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Crossing Paths, Towards The Horizon

Chapter Text

Part I: White Clouds

 

Claude was lying on his bed, reviewing the latest events in his head. Truly, this month had been nerve-wracking. For himself, and for basically everyone at the Officers' Academy.

He had thought the weird troubles happening all around would disappear once Flayn had been rescued. After all, she seemed to be the main target within the monastery.

Instead, they just kept piling on. He shook his head in frustration.

What happened at Remire just yesterday... It was a whole new level of creepy and disturbing. The old librarian was secretly an enemy agent, one who could unleash such unspeakable horrors. Who could he trust? Who was another perfectly undercover agent?

"Ugh... I've dealt with many conspiracies, but even the folks at home wouldn't be crazy enough to pull off something of that scale..." he mused.

And, at the top of this whole pyramid of darkness and secrets, lay the Flame Emperor. A mysterious figure, with apparently enough power to control even the Death Knight. Well, Teach had said they denied any responsibility in what happened at Remire, claiming their and Tomas's goals were not aligned.

No, he chastised himself, not Thomas. Solon. That was his true name.

What the mysterious, red-clad figure had said had been gnawing at Claude since the moment he heard it from Teach. There was definitely something odd in that behavior-assuming it wasn't a straight-up lie, of course.

At least two groups of people, working together, yet not willing to cooperate? It sounded more like politics than whatever transpired yesterday. Surely there was something more complex than what they knew of being prepared behind the scenes.

Although politics was one of Claude's strong suits, this was the first time he was ever confronted to such a weird power dynamic. He was at a loss.

"Oh well, in that case, I'll just have to straight up ask her, I suppose."

Truth be told, Claude had an idea of who the Flame Emperor might be. It was an idea he had formed early on, since the mysterious individual had appeared for the first time. It was only a faint hypothesis back then, and one he had no means of proving, at that.

Well, to be fair, that last point remained more or less the same. As of yet, he still didn't have conclusive evidence.

There was no hard evidence to accuse that particular person of being the Flame Emperor. There was only a hunch, but that hunch was stronger than ever, and he had learned that relying on his instincts usually was a life-saver. An entire childhood filled with plotting and life-or-death situations will do that to you.

Stretching his arms, he got off the bed, and walked past his door. His destination was barely down the hallway, and he reached it in no time.

Was he anxious? Of course he was. He was about to risk a gamble on very little, after all.

That wasn't something he was very familiar with. Reckless gamblers aren't gamblers for very long, but the nagging feeling in the back of his head just wouldn't go away. It was buzzing with greater and greater intensity with each passing day.

He wanted to know. He was dying to know. And death may be his reward for gambling on so little, but that was also part of the gamble, wasn't it?

He reached the door he was looking for, and knocked.

"State your identity."

"Hey, Your Royalness. It's just me, Claude."

"Claude?" The voice sounded surprised. "What are you doing, at this time of the night?"

"I just wanted to have a chat with you.", he answered.

"Again, at this time of the night?"

"Uh, a super-secret international chat?", he tried.

"I don't believe any of it. Come in."

A familiar face appeared behind the opening door. Long, white hair and a stern face–yup, there was no mistake. He had knocked at Edelgard's door.

She stepped sideways, and he entered.

The room was very neat and tidy, as he had expected. Try as he might, he could not spot a single speck of dust. She was diligent in all aspects of her life, it seems. Or maybe the word was maniacal.

There was a book on the bed. She must have been reading late into the night. It was hard to picture an engrossed Edelgard, lost into a story of knights and princesses...

"Now, Claude, will you finally tell me what was so important for you to see me at this hour? I seriously hope it's not one of your jokes again..."

"Why, I would never bother you for so little, would I?"

"Surely you would." she said, slightly amused. "Now out with it."

Claude hesitated. Every possible outcome of this meeting flashed before his eyes, some of which weren't really pleasant. Getting murdered wasn't even the worst one.

He took a sharp breath. The feeling within his head had changed into a thumping, now that he was so close from the truth it coveted.

"Well, you see, I may have an inkling about who the Flame Emperor might really be."

Here it goes. All bets are off!

Edelgard raised an eyebrow.

"Oh? And you would want to discuss it with me because...?"

"Well, I could say it's because I would seek out your well-honed input on the matter, since you're so versed in politics and all..."

He smiled the smile of a cat who had just found a mouse to play with. Hopefully, it hid his nervousness.

"But no. I'm telling you because it's obviously you. You're the Flame Emperor."

All he got in answer to his flamboyant declaration was another raised eyebrow.

"So it's 'obviously' me, you say? I fail to see how obvious it is. Unless you're really trying to set up a joke?"

Claude had to admire the woman: she was really made of stone. He had made such an outrageous declaration, yet failed to get any significant reaction out of her.

That said, any normal person would have been scandalized by such an affirmation. To see her so calm felt to him as a reassurance, a contextual clue that he was in the right.

"Nah, I'm not joking around this time."

She folded her arms, a subtle smile forming on her own lips.

"Let's see what you have to say for yourself, then. I am curious to see what led you to this conclusion."

"Well, we are talking about the Flame Emperor here. You know, someone wearing the title of Emperor and whose primary color is red...?"

The smile quickly evaporated, replaced by what looked like anger. Not that Edelgard's alabaster face changed to any shade of red, but the pursued lips and the narrowed eyes painted an equally telling picture.

"You can't be serious. I was waiting for actual evidence, and that's what you come up with? Tell me, Claude, if I suddenly declared myself the Alliance's most fearsome fighter, wore a bit of yellow on my coat, and started breaking the law left and right, would the blame befall you?"

"So you're still denying it?"

"Of course I am denying it! Have you lost your mind? You come at me, accuse me of being the Flame Emperor, and the only proof you can muster is a loose association with a name and color, something that proves absolutely nothing!"

She calmed down, getting her breath back after her brief outburst. In Claude's head, cogs were turning. Edelgard's anger felt... strange. It wasn't that she was mad at him because of his accusation... but because he couldn't back it up?

Edelgard had regained her composure.

"Your logical thinking leaves much to be desired. In fact, isn't the logical conclusion that someone is trying to frame me? Wouldn't it make sense that the Flame Emperor is trying to muddy the waters?"

"I'll admit I thought of this, but no one would gain anything by doing that. You're the heir apparent of the Adrestian Empire, which itself is the most prosperous nation in all of Fódlan. Who would dare target you?"

She let her eyes shift for just a moment, looking far away, before focusing back on him.

"I have plenty of enemies, Claude, precisely because I am heir apparent of the Empire. I have even more because my name is von Hresvelg."

"Two sets of enemies, then?"

"With a little bit of overlap, even."

Claude, being gone through the same ordeal more than once, felt a bit of sympathy for the girl. Still, he knew in his heart that he was right. Edelgard and the Flame Emperor were the same person.

Time for a new strategy, then. He would try to poke holes at her defense, to see if she'd slip up.

"Hey, Your Royalness, let us play a game, yeah?"

"A game? Claude–"

"Oh, don't worry. It'll be just you and me playing! It'll be 'let's assume Edelgard is indeed the Flame Emperor and go from there'. A marvelous game, I'm telling you."

Edelgard opened her mouth to vehemently protest, but closed it without making a sound. Instead, she said:

"There really is no convincing you otherwise, is there?"

He beamed.

"Nope!"

She sighed, and waved at him to begin.

"At least try to make it quick."

"Alright, alright. Here's my thought process. First, you have a connection with the Death Knight, since he is now confirmed to be Jeritza von Hrym. House Hrym is located within the Adrestian Empire."

"It is also near the border with the Alliance, which would make you suspicious as well.

"It is near Ordelia territory," he corrected her, "which has been taken over all but in name by the Empire. You, of all people, should know that. I have seen you hanging out with Lizzie a fair bit. You two seem close."

"Liz–?! Never mind that, it just so happened that she and I have a lot in common. Nothing strange for two girls of roughly the same age to have a cup of tea every now and then, is there?"

She wasn't lying, or at least she was hiding it exceptionally well. he would have to find another angle of attack.

"Then, there is, of course, your significant distrust of the Church. It appears the Flame Emperor is allied to a group trying to undermine the Church's influence, or at least being a thorn in its side. A very painful thorn, may I add, since they captured Flayn and all. It seems logical for you to align with such a group, as you seem to have the same end goal."

"Again with the circumstantial evidence, Claude. Besides, aren't you a bit cold towards the Church yourself? I'm not picturing you as the devout type. I've not seen you much in the cathedral aside from choir practice."

"Eh, I like the goddess enough, but I'd rather take my matters with her face-to-face. I don't like the many hoops I have to jump through just to be a good egg, if you know what I mean."

"I must admit I don't."

There was a glint of curiosity in her eyes. So even the cold and analytic Edelgard could have that kind of spark?

"Well that's too bad, because if you want to know, you'll have to share some of your secrets as well! We're all about give and take in the Golden Deer! So why don't you talk me a bit about your past, for example, eh?"

Her expression darkened enough that Claude thought he had taken a misstep and was about to get killed in this very bedroom. There were worse places to die, though.

"Maybe another time.", she finally said. "Are you done with the interrogation?

"There's just a tiny bit left, I promise."

She heaved another sigh. Clearly the whole conversation was either boring or bothering her.

"What is it, Claude?"

"Well... I've noticed we were all busy trying to figure out who the Flame Emperor was, and why Jeritza was the Dark Knight, and how they could slip right under our noses, et caetera. All of us... except you. And Hubert," he added after a short pause "but the guy would wear a matching outfit if you suddenly decided to walk around dressed as a bright green chicken. Why do you seem so... distant about all this? It almost feels like you don't need to discover this kind of thing, because you already know it all."

He felt like she was a bit saddened by his choice of words, but only for a second. Her voice had her usual sharpness when she answered.

"It's not that I am distant, it is that I am focused. Why would I let emotions get in the way of my thinking? Such foolishness will only slow you down."

"Is that so? I don't think I agree with you there, Your Steelness. You need a bit of sympathy to tackle this issue, otherwise you'll just make people suspect you. Like me!"

He shrugged.

"Ultimately, this is a matter that's bigger than all of us combined. We'll need all the help we can get, so be sure you give it your all too, yes?"

"Indeed, Claude. Indeed it is."

He felt like he had been hit by a crucial hint when she said that, but couldn't process it because Edelgard had stood up.

"Now, Claude, I must ask you to leave me alone. This little mind game was enjoyable, but I am tired now."

She half-pushed him towards the door.

"Sure, sure! So... you're still saying you're not the Flame Emperor, right?"

She giggled while closing the door behind him. It was a foreign, yet refreshing sound.

"Good night, Claude."


Claude slowly got back to his own room. His gamble hadn't paid, or so it seemed.

After all, he had confronted a potentially dangerous foe without any backup. Sure, he could probably have thought up half a dozen bluffs on the spot if need be, but still...

However, he now harbored a solid conviction: Edelgard was the Flame Emperor.

If asked, he could bet his life on it.

Why, then, didn't he alert Rhea or Teach about that? He sighed. The answer had always been the same, since he was little: curiosity.

He wanted to hear from the Flame Emperor herself why she helped such despicable individuals, despite looking fairly normal as Edelgard. He wanted to hear why the Flame Emperor was apparently appalled by the very same group of people they were helping.

Then there was the other side of the coin: he didn't trust Rhea to deliver blind justice. That woman was secretly terrifying, and her idea of 'justice' would have felt more at home in a dictionary under 'expeditious'.

In the end, arms crossed behind his head, he fell into slumber as the conversation kept replaying in his mind.

Chapter Text

Part I: White Clouds

 

Edelgard had been sleeping with the very nasty feeling of having just escaped a death sentence. She had envisioned several ways a potential confrontation like the one they had yesterday could happen, but Claude coming to her and casually calling her out had managed to evade even her standards.

She hoped she had not betrayed herself, but judging from Claude's reaction, he still had no real evidence against her.

Claude. The man was incredibly difficult to read, no doubt an expert in hiding his true motives. There was some sort of mysterious aura about him, like he was a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Edelgard wasn't sure whether to make heads or tails of half of what he said. Where did the joke end, and where did his true feelings shine? Was it a method to cover his tracks, in case she wanted to publicly expose him for his claims? Or perhaps he was not sure about his assumptions, and thought he could retreat behind the joke argument if he was in the wrong? A multi-layered mind indeed...

How fascinating.

For all of her doubts, one feat was clear as day: he had almost unmasked her with circumstantial evidence alone, while the rest of Garreg Mach, sans Hubert of course, was completely unaware of her secret identity.

Had he informed anyone else, she could have been in trouble. A thorough investigation –and Rhea was known to be leading those– surely would have brought to light some crucial proof or another, the only element Claude was lacking.

Yet, he evidently didn't tell anyone, or at least no one from the Church. Why? Edelgard didn't have a definite answer to this question, but she could hazard a few educated guesses. The Master Tactician wasn't the only one with that ability.

Claude harbored plenty of secrets, but he didn't hide his rather cold demeanor towards the Church. While this fact was viewed positively in Edelgard's eyes, it likely couldn't be for the same reason she did. As far as Edelgard knew, the Eastern Church, based within the Alliance, was rather subservient to the Central Church, so it could not stem from a difference in dogma either. No, he had no reason to mistrust the Church from his homeland.

She had been closely observing Claude for the past few months, since he could be one of the handful of big roadblocks on her designated path, and one trait of his in particular stood out: he was curious to a fault.

He must have understood, long ago, that knowledge is power, and now he was trying to accumulate as much knowledge as he could to get a better understanding of the world, as well as of his potential enemies, in order to always have the upper hand.

"Huh, we're not so different, in the end."

"Surely your path is much less sinuous than his?"

Edelgard nearly jumped out of her skin. She had retreated to an unused classroom, certain she'd be alone to try to organize her thoughts, but of course there was one person who could always find her, no matter where she was.

"Hubert! How long have you been there?"

"About four minutes, Lady Edelgard."

"Four– Why didn't you say anything?!"

"You seemed lost in thoughts. It would have been rude to disturb you in such a state."

Her retainer bowed with a little smile. Edelgard was thankful for his loyal service, this much was a constant in her otherwise very uncertain life. However, there were times where even she found him unsettling. He always seemed to materialize out of thin air, like he was some sort of supernatural creature. He obviously used that to its full extent, as he often got a laugh out of scaring people. He had been following Bernadetta as of late...

Leaving aside the vision of a vampire-like Hubert escaping into the night while cackling, a violet-haired hostage in tow, she turned back to face him.

"Do you wish to discuss something with me?"

"That's indeed why I'm here." Hubert's professionalism came back to him. "It seems you've already begun without me, though."

"What do you mean?"

"I happened to hear most of your... friendly conversation this evening.", he added. "That is what I wish to discuss with you."

Hubert's room was next to Edelgard's. He must have been alerted by the knock and listened through the wall. This level of dedication was certainly commendable, but Edelgard often wondered how he did it. Had he burrowed a hole into the wall?

However he did it, this meant he had heard everything Claude had said, including the accusations thrown at her –accusations he knew to be true.

"Let me guess, Hubert. You've come to say that you can arrange for his elimination, is that right?"

"He has deduced too much." he said, no trace of guilt in his voice. "His intellect truly is impressive, but is it a hindrance to our plans."

"Hubert, he's the leader of the Alliance!" Edelgard pointed out. "I know you can handle your... line of work really well, but this fish might be too big for you to catch without drawing attention. And you know attention is something we could very much do without."

Edelgard let her chin rest in her hand. Claude's intellect truly was impressive, but that might work in their favor. If only...

"In fact, I have other plans for our friend Claude."

Hubert's eyes narrowed instantly.

"Your Majesty, I can guess what you have in mind, and I must oppose it."

"Hubert, don't you see? With Claude by our side, we could easily sweep any resistance aside! He could be a formidable ally."

Hubert shook his head to emphasize his feelings on the matter.

"This is much riskier than simply eliminating him. You have no idea how he'll react. You don't even know his stance in regards to you and the Empire! He could be plotting for your downfall, for all we know. If he talks, your dream will be over."

"Yours as well, Hubert."

"This matters little right now." he said, brushing aside her remark. "Your vision of the world is the most important goal I have for now. And that vision is threatened by Claude."

"That much is true."

Edelgard smiled.

"Thus, I need a plan to convince him to join us."

Hubert kept voiceless for a second, a maelstrom of thoughts no doubt swirling around in his head. He was too polite to tell her off outright, of course, but...

"Why are you so eager to recruit him?" There was worry in his voice now. "I understand his worth, both as an individual and the leader of a potential enemy party, but why would you go through the trouble of letting him on everything we know?"

He seemed to ponder for a moment, then he said, with a slight tinge of amusement in his words:

"Or is it you do not really want to recruit him, but rather the teacher standing beside him?"

Edelgard could feel herself grimace. It's true that she had been quite interested in the new teacher, Byleth Eisner. His martial prowess was undeniably remarkable, moreso now that he wielded the Sword of the Creator. Edelgard has thought of killing two birds in one stones by making two potential powerful enemies into powerful allies instead.

However, her fascination with Byleth was something more intense than anything she had experienced before, and she wasn't sure why. Maybe it was because he possessed the Crest of Flames, thought extinct long ago, but very much alive –she knew well about that. Maybe she thought of him as an equal, as someone who would share her burdens...

She had to snap out of it. A world isn't built on pink fluffy feelings and camaraderie.

"He may also be of great assistance in the upcoming events," she answered, trying to hide how flustered she was, "but he is irrevocably tied to Claude. One will not join us without the other, that is for certain."

"Whatever your decision, it shall be done, Lady Edelgard." Hubert said, bowing once more. "However, know that I do not approve of this idea of yours. The risk is too great, even for such a potential huge reward. I would rather deal with it the logical way."

Edelgard looked at Hubert. She knew him enough to know his words were your average person's equivalent to screaming 'You're absolutely crazy! There's no way that will work!', but of course he was far too restrained to actually say these lines.

She smiled. How fortunate she was to have such a level-headed retainer. Even if he was just a tad scary at times.

"Rest assured, Hubert. If my approach doesn't work, I'll give you the order. Alliance Leader or not, our mission is most important."

"I am glad you are keeping this in mind."

Edelgard let her eyes wander around the classroom. When she next spoke, her voice had become a whisper.

"Working with Claude would also have the advantage of giving us leverage against... them. I would not mind having an ace up our sleeve to counteract whatever they have in mind for the future."

Hubert straightened up, fury making his eyes shimmer.

"That would indeed be most wonderful, Your Majesty. However, if they learn of your efforts towards Claude, what will happen?"

Edelgard shrugged, as if to brush off the matter.

"If I fail, I'll just pretend it was to bring new allies to the battle. It will likely be a rather difficult struggle, I reckon. They would delight at the prospect of lending me less troops and supplies, I'm sure."

She almost spat the word 'delight'.

"Now, if I succeed, then there will be much less need for concern about them, and their relative power will decrease. It is a situation where it cannot hurt to try."

"I see. You already thought everything through, then."

"I was putting all the pieces in place when you nearly gave me a heart attack." she answered with a small huff.

After bowing once more, Hubert began to walk out of the room, but changed his mind halfway through and came back towards Edelgard.

"May I ask how you plan on convincing him to join our cause? I don't believe he'll be too enthusiastic to side with the people who abducted Flayn and caused the horrors of Remire."

That much was true. She had seen his reaction to the events firsthand. He had been furious and heartbroken.

"I'll just take a page out of Claude's own book and simply knock on his door and have a little chat with him."

Hubert raised a questioning eyebrow.

"You would risk half your lifetime's dream on a friendly chat over tea and biscuits?"

"Yes." Edelgard retorted, looking him straight in the eye. "I am Edelgard von Hresvelg, and I aim to kill three birds with one arrow."

Her sudden bravery left her as suddenly as it had come, leaving herself wavering.

"But, should I fail to do so..."

"I would be right by your side to take into my own hands what you need not concern yourself with. Obviously."

Hubert's calm soothed her, and she could feel her nerves settling down, for the first time of the day.

She was in control once again. What a wonderful feeling.

"Thank you, Hubert."

"Of course, Your Majesty. Should I inform the kitchen they'll need to bake a few sweets?"

"Not right now. I need time to collect and organize my thoughts. I am going up against Claude, after all. I cannot afford to be clumsy."

Hubert bowed once more and left her to her new task. She had been a bit bold earlier: it really wouldn't be as easy as just walking in on Claude by accident and casually asking him if he wanted to join her. He'll need some convincing, but, deep in her heart, she knew he could be swayed by the right argument.

She only had to find that argument.

She thought for a while. She needed a motive so powerful, it would brush aside all of Claude's natural defenses. Something to appeal to his innermost drive... She thought back to her prior reasoning. Claude was, at his core, a curious man. Curious enough to confront her one-on-one, even if he was aware of the danger it entailed.

What if she offered him a truth he wouldn't find anywhere else in the entire world? A truth only two people knew of?

Yes. That certainly could work, if Claude's curiosity was as passionate as she pictured it. If it wasn't, well... the matter would take an ugly turn very quickly. She dismissed the thought. She was right, and sure of it. Claude's drive had to be knowledge.

She walked out of the room, having finally found a clear goal to work towards. She had a few letters to send to Enbarr.

Chapter Text

Part I: White Clouds

 

 

Claude was frustrated to no end, which was rather rare for him. He had run left and right across the monastery, asking for testimony, consulted with Professor Manuela, teacher of the Black Eagles, slept more times in the library that he'd like to admit these past few days, and still, he had nothing.

He only missed that piece of concrete evidence that would prove his theory beyond the shadow of a doubt. Edelgard was the Flame Emperor, he was absolutely certain of that.

In all honesty, there had been times where he doubted himself, questioning if his burning intuition wasn't only mere projection. Did he want her to be found guilty that much? In these moments, he threw himself at his task with even more intensity, trying to bury his doubts with more work.

For now, he was back in his room, lying on his bed. He had to keep a cool head to plan his next move. The last piece of the puzzle wouldn't graciously fall from the sky right at his feet, after all.

How could he find incriminating evidence that she sneaked off to Remire? The outside guards, maybe? No, no, she would not have been so careless as to get seen. Maybe the villagers had seen something? Rhea had taken a few in the monastery, since their home got destroyed. Although, they probably wouldn't try to recall such a traumatic incident...

Really, Claude thought, there aren't many things out there more annoying than an elusive clue.

Suddenly, a soft knock jolted him out of his reverie. He quickly checked outside: the sun had already set. Very few people paid visits at this hour, and fewer still were not related to politics. And politics in this context usually meant assassination attempts.

Had he been too hasty in revealing his hand?

"Claude? Are you there? Can I come in?" Edelgard's voice came through the door. Claude had memorized a few escape routes from his room, if worse came to worst. The hallway was narrow, which would favor close-range combat, so if he stayed on an unpredictable trajectory, he could likely dodge a projectile and make a run for it if needed.

Damn, he really didn't think he'd have to use such countermeasures! Okay, stay calm, breathe in, breathe out. Everything could play out in a fraction of a second, and he'd need his reaction time to be optimal.

He gently opened the door.

Contrary to his wildest expectations, only Edelgard stood there. No assassins were to be seen, though that's kind of what you'd expect from assassins. No dagger came flying at him, no poisonous gas grenade exploded at his feet.

If Edelgard had come here to assassinate him herself, then he had to acknowledge her serious guts.

"Are you alone, Your Royalness? Don't you have, uh, a cohort of guards or something? Maybe Hubert's with you?"

Edelgard tilted her head quizzically.

"What? Why would I need guards, or Hubert for that matter, in the dorm rooms? Are you feeling all right?"

"Yeah, it's... nothing. Maybe I'm overworked." he answered while offering her an unsteady smile.

"You? Overworked? Now that's something I'd like to witness."

"Hey!" he said while closing the door behind her "I'm not like Hilda, putting an insane amount of energy towards not spending energy at all, you know!"

His composure was back. Good. He'd likely need it for whatever was to come. He couldn't help but glance at the window at times, an old habit that had kept him alive a few times before.

"Why did you come to visit me so late? Finally admitting you're the Flame Emperor?"

"Actually, yes. I came to do just that."

"Yeah, I didn't suppose so— wait. What?"

"You were correct in your guess. I am in fact the one disguised as the Flame Emperor."

Claude looked at her, dumbfounded. So much for his composure: he could feel his jaw slightly agape. He had expected a reasonable range of scenarios, but not for a true confession to fall into his lap.

"And you're telling me because...? Don't say it's because I impressed you that night with my incredible deductions, I won't believe you."

Edelgard smiled. She was really enjoying it.

"But that's exactly why I'm coming to you!"

"Okay, this is definitely a dream. I must have passed out from exhaustion earlier. What a vivid dream, though.

"It's not a dream, Claude."

"That's what a dream would say."

Edelgard took a sharp breath.

"Look, I am here to ask some questions of my own. Will you hear me out?"

"Well, I suppose I owe you an ear after blabbing on earlier, at least. I still believe it's a dream anyway."

Claude sat on the bed, while offering a chair to Edelgard. A short silence followed, an uncomfortable one. The tension in the air was crackling, almost filling in the silence. Almost.

Edelgard was the first to break the spell.

"Tell me, Claude. What is your opinion on the Church? And, she added, furrowing her brow, I'm asking for your honest opinion. Not something you'd serve up if asked by the Church itself."

"The Church, hm? Well, can't say I have many gripes with it. Could be better, could be worse.

"I see. A fair opinion, if a bit vague." She leaned in. "What about Rhea herself?"

"Ah, that's..."

Claude took a moment to collect his own thoughts. Rhea was a figure shrouded in mystery, for sure. And there was something about her... Something uncanny. Something which made Claude instinctively uncomfortable.

"I have only observed her from afar, but I feel like there's much more to her than she is willing to admit. It's like she's taking on a role. Seteth and Flayn are a bit of the same, but it's especially easy to feel it with Rhea."

"You're perceptive." Edelgard nodded. "Rhea is in fact much more than she is willing to let on. And I have definite proof of this."

"Proof you wouldn't be willing to show me, by any chance?"

"I have a copy right there."

For the third time of the night, Edelgard defied all of Claude's expectations and presented him with a piece of paper. He took a moment to note to study her more, because he was clearly outmatched here. She was making unpredictable move after unpredictable move. Either she was a poor strategist, or a genius. He knew what his opinion leaned towards.

He took the page from Edelgard's hands, his curiosity taking the better of him. It always did.

As he read, he grew paler and paler, yet still devoured by curiosity.

"Is this... This has to be a forgery, right?"

"This comes from the official records of the Hresvelg lineage. It is the most secretive piece of information you'll probably ever lay eyes upon."

Claude's eyes shot up from the page. His hands were shaking. He had realized how much of an historical treasure he was holding between his hands. This was highly classified information from what was basically a rival country. This could only beget one answer.

"Why?"

 

Edelgard was nervous on her chair. She knew this was likely a pivotal part of her plan, and she couldn't help but fear the outcome. As Hubert had said, one misstep and she and her dreams would get locked up in the Church's darkest dungeons, and she had seen enough of these for a few lifetimes.

Success wasn't entirely out of the question either, though: Claude was currently so absorbed by her copy of a fragment of Adrestian history that he looked as if he wanted to enter the paper itself. It was an incredible honor to read such a secretive piece of history, and when Edelgard told him, the dreaded question arose.

"Why?"

Why indeed. Such a transparent question called for honesty. It was hard to put into words, but if she has to summarize her lifelong quest, it certainly would be as...

"Here is my end goal, Claude: I wish to bring a revolution to Fódlan."

"A revolution, you say?"

Claude whistled.

"And here I thought you would be content with just ruling over the Empire. May I ask what kind of change you would bring about?"

"First, I wish to end the Church's reign of lies and blood. I wish to expose the truth of their essence to all. I wish to bring down Rhea and have her answer her crimes."

Claude stopped her with his hand.

"Woah, slow down there, Your Royalness. You're wanting to stir trouble all over Fódlan for just that? I get that it's a big goal and all, but isn't that just warmongering at its finest?"

"I did say 'first', Claude. I also want to end the Crest system and institute a real meritocracy, where whoever gets in charge is actually the best suited for the situation, not in charge because they just happened to be born with the right bloodline."

Claude simply stayed silent, absorbing it all. Edelgard decided to take it as an invitation to continue.

"For this, I am indeed willing to wage war on the entirety of Fódlan."

"Again, I have to ask: why are you telling me all of this? Wouldn't your master plan fall to ruin if I so much told Rhea?

"I believe you won't."

"How trusting of you."

But she was right, and Claude nodded almost absentmindedly. That must have been the reason for her introductory question.

"I also believe I could work with you to achieve that goal."

"My ears seem to be playing tricks on me. Did you just propose an alliance? A real political, fire-forged alliance of friends?"

"I did, Claude, although I don't know about fire-forged friends for now."

She glanced daggers at him as he grinned like a child.

"It is true that, when you manage to stop joking for a minute, your tactical mind is unrivaled in all of Fódlan, maybe in the entire world. Should you—and your teacher—associate with me, this war would go incredibly swiftly, or so I believe."

"What's that about a teacher?"

She waved her hand.

"Formalities. The point is: having you by my side would free me from having to associate with my more... questionable allies."

He eyed her suspiciously.

"Like Solon?"

"Like Solon, she sighed. Believe it or not, but what I said at Remire is actually true: our goals aren't actually aligned."

"You'll have to forgive me if I'm a but doubtful. Surely you realize that sounds like an easy way to avoid responsibility."

"Listen well. These people are a threat to all of Fódlan, and they are too powerful for me, or you, or even our countries to outmuscle. They... They are frightening."

"If they are that frightening, why did you associate with them?"

Edelgard averted her eyes, trying to suppress the memories that started to bubble within.

"I— Let's just say it's not entirely in my hands."

Claude peeked at her, curiosity visible across his face, but to her relief, he decided not to pry further. He then attacked from another angle.

"Assuming I believe you. What if I refuse?"

"Then we won't ally. I will either crush you, or I'll be defeated, and Solon's friends will overrun this entire continent. It's quite the lose-lose situation, really."

He stayed silent. Edelgard could tell he was trying to discern whether this was the truth. She wasn't worried: he was quite adept at political games, from what she gathered. He would come to the only possible conclusion.

"Let it be known that I'd rather ally with you, rather than Solon and his lackeys."

"That's not a high bar..."

Claude had started calculating.

"Surely the combined forces of the Kingdom and the Alliance could take you on, so I really fail to see how a handful of weirdos could really stand where you'd fall."

"Then you lack information about your target. As someone who knows what they're capable of, you'll have to trust me on this."

"I'd have to trust you on a lot of things, it seems."

His keen gaze was focused on her, trying to read her allegiances. Even though she had been completely sincere, he was still trying to see beyond her words. How typical of Claude, but that was the exact reason she was in his room right this moment, after all.

"You would, but isn't that what an alliance means anyway?"

"Alright, let's suppose I do want to ally with you for a second, in spite of all the shady details floating about. There's still one question left: what's in for me?"

He smiled his hungry smile at her while continuing.

"After all, you're talking about Fódlan and all, but I don't see any benefit from me!"

"I didn't take you for the greedy type."

He shrugged.

"I'm not altruistic to that extent. You're talking war here, Edelgard. Continental war, at that."

"Revolution."

"Same difference, Princess. Well then, what do you have in store for me?"

"Semantics aside, I can offer you truth."

"Truth?"

"What you're holding is a mere fraction of the entire history around the founding of the Adrestian Empire, as recorded by the first Emperor. You seek answers, don't you? Answers to what, I do not know, but I am offering you a wealth of knowledge about the first recorded history of our era. You would get the keys to understand the past, and in doing so, help me model the future. Isn't that enough of a bargain?"

Claude took a moment to take it in. Edelgard used that moment to stand up from her chair, taking her leave.

"I am not asking for an immediate answer. Please, take some time to reach for an answer."

She passed him, and, right at the doorframe, she turned one last time.

"Do not dawdle too much, though, or you will be swept up by the tide. Dark forces are at hand, and they certainly have no qualms forcing mine if I ever show any weakness."

She bowed.

"Thank you for having me, Claude. Good night."

Edelgard walked out of the room, leaving Claude to the spinning thoughts in his head.

Chapter Text

Part I: White Clouds

 

Claude, once again, was in his own room. This time, though, he wouldn't be facing the stern, seemingly cold Edelgard.

Instead, the two individuals he had summoned for an emergency meeting were shooting him intrigued glances, waiting for him to explain why he hurriedly told them to gather in his room.

Actually, Hilda was already lying on his bed, looking as though she was really annoyed to be there, but still probably waiting for him to explain why he told them to gather. Their teacher, on the other hand, was sitting straight on the only chair, as patiently silent as always.

"Claude... Will you finally tell us why you had us come here in secret? It feels like we're in a conspiracy or something."

Well, you wouldn't be wrong, Claude thought, but I won't bother you with such petty details...

"Alright, thank you for coming here. I have information to disclose to you, but before we begin, I would like to ask you to keep everything we will discuss here to yourselves."

Hilda and Byleth exchanged a glance. This was much more formal than they were expecting.

"Why the secrecy, Claude?"

"What I'm about to reveal is highly sensitive information, and it would have terrible consequences should anyone hear even part of it, so I'll ask you to be careful."

Claude had put on his mysterious face, but Hilda only raised an eyebrow.

"I seriously hope you're not trying to pull an elaborate joke. I would not put it past you."

"Even I would never go as far!" exclaimed an indignant Claude.

"Yeah, right. I can totally picture you announcing you stole all of today's dessert before grinning at us and watching our reactions."

Byleth nodded in agreement.

"Wha— You too, Teach! What kind of clown do you two think I am?"

"The mischievous kind."

Claude hung his head in feigned shame briefly, then decided to drop the act.

"I can assure you, this time it absolutely is not a joke."

Hilda sat up on the bed, having picked up on his distressed tone of voice. She, too, was now silent.

"Let me begin with a question: what do you know about Edelgard von Hresvelg?”

"What a strange question.” Hilda answered. “Well, uh, she is the future Adrestian Emperor, she's pretty skilled with an axe, and she could freeze fire by looking at it and frowning for a second or two?"

I really hope no one's listening right now, otherwise Hilda's not going to survive the night, Claude thought to himself.

"That sounds... just like you. Teach?"

Byleth folded his arms, trying to recall the few times he had interacted with the girl.

"She sounds like a proper lady, with a good head on her shoulders. She appears a bit cold at first glance, perhaps."

Claude nodded, taking note of these answers.

"Well, what about it? Where's the punch line, Claude?"

There it was. The moment of truth!

"I have received factual information that Edelgard is willing to start a war all over Fódlan."

Hilda audibly gasped, and even Byleth's eyes grew wider. Claude would not blame them. It was quite the bombshell to suddenly drop on them. Of course, Hilda immediately entered denial.

"Edelgard? OUR Edelgard? Why would she ever do that?"

"It seems she has a few qualms with the way stuff is organized around here. You know, the way Crests work, all that jazz. Miklan's story may have been the trigger, given how he was disowned for not having a Crest."

"Enough qualms to actually wage war?"

"It sure sounds like it."

Byleth's eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"Who's that reliable source?"

"Oh, you know, it just happens to be Her Majesty herself."

Their eyes once again widened in shock as they processed the information. They had to take a moment to digest it; if Edelgard herself was the source, then it may very well be prime information.

"You mean to tell us," Hilda said, still in disbelief, "that Edelgard came to you and basically told you 'Oh yeah, look here, my best bud Claude, I'm gonna start a war with everyone, wanna join?'?"

"Yup! More or less."

He beamed at their incredulous faces.

"Why would she ever do that? If you did it, I'd assume it was to mess with people's heads, but she doesn't seem the type to use that kind of strategy."

Now was the time for the second shockwave, the one he had to carefully prepare them for. There would be no coming back from there. He offered an innocent smile.

"She wanted to propose an alliance between the Empire and, the, well, Alliance. Quite fitting, in hindsight, eh?"

His attempt as humor was met with furrowed brows and pensive looks. Wow, tough crowd tonight.

"Would that mean", Byleth thought out loud, "that the Imperial power isn't strong enough to take the rest of Fódlan on alone?"

"I wouldn't exactly say that, but it is possible she sought me out because two of the three main factions in Fódlan would easily crush the third. If you think about it, it's rather smart on her part; what's a better way to get rid of an enemy than to turn them into an ally?"

"An enemy, you say? Your choice of words really doesn't make this easier to grasp... Anyway, what did you answer?"

"Nothing."

As Hilda's mouth was opening, preparing to chastise him, Claude hastily added:

"I mean, nothing yet! I figured I'd need a bit of time to prepare my stance. A boy's gotta think long and hard once he receives such an unexpected declaration, you know?"

Hilda rolled her eyes.

"And I suppose that is why you wanted to hold some sort of war council. Is that it?"

"That's right. I want your opinion on the matter."

"Oh. You know I'm not that good at war things, so I'll just—"

"You're staying with us, Hilda."

Hilda straightened up by reflex as their teacher's voice echoed sharply across the room, cutting her thoughts of escaping the room.

"Ugh... And I was planning on having a nice afternoon nap, too..."

"Your input will be valuable precisely because you have a tendency to choose the path of least resistance."

And it was true, too. The girl had an uncanny ability to come up with solutions that usually were way easier than what a traditional war council would think. They also had a curious side effect of always putting the least effort on her.

With Hilda back to brooding on the bed, Claude turned to Byleth. He let some of his real worries infuse into his voice.

"Teach... Whatever happens here today, Rhea is the one you absolutely can't tell anything. You can't try to probe Seteth or Flayn, either. The Church is Edelgard's main target, and Rhea wouldn't take too kindly of people speaking of rebellion behind her back."

He paused.

"You feel it too, right? She's fishy. You can never tell whether she is telling the truth or lying straight to your face. At least I cannot tell, and I think of myself as pretty good at reading people. There are a lot of secrets swirling here, and I've got the intuition some of them are pretty big. Pretty game-changing, if you catch my drift."

Byleth hesitated before nodding once. After all, his father was of the same opinion, and both had been careful not to act too openly in front of Rhea. Not to mention her worrying ruthlessness towards Lonato and his militia. Rhea may have thought it some sort of holy wrath, but to a non-believer, she basically had marked these people for death without batting an eyelash.

"That's why I am, actually, considering the possibility of an alliance."

"Claude, why?” Hilda still had her doubts. “You would really fight alongside Edelgard should she declare war? Over... doubts? Sure, Rhea can be brutal at times, but... war?"

"Whoa there, Hilda. For now, all I'm saying is that I rather agree with Edelgard's vision of our current society. Change would be welcomed, to be honest."

She shot a surprised look at her classmate.

"Anyway”, he waved, “this is a matter for another time. For now, I'm thinking of accepting the alliance. It benefits us from all angles: if Edelgard declares war, we join her side, and based on a rough estimation of the Kingdom's and Church's strength, we would win with ease. If she decides it's a foolish idea after all, the whole affair is thrown under history's rug and no one will know of it. See? It's win-win!"

"Except for the part where we actually have to fight if she goes all the way."

"I'm... still working on that part! For now I'll have to dig up a bit more on the Empire and their allies, but in the meantime we'll only be allies in name. Surely Edelgard can keep everything under control for a while?"

"I thought you hated gambling?"

"It's more of an educated guess, really. Well then, here's the part where you share your opinion. What do you think?"

Hilda shifted uncomfortably, then asked:

"You're saying that, but whatever we say, you still will follow your own path, won't you?"

"What makes you say that?" Byleth asked, a bit lost.

"Professor, don't you see? The dice were cast when Edelgard approached him. He really has one option now: to agree, even if he doesn't really believe it will make a difference."

Claude heaved a sigh. The girl was more thoughtful than she let on.

"She's right, Teach. As I said, I have no information about the Adrestian Empire's true military strength, and they may have a handful of hidden aces somewhere. Outright refusing her proposition would paint us as a prime target for elimination."

Byleth took a moment to analyze the different outcomes in his mind and spoke:

"Claude... are you sure agreeing is the best decision?"

"Honestly, Teach? I feel like we're in danger either way, now that I have this information. I'm just trying to cut our losses best I can, but I can't guarantee everyone will be safe."

Byleth nodded, as if that was enough for him.

"Anything else?"

"Not from me. I'll keep this information from Rhea, of course. I will try to discover more about her. I must say that our lack of information about who she really is unsettling... I'll tell you if I find something of interest."

"Got it. Hilda?"

"I still think you were a bit hasty, but... there's no stopping it now, is there?"

"There's not, and it's not even my fault! Plans were set in motion long before this week, after all."

There was a short silence from Hilda, and she did not look at him when she next raised her voice.

"Say, if we go along with that plan of yours... Will we catch the people responsible for Remire?"

Tension built up at the mention of Remire. The memories were still vivid in the trio's heads. Solon and his calm voice, explaining how he was using human beings as experiments, were still as haunting as when they were in the village, watching the rampage.

Yeah, it was fair to say that plans were set in motion long before this week.

"I don't know, Hilda. Maybe? Edelgard expressed disgust at them too, after all. Maybe the Empire will help track them down and bring them to justice?"

Flames had appeared in Hilda's eyes. Subdued flames they were, but flames of anger nonetheless.

"Then consider me onboard. Even I can put in a little extra effort to punish whoever did that kind of abomination."

Hilda was speaking with a cold tone of voice Claude did not recognize. Was she traumatized that much by what she saw? Did she always had that kind of fire within her, and just chose to repress it? He could not try to inspect them, as the flames disappeared as fast as they had appeared.

"Well, as much as I'd like to see them brought to justice... Be careful, Claude. This whole secret alliance thing sounds dangerous, and you know what will happen to the Alliance if you fall."

Byleth was evidently curious, but didn't say anything. Claude waved at him, as if to say 'I'll tell you later'.

"Yeah, yeah, I know, Lorenz would have my head if I was the one to sink the Alliance. I'll just keep my distance, watch from afar, help Edelgard once or twice from the sidelines, and nothing bad should happen. Happy?"

"Hm."

She didn't seem convinced, as she knew of his meddling nature, but seemed satisfied enough with the terms Claude had laid out on the table.

"Well then, thank you for coming to this little chat! That is all I had to say today."

Clapping, Claude called the informal reunion off, watching Byleth briskly walk down the hallway and Hilda coming back to her room.

They had without a doubt a plethora of questions to be answered, but neither Claude nor anyone at the Academy could answer them—or was willing to. Rhea could, obviously, but she wouldn't.

Instead, Claude began carefully thinking about the answer he now had to give. He was now walking a razor's edge, and certainly couldn't afford to fall.

He heaved a sigh.

Chapter Text

Part I: White Clouds

 

The good mood that permeated the current atmosphere was far more palatable to Claude than the previous paranoia felt in earlier months. Remire wasn't forgotten, but its memory grew more and more distant for a majority of people, and the prospect of the White Heron Cup and the ball at the end of the month had everyone busy and thinking about happy futures.

Well, mostly everyone. As he had told his teacher in the makeshift war meeting, Claude had informed Edelgard of his decision a few days ago, and she had accepted it in pretty much the way he had imagined...

 

"Well, Princess, here I am, with a fresh answer to give you!"

"I am eager to hear it, Claude. Well? What did you decide?"

Claude took a deep breath before announcing his answer. After all, he was on the verge of a potentially world-changing decision...

"I say, you're in luck, because I, and by that I mean the Golden Deer, and by that I mean the Alliance..."

Hmmmm. Maybe now wasn't the time for proper denominations. It was the thought that counted, right?

"We have decided to help you in your possible upcoming war. Yes, I would like to announce that the Alliance will answer the Empire's call. You can now start profusely thanking me."

Edelgard flashed a genuine if very brief smile, before nodding with the gravitas required of the situation.

"I am most happy to hear that, Claude. Sincerely."

She then had walked off, not even deigning to profusely thank Claude.

Despite this, not much had changed in their daily life. The alliance was technically official, although only by word. There was nothing written, nothing set in stone. Just some vague semblance of a promise.

In other words, this was the perfect time for Claude to set his plan in motion.

He had decided to start monitoring Edelgard's comings and goings from afar, trying to gauge whether she was as innocent as she painted herself to be. He would use this information to further assess her threat level, and whether truly allying with the Empire was a strategically wise choice. Even he was feeling a bit guilty at this, but such was the law of espionage.

And so he had followed her, taken notes about the people she had met, trying to sneak his way in hearing range of her conversations, researched all he could regarding the history of the Adrestian Empire, along with several other highly exhausting tasks.

Nothing overly suspicious surfaced, though. She was meeting with a wide variety of people, from commoner to nobility, but that was kind of expected as heiress apparent. Maybe she really was trying to distance herself from Solon?

They didn't communicate directly much either, partly because it would easily reveal their supposedly secret alliance if people saw them constantly together, but also because neither side was willing to share too much.

Claude had to respect Edelgard: she clearly was well-versed in diplomacy, though his own secrecy may be to blame in the lack of new information. Give and take, as they say.

As for the other Black Eagles... Claude had spent a sizeable amount of time probing them as well, in case they were secretly Solon's agents or knew more about her Flame Emperor persona than he did. He could afford to be a bit more direct this time, since they were supposed to be classmates, after all.

Still, it didn't prove very rewarding...

"The Flame Emperor? A formidable foe, indeed! However, I, as the legitimate son of House Aegir, could strike him down if we crossed paths!"

"Have you even met the Flame Emperor? Do you know anything about his power level?

"Well, no, but no evil foe could withstand my blade!"

Ferdinand didn't know anything.

"No, I have no useful information on the Flame Emperor besides his appearance. And the fact that he seems to have the Death Knight at its command, if what I heard was true."

"Yeah, that's common knowledge..."

"Ah, you have my most sincere apologies for only offering common knowledge. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll spend my punishment for this capital offence within my bed."

Linhardt didn't know anything.

"Oooh, yeah, I've heard of this guy. Imma punch his face in if I ever see him! Just throw a left hook and feint with a nice... Hey, where are you going? I'm not finished!"

Caspar didn't know anything.

"Bernadetta, I've got a few questions for you.

"W-Who are you? Are you here to finish the job? I'm not opening! You won't get me!"

"What are you talking about? It's me, Claude!"

"You can't fool me! You sound nothing like him! I'm not falling in your trap that easily!"

A growling sound emerged from the closed door.

"Would you like me to fetch you something from the kitchen? A bit of cake, maybe?"

"...Oh, Bernie, you gotta stay strong, you can't get lured by cake... Go away now, you... demon!"

Bernadetta... may have hidden something, but it was more probable she was barely aware the Flame Emperor existed, let alone that he and Edelgard were one and the same.

"Oh, hey Claude. What can I do for you today?"

"Hello, Dorothea. Have you heard about the Flame Emperor?"

"Why, yes! He's been the main star of every rumor lately. Legend has it he's a tall, mysterious fellow hiding behind a mask. How enticing!"

"Speaking of mystery, who do you think it could be, since it's obviously only a disguise?"

"Who? I don't know, someone trying to gain political power through acts of insurrection, maybe? There are plenty of minor lords in each territory who would kill to be in the spotlight for a minute."

"I see. Your take on the matter is interesting."

"I know a thing or two about wanting to hog the spotlight, myself." she answered with a wink.

Dorothea likely didn't know anything either. Probably.

"I only know the Flame Emperor is an emperor made of flames. I am not having knowledge beyond this."

"You're used to analyze people, their manners and their speech. Who do you think is under the mask of the Flame Emperor?"

"Under the mask? Would there not be skin under the mask?"

"Well, yeah, but whose skin do you think it is?

"It would be the skin of the person who is wearing the mask? So it must be the belonging of the Flame Emperor?"

Petra was looking increasingly confused by the second, so Claude didn't try to press the matter. She didn't seem like she knew anything anyway.

The only Black Eagle he couldn't question was Hubert, but between his knowing smile and his reputation as Edelgard's retainer, he was most certainly aware both of his liege's secret identity and of Claude's little quest for truth. it was likely he fully supported the former and did not view the latter in especially good regard. Claude would have to be wary of him.

How frustrating. It would be easier dealing with dumb people, I tell ya, Claude thought, sighing. It was true new information was scarce, but would he have tangoed with Edelgard if she was truly dumb or naive? Surely not. That was part of the game they played.

Looking at the joyous liveliness around him, he decided to relax a bit. He had been on edge ever since Edelgard had approached him last month. Expecting a dagger flying at him from an improbable angle may be as natural to him as breathing was, but this kind of psychosis would take a toll on anyone's mental health.

He decided to head to the Academy's gardens, near the dining hall, to hopefully drown out his sorrows in the quiet and crisp winter air. In comparison to the bustling activity of Garreg Mach, there was a feeling of calmness in the wind, as if even nature was prepared to leave the spotlight to the ball this month.

He sat down on a chair, shivering a bit in the cold, then let his back rest against it, staring at the white sky. Tension slowly left his body as he thought about the near future.

This month's mission, investigating an old chapel. Wonder why they had suddenly requested the Golden Deer to do that.

The ball, and who he could invite to dance. If he felt especially cheeky, he could ask Edelgard herself.

The feast, and whether he should keep an eye on Raphael all night to prevent him from eating the whole buffet.

The approaching graduation ceremony, and his future role as the leader of the Alliance.

Edelgard, and her supposed war over Fódlan.

The Church, and its rule over the land and the people.

The Millennium Festival, and how nice it would be for everyone to come back to Garreg Mach in five years...

He must have dozed off, because when he opened his eyes again, someone was shaking his shoulder. It was in fact Ignatz, a worried look on his face, who was hunched over him.

"Huh? Ignatz? What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same! You'll get a cold if you stay there any longer, you know!"

Claude straightened up and realized that Ignatz was right: it was actually really cold now. He couldn't help but shiver. His back was hurting from his sleeping position, and his joints felt rusty and uncooperative. He could not afford to get ill!

"Thanks, Ignatz! Is the dining hall open? There'll be something warm to eat there."

"Yeah, I was trying to find Raphael, but he wasn't there." Ignatz answered with a frown before departing in the other direction.

Claude hurried towards the dining hall, where he caught side of Edelgard, among plenty of others trying to flee the now biting cold, in a conversation with the new girl, Monica.

Monica herself was a bit of an enigma to Claude, and as with all enigmas he came across, he was carefully studying it.

She was found alongside Flayn in the Death Kinght's hideout, almost one full year after disappearing from Garreg Mach. Why? Even other folks pointed out how odd it was. The fact that she basically clung to Edelgard non-stop was another oddity.

Sure, maybe she was trying to make up for her stolen year, like the rumor said, but somehow she specifically targeted Edelgard, and no other Black Eagle.

Edelgard had told him Solon had other allies. Could Monica be one of them? But according to her, she wasn't fond of Solon and his kin. Shouldn't she avoid Monica as much as possible then? Was she lying? Or were her so-called 'allies' keeping her on a tight leash?

Edelgard nodded at him, with Monica only shooting him an uninterested glance, and he realized he had been staring. He returned the wave before hurrying to an empty seat.

Whatever they were plotting, he would stay neutral. Only by staying neutral and striking when the opportunity arises would he be able to minimize his own losses.

This had always been his modus operandi up until now, and it's proven solid enough. Besides, he didn't have nearly enough information to take a decision right now.

A polite cough got him out of his thoughts. Hubert was sitting right in front of me, his expression even darker than usual.

"Um. Hello? Aren't you going to dine with Edelgard today?"

"No."

There was no follow-up. His curiosity piqued, Claude dared to challenge an angry Hubert.

"...May I ask why?"

"Because that girl is with her."

"Which girl? Do you mean Monica?"

"Indeed."

Another silence. Claude was both very uncomfortable and really taken aback. Hubert was rarely seen without Edelgard, and the times where he had seen him leave her side from his own volition could be counted on one hand.

He did not know how to handle him, plain and simple. Few people did, really.

"So, uh, you guys had a fight or something?"

Hubert's eyes gleamed like unsheathed steel, and Claude felt chills running down his spine. Maybe he shouldn't put up the jokester facade just this time...

"Nothing of the sort." Hubert growled. "She's just not someone I'd rather be around."

"She seems to have eyes only for Edelgard anyway."

"That's where the problem lies. She's constantly around Her Majesty, not leaving her for even a few moments."

Claude peered at Hubert, who was aggressively munching on his food.

"Hubert, please forgive me for asking, but... you're not jealous, are you?"

Hubert rolled his eyes.

"Perhaps you're not as brilliant as I thought."

"So that's a no then? Okay, cool, just thought I'd ask."

"It's always hard to tell whether you're joking or not. Please don't tell me you find Monica perfectly normal?"

"You know, funny you mention that, because that was just what I was thinking when looking at them. There's something weird about her, but I can't pinpoint what."

Hubert nodded dryly, before lowering his voice to a whisper.

"This woman is dangerous, Claude. Keep it in mind at all times."

"Oooh, scary! Alright, I got it!" he added as Hubert was trying to impale him with his gaze again. "She's dangerous, and I should keep my guard up around her. Why are you telling me this?"

"Well, we're allies, aren't we?" Hubert asked with a sharp emphasis on 'allies'.

Claude felt the tiniest pang of shame at Hubert's thinly veiled highlight of his lack of ally-esque action, but Hubert was already moving on, unperturbed.

"Besides, I can't efficiently protect Her Majesty right now. Monica is on to me. You, on the other hand, can pass off as another clown gravitating towards Her Majesty. Monica won't be as much hostile towards you."

"People would be less hostile towards you if you didn't off-handedly insult them, you know."

Hubert shrugged.

"I'm just telling you to keep an eye on her."

The rest of the meal was spent in total silence, and Claude, once again, was left thinking.

Yes, he'd stay behind, carefully analyzing every detail of the scene playing out before him, and then he'll make a move. Another course of action could have unforeseen consequences, destryong his carefully prepared plans like a house of cards. A very expensive house of cards.

He grimaced. This new element was a lit torch in his hands: useful to shed a new light on previously unrelated events, but should he mishandle it, he would likely end up burnt.

Chapter Text

Part I: White Clouds

 

 

Sitting on a bench, a figure held his head in his hands, rain falling and mixing with the tears rolling down his dazed face.

Unaware of his surroundings, unaware of the quiet rain cloaking his field of vision and painting the landscape a dull grey, Claude was empty.

His mind, where the cogs had all stopped, was devoid of thoughts aside from a single question, repeating itself without end.

"How did we get here?"


It had started pretty well, though. Due to Hubert's veiled revelation, Claude had started paying more attention to Monica, trying to see if anything fishy would bubble up. However, the girl was always buzzing around Edelgard, making it impossible to question her one-on-one.

Then, if that wasn't a solution... He might as well forgo the one-on-one part entirely.

Sightings of Edelgard near the training grounds led him to the girl, unsurprisingly followed by an enthusiastic Monica. He beelined for them, introducing himself with the brightest smile he was capable of.

"Good day, Edelgard. And good day to you, as well. Er, Monica, was it? Nice to meet you, the name's Claude von Riegan, future leader of the Alliance or something along those lines."

He winked at the redhead. Edelgard was looking at him with a mixture of relief and surprise, with just a hint of wariness. She was, without a doubt, grateful for the break, but she knew Claude being that upfront and almost conversational was hiding something. Meanwhile, Monica was eyeing him with full-blown suspicion, barely hiding her displeasure behind a very thin polite smile. Damn, that girl was bad at politics.

"Yes, hi and stuff. What are you doing here? I'm having a very private and very interesting conversation with Edel, you know. So please do whatever you came to do and leave us alone."

Wow. She was even colder than the relentless wind. That had to be some sort of feat. Claude intensified the brightness of his smile.

"Oh, with pleasure. I actually came here specifically looking for you."

"For me? What business do you have with me?"

And now she was immediately getting defensive. Yup, something was up with that one.

"I just wanted to check on you. You know, since we rescued you not too long ago and all. See how you're holding up, if you're not traumatized, this sort of thing. We at Garreg Mach are proud to take care of each other, even if they are not from our house of country!"

He winked at Edelgard, who only rolled her eyes in answer. There may have been the tiniest smirk on her face, though...

Monica had observed all of that little exchange and was now squinting at Claude like he was some sort of exotic predator and she was considering how to get around him.

"Well, I'm all fine, as you can obviously see."

"I don't know, people have been saying you were unusually cheerful for someone who was finally freed after one year of captivity. You sure everything's okay? Not any, uh, mental health issues or the like? Nightmares, maybe? Unexplained coughing fits?"

"What do coughing fits have to do with anything? Are you a creep? Are you trying to make fun of me? Edel," she added, turning to Edelgard, "do you know this guy? Is he one of your friends?"

Edelgard's cold gaze lingered on Claude for a moment. She was pondering... what exactly? Just say yes!

"He is a well-respected classmate. Although he has a peculiar reputation, I believe his concern to be genuine."

Way to paint me in a positive light... Claude thought.

"Oh, well, if you say so..."

Monica turned back to him, not fully convinced.

"I am feeling full well. Never better. I am full of energy and ready to tackle life!"

Yeah, okay lass, there is no way that smile isn't fake, he mused, appalled by Monica's lack of effort.

"I see. Were you followed by anyone suspicious since your rescue?"

She rolled her eyes.

"You're the most suspicious guy I've seen since then! Are you done with your interrogation?"

"Interrogating people? Me? Never! I'm just here as a compassionate and empathetic fellow student, that's all. They know me as Claude the Benevolent, taking care of the poor and unlucky!"

Claude spotted, from the corner of his eye, Edelgard trying to hide another smirk. Now that was just rude.

As he let his grand declaration sink in, he replayed the first few seconds of the exchange in his mind.

Edelgard had felt relieved when Claude had first arrived. Was Monica really reminding her that Solon was keeping an eye on her, or was she simply an overbearing classmate, which could indeed annoy the usually reserved Edelgard? How far could he trust Hubert? The only solution would be to ask Edelgard herself when Monica would not be around.

Which meant this awkward conversation was nearing its end.

"It seems you're recovering just fine, indeed."

He turned to Edelgard.

"Please, see that she stays well for the remaining of this year."

"I would, but she's giving me a bit of trouble..."

"Whaaat? Edel, you're so mean~!"

"I've barely had a moment to myself with you around..."

"That's because we have soooo much to tell each other! And that means you are in. The. Way." she added, glaring at Claude, who raised his hands in a show of good faith.

"Alright, alright, I can read a mood, you know. I'm done with what I came here for, anyway."

He walked away, glancing at Edelgard. He didn't know it yet, but he would never get that private interview with Edelgard.


The time for their monthly mission had come, and Claude had a heavy hand in planning out their strategy, along with Byleth. That usually left him exhausted, and with Monica seemingly sticking to Edelgard like she was her shadow, he really couldn't see her alone. There was simply no respite. He couldn't get free time during the day, and Monica was glued to Edelgard during meals. Hubert never sat to his table again, either. He could have snuck into her room once again, but paranoia got the better of him and he did not dare attempt it again. In hindsight, he should have had, but everything is easier in hindsight.

The breaking point had been the mission itself.

It should have been simple and swiftly taken care of.

It should have, by all accounts!

Said mission was simple: there had been strange happenings at a nearby chapel. People had reported shadowy figures walking in and out, which could be as benign as two students having a secret affair (though Seteth would probably put that at high priority too), but, in these troubled times, even such a seemingly minor problem couldn't be overlooked. With Claude's knowledge, would-be rebels meeting outside of the Church's sight would not be that far-fetched.

This is why the Golden Deer had been dispatched at the old chapel, guided there by Jeralt Eisner himself, to Leonie's greatest joy—she was really over the moon to fight alongside her idol. In fact, he had an effect on everyone. Ignatz was more vibrant than usual, Hilda was keeping her antics to a minimum, Marianne almost felt giddy, and Lorenz was puffing up his chest even more than usual.

Even if that last point was annoying, he had the right to do so. It was the Blade Breaker! He was a legend! He was Teach's father! It was both an honor and a privilege to fight alongside him!

And so they arrived at the chapel. There, they had found Demonic Beasts ready to pounce on defenseless students and sprung to action, mastefully directed by Claude and Byleth. It was agreed that Jeralt would see to his own matters, but he would still help on the battlefield here and there.

At first, there was not much trouble to speak of. They had been trained for that kind of situation, and their teamwork had improved by leaps and bounds.

"Raphael, Ignatz is surrounded by two Demonic Beasts! Go and help him!"

"What?! Hold on, buddy, I'm coming!"

"Lysithea, you..."

"YOU'RE IRRELEVANT!"

"...seem to be holding up pretty well, although I'd rather you don't vaporize your surroundings. We've got civilians here, too."

"I'll have you know this was a very controlled blast, Claude!"

"Right, right. Go see if someone needs healing. Help Marianne if needed. You alright there, Teach?"

Byleth swung at one of the abominations that had swarmed the chapel, striking it down, before turning to Claude, looking ever so slightly smug. Claude looked around, surprised to see it was the last of the fiends. The battle itself felt like it had lasted a few seconds.

"Don't you stroke your own ego because you killed a Demonic Beast, kid." Jeralt said. "Overconfidence can lead to your demise."

Byleth regained his stone face the moment Jeralt approached them.

"Nice work, everyone. I take it everything's under control?"

"It looks like it, Captain. Raphael and Ignatz are coming back as well.", Leonie reported.

"Thank you for checking on them, Leonie. Now that this is taken care of, I'll go investigate this chapel. Kid, you're going with me. All of the others are to stay behind, patrol the perimeter and tend to the wounded."

"Yes, sir!"

So Claude had said, but he really was devoured by curiosity. What had drawn the Demonic Beasts here? That's why he had managed to sneak off and trail behind Byleth and Jeralt.

That was the exact moment when thing went wrong. Horribly wrong, in fact.

Monica had showed up, which in itself was strange but not noteworthy. She had been talking with Jeralt, but then... then...

Then she had stabbed him in the back!

She'd pulled out some sort of pitch-black dagger and backstabbed the mercenary! She'd taunt him, unrecognizable as Monica, as he lay there, gasping for air.

Then Byleth had tried to catch the girl with the Sword of the Creator, but a mysterious figure just... appeared from nowhere and shielded her. It was no magic that Claude could recognize, but his brain was too busy processing what his eyes were seeing. It was like the untimely savior had foreseen the future, because that blade... it could segment at exceptional speeds. Claude knew it. Still, it had had the effect of a toy sword on the pair, an impossibility of physics.

It had felt like an eternity, yet, a second later, the two figures had vanished and Teach was listening to the dying words of his father.

It was too much for Claude to handle and he had run off, not even bothering to stay stealthy, his mind saturated by the scene that had just played out. He could vaguely feel tears streaming out, but for now, he had to run and hide and breathe and proceed all of this.


The news quickly travelled throughout the monastery, and as if to shroud it in its grief, a heavy rain had begun falling, uninterrupted yet. It was falling and falling and falling, drenching everyone in grey, drenching them in sorrow.

Jeralt's death had an incredible impact on the whole Academy, and Claude could now realize how natural the man's presence had been. He had been part of what made this place a second home to some.

The building itself seemed like it was mourning the Knights' Captain. With rain depriving it of light, the cathedral felt gloomy, and the Four Saints themselves seemed to be looking away in anguish. Time was stopped in rooms that were usually full of laughter and idle chatter, students now whispering as though speaking too loud might somehow incur the building's wrath. The training grounds only saw half-hearted students, and their clanking weapons reminded everyone of their loss. Even the fish, usually so serene within their pond, had disappeared into its depths, leaving some privacy to the surface dwellers.

In particular, Jeralt's former quarters were avoided by all, painful memories sticking to the stone walls and creeping in the air around the room.

Claude had seen knights praising Jeralt's battling and drinking skills alike. He had seen Leonie, quietly sobbing where she thought no one would see her, hear her, throw a veneer of pity at her.

He had seen Alois, painfully trying to maintain his cheery facade for the sake of everyone else, shouting encouragements that lacked impact, drooping his shoulders once he could not maintain his front.

He had seen Rhea and Seteth, sincerely griveing through the mask they may or may not wear. You could not fear grief like this one, no matter the number of masks you wore.

He had seen Marianne and Mercedes and Cyril and Flayn praying, united in a pain that transcended origins or allegiances.

And, obviously, he had seen Teach, so heartbroken he was but a shadow of his former self. There was a look of sorrow, of despair in those eyes that would break the heart of anyone that looked into them. A hardened mercenary he may be, but according to what Claude knew, his father was the only anchor he ever had in his life.

Claude himself was now sitting on a bench, in the rain, barely having thought it all over despite the couple of days he had to. One question was echoing on loop in his head.

"How did we get there?"

 

He shook his head. Now wasn't the time to stay idle. He had actual, identified enemies to uncover, and was critically lacking information.

And information he would find. He knew exactly where to begin. With anger welling up inside his chest, he stood up. No more playing nice, then.

He made his way towards the academy's classes. Peeking into the Black Eagles classroom, he saw her here. She was alone. Excellent, that would make things all the easier.

He walked straight towards Edelgard, who heard his footsteps, but too late. As she was turning around to greet him...

"Claude? What are you–"

Her eyes widened as Claude grabbed her by the collar, his strength increased by his rage.

"Tell me, Edelgard,." he snarled. "Tell me how your oh-so-friendly classmate just murdered Jeralt and you don't have anything to do with it. Tell it to my face!"

He didn't really know if he wanted to believe it. He did not care. All he wanted was answers. Answers to the sorrow that threatened to overtake him, his teacher, his classmates, the entire school. Answers that only one person he knew could give him, and she was currently busy understanding what was happening to her.

"Aren't you going to defend yourself? Aren't you going to say it was all part of a plan you had absolutely no idea of? Isn't that your usual line of defense? That you, one of the most influent people walking this continent, just weren't aware of something that big behind our backs?"

He was shaking her now.

"It was a murder, for the Goddess's sake! I saw it, with my own two eyes! She killed him, in cold blood! And she was spending all of her time with you! So come on, tell me you are not involved, I dare you!"

What had begun as a snarl had escalated to a yell.

To her credit, Edelgard never averted her eyes, locked deeply with Claude's. Claude suddenly felt all of his rage—all of his fire—peter out, leaving him without strength and without resolve.

He let Edelgard down on the ground. He was feeling like he was fighting a losing battle no matter what, and was teetering on the edge of absolute despair. The tears were returning.

"Come on, tell it to me already..."

He felt himself being lifted up. Looking up, he met Edelgard's intent gaze.

"I heard the news, Claude. Listen, and listen well. I can swear on my family name, I can swear it on every single one of my ancestors: I did not know what Monica was about to do."

These words, meant to comfort, only managed to reignite Claude's anger. The second burn was even more painful than the first.

"I find it hard to believe when you two were spending every moment together last month! Are you sure she didn't mention something as important as, I don't know, murdering the Knights' Captain?"

Edelgard did not waver, her hand still firmly locked around his own collar.

"Do you really think we were happily chatting? I thought you, of all people, would notice the situation I was in. Monica was here to keep an eye on me at all times," she added with a bitter tone of voice, "to ensure I won't turn on Solon. I thought Hubert warned you about that?"

She had confirmed Claude's suspicions, yet he was so caught up in a swirl of fury he didn't register it, instead resuming his verbal barrage, fuelled by raw emotion.

"A warning? I only remember it being some sort of vague revelation about her being 'dangerous', not that she would outright murder someone with glee! If you have critical information that I can use, then make sure I get it properly! Are we allies, or not?"

Edelgard's eyes instantly became cold as ice, and her tone of voice when she next spoke wasn't much warmer. She removed her hand from Claude's jacket and took a step back, speaking before he could realize the impact of his own words.

"Allies, Claude? Yes, we supposedly are. We did agree to an alliance, after all. Then, pray tell, why do you still seem so wary of me? I am not your enemy, yet you persist in thinking I will betray you at the slightest occasion. Is that how you usually manage you allies, Claude? With that little trust?"

A breath, the silence hanging on as tiny ice crystals would.

"I wonder, do you really see us as allies?"

She had a point, but Claude wasn't about to acknowledge it.

"That's just how I do things. You can't say it was unfounded when this tragedy happened!"

Edelgard sighed, a hint of weariness creeping into her voice.

"You really don't see it, do you? Because you acted like that, I couldn't fully trust you myself. I will need reliable allies in the upcoming future, and if you won't be, then I'll have to dance to Solon's tune. You really are not helping me here."

"Again, this is how I do things." he tried as a rebuttal. "I'll collect information, analyze my situation, and stay neutral until I can put my plan into work. It has saved my life more than once, you know."

Claude once again realized it had been a mistake as soon as the words escaped his mouth. The cold came back to Edelgard's voice, alongside what sounded like rage and sorrow. She grabbed Claude's collar again and brough his face right next to hers, twisted with pain and devoid of any color, as she retorted:

"Well, maybe if you had abandoned your foolish notion of neutrality sooner, Jeralt Eisner would still be alive today!"

A deathly silence followed. Claude was feeling as if she had hit him physically.

"What? Wait... You can't... You're saying it was my fault this happened?

"My hands were bound there!" she shouted. "I cannot openly go against Monica, Solon and their allies, as they would kill me in an instant! I asked Hubert to warn you so you could do something, because you do not play by the same rules as I do!"

She caught her breath, red rushing back to her cheeks.

"I did not expect you to be so... passive."

She had almost spat the last word, as if the very notion disgusted her.

Meanwhile, Claude stood perfectly still, the cogs in his head finally turning at full speed. She had just suggested his modus operandi, the foundation upon which he had laid his entire life, was the reason Jeralt died. He was thinking and thinking, but he couldn't find a good rebuttal.

Why? There should be something he could use to defend himself! There should be a retort ready to wipe this affront off! There should be... something. Anything at all.

But he could not find anything. No words brought themselves to his mouth. His head was blank.

He didn't notice Edelgard walking away, only hearing her words when she was at the door.

"For what it's worth, Claude, I am still willing to seek your alliance. Everything would be better than having to deal with Solon. However..."

She trailed off a bit, before strengthening her resolve.

"If you truly want an alliance, if you truly want to walk this path with me, then you will have to step out of the shadows. Otherwise, nothing will change."

She exited the room without looking back, leaving a defeated Claude to his doubts and drying tears.

Chapter Text

Part I: White Clouds

 

Noise. Voices. Footsteps. All alien noises, far, so far away. Tendrils of rage and sadness, tugging at a well-deserved slumber.

Annoying. It was all so annoying! Can't a girl get some rest around here? Do I have to monitor everything?

With a weary sigh, the sleeping girl opened an eye, glaring at the scene playing out before her. Trees. A starry night. Fighting on their left, fighting on their right. Giant shadows, moving through the forest. The occasional gleam of steel. Cries for help, cries of pain, inhuman roars. The scent of earth and blood and something more, something nature itself reviled.

Frowning at this flurry of sensations, the one who bore the goddess's name sat up on her throne. Something was amiss here, something that set all of her alarms off. Leaning a bit forward, she started to pay attention to details her current host wasn't even aware of.

From the chaos, she pieced together what was happening. Last month, her host's father had been killed by an undercover enemy. It had been a very difficult period for both Sothis and her host, as she, too, had felt a great sense of loss.

He must have somehow tracked them down and moved to take his revenge, which wasn't surprising. It was only human nature, in the end. Then... why was it she felt so uneasy?

Hmmmm... Hold on a minute. This particular forest... Wasn't it the one right beside the monastery? Yes, she recognized this unique shade of green and the thin mist slithering through the trees. Rhea had warned the teachers to never set foot there, even to train the students. Sothis had then joked it did look like a forest of death from some adventurer's tale. It turned out the joke was slowly seeping into reality tonight.

The huge Demonic Beasts weren't what currently preoccupied her, though. Why would the enemy come so close to a place where they would be actively searched for, instead of lying low and fleeing as far as possible to minimize the chances they'd be discovered? They had been quite good at hiding since the beginning, and now they would casually take such a misstep?

No, they obviously wanted to lure their main target, her host, Byleth, into a trap. They wanted to lure him with the prospect of taking revenge on his father's killer!

She closed her eyes, reaching out to him to warn of the potential danger, but opened them back when a scorching wave of pure rage pushed her back, almost causing her physical pain. Taken aback, she tried again, only to be driven back by the same inferno. A third, slightly more desperate attempt failed in the same way.

He could not listen. He would not listen, focused as he was on his target. Focused on his revenge and bloodlust.

Gritting her teeth, Sothis leaned back on an arm of her throne and thoughtlessly drummed her fingers on it. She hated being as powerless as she currently was. All because that idiot wouldn't listen! And that same rage was the very reason she was jolted awake, too! What a cruel joke at her expense!

At least, she thought, her anger coming to a simmer, she could keep an eye out and take note of any particular detail. It could come in handy later, if the blockhead currently running at full speed towards "Monica" was more willing to listen.

As she saw Byleth making his way into the forest, she focused on a strange structure appearing in front of them. It looked like an unfinished temple, with half-eroded pillars of stone. Something in their disposition was rattling her memory, and yet she could not remember.

What was it? What was it that made the hair on her nape stand that much? Did she already come there before? Was there magic at work? It would certainly explain the dark energy she had sensed since she was rather rudely awakened. But, in that case, what kind of magic was that? The forest was close to the monastery, so surely anything within was thoroughly checked and under control, right?

Except, she realized as her blood ran cold, that the forest was absolutely forbidden to anyone from the monastery, even faculty members. This could either mean Rhea couldn't be bothered to deal with whatever was in there... or that she couldn't. And if Rhea, with all the power she held, both literally and figuratively, was not able to contain whatever was sealed within the forest, then it spelled bad news. Very bad news.

Frantically, she tried to restore the mental connection, only to be driven back again and again by Byleth's unbridled hatred for the girl still running ahead of him, each time left with that stinging sensation on her skin.

 

Eventually, she could only watch in horror as the girl was killed by that despicable mage, Solon. She had witnessed the events of Remire, and it made even her blood curdle. That kind of dark, forbidden magic revolted her to her core. It was unnatural. It was... It was not meant to be.

The horror only deepened when the same mage used the girl's heart to summon dark flames out of thin air. These were not ordinary flames. Ordinary flames were not a sickly purple. Sothis could absolutely sense their malice from deep within Byleth's soul.

When she felt them surging forward, engulfing Byleth, engulfing his soul, engulfing Sothis and her throne, she closed her eyes.

She had taken a life-changing decision. She quite liked her blockhead, after all.


A few days after the incident at the Sealed Forest, Claude was, as usual, lost in thoughts. Much had happened there, and it wasn't mere details, forgotten by all a week or two later. Claude was facing events that would likely influence all of Fódlan, if not even beyond. Of course, these events were throwing various wrenches in his plans, so reassessing them was of the utmost importance.

The biggest of these events was without a doubt Teach getting all green and glowy and apparently powerful enough to slice through dimensions. Such a change was unexpected, but then again who could expect something like that? People don't get superpowered everyday!

While it had without a doubt a cool factor attached to it, there were many unknowns as to what happened and how. All Claude knew was that his teacher had been trapped in some sort of alternate dimension, received power, burst out, and killed Solon.

That last item was at least a source of relief. With Solon out of the equation, they had one less fearsome enemy to take into account. Monica, or whoever the girl truly was, had also been killed in the battle. That meant a bit more breathing room.

With a suspiciously pristine timing following the class's return from the forest, Rhea now wanted to hold a ceremony within the Holy Tomb. While undoubtedly curious about the Holy Tomb and the many secrets it had to hold, being a restricted area and all that, Claude was wary of Rhea's plans. It all seemed a little too convenient for her to hold some sort of religious ceremony just after the events that transpired. Was she looking to take advantage of the new power lurking within Teach? Were there other allies of Solon's he should know of? What about that strange figure who had rescued 'Monica' that fateful day?

With everything speeding up around him, it was time to regain some solid footing. Swimming in such dark waters would not end well for him, nor would it for the Alliance. Time, then, for new leads, new ways to find his path towards self-preservation.

"Self-preservation, you say..." he mused.

Indeed, Edelgard's words were still ringing to his ears. He couldn't forget the way she had spat them, the fiery wrath in her eyes, even less how, somehow, this wrath didn't seem entirely directed at him. She had, with her cold tone and flaming eyes, forced him to reconsider his position; the very belief he had held for much of his life, really. Throughout his life in Almyra, Claude had learned to always carefully assess a situation before acting. Being too reckless, or too impatient, could mean death in his native family, and the occasions were not lacking, courtesy of said family. There, he was a bother, a stain, a foreigner; there, he needed to disappear, and no price was too high to see the deed done. Since every Almyran had to be skilled with a blade to survive, there is no wonder he had to learn how to watch his own back, lest he'd suddenly find an axe within.

Traveling to Fódlan, he had hoped to find some solace, to finally escape this rather exhausting reality. His wide-eyed dreams may be why he had turned so cynic when he found out escaping wouldn't be that easy. Oh, sure, the various Fódlanese nobles were not so crude as to openly try to kill him, but that only compounded the problem. His Almyran family at least was half-honest with its intentions; in Fódlan, he would only find smiling faces and faceless assassins, hired by no one, holding no information. He had to become even more careful, settling on believing everything had to be a trap before proven otherwise. That mindset saved his life an innumerable amount of times.

So, for such a rock-solid belief to suddenly be questioned... But then again, Edelgard may—and only may—have had good reason to question it. It was true he knew Monica was up to something and preferred to stay at good distance precisely because he wanted to know exactly what was going to happen. It was true that Hubert had given him both a warning and an admission of powerlessness. Was his inaction then really the cause of Jeralt's death? Was it all true?

A merciful shadow cast over his face dissipated the dark thoughts he was sinking into. It was, to his surprise, the future King of Faerghus himself, worry painted all over his pale face. Dimitri never had been particularly healthy-looking, but saying he looked half alive right now would be a bit generous. His face was emaciated, and he had bags under his eyes that could rival Linhardt's after a night in the library.

For now, Dimitri was looking at Claude like the latter could collapse at any moment.

"Claude? Are you feeling well? You seem to be struggling with inner demons."

"Look who's talking!" Claude said with a faint laugh. "You're looking like your teacher just chose you as a representative for the White Heron Cup."

The prince waved his hand.

"It's nothing, I just can't seem to get a steady night of sleep these days. Dedue is worrying too much, I only need to put my mind to something and it'll go away."

"How interesting, it seems we're much the same in that regard."

Claude mused in his head about how there really were not alike in his head, before focusing back.

"To answer your earlier question, yes." he offered. "As a matter of fact, I am struggling with inner demons. Frankly, I don't even know whether I am winning."

"Would you care to share your concerns with me? Maybe you just need another point of view."

Dimitri sat quietly next to Claude. For a moment, not a word was exchanged, then:

"Say, Dimitri, what would you do when confronted with a problem? Any problem, really, but especially if it's really annoying."

"I am amazed" Dimitri said, eyebrows shooting up, "that you're not giving me a weird nickname. It must be a really serious matter you're struggling with."

"You were the one who offered to listen,." Claude hissed. "Buuuuut I can always go back to 'Your Cold Princeliness', if you'd prefer."

"That... won't be necessary."

The so-called Cold Prince cleared his throat, before answering in earnest.

"To be frank, I would probably try to tackle it with all of my strength. I would have to find a way to preserve my honor, the name of my house and the reputation of the Kingdom, of course, but any major problem must imperatively be met with appopriate force. That is the way I have been raised."

Claude's jaw clenched; Dimitri's answer was not unexpected, but...

"What's with you royals and charging straight at anything that blocks your path? Learn some restraint, would you?" he muttered.

"What was that?"

"Nothing of importance. Now for the real question."

"I should have known you were setting me up for something else. What is it that weighs so heavily on your mind?"

Oh, there's no way I'm gonna tell you what actually weighs on my mind. I don't need you to tell Rhea how my doubts towards her grow stronger with each day. Not with the Kingdom being in sheets with the Church.

"Hm, I've been thinking about stuff lately. My life, my way of approaching things, that kind of deep thoughts. Coming to Garreg Mach really has been an eye-opening experience, you know? You meet people from all origins, you learn about other lifestyles, and bam! You're suddenly left reconsidering much of what you believe in from the beginning."

The best lies always contained a kernel of truth.

"Mhm. I can see that." Dimitri said, looking at the void. "It certainly has been an enlightening experience. But what of it?"

"Well, you see, I was wondering if my approach to life was too passive, you know, too... laid-back, I guess? It's kind of hard to put into words. Not that I believe I'm laid-back to a fault, mind you, but maybe a change in attitude is in order?"

For a moment, not another word was exchanged, then:

"I probably cannot understand your situation, or how you forged your mindset. The way you think... It's admirable, to me."

A polite cough from Dimitri, to hide the embarrassment he felt from praising Claude.

"However, as incredible as your thinking skills are, I am of the opinion that thinking doesn't solve a problem by itself."

"Oh?" Claude was intrigued. "Please elaborate."

"You can think all you want, but that won't make the problem disappear." Dimitri began. "There will come a time where you will need to act and, er, tackle the problem, as I said earlier. I may be lacking in the thinking department compared to you," he added, looking almost subdued, "but from what I gathered, you are too reluctant to actually act instead of observing to an absurd degree."

"Is that so? You've seen me act before, though, haven't you? Even chided me whenever you felt like my action was too mischievous."

"Well, yes, but... Ah, how should I put it?"

For a few seconds, Dimitri was looking for words, or perhaps for a suitable example.

"I think I have yet to see you act swiftly in dire straits. Take the Battle of the Eagle and Lion, for example. You waited for Edelgard and I to engage in battle before making your move."

"Wasn't that the best from a strategic point of view?" Claude retorted, almost automatically. "To let both enemy armies weaken each other, before swooping in and finishing off the rest?"

"You may be right, but that also made you a threat to both Edelgard and me, because you had a rather fresh army against ours. Is that really a wise strategic decision?"

For a moment, yet not another word was exchanged, both men looking at the gray, cloudy sky, mulling over what had just been said.

"We still won, in the end."

"You certainly did." Dimitri conceded. "However, you did so by taking unnecessary risks, all because you waited too much. All because, paradoxically, you did not want to take any risks. Do you see what I'm trying to say?" he added, tilting his head quizzically.

Claude was wondering just that. Both Edelgard and Dimitri, people with as much military experience as he had, were telling him his standpoint was basically flawed, if not outright wrong. Sure, that same principle had been key in his early survival, but it seemed he had to reconsider how to approach battlefields, and war at large. Especially the kind of war Edelgard wanted him to join.

He may have to split his approach between 'how to successfully keep your life' and 'how to oppose people that want to take it'. Now that was an interesting idea. Optimizing his approach by compartmentalizing situations was something new. Something with potential.

He realized Dimitri was waiting for an answer.

"Uh, I'm thinking about it, but I suppose I do. I will try to take your advice to heart."

"That would make me happy, I think." Dimitri answered with a slight smile. "We should all seek to strengthen our resolve against the evils of this world."

Claude stood up. He stretched his limbs, still examining his discovery.

"Thank you for this pep talk, Dimitri. You don't know how much I needed that." he said, offering his best smile to the prince.

And it was true. This idea had clicked in his head. The cogs were whirring once again.

Dimitri tilted his head, perhaps feeling there was something more to these words, but not knowing what it was.

"You're welcome? Are you going to put my advice in practice right this instant? Are you going to take action towards... whatever your current problem is?"

Turning to the library, with renewed fire burning high and bright within his soul, Claude answered:

"I still need to think it over. It means a lot to me, you know?"

"There you go at it again. I just told you not to think everything over for years!" Dimitri answered, frustration creeping up on his face.

Claude turned back to the prince. His inner fire was beginning to roar, for maybe the first time since he arrived in Fódlan, yet he spoke with a perfectly even voice.

"Alright, how about this? I'll have it sorted through by the end of this month. Sounds good?"

Chapter Text

Part I: White Clouds

 

The end of the month came, as all ends of all months usually came. These whole thirty days had been a bit busy, all of the Golden Deer excitedly preparing for the ritual at the end of the month. They would be allowed to enter the mystical Holy Tomb, if only for a few moments! This was a rare honor, but even that would not distract them from classes.

Classes were still as important as ever, so close to graduation. Most students were becoming better and better at their dedicated field of study, with a few oddballs within, like Hilda suddenly wanting to know how to ride a pegasus (she did quickly lose interest in the idea, but it was funny to see her try to tame one of the academy's pegasi), or Marianne still trying to adjust to her dancing garb. The poor girl still wasn't used to being the center of attention, but counseling sessions with Byleth were apparently going a long way to help her overcome her fears. It honestly had been a shock to see her picked for the White Heron Cup, and even more to see her actually win. And, as is proper, weekly missions still allowed them to hone their tactical and combat skills, bloodying their weapons with brigands, apostates and monsters alike.

Yes, everyone within the Golden Deer was in high spirits. Everyone but Claude, who couldn't help but see Edelgard and Dimitri in his head, whose memory of Jeralt falling kept replaying again and again. Always the same questions, always the same lack of definitive answer. Always, this reflex of his to trust no one (except for Teach. Teach was much too naive to ever backstab someone) was nagging at him.

Rhea. Edelgard. Dimitri. Himself. Who to trust, and who to confront? Where did the truth lie? Most importantly, in the upcoming war, if an upcoming war there was, who should the Alliance align with?

Claude grimaced, for he wasn't sure his own goals and his responsibilities as head of the Alliance were the same. Another question to add to the pile, then.

And he wasn't even sure he had that much time to think it over, anyway.

He half-jokingly told Dimitri he'd have his answer by the end of the month, when the ritual would conclude —when Rhea would finally play some of her own cards, really. She wasn't the only one to be really putting her head into the game, either: Edelgard and Hubert were nowhere to be seen around the monastery. When he had tried to poke around some of the Black Eagles (Dorothea was always so easy to talk to), he'd been told they were back in Enbarr for state affairs.

Given what he knew of Edelgard, what she had told him, he could only imagine how large-scale she wanted these 'state affairs' to be. If she decided to press on at the same time Rhea wanted to do... whatever she wanted to do with Teach, then he really had until the end of this month to choose a path to walk on!

No matter. Dimitri's advice was still etched within his mind, constantly at the foreground of his mind's eye. To act soon enough to actually influence history, instead of wallowing in eternal what-ifs and buts. To consider whether to retreat or press on every time a new situation arose, without letting his old habits decide for him.

He knew. He knew how he would choose, would he be alone in this task. But he was not alone. He was Claude von Riegan, leader of the Alliance. And so he was still thinking, biding his time to act. For now, at least.

And so the month passed, from missions to classes and classes to missions, without much in the way of distractions.

And so the fateful day came upon them.


"Please enter the Holy Tomb respectfully. You are now coming into the very heart of Garreg Mach: the sacred place where the Goddess was laid to rest, so that she could watch over us for all eternity."

Rhea had used a contraption to let them into the Holy Tomb, which was normally closed and, as Claude could attest, impossible to break into. All of the Golden Deer were taking in the scenery laid out before their eyes, for it was indeed a place that seemed almost alien.

Walls of stern stone and solemn sarcophagi painted a very awe-inspiring landscape, further accentuated by the faint green light enshrouding everything, without any other visible source than the Tomb itself.

Truly, this was a room fit to be called 'Holy Tomb'.

Sweeping his gaze across the Tomb, Claude noticed dusty urns, scattered across the room.

"What's placed in these urns?" he turned to ask Rhea.

She looked uneasy for a split second—very good at keeping her emotions in check, without a doubt, but Claude was even better at reading them—before answering in her usual calm voice:

"Oh, they contain the remains of the original children of the Goddess. Please do not touch them, nor approach them. They hold great importance for the Church, and we would like to see them undisturbed."

Yeah, right, Claude thought, then why do you seem so upset about them? I'll need to sneak in and see for myself what's inside, if I can. In the meantime, add that to the list of Rhea's mysteries, I guess.

Meanwhile, Rhea had moved to another part of the room, where a huge throne lay, as cold and stony as the rest of the room. She came to stand before it, inviting Byleth to come closer. She appeared as serene as ever, but there was now something different about her attitude. It felt like she was awaiting something, and her movements betrayed impatience.

"Professor," she said, "this throne is where the divine Seiros first had her revelation about the Goddess. I have little doubt she would gift you the same, if you were to sit here. Please, come and let the Goddess reach towards you."

Byleth, a bit hesitantly, walked towards the throne and, as requested, sat on it. All eyes on him, he shifted a bit to be seated more comfortably.

For several seconds, Rhea's eagerness was plainly visible on her, before it turned into a sour frown after it became obvious nothing would happen.

"Nothing? It's impossible... You should have received a gift from the Goddess..."

She couldn't finish that train of thought, as a fuss seemed to erupt from the entrance.

In the blink of an eye, the room was filled with rushing soldiers in red armor, left, right and center. They came in like ants, in order and a seemingly never-ending stream, taking position all around the entrance and near Claude's group.

Ah. So Claude was right: she did decide to get matters moving. He smiled a knowing smile. Let's see if he could answer in kind.

The Flame Emperor walked in, with the oppressive grace of a lord coming not to battle, but to win. Someone who already fancied themself owner of this room and everything it could offer. At their side, a scrawny man with a wicked grin, appearing to Claude like on mad dog on a tight leash, ready to sink its teeth at anything close enough to its mouth. Said mad dog, or maybe man, begun speaking.

"Don't move, any of y—"

"Enough. I will handle this myself."

Just like a disobedient dog, he had been promptly shut up by his master, and was now reduced to a somewhat upset visage. Ignoring him, the tall figure at his side spoke up, aiming their words at the group near the throne.

"We came here to seek allies, and we will get them, one way or another. What say you?"

A murmur of incomprehension traveled through the group, but Rhea quickly had it extinguished with the rage in her voice.

"You! You defile this holy ground, yet you dare speak of allies? By desecrating this place, you condemn yourself to the eternal flames! There will be no negotiations!"

An impressed silence floated in the air, broken by a casual:

"Actually..."

All eyes shifted on Claude, ranging from interested to disbelieved to actually furious. He didn't let it bother him, though Rhea's in particular were difficult to ignore.

"I feel like you should first unveil your face and intentions. That would help in the whole 'seeking allies' things, in my opinion."

The Flame Emperor looked him down, but complied once he winked at her.

"Fine. If I must."

The mask revealed, to the surprise of many, silver hair and an ivory face, in which two purple eyes were ablaze with resolve, yet twinkling with just the slightest touch of amusement. The murmur intensified.

"See? I believe there was a huge misunderstanding here."

"A misunderstanding?" Rhea shouted. "This woman, who should be honored of serving the Church, has made irruption into the—"

"As. I. Was. Saying." Claude interrupted her, and he could clearly see Lorenz's eyes coming out of their sockets at that blasphemy, "I believe our guest should explain the reason for her presence here. Wouldn't that be courteous?"

There was no retort from Rhea, whether she was choking from the indignation or actually a little bit curious herself. Either way, she was still fuming, but all eyes came expectantly back to Edelgard, who greeted them with an iron stare of her own. She cleared her throat, then roared:

"I am Edelgard von Hresvelg, last from Wilhelm I's line! Today, as the Adrestian Emperor, I declare what my ancestor did not: war to the Church, and if needed, war to all of Fódlan!"

The silence following that was absolutely deafening. Most of the Golden Deer were looking at each other, unsure of what their ears had picked up. Edelgard almost looked satisfied of her effect, though she kept a mask of stone.

"You would taint the name of your ancestor and drown in your own foolish decisions in the same breath? How low do you intend to stoop?"

Rhea had found where her tongue lay again, and she was now using it with the same seething rage. However, Edelgard was unfazed, standing tall against the storm coming her way.

"You would not understand, would you? This whole world needs to be smelt in flames, for a better world to emerge from its ashes. The Crest system must be abolished, for no one should have their value decided by whether or not they bear one."

"Blasphemy! The Crests are the favored of the Goddess, bestowed upon this sinful earth!"

"I know what the Church establishes as dogma." Edelgard sneered. "It doesn't change my point of view in the slightest. Nobility must be uprooted, as Crests feed nobility, and nobility breeds Crests."

She paused, pondering for a bit.

"Oh, I have no doubt this system once worked as intended: a time when noble leaders were adorned with Crests to better display their leading abilities."

Contempt returned to her voice, ponderation no longer filling her words.

"But such a time has been left behind, only spreading through the toxic notion of equating leadership with Crests! Young women being bid to the highest offer, their value heightened by a mark they despise! Young men told they wouldn't lead armies or houses, because they are missing a mark they covet! I deem such a system unacceptable. To create a world of equal possibilities for all, a world where your blood doesn't decide your future. This is what I declare war for!"

For a moment, blazing fury met ice-cold disdain, but neither woman was the one who broke the silence. No, it was a much higher-pitched voice, one of another girl with white hair.

"You already know that, but I'm by your side, in life and in death."

Appearing as confident as ever, albeit slightly shaking, Lysithea walked towards Edelgard. She stood at her side, shooting an apologetic look at Claude.

"Sorry, Claude, but this world of hers... If I can help build it, then the option will transcend my loyalty to you."

She had done it.

Lysithea, a member of the Golden Deer, had turned traitor by joining the Adrestian Empire in a war in which the Alliance hadn't picked sides yet. Everyone was utterly flabbergasted -save for Byleth, who was looking at Claude. He was looking at a man with the slightest smile, a man who accurately predicted this situation, desired it, even.

He smiled at Lysithea, none of the fury or bitterness she expected in his voice.

"Eh, don't worry about that. I was about to make my own announcement, but Princess here stole my spotlight."

He mock-pouted at Edelgard, who rolled her eyes as her only answer, before putting on his serious face and turning at the rest of the group, leaving Lysithea wide-eyed.

"I, Claude von Riegan, hereby announce the Alliance to side with the Adrestian Empire in its war!"

His voice boomed around the Tomb, leaving only silence in its wake. Maybe he should have made his war declaration a bit longer? It did feel a bit flat... Edelgard's was certainly more impressive, but he preferred to stay concise.

On the other side of the room, he noted, Rhea felt like she was about to implode from her ire, but playing with fire was his specialty. It added some thrill to the game.

Or so he told himself to keep calm, when an especially large shadow loomed over him. A huge hand landed on his shoulder, and before he could react, Raphael was locking his eyes with him, his expression darker than Claude had ever seen him. You never notice how physically impressive your friends are until they look like they're wondering whether to murder you.

"Claude... I don't really know stuff about politics and all, but... This choice you made... It will keep Maya safe, right? You're not sending her to death, are you?"

"No, Raphael." another, more irritatingly sophisticated voice answered, "I believe that Claude, for once, was not totally devoid of political sense. It was unusually wise of him to ally himself to the Empire, even if he may have done it a bit too quickly for comfort..."

Lorenz, you don't know how much I've thought this over and over, so please stop talking now.

Though, Lorenz's argument proved very effective, as both he and Raphael moved over to join Edelgard's ranks. Lorenz never looked at Rhea while he did so, and averted his gaze even afterwards.

A more unexpected voice then rose.

"Um... If you truly want to rid the world of Crests... then I will help you... and Lysithea. I-If you'd have me, and Dorte, of course..."

Marianne had spoken, clutching her dress, eyes lowered to the ground. Yet her resolve grew larger, and she dared to look at Edelgard. The deathly pale girl only smiled and extended her hand towards Marianne, a gesture that lit something in Marianne's eyes. Relief? Happiness? Resolve? Hope, perhaps? Claude couldn't tell, but Marianne took her hand nonetheless, the shyest smile creeping on her lips.

Seeing this, Rhea burst once more, this time with a slightly different strategy.

"This is all unacceptable. The eternal flames are still too good for you, and I'll see that your punishment will be more than adequate. Professor, she added towards Byleth, kill all of the apostates standing here before us. This is only divine will."

Even before Byleth could react to that order, the sound of steel echoed.

Surprisingly, it didn't come from Edelgard, nor did it from her guard. Hilda had drawn her battle axe, a cold look on her face as she turned to face Rhea and her teacher.

"Okay, I don't really want to be that kind of girl... But, hmmm, how do I put it? You try to harm Marianne, you die. Yes, even if it's you, professor. Please forgive me in advance?"

Her words were light, but her expression, tone and body language were all serious. The temperature dropped even more than it had before.

Byleth simply shrugged, in a sort of "yeah, like I'd do such a thing" gesture, to which Hilda flashed one of her more usual bright smiles before retreating towards Marianne, axe still in hand, eyes still on Rhea. Byleth himself soon followed suit, although he took his usual place at Claude's right side.

The only two people left were Ignatz and Leonie. Ignatz hurried on Edelgard's side once he caught Raphael's and Marianne's pleading stares, but Leonie did not move. She was livid.

"Professor... Claude... Everyone... What is going on? What are you doing? Why are you joining these guys? They... They killed Jeralt, you know?"

Tears began to appear in the corner of her eyes. She continued to plead:

"This is a bad joke, right? Hey, guys... You're not serious, are you? You can't possibly ally with them, right? Don't you see that they're the bad guys in this story? Please... come to your senses already!"

Claude took pity on her and decided to clear the doubts she clung onto, as painful as it would be for her. He had kind of anticipated her reaction, but Leonie was truly a wild card in this scenario.

"I can assure you, it is not a joke. In the upcoming war, the Alliance and the Empire will walk side by side to reforge this world. This, at least, is also a shared dream of mine."

Edelgard shot him a complex glance, but he didn't elaborate. As for Leonie, something broke within her. She slumped, defeated, tears coming down her cheeks.

However, Rhea, who had remained very quiet and only had Leonie at her side now, quickly became the center of attention when she began glowing a bright green. A low hum started thrumming through the air, due to the power radiating from the now-invisible Rhea.

"Uh, say, Princess," Claude asked, his hair standing on end, "you wouldn't happen to know what's happening to her? I have a bad feeling about this..."

"Such a high power spike..." she asnwered, beads of sweat forming on her face. "I do not know what Rhea is doing, but I believe we should evacuate immediately. If this is a secret ace in the Church's sleeve, there is no doubt it will be directed at us."

"So it's high time we get out of here, don't you think?"

"We got what we came for, so I won't object." she said, eyeing the glowing Rhea. "Retreat! Go back to the planned meeting point!" she ordered to her troops.

They started evacuating the room, leaving Leonie, still in her own world, since she was on the other side of Rhea, who was clearly emanating an abnormal amount of power now. The ground was shaking, and the hum felt more powerful now.

"You will not get away, you traitors! Get back here!"

Those were the words she roared. Not like a human being using the full power of their vocal chords, but like a beast defiantly announcing its might. In place of Rhea stood a white dragon-like figure, its eyes fixated on the fleeing group.

"Watch out, she's trying to have the Holy Tomb crumble on our heads!"

In a panic, everyone rushed through the door, then back into the cathedral. Hubert and a group of mages were waiting for them, visibly alarmed.

"Your Majesty! What happened down there? And why are these people", he added, squinting his eyes, "with you?

"The explanations can come later, Hubert! Teleport us, now!"

He took the time to make a small bow.

"As you wish, Your Majesty."

In a flash, Claude felt the typical tingle of teleportation magic, then his feet touched the ground again. He let out a breath he didn't know he was holding.

"That... may have been terrifying. Is everybody accounted for?"

"Yeah, I think we're all there." Hilda answered. "I'm not sure if we're alright, though." She gave Claude a look.

"Wait. Where's Leonie?"

At Ignatz's distressed shout, Claude tried to look around him.

There was no orange hair in sight.

"Is she... is she still in the Holy Tomb? Is she... You have to teleport us back!" Ignatz shouted towards Hubert. "She might be trapped!"

"It's too dangerous, even for us." Claude intervened. "We risk getting trapped too."

"Claude..."

As much as Ignatz was burning to get back and rescue Leonie, he saw the truth of that argument. He clenched his fists a few times before looking at the ground, defeated.

The girl might still be alive if she was somehow rescued by Rhea...

No, more importantly, Claude needed to assess his own situation, instead of wallowing in wishful thinking. Where had they been teleported to?

"This is a temporary base of operations for the Black Eagles." Edelgard said, traces of shock still on her face. "Make yourselves comfortable. I'll ask the attendants to bring more furniture."

"A temporary base? You really think of everything."

The shadow of a smile blossomed on her lips.

"You'll find me full of surprises, Claude. Anyway, the living conditions may be harsh, but they shouldn't be for long. If you're looking for me, I'll be in my quarters." she said while pointing to a tent that vaguely seemed bigger than the others. She had been looking at Claude and Byleth both.

With half a dozen pair of eyes in disbelief staring at her, she turned, her silvery hair waving ever so elegantly in the twilight, before walking away. Being able to walk away so casually, after witnessing something so... bizarre really was a demonstration of strength.

Claude sighed, before muttering to himself.

"Oh, how I wish to see Dimitri's face right now... Let's just hope this was the right time to act, and the proper course of action. Otherwise, my house of cards is going to blow up spectaularly."

Chapter Text

Part I: White Clouds

 

The newcomers quickly settled at the so-called 'provisional camp'. Edelgard made good on her promise to grant them furniture, and all were pleased to see she wasn't treating them as second grade members of the army—which led Claude to the conclusion he wasn't the only one who expected such an unlikely collaboration. At the very least, it must have been a solid possibility in her mind.

The rest of the Golden Deer were recovering from the initial shock, helped by the friendships most of them had built within the Black Eagles. Lorenz, for example, was more than happy to spend his days contributing nothing meaningful and drinking tea with Ferdinand. Some of them still weren't too fond of Claude forcing their hand, in a sense, as he experienced with Hilda, pretty much right after their escape.


He was touring the camp to assess their strength and numbers (he wasn't a man to just stand by idly and drink tea, after all), when he saw a flash of pink out of the corner of his eye.

An instant later, Hilda was walking up to him, an unusual, complex expression on her face.

"Claude, can we talk for a moment?"

"Hm? Sure, what's the matter?"

She didn't answer right away, instead looking at him with the same clouded face. Did something happen?

"About what happened at the Holy Tomb..."

"Yeah, what a show, right? With Rhea transforming into that dragon and all."

But Hilda shook her head.

"I'm not talking about that, Claude. I want to know about... this."

She turned towards the whole camp.

"Edelgard... Did you know—"

"That she and the Flame Emperor were one and the same?" Claude answered, trying to sound cheerful." Yup, I knew."

"So, when we had that little meeting in your room, and you talked about that war Edelgard wanted to lead..."

"I was referring to her crusade against the Church and nobility, indeed."

He said that while maintaining a light tone of voice, but Hilda's gaze was pinning him in place. He could sense anger radiating from her.

"Why, Claude? Why didn't you tell us anything?"

Ah, so that was it. She felt like he hadn't trusted her then and there. He couldn't blame her for thinking that way, as being secretive was part of his character anyway.

"Well," he said, ruffling his hair, "I couldn't have word reaching ill-intentioned ears, you know. If rumors of collusion between the Alliance and the Flame Emperor were to emerge before I had even reached for a final decision, we were all going to be executed like the Western Church members."

He had thought that a good argument, which made Hilda frowning ever more deeply at the words all the more surprising.

"We are not exactly going to be safe now either, and I hope you realize that. We are now wanted criminals near Garreg Mach! The situation has changed, but now it's worse, because Rhea is sending her knights to decorate some pikes with our heads!"

"Oh, I don't think it is worse." Claude answered with his trademark mischievious grin. Before Hilda could open her mouth, he continued on. "Think about it: now we all have a common goal and our shaky little arrangement has been reforged in the Holy Tomb. We are now a team."

Hilda was pondering his words, but at least she'd dropped her frown in favor of a dubitative pout.

"What do you mean, 'reforged'? Why was there a need to reforge it anyway?"

"Well, everyone stated their intentions back there, did they not? Lysithea, Lorenz, Raphael, Marianne... Even Leonie." he added with a hint of grief "They all came clear and joined a side of their own accord. You did as well, didn't you?"

"Well..."

"You may pretend it was all for Marianne, and I won't stop you. But, in truth, you, too, wish to escape the system that put so much pressure on Holst and you, don't you? I know you've always been stressed out about Holst and your family at home."

She averted her eyes.

"Case closed." Claude concluded, a childish glee in his voice.

Finally, Hilda sighed, back to her usual self.

"Alright, alright, I never said I wasn't going to be at your side in this! I just worry about our friends, that's all. You can talk about great ideals of equity all you want, it doesn't hide the fact that we're dead if we make one wrong move. I don't want to see them die. Not Raphael, not Ignatz, not Lysithea, not you. Not Marianne."

"I think you forgot Lorenz."

"Jury's still out on this one!"

She stuck her tongue out at him, before walking away, a renewed spring in her step. Mission complete, Claude thought.


The only problem now was Ignatz. From the day they escaped the Holy Tomb, he had been a bit down, no doubt feeling ashamed about leaving Leonie behind. He did not seem to come to terms with his decision, unlike the others who had eased into their new temporary home. He wandered aimlessly around the camp, deep in thought. No one had dared to disturb him up until now, and of course it was Claude's job to do just that.

Well, time for some more pep talk then.

Ignatz was currently peeling potatoes near the camp's kitchen area. He was doing a stunning impression of your average dejected person peeling potatoes, too, complete with sighs and looking at the half-peeled potato like he could hear its cries of pain.

Clearly, this would be a challenge.

"Oh, my, if it isn't Ignatz here. Great timing, you were the one I wanted to see!"

Ignatz turned to see Claude approaching with a kilowatt smile. He nodded before turning back to the potato in his hand.

"Hello, Claude." he greeted gloomily. "Why did you want to see me?"

"I can't help but feel like you're down, you know? You're brooding and dragging your feet... What's wrong?"

Claude took a seat next to Ignatz, along with as a knife and a potato. Since there was no way around this conversation, he could as well help prepare tonight's meal.

"I'm alright, Claude, I swear. It's just that... It keeps replaying in my head. The scene at the Holy Tomb. The panic. The declarations."

He shook his head, looking far away, much further than the potato.

"I-I don't know why you chose to turn your back on the Church, but I trust you and your decisions. Really, I do!"

Claude did not utter a word. Now that Ignatz was talking, there was no point in interrupting him with plain thanks.

"I really want to see the new world Edelgard has mentioned! To institute equality like that... To remove the nobility system... I believe it might create a fairer world, one where you can't use 'accidents' to hide your shortcomings."

There was bitterness in his voice, and his gaze had fully returned to this world. Raphael's picture briefly came to Claude's mind, but he still wasn't opening his mouth. Ignatz was not done yet.

"That said, I can also understand why Leonie chose to stay behind. I mean," he said, lifting his face up, "Edelgard is involved with Remire and Flayn's kidnapping, right? Maybe some of the other Black Eagles are, too... Not that I want to believe it, but it keeps..."

"Nagging at you?" Claude picked up where Ignatz had left off. "Always at the back of your head? I know the feeling."

Ignatz nodded as he put his peeled potato in the basket, taking an unpeeled one.

"I will follow you, and I will follow Edelgard. If nothing else, I will do it for your hopes and dreams. But, to leave her behind just like that... It doesn't sit well with me." His voice got intense. "We abandoned a friend, just because she did not want to have her hand forced! Who knows what Rhea is doing to her right now? She might be tortured as we speak!"

The hand holding the kitchen knife was shaking so violently that he had to stop peeling for a few seconds. He was taking sharp breaths, his own imagination throwing unspeakable images at him. It was one of his strengths, for sure, but Ignatz could easily turn into his own worse enemy.

"You have a kind heart, Ignatz." Claude said. "I hope you never change that aspect of you."

"O-Oh, well, um, thank you."

"Don't think that I willingly left Leonie behind. I, too, was hoping she would overcome her feelings and join us over the Church."

"Then—!" Ignatz began, hope written all over his face.

"However, she chose her own path."

Claude's face was grim. There was no trick, no subtle lie woven in his words, no intervention of the Master Tactician here. He was telling the truth, plain as it was: Leonie on her side would have been a relief. Alas...

"That being said, I do not think she is in immediate danger. It is probable that Rhea will question her, but she has no grounds to resort to violence." he hurriedly added after witnessing the look of alarm on Ignatz's face.

Although, whether Rhea herself knew she had no grounds to use violence was another matter...

"It's probable they'll quarantine her to ensure she's not a spy or something, and then she'll walk away free. She's obviously on her side, after all."

Yes. That was what would happen. An infinity of more unpleasant scenarios flashed in front of his eyes, but he shut them away. There would be no point in hypothesizing them right now.

"But then," Ignatz retorted, wide-eyed, "she'll hate us! She'll think we're traitors and murderers!"

"A small price to pay for her life, don't you think?"

Ignatz stared dumbfounded at Claude's grin.

"Someone alive can be reasoned with, or taken prisoner. That's an improvement over dead people. I say, let her live her life now, and we'll try to convince her another time, eh?"

Claude hoped Ignatz would believe his words more than he himself did. Knowing Leonie, she would not be easy to reason with. As for taking her prisoner... Fat chance. She'd die before surrendering.

At least the archer seemed to consider the possibility. When he answered, his voice was slightly more cheerful.

"Yeah... Yeah! We'll manage to find her back, reach out to her, and explain everything! I'm sure she refused to join us because it all happened so fast and she couldn't think straight!

"See? It's all a matter of perspective. You have to have faith in her, just like you have faith in me!"

"Thank you, Claude. I really needed that, I think. I'll do my best."

Seeing his spirits lifted up, Claude threw his peeled potato into the basket, then stood up.

"As long as you get back to your former self, you'll be fine. We could really use your help in the army, you know."

Ignatz beamed at him and started peeling his potato with renewed enthusiasm, which Claude took as a cue to depart.

As soon as he turned away, Claude's grin faded into a frown. If only reality could bend itself to accommodate his speeches, now wouldn't that be a treat?


Strategy meetings.

Those were top priority at the moment, as Edelgard's short-term goal was no small task: she wanted to retake Garreg Mach from Rhea's clutches.

"Uh, so you want to go in here again and face... whatever Rhea actually is?"

Apparently Hilda (who defaulted as Claude's right-hand woman, despite her groaning about it) was not very eager to relive the Holy Tomb scene. However, Edelgard wouldn't be persuaded with that little.

"Yes. Garreg Mach Monastery is a highly strategic location and will be crucial in our war against the Church and, I fear, the Kingdom."

"I take it Dimitri rallied to the Church? Ugh," Claude sighed, "it's not really unexpected, but it makes matters worse."

"It was to be assumed. The Kingdom has historically always been openly supporting the Church of Seiros. I'm willing to bet I'm not Dimitri's favorite person, either." Edelgard added, her eyes staring into the void for the briefest moment.

"I'm not taking that bet. Anyway, what do you have in mind? Do you want to storm through the front gates?"

Hubert, who had been respectfully silent up until now, stepped forward.

"This is exactly what we are willing to do."

"Can't say I'm surprised." Claude said, prompting a furtive glance from Hilda and a much less furtive one from Hubert.

Edelgard raised an eyebrow.

"Is there any reason not to? We have a massive army. The numbers play heavily in our favor."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but the fact that you still haven't taken the place by force means you're not entirely sure of the power ratio, right?"

Edelgard's face kept her neutrality. Hubert's turned into even more of a frown than his previous expression was. Claude briefly wondered if his face was able to collapse on itself that way.

"And I suppose, and I will hazard a guess here," he continued, "the unknown factor here was everyone's favorite non-human, by which I mean Rhea, right?"

He leaned back in his chair, awaiting an answer. At first, Edelgard only sighed, resting her chin in her palm.

"We still don't know what Seteth and Flayn are able to do or what their respective power level is, but, in short: yes, you are right." she said. "Rhea herself was a huge question mark, and the reason why I was hesitant to go into battle, yes."

She looked at Claude intently.

"This, and I needed to know which side you would take in this war. You, and the entirety of the Alliance. I was... mostly pleased with the result."

A name floated around the room, none of the five people within really eager to broach the subject.

"I'm glad we could come to a deal. Now, the first step towards our shared goal is to focus on Garreg Mach." Claude asserted with a distinct emphasis on 'shared'. "I take it you've adjusted your battle plan with the additional information regarding Rhea?"

"Most notably, the fact that she's actually a huge scary dragon?"

In essence, Hilda was right: Rhea had transformed from a regular human into a huge scary dragon, and one who desired nothing more than to burn them to a crisp, at that.

Even with an army at their side...

"Do not underestimate our own side." Edelgard interjected. "I have created the Black Eagles Strike Force as an elite squad ready to take action. We can certainly hold our own against Rhea."

After a brief but intense debate with himself, Claude decided not to comment on the name Edelgard had given to her 'elite squad'. Snark could come later.

"All of you—of us—can hold our own in battle, this I can believe," Claude remarked, "but what of the Knights of Seiros? It's not like they will leave her unguarded for us to calmly come in and attack Rhea and the monastery."

"This is where having a bigger and better army is a decisive advantage." Hubert said. "We'll use it as leverage to force them away from Rhea."

"A battle sometimes is just a game of numbers.", Byleth approved with a nod.

Claude raised an eyebrow, doubt ringing clear in his voice.

"If I understand correctly, you're saying we might encounter Rhea and her elite guard, and we would have to strike her down even though she'll likely assume her dragon form?"

"Obviously we will all have soldiers on our side, to assist and protect us." Edelgard tried to reassure him. "The latter part is correct, though."

Hold on a minute. She just said 'we', not 'you'.

"Are you coming with us?"

"Why wouldn't I come?" Edelgard asked, chin raised in challenge. "Do you take me for the type to sit back and send people to battle while I enjoy a glass of wine?"

Claude had naturally thought she would do just that (minus the glass of wine), as the new Adrestian Emperor. A furtive glance at Hubert told him the latter was none too happy about the idea, but Edelgard rarely took 'no' as an answer. By contrast, the look on Teach's face was clearly one of approbation. He believed a leader should be at the front of an army, not the back.

How honorable. Plenty of worthy leaders had found an honorable death that way, too.

Edelgard was growing impatient, however.

"To summarize: we distract the enemy force with a large army, seize control of Garreg Mach as fast as we can, and try to kill Rhea if we happen upon her. A most straightforward plan."

Someone had to address the elephant in the room, and Claude took it upon himself to do so.

"What if there are troops from Faerghus on Rhea's side?"

The question was yet subdued: its real meaning was 'what if Dimitri and the other Blue Lions are on the battlefield?'. To that, Edelgard inhaled sharply before replying.

"It doesn't matter. If we are defeated at Garreg Mach, our hopes—our dreams!—will be for naught. I will cut down anyone who dares to defend this place. Even a Blue Lion. Even Dimitri. And I am not alone in that. The other Black Eagles are willing to strike down any of the Blue Lions, even those they might have held dear once."

Oh, were they? There was the slightest hint of uneasiness in Edelgard's voice. She would not have many qualms, of course, but...

Silence befell the room once more, as Claude, Hilda and Byleth took in Edelgard's declaration. Would they be able to steel themselves as she had done? Would it be a bad thing if they didn't?

"Is there anything else you want to add?"

There wasn't. They were dismissed, tasked with getting more intel on Garreg Mach's defenses.


Even when looked at from afar, Garreg Mach Monastery really felt like a fortress. That's what Claude was thinking, atop the hill near Edelgard's camp. A fortress they would have to storm soon.

"Well, well. If it isn't the greatest mind of this army, studying his prey."

Claude's contemplation was interrupted by Hubert, who was climbing towards him, sporting his usual razor-sharp smile.

To be perfectly honest, Hubert had always been putting Claude on edge. He was a schemer by nature; such was his role at Edelgard's side. That meant he was as sly as a snake, or as Claude himself. Trust between schemers did not come easily.

Even now, when casting his lot alongside this very peculiar ally, he didn't really know whether to make heads or tails of him.

"I think you play the predator better than I do, Hubert." he answered with carefully crafted politeness.

Hubert's smile only grew more sinister and... self-satisfied?

"You would be right. Now," he added, nodding towards the looming structure, "have you found a weak point yet?"

"Hm, I can't say for sure, but I might have."

Hubert's eyes brightened ever so slightly. Claude invited him to take a look; he may not trust Hubert on a personal level, but if there had to be someone with a strategic mind to rival his in the entirety of the Officers' Academy, it was Hubert.

"Take a look at that section, over here, right below the northeastern tower."

Hubert squinted in the general direction Claude was pointing at.

"What are you trying to show me? I only see another fortified area."

"The fortified area is what I'm trying to show you."

Hubert took another look at the section of the building. He tried another angle.

"Why? It doesn't particularly stand out."

"It has one key feature we're looking for. Do you know where Edelgard is? It would be wise to inform her as well."

"Is water wet?" Hubert answered, rolling his eyes. "I will bring her here, but you better make it worth her time."

Once Edelgard was brought on the hill with them, she, too, squinted towards the part Claude was interested in. She didn't seem particularly impressed.

"Yes, I think I can see it. What of it? It doesn't really stand out, does it?"

Claude groaned mentally. Those two...

"It's a narrow space surrounded by decent fortifications, leading to the eastern side of the inner building." he explained. "Wouldn't that be a perfect pathway to seize Garreg Mach as quickly as possible?"

"It really is narrow,."Hubert interjected. "We would easily get trapped and shot at like rabbits if we were caught unawares. It's risky."

"Risky as it may be, the narrowness plays out in our favor: they cannot send too many troops in, so we won't get overwhelmed, and if Rhea herself catches us, she will have trouble using her dragon form for lack of space to move around."

He paused, gauging their reaction. They were still not convinced.

"Plus, look: it's far from the main entrance, where I suppose you'll be sending the decoy troops. This means we'll effectively force them to spread themselves thin. If we manage to break in, we can even cut their line of command, which will make our battle easier."

And they could always retreat behind a sturdy line of soldiers, who would most likely die so he and his friends could escape, if worse came to worst. But that was a thought from the Master Tactcian, not Claude.

While he was engulfed in his own thoughts, Edelgard and Hubert had both taken a moment to ponder his arguments.

"You have a point. Neutralizing the biggest threat is certainly a good argument in favor of that entrance." Edelgard said.

She nodded.

"Very well, we will keep this in consideration. If no other weak point is found, or if they don't show as much promise, we will target this area. In the meantime, please try to gather more intel."

"As you wish, Princess."

Edelgard and Hubert went down the hill, but Claude was sure about it: this was the place where they should launch the assault. His tactical instinct had been drawn to this particular passageway.

A few more days passed. While Claude was busy surveying the surrounding landscape, preparations were made for an invasion: weapons were sharpened, supply lines were deployed, maps were drawn.

No one found a better spot to attack. They were all impractical, or heavily guarded, or too close to the main entrance, or would be easily cut off from the rest. Claude's spot was the best solution they had on their hands. Risky, yes, and in no way foolproof, but they would have to make do.

Following the last strategy meeting, Edelgard issued her orders to the army, including members of what once was called the Golden Deer. The plan was simple: she would lead a massive army to draw as much troops as she could, while a small squad would sneak into the building and attempt to blindside the enemy, flanking them and setting them up for a pincer attack. It was not an overly complex plan, but it would be effective—if it worked.

Finally, the time for the attack was set. They would attack at dawn. The heroes always attacked at dawn, after all.

Chapter Text

Part I: White Clouds

 

The night was slowly finishing its dutiful watch when the small strike force assembled by Edelgard and Claude marched on towards the designated area.

Tension was almost palpable. It was felt in the way swords were sheathed and unsheathed repeatedly, to ensure there would be no trouble in battle. It was felt in the way gazes were drawn to shadows, shadows that could morph into an enemy at any time. It was felt in the way Linhardt was getting paler by the minute, anticipating how much work he'd have to do—and what that entailed. It was felt in the way the strike force was trying to tiptoe through the grass and paved areas, as impractical as that was.

Today would be, after all, the first real battle for most people.

Today would mark the day where they would raise their swords against the Church of Seiros. There was no coming back from that.

Claude looked around, mentally taking notes about his party's strengths and weaknesses. He could need to fine-tune their position, even though he, Edelgard, and Teach had had a long strategy meeting. He would be the de facto commander, as Edelgard herself wasn't there, having to lead the main army to hopefully obfuscate Claude's presence for as long as possible. However, Hubert tagged along, sinister joy burning in his eyes.

In the back for now was Ferdinand von Aegir, leaning on his spear, nonchalantly trying to ignore the searing gaze Dorothea was directing at him. Both of them were rather unhappy with their assigned orders, mostly because of their assigned partner. Edelgard had told him they were very effective as a pair, despite Dorothea's vehement denial, thus she had them paired for this assault. To Claude, this felt like a disaster brewing, but he would hold onto his opinion for now.

This would be the only unhappy pair of the day, though. Ignatz and Petra were already discussing with seemingly great intensity archery and... glasses? Claude could only gather bits of the conversation, but he was more or less sure that was the topic. To help get a better aim, perhaps? Claude himself was blessed with excellent eyesight, so he just offered his thanks to the gods and went to check on the last duo of potential troublemakers.

To his very mild surprise, Caspar was already carrying two axes: his own, and Hilda's, who was busy entertaining him with whatever tale she had cooked up to prevent him from thinking about how he was currently exploited. Not that preventing Caspar from thinking was a hard task, which made him a prime target for Hilda's antics. She casually waved at Claude upon seeing him, before her attention switched back to the short boy besides her. Well, at least those axes seemed workable, so if none of them lost their focus in battle—or if Caspar just did what Hilda told him to do—, they should hopefully not cause any issue.

Claude himself was not exactly used to being on the front lines. Being both a tactician and an archer made him more at home at the rear, or at most in the middle. This time, though, he had asked to lead the charge.

He felt the need to steel his resolve to act, and merely not watch. Edelgard had given him an appreciative nod, though she had raised concerns about his safety. He had argued that she didn't seem to mind putting her own life on the line in battle, and she had easily surrendered the argument.

Luckily for him, there was Teach. Someone he could rely on without the shadow of a doubt. The same Teach who was pointing towards the rather obvious mass of rather obviously hostile soldiers, beginning to deploy in formation.

Ah.

By squinting a bit, Claude could even discern brief flashes of green hair among the confusion. Did Edelgard's plan fail? They had brought fearsome opponents! Had an elite squadron been detached to meet them?

Wait a minute. Wasn't that Catherine on that eastern position, far ahead? If she was here, then the grandmaster herself must certainly not be far away. Knowing the Knight of Seiros, she wouldn't let Rhea lead a charge she herself wasn't part of. However, she was nowhere in sight. Not yet, at least. How strange.

Claude gave the order to stop marching. Ending their conversation, all soldiers looked ahead with curiosity, which turned to stern resolve. They must have come to the same conclusion Claude reached: they could very well be facing Rhea and her own willpower to oppose theirs. While some were shaking, none took the slightest step back. If the Adrestian army was to be praised on one point, it should be about its bravery. A tinge of pride breezed through his heart since none of the Alliance soliders showed any will to turn tail, either.

More orders were given, battalions took formation, and troops slowly deployed, marching with grim determination towards their enemy. Shouts were coming from the other side, too, meaning they had spotted their formation and were readjusting accordingly.

At least their numbers were about the same as theirs. Rhea, if she actually was leading this squad, couldn't afford to spare many knights. That, at least, was a reassurance. It was pretty much the only one.

When they reached position, they stopped. For a moment, men and women of both armies stared each other down, trying to carve a hole in each other's determination before the battle even begun. However, as expected of two professional armies, no one backed down. If anything, it only riled everyone up even more.

Claude and his small army started to advance. As they did, he took the time to carefully check every battalion was where it was supposed to be.

To his right, the axe-wielding battalion, tasked with storming the right side before coming around from behind for a pincer attack.

To his left, the spearmen, who would have to take out the alleged magic flank of the enemy. He had suggested to add in a few casters as well, to use protection and healing spells. Most healers were left in the back, though. Claude has briefed the troops beforehand: they were to evacuate gravely injured soldiers to the back lines, where they would be safely healed. No comrade shall be left to die if he could help it.

Between the healers and his own battalion, comprised of basically whoever didn't fit in any other neatly arranged battalion, were the archers. They had been ordered to stay behind and use hit-and-run tactics. They really needed to preserve their ranged units here. Well, they really needed to preserve everyone, but the gods of war usually laugh in the face of such a statement.

While he was absorbed in his thought, they had gone from a march to a full charge. Claude and Byleth were at the spearhead, or in this case, the tridenthead.

War cries resonated in the air... then both armies clashed.

Claude was immediately engulfed into chaos.

He drew his own axe, spotted an enemy with their back turned towards him, and struck with a ferocious two-handed blow. His axe sunk into his enemy's side, devastating their spinal cord. They fell lifeless without so much as a scream.

He didn't have time to dwell on the death of a Knight of Seiros, though. He was too busy listening to the battlefield, taking its pulse.

It was of utmost importance that he could still direct his army even in the middle of the bloodshed. His role was not much to kill, but to lead others to kill efficiently. It was a difficult task. It was not the most pleasant one, but it was one he would see done.

He gripped his axe, took a look around him, and directed his battalion towards the fray.


He wasn't the only one dancing in the madness of this fight. The three-headed formation as a whole was trying to trap the enemy, who had adopted a similar pattern, between the walls of the monastery and a sea of steel. On this side of the building, screams of rage and pain were filling the air, blades were flashing, arrows storming.

On the left side of the battlefield, an odd couple was slowly but surely making their way towards their target.

"Dorothea, how are you holding up? You didn't get injured, did you?"

"No need to cobble me like I'm some sort of young child, Ferdie. I'm fine."

"Good! The world would sorely miss a flower such as you."

Dorothea rolled her eyes and sent a lightning bolt towards an axeman threatening one of her pegasi subordinates.

"They just keep coming, don't they?"

"Are you seriously trying to make small talk in the middle of a battle?" she hissed. "I would picture you less foolish than that."

"Haha! I am a gentleman, after all!" the orange-haired boy replied while skewering a poor swordsman who couldn't jump out in time.

"That wasn't a compliment, you idiot! What, are you going to tell me how lovely the weather is next?"

"Don't be ridiculous, Dorothea. It's a really cloudy morning."

"I... Never mind."

Maybe it was his way to cope with the battle?

Rhythmic bolts and spear thrusts were the only conversation they had for a while. As Ferdinand had said, the enemy was coming, wave after wave, with increased desperation, and they needed to be fended off. There weren't many enemy arrows coming their way; either they were focusing fire elsewhere, or the opposing squad had few archers to spare. Considering what Edelgard had told them, it may be the latter. That was a relief; they were ill-equipped to handle rains of arrows.

By bolting and thrusting, they made their way towards the leftmost stronghold they were aiming for.

There were three strongholds in this passageway: one on the left, one on the right, and another one, deeper into the building. Seizing all three would mean assuming control of that part of the building.

Since they were on the left side, they were headed for the leftmost stronghold. The goal of their squad was to seize it, and hold it as the left anchor point, cutting one of the enemy's escape routes and making a pincer attack easier to execute.

However, it appeared the stronghold had been entrusted to someone. Green hair, a mage's robes, and a feeling of fleetingness: the one standing in front of them, wearing her resolute face, was none other than Flayn, surrounded by a circle of mages, likely under her command.

"In the name of the Holy Church, and in the name of my brother, who trusted me with holding this place, I will not let you pass!"

Dorothea was about to reach out to her when she noticed something strange. Ferdinand von Aegir, who up until now was eerily relaxed, had tensed up to the point of getting white knuckles while holding his spear. She could see beads of sweat running down his cheek.

Something was amiss. Was Flayn really that powerful? Dorothea only knew the girl from afar, but she knew she seemed quite adept at magic. Wasn't she supposed to be more of a healer?

Before she could collect her thoughts, Ferdinand sighed and adopted a defensive stance.

"Why, hello, Flayn. Fancy meeting you here, of all places."

But Flayn shook her head, not entertaining her opponent. She extended her hand, the way a mage does before casting a spell. This, Dorothea knew.

"I am sorry, Ferdinand, but today, we meet as enemies. Only one of us will walk away from this battlefield!"

Her hand was subtly shaking. Her voice, probably resolute to everyone else, felt even shakier to the ears of a professional theater artist. This, Dorothea also knew.

The girl was faking most, if not all, of her bravado.

What she wasn't expecting at all was the very same annoying Ferdinand von Aegir suddenly wearing a big smile and letting his spear rest at his side.

"If that is the case, then I ask of you that you strike me down."

Silence fell down. None of the men accompanying the three generals dared move a muscle, fascinated by such an illogical move. Neither Dorothea nor Flayn were believing their ears. The latter was opening and closing her mouth like a fish.

When she finally spoke, the facade was already crumbling.

"I... I will not hesitate, Ferdinand!" she shouted. "I have to do it!"

"Good. Then you will have to." There was, in comparison, nothing fake in his voice. He still was not making any offensive move, still offering himself.

"Ferdinand, what are you—"

"Please, Dorothea." Ferdinand interrupted her, not taking his eyes off Flayn. "This is between Flayn and me. I would ask you not to interfere."

For some reason that even her could not fully explain, Dorothea complied. She took a step back and watched the scene unfold. Flayn was now completely panicked, taken aback by Ferdinand's attitude. Even her mages were murmuring in awe.

"Why are you doing this, Ferdinand?" Flayn said, her voice devoid of confidence. "Why can't you be... a normal foe? An evil, bloodthirsty one?"

"You see," Ferdinand replied, still smiling his creepy serene smile, "I couldn't bear to hurt you, obviously, so if what you said is true... then there is only one end to this fight, isn't there?"

Tears were welling up in Flayn's eyes. She still had her hand extended, but the shaking had only increased. If she fired now, there was a good chance she'd miss Ferdinand entirely.

"Why are you torturing me with this dilemma? Why, Ferdinand? Why did it have to be you?"

She wiped her tears with her sleeve, wailing.

"I... I can't either! I refuse!"

When he heard her answer, Ferdinand tossed his spear aside and sprinted towards her, surprising even Dorothea. One of the mages tried to react, but it was too late: Ferdinand had already reached the young girl.

There, to everyone's surprise, including Dorothea, he embraced her. Without any warning, he had wrapped his arms around Flayn, whispering what Dorothea was assuming to be words of comfort in her ear.

Flayn herself was now sobbing, tears flowing down her face freely. Later, when recalling that day, Dorothea would swear she had seen Ferdinand's cheek glistening as well.

Members of both armies were standing around, unsure of what to do, glancing at their brethren in hope they were understanding what was happening. No one dared to move. Dorothea dared not to move. What was playing out in front of her was at the very least uncommon on a battlefield.

What a great opera this would make, though. she thought.

She never knew what exactly Ferdinand told Flayn, but the latter suddenly ran off to the side, droplets shining in the morning sun behind her. The rest of her army, completely befuddled but still loyal, went after her.

The stronghold was theirs to take. The army cheered, hesitantly at first, then louder and louder. The men rushed to take hold of the stronghold and check for hidden enemies still in the area.

Ferdinand came back towards Dorothea, a pained expression on his face.

"She told me she would retreat." he answered the question Dorothea seemed to wear on her face. "I had her promise me to stay out of harm's way, as much as possible."

Dorothea let out a breath she didn't know she was holding.

"Well, that's a relief, at least. I would like to win without a battle more often. But, tell me, Ferdie, how did you know she wouldn't fire at you?"

"I didn't."

Dorothea looked at her classmate with widened eyes.

"Wha— So you're telling me you could actually have died right here, under my eyes?"

"There was no way I would hurt Flayn, Dorothea. So, yes, I could very well have died right there and then."

Amidst her confusion, her opera senses still picked up on Ferdinand's distressed tone of voice. He, too, was shuddering.

"I mean, look at her. It's Flayn!" he said, a bit louder. "The plucky girl who beams when you get her a particularly big fish! She was made for healing, not battling. You saw her hand shake back then, yes? She must have been scared out of her mind..."

Dorothea gazed at Ferdinand with a renewed opinion of her annoying classmate.

"That was surprisingly considerate of you. It may be the first time I've seen you act so..."

She paused a bit, looking for a word.

"...noble. And I do actually mean that in the good sense of the term, Ferdie."

He shrugged, relaxing ever so slightly at her words.

"I will accept that compliment, then. In any case," he added, looking at the fortified structure, "we better properly seize this stronghold, don't you think?"

He offered her his hand in typical Ferdinand von Aegir fashion, as he had done countless times. This time, however, she accepted it.

In the skies above them, unseen by ground forces, shadows were passing through the dense clouds.

Chapter Text

Part I: White Clouds

 

Petra had been surprised when tasked with guarding Ignatz and his fellow archers. It was no mystery she was talented with a bow, and her years of hunting had only honed this skill further. Why, then, was she to be relegated to bodyguard duty?

"Your ability to move undetected is invaluable to this army." Edelgard had told her when she had voiced her questions. "It also pairs really well with Ignatz's qualities. A sniper's eye is always focused far away from them—just ask Bernadetta. it leaves them wide open to close combat, as they won't see or sense the enemy coming. Patrolling around will let you intercept enemies thinking they got an easy prey."

It was why she was here, alone, as no one could really be as furtive as she was, crouching to safeguard the entire area around Ignatz and the other archers, her sword to her side. She didn't really mind, though: Ignatz was pleasant to be with and she had taken an interest to the lenses he wore—'glasses', was it?

They had chatted at length before the battle, and she knew Ignatz trusted her to ensure his safety. To honor his trust, she would do everything in her power to protect him.

However, even someone like Petra would have trouble detecting a sneak attack from the sky. Say, from a small regiment of wyvern riders, for example.

When she heard enraged roars and helpless, definitely very human yelps, she took a moment to realize what was happening, before swearing under her breath and sprinting towards the small hill Ignatz and the others were supposed to be located.

What once was an orderly formation of archers was now little more than chaos. Reptiles were sowing confusion among the sharpshooters, who weren't used to directly facing an enemy at close range. Some short-range arrows were let loose, but it was clear her side was at a disadvantage.

She barely slowed down before leaping towards a wyvern that had its back turned to her and slashed at its human partner. The man screamed before falling limp, while his wyvern turned its head around in confusion.

She rebounded off her opponent, her sword a flash of steel in the morning light, before piercing the wing of a nearby wyvern. It roared and shook with anger and pain, dislodging the pilot from its back before fleeing, on foot, towards the wall. Disregarding the wounded beast, Petra closed in for the kill with swiftness, her mind already set on her next prey.

She was dancing. Her surroundings blurred as she was bringing death to her enemies. One, two, then more fell under her blade.

She noticed, between two swings, her fellow archers starting to reorganize and fire back. Good. They would cover her.

A mighty cry stopped her in her tracks.

She raised her head, only for a gale to buffet her face. An especially large wyvern crashed into the ranks of archers, sending some of them flying and some more fleeing for cover.

Instinctively, Petra adopted a defensive stance. Whoever that foe was, they would be fiercer than the other soldiers. You don't give such a powerful beast to any tamer. That was what her instinct was screaming at her, and her instinct had never been wrong.

However, a glimmer of blonde hair was visible under one of the wyvern's talons. A glimmer of hair that had caught the wyvern's attention as well, and it was baring its teeth at it. A curiously bowl-shaped glimmer, in fact. What could it—

It was Ignatz.

Ignatz had been pinned by the monster when it had landed.

Ignatz was under that thing, the thing whose mouth was creeping slowly, almost curiously towards him.

Petra's blood turned cold. Then it started to boil. Rage and fear seized control, and she saw herself charging blindly at the beast.

She crashed right into its side, rolled and sprang back to her feet. In front of her, the wyvern was staggering, more surprised than hurt, but Ignatz was free from its grasp.

She dashed, caught his sleeve and tugged him out of its reach, adrenaline bolstering her strength.

He was breathing weakly but steadily, only unconscious. Petra sighed in relief.

Celebrations would wait, though. She turned to face the wyvern and its rider, as they advanced towards her.

When she locked eyes with the rider, her blood turned cold once more.

Yet this time, it stayed frozen.

She knew the face staring at her from the other side of the wyvern. She knew because that same face had once been painted with wonder, with frustration, and with disbelief.

The face belonged to Cyril, Rhea's assistant and former Almyran. Today, there was no wonder, frustration, or disbelief to be spotted on his face. There was only unbridled rage, nourished by pain and betrayal.

Petra felt sorrow sink its teeth in her soul, but she knew the rules of war. Whenever you don't hunt, you are the prey, and she had always refused to be a prey. She readied her sword.

Cyril's wyvern squad has been killed. Ignatz's archers were in disarray, and Ignatz itself was still laying on the ground. Echoes of the battle felt far, far away, on another continent.

Today's dance would be a duet.

Petra charged forward, extending her arm to slice through the wyvern's fragile wings, but Cyril had it dodge by flying up.

That would be a problem. She obviously couldn't hit him while he was in the air. She needed to extend her range.

Ignatz had a bow. she thought. I need to grab it!

She kept an eye on Cyril and crept backwards, inching her way to Ignatz. If she could switch between weapons, she could increase the pressure on Cyril...

However, the young man must have guessed her plan, because the wyvern suddenly leapt and cut Ignatz off from her. He was now behind the wyvern, out of Petra's reach—and his bow with him.

On the bright side, it appeared she had successfully distracted Cyril from the defenseless blonde boy. If his were to use the same dodging strategy he had used prior, then surely all she had to do was charge again and wait for him to fly up, then snatch him.

She lunged.

A clanking sound wasn't what she had expected.

She rolled sideways on pure reflexes to avoid the wyvern's jaw reaching for her neck. Cyril had his axe in hand, looking at her with a mix of anguish and fury.

Petra gritted her teeth. She would give it one more go before—

"Why?"

Cyril was shaking his head, clenching his axe.

"Why did you have to turn against Lady Rhea?" he asked. "What did she do to you? She is strong, and kind, and just. Why did you decide to become her enemy?"

So that explained the anguish. Petra let out a soft sigh, then:

"My loyalty is lying with the Empire, just as yours is lying with Rhea. It is giving me great pain to fight you, Cyril, but I will be helping my friends. Their path is my path."

Cyril closed his eyes for a brief second, pondering these words.

"Loyalty, huh. It was as simple as that, then." Anger returned to his voice. "In definitive, you are nothing more than traitors. Well, that makes it simple for me, at least."

With a shriek, Cyril's wyvern lunged forward, forcing Petra to avoid both steel and teeth.

It was bad. She was on the defensive, and there was no opening she could exploit.

She couldn't outrun the wyvern.

She couldn't attack.

She couldn't retreat to the trees and leave Ignatz here.

Her last option was to outlast the beast. If she could manage to wear it down...

She jumped backwards to dodge another swing of Cyril's axe. He wasn't well synchronized with his mount, which was a small mercy.

Petra began hopping around the wyvern, baiting attacks and retreating, always escaping by a hair's breadth and never, never letting it approach Ignatz.

She dodged left, and she dodged right, her training letting her cheat death what felt like five, ten, a thousand times.

It wouldn't work.

It wouldn't work!

Her muscles were already past their limit and screaming at her to stop, her breath was ragged, and her hands were starting to shake.

Even then, the draconic being showed no sign of weakness or fatigue. Cyril had visible beads of sweat, but his gaze was still full of grim determination. He could let his wyvern handle the attack if needed anyway.

Petra realized that she would die here, on this day, and at the hands of Cyril, her former friend. Her Brigid blood was feeling pride towards Cyril, because besting her, even with the help of a wyvern, was no small task.

Still, she would at least die like a hunter, not like a prey.

Drawing on her reserves, she mounted one last charge at Cyril.

She let out a battle cry. A battle cry that contained all of her will to survive, all of her rage and distress.

A battle cry that made even Cyril and his mount recoil in either terror or anticipation.

With that battle cry, she was letting out her swan's song.

Yet, in that exact moment, a blur came from the corner out her eye, stopping at the wyvern.

The animal roared in pain, before violently shaking and collapsing to the ground in seconds. Petra waited a bit, wary of a trap, but there was no need.

It was dead. Truly dead.

Stopped in her tracks, Petra turned to look at where the blur had come from, only to see Ignatz, clutching his bow, giving her a weak thumbs up before collapsing as well.

Looking back to a shocked Cyril, the wyvern had an arrow sticking out of its eye. Ignatz must have had struck its brain.

He had given her the opportunity to survive. She would have to thank him properly later. For now, though...

She walked towards Cyril, her sword raised, her fatigue all but forgotten as adrenaline rushed through her veins.

He took a look at her eyes and shuddered. To his credit, he rose to his feet and awaited her, fear and stubbornness fighting for a place on his face. Still, whichever won did not deter him from fighting.

Time seemed to stretch, until Petra extended her arm. Cyril hastily parried, nearly knocked off his feet.

Their duet was not yet finished, the gods of war were calling for an encore.

Petra slashed and thrusted her sword; Cyril swung his axe. They were no more on equal footing: the boy, probably trained in mounted combat rather than pure axe wielding, had trouble keeping up with an invigorated Petra.

With the threat of his wyvern removed, Petra could exploit Cyril's openings.

Clanking sounds echoed, with no one to hear them but the dancers themselves. Over time, Petra scored enough hits on Cyril to make him bleed.

The recital was now ocming to an end. She feinted left; Cyril took the bait. Her sword caught Cyril's axe, and in one last swing, she sent it flying away from its owner.

Cyril fell backwards, Petra's sword right on his throat. Even in this position, even as fear clouded his eyes, they were still firmly locked with Petra's, his teeth gritted so hard they could break at a moment's notice.

Petra then sheathed back her sword, extending a hand towards the boy.

Cyril's eyes widened.

"You are becoming strong, Cyril." Petra said with a smile. "In more years, your fighting can become great. You have strength and heart."

He took a moment to process this.

"You... Are you not going to kill me? You know, since we're enemies and I tried to kill you and all."

Petra's gaze lifted up, towards the battlefield down the hill.

"Many people will be losing their lives today. I do not need to be adding yours. Besides..."

Her gaze came back to Cyril.

"I am wanting to defeat Rhea to best, er... better the world, like Edelgard is wanting. I am not wanting to kill you. You are still being my friend, even if you are also being my enemy."

He shook his head once again, a very thin smile forming on his lips.

"You're not making sense, ya know? What tells you I'm not going to go back an' kill your friends later just 'cause you spared me?"

"You are having a lot of pain from your wounds. You should be seeking medicine now. You will not be fighting for a moment, so it is not being a concern."

She turned around to look at the slumped Ignatz, concern wrinkling her forehead.

"And I am needing to give Ignatz medicine, too. So, I am not having time to kill you. This is very rational."

Cyril hung his head for a moment, before lifting it back up with dark resolve swirling in his eyes. He nonetheless accepted her hand.

"You're gonna regret this one day, you know?"

"Maybe I will be having regret. Only the gods are knowing the future." she mused.

"I am going to become powerful to protect Lady Rhea." he continued. "Even from you and your friends. I will train, get stronger, and drive you back myself. You won't lay a finger on her, I'm telling ya!"

Petra picked up an unconscious Ignatz and started retreating towards Linhardt and his healing squad.

"That is a promise then, Cyril. But... we will not be suffering defeat today. Go take the sight... I mean, go have a look." she said, nodding towards the battlefield.

Cyril turned around and saw for himself how far the battle had advanced. He took a moment to ponder, then nodded to himself and began hiking down the hill.

Petra took a look at Ignatz's head, which was currently bobbing near her shoulder. He had struck the wyvern right at its weakest point while barely conscious and not even in the proper position to fire an arrow.

She shook her head.

"You know I was supposed to being a protector to you..." she muttered.

She felt Ignatz relax ever so slightly on her shoulder.

Chapter Text

Part I: White Clouds

 

Caspar had been right in his element since the battle had started. The battlefield was his place; fighting was his calling. There were no complex notions to keep in mind, no world maps to remember, no treacherous politics afoot.

The only distinction you had to make was between friend and foe. Non-aligned, perhaps.

An enemy comes screaming at you? Slice'em.

Blindsided a group of enemy archers? Give'em the ol' one-two.

A big guy tries to belittle you by taunting you? Smash his teeth in.

All very simple, easy to grasp matters.

He had been slicing people up for a few dozen minutes now, Hilda at his back, doing pretty much the same thing. There was almost a rhythm to it, and Caspar quickly fell into a sort of blood trance.

"You're dead, kid!"

A soldier seemed to appear near Caspar, taking him completely by surprise. It turns out falling in a trance was not always a good thing, and Caspar knew he couldn't raise his axe in time to block the downwards slash.

Fortunately, he didn't have to, as the very same soldier was very surprised when silver cleaved his from left to right. Both parts of his body fell to the ground with a soft splattering noise, which Caspar promptly ignored and turned, only to see Hilda winking at him and resting her bloody axe on her shoulder.

"You owe me one now, Caspar! You really have to watch your surroundings, you know? Next time I may be the one in danger, so make sure you manage to rescue me!" she chirped.

There was a bizarre contrast between the proper, beaming pink-haired lady in front of him and the usually shining axe stained with blood and viscera, the former of which was lazily dripping onto the floor. Although, with the way Edelgard wielded her own axe, he was used to such a sight. He nodded solemnly, silently vowing to do better, before turning back to his own part of the battlefield.

This is when a strange phenomenon happened. The chaotic battle appeared to part, leaving an empty space where a single figure marched on.

The would-be mysterious figure could not conceal their identity to Caspar much longer, as blonde hair and, even more of a telltale sign, a seven-branched sword with red sparks running alongside its surface heralded the newcomer as Catherine.

Whether the crowd parted out of fear or out of respect was unclear, but a reckless axewoman from Caspar's battalion tried to charge at her. Before anyone could react, she had been yelling a war cry and was rushing forward, axe in hand.

Catherine's hand barely seemed to move; rather, it appeared to warp from one place to another. The axewoman shrieked in pain and horror as she got sliced from shoulder to hip. The shriek suddenly died down; so did she.

Catherine had not even winced during that short stream of events. Her gaze was glued to Caspar; it was radiating pure fury, which, without a doubt, she saw as holy.

The sheer intensity of her feelings caused Caspar to stagger backwards.

"Hey, Hilda, "he uttered," can you come here for a second? We've got company."

"Hm?" Hilda cleanly beheaded a Church priest, before turning to Caspar.

"What do you— Oh."

Her smile disappeared as soon as she saw Catherine.

"This may be a bit too much for us, never mind that she looks really angry.", she said, the slightest hint of fear in her voice. "Uh, Caspar, maybe we should retreat?"

"We can't." he answered through gritted teeth. "The army would be exposed on its right flank if we did."

"Well, yes, but I get the distinct feeling she's here to kill us. Maybe take our heads as trophies or something. Get ready to retreat!" she shouted to her own battalion. "Wait for my order!"

The soldiers adopted a defensive formation, but Caspar had none of it. Running away? Like hell he would.

He looked at Catherine, straight in the eye. If fury was what she brought to the table, then he would respond in kind.

He drew on his natural anger, stood up with all his height, and started walking towards his designated opponent.

"Wait, Caspar?!"

He ignored Hilda's gasp. Catherine's eyebrows rose up when she saw Caspar slowly walking up to her. She did not stop, though, maintaining her pace.

She broke into a smile. It was not a warm smile, but the one a warrior offers another warrior before claiming their life. Caspar was fine with it. He would at least be recognized as an equal.

He could hear rushed footsteps behind him: Hilda was catching up to him. That warmed his heart. She was a comforting presence. If nothing else, he would not die alone.

Aside from them three, there was a clearing in the melee. From the corner of his eye, he spotted a few soldiers looking at them. What were they expecting, free entertainment? He clenched his jaw once more. His palms felt sweaty. He gripped his axe as best he could.

Finally, they ended face to face. Catherine was wreathed in rightful rage. As if she had any reason to feel rightful! He could feel his own anger bubbling, screaming at him to let it come loose. Hilda had carefully stopped a bit behind him, looking sheepishly over his shoulder.

Catherine spoke.

"So, you have finally crossed the final line, have you? To think you'd attack Lady Rhea, after living here for almost a year..."

She shook her head.

"What's gotten into you all, I wonder."

Caspar shrugged.

"Edelgard feels like the world would be better without the Church, and I follow her." he answered.

"Oh?" Catherine's voice took a sharp edge. "So you're playing poodle, then? Sorry, boy, but there will be no treats for you at the end of the line."

Caspar flared up.

"Who're ya calling poodle? You do Rhea's bidding without question, and you dare bark at other people following orders?"

"Lady Rhea saved my life, Caspar. Don't act as if you could understand me."

Catherine's voice could have outclassed Thunderbrand as a cutting weapon, yet Caspar's own anger did not abate.

"Edelgard gave me an opportunity, a reason to be more than the failed second son of a noble house!" he shouted. "I don't owe anything to anyone but her and myself! I will make my own way up into the world, no matter if that world must burn up first!"

Catherine shook her head again.

"Then I suppose you are too far gone from the Goddess."

She drew her blade.

"Come, Caspar. Measure your will to mine. Let's see if you've grown." she added, a smirk on her face.

He raised his own axe, not hearing Hilda's panicked words calling for a peaceful resolution. Rage was pumping liquid fire into his veins.

He knew he was outmatched. Catherine was one of the top Holy Knights of Seiros in all of Fódlan. Her might was legendary, and she wielded Thunderbrand as easily as a commoner would open a door.

He knew it. And yet, he could not back down. Never mind the army, never mind Edelgard, even. He would clash blades for his own sake today. For his right to exist, his right to be recognized.

Catherine was already about him, Thunderbrand raised up. He dodged sideways, feeling static electricity on his skin. Not fast enough; he felt the blade biting through his leather armor. A rose of blood erupted from the wound, but his mind was too busy being flooded in pure anger to notice yet.

The air smelled of ozone. He dared not check on Hilda, for fear of being hit with a surprise attack. Catherine's speed was her greatest strength in battle, and she knew it.

He went for a vertical swing, but it was too slow. Catherine easily deflected it, before thrusting her sword.

He pivoted, clanking the handle of his axe with the blade. His arm felt numb, Thunderbrand's electricity coursing through the handle and jumping through his nerves, weakening his grip and startling him out of his frenzy. Pain graciously took back its place in his mind.

So parrying is no good, he thought. Got it. This would make winning significantly harder.

His current problem was that Catherine's sword could weaken him just enough for its wielder to deal a finishing blow. Even now, he had difficulty raising his arm like he wanted to.

Catherine was observing him, her smug smirk still on.

"What's wrong, Caspar? Got spooked by the thunder?"

Her smile disappeared, replaced by stern judgement.

"There is a lot more to fear where you're going."

She made a straight lunge, putting all of her speed into it. Caspar barely reacted in time and had to jump backwards to avoid it.

He felt a burning sensation on his cheek. Bringing his hand to his face, he discovered it stained with blood.

Damn it! he thought. This was unsustainable. He would be killed before he knew it.

He tossed his axe aside, earning him a surprised look from Catherine, before putting on his gauntlets. They would not hit as hard as a clean axe swing, but his mobility would be much better. He assumed a defensive stance, trying to ignore the searing pain in his cheek.

"Switching weapons to decrease your disadvantage, I see." Catherine commented. "A sound strategy. But, will it be enough?"

"Come at me, let's find out!" he provoked her.

"I like that attitude! What a shame you're fated to burn in the eternal flames of torment..."

Once more, Catherine sprang from the ground, lunging. This time, however, Caspar was ready. He dodged her assault and launched his fist towards her face, ready to crush that annoying smile of hers...

Half a second later, Catherine was safely out of his reach, swiftly retreating where he couldn't touch her.

"That was a nice try, but you still are way too slow." she said. "There's not a chance you'll ever hit me with that, you know."

Caspar blinked. He expected her to be quick on her feet, but this... This was not 'quick'. She had evaded his attack as if he'd tried to punch the wind.

Catherine rolled her shoulders.

"Alright, warm-up's over. Hope you're ready to die."

She dashed towards him, her sword at her side. Caspar could not read her next move. Would she try a lateral strike? Would she—

Catherine loomed over him like an angel of death. Her sword started a diagonal descent, aimed towards his right shoulder.

Caspar tried to duck, but his body was heavy. It felt like trying to move a copper statue through a cube of molasses.

And thus, he saw death come upon him. He could not look away from the curiously shaped sword, murmuring silent apologies to Linhardt.

A loud clanking noise jolted him awake. Time was running at a normal speed again. An axe was preventing Catherine's sword to cleanly slice him in half.

"Look." Hilda's voice rang, "I've been trying to find a peaceful resolution to this, so that no one gets hurt."

She smiled, and her smile was terrifying.

"Buuuut you've been ignoring me for the past few minutes, and now I'm getting slightly angry. So I'm just go for the simple route and take you out. I could really go for a long bath right about now. Uh, no offense." she added towards Catherine.

"None taken." Catherine answered, aiming her sword straight for Hilda's face.

The young girl dodged gracefully, her axe twirling in the air. Maybe that's it, Caspar thought, maybe I don't twirl enough.

Caspar took a stance next to Hilda, clutching at his waist. Catherine was looking at both of them, mildly interested.

"So, what do you have in mind?" Caspar asked, whispering.

"I may have been a bit carried away there." Hilda whispered back.

"Wha— So you don't have a plan then?"

"Hmm, look, how about we try a pincer attack? I'll draw her attention, and you try to flank her."

"Eh, I don't have anything better. Sounds good."

He paused for a moment, then:

"Try not to die."

Hilda beamed at him.

"Of course I won't! You'll fight your hardest to prevent that, won't you?"

That girl was seriously a mystery at times.

She bolted towards Catherine, her axe ready to swing downwards, not a hint of fear on her face. Taken by surprise, Catherine had to parry, the force of impact alone lowering her sword a good bit.

"Why, you little—!"

She disengaged, counterattacking within the next beat. Hilda caught her sword with the handle of her axe, deflecting it. It only sent one of her shoulder ornaments flying. She didn't waste a moment and brought her axe as she would with a sickle, aiming for Catherine's abdomen. Catherine parried again, with ease this time, then slashed upwards, her blade screeching against the young girl's plate armor.

Caspar shook himself. It was no time to be captivated! He had a task to fulfill.

Approaching obliquely, he tried to stay somewhat stealthy, a task made significantly harder by the empty space in which they were battling.

Hilda was losing ground now, and Catherine battered her mercilessly with slash after slash. Blood was dripping from several wounds in her forearms; she was grimacing in pain.

He had to be quick!

Once he was out of Catherine's line of sight enough, he started running, winding up a punch. It was aimed at her cheek, and surely, surely...!

She dodged it again, jumping out of harm as Hilda missed her swing as well. The latter retreated towards Caspar.

What a pair they were making. Both were dripping blood from several wounds. It was painful to simply move around. Caspar could feel something within his body tearing every time he took a breath.

To make matters worse, Catherine sported no injury, and was barely breaking a sweat. She was still as nonchalant about this as she was in the beginning, while despair was slowly creeping within Caspar.

Hilda, however, wasn't done just yet.

She gave him a look that meant 'we're trying this again'. He had to admire her determination, if it was the last thing he'd do in this life. He readied himself as well.

Hilda caught her breath and dashed again. Caspar swiftly ducked under Catherine's horizontal slash, the entirety of his body screaming in agony, preparing for an uppercut that would send her flying.

Instead, he hit her shoulder.

Catherine groaned before backhanding him. He staggered, adrenaline flowing at a terrific rate in his blood.

Finally, he got a hit in! Not a clean hit, and not on target, but a hit nonetheless.

Roaring, he threw himself at his opponent, emboldened by his success... and felt the sharp cut of one of Thunderbrand's prongs on his arm. Blood stained his cloth.

Catherine glared at him, before headbutting Hilda, who fell to the ground, clutching her forehead.

"Hmph. It is admirable for you to fight with such intensity, but the Goddess guides my blade." she said, glaring at him. "Heretics such as you cannot even dream to beat me in martial prowess."

Caspar would not tolerate being belittled any longer. He leapt off the ground, his arm ready to deliver a devastating hook.

He punched!

Catherine avoided his fist, gripping his extended arm.

She looked him dead in the eye, flames dancing within.

With a twist and a sickening crunching noise, she rendered it limp.

Caspar let out a horrific scream, a sound that, at last, made Catherine wince. It must have been a testament to the sheer ache it contained. It was as much the scream of Caspar's bones and muscles as it was his brain's.

She sighed.

"Let's get this over with. I'll end your misery first."

She kicked Hilda, who was trying to get back on her feet, in the face. Hilda's frame slumped face down, motionless. A small pool of blood was starting to form where her nose was supposed to be, adding to that of her other injuries.

Caspar's brain barely registered that, though. He was clutching at his arm, trying to power through the pain. He was vaguely aware of the knight towering over him, slowly drawing her sword. He raised his gaze to meet hers; he would not die like a coward. He owed death to look it in the eyes.

At least he would have gone down fighting.

An orb of all-encompassing darkness flew by him, hitting Catherine in the shoulder and sending her flying with a yelp.

Through the fog of pain, Caspar turned his head towards a blurry figure, running towards him, followed by more blurry figures.

The leading blurry figure spoke in Hubert's poised, deep tone:

"Secure the area! The five of you, chase after her! She is a key member of the opposing army!"

"Yes, my lord!"

A tall, slender figure crouched near Caspar. Through his tears, he managed to get a glimpse of two golden irises, burning with the fire of madness.

"You are going to get evacuated right away." the figure said. "As much as I would like to eliminate Catherine once and for all, we cannot afford to lose our own generals."

"Hubert? T-That you, right?"

"Do I look like Her Majesty to you?" Hubert sneered.

Caspar could not see very well but he felt like Hubert was rolling his eyes.

"Yet I must still commend you for holding your own against the legendary Catherine, at least to an extent. You bought us crucial time, Caspar."

Caspar pointed towards where Hilda should be, as it appeared she was getting lifted face up by Hubert's associates. She still wasn't moving.

"Is she going to be all right? I saw Catherine hit her in the face, and—"

"It is hard to say. I am no expert in medical magic, after all." There was a unusual solemnity in Hubert's voice. Somehow, Caspar didn't really like the sound of that.

"She got hit quite hard during the fight. Probably concussions, maybe head trauma if she is unlucky. She will need a lot of rest, in any case."

The small squad Hubert had sent out against Catherine was coming back, and he turned to face them.

"My lord! We found no trace of the enemy general! We did find markings of what could possibly be a magic circle, likely a teleportation spell!"

"I see. How unfortunate, though not unexpected. In that case," he added, "your new orders are to escort the injured and their battalion to the rear lines. Understood?"

After another chorus of "Yes, my lord!", Caspar vaguely felt himself being lifted up and carried. He could make out a pink shape with the last of his consciousness, understanding that Hilda would travel with him.

He heard Hubert's voice far, so far away.

"Your battle is over, Caspar."

He nodded. Tried to, at least.

Then the void welcomed him.