, absorbed in her scrutiny of her stepbrother.
Dimitri was indeed asleep, and with his unruly blonde hair tied away from his face, Edelgard was struck at how much of the boy she once knew still appeared to be in this scarred seventeen year old’s body. The sheet came up to Dimitri’s chest, but Edelgard could see rough long scars and the mismatched patches of burned skin running about his shoulders and certainly down his back. But the arms and hands demanded her attention the most. The muscles were barely visible under the twisted rough masses of scar tissue, the joints and even individual fingers almost unrecognizable. And this was the best result of the finest healing magic the Kingdom of Faerghus had to offer after the Tragedy of Duscar. For his arms to be so burned...Dimitri must have plunged his hands into the searing flames themselves, hoping to save someone...anyone…but despite mutilating himself and nearly dying from the effort, he had been unable to do so.
And then he had seen Lonato do something very similar to herself. And Dimitri had gone berserk, for her sake, in her name.
A wave of bitter empathy coiled around Edelgard’s heart. They both had their scars, and while Dimitri’s psyche had obviously fragmented under the strain of his trauma, Edelgard had always taken dark pride in forging herself into something that would change the world for the better, to ensure no experiments on children would ever happen again. But could she really take advantage of such a broken person in the future? Simply because it was expedient for her own ends? What did that make her, the tortured child who had vowed a bloody oath on the bodies of her ten siblings and other innocents? An insidious shame filled her being as she considered how much she was turning into something like her “uncle.”
Am I becoming just like them ? A thing of darkness, savoring filth right next them?
Lady Beatrix was saying something to Felix, explaining in detail the plans for the Prince’s recovery, but Edelgard found herself glancing back at the sorrowful form of Lady Marianne on the cot, her face buried in her hands, her thin shoulders shaking and folding in on themselves like a beaten animal. The tales and whispers of the young Golden Deer’s bravery had reached her this morning. She had emerged from her suicidal depression and had risked herself in battle and before Dimitri’s blind wrath to attempt to heal him, and now Edelgard was working behind her back to ostracize her and isolate her even further, using the stupidity and prejudices of the masses as a weapon, a bludgeon against the Church. The shame of her crimes was magnified as she watched her classmates. Petra was on her knees on the floor, whispering assurances to the Golden Deer, while Bernadetta was gently rubbing the taller girl’s shoulders. Hilda’s watchful eyes met her own, the pink haired girl’s expression no longer facetious or trite, but something staunch and dangerous as she gripped her axe in her powerful hands.
What have I done? I didn’t see a person there. I just saw a Crest, waiting to be exploited…against the Church...just like them...
“Are you okay?” whispered Byleth next to her ear.
“Yes. I’m just...sad,” responded Edelgard in a similar tone, turning back before Dimitri. She couldn’t look at Byleth, didn’t deserve to look at Byleth. The room seemed abruptly unbearably stuffy and hot, her uniform binding her breathing. Was that all she was? A weapon, a tool, simply fulfilling its title, its function? Was nothing she did by her own choices, her own autonomous decisions? Edelgard felt a growing sense of horror as she considered the convergence within this very room.
Are all of us merely acting out our predetermined roles by others?
Thus Byleth was a Saint, and Edelgard was the Flame Emperor. Dimitri was the Mad Prince of Faerghus, Lady Marianne was a Child of the Beast, Felix was the Shield of Faerghus, and Rhea was a Child of the Goddess, the Immaculate One, and the Goddess had healed me, Edelgard von Hresvelg, just as I was about to crush any last trace of her Church…
Edelgard could not find her breath. She abruptly felt sweaty and confused. The room swam before her vision, and her knees felt weak.
Concern. “Your Highness?”
Snide. “What’s her problem?”
Worry. “Trips, I’m taking her next door to my room. She needs some air.”
Anxiety. “Lady Edelgard?”
“Petra, can you help me?”
“Of course, Knight Byleth…”
Edelgard blanked for a moment, the world a sensory morass of color and sound that could not and would not make comprehensible sense. There was a vague awareness of arms holding her and moving past equally hot and sweaty bodies. There were doors opening and closing. She then felt herself pushed down, sitting on something soft, and gradually she felt something wet and cool on her brow, something real she could focus on, while a gentle hand raised a cup to her lips.
Byleth’s voice was soft as she held a moist towel on her forehead. “Here. Just take a small sip. To help you breathe.” Edelgard obediently drank some of the tepid water, swallowed, then gasped for air as if she had just fought in a three day battle. Petra’s strong fingers were rubbing her shoulders gently, and Edelgard felt some of her tension leave her in increments, her turgid muscles spasming as they eased.
“Lady Edelgard, your neck is as to rocks,” Petra grunted quietly, leaning in with her thumbs against the stubborn knots as she knelt behind her on Byleth’s bed. Slowly, the world was making sense for her once more. “I am sure you are worried for your brother Prince. His actions caused me worry too.”
Her breathing calmed enough to realize Byleth had set the towel aside and was holding her hand, with one large rough hand squeezing her shoulder. She twitched at the realization, in the beginnings of attempting to jerk away, but Byleth’s hands only gripped her tighter.
Perhaps...perhaps it was better to make a show of relaxation. Edelgard leaned her head against Byleth’s shoulder, not caring if it would mess up her hair, enjoying Petra’s attempted massage for a little longer, then said quietly, “Thank you Petra. Maybe...we could visit the sauna later. I believe that’s just what we both need.” Petra’s voice rang out a loud and enthusiastic assent. “I apologize to both of you. I don’t know what came over me,” she lied through her teeth.
Stepping off the bed from behind her, Petra smiled gently at both her and Byleth, braid swaying and her hunter sharp eyes missing nothing. “It is nothing, Edelgard. The moments of battle can strike a warrior with little warning. You have done yourself and us no dishonor.” She bowed to them both. “I will go and make certain Felix is behaving,” she said, then she quietly left the room.
Edelgard stayed still for a moment longer, wondering what Byleth would say, or do, now it was just the two of them. She had revealed much to her after the mock battle, but while the Knight had trained with her often or had given seminars for the classes since then, they had not been alone together for more than six weeks. But even as the minutes passed and sounds of monastery life continued past the door, the Knight said nothing, mentioned nothing about the momentous events or awkward barriers between them. Instead, Byleth’s hand dipped from her shoulder to her back, gently rubbing circles between her shoulder blades that quickly almost had the Princess humming in contentment, while her thumb caressed the back of her glove. Edelgard found her breathing slowing, becoming almost as even and steady as sleep, even as her brain buzzed in wonderment and agitation. But her body had ideas of its own, gladly taking this opportunity to relax and relieve its tension.
Byleth’s head leaned gently against her own, and for long moments, Edelgard almost forgot where she was, or what she was. Nothing would make her happier for this idle, quiet moment to stretch out forever into infinity. Here, in Byleth’s room, there were no conspiracies, no paranoid schemes, no planned wars or secret coups, no assassination plots or political intrigue.
But there was the forbidden knowledge of the Church and the ancient tendrils of inherited power…
Reluctantly, Edelgard stirred eventually, carefully extracting herself from Byleth’s embrace to face her fully. Expecting the familiar blank mask of unemotion, she was instead shocked to see a tender and soft expression she had not anticipated ever seeing on her friend’s face. Clearly, she was feeling more than ever. Another stab of shame went through Edelgard’s heart as she considered her previous manipulations. She owed this strange mercenary her life, multiple times over now. Yet she still could not fully trust her...
Then one blue eyebrow arched sharply at her and Byleth’s face took an impish cast. “Please don’t tell Hubert. I’d like to do this again, sometime.”
The laugh bubbled out of Edelgard’s chest before she could prevent it. “Oh, goodness, you have my word! He’d never let me out of his sight again, and frankly, he can be a bit of a bother at times.”
Byleth blew out a long breath and quickly looked back at the door, as if a frowning, angry stormcloud of a Hubert was about to burst through. “He does make me nervous at times; not that I’m afraid of him, but I’m afraid he’ll decide I’m a bad influence on you or something. I don’t know how to make him happy.”
“I fear Hubert was born unhappy,” said Edelgard lightly, wanting to shift the conversation away from her retainer and any memory of his jealous possessiveness. “I am more concerned about you. Wild rumours have been circulating the halls since yesterday.”
Byleth’s shoulders hunched forward slightly as she looked away, but she still gripped Edelgard’s hand.. “What do they say? That I’m the worst Commander in the history of the Knights? That I’m some freakish monster who uses witchcraft to raise the dead?”
“Nothing of the sort!” replied Edelgard hotly, feeling strange at the circumstances. But even an impartial observer would praise Byleth’s military acumen. “The people speak only of your heroic interventions and your...abilities. Without your timely warning, the monastery would have surely suffered more, and many more would be dead. Including myself,” she said earnestly, then decided to take the gambit. “There are even whispers that you have a--”
“A Crest,” mumbled Byleth, finishing her thought but not looking at her, her scarred hands picking at her bed covers. “Like I told you. A freak.”
Edelgard almost rocked backwards in her shock. Nearly every commoner in Fódlan would be delighted beyond measure to know they possessed a Crest. Yet another fascinating, and endless contradiction in this mercenary turned Knight. But from her previous knowledge of Byleth’s character, this now made sense. Byleth had believed she had done everything on her own merit, through her own ability. To know that she possessed noble blood that had given her an overwhelming advantage against other commoners must have come as a jarring surprise. After careful thought, and remembering Lindhart’s advice, Edelgard asked much more gently than she had intended earlier, “Do you know which one it is, Byleth?”
“No,” the Knight bit off, her voice honest and sincere, still not facing her fully. “I think my folks do. And Hanneman and Rhea and Seteth. But they’re the only ones. They’re keeping it a big secret. Catherine and my dad almost got into a fight over it this morning. And Catherine said she couldn’t sense which one I had.”
Catherine has Crest empathy as well? Edelgard’s mind reeled at this revelation. She filed that tidbit away for future consideration and moved closer to Byleth, setting another white glove on her friend’s hand. She wanted to know. She needed to know. Because Byleth was her friend and...for other reasons.
“Tell me about it,” the Princess said quietly. “If you want to.”
Slowly, in pauses and half-sentences, Byleth did. She told Edelgard of the events of this morning, where everyone was alarmed by her strange behavior (although she did not elaborate on this), and brought her bound in ropes before Lady Rhea. Then Rhea and Jeralt locked themselves in her study, while Byleth tried to apologize to the group but ended up showing off her new, unwanted abilities: the ability to know secrets from others, as well as her newfound ability to see Crests. She recounted Hanneman’s excitement and Manuela’s anger. Then finally, Catherine’s pronouncement she had every Crest and none. By the end of it, a gnawing sensation had settled within Edelgard’s mind and gut, her quiet agitation returning at the ramifications.
“You said...you said you can sense Crests now? In others?” she whispered to the Knight, almost numb to the disturbing revelations laid bare before her.
“No. I can see them,” responded Byleth in the same voice. Her cobalt eyes glanced over to Edelgard, then flickered away just as quick.
“Which Crest do I have?” demanded Edelgard, her voice rising higher.
“Um…Seiros. It’s blue. That’s all. Really.” A blad lie. For all of her newfound emotive expressions, disingenuous behavior was beyond Byleth.
Edelgard forced herself to become more exacting. “Byleth, look at me, and tell me,” she ordered imperiously, then softened her demand. “Please. I insist.”
Now she saw another new expression on Byleth’s face, raw panic. “Don’t...don’t make me, Edelgard,” said Byleth, her face twisting in anguish and her own tone getting higher. “I just make people sad or angry when I tell them stuff. I don’t want to know these things. Or see them. I shouldn’t be able to. It’s not fair and it’s not right. I don’t want these powers. I don’t want to be special!” she cried out in protest.
She knows. She can see it. Unable to conceal her agitation, Edelgard let go of the woman’s hand, standing up quickly and tried to focus on her breathing as she looked away as she hugged herself. Byleth’s words struck a chord in her. They were the similar protests of a twelve year old girl to a fifteen year old Hubert, the girl who emerged from the dark and the pain to see a stranger in the mirror, wreathed in strength and scars and brittle white hair. Brown-haired eleven year old El had been taken into the dungeons with her brothers and sisters; the preteen Flame Emperor was the object that emerged in her place. The only difference was that Byleth had not suffered to the same degree for her powers, but then Edelgard thought again. Her mother reportedly died in childbirth. Byleth had felt no emotions until her powers began to emerge. Who was she to hold her own suffering in higher regard than any other’s?
Her analytical mind warred with her passionate heart, but in the end, the cool, clinical regard of the Flame Emperor asserted itself. She turned to face Byleth, her face composed. “You see both of them, do you not?”
The Knight of Seiros sat still on the bed for a long moment. Then, mutely, Byleth nodded up at her, her confusion and dread palatable.
Then why can’t I sense yours? thought Edelgard in frustration, brushing split-ends from her face. She considered briefly, then said quietly, “It is my most guarded secret. I will trust you to treasure it.”
Byleth’s posture relaxed in gratitude as she nodded up firmly at her, showing relief. “I will. I swear it. On my life,” she instantly replied, her hand on her heart.
A knock on the door.
Byleth rose, and waited for Edelgard to nod her permission. The Black Eagle was pleased with one aspect of Byleth’s recent changes; for whatever reason, she had become far more sensitive to nuances. Whatever power lurking within her was changing her friend almost by the hour. That alone engendered awed respect, and prudent caution. Edelgard again tried to focus on what lost Crest it could possibly be as Byleth said loudly, “Come in.”
Lady Beatrix cautiously poked her short teal haired head inside the door. “Hey kid. Rhea and Seteth are here. You ready?”
Byleth audibly swallowed next to her, her fingers and palms clenching and unclenching in rhythm. “Do I have to?” she asked in a whisper.
The Knight-healer opened the door a little wider and slipped through, her blood stained robes gathered about her. Closing it behind her lightly, she turned to the Princess, and said not unkindly, “Mind if I talk to her? I may need to give her a pep talk.”
The Princess was about to readily agree when Byleth interjected, “No. I want Edelgard here. You can say whatever you want with her by my side. She’s my friend.”
It was hard to say who was more surprised between the two, but Lady Beatrix quickly recovered, her steel blue eyes flickering to Edelgard then back again. “Fine, fine, kid, no big deal. We’ll need Your Imperial Highness in there anyway, to show Prince Dimitri you’re still alive. We’re hoping that will put him in a good enough mood for Byleth to attempt the impossible,” the healer finished, making a face.
“The impossible?” repeated Edelgard curiously, looking back to Byleth.
She felt Byleth grow still beside her. The taller woman faced her fully, her features clouded and uncertain. The azure eyes flickered uneasily to the door as she rubbed her arms. “That’s what they want me to try to do. To heal Dimitri.”