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A Goddess Rises with the Dawn

Chapter Text

His new professor was a real coward. 

Sure, Claude had also run away when the bandits attacked. But he wasn't in charge here. He was just a humble student--he was allowed to save his own skin and make a strategical retreat.

Not that his strategy was really working out for him now. He hadn't expected the bandits to follow him. He'd thought if the three of them had scattered then the bandits would have seen more value in going for their camp. And yeah, that was where the rest of his classmates were waiting, but it was also where most of the knights that had accompanied them were. They would have been fine.

Then again, Claude hadn't expected Dimitri to follow him, either. He was tentatively blaming the fact that his plan has gone to hell on his princeliness.

Why Edelgard had also joined their little merry band and fled also remained to be seen, but Claude couldn't afford to dedicate attention to that mystery now. He'd noticed tracks on the road, lots of horses which suggested a big group, but no wagon wheels which meant they were unlikely to belong to a merchant troupe. If they were lucky, the tracks belonged to some sort of militia. If they were unlucky, the tracks could belong to more bandits. They would find out soon enough, as the tracks led him to a small village.

Whoever he'd followed had definitely taken up temporary residence here. The village was littered with tents, horses tied off to any spare post that could be found, and--most promisingly--mercenary banners. Claude would have sighed with relief if he wasn't too winded.

"Mercenaries! It would seem luck is on our side this day." Dimitri proclaimed, coming to a stop beside him.

Claude made a show of clutching at his chest, "You wound me, Your Highness, assuming it was luck that brought us here."

It was mostly luck, of course, but Claude had a little to do with it.

Dimitri's eyes widened, "Wow, Claude, you really planned to bring us here? I'm impressed."

Edelgard just rolled her eyes. She obviously saw through his fib, but surprisingly did not call him out on it. "I recognize these banners. This is the mercenary band run by Jeralt, the Blade Breaker."

"Huh. Maybe we did get lucky today." Claude admitted. He didn’t know much about the infamous mercenary, but just the fact that he knew the name after so little time living in Fodlan was impressive.

But time was short, so they quickly approached the nearest mercenary. Dimitri started their plea, “Good evening. Forgive us for bothering you, but we’re in a spot of trouble and we could really use your help. Could we speak with your leader, please?”

The mercenary never even looked up from the sword he was sharpening. Claude sighed, “Also, by ‘a spot of trouble’ my friend means there’s a group of bandits chasing after us. They’ll probably be here any minute.”

That got the mercenary’s attention. His head snapped up, eyes wild when he looked at them, “Bandits? And you brought them here? Goddess be damned.”

He barked at another nearby mercenary to go get the boss, then at the rest to spread the word and ready themselves. Suddenly the whole village was swept up in a flurry of activity.

Dimitri was looking in his direction with an impressed expression again. Claude shrugged, “You obviously haven’t worked with mercenaries much. They don’t care about your manners or your sob story. If you don’t have gold, you’d better have something else real motivating for them.”

“You act as if you have a plethora of experience working with mercenaries.” Dimitri replied, an amused twinkle in his eyes.

Claude crossed his arms behind his head, offering Dimitri a wink, “My years may be few, but my experiences are many and varied, you’ll find.”

“Is now really the time for this?” Edelgard interrupted, sounding annoyed.

“What seems to be the trouble?”

The new arrival was a stranger, but on his imposing presence alone Claude could only assume he was Jeralt. He stood before them with his arms crossed in front of his chest, waiting for an answer and looking intimidating.

“We were on a field assignment for school when we were attacked by bandits,” Dimitri explained, “Our formation was broken and we were forced to flee.”

It was a generous interpretation of what had actually happened, more flattering than the truth for both their professor and Claude. But Jeralt didn’t seem interested in the particulars. He was looking at their uniforms with interest and surprise.

Whatever reaction the sight elicited, Jeralt quickly re-trained his face to a more neutral expression, “How many bandits are there?”

“About seven?” Claude offered, running the scene through his head again to make sure he wasn’t missing anything. “There was a guy who seemed to be the leader, and a couple of mooks with him.”

Jeralt nodded and turned to the mercenary they’d first spoken to, who seemed to be his second in command, “We can handle a few bandits on our own. Tell everyone else to stay here in case there’s another group lurking around somewhere. We don’t want anything happening to the people here.”

The mercenary went to deliver the order while Jeralt mounted his horse and headed in the direction to meet the bandits. Both Dimitri and Edelgard grabbed their weapons and followed after him.

“You can’t be serious.”

Claude and Jeralt seemed to be on the same page on the subject, because they’d both said it at the same time.

“With all due respect, I simply cannot sit back while you fight this battle on our behalf.” Dimitri asserted.

“I agree. We are responsible for leading the bandits here, after all.” Edelgard shot Claude a pointed look as she said it. “We’re not novices, and we’re mostly not cowards, either. I insist you allow us to help.”

“Hey, I’m no coward, just a guy with common sense who would happily leave the bandit killing to the professionals.” Claude defended flippantly, but drew his bow all the same, “But if everyone else is going I can hardly be the only one to stay behind.”

Jeralt did not look amused by their insistence, but he also didn’t seem interested in arguing with them, “If that’s what you want I won’t stop you. But if it ends up being too much to handle, retreat. I can’t afford to be fighting them and protecting you.”

They all nodded their assent and fell in line behind him. Given the time it had taken for them to gather themselves in the village, it didn’t take long before they met the bandits in the middle.

“Head into the tree cover, you’ll be harder to hit.” Jeralt directed, and while he wasn’t officially their commander, his tone left no room for questioning the order.

Claude wasn’t interested in doing so anyway. He worked best undercover where he could take his time, strategize, and pick off enemies when they weren’t expecting it. Dimitri seemed to be opposite minded, and before long he had been baited out of the tree line to attack the nearest bandit who had pursued them. Claude had to be quick to finish the guy  off with a well placed arrow to the jugular before he could counterattack. One down. Dimitri turned back just long enough to give him an appreciative nodded; they made a pretty good team. 

It didn’t seem like they would have much chance to test their teamwork though, as Jeralt was making extremely quick work of the majority of the bandits on his own, including their leader who, for all of his cursing and hollering orders, was already sprawled out on the ground. Edelgard, who had broken off from them when they hit the woods, felled another with a fierce swing of her axe. That seemed to be the last of them.

Claude and Dimitri made their way across the makeshift battlefield to meet with Edelgard and Jeralt again. He didn’t know about the others, but Claude was feeling pretty smug about having handled the bandits, even if they hadn’t done most of the work themselves. As he closed the distance between them he could see Edelgard was looking rather pleased as well.

Their pleasure was short-lived, however, because the leader of the bandits had sprung back to his feet and was charging right at Edelgard. She had no time to react properly; she’d drawn a dagger, but it would hardly be enough against the bandit’s axe. Claude drew his bow, nocked an arrow, and took aim, but he felt his panic rising as he realized there was no chance he would be fast enough to stop it.

Jeralt charged forward, took a single swing of his lance, and knocked the axe from the bandit’s hand. A well placed thrust of the butt of his lance into the bandit’s solar plexus sent him to the ground again. Jeralt adjusted his grip to follow up with a more fatal blow, but the bandit had already scurried to his feet and begun to flee.

Dimitri dashed ahead as if to pursue, but Jeralt reached out a hand to stop him, “Our objective here was defensive. You three are safe and he’s running away from the village. No need to pursue him and find he has backup waiting wherever he went.”

Dimitri nodded his understanding and lowered his weapon.

The scene erupted into chaos  after that, ushered by the arrival of Alois and several other knights. There seemed to be some initial confusion about whether Jeralt was friend or foe, and even though it was resolved quickly the three of them were shooed away so the adults could talk. Claude was desperate to try and sneak around so he could listen, but if he learned anything today it was that he had little chance of striking out on his own without Dimitri following him. And his confidence in the prince’s stealth skills was not high.

“I hope we didn’t cause too much trouble for him.” Dimitri commented, watching Jeralt talk with Alois from where they were waiting a distance away. 

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that.” Claude answered, also observing. His interactions with Alois so far had been limited, but the knight wasn’t exactly a hard guy to read; he wore his emotions on his sleeve more readily than anyone Claude had ever met. He was chattering away animatedly and happily now. Whatever he had to say was most likely positive. Jeralt still didn’t look particularly thrilled about what Alois was saying, but that just might be his general demeanor from what Claude could tell so far.

“Jeralt was as impressive in battle as they say,” Edelgard cut in, “He truly earned the moniker Blade Breaker. He could do great things in service of the empire.”

“I agree. I would love to have his services for the kingdom as well.”

Claude did not add his two cents right away. Of course he could only acknowledge what a boon it would be to have Jeralt as an ally. But he had neither the influence nor the resources that his companions boasted. It was disappointing, but such considerations would be little more than wishful thinking for him.

He was hardly about to put that vulnerability on display, however, so he shrugged and answered flippantly, “You’ll both have to put your money where mouth is if that’s what you want.”

“Too true. I suppose it would hardly be appropriate for a king to go about hiring mercenaries, regardless of their skill.” Dimitri acquiesced humbly. Edelgard did not share her opinion on the subject.

Finally Alois and the other knights were heading their way. For some reason Jeralt was still with them, looking more sour than ever. 

“It’s time we were heading out.” Alois announced, as if he were addressing a crowd and not just the three of them. “I sent the others back ahead of us as soon as I heard what had happened to you all. I’m sure they’ll be anxious to see you back safely. Lucky for us the captain was here to look out for you all.”

“. . . Captain?” 

“Jeralt Eisner is a former captain of the Knights of Seiros.” The matter of fact answer came from Edelgard. Claude couldn’t help but notice that she seemed to have quite an interest in the famed mercenary, if the amount she knew about him was any indication. Claude was interested to know the origin and extent of her interest, but that would just have to be another mystery added to the list for now.

“Perhaps not former for long, eh Captain?” Alois answered, jovially ribbing Jeralt lightly with his elbow. Jeralt didn’t move a muscle in response, other than the ones it took to let out a deep, resigned sigh.

So Jeralt would be returning to the monastery with them. They had caused him some trouble after all, based on his reaction.

But Claude’s year just got much more interesting.

“Jeralt, it does my heart good to see you returned to us safe and sound after all of these years.”

“Thank you, Lady Rhea. I’m glad to be back.”

It was what he was supposed to say. It was also completely disingenuous, and she probably saw right through that, even if he could fool most anyone else.

Then again, Seteth, standing beside her, didn’t seem too convinced of his intentions either. That was fine: he could be as suspicious as he wanted. Jeralt had his suspicions about Seteth, too. He’d been close to Rhea for a long time, probably the closest person to her, so he knew well how hard won her confidence was. That anyone could have gained her trust so completely in the time he was gone, even after over twenty years, didn’t sit right. There was more to that story than either of them was letting on.

But that was par for the course of the Church of Seiros.

If Rhea did sense how little he actually cared to be here, she didn’t let on as she continued, “As much as we would love to see you returned to your former post, it has of course long since been filled. However, we have a much more precious task in mind for you.”

Jeralt’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t have a clue what she might be getting at. His first hunch couldn’t possibly be correct. Not after the last time.

“Lady Rhea, are you really certain this is wise?” Seteth was apparently no longer able to hold his tongue.

“Of course. Jeralt is like family, and a very capable knight. I trust him with my own life, and know he will take even more care with our students.”

The students. So that was what Rhea had in mind. Great.

Alois entered the room, along with two more new faces. The woman was almost immediately making eyes at him.

“These are professors Manuela and Hanneman.” Seteth explained.

“So, you must be the new professor. My, how stern and handsome you are.”

Jeralt reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. He made a point of doing so with his left hand, where he still wore his weding ring. Manuela wilted.

“Typically, Manuela teaches the Black Eagles house, and myself the Blue Lions. Which means you would be in charge of the Golden Deer, if you have no objections.”

Jeralt could not imagine his objections would make much difference, not that he really had any. He’d had little to do with the Officer’s Academy in  his role as captain of the knights, and he’d long since abandoned allegiance to any particular country. “That’s fine with me.”

“We had a new professor for the Golden Deer house already,” Alois explained, “but he  ran away when the students were attacked! We can hardly entrust the safety of the students to him after that.”

“Truly it must be the will of the goddess that Jeralt returned to us just when we needed him most.” Rhea concluded.

Jeralt wasn’t sure about the will of the goddess. He was pretty sure is was Alois’s unbreachable tenacity that had brought him back to Garreg Mach Monastery, even though he’d sworn never to return.

But there wasn’t much sense in fighting it now. All he could do was try to make the best of it.

Claude wouldn’t wish losing their job on anyone, but if it meant he was going to get a competent professor, he certainly wasn’t going to complain about it. 

And to discover that his new professor was Jeralt Eisner, of all people? The look on Edelgard’s face when Manuela had broken the news to them alone was worth it. Not to mention the incredible advantage over the other classes Claude had been handed on a silver platter.

And hey, if Claude played his cards right, maybe he really could gain Jeralt as a more permanent ally even after he graduated from the Officer’s Academy. Wouldn’t that be useful.

Because he’d always had a flare for the dramatic, Claude had not passed on Manuela’s news to the rest of the Golden Deer. The looks on their faces when Jeralt strode into the classroom were even more priceless than Edelgard’s. 

“Well everyone, it looks like we’ll be working together for the time being.” Jeralt told them mildly as he entered. It was vague and understated, and he hardly seemed excited about his new position. But Claude was slowly learning to read his new professor. He’d seen Jeralt’s displeasure when Alois had dragged him back to the monastery. It had been much more plain on his face than the neutral expression he wore now, so he at least wasn’t upset about his new gig.

“We’re looking forward to working with you, Cap.” Claude offered with a wink.

Jeralt raised an eyebrow at the nickname but didn’t say anything.

“Honestly, Claude, such irreverence,” Lorenz’s voice was dripping with judgement, “Surely even you must know to treat a man of such varied accomplishments, and our professor no less, with more respect than that.”

“Yeah, the captain is really amazing, show some gratitude he’s willing to teach you.” Leonie piped in.

Jeralt held up his hand to stop them, “Respect shows in actions a lot more than words. It’s easy to speak respectfully even if you don’t really mean it, but the way you act tends to show how you really feel. Call me whatever you want.”

“Alright, Cap it is then.” Claude answered, a little smug. Lorenz frowned.

“I have to say, I was really surprised to find out you’re our new professor.” Hilda began sweetly, “I’m not much for combat, so you should probably just leave team spirit to me. Anyway, I’m Hilda. Oh, and this is Marianne.”

Marianne lifted her head up and gave the tiniest of nods, but didn’t say anything.

Ignatz was the next to chime in, “Thank you so much for helping Claude the other day, professor. I promise to do my best in class.”

“I look forward to learning everything I can from you.” Lysithea said seriously.

“Yeah, you seem really strong,” Raphael added. “I can’t wait to get training!”

Jeralt’s eyes had widened ever so slightly. If Claude hadn’t been looking for it he would probably never have noticed, but it was proof enough that the reality of just what he had signed up for was setting in for Jeralt.

Claude grinned cheekily, “As you can see, what we lack in pollish, we more than make up for in enthusiasm.”

Jeralt sighed.

Chapter Text

“Your mission for this month will be to lead your students in a mock battle against the other houses.” Rhea explained.

Jeralt nodded. That was simple enough.

“This is an important opportunity for you to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of you students so as to better guide them in the future.”

“Not to mention, the whole monastery will be looking to see your performance in this task, given your extensive combat experience,” Seteth added in a more clipped tone, “Make sure not to disappoint the Archbishop."

Claude stood nonchalantly against the wall by the first floor staircase, waiting for Jeralt to emerge from his meeting with Rhea upstairs. It hadn’t been a particularly interesting one, and other than observing some animosity between Jeralt and Seteth, he hadn’t learned anything new. But it had been good practice for eavesdropping on the big, open space. If he learned the best approach now and kept up with it he was sure to learn something juicy eventually.

He plastered on a casual smile when he heard Jeralt’s heavy, distinctive footfalls on the stairs. Once his professor was in his line of sight he said, “Hey, Cap, how’d your meeting go?”

Jeralt arched an eyebrow and gave him a scrutinizing sort of look. Uncannily, Claude got the impression that Jeralt saw right through him and knew exactly what he had done. But Claude had been snooping around the monastery near constantly in the few weeks since he’d been here and no one had caught on to him. There was no way Jeralt had just shown up and gotten his number that quickly, right?

“It was a meeting,” Jeralt answered blandly, “Nothing that would be of interest to you, I’m sure.”

“Aw, come on, it was about the mock battle right?”

“And how exactly would you know that?”

Claude shrugged easily, “The other professors already had their meetings earlier. Dimitri told me about it.”

It was the truth, regardless of Claude’s additional indiscretions, not that it seemed to assuage Jeralt’s suspicion at all. That was fine. Jeralt could suspect Claude of whatever he wanted as long as he didn’t call him out on it.

“Then you already know exactly as much as I do.” Jeralt answered matter-of-factly.

“Aw come on, Cap, you’re killing me.” Claude moaned exasperatedly, “What’s our big strategy to win? I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve, you know, stuff to thin out the competition. You’re a mercenary yourself, you must know a thing or two about doing whatever it takes to win, right?”

“Well, isn’t this an interesting conversation we’ve happened upon.”

Edelgard and Dimitri were approaching them. Edelgard’s face was an infuriating combination of smug and unsurprised. Dimitri just looked disappointed.

“Claude, surely you wouldn’t truly resort to such underhanded tactics.”

Edelgard fixed Dimitri with a patronizing look, “You are far too trusting for your own good. He’s already proven himself willing to run away to save his own skin, this should come as no surprise.”

“It will be a fair fight.” Jeralt answered for him before he had the chance. Claude frowned, but recovered quickly.

“Right. So to keep it fair try to go easy on us, okay Your Highnesses? We just don’t have the refinement or abilities your vaunted houses possess.”

Edelgard rolled her eyes, “Oh, please.”

But Claude was undeterred, if anything her attitude spurred on his charade, “I’m serious, Princess. Have you heard about poor Hilda’s little noodle arms? It’s a horrible affliction; you should ask her about it sometime, she’ll tell you all about it.”

Dimitri covered his mouth with a hand to hide a chuckle, but he grinned when he said, “Sorry Claude, but the Blue Lions will be giving no less than our best effort. It’s only honorable.”

“You’re wasting your time speaking to him of honor, Dimitri,” Edelgard said impatiently, "He clearly has no concept of it.”

“Not true,” Claude turned on his best disarming sarcasm and winked coyly at Edelgard, “For truly the greatest honor of my life is to hear you speak so highly of me, Princess.”

Edelgard did not look amused. But there was still a twinkle of laughter in Dimitri’s eyes. Claude shot him a wink too, just because he wanted to.

The two other house leaders took their leave. Jeralt waited until the were out of earshot before he turned back to Claude and said, “Claude, are you familiar with the phrase, ‘when in Adrestia, do as the Adrestians do’?”

Claude frowned, “Are you saying I have to play by the rules?”

Jeralt considered his answer quietly for a moment before responding, “I’m saying they really enjoy their rules around here. Play mind games like that little display all you want. But if you’re going to be sneaking around, breaking rules, eavesdropping on staff members perhaps . . . you ought to be very confident you can do it without getting caught, unless you’re looking to have a very difficult year here.”

“Sooooo you’re not telling me not to break the rules?”

“As your professor I cannot encourage rule breaking.”

Claude nodded. This felt like the start of a very positive working relationship between him and Jeralt. “Noted. In that case, I gotta go, since I definitely don’t have any plotting to do right now.”

He had taken a few steps back toward the dormitories when Jeralt called out, “Kid? One more thing.”

“What’s that, Cap?”

When he turned back to face his professor, Jeralt wore a stern expression, “No poison.”

Claude pouted, “Ugh. Fine.”

Claude had mixed feelings about their chances in the mock battle. On the one hand, having Jeralt was a huge advantage. One the other hand, their class was by far the most green and the least organized.

Jeralt had chosen him, Hilda, Leonie, and Marianne for the first round of the mock battle. It felt a little like putting all of his eggs in one basket, in Claude’s opinion, but looking at the other line ups on the field the other houses had done the same thing.

Jeralt also stated his intention to hang back and only support if needed, since he wanted to see what they were capable of. Other than letting him handle the other professors he said the fighting would be left to them. It didn’t do wonders for Claude’s confidence in their chances as a group. But he was pretty confident in his ability to take charge if that’s what needed to be done.

At least, he felt confident until Hilda immediately began whining about having to participate. She complained about being told to go to the front of the formation, and she did not seem to care about his attempt to explain that it only made sense, since she was their closest ranged fighter. Jeralt just sat back and watched it all unfold.

Nobody else was going to wait for them to figure it out, and the Blue Lions took the first move by sending Ashe forward to engage them. Ferdinand also seemed to sense their confusion as he moved to close in on them as well, although he was not ordered to do so.

“Why would Dimitri send his archer to the frontline?” Leonie asked bemusedly, “seems like a rookie mistake to me.”

“Good, maybe that means they’ll make this easy for us,” Hilda concluded, “We should go for them first and get this over with.”

The girls were in agreement and moved to meet Ashe on the battlefield. But something about it didn’t sit right with Claude.

“Wait.” Claude tried to imitate the effortless, commanding tone that Jeralt used. It must have worked at least a little, because surprisingly both Leonie and Hilda stopped and looked at him, “Something’s not right. It is a rookie mistake--too much of one. Dimitri’s too smart for that, I think he’s trying to bait us into getting too aggressive too quick.”

It seemed he was actually holding their attention now. Hilda still looked disinterested in the entire situation, but Leonie was clearly listening thoughtfully at least. It was a good chance to capitalize and lay down an actual strategy, “We should go after Ferdinand first--he broke formation so the Black Eagles will be forced to regroup, which gives us the advantage. I’m confident I can take on Ashe one on one if he catches up to us. And hopefully the rest of them will start picking each other off in the meantime.”

Leonie nodded and moved confidently toward Ferdinand. Hilda dragged her feet but followed along. Claude motioned his head for Marianne to go next, then fell in line last so he was between her and Ashe.

Ashe was moving quickly, and he did catch up to them before long. But Claude was prepared as promised. He deftly dodged Ashe’s first shot and followed up with one of his own. The flat tip of the training arrow connected directly with Ashe’s temple before falling to the ground. An easy kill shot. Ashe was out.


It was Marianne calling out to him, and she sounded alarmed. He spun around and found Ferdinand charging right at him. He had taken advantage of Claude’s back being turned, and now he was already in too close for Claude to dodge or counterattack. It was something of a sloppy mistake on Claude’s end to let his guard down with an enemy at his back, but Hilda was supposed to be between him and Ferdinand. Why hadn’t she stopped him?

Ferdinand swung his training lance and hit Claude in the leg. Claude dropped to his knees, but Marianne was there to cast a healing spell, so he was able to get right back up. Ferdinand was readying for another attack, but this time he was ready for it. Not intending to be caught at close range again, Claude pushed off from the ground and leapt backwards out of range, reading his bow to fire off a shot while he was still in midair.

He was used to performing this sort of maneuver, but he was much less used to working with a team. He didn’t look behind him before he jumped, and he heard a grunt as he collided into Hilda. His arrow went flying off course as he and Hilda fell to the ground in a pile.

Everyone seemed momentarily uncertain what to do. Ferdinand looked a mix of stunned and unsure what the etiquette was for attacking an opponent who had knocked themselves over. Marianne ran over and crouched down to see if they were alright. Dorothea, who’d been running toward them to provide Ferdinand back up, was suddenly in stitches laughing at them.

The one person who wasn’t thrown off was Leonie. She seemed no more concerned with Claude and Hilda’s well being than she was with Ferdinand’s attempt at being a good sport. While he was standing around she ran up and stabbed him with her training lance. Ferdinand was out.

Claude and Hilda had struggled to their feet. Being laughed at must have been what Hilda needed to ignite her fire for battle. As soon as she had her bearings she ran ahead and swung her axe into Dorothea’s core. Dorothea was still laughing so hard she didn’t even see it coming until she was already out. Hilda looked surprised to find she even had it in her.

“Where are Edelgard and Hubert?” Claude asked, keeping his bow raised and an arrow nocked as he looked around. They had disappeared from their original position, and the last thing he wanted was to be ambushed just when his team was starting to gain momentum. 

“Um, I think I saw them moving through the woods towards the Blue Lions, but I’m not sure.” Marianne answered meekly.

“Perfect, that’s exactly what we wanted.” Claude surveyed the field for a moment to consider their options, “We should go the long way around and cut in from behind, we can sneak up on both of them that way.”

Leonie wrinkled her nose, “That’s a waste of time, we should go straight through. They’ll win before we even get there if we go your way.”

“We’ll be vulnerable to ambush that way. And they can’t win without beating us. The more they take each other out before we get there, the easier it will be for us.”

“Whatever. You do what you want. I’m going the short way.”

She was running into the woods before Claude could protest any further.

Hilda sighed, “I don’t really want to go all that way, but I definitely don’t want to fight anymore than I have to, So I guess I’m going with you.”

Marianne seemed content to follow Hilda, so the rest of the group was with him at least, if not for the right reasons. He sighed and began to make his way.

They were about halfway to where the rest of the group was engaging each other, when he heard Leonie shout, “ugh, dammit!” He couldn’t see her, but judging by what he could see of the battlefield Hubert must have ambushed her from the tree cover. They had lost their first team member.

The exchange clued Dedue into Hubert’s location, and he pursued. His disadvantage was colossal, and Hubert must realize it too, because he didn’t hesitate to emerge from the treeline and engage. He landed a punishing hit before Dedue was close enough to counter. Dedue was saved by Mercedes, but he wouldn’t get so lucky twice, because while she was distracted with healing, Hilda moved in and took Mercedes out.

Another blow from Hubert took out Dedue. The field was thinning quickly now.

While all of this was happening, Claude began to slowly creep his way into the woods where Hubert had previously been hiding. He looked up and caught Hilda’s eye; somehow, wordlessly, she seemed to understand his plan. Perhaps even more miraculous was she followed along with it. She raised her axe high and ran at Hubert, even letting out a battle cry for flair as she went. 

The tactic was just nonsensical enough to catch Hubert off guard and let Hilda get a hit in. She only managed to hit him in the arm, and Hubert quickly counterattacked and knocked her out of the battle, but that was fine. Hilda certainly wasn’t upset, as Claude heard her mutter, “finally,” while she strolled off the battlefield. And all Claude had needed was the distraction. In the time he’d been fighting Claude had snuck into the trees unnoticed and was behind Hubert. He fired an arrow and hit Hubert square in the back.

“My, such dirty tactics.” Hubert said as he walked off, tone disapproving as if he hadn’t just been hiding in the woods doing the same thing.

Only Edelgard and Dimitri remained from the other classes now, and they’d been engaging each other while everyone fought. They’d been going at it for a while, and Edelgard had the upper hand at first, thought Dimitri had come back thanks to some early help from Mercedes. They were still at it now, and Claude decided to remain in the tree cover and watch.

 Dimitri had an arm behind his back, but Edelgard was on her knees and the limited mobility was proving to be a much greater disadvantage. She was doing a good job parrying his attacks, but it was only a matter of time. Before long Dimitri had sidestepped quickly enough that he was able to stab her chest. Edelgard looked very displeased about her loss, and did not accept the hand Dimitri offered to help her back to her feet, but she walked off the field with her head held high.

It was just Claude, Marianne, and Dimitri on the field now. Claude still had not emerged from his hiding place, and the chance he had taken paid off as Dimitri stepped slowly towards Marianne instead, obviously not aware that Claude was there and still in the game.

Marianne was standing there looking as timid as ever, which was exactly what Claude needed from her right now, although it wasn’t likely a strategic choice. Dimitri was pointing his lance toward her, held out in the arm he still had the use of, but he was making no move to attack. He probably expected her to surrender, since there wasn’t much she could do one on one as a healer.

“I’m sorry,” Dimitri said to her seriously, “but I’m afraid this ends here."

“Well you’re not wrong, but you’re not exactly right either.”

Dimitri looked Claude’s way as he finally emerged from the woods. Claude watched his face as Dimitri assessed his situation. He was one armed. Claude didn’t even need to get close to land a hit. Even if Dimitri could somehow get in close enough fast enough to land a hit, Claude still had his healer. And he already had an arrow pointed right at Dimitri.

“Checkmate, Your Princeliness.”

Dimitri obviously realized as well as Claude that he had already lost. With a resigned smile, he dropped his lance and raised both of his hands in surrender.

Claude waited until the Golden Deer were officially declared the winners before lowering his bow.

They were all back in the classroom celebrating their win and talking animatedly when Jeralt joined them, looking as lukewarm as ever.

“What’d you think, Captain Jeralt?” Leonie asked, beaming with pride, “We did pretty great, right?”

Jeralt sighed, shaking his head, “A win is a win, I’m not going to take that away from you. But that was the sloppiest win I’ve ever seen.”

The entire class drooped, going silent. None of them had expected to be criticized after their big win.

“The whole point of being in a group is to work together as a team. You didn’t show an ounce of teamwork until the very end, and even that was only to sacrifice Hilda to get the leg up on the other team.”

Jeralt was looking at Claude as he spoke now, which left Claude with the sense that the critique was largely directed at him. He understood that was how it went, since he was the leader, but he wasn’t ready to just take the heat for this one yet.

“I was trying to work together, but no one was listening to me!” He argued.

Jeralt kept his tone calm and even, but he did not back down, “You weren’t even paying attention to your teammates’ positions on the field.”

“That wasn’t my fault!” Claude could hear how childish he sounded, and he hated it. But he couldn’t help himself; he wouldn’t stand here and be blamed for everything the group had done wrong, “Hilda was out of formation! She was supposed to be in front of me, not behind.”

“I told you I didn’t want to fight,” Hilda whined, “So I don’t know why you thought putting me in front was a good idea. I’m way too fragile for that.”

“Once you’re on the battlefield you follow orders. And if you’re in command, you’re responsible for what your soldiers are doing. Period.” Jeralt’s voice had taken on a clipped tone, and even though he hadn’t raised it at all it was very apparent he did not appreciate the back talk, “You got lucky because your opponents were as disorganized as you were. A more experienced opponent would never stop to laugh or let you compose yourself before capitalizing on your mistake. And Claude, that’s assuming you didn’t already have Hilda’s axe lodged in your back after falling on top of her. In a real battle, you’d both be dead.”

Claude stared at the floor, humbled. Hilda also seemed to have no further rebuttal, and after that display no one else dared open their mouth. Even Lorenz, who would normally revel in seeing Claude get reprimanded in such a way, looked somber.

Having paused in his lecture, Jeralt looked to be reading the room and realizing the impact he had on the mood. He sighed again. When he spoke his voice was softer. “Look, my job is to prepare you for actual combat, not glorified sparring matches. In a real battle, every mistake could be your last. I’m not going to stop being critical of you, and it’s because I’m trying to keep you all alive.”

That did little to alleviate the anxiety in the room, although it had perhaps shifted focus.

“That said,” Jeralt continued, “There’s a value to every exercise, and there was also a lot you did right today. You didn’t fall for the Blue Lions’ trap early on. You all made sure to protect Marianne--your healer can’t protect you if you don’t protect her. And it was smart to wait until you had Dimitri cornered in the end; victory is never assured, you should take any opportunity to increase your chances of success.”

Everyone was nodding thoughtfully, and a few smiles had hesitantly returned to faces. Leonie, who had proven to all but worship the ground Jeralt walked on, seemed most moved by his words. “That’s true. I thought Claude was wasting time and avoiding fighting, but I guess taking our time was actually pretty smart.”

“And it all worked out in the end, right?” Raphael said jovially, It was in complete disregard to most of what Jeralt had just said, but his enthusiasm was undeniable, “Man, all this heated discussion is really making me hungry. We should move this celebration to the dining hall!” 

Everyone was amenable to that, and soon the whole class was barreling out of their classroom towards the dining hall, spirits high again. Claude lingered behind them.

Jeralt observed him for a moment before speaking again, “Can I offer a bit of individual advice, or are you done for today?”

Claude wasn’t sure he could take much more, but he would rather be crushed under the weight of his self doubt than admit that to Jeralt. He fashioned his best self-deprecating smile, “Lay it on me, Cap.”

“You have a really good head on your shoulders for strategy, Kid. You were making all of the right calls out there today.” Jeralt explained, “But if they don’t respect you enough to listen, it won’t matter how good your tactics are.”

Claude nodded solemnly. He could only agree that was his big takeway from today. “To be honest, I’ve never really had the chance to work with other people before, especially not people my own age. I’m sort of an outsider where I come from.”

“That’s okay. Everyone is here to learn. You are leagues ahead of your classmates in terms of actual combat skills. This is what you need to work on right now. Edelgard and Dimitri have an inherent authority within their houses that you lack. It might feel like a disadvantage now, but it will be an advantage someday as long as you work at it. Respect that is earned goes a lot farther than respect given out of obligation.”

Jeralt’s words were a reality check. But they didn’t make Claude feel belittled or defeated. It was more like they gave him a sense of purpose. Now he knew what he needed to do. “Guess I should probably get started at this celebration dinner, huh?”

Jeralt was the closest to smiling Claude had ever seen him. “That would probably be a good place to start. You seem to have a pretty good read on people for someone who claims not to have people skills. You’re good at needling people and getting a reaction out of them. If you want to win them over, try working on your sincerity.”

With a solid pat on Claude’s shoulder as a parting gesture, Jeralt was on his way.

Sincerity was really not one of Claude’s strong points. In fact, he might be the least sincere person he knew, and that was an intentional decision. But he supposed he could work on it. For strategic purposes.

Failing that, maybe he could learn to needle reactions out of people but in a nice way.

Regardless of his methods, Claude intended to make good on his conviction to start building relationships with his classmates now. And he knew exactly who he needed to start with. As soon as he arrived in the dining hall he sought out Hilda.

“Hey,” He said as he sat down across from her at the table. She did not look up from her meal as she offered a curt “hey” in return.

“So, I really threw you under the wagon wheels back there. . .”

“Yeah, you really did.” Hilda did not sound impressed, and she shouldn’t. It had not been his most impressive display of leadership.

“Sorry about that. I think I knew most of what had gone wrong was my fault, and I was trying to deflect, but you didn’t deserve that.”

“It’s fine, I guess,” Hilda sighed deeply, as if the prospect of staying mad at him was too exhausting to bother with, “Besides, I wasn’t exactly doing what I was supposed, either. I’ll try to be more cooperative from now on.”

“Does that mean you’ll stop complaining about joining us in battle?” Claude asked playfully.

Hilda glared at him, “It means I still think my job should be to cheer from the sidelines. But if the professor is going to insist that I participate in battles, then I’ll be sure to follow orders.”

“It’s not like I want to order you around all the time.” Claude reassured, “I’d like to think of us more as partners. We work pretty well together when we’re on the same page.”

“I think I could live with that. As long as you promise not to use me as a sacrifice in any real battles.”

Claude drew an X over his heart with his index finger, “Cross my heart. No sacrificial Hildas. I’m trying to keep everyone here alive, too.”

Maybe this sincerity thing wasn’t so bad after all.

Chapter Text

“Your mission this month will be to lead your class in eliminating some bandits who have been causing trouble in the area.”

Jeralt arched an eyebrow. He couldn’t help but question Rhea’s judgement on this one.

“Bandits? I’m not sure I can agree to that. That’s way beyond a simple training exercise. These kids aren’t ready yet.”

“I am confident that with your guidance they will rise to the occasion.” Rhea said placidly, “Furthermore, the bandits in question have taken up shelter in Zanado, the Red Canyon. As you know, that is a very sacred location for the Church of Seiros which is protected very carefully.”

Ah. So that’s what she was playing at. Jeralt’s frown deepened.

“I’m sure you understand why we cannot simply entrust this task to anyone. We are willing to allow the students of the Golden Deer house entry into the canyon as they will be accompanied by you.”

Seteth’s mouth was a tight, thin line. He obviously objected to Rhea’s decision, perhaps more strongly than he had any other so far. But they must have already discussed it before his arrival, because Seteth did not voice his dissent now.

Did he know what Jeralt knew? Did he know Jeralt knew it?

“Very well, Lady Rhea. If those are your orders.”

Rhea was as stoic as ever at first glance. But Jeralt knew what to look for, and he could see the tiniest hint of a frown in her eyes, at the corners of her lips. She wanted more than curt, obligatory obedience from him, that much was clear.

But that was all he had left to give.

The Progenitor God, Sothis, named Nemesis her champion, marking him the King of Liberation and bestowing upon him the Sword of the Creator. For Many years he protected the people and maintained peace in Fodlan alongside the Protector God, Byleth, and the heroes known as the Ten Elites.

But Nemesis was only human; corrupted by the great power bequeathed him by the goddess Sothis, he turned on his creator. Incensed by the betrayal of Nemesis, the goddess Byleth  flew into a fit of rage and lost control of her immense power. Chaos and war reigned in Fodlan once again, until Saint Seiros defeated Nemesis, reclaimed the Sword of the Creator, and sealed the fallen goddess away.

Claude closed the book with a frustrated sigh. It was just another variation of the same story he’d already heard dozens of times since coming to Fodlan. There was no information he didn’t already know--no tangible, provable facts at all for that matter--and it certainly wasn’t what he was looking for.

Mentions of the Sword of the Creator were all well and good, but they did nothing to help Claude actually find it. He couldn’t just give up his search now, though. Locating the legendary sword was practically the sole reason he had come to Garreg Mach.

It had quickly proven to be one of many secrets the church was hiding. Claude loved nothing more than a good secret, except perhaps the rush he got from finally discovering the truth. 

His current favorite curiosity was Zanado, thanks to the very interesting conversation between Rhea and Jeralt he had “overheard” at the beginning of the month. And yet, his time in the library had yielded even less information about the Red Canyon than it had the Sword of the Creator. How strange it was that there was almost no information to be found about a place that was supposedly so important to the church in the church’s own library.

Not as strange as it should be, if his conversations with the librarian were anything to go by. Apparently the contents of the library were pretty heavily censored, but that just made Claude even more desperate to know. What was hiding in Zanado, or in its history, that the church was trying to hide?

He would love to investigate when they went there at the end of the month, but he couldn’t let his curiosity distract him from his true purpose either. As Jeralt had pointed out, this was no mock battle they would be participating in, and death wasn’t just a hypothetical anymore. He would have to put his research aside during their mission.

It was probably best to put it aside now, too. His candle was running low and he could only imagine it was late into the night, far past the curfew he was supposed to be following. He would hardly be the first student to have fallen asleep in the library. But he didn’t really care to answer questions about what he was studying, or why, so better not to get caught doing it in the middle of the night. Steathily, he snuck back to his room, ready to resume his search tomorrow. Or likely later today, at this point.

His next strategy was to see if he could get any information about Zanado out of Jeralt. He’d once been a high ranking member of the church, after all, and Rhea had certainly implied that he knew more than most people about the restricted area. There was no doubt that the former knight was a tough egg to crack, but if Claude was tactical about his questions and made them seem like they were more about preparing for the upcoming battle than they were about satiating his personal curiosity, he might have a chance of learning a thing or two.

He was brainstorming his approach to the task before class that morning when Jeralt strode into their classroom and to his podium at the front. He was as imposing as ever, and it took no more than the sound of his footsteps for the entire class to fall silent and sit up straight at attention. Claude marveled at the way his presence alone was enough to command the respect of a room.

“Alright everyone, we have received our mission from the church for this month,” Somehow the class got even more attentive as he spoke, eager to hear their task. The room was so quiet it was as if they weren’t even breathing, “We will be going to Zanado, the Red Canyon, to dispatch a group of bandits.”

The quiet did not last long once they had the news. The room was suddenly alight with chatter as they all reacted to the news. Most of them were excited, eager for the opportunity to test their mettle against a real opponent. Although Ignatz looked a little nervous and Hilda groaned and said, “Why can’t we get an easy job like community service around the monastery or something?” Claude was just doing his best to look as surprised as everyone else.

Jeralt held a hand up and instantly the chatter stopped. “I know you’re excited, but I don’t want us to get ahead of ourselves. This mission is likely to push us to our limit, and we need to make sure we’re ready for that.”

Leonie frowned, “You don’t think we’re ready for this, Captain Jeralt?”

“I think we’ve barely had enough time together for me to know who’s ready for what,” Jeralt answered calmly, “But that’s alright. Realistically, life is never going to stop and wait for you to be ready, and neither are your opponents. In this case we at least have an opportunity to prepare ourselves, and with that in mind we will be running practice battles every free day from now until the end of the month.”

The reaction was instantaneous again, though this time it wasn’t just Hilda who was groaning and complaining, it was everyone. Hilda was definitely the loudest, though.

“Ugh, there’s no way I’m doing that much work. Come on, Professor, don’t you think that’s a little excessive?”

“I am inclined to agree,” Lorenz added, “Several of us already have combat training from prior to enrolling in the Officer’s Academy. And even more of us possess a crest, an advantage lowly bandits are certain not to have.”

Raphael didn’t even seem to notice the indirect jab. But Ignatz wilted slightly, and Leonie glared at Lorenz. “Having a crest isn’t everything, right Captain Jeralt?”

“A crest is a helpful tool, and you should always make use of every tool in your arsenal. But they can be unreliable, and at the end of the day crests don’t win battles. Strategy, skill, and preparedness win battles.”

“Do you have a crest, Professor?” Hilda asked the question that they were doubtlessly all thinking.

The air in the room was charged. They were all nervous to see how Jeralt would react to the question, and eager to hear his answer. Jeralt contemplated it for a moment first.

“If I told you I didn’t, would you think less of me as a soldier?”

Heads shook throughout the room, as the class frantically reassured him that no, of course they wouldn’t. Even Lorenz quickly began to mutter, “Certainly I didn’t mean to imply--” but Lysithea, sitting beside him, elbowed him sharply in the ribs to stop him before he put his foot in his mouth again.

“I don’t spend much time worrying about my crest. When it helps, it helps. When it doesn’t, I prefer to feel confident that I’m prepared to win regardless.”

But which crest is it? Claude was desperate to ask. He honestly didn’t put much stock in crests himself. He hadn’t known he had one at all, or that they even existed, until barely over a year ago when his mother had revealed to him that he was a member of house Riegan. He didn’t care if Jeralt had a crest, or if he came from noble stock or whatever. But his professor was such an enigma. Lots of people had stories about him and his incredible deeds in battle. But no one seemed to actually know anything about Jeralt himself. The origin of Jeralt’s crest was fascinating purely for the truth it may reveal about who exactly Jeralt was.

Claude could hardly ask so boldly now, though. It seemed his questions about Zanado would have to wait as well. He hadn’t exactly gotten the information he wanted out of this discussion, but he definitely had a lot to think about now.

Jeralt might have seen the questions churning behind Claude’s eyes, or maybe he was just tired of the conversation. Either way, he gruffly cleared his throat and said, “If there are no more questions on that, we’ll be going over pincer attacks today. Go ahead and open your books.”

Jeralt made good on his promise to work them hard on the weekends leading up to their mission. Claude didn’t mind the extra training, although it was a little embarrassing when he’d returned to the monastery so exhausted that he’d fallen asleep right at the table in the dining hall. Even more embarrassing was that it had been Dimitri who’d shaken him awake, concern evident on his face. Still, Dimitri admitted to being jealous of the training they were getting from Jeralt, and that their mission for the month involved actual combat. His house had gotten the monastery clean up duty that Hilda continued to beg and whine for. She looked to be on the verge of tears by the end of each of their practice sessions. 

But there was no denying that training was paying off, even for Hilda. She wouldn't be able to fool anyone about her noodle arms anymore--already she was looking downright toned. Leonie and Raphael, who both brought a lot of strength and skill to the table but had almost no formal training before enrolling in the academy, had probably grown the most and were proving to be powerhouses on the battlefield. Still, everyone in their class was showing noticeable improvement already. Jeralt might not be a teacher by trade, but he clearly knew what he was doing.

All of their growth was being put to the test now. The practice battles were over, and it was time for their real battle against the bandits. The eager energy their class had been filled with over the month was still present as they arrived at Zanado, although it had taken on a more nervous feeling. Claude wasn’t too concerned himself, but he could see where the rest of them were coming from. Training and skill wise, Jeralt had more than prepared them for this task. But for most of them, this would be their first time being asked to actually take a life in battle, and to risk their own. Nothing could truly prepare you for that.

They were all silent as they filed into formation, the atmosphere heavy. Jeralt stopped and let the rest of the group get a few paces ahead before he said to Claude, “Hey, Kid, come here a minute.”

Claude looked at him curiously, “What’s up, Cap?”

At first, Jeralt just grinned at him. It was disarming to suddenly get such a friendly presentation from someone who was normally so reserved, “I hope you weren’t engaging in your habit of burning the midnight oil at the library last night.”

Claude’s eyes widened. He didn’t know how Jeralt always seemed to know what he was up to, but it was almost creepy.

Jeralt knew the cause of his confusion, “You do realize you have to walk right by my office to get to and from the library?” He deadpanned.

“Well, sounds like I’m not the only one who’s been burning some midnight oil,” Claude replied smoothly, crossing his arms behind his head, “Don’t worry, Cap, I made sure to get plenty of R and R for our big day.”

“Glad to hear it.” Jeralt turned serious again, apparently ready to get to the point of what he’d pulled Claude aside for, “Listen. I know it’s strange for me to ask this of an archer, but between you and me you are much more prepared for this, mentally and physically, than the rest of the class. Take the front of the formation for me? Just for now. Until they’re ready.”

By now Jeralt had given Claude plenty of orders. But this was different. It was a request. It gave Claude room to decline if he didn’t feel comfortable, but it also came with the implicit trust that he could make the right judgement call without Jeralt telling him what to do. It felt good. He nodded resolutely, “Sure thing, Cap. I can handle that.”

“Great. Thanks, Kid. Let’s get going, then.”

When Claude stepped out to the front of the group, he got one or two strange looks from the students who were strategically savvy enough to realize it was a strange position for him, but no one said anything. A small amount of nervous banter had broken out, but most of the class was still quiet in general.

"As I can tell you are all very aware of, training if over." Jeralt addressed the group, obviously reading their nervous energy, "This is serious, and you should be treating it as such. But I promise you, as your commander, I would never willingly put you in a situation you couldn't handle. You can do this. The most important thing you need to do today is trust yourself."

That seemed to raise spirits a little bit. Jeralt continued.

"We have the only reliable way in or out of the canyon at our backs, so the enemy is effectively cornered. That's a big advantage, but it also means they're probably desperate, so we need to be prepared for anything."

Claude surveyed the area ahead of them. The bandits were some distance away, and seemed to be bunkering down to wait for them to make the first move rather than going on the offensive. Something else of interest also caught his eye, "Looks like there's a back way through the canyon off to the west. If we split up and some of us go that way, we could do one of those pincer attacks."

Jeralt nodded, "Good plan. Claude, why don't you take Hilda, Marianne, and Raphael and head west. The rest of the group will stay on the main path with me.”

Jeralt was throwing him the soft ball of the century. He and Hilda had worked through their issues after the mock battle and then some; they had become what she called besties and he preferred to think of as partners in crime. Marianne was as meek as a church mouse. And Raphael was pretty much the most easy going guy there was: as long as he got to punch something he didn’t really care who was telling him to do it. But it was a good opportunity to have success in the leadership department, which would reflect positively with the rest of the class too. “You got it, Cap.”

“My group, they’ll probably send snipers at us when we’re bottle necked on that bridge in the north. Ignatz, Lysithea, it will be your job to keep them off of us. And Claude, if your group finds their leader first, under no circumstances are you to engage without me, unless you are forced to defend yourselves. Understood?” 

Everyone nodded their assent. There was no more sense wasting time; if they waited too long the bandits might end up going on the offensive and they’d be in a much more difficult position. They made their way into the canyon.

Once they were properly on the move, the enemy did not sit around waiting to be killed. Claude made good on his promise to take the physical lead, or at least he tried to. But quickly Raphael proved to have no qualms about rushing into battle and facing his opponents head on. Claude could barely keep ahead of him and it was soon obvious he didn’t need to. Raphael was more than holding his own, and he was confident doing it. Claude was much more effective protecting Raphael’s rear and sniping opponents he didn’t quite finish off on his own, and he was confident Jeralt would agree.

Raphael charged through their enemies while Claude and Hilda took cleanup duty behind him and Marianne kept them all healthy. It was hardly the most poetic strategy, but the bandits they were up against weren’t the most clever bunch, so it was effective.

Besides, they were moving quickly, which Claude was glad for. In the distance he could hear the sound of his other classmates fighting as well, but he couldn’t see them. He knew there wasn’t much to worry about when they had Jeralt with them, and he surprised himself with how much concern he felt in the first place, but he couldn’t help it. He was eager to get around the bend in the path ahead and have them in his sight again.

Raphael was eager too, though probably for different reasons. But when they turned enough to have another bandit in their sight, Claude stopped Raphael before he could charge ahead again. 

“Wait!” Raphael listened without hesitation, although he was pouting about it. Claude explained, “I recognize that guy. He was leading the group of bandits that attacked us last month. Cap said not to fight the leader without him.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Hilda said quietly beside him, “That guy looks kinda scary.”

They didn’t have to wait long regardless. Jeralt’s group had been held up on the bridge as predicted, but they were finishing off the last of the bandits on their side of the field now. Once the bandits were eliminated and the students were safe, Jeralt took advantage of the fact he was on horseback to charge quickly forward.

“You again?” The leader of the bandits shouted when he caught sight of Jeralt. His tone was defiant, but contained a hint of fear, “What the hell are the Knights of Seiros doing working with a damn mercenary anyway?” 

Jeralt didn’t answer. He could stand to work on his banter game, in Claude’s opinion. Then again, there was admittedly something intimidating about the way he didn’t even bother to dignify his enemy with a response.

Instead he called out, “Claude, with me!” and Claude dashed ahead to join him.

Jeralt charged ahead and stabbed at the bandit. A little ways behind him, Claude did not bother waiting to see if a followup attack would be necessary before firing off an arrow. The bandit fell to the ground, a lance wound in his gut and an arrow in his eye socket. Unlike the last time they fought, he would not be getting back up again.

Jeralt wrangled them back to the entrance of the canyon, told them they would debrief at the monastery but that overall they had done well, and let them celebrate their victory for now. Hilda was talking away about how tired she was and how much she wanted a bath to Marianne, who mostly nodded mutely. Raphael and Leonie swapped stories animatedly about their individual fights. Lorenz was waxing about his own exploits on the battlefield to no one in particular, although Lysithea paid at least enough attention to roll her eyes at him. Ignatz had come over to compliment Claude on his shot against the bandit ringleader, and shyly ask if he might be able to offer some pointers sometime--but only if he had the time and it wasn’t too much of a bother, of course.

Claude nodded halfheartedly, and quickly reassured Ignatz that he wasn’t a bother, but his focus wasn’t on the battle or his classmates anymore. Now that the danger was eliminated, he was back to satiating his curiosity about Zanado. If he’d been expecting to immediately recognize why the church protected this place so carefully, he was definitely left wanting now. The ruins were incredibly impressive, but they didn’t seem to be anything special. You could find ones like them most anywhere in the world. They had to be hiding something, and Claude needed to know what.

“Sure wonder who built these old ruins, huh Cap?” Claude sidled up to Jeralt as he asked. He figured now was as good a time as any to try and get some information out of him, even if his intentions would be very transparent.

Jeralt didn’t say anything, didn’t even look at him when he spoke. He seemed distracted, like he had something else on his mind. But there was a good chance he was actually just selectively ignoring, so Claude tried again.

“And why do they call it the Red Canyon, anyway? Nothing here is even red.”

That one got Jeralt to look his way, at least, although he still appeared preoccupied. His cryptic response was, “I’m sure it held some significance at one time.”

It didn’t do Claude much good without knowing what the significance had been, of course, but whether Jeralt knew it or not he was obviously not going to discuss it now. He was gazing off into the distance, back toward the canyon. After a long pause, he turned back to Claude.

“Kid, gather the rest of the class and rendezvous with the contingent of knights who were on standby for us outside Zanado. You can all head back to the monastery. Tell them I’ll be along on my own shortly. There’s just something I need to check on first.”

At first, Claude just stared, open-mouthed, at his professor. Did Jeralt seriously think he could make a statement that intriguing and Claude wouldn’t follow him? And yet, that one had not been a request. It was an order. And without Jeralt’s permission to stay behind, there was no way he would be able to sneak away from the rest of the class unnoticed while they all returned to the monastery. He had no choice but to turn around and walk away while Jeralt strolled right up to whatever mysteries were hidden away in Zanado.

“Fine then, leave me hanging.” He tried to sound as casual and unaffected by Jeralt’s decision as possible. There was no point in protesting it; they both knew he had no choice but to obey. Better to keep his cards close to his chest and play it cool for now. He returned to his classmates.

Claude was quiet for most of the march back to Garreg Mach, contemplative. He could act cool all he wanted, but the truth was he was desperate to know just what Jeralt was doing back there, not to mention what other secrets he was hiding. Getting back to Zanado without permission wasn’t going to be an easy feat, it was on a whole other level compared to sneaking around the monastery itself, but now he was committed. Claude was nothing if not a schemer, and he’d never given up on his goals yet, no matter how lofty. It might take him some time, but he would find a way.

To that end he had every intention of throwing himself right back into his research as soon as he arrived at Garreg Mach. But Claude was never one to turn down a victory feast, so when it was suggested they all celebrate the success of their mission together in the dining hall he accepted. Before long the many questions that were constantly plaguing his mind since he enrolled in the Officer’s Academy were forgotten, at least temporarily. As they sat around the table eating far too much food, sharing exaggerated tales of their battle, laughing and cheering together with his fellow Golden Deer, for the first time the monastery started to feel a little bit like home.

Chapter Text

“Jeralt, we have another important mission for you and your students this month.”

“We have received reports that Lord Lonato has rallied troops against the Church of Seiros.” Seteth explained on Rhea’s behalf.

It was an interesting development, if not a surprising one. Lord Lonato had every reason to hate the church, certainly. But he didn’t have much reason to assume he could beat them. There was no chance a minor lord had the manpower or the firepower to take on the entire might of the Church of Seiros.

“A vanguard unit from the Knights of Seiros is already on its way to Castle Gaspard to address the threat.” Seteth continued, and for once he and Jeralt were on the same page, “Lord Lonato’s army is nothing compared to the knights. It is quite possible the rebellion has already been suppressed.”

“Even so, I would like for your class to travel with the knights’ rear guard to deal with the aftermath.” Rhea added, “It will be a great comfort to me just to know you are with them, should anything unexpected transpire.”

Jeralt wondered whether Rhea’s confidence in him was correctly placed this time around. He’d encountered dissention at Castle Gaspard once before, and he did nothing but walk away. On more than one occasion he’d questioned whether he should have done more. 

That didn’t change anything now though. Jeralt wouldn’t begrudge Lonato his hatred of the church, or of Rhea. But he wouldn’t let him tear through villages full of innocent people in the name of revenge either.

“Very well, Lady Rhea. I will do all that I can, as will the students.”

With the mysteries piling up, Claude had to get strategic about which ones to tackle first. He put Zanado on the back burner for now, knowing that it was going to be too challenging to tackle without a very thorough plan of action. More because of personal curiosity than because it forwarded his goals at all, he decided to next try to figure out the origin of Jeralt’s crest. The most obvious approach was asking around, although it also carried the greatest risk of his snooping getting back to Jeralt. He decided to go for it anyway.

Alois was the clear first target for his questions. He knew Jeralt better than anyone here. He also didn’t have much of a filter, and conveniently Jeralt was the easiest subject to get him going on.

“The Captain’s crest?” Alois responded when he had asked, a little louder than Claude would have preferred. “Now that you mention it, he’s talked about having a crest before, but I don’t think he ever told me which one. It never even occurred to me to ask!”

There was no chance Alois was lying, because he was definitely too terrible at it to get past Claude, so that turned out to be a dead end. But Claude wasn’t done yet. His next contestant was Professor Hanneman.

“Ah yes, Jeralt Eisner does indeed possess a crest,” the professor had grown excited in a way he only ever did when talking about crests, “A Crest of Seiros. That in itself is common enough, of course, but his is a major crest! I would love to research it further, but he has denied my every request so far . . . good thing I am not one to give up so easily . . .”

He was obviously not even talking to Claude anymore. Claude thanked him--but got no response as Hanneman continued to mutter to himself--and was on his way. Mission accomplished.

Now he was back at the library, reading up on the geneology of the Crest of Seiros. It was primarily associated with the royal family of the Adrestian Empire, and also with the Church of Seiros itself. At face value, that made perfect sense. Seiros had been closely involved with the founding of the empire according to any history book you could find, and her connection to the church was self-explanatory. But that was actually the curious part. Leadership within the church wasn’t passed down through a single lineage, so it wasn’t as if the church officials should be any more likely to have a particular crest than the rest of the population. Maybe they intentionally sought the crest holders to promote up the ranks. That made sense, given the significance the church placed on crests. It also might explain how Jeralt had come to be captain of the knights, and why he’d been welcomed back after twenty years without any fuss.

“Ah, the Crest of Seiros. A crest with a most storied and interesting history.”

Claude nearly jumped out of his skin. He wasn’t an easy guy to sneak up on, given his own familiarity with the art of sneaking. Last he checked he’d been alone in the library. Now the librarian, Tomas, was not only behind him but close enough to read over his shoulder, having somehow arrived there soundlessly.

Tomas, Claude had learned, enjoyed dangling his vast knowledge in front of people as much as he enjoyed sharing it. He never hesitated to be helpful when you asked questions, but Claude found he could often get more out of the librarian by playing along with his little games. He shrugged his shoulders, “I dunno, from what I’ve read it doesn’t seem all that interesting.”

Tomas had a mysterious glint in his eye that meant he had taken the bait, “Alas, the most interesting part won’t be found in any book. But when you’ve been around the monastery as long as I have, you hear things. And I have heard the most curious whispers about the Crest of Seiros.”

Claude wasn’t just playing along anymore. He could only admit he was interested. He leaned forward in his seat a little. “Oh yeah?”

“Supposedly, there is a secret ritual known only to the highest ranking members of the Church of Seiros. When one becomes a cardinal, they undergo this ritual to be imbued with the Crest of Seiros. It is the reason the identity of the cardinals is one of the church’s most closely guarded secrets.”

Claude had no response to that reveal. He had never heard or read anything that suggested a person could gain a crest after having been born. But if it were true, he could understand why the church would keep it a secret. They would have noble families knocking down their door, begging them to “fix” their crestless heirs.

It also had some very interesting implications for Jeralt.

But there was something about it that didn’t make sense, too. Assuming the church really could somehow implant crests into people, why did church doctrine place so much emphasis on being born with a crest? It seemed like it would be a moot point if that were really the case.

Tomas let Claude stew in the information he had been given for a few moments. Then, he abruptly dropped the air of mystery and was a pleasant, helpful old man again, “But that’s all just hearsay, of course. There’s no proof that such a thing happens or is even possible, but isn’t it fascinating to consider?”

Tomas hobbled out of the library, his cane thumping against the floor as he went. Claude was too preoccupied thinking about crests to even consider the implications that held for the librarian’s stealthy entrance.

Claude had too much information to digest now, and sitting around the library reading more wasn’t going to help. He packed up and headed out into the second floor of the monastery. He paused before turning the corner into the hallway, seeing Jeralt emerge from his office. Claude wasn’t sure what the professor got up to on his free days when he wasn’t running them ragged in practice battles, and now was as good a chance as any to try to find out. He hung back as far as he could while still seeing where Jeralt was going, and he followed.

Eventually Claude determined they must be heading toward the Knight’s Hall, which was not terribly exciting, but he could hardly be surprised. At least until Jeralt strolled right passed and continued down the path.

Claude had never ventured so far in that direction before, not having found a reason to. He had no clue what was down there, and didn’t want to get caught following Jeralt only to find he had nowhere to hide, so he ducked into the Knight’s Hall on his own for now. His intention was to hang around for a minute, then proceed down the path and “happen upon” Jeralt unexpectedly.

But then he found Dimitri in the Knight’s Hall, and he wasn’t looking good. Claude walked over to talk to him. He expressed frustration about Lord Lonato’s rebellion, his impotence in dealing with it, and the fact that the church had not assigned the mission to the Blue Lions even though it was a Faerghus problem.

“If I may be so bold, Your Highness,” Claude told him calmly, “The fact that you are so emotional about this one is probably the exact reason Rhea didn’t assign it to your class. Not to mention, it wouldn’t be a good look for the crown prince to be going around helping a neutral party assassinate one of Faerghus’ lords. Not the best way to foster the rest of their trust ahead of taking the throne.”

“I understand all that,” Dimitri answered, sounding both sad and frustrated, “But I hate that I must just sit by and do nothing. I feel so powerless.”

Claude felt for Dimitri. He really was in an impossible situation, in regards to Lord Lonato and beyond; all eyes in Faerghus were on him, but his hands were completely tied. All of the kingdom’s hope rested on his shoulders, and even as strong as he was it had to be an incredibly heavy burden to bear. 

Claude offered a rare, genuine smile, “Well Your Highness, we may not be much, but consider the Golden Deer your eyes, ears, and sword on the battlefield for this one. We’ve got you. Not that you’re likely to need us, with Thunder Catherine and that Heroes’ Relic of hers there to handle things.”

“Thank you. I feel much better for having you on my side regardless. I certainly know firsthand it is better than being up against you,” Finally Dimitri smiled in return, “And Claude, please, you know you can call me Dimitri.”

“Oh I couldn’t possibly be so brazen.” Claude answered dramatically. It was true, but maybe not for the reasons he projected. Claude had let his walls down ever so slightly since coming to the monastery. Bonding with his fellow Deer was one thing, but he really couldn’t afford to get that comfortable with Dimitri. “And with that I must take my leave, for I’ll have much preparing to do to ensure I don’t disappoint your princeliness at the end of the month.”

Plus, out of the corner of his eye he’d just seen Jeralt walk past the Knight’s Hall back toward the rest of the monastery. 

This time Claude didn’t follow Jeralt wherever he was going. He went to see where he had been. There didn’t turn out to be much beyond the Knight’s Hall. The only thing of note was a small, quiet cemetery. Claude noticed that one of the graves had fresh flowers placed in front of it, so he walked over to take a look.

The name on the grave was Sitri Eisner.

Claude’s stomach dropped. For the first time ever, he felt guilty for having snooped. But this wasn’t strategic. It didn’t forward his goals at all. It was just a massive invasion of Jeralt’s privacy. He wished he could unsee it. He wished Jeralt wouldn’t know he’d seen, but somehow he always seemed to know what Claude was getting up to.

Deciding he had learned enough for the day, Claude returned to his dorm.

Being assigned a mission alongside Catherine was one of the more exciting things that had happened to Claude in his time at the Officer’s Academy so far. He’d learned a lot about the Heroes’ Relics so far, but only through reading and hearsay. He’d yet to actually see one. So he was eager for his chance to see Thunderbrand in action. 

Not that he was hoping that things wouldn’t go according to plan. But when they didn’t, well, Claude was hardly worried considering they had both Jeralt and Catherine on their side. So yeah, he was comfortable enjoying his opportunity to catch a glimpse of the legendary sword.

Lord Lonato was definitely desperate to get his revenge on the church, if the way he was willing to throw his citizens at them in battle was anything to go by. And yet the citizens weren’t hesitating to give their lives for him, either. It was a strange dichotomy; on the one hand, Lonato’s actions now could only be called cowardly, but on the other hand he must be a good leader if his people were so dedicated to him. Claude wondered what really motivated him to act so boldly now.

It was unlikely he would be able to find out, though. Lord Lonato was now facing down Jeralt the Blade Breaker and Thunder Catherine. He wouldn’t be around to do a tell-all later.

When Jeralt stepped forward, Lonato glared at him, “You? Gone crawling back to that witch, have you? I knew you had no honor.”

In typical Jeralt fashion, there was no response to the taunt. He didn’t have much of a chance regardless. Catherine charged in, and Lonato seemed as eager to fight her as she was to fight him. Thunderbrand glowed and pulsed with power. It wasn’t a long battle.

There was a lot of confusion after the battle, courtesy of Catherine finding the plan to assassinate Rhea on Lonato’s person. Claude had his opinions about that plot, mainly that it was definitely bullshit, but that was a conversation they were sure to have back at the monastery. For now he sought out Jeralt.

“Hey, Kid, good job out there again today. You all did well adapting to an unexpected situation.”

“Thanks, Cap.” Claude replied. Then, because he couldn’t help himself he asked, “Hey, did you and Lord Lonato know each other or something? Seemed like there might have been a bit of history there.”

Jeralt sighed deeply, “I wouldn’t say we knew each other, but we’d met. I took a job from his son Christophe a few years back . . . but we couldn’t come to an agreement on the terms of the job, and ended up going our separate ways. How it goes sometimes with mercenary work."

“And that would be the son that ended up being executed by the church?”

“Yes, that would be him."

There was so obviously more to that story than Jeralt was telling him. It just about drove Claude crazy, but he had learned his lesson about prying into his professor’s business when he didn’t have a good reason to. If Jeralt didn’t want to share, then Claude wouldn’t ask. For now.

Surprisingly, Jeralt still appeared preoccupied during class the following day. When his lecture was done he asked Claude to wait behind while the rest of the class was dismissed. For a brief moment Claude was afraid that he was in trouble, and particularly that Jeralt was going to call him out for all of his snooping. But Jeralt didn’t reprimand him today.

“You have some time right now? There’s something I would like to show you.”

If Jeralt thought there was a single chance Claude would say no to such an offer, that could only be willful ignorance. Claude could only do his best not to trip over himself jumping out of his seat. “Cap, for an offer that tantalizing, I have all the time in the world.”

Jeralt shook his head, but he was grinning, “Great. Meet me outside the entrance hall when you’re ready.”

Did that mean they were leaving the monastery? That would be even more interesting. Could Claude’s day get any better?

They met at the gate looking over the marketplace. When Jeralt saw Claude, he cast a glance to the gatekeeper to make sure they’d been noticed and spoke a bit louder than necessary when he said, “Make sure you have your bow with you. We’ll be doing some training.”

It was enough to reassure Claude that whatever they were about to do definitely didn’t involve any training. Still, it was sure to do the trick with the well-meaning but not terribly bright gatekeeper. Now anyone who went looking for them would hear they were just out on a simple training exercise. It was well-played.

Jeralt wasn’t one for small talk, so they were quiet for a while as they trekked away from Garreg Mach. Before long, Claude got a sense of where they were going.

“Wait . . . are we going back to Zanado?”

“We are.”

So presumably Jeralt was going to show Claude whatever it was he’d been “checking on'' after their battle in Zanado last month. Claude could only admit he was excited. And here he’d thought getting back to the Red Canyon was going to be hard.

“Finally decided to let me in on your big secret, huh?”

Jeralt had an unusual expression on his face when he looked back at Claude. It was almost mischievous, in a very intense sort of way, “Well I figured if I didn’t tell you myself, you would just snoop around my business until you figured it out anyway.”

And there was the criticism Claude had been waiting for. He winced, “Guess you caught on to me then.”

“Word of advice? If you don’t want people to find out you’re up to something, leave Alois out of it.”

Claude nodded. It was hard to argue with that advice.

“And another thing: if you really wanted to know what crest I have that badly, you could have just asked me.”

That was much more surprising. Claude eyed Jeralt uncertainly, “You seriously would have just told me if I’d asked?”

“Sure,” Jeralt replied easily, “I can’t promise I’ll always be able to tell you everything, and sometimes it won’t be my secret to share. But I think you’ll find I’m not hiding nearly as much as you think I am.”

If Jeralt was going to throw that door wide open, then Claude sure as hell was going to walk through it. “well if all I have to do is ask, then here’s one for ya--are you a church cardinal?”

“What makes you ask that ?”

Jeralt actually seemed caught off guard. That was no easy feat to achieve; it was how Claude knew he had asked the right question. He was going to keep pushing it.

“I heard the church somehow gives the Crest of Seiros to everyone who becomes a cardinal.”

“. . . who told you that?”

Claude shrugged casually. He was really enjoying acting like it was no big deal when he’d clearly gotten such a reaction out of Jeralt, “The librarian.”

“Interesting.” Jeralt went silent for a few moments, his surprised expression fading to something unreadable. When he finally continued he was back to his usual, composed self, “I’m not a cardinal--”

“And yet that’s probably exactly what you would say if you were.”

Jeralt gave Claude a pointed look, “Probably. As I think you’ve already figured out for yourself, you can’t always trust everything you hear around the Church of Seiros.”

It was obviously a reminder not to blindly trust Tomas’s story, which Claude could understand. But there was something about the way Jeralt said it, a certain bitterness behind his words, that suggested he was talking about something much bigger as well. The question was what--or more aptly who--else was he talking about. Claude had his suspicions about the church. But Jeralt had answers.

He knew better than to push his luck asking too much at once, though, lest he aggravate Jeralt to the point of rescinding his offer to answer questions at all. Besides, he was already about to answer one of Claude’s biggest questions so far, and through all of their talking they had arrived at Zanado. 

Jeralt led him through the canyon and a short way into the ruins. He stopped in front of a massive gate--it so completely dwarfed them in size that Claude struggled to comprehend why any past civilization might have needed to construct a doorway so large--inlaid into an equally massive stone wall that stretched beyond Claude’s line of sight in either direction. When Jeralt turned to face him, his expression was deathly serious.

“Listen Kid, as I’m sure you realized for yourself already I am not supposed to be showing you this.”

Claude had already realized as much of course, but he still didn’t quite understand, “Then why are you?”

“The nature of my current situation means I can’t come here as often as I would like without drawing suspicion. I need someone who can come to visit in my place in the meantime. I need it to be someone savvy enough to sneak in and out of Garreg Mach unnoticed. And I need it to be someone who can see through Rhea’s bullshit.”

Claude flinched ever so slightly at the harsh honesty. It was clear that there was some sort of tension between Jeralt and Rhea just from watching them interact. But he’d never heard Jeralt be so openly irreverent. He claimed not to be hiding much, but Jeralt was obviously wearing quite the impressive mask since returning to the monastery.

Not that Claude cared about that. Truthfully, he could relate.

“Sounds like I’m your guy then, Cap.” Claude replied with a wink, “But how do you know I’m not going to rat you out? Or even just tell another student about whatever’s here?”

“Once you see what’s beyond this gate, I trust that you will fully appreciate the gravity of the situation, and why we need to keep it to ourselves,” Jeralt was as cool as a cucumber, “But I also thought we could make a little deal. I don’t want anyone finding out about our arrangement here, just like you don’t want anyone finding out you’re from Almyra.”

Jeralt allowed his implicit threat to hang in the air. Claude felt an instant of panic, but he was fairly confident he composed himself quickly enough that it didn’t show on his face at all. He laughed, forcing himself to sound casual, “Is that really the best you’ve got? I don’t even know why you would thi--”

“Claude. I was not born yesterday. And I’ve been to Almyra. Frankly, I don’t care where you come from. It doesn’t change my perceptions of you at all. But I can understand why you’d prefer to keep it to yourself, so let’s just call it a truce, shall we?”

Claude was too stunned to respond at first, both by Jeralt’s ever impressive powers of perception, and by the way he so casually accepted Claude’s heritage. He had a point, though. This was as good a stalemate as they were ever going to get. “Alright Cap, you’ve got me. Sounds like we’ve both got pretty good reasons to keep our mouths shut.”

“I’m glad to hear you agree. Now come here.”

On the stone wall to the right of the gate, there was a panel with buttons on it. It was strange, not quite like anything Claude had seen before, and he couldn’t imagine what function it might serve in such a place. Jeralt punched a code with the buttons, slowly so that Claude could learn it as well. The gate groaned loudly, and both doors began to slowly swing open by themselves.

Claude’s eyes widened.

Outside the gate Zanado wasn’t really anything special--a mostly barren, dried up canyon which happened to contain some ancient ruins. Beyond the gate it was completely unrecognizable. It was lush and alive. The greenery was incredible; there were fronds growing from the ground that were almost as tall as he was, and bright colorful flowers he had never seen before, in Fodlan or Almyra. And he could hear the sound of water, so there must be a stream somewhere nearby.

Looking somewhat out of place, there was a single pedestal sitting out in the open, with no buildings or other structures in sight besides the wall behind them. Claude approached it and found another panel atop it, not unlike the one by the gate, although this one looked markedly more complicated. It was also glowing; it almost looked like some kind of magic, but with no one around to perpetuate it, Claude didn’t see how that could be possible.

The air around it was somehow strange, too. It was almost like it was crackling, and when Claude listened carefully he could hear a faint buzzing sort of noise. There seemed to be some sort of energy here, and it was as if it were creating a barrier between the barren outer parts of Zanado and the thriving, lush sanctum within.

Jeralt noticed him observing the barrier carefully and said, “Don’t worry, it’s not meant to keep us out.”

The words were ominous, but as they promised Jeralt walked right past as if there were nothing there but regular air. Claude was no less mystified than before, but he had no intention of being left behind now, so he quickly followed. He couldn’t help but flinch slightly in anticipation passing through the barrier, but found that it was for nothing. He didn’t feel anything at all.

As they walked deeper into the canyon Claude couldn’t stop looking around, taking the incredible scenery in. It was almost like they were in a jungle, not that that made any sense given the climate of central Fodlan.

He also realized he did recognized one of the flowers. It looked like a lily, but the color was a beautiful swirling pattern of blue and green. He’d been too preoccupied to notice how unusual it was at the time, but it was the flower that Jeralt had left in front of the grave at the monastery. 

Eventually Jeralt stopped, so Claude did too. Jeralt was looking around, and he called out, “Hey, are you around?”

At first, there was no response. Then the sound of the plants rustling. Someone was approaching them.

It was a girl.

She looked to be a little older than Claude. Her hair was minty green and a little wild, hanging just below her shoulders. Her navy blue dress was almost more of a wrap, Just covering her shoulders, chest, and hips before flowing loosely to the ground. Her legs were covered with sheer pink tights to her ankles, and then she was barefoot. 

She smiled fondly at Jeralt, “You’re back so soon.”

“Figured I had some lost time to make up for,” Jeralt was smiling too, and it was the most genuine, outward display of emotion Claude had seen from him so far, “And I brought someone with me this time.”

The girl’s attention shifted to Claude. She looked him up and down, considering him carefully. She had an incredibly powerful sort of aura about her and Claude found he couldn’t handle looking back at her when she was looking at him so closely. His gaze wandered around the scenery again.

His head was swimming with questions. Who was this girl? Did she live here in the depths of Zanado? How was that even possible?

There was a strange sort of standoff happening between them, where Claude was too uncertain of the situation to know what to do or what to say, and she seemed especially cautious of him. Jeralt must have realized he would need to help move them along. He sighed, sounding not unlike a beleaguered parent.

“Byleth, this is my student Claude. Claude, Byleth.”

Byleth looked to Jeralt with a curious expression. He nodded, and she seemed to finally relax a little.

Claude looked between the two of them, “Byleth? Like the goddess?”

Jeralt shook his head, “Not like the goddess. This is the goddess Byleth."

Claude stared at him. Jeralt was good at hiding his reactions, but no one could drop a lie so huge without some kind of tell. Except there was no tell. Everything about Jeralt’s body language and expression was completely neutral. “. . .You’re serious?”

Jeralt nodded.

Claude turned his attention to Byleth. He didn’t put much stock in the doctrine of the Church of Seiros, was ambivalent when it came to belief in goddesses. But there was undeniably something divine about her. It wasn’t just her beauty, although she was certainly beautiful. But it was that power that exuded from her, the way she radiated a sense of being more than anyone he’d ever met. “That’s . . . holy--well, yeah.”

Byleth laughed lightly at his spluttering, but still said nothing to him. That was alright by him; he still needed a little more time to process all of this.

If church doctrine was anything to go by, Byleth was the more interesting of the two goddesses in Claude’s opinion, and certainly the more controversial. Where Sothis was said to have created life in Fodlan, Byleth’s purpose had been to preserve it. She had failed pretty spectacularly in that task in the end, which was why Saint Seiros supposedly locked her away. The wording had always seemed strange and vague to Claude, and he’d assumed it was a euphemism where the church hadn’t wanted to imply that one of their deities had been killed by their main religious figure. Now he was realizing the truth was much more literal than his interpretations had been. Byleth’s prison didn’t seem so bad, though.

Byleth wasn’t quite venerated by the followers of the church the way Sothis was. When the people of Fodlan felt the need to take the goddess’ name in vain, it was usually Byleth who they were cursing. Interpretations of her character varied. While some viewed her as a tragic, fallen hero, others saw her as a demon.

But it wasn’t a demon who was standing before him now. It wasn’t even a figure who evoked an epic, tragic heroine of legend. Byleth was just as his initial observation of her had been: she was a girl. A very, very powerful girl.

And to Claude, perhaps she was something else. An opportunity.

Claude offered her a smile, not his most genuine but certainly his best, “Wow. Well, this is probably the understatement of the millennium, but it’s nice to meet you.”

Byleth smiled in return. It was warm and bright, and although it wasn’t his intention Claude felt his own expression brightening to match. “You as well, Claude.”

Chapter Text

Claude found himself facing one of the greatest challenges he had encountered in his lifetime: making small talk with a goddess. 

Claude wasn’t much for idle chatter anyway, and there were so many thoughts swirling in his head right now it was hard for him to stay in the moment. She did not seem to be much of a conversationalist herself, and when he didn’t actively keep the conversation moving Byleth quickly lost interest and turned her attention back to Jeralt. Claude wondered how that relationship could function well; he couldn’t help but imagine the two of them sitting around staring blankly at each other for hours, but truthfully Jeralt had been more expressive and animated with Byleth than Claude had ever seen him.

Jeralt also seemed to be getting a little impatient with them. Claude could see why--if Jeralt’s plan was going to work he and Byleth would need to be able to actually interact with each other. He was obviously not thrilled with the fact that he was primarily the one moving their conversation along, but he tried again, “You know, Byleth, Claude isn’t training to become a knight, but he is currently receiving combat instruction at the monastery.”

That brought an excited sort of glint to Byleth’s eye. She looked back at Claude, though this time her eyes travelled right to the bow strapped on his back. She sounded eager when she asked, “Would you like to spar?”

“Uhhh,” Claude had two concerns with that suggestion. The first, of course, was whether or not he could realistically spar with a goddess and still make it back to the monastery later in one piece. But out of the corner of his eye he could see Jeralt nodding encouragingly, so his professor at least seemed to think it was fine. As for the second, “I didn’t bring any training arrows with me.”

“I’m sure that won’t be a problem.” Both Jeralt’s amused tone and his smirk left Claude with a somewhat ominous feeling. But he could only admit he felt a little eager too. Training against his classmates was one thing. Actual experience against bandits and militias was even better. But this was an opportunity to test his abilities that wouldn’t come along every day. 

“Alright. If you’re not worried about it, who am I to say no?”

“Excellent.” Byleth both looked and sounded like the cat that caught the canary. But she dropped into a fighting stance right there, apparently intending to fight him unarmed with her fists. It was a strange choice, but then again, she probably didn’t have any other weapon available.

Claude took hold of his bow and nocked an arrow. Byleth was surely powerful, but his advantage seemed great. Claude had sparred against Raphael plenty of times now. At close range he didn’t stand a single chance, but while Raph was strong he wasn’t all that fast, so as long as Claude was quick enough to keep distance between them it was easy to maintain control of the fight. The same principle should apply here. 

“Your move.” Byleth said, giving him the first opportunity to strike.

“How sportsmanlike.” Claude responded automatically. Taunting a goddess was perhaps not the best idea, but it was such a habit that he couldn’t help himself. She didn’t seem all too perturbed by it.

Claude drew his bow, hesitating as he took aim. These were real, sharp arrows and it didn’t feel right to take deadly aim against someone he had no intention or desire to actually harm. Normally he went right for the kill shot as soon as it was in his sight, and he was sure Byleth could handle it given how nonchalant both she and Jeralt were acting about his weapons, but maybe it would behoove him to start a little more cautiously this time, just in case.

Byleth was growing impatient with him. There was as much tension in the air as there was in his bowstring. He aimed for her leg, figuring he could start by trying to slow her down, and he fired.

In his defense, Claude never really expected to connect with his first shot. He had no idea what Byleth was capable of, what her style or patterns were, so he was prepared to have to readjust once she’d gotten started. But he was totally unprepared for what she actually delivered.

Byleth took off like a shot, darting ahead nearly as fast as his arrow flew, and closed the distance between them before he even had a chance to load another. She landed one swift punch to his gut, grabbed him by the shoulder, and swept her foot behind his to kick his legs out from under him. Claude had barely gotten his wind back from the punch before it was knocked out of him again as he hit the ground, quiver digging into his back. Byleth stepped over him and put her foot on his neck to hold him down.

It was a precarious position to be in. For starters, he was very confident Byleth was strong enough to crush his windpipe--or maybe even break his neck--with her foot if she decided she wanted to. And if that wasn’t enough to deal with, the deep slit up the front of Byleth’s dress was providing him quite the view from their current positions.

Byleth didn’t seem to notice her immodesty, or perhaps she just didn’t care. She wasn’t pressing hard enough with her foot to actually hurt him, but it was enough that he couldn’t turn his head so he was doing his best to shift his gaze anywhere but straight upward. 

He let go of his bow, lifting his hands so they were on either side of his head, “Uh . . . uncle?”

It took a moment’s pause for her to get the message, but slowly Byleth lifted her foot and backed off of him. She didn’t offer a hand to help him to his feet, but that seemed less out of malice and more because it didn’t even occur to her to do so. He stood up and brushed himself off, rubbing gingerly at his neck. He could also feel the sting in his back from dropping to the ground so hard--he was going to have some bruises tomorrow.

Byleth looked disappointed it was over so quickly. She was almost pouting about it; the expression was totally out of place on a goddess, but it was also pretty cute.

“Wow. Guess I can’t say I’m surprised, but that was really impressive.” Claude could still hear the hint of awe in his own voice, despite his attempt to sound casual. He grinned cheekily and added, “But don’t worry, I have no illusions of grandeur. You don’t have to pretend like I was impressive, too.”

“I wasn’t going to.” Byleth answered, blunt but more matter-of-fact than mean-spirited. Ouch. Add his ego to the list of things she had bruised today.

Claude could tell he was about to lose her again. Before her attention started to wander he quickly continued, “This place is also really impressive. Who would’ve thought something like this existed just beyond all that dust outside the ruins.”

Byleth shrugged her shoulders, “It’s the best I could do, under the circumstances.”

Claude furrowed his brow, unsure what to make of the cryptic response at first. Then it dawned on him, “Wait a minute . . . are you saying you made all of this stuff grow here?”

“How else would it have happened?” Byleth replied. She had a good point. “Besides, it’s nothing special. You should see what my sister would have been capable of.”

She meant Sothis presumably, but something about the look on her face and her sad tone of voice suggested not to ask any questions on the subject. 

It seemed like he wouldn’t have the opportunity today regardless. Jeralt stepped up to them again, “We should be heading back. People around the monastery will be missing us if we’re gone too long.”

Byleth frowned, but nodded, “Does this mean you won’t be coming back anymore?”

Claude might have felt slighted by the way she clearly viewed him as the more disappointing option, but he could understand why. The bond between Byleth and Jeralt ran deep, that much was obvious. He could hardly expect the same level of attachment so quickly.

“I’ll come back whenever I can. I’m just not sure how soon that will be, or how often. But Claude should be back soon, right?”

Claude winked at Byleth, “Of course. I look forward to getting my butt kicked again soon.”

Byleth smiled at him. But with their good-byes out of the way, she turned and walked off back into her personal forest before he and Jeralt had departed. Byleth was both fascinating and pleasant, but overall she definitely left him feeling confident about his own people skills.

Claude had a million more questions for Jeralt after all of this, and felt pretty strongly that he was owed answers to most of them. But he wasn’t sure how good Byleth’s hearing was--it seemed far fetched but not impossible to assume it was a lot better than the average person’s--so he waited until they passed back through her barrier and were on the barren side of the stone gate before he rounded on his professor.

“Oh, don’t worry Claude, I’m not hiding anything,” Claude affected his voice to a higher pitch to make sure it was clear that his words were a mockery, “Just the fact that there’s a goddess imprisoned in the ruins of Zanado.”

Jeralt seemed to realize he deserved the criticism. He threw his hands in the air as if defending himself from the onslaught, "In my defense, I was in the process of telling you about Byleth when I said that. And like I said, not every secret is mine to share. Obviously I'm not the one who put her there."

"Who did? Do you really think it was Saint Seiros?"

Jeralt shrugged his shoulders, "Who knows. All I know for sure is, despite appearances she's been trapped in there a lot longer than you or I have been alive. Makes it hard to say for certain what really happened. Unless you're willing to ask her."

Claude didn't think he was willing. As much as he was eager to learn what he could from Byleth, that seemed like it was high on the list of questions likely to upset her. He wasn't trying to piss off the goddess, that was for sure. He'd already seen what she was capable of in a friendly sparring match alone, and that had been more than enough. 

He wasn't done with Jeralt yet though. "Whoever it was, how are they keeping her in there? It has something to do with that energy barrier we passed through, right?"

"It does. Unlike us she isn't able to move through it. Apparently it works by responding to her crest. It limits her power significantly as well, from what she's told me."

"Limits her power?" Claude asked incredulously, "She created an entire jungle in the middle of the mountains of moderate central Fodlan on limited power?"

"That's what she says."

It was hard to imagine what she must really be capable of, and a little frightening. Interacting with Byleth it had been hard to imagine why the church would choose to keep her locked up. But if she was really that strong he could see why they might be concerned, even if it still didn't feel right.

And the device they were using to do it was certainly an interesting one. He had a feeling no one knew how, but if such a thing could be reproduced, it could have some pretty serious implications as a weapon. "I wonder what would happen if a regular human with the same crest stumbled upon her prison . . ."

He'd been musing aloud to himself more than anything else, but to his surprise Jeralt still offered an answer, "They probably wouldn't be able to cross the threshold anyway, as it would just trap them on the outside instead. But for what it's worth, I don't think you'll have to worry about that too much. You'd be hard pressed to find such a person in the first place. Byleth has the Crest of Flames."

Every time Claude thought this situation couldn't get any more fascinating he was proven wrong. The Crest of Flames was one of the lost crests. It was also the one said to have been had by Nemesis, the King of Liberation and the goddess' champion-turned-enemy.

Not to mention the wielder of the Sword of the Creator. 

It was a connection Claude was going to have to give some serious thought to later.

"Does that answer all of your questions?" Jeralt's voice cut through his contemplation and brought him back to reality, "We're getting pretty close to the monastery, we won't be able to talk about this safely for much longer."

"I have just one more question." And it was perhaps the most important question of all. "How the hell do you know about all of this?"

"Sorry, the answer to that one isn't as interesting as you're hoping." Jeralt began calmly, "I was officially informed of Byleth's status by the church. They've always assigned one person to be responsible for keeping an eye on her--making sure everything's running smoothly in Zanado, keeping her company, that sort of thing. When I was captain of the knights that was part of my job."

Jeralt was gazing off into the distance, looking nostalgic and a little sad. Even though he'd paused his explanation Claude could tell he had more to say, so he waited patiently for him to continue.

"Apparently after I left Rhea never appointed anyone to take my place in that role. She was probably afraid of someone else walking off the job with her secret in tow. When I went back there after all these years and realized it, I felt awfully guilty. Byleth must have been lonely all these years."

Whether he meant to or not Jeralt had revealed more than Claude had asked for. Specifically, the real reason he'd shared this secret with Claude.

This was an incredible opportunity, and Claude wasn't going to pass on taking advantage of it. But he also wouldn't take for granted the weight of what Jeralt had confided in him today, and why. He'd been handed a big responsibility and he was going to do his best to live up to it.

“As you’ve all already heard by now, a threat has been made against the Archbishop’s life.”

Jeralt’s pronouncement to start class that week was hardly a surprise. They had all heard about the assassination note already, some of them because they’d been present when Catherine had found it, and the rest because it was all anyone was talking about around the monastery. It had caused quite a stir, if reasonably so.

“It’s hard to believe anyone would even consider something as horrible as harming Lady Rhea.” Ignatz replied sadly.

“It is unforgivable,” Lorenz contributed, “And to think that a noble such as Lord Lonato would ever involve himself in such a plot is truly despicable. We simply cannot allow them to get away with this!”

“I mean, they can’t really expect to get away with it, can they?” Leonie inquired, bringing a finger to her chin in contemplation, “Not after the trouncing Lord Lonato got. And that was only a fraction of the Knights of Seiros. Anyone who wants to get to the Archbishop is going to have to get through all of the knights first.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s a hoax.” Claude added flippantly, crossing his arms behind his head and leaning back in his chair.

Every set of eyes in the classroom turned abruptly to him. Expressions ranged from confused, to curious, to aggravated.

Jeralt arched an eyebrow, “Why do you say so?”

“It all feels too neat, like they wrapped it up in a pretty little bow for us. Lonato had to realize he was on a suicide mission--why would he carry something so important and so secret with him knowing that he was probably going to be killed? Not to mention the enemy didn’t even bother writing their plan in code, or at least shorthand. Whoever it is, they wanted the church to find that letter.”

Jeralt grinned. “Very good. I agree, incidentally. I suspect that ‘delivering’ that assissination note to the church was the actual primary objective of Lonato’s little rebellion.”

Claude looked over just in time to catch Lorenz rolling his eyes. He smirked in satisfaction.

“But why would someone bother to pretend they wanted to kill Lady Rhea?” Hilda asked bemusedly, “Seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to for no reason.”

“They probably do have a reason, we just don’t know what it is.” Claude continued. “Most likely they’re after something else, probably something here at the monastery, and they’re hoping the knights will be too busy protecting Rhea to stop them from getting it.”

Jeralt nodded, “Right again, I suspect. Unfortunately, even if we were able to convince Lady Rhea of our theory the church can’t afford not to take this threat seriously, hoax or no hoax.”

“Which means it falls to us to figure out what it is they’re after and stop them ourselves.” Lysithea said resolutely.

“Oh, but the monastery is so big,” Marianne added softly, “It could be almost anything, couldn’t it?”

“Don’t be so pessimistic, Marianne, I’m sure we’ll figure it out somehow.” Hilda reassured her.

“I bet they’re planning to raid the dining hall!” Raphael chimed in. “There’s so much delicious food in there, who wouldn’t want to steal it?”

“Let’s maybe keep that theory in the back of our minds for now,” Claude answered with a chuckle, shaking his head. Truthfully, there was only one person in the room whose theories he put much stock in at the moment. He turned his attention to Jeralt. “What do you say, Cap? You know Garreg Mach far better than anyone else here. You must have some idea what they might be planning.”

All eyes in the room turned to Jeralt this time. He looked confident in his response. “The fact that they’ve chosen the Goddess’ Rite of Rebirth as the night to carry out their plot is probably significant. And the significance of that date is it’s the only day of the year that the Holy Mausoleum is open to the public.”

“So that’s gotta be the target.” Claude concluded vigorously.

Jeralt shrugged his shoulders, “To be fair, having been in the Holy Mausoleum plenty of times I can’t imagine what in the world is down there that anyone would consider worth stealing, let alone going to such lengths to do so. But yes, considering the evidence we have now, it is the most likely target.”

“That settles it, then. We must defend the Holy Mausoleum.” Lorenz asserted, and a din broke out across the room as the rest of the class began heartily agreeing. 

“Woah, woah, slow down.” The class quieted down and returned their attention to Jeralt as he calmed them, “That’s not up to us to decide. We already have our mission for the month, and it is to patrol the monastery grounds and maintain security in compensation for the knights who will be deployed to protect the Archbishop.”

Claude frowned. He wasn’t sure where Jeralt’s sudden change in heart had come from. He’d seemed pleased they’d been able to puzzle out the enemy’s true intentions, and happy to strategize with them about addressing it. If he wasn’t going to let them act on their knowledge, why discuss with them in the first place? And most of all, why tell them about the Holy Mausoleum?

Unless they were supposed to be reading between the lines of what he was saying. There was some precedent for Jeralt expecting that, after all. It was like when he’d told Claude not to stop breaking the rules, but to avoid getting caught if he chose to.

“So what you’re saying is, we have to follow our orders. But if we happened to be patrolling near the Holy Mausoleum, and we happened to notice that something didn’t seem right . . . “

“Then we would be obligated to do something about it, naturally.” Jeralt was grinning again.

Claude looked around. He expected at least some of his classmates to be concerned with the blatant defiance their professor was showing. But no one seemed particularly affected by it. They were all too busy feeling excited about their plan to even notice the implications of Jeralt’s willingness to bend Rhea’s orders.

Maybe that was for the best, though. They were probably happier not knowing.

The night of the Goddess’ Right of Rebirth the Golden Deer class was huddled around Jeralt in the cathedral, eager to begin their patrol and more importantly to execute their plan. Seteth entered. He was probably on his way to join Rhea in the Goddess Tower, but instead he walked right up to them, looking stern.

“Professor, I’m surprised to see you all here. I would think you should be at your post by now.”

“Relax, Seteth,” Jeralt answered, sounding exasperated. “I talked to the other guards ahead of time and had our posts switched around. The whole perimeter is still covered, I assure you.”

“I should hope so. If you were to have made an error, and the safety of the Archbishop was compromised--”

“I’m sure I don’t need to tell you I consider Lady Rhea’s safety to be of tantamount importance. And I assigned perimeter guards around Garreg Mach Monastery for years, I probably know their routes better than they do. I promise you, there is nothing to worry about.”

There was a long, tense pause before Seteth responded, “Very well. I hope you are right.”

Seteth stalked off. Claude let out a long, low whistle, but stopped himself from commenting on the awkward situation after a very pointed look from Jeralt.

“Let’s go,” Jeralt was probably in a hurry to move them along before anyone else decided to chime in about his terse exchange with Seteth, “We have work to do.”

Once they were quite certain that Seteth was out of earshot and not returning, they hurried down into the Holy Mausoleum.

On the one hand, it was satisfying to see that the place was crawling with thieves, proving their theory was correct. On the other hand, the place was crawling with thieves.

“Boss, looks like we’ve got company.” One of them called out as their class barreled into the tomb.

“Dammit, how did they find us so fast? No matter, it’s just a bunch of kids. Take care of them while I finish up here.”

“Are they . . . trying to steal the bones from the casket?” Claude wrinkled his nose, “That’s. Weird. And gross.”

“Claude, Professor,” Ignatz cleared his throat shyly to get their attention, “There’s something on the floor over there, look.”

Claude did look, and he could only admit surprise at what he saw. “Hey, those look like--”

He stopped himself from finishing his sentence, remembering his promise not to tell his classmates about what he’d seen in Zanado, and the consequences if he did. What they looked like was the panel on the pedestal outside Byleth’s prison. Specifically, they were glowing in the same sort of way, as if they were using magic, but self perpetuated rather than being controlled by a person.

He wondered if they were put here by the same people. And if so, why?

“They look like devices of some kind,” He amended, “Maybe they’ll help us out.”

“Death Knight! Prove your strength and scatter these fools.”

The order seemed to have been directed to a knight in the center of the Mausoleum who was wearing a frightening suit of black armor. And it wasn’t just his armor that was scary to behold--there was something about him that suggested he was a lot more formidable than the rest of his allies. “I don’t take commands. Or waste my time on weaklings.”

“If he’s not interested in fighting us, then I’m more than willing to oblige him.” Jeralt began his orders for the battle. Let’s give him plenty of space in case he changes his mind. We’ll split into two groups--Claude take Hilda, Lorenz, and Lysithea and go west. Leonie, Raphael, Ignatz, you’ll go east with me. Marianne, try to stay between the two groups in case we both need you, but I don’t want you to be too far from someone. If you need to, stick with Claude.”

“O-okay, I’ll do my best.”

Once Jeralt confirmed that everyone understood the plan, he took his group and moved out. Claude did the same, but hesitated before going too far. He glanced at Lorenz. 

Lorenz was Claude’s biggest critic in the Golden Deer. In truth they didn’t really get along, and Claude didn’t think it was due to lack of opportunity to get to know each other. Lorenz just really didn’t care for him. To an extent Claude could understand where Lorenz’ disdain for him was coming from, even though he still thought his classmate’s assessment of his character was pretty unfair. But regardless, was it wise of Jeralt to have grouped them together like this?

“Hey, are you cool with this?” He asked Lorenz, doing his best to sound unphased.

Lorenz narrowed his eyes. “Well, that depends on what you mean. If you’re asking if I think you’re really the person here best suited for this leadership role, my answer is no, most certainly not.”

Claude grimaced.

“However, if you’re asking whether I’m willing to cooperate with your direction now that it’s the role you’ve been given, I assure you you’ve nothing to worry about. I understand my duty as a soldier. I don’t intend to endanger everyone by questioning that in the midst of battle.”

The answer came as a surprise. It seemed he may have underestimated Lorenz. “Okay. Great. Uh, thanks?”

Claude wasn’t sure he really deserved the thanks, all things considered, but it was probably what Lorenz wanted to hear.

“Well then? Aren’t you going to tell us the plan?”

“Right.” Claude quickly surveyed the room ahead of them. “There are a lot of them. It definitely wouldn’t be good to let them gang up on us. Why don’t you and Lysithea team up to fight opponents, and Hilda and I will do the same. Make sure between the two of you you finish off anybody you fight, so they’re not getting chances to counterattack us. If one of you is injured, both retreat a ways so Marianne can come and heal you. Just stay away from the creepy guy in the mask.”

“Stay away from the creepy guy in the mask, he says,” Hilda deadpanned, “As if that doesn’t go without saying. Why can’t I just stay away from all of them?”

“Very well. It sounds like a passable strategy, at any rate.” Lorenz acquiesced. 

It was passable enough to get them through the thieves on their side of the mausoleum without much trouble. Jeralt’s grouped had cleared the way even more quickly, and they were clearing out the last few opponents between them and the leader by Seiros’s sarcophagus. The mysterious knight had remained placid throughout it all, seemingly apathetic to his allies’ grim fate. It definitely worked out in their favor, so Claude wasn’t complaining, but it was strange. He wondered why the knight was even there.

The leader of the thieves had managed to get the lid off of the sarcophagus. His excitement at the accomplishment didn’t last long, as he seemed unpleasantly surprised by whatever he found within, “What the--what is this? Where are the remains?”

Jeralt had no qualms about taking advantage of his enemy’s distraction. He quickly rode up while the thief was still bent over the sarcophagus and stabbed him in the back before the guy even knew what hit him.

Once the mage was taken care of, Jeralt dismounted to see for himself what the thieves had been after. He walked up and peered into the sarcophagus. His eyes widened. “That’s--”

He reached in, took hold of whatever he had found, and lifted it up into view.

It was the Sword of the Creator.

Chapter Text

Jeralt lifted the Sword of the Creator with both hands and held it out to Rhea.

“Lady Rhea, my apologies for removing the sword from the tomb. I’m sure it was there for a reason, but seeing as at least one of our enemies escaped having seen it, it didn’t seem wise to leave it behind.”

Rhea nodded, accepting the sword from him with a small, gracious smile. “There is no need to apologize. Your keen judgement both before and after your battle in the Holy Mausoleum protected the church’s most sacred artifact. You have my deepest thanks, Jeralt. I will choose a new, more secure location for the Sword of the Creator’s safekeeping from now on.”

Seteth was looking extra sour, probably a result of Jeralt being praised for operating outside of his orders. He cleared his throat, “Incidentally, your mission for this month will be to recover another Heroes’ Relic. A group of thieves in kingdom territory stole the Lance of Ruin from House Gautier. Their leader’s name is Miklan--he is apparently a disowned son of House Gautier.”

Gee, what could have motivated him to commit this crime? Jeralt thought flippantly, frowning. Still, to break the law in such a way meant possibly accepting the consequences for doing so. Jeralt was sure Miklan Gautier had already acknowledged and accepted that truth the same way other jaded nobles like Christophe Gaspard had before him.

“Miklan does not possess a crest and therefore cannot properly wield the Lance of Ruin, nor is it the goddess’ will that he do so. It ever remains our duty as members of the Church of Seiros to punish those who would defy the goddess in such a way.”

There was a slight tinge of anger breaking through Rhea’s typical stoic composure. It was a side of her that Jeralt had only started to notice shortly before he left the monastery, but which he had been increasingly convinced was the real Rhea.

“The Golden Deer will do their utmost, Lady Rhea.”

Claude didn’t even bother trying to pretend he hadn’t been listening in this time. He was waiting around for Jeralt on the second floor right as his professor exited his meeting with the Archbishop. 

“Careful not to get too cocky, kid.” Jeralt warned once he noticed Claude.

“Aw, c’mon Cap, you know I couldn’t resist seeing what you were going to do with that legendary sword,” Claude replied with a wink. “You wasted a real opportunity, if you ask me. You could have had the most powerful weapon of all time all to yourself.”

“Without its crest stone it’s nothing more than a needlessly heavy blunt object. And even with the crest stone, I still wouldn’t be able to wield it since I don’t possess the Crest of Flames.”

And we both know I would have never gotten away with it, was the unspoken third reason, which passed between the two of them as loud and clear as if Jeralt had actually said it. Besides, Jeralt probably neither needed nor desired the Sword of the Creator. He would be stronger with it, as anyone would. But he was already powerful, and his name alone was enough to strike fear into opponents, to command respect.

But Claude? He needed that sword.

“Suit yourself.” Claude answered, knowing he wasn’t going to get any more out of Jeralt on the subject than that. Not with Rhea so close by. 

Jeralt retreated into his office, so Claude decided to head to the dining hall to get some lunch. Not that it was particularly unusual for him, but thoughts of the Sword of the Creator were swirling in his head. He still had a long way to go before he had it for himself, but he’d gotten a very important confirmation: it was here at the monastery. Rhea was certain to do an even more thorough job stashing it away this time, but there could only be so many places within the grounds of Garreg Mach that were more secure than the Holy Mausoleum. Figuring out where it could be hidden was now a much easier task, although getting to it was sure to be a challenge.

“Well, it sounds like you certainly had an interesting mission this past month.”

It was Edelgard who had spoken. Claude looked up to see both her and Dimitri approaching his spot in the dining. They sat down across from him.

“And here I had been looking forward to my class finally taking a more active role with our mission,” Dimitri agreed, sounding wistful. “But it seems as if your class got most of the action yet again.”

“And to have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Sword of the Creator. Not that I personally could ever be satisfied with just a glimpse.”

Claude gazed at Edelgard thoughtfully, wondering just what she was playing at. It was a big risk to make such a statement so boldly, and it struck Claude as the sort of risk she knew better than to take. Was she trying to get him to admit to his own interest? Maybe so, or maybe she had some other more personal motivation, but either way Claude would not take the bait so easily.

“Easy there, Princess. It’s nice to dream, but let’s not get carried away. You’d be no more capable of wielding that sword than the rest of us.”

Edelgard narrowed her eyes at him, “Do not presume to know what I am capable of.”

Claude reeled ever so slightly, taken aback by Edelgard’s harsh and indignant rebuttal. She could be cold and stern, but he’d never known her to be quick to anger. He’d pushed a button obviously, but he would have to analyze that later. 

In the meantime, he couldn’t help himself but test just how far he could push it.

“Surely you’re not suggesting you could have and would have taken the sword for yourself if you’d been there?” Claude continued coyly, “I’d be careful if I were you--that’s as good as heresy around here. You might consider asking the thieves from last month, but they were executed just for trying. And the guy who stole the Lance of Ruin can’t expect to fare much better than them.”

“Speaking of that,” Dimitri cut in quickly; there was a nervous and hurried quality to his tone. He clearly sensed the tension developing between Claude and Edelgard and was trying to quickly defuse it, “I must apologize that you’ve yet again been tasked with cleaning up one of the kingdom’s messes. It’s deeply regrettable that you continue to be asked to shoulder burdens that should be my own.”

“Is it not Professor Jeralt who is truly bearing the brunt of those burdens? You must realize he is the reason the Golden Deer house continues to be assigned such important tasks each month.” Edelgard replied, not even attempting to disguise her lingering bitterness at the offense Claude had caused her. He might question her decision to talk about the Sword of the Creator so openly, but Claude had to admit he admired her brazen forwardness.

“You’re not wrong, but don’t sleep on us Golden Deer either. It’s never wise to underestimate the underdogs.”

“Aw, look at you getting along with your new friends so well. How sweet.”

The voice had come from behind him, and it was dripping with sarcasm. Claude also recognized it well. He furrowed his brow, “Judith? What are you doing here?”

Judith let out a long suffering sigh. “How many times do I have to tell you it’s Lady Judith? Forget it. I’m here to chaperone you back to Derdriu. Your grandfather needs you to take his place at the Roundtable Conference this month.”

“Geez, don’t tell me the old man’s on his deathbed already?”

“Just a little under the weather. Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll be fine in no time.” Judith’s tone suggested she knew just how worried Claude actually was for his grandfather’s well being, which was to say, not very worried at all.

Now it was Claude’s turn to sigh. He was loath to step away from the monastery just as things were getting so interesting, but it wasn’t as if he had much of a choice. All he could do was hope the other nobles didn’t keep him tied up too long. Not that there was much hope of that. 

"Well, as thrilling as it has been, I’m sorry to say we’ll have to cut this conversation short for now, Your Highnesses.”

“Funny how you don’t seem to have any trouble getting their titles correct.” Judith observed.

“Oh, I wouldn’t give him too much credit.” Edelgard deadpanned in response. Dimitri chuckled.

Claude wasn’t sure what he hated more about Roundtable Conferences: all of the stuffy political talk, or the suspicious looks fixed on him by the other members the whole time. At least he was used to the dirty looks.

Regardless, he was happy to have that particular task behind him. Even better than that, he’d managed to convince his grandfather that he was capable of returning to the monastery on his own. It was the best possible outcome; no one at Garreg Mach knew exactly when to expect him to return, so it was the perfect opportunity to visit Byleth again without raising suspicion.

Fortunately, Zanado wasn’t all that far from the monastery, so it wasn’t too much of a detour. Claude made his way cautiously, although it was quickly apparent that his caution wasn’t all that necessary. Now that the bandits had been cleared from the canyon there didn’t seem to be anyone else around. It was a little strange that there were no guards around an area that was considered restricted by the church, but he supposed Rhea was confident that the gate would be enough to keep people out. 

Claude had no problem passing through the gate thanks to Jeralt's guidance. He crossed the threshold of the barrier without any issues as well, only taking a brief, curious glance at the pedestal that seemed to make it possible. 

Byleth did not immediately reveal herself to him when he arrived, so Claude began to make his way deeper into her private jungle. Jeralt had called out to her the last time they were here, but while he hadn't seen any wildlife around Claude couldn't be certain that there wasn't any, and he didn't want to risk getting something else's attention with his noise. The plants that Byleth had created here were massive and otherworldly; he could only begin to imagine what any animals might be like.

On a whim, or perhaps following his instincts as a hunter, Claude followed the sound of running water and found the stream he had speculated about on his previous visit. He followed its path, further drinking in the beautiful scenery of Byleth's creation as he did so. This close to the water he could hear the sounds of croaking and chirping confirming that there were at least frogs about. Their presence only made sense given the lily pads floating atop the water, which were at least the size of his head. 

The stream ultimately fed into a small pond, and thankfully did lead him to Byleth, who was sitting at the pond's edge. At first it seemed as though she was just looking passively out across the water, until he noticed the pole in her hand. Somehow even more bizarre than the thought of her staring silently into the distance was the discovery that she was actually fishing. It was such a simple, mundane task it was hard to believe that a goddess would actually be doing it. 

Claude cleared his throat to make sure his presence was known. The last thing he wanted was to accidentally sneak up on Byleth and find himself pinned beneath her again in a much less friendly context. Byleth didn’t react at all, but he was sure she must have heard, so he approached and came to sit beside her.

“Hey, fancy meeting you here.” He said with an easy grin.

Byleth still didn’t turn to face him, but her reaction to his words was more obvious this time, her face scrunching with confusion, “What do you mean? Didn’t Jeralt already explain I’m trapped here?”

“Yeah, that’s. . . you know what, nevermind.”

Byleth was clearly quite content not to mind. She refocused her attention on her fishing, and before long she had one on her line. She reeled it in, a look of satisfaction on her face as she removed it from the hook and observed her catch for a moment. Then she tossed it back in the pond. 

Now it was Claude's turn to be confused, "You just throw them back after you catch them?" 

Byleth shrugged her shoulders, “I could eat them, but I don’t need to. And if I overfished I would have to create more, which is a lot of work. So it’s best to just release them.”

“Sure, but then what’s the point of fishing in the first place?”

Byleth finally looked at him, blinking owlishly. “It’s something to do.”

Yikes. Claude found he could barely maintain his attention on fishing for a few moments, and that was when it was purposeful. He couldn’t imagine whiling away hours, days, possibly even years on it as Byleth must have. “What else do you do?”

Another shrug, “I nap, mostly.”

Double yikes. Claude liked a good nap as much as the next guy, but could someone really fill up the better part of a thousand years with just napping? He almost expected her to say she liked to watch paint dry as well, but she probably couldn't even do that much. He'd thought her prison didn't seem all that bad the last time he was here, but now he was starting to realize just how grim a reality this was for her. 

Surprisingly, and contrary to her presence thus far, Byleth continued unprompted, “Jeralt usually trains with me when he comes, and he’s the one who taught me to fish. Seiros used to visit as well, but it’s been a long time since she’s come.”

“Yeah, well, it would be a little hard for her to keep visiting you seeing as she’s dead and all.”

It was a bit more flippant a response than was probably appropriate, Claude could admit that much. Still, he was entirely unprepared for Byleth’s strong and immediate reaction. Her fishing rod was quickly tossed aside, forgotten as she rounded on Claude. Eyes wide as saucers, she grabbed him by the shoulders, and demanded more than she asked, “What do you mean? What happened?!”

Claude winced in spite of himself, almost expecting a blow from the way she had come at him so quickly and so frantically. Not that he could fathom what had garnered such a reaction. Had Byleth really not known Seiros had passed? He’d really put his foot in his mouth if so, but he never would have even considered the possibility. He chuckled uncomfortably, “Uh, I mean . . . you know that you’ve been trapped here for a thousand years right? Most of us don’t live that long, for better or worse.”

She composed herself almost as quickly as she had reacted. Expression calming, she released Claude’s shoulders and let out a sigh, “Right. Of course that’s what you mean.”

And just like that, it was if it had never happened. For Byleth at least--Claude was still reeling. If he hadn’t been sure what to make of her initial reaction, this response was even more baffling. He would love to know what she meant by her cryptic comment, but one close call with a goddess who could just as easily end his life as blink was enough for one day. He would definitely have to be much more cautious when discussing anything she might consider personal. 

What an enigma his new divine friend was. Occasional scares aside, Claude was captivated.

Byleth had returned to her spot by the pond, but she hadn’t taken up her fishing pole again. Now she was just staring into the water’s depths, and while her expressions were generally subtle, Claude couldn’t help but think she was looking forlorn.

Claude felt a twinge of guilt. It was hard to understand exactly why she might be upset, but it wasn’t hard to realize that he had caused it. He wasn’t sure what to say to cheer here up, though, especially considering he’d just decided to avoid getting too personal.

At least, he was unsure for a moment, until he realized he was being foolish. Jeralt had already revealed exactly the way to cheer Byleth up the last time they were here. “Anyway, since I’m here and all, would you like to spar a bit?”

That seemed to do the trick.

“Geez, I’ve heard those roundtable conferences can get pretty heated, but I didn’t expect you to actually get beat up. You look awful.”

“Thanks, Hilda, it’s lovely to see you again too.” Claude answered sarcastically. Not that he could say she was wrong--he had just more or less hobbled his way back into the classroom courtesy of his sparring session with Byleth. He’d humored her a couple of rounds this time, not that any of them had lasted much longer than their first, or had different outcomes.

Byleth had been wearing that tiny, warm smile of hers again by the end of it though, so he supposed it was worth the beating he took.

Claude risked a tentative, sideways glance in Lorenz’s direction. While he was perhaps not the only member of the Deer savvy enough to recognize Claude’s current state was odd, he was certainly the only one who would bother getting suspicious about it. But Lorenz was just fixing Claude with his typical jeer, if a bit more intense than normal. That was easy enough to puzzle out; Lorenz had made it as plain as day to anyone who would listen (and probably some who would have preferred not to) how passionately he wanted not just a seat at the Alliance round table, but the very one that Claude himself had so easily slipped into. Claude didn’t begrudge him his jealousy at all, although he was quickly learning that one Gloucester on the council was more than enough for now.

Jeralt was grinning ever so slightly, more apparent from the twinkle in his eye than the subtle change in his expression. He obviously realized exactly what had become of Claude to leave him in such a state, but he wisely didn’t leave any more time for the rest of the class to dwell on it, “Glad to have you back, Kid. You’re just in time--we were just reviewing the situation report for this month’s mission, and we’ll be moving out tomorrow. I hope you’ll be feeling up to joining us by then.”

Jeralt may not be laughing at Claude, but his eyes certainly were, though Claude could do nothing in response but glare petulantly. Better to appear unbothered, he supposed, so he crossed his arms behind his head and winked, “Don’t worry, Cap, I’ll hit the sauna tonight and be right as rain by tomorrow. So don’t keep me in suspense any longer, what’s the plan?”


The plan, it turned out, was pretty straightforward: make their way through Conand Tower and take out the thieves as they went until they got to Miklan and recovered the lance. The terrain did not allow them many opportunities for subtly, as there wasn’t much choice but to follow the narrow, winding corridors and face their enemies head on when they encountered them. But just because it was straightforward didn’t mean it was simple, and their opponents clearly had no intention of making it so for them. 

The thieves had the advantage of being much more familiar with the territory, and it allowed them to constantly ambush the class, appearing from the shadows and corners of the tower even though the space seemed so small it shouldn’t have been possible. The skill and strategy they displayed were a huge step up from the miscellaneous bandits and militiamen the Deer had spent most of their time fighting up until this point. It spoke to Miklan’s prowess as a leader, if nothing else. It was hard not to wonder what he might have become if he hadn’t been thrown out with the trash by his family for not possessing a crest. If he could turn a band of thieves into such an organized, well-oiled fighting machine, imagine what he could do with a battalion of trained soldiers.

Regardless of the challenge the Golden Deer persevered well, and it seemed like victory was assured once they had Miklan cornered at the top of the tower.

At least, it seemed that way until Miklan transformed into a massive beast right before their eyes. 

For a long moment they all just stared, dumbstruck, as the creature that had once been Miklan emerged in front of them and promptly turned on his comrades, attacking indiscriminately, all signs of the man he had just been gone. Even Jeralt looked shocked by the development, or at least as close to it as Claude had even seen him, and that more than anything else was what had Claude on edge.

The beast was large enough that it would probably struggle in the narrow corridors, but even then it could probably still outrun them, and there were no shortcuts to the bottom of the tower. They were too far up to jump. They had no choice but to fight.

The rest of the Golden Deer seemed to be arriving at the same conclusion, as several of his classmates began tentatively clutching their weapons in fighting stances once again. Others still hesitated. But everyone looked afraid.

“Can . . . we really defeat such a thing?” Marianne asked softly, voicing the question that surely weighed heavily on all of their minds.

“We haven’t got much choice but to find out.” Jeralt answered bluntly. As usual for their professor, his words did little to soothe the mood of the class, but Claude appreciated the honesty. It wouldn’t do them any good to pretend like this was just going to be fine.

“The most challenging thing about this opponent is we don’t know what to expect,” Jeralt continued calmly. The brief concern he had shown at the beast’s appearance had already been replaced by his typical serious demeanor, and he was all business again. “Move forward cautiously and defensively. Look for opportunities to counter it. Work together. No challenge is insurmountable, and this one is no different.”

It was hard to feel as confident as Jeralt sounded, but his words were reassuring all the same. The nervous energy was still palpable around them, but they pushed forward to face the Black Beast. It was long, grueling, and by far the hardest battle they had faced together, but in the end Jeralt proved correct. Together they were able to fell it.

The creature dissolved into nothingness, leaving only Miklan’s corpse behind, the Lance of Ruin still clutched desperately in his hand.

At first the class was mostly silent. They were all exhausted, covered in grime and gore, some of them still shaking from the danger of the Black Beast. Surely the reality of their victory would come shortly enough, and a swell of pride along with it, but for now they were all still processing the horror they had seen this day.

Claude stared at Miklan. At the lance in his hand.

Lorenz was the one to break the silence. He too had his gaze fixed on Miklan, “What a shame. He proved himself a skilled soldier and a capable commander. How regrettable that he chose to squander his abilities by taking such a dark path.”

As usual, he’d been so close to the point before veering off in the completely wrong direction.

“You say that like he had a choice,” Claude muttered, though it was a largely noncommittal response. He was still fixated on Miklan’s prone body, on the thoughts swimming through his head about what the former noble had revealed to them today. The Lance of Ruin had glowed red in Miklan’s hands, just as Thunderbrand did in Catherine’s. So it was a lie perpetuated by the church, that those without crests were unable to wield the Heroes’ Relics. But the consequences for doing so . . . perhaps it would be better if it were simply impossible.

Was Claude willing to risk such a fate, for the sake of his dream?

“We all always have a choice,” Jeralt added into the silence, pulling Claude out of the bottomless hole of his thoughts. “But sometimes, people find themselves in circumstances where they’re forced to choose between the bad choice or the worse one.”

Jeralt stepped forward, bent down, and pried the Lance of Ruin from Miklan’s stiffened fingers.

It was a long, somber walk back to Garreg Mach.

Chapter Text

“As I believe you are already aware, Seteth’s younger sister, Flayn, has gone missing. At present all we know for certain is that she has not left Garreg Mach.”

Jeralt nodded, his mouth a tight, thin line. His class had returned to the monastery after their previous mission to find quite the commotion surrounding Flayn’s disappearance. It had been enough to promptly distract the students from the horror they had witnessed at Conand Tower--besides Claude, at least, who was not so easily distracted from things of interest or importance. That was convenient for Rhea, certainly, but it wasn’t bad for the kids, either; it wouldn’t do them any good to dwell on Miklan Gautier’s terrible fate.

“Flayn is not the sort of person to just wander off on her own without telling me where she is going! We have searched the monastery thoroughly, but have found nothing. I am now mobilizing the knights to begin searching the town.”

Seteth sounded frantic, not that it was much of a surprise. If there was anything odd about his presentation, it was only that he was displaying his emotions so genuinely in front of Jeralt, who he’d proven to have little trust for up to this point. 

“Troubling rumors have been running rampantly lately.” Seteth continued, “I do not wish to consider the worst, but . . .”

That much was news to Jeralt. He raised a brow, “What sort of rumors are those?”

“There are rumors of someone prowling the streets and attacking innocents night after night.” Rhea answered, “The knights have investigated the matter. They have not discovered any remains, nor have they found any concrete evidence.”

“The people are panicked. They all insist someone called the Death Knight is coming to claim their souls with his blade.”

The Death Knight. It sounded familiar, though in the moment Jeralt couldn’t put his finger on why.

“There is no way she could have escaped unscathed if she were captured by such a fiend! Where is she?!”

It sounded like the people in the town weren’t the only ones panicking. But Jeralt could hardly blame Seteth. In a sense, he understood exactly what the other man was feeling. Fearing the loss of a loved one. Blaming yourself for it.

“Seteth, recall that impatience begets error. Please do your best to calm yourself. We well all commit ourselves fully--mind, body, and soul--to recovering Flayn.” Rhea placated calmly, before returning her attention back to Jeralt, “Jeralt, your mission for this month is to help find Flayn. The knights have the town covered, so I ask that you focus your efforts on searching the monastery again. We do not have time to waste. You have your orders.”

Jeralt nodded, more resolute in his conviction that he had been toward other missions she’d given him thus far. His feelings toward the church, and toward Rhea, were irrelevant this time. All that mattered was that an innocent girl’s safety was at stake.

“Of course. The students and I will do everything we can to bring her back safely.”

Claude’s plans for the Sword of the Creator had been pretty fully derailed by their mission at Conand Tower.

Nowhere, in any of the records he had read or research he had done, had he found accounts of people turning into monsters, least of all at because of the Heroes’ Relics. Most documents seemed to agree that an individual needed to be worthy of wielding the sacred weapons, and that possessing the appropriate crest was the way to prove one’s worthiness, though none touched on any consequences for not making the cut. But suddenly the risk the legendary sword presented far outweighed the reward. At least until he had more information.

Was the transformation inevitable, or had Miklan Gautier just gotten unlucky? If it was, how long did it take for a person to succumb? Was there any way to prove yourself worthy of a Relic other than being born with the right crest?

There was so much uncertainty now, but one thing Claude was certain of was that he wouldn’t be finding the answers to any of his questions in the monastery library. As of right now his best potential source of information on the subject was Byleth, but he’d learned last month he had to be careful about poking into her past, or asking her about subjects that were potentially sensitive. And for now he didn’t know her well enough to know what topics might upset her.

So at first, he resigned himself to having no choice but to put his plans to obtain the sword on hold for now. Until he realized he was approaching this new problem with the entirely wrong strategy.

Byleth didn’t just know about the Sword of the Creator after all. She could also wield it.

There wasn’t much that would be more impressive and powerful than wielding the Sword of the Creator yourself. But Claude was pretty sure that having a literal goddess at your side wielding it on your behalf would fit the bill.

That meant Claude just needed to earn Byleth’s trust enough to make such an arrangement possible in the future. Which for now involved little more than spending time with her as he already planned to. It was a plan that worked out for everyone: Jeralt didn’t have to worry about Byleth being lonely, Byleth wouldn’t be so lonely, and if he played his cards right Claude still ended up with access to the Sword of the Creator at zero risk to himself.

It wasn’t foolproof of course. The biggest problem it presented was that at some point he was going to have to figure out how to free Byleth from her prison if this plan had any chance of success. But that was a problem for future Claude to solve. For now, present Claude had some charming to do.

That was how he found himself back in the depths of Zanado with Byleth once again on his next free day. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to pull off sneaking away with the heightened security around the monastery since Flayn had gone missing, but it turned out to be even easier than normal. The knights were far too busy looking for signs of Flayn herself, or of anyone suspicious. For perhaps the first time in his life Claude didn’t fit the description of “suspicious person” in this case, so they hadn’t paid him so much as a sideways glance as he’d slipped through the town and out the gates.

He’d found some spare training weapons collecting dust in a corner of the training grounds’ storage closet the day before; they weren’t in the best shape, but he had been confident enough that no one would miss them that he snagged them as a gift for Byleth. Her eyes had lit up at the sight of them, and while Claude was sure this just meant she would be kicking his ass in even more unique ways now, he counted it as a win.

Now Byleth was sitting quietly, examining and polishing the sword he had brought her. As usual, the burden of conversation would fall to Claude. But that worked to his advantage, because it meant he could steer it wherever he wanted it to go.

“If you were able to leave this place, where would you go?”

It was perhaps a risky question, but Byleth didn’t get angry or upset. Her face contorted ever so slightly as she seemed to consider her answer carefully, and it took a moment before she replied, “It’s been so long I’m not even sure where there is to go. But that just means there’s so much to see. So anywhere I could go, I suppose.”

Claude frowned. That was a sadder answer than he was prepared for.

“Why do you ask?”

Byleth was blinking at him, her big eyes searching his face, surprisingly innocent. His intentions for learning more about Byleth were not so innocent, obviously, so he could hardly tell her so. But in truth there was another reason the question was on his mind, one that had nothing to do with Byleth herself, so he decided a bit of honesty couldn’t hurt.

“A girl went missing from the monastery not too long ago. She lives a pretty sheltered life there, and some people believe she might have run away. I was just thinking . . . if she did feel trapped there, where might she have gone if she left?”

Byleth didn’t say anything else right away, but she looked like she was thinking again. When she did reply, her words caught Claude off guard, “She didn’t run away.”

“Huh? What makes you so sure?”

“In a prison like this one, the only thing keeping me in are the walls. If I had the power to break through them, I wouldn’t hesitate. But when the walls are around a person’s heart, it takes a lot more for them to find the resolve. If nothing happened recently to cause her to have a change of heart, I highly doubt she left of her own volition.”

Claude could only stare, wide-eyed, at Byleth. It was a surprisingly insightful response coming from someone who hadn’t shown an impressive ability to connect with other people so far. But Claude could definitely see the logic, and likely the truth, behind her words. He knew a thing or two about building walls around one’s heart after all. Though his were more for keeping others out than for keeping himself in.

It seemed like Byleth knew a thing or two on the subject as well. Perhaps there was some common ground to be found between them.

“You know, that’s some pretty good insight . . . thanks.” Claude replied thoughtfully, “Even though it pretty much sets me back to square one as far as figuring out what actually happened.”

“You think she was taken?”

“That’s most likely the case, I’d say.”

“Well, why would someone do that?”

It took him a bit by surprise that Byleth had taken such an interest in the situation. It wasn’t what he was expecting at all when he’d asked his first question; truthfully he hadn’t known what to expect when he’d asked. But the fresh set of ears to talk through the mystery with couldn’t hurt, so as long as she was going to engage he would roll with it. “That’s part of the problem--I honestly have no idea. Someone around the monastery must know something, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the higher ups at the church aren’t exactly fond of sharing their information.”

Byleth was quiet. She seemed to be considering his words thoughtfully, though if she had an opinion about them she perhaps wasn’t in a hurry to share it. It was hard to say if that was the case or if she just didn’t have much to say on the subject at all; if the timeline of church canon could at least be believed, Byleth had probably been trapped here since before there was a formal Church of Seiros. Regardless, he wasn’t going to push her if she wasn’t interested in talking about it. He shrugged his shoulders and moved on, “Of course, there’s also always the chance that it was just a crime of opportunity. In which case, as much as I hate to say it, it is probably too late.”

Byleth shook her head, once again clearly resolute in her assessment of the situation, “If someone is protecting her so carefully, they must have a reason for doing so. It seems far too great a coincidence her disappearance wouldn’t be related to that.”

“I can only heartily agree with that conclusion. I’m pretty sure someone took her, and that they had a reason for doing so.” Claude replied easily. After a moment’s pause he offered her a smile and a wink, “But look at me, prattling on about something so depressing. I’m sure this isn’t what you want to spend the time we have together talking about.”

Byleth just shook her head again, “I don’t mind, I’m just happy to have someone to talk to.”

Her honesty was as disarming as always, but Claude did his best to hide the fact that she had caught him off guard. “Well I’m happy to provide you that service. But seriously, I can talk about this anytime--it’s all anyone around Garreg Mach is talking about, understandably so. So since our time together is unfortunately limited, let’s focus on what you want to talk about instead.”

“Fair enough.” Byleth acquiesced. Her attention rather promptly returned to the pile of weapons he had brought with him. Claude braced himself for another beating, took a deep breath, and reminded himself that gaining Byleth’s trust would be worth it in the end.

Claude returned to the monastery in considerably better condition than after his last visit with Byleth. She really had just talked with him this time, and truthfully the conversation had been fascinating. She had a wealth of information about the history of weaponry and warfare, including some aspects that had been long since lost to time. She didn’t broach the subject of her personal involvement in any past wars at all, which was a bit of a disappointment, but Claude so caught up in listening to what what she had to say, in the way her face grew ever so slightly expressive when she said it, that he mostly forgot to care.

And as predicted, he had returned to find the monastery still abuzz with talk of Flayn’s disappearance. Much of it was just rumors and hearsay, and even more of it wild theories entirely invented by the students. It wasn’t easy to parse through the nonsense to find the few pieces of actually valuable information that were floating around the monastery, but that challenge was exactly what made getting to the bottom of a mystery thrilling.

It seemed not everyone was currently rising to the challenge, however. On his way back to the Golden Deer classroom Claude passed through the reception hall, where he found Hilda sitting at a table and chattering away with several other students. He changed his trajectory.

“Well, Hilda, nice to see you hard at work on this month’s mission.” He said coyly as he approached her.

“Look who’s talking, Mr. disappeared all day to who knows where.”

Hilda’s friends seemed to misinterpret their disagreement as a sincere one, because they quickly excused themselves and scurried away. But that was preferable as far as Claude was concerned. He sat down across from her. “Hey, while I can’t divulge the full details, I’ll have you know that I was conducting my own investigation or sorts whilst I was away.”

“What makes you think I wasn’t?” Hilda countered, flicking a pigtail over her shoulder as she spoke, “Why should I go running around all over the monastery when I can just sit right here and let the gossip come to me?”

Leave it to Hilda to find a way to put as little effort as possible into a task and still get results. The sheer skill with which she avoided work was impressive; Claude could only hope the information she had gathered was equally so. “My deepest and most sincere apologies for underestimating you, my lady. Now, care to share what you’ve learned with the rest of the class?”

Sarcastic nature aside, Hilda seemed quite placated by the apology. Or maybe she was just pleased by any excuse to talk gossip. Either way, she leaned in a bit closer to him, ready to spill the tea, “Well for starters, I can tell you people around here really don’t like foreigners. Do you have any idea how many people seriously think Cyril might be the one who kidnapped Flayn? I mean, I know Almyrans can be kind of scary, but Cyril? He’s just a kid. And don’t even get me started on what people are saying about Dedue.”

Claude decided to ignore Hilda’s microaggression in favor of her good intentions. Still, he could only shrug his shoulders, “As unfortunate as I find that, I think we can both agree there’s essentially zero chance either Cyril or Dedue is responsible for this. Got anything more useful?”

“I’m getting there.” Hilda replied with a glare, obviously not appreciating his interruption. “Listen to this: apparently, Professor Jeritza has been leaving the monastery every night. And it seems like nobody knows what he’s actually up to or where he’s even going. That’s strange, isn’t it?”

“It’s definitely interesting.” Claude admitted, bringing a hand to his chin as he considered the information. There was no proof it had anything to do with Flayn, but it was a starting point, which was more than they’d had before.

“I mean, Professor Jeritza’s always been kind of creepy, right? Who knows what he could be getting up to when he leaves. And maybe he took Flayn somewhere.”

“I don’t think we have enough evidence to go around making accusations just yet,” Claude countered, “but we should definitely follow the lead and see where it takes us. There’s almost no way we can get away with searching his room . . . I wonder if Cap could help us out with that.”

“Hey, have you guys seen Manuela?”

Dorothea had approached them, and was standing beside their table, looking concerned. Any further plotting was going to have to wait for now. Claude shook his head; he’d hardly had any time to see anyone besides Hilda since he’d returned to the monastery just shortly before. He turned back to Hilda, who looked similarly uncertain.

“Professor Manuela? Nope, haven’t seen her at all.” Hilda answered. Her expression was apologetic, but Claude could see the subtlest of glint in her eyes that he knew meant she was fishing for information even now, “Is something up?”

“It’s probably nothing.” Dorothea offered with a sigh. She didn’t look like she thought it was nothing. “I just had a question for her, but I can’t seem to find her anywhere. I’ve checked most of her usual places; I thought maybe if she left the monastery she might have passed through here.”

Claude shrugged, “Sorry, I just got here, so even if she did come through I wouldn’t have had much of a chance to see it.”

“Well I’ve been here almost all day,” Hilda added, “If she did leave, I don’t think she came this way.”

Dorothea deflated a little further, but quickly picked her chin back up. Claude exchanged a sideways glance with Hilda. It was hard to imagine Professor Manuela was up to anything as suspicious as kidnapping Flayn, but it was just as hard to believe her sudden absence was a coincidence. Hilda looked thoughtful, trying to figure out what question to ask next in an attempt to pry more information out of Dorothea. She never had the chance, though, as yet another person joined their quickly forming party. It was Jeralt.

“Are you looking for Manuela?” He asked as he approached them, obviously having overheard, “I just passed by her a little while ago. Looked like she was in a hurry. Not sure where she was going, but she was carrying something. A mask, maybe?”

Claude braced his arms on the table, quickly pushing himself up out of his seat, “Professor Jeritza’s mask?”

Jeralt was briefly startled by Claude’s abrupt and intense reaction, but he quickly realized that there must be some reason the information was so significant to him. He remained calm as he answered, “I can’t say for sure, but now that you mention it, yeah, I suppose it could have been.”

Hilda looked about ready to vibrate right out of her seat, “Claude, you don’t think Professor Manuela might have come to the same conclusion we did, do you?”

“If she had Professor Jeritza’s mask on her, she probably had an even better reason for it than we did.”

“Okay, someone please slow down and tell me what’s going on,” Dorothea interjected. She was obviously trying to remain calm, and overall did an impressive job of it, but there was the slightest anxious tremor in her voice, “Is Manuela alright?”

“We think she might have figured out what happened to Flayn,” Claude offered, but before he had time to explain any further a sudden commotion broke out. Several students came rushing into the reception hall, Ignatz among them. Once he caught sight of Jeralt he quickly dashed in their direction.

Ignatz stopped in front of them, hands on his knees and breathing heavily. Wherever he’d come from he’d clearly run as fast as he could. “Professor . . . Please come quick . . .”

He was still huffing and puffing, and he sounded panicked. Still Jeralt remained calm, his voice taking on a surprisingly comforting tone, “It’s alright Ignatz. Take a deep breath and tell us what’s going on.”

Ignatz composed himself and tried again, “Something is wrong in Professor Jeritza’s room. We heard a scream coming from there. It sounded like a woman’s voice.”

Their whole group exchanged nervous glances. It wasn’t hard to guess who Ignatz might have heard scream.

Jeralt seemed to assess that there was no time to waste in this situation. Without further warning or fuss he immediately moved in the direction of the combat instructor’s quarters. Claude, Hilda, and Ignatz quickly followed him, Dorothea right on their heels. 

By the time they arrived, quite a crowd of students had amassed around the entrance to Jeritza’s room, including the rest of the Golden Deer class. Everyone moved out of Jeralt’s way so he could enter before he even had to ask. His presence provided unspoken permission for the Golden Deer to join, and they all filtered into the room behind him.

“It’s Professor Manuela!” Ignatz exclaimed as soon as they entered the threshold.

She was lying on the floor, Jeritza’s mask scattered to the ground beside her. Claude crouched down to examine her, “She’s unconscious.”

“It looks like she’s pointing at something.” Hilda observed, and they all turned their attention in the direction of her hand to find a hidden passageway behind a large crack in the wall. 

“Cap, I think Professor Jeritza is the one who took Flayn, and I bet that’s where he has her.” Claude said. There wasn’t time to explain further than that, but the situation spoke for itself at this point.

“The evidence definitely seems to be pointing in that direction,” Jeralt agreed, “If Flayn is down there, there might not be time to waste getting back up or permission. We should investigate right away.”

“Professor Manuela!” Dorothea had waited outside with the other students, but she must have heard Ignatz, because she burst into the room now, and promptly joined Claude kneeling by the professor’s prone form. Professor Hanneman was also right behind her.

“What in the world is going on here?!”

Jeralt explained as succinctly as possible. Hanneman nodded, “I agree, you should look for Flayn straightaway. I can get Manuela to the infirmary. Claude, help me carry her.”

For just an instant, Claude hesitated. He was desperate to join in the investigation of that secret passage and a part of him wanted to argue that anyone else could just as easily stay behind and help Hanneman. But Claude’s curiosity couldn’t be his priority when Professor Manuela needed his help. And if Flayn was really down there, surely Jeralt could be counted on to ensure her safety as well, with or without Claude. He nodded resolutely, carefully taking one of Manuela's arms over his shoulder as Hanneman bent down to get the other.

Dorothea accompanied them to the infirmary. When one of the healers first saw them and made a flippant remark about Manuela being passed out drunk again Claude thought Dorothea might actually bite their head off for a moment. But before long they had Manuela settled into one of the infirmary beds and the healers were tending to her.

“Thank you for helping Manuela,” Dorothea said to him once their assistance was definitely no longer needed, “I’m sure you would have preferred to go fight with the rest of your class.”

“Well you’ve got me all figured out, haven’t you?” Claude answered, “But I couldn’t just leave someone who needed help behind like that, not if it’s my power to help them.”

Dorothea blinked at him, “Wow, and here I thought you would say ‘it was the noble thing to do’ or some drivel like that.”

“You’re confusing me with Lorenz. Which I take offense to, incidentally.” Claude wrinkled his nose. Then he shook his head, “But it’s not really about me being a noble or not. It’s about helping others out no matter who we are, because we’re all people, right?”

Dorothea just stared at him.

“Do you not agree?”

“No I do, I’m just surprised to discover that’s something we agree about, I suppose.” Dorothea answered. She was pensive for a moment before she smiled at him, “You’re an odd one for a noble, you know that?”

“Oh trust me, I know it very well.”

It felt callous to dash away to join his class the second his duty of carrying Professor Manuela was finished, particularly after he’d just asserted his desire to help his fellow humans, so he waited in the infirmary with Dorothea until she was conscious again. Then he left to allow them some alone time to talk.

Enough time had passed that there was no point in trying to join his class anymore, so he returned to the classroom to wait for them. Eventually the rest of the Golden Deer were filing in with Jeralt behind them. They didn’t have to say anything for him to know they had found Flayn; the happy and satisfied looks on their faces told him right away. And the dirt and grime they were all covered in told him they had found enemies as well. 

They all burst into a retelling of what had happened in the underground passage. It was a little challenging to follow with so many talking at once, but apparently they had found Flayn along with another girl in an academy uniform, who Raphael and Lorenz were currently bringing to the infirmary. They had also encountered the Death Knight again, who all things considered they could conclude was actually Professor Jeritza. But just as they’d been fighting him a new enemy had entered the fold.

“The Flame Emperor?” Claude asked curiously.

“That’s what he called himself.” Leonie confirmed, “He was wearing a mask, so it’s hard to say anything else about him. Whoever he is, just when we were about to defeat the Death Knight he showed up, and they both ran away.”

“It was some sort of teleportation magic they used.” Lysithea added, “It was . . . odd somehow.”

She didn’t offer any explanation of what was odd about it. It didn’t matter how they had gotten away Claude supposed, just that they had. But even that didn’t matter as much as Flayn being returned safely to Garreg Mach.

“The Death Knight’s escape was unfortunate, but our most important objective today was rescuing Flayn, and that was a success,” Jeralt answered as if speaking Claude’s thoughts aloud, “You saved lives today, and that’s worth far more than defeating your enemies. You should all be proud. You did well.”

Claude frowned. He’d missed a lot, obviously, far more than he would have ever expected. He wouldn’t bother denying that he was disappointed. But Jeralt’s point still stood--there was a lot to celebrate today. 

“I have to admit I’m very curious just what this Flame Emperor’s motives are. But to Cap’s point, that can be a question for another day. Today let’s focus on celebrating Flayn’s safe return to the monastery.”

Nobody had any objection to that.

Chapter Text

“This month, your class’ mission will be to participate in the Battle of the Eagle and Lion.” Rhea told him, “As you know, this is a storied and highly important tradition of the Officer’s Academy.”

Jeralt nodded. He may not have been directly involved in the academy during his time with the knights, but around Garreg Mach the Battle of the Eagle and Lion needed no introduction.

“This is an opportunity for your students to show how much they have grown since their first mock battle.” Seteth continued. In the days that followed Flayn’s rescue he had warmed up to Jeralt considerably, and that was evident in his tone now, “Make sure you guide them well.”

“Of course, I will ensure they are well prepared for the battle ahead.”

Garreg Mach was still a flurry of activity after Flayn’s rescue.

Much of it was to be expected. There was as much gossip about Flayn’s return to the monastery as there had been about her disappearance. Monica von Och’s presence only intensified this--Claude could only admit that he was as interested in her as everyone else, although most of the talk around the monastery was more wild guessing and theories than anything actually relevant. Edelgard seemed to know more about the new Black Eagles student than most, which objectively made sense considering her position within the empire, but somehow still made Claude even more curious. He was desperate to pick the princess’ brain, but he knew that would be about as productive as talking to a brick wall. Edelgard might be the only person here who was more secretive than him.

If the Flayn and Monica drama wasn’t enough to keep all of the students abuzz, their mission for the month certainly did the trick. The Battle of the Eagle and Lion. It was the event many students looked forward to the most when enrolling in the Officer’s Academy, and it was finally upon them. There was a lot of talk about which class would prove victorious this year. And while it was officially against the rules, Claude had seen a few bets being placed in secret as well, not just by the students but in some cases even by the staff and the knights, about which house would reign supreme in the highly talked about challenge.

Then there was the less expected excitement, which came in the form of the fishing tournament. Unlike the Battle of the Eagle and Lion, the fishing tournament was not a time honored tradition of the Officer’s Academy, and no one seemed entirely sure exactly why it had come about so suddenly. Some were unhappy with the sudden development, and Claude had heard Leonie particularly complaining about something so trivial taking attention away from the upcoming battle. But the overwhelming majority of the student body seemed excited for it, any many had gathered around the monastery pond to participate.

Claude had not warmed up to fishing as a pass time at all, so he had no real interest in participating himself. Normally he might take advantage of so much activity and attention being focused on the pond to attempt to sneak off somewhere that was typically more difficult for him to access. But when he’d heard about the fishing tournament, his mind couldn’t help but wander straight to Byleth. She would definitely love such a thing, and while she obviously wasn’t able to participate, hearing about it from Claude was sure to brighten her day.

So here he found himself, leaning on the balcony outside the dining hall and watching the fishing tournament progess below. It was something of a waste of time, but he justified it by remembering that for now anything that warmed Byleth up to him was as good as finding new information about the Heroes Relics.

“Uh oh, looks like somebody’s sulking.”

It was Hilda. She had come to join him leaning on the balcony well, and was looking his way with a teasing glint in her eye.

"I’m not sulking, I’m just watching the tournament.”

“Uh huh.” Hilda didn’t look like she believed him for a single second, “Listen, I don’t pretend to understand what’s going on in that crazy brain of yours most of the time, but I understand enough to know you would never just sit around watching other people fish for no reason.”

“Who says I don’t have a reason?” Claude quickly countered, a strange mix of impressed and concerned by just how well Hilda had him pegged. “My scheme may not be obvious now, but all will be revealed in time I assure you.”

“I guess I’ll just have to take your word for it. In the meantime try to curb your jealousy will you? That’s Lorenz’s job, and it’s not a great look on you.”

Hilda’s conclusion about why he was hanging around might be off base, but once again he wasn’t sure how to feel about just how perceptive she was. The beginning of the month had brought with it a letter from Lorenz’s father that had resulted in their class going on a field trip of sorts to deal with a power struggle stirred up by a minor Alliance lord--and all of this had culminated in Lorenz being bequeathed his family’s Heroes Relic, the magic staff Thyrsus.

To say that Claude was jealous of Lorenz was probably an overstatement, but it wasn’t entirely off base. The inheritance of a relic was most likely in Claude’s future as well, after all, although he couldn’t count on it anytime soon. His grandfather had never allowed him to so much as lay eyes on Failnaught; the old man wasn’t likely to hand the sacred weapon over easily, least of all to Claude, who he’d accepted into his family begrudgingly at best. That was okay--Claude knew the value of patience and of playing the long game well. But he could only admit it stung a little to see Lorenz so casually handed what he himself so desperately wanted, especially when Lorenz had spent the days that followed smugly parading his new possession in front of anyone who was unlucky enough to cross his path.

But of course Claude would rather die than admit any of that aloud.

“Hey, I’m not jealous. If anything Lorenz getting his hands on that Heroes Relic helps me as much as it does him--he got it just in time to give us an advantage in the Battle of the Eagle and Lion. Combined with Flayn joining our class and giving us a second healer I’d say we’re looking well positioned for a pretty big win at the end of the month, even without Cap’s help.”

“Oh that’s right, the teachers aren’t participating in the battle this year are they?” Hilda continued, blessedly dropping the topic of Claude’s jealousy, “Actually, you just made me think of something else. If Flayn is participating for our class, I wonder if Monica will do the same with the Black Eagles?”

Claude shrugged, “I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem too likely. A year in captivity isn’t something you bounce back from so quickly.”

“That’s true . . . and yet she seems surprisingly okay, doesn’t she? It’s almost scary how cheerful she is. I hope it’s not just an act to try and make everyone else feel better.”

“I don’t know her well enough to know what she’s doing, or why she might be doing it.” Claude answered, “She’s a wild card for sure, but she’s not one I anticipate having to deal with in the mock battle.”

“That’s probably for the best, for her and for us. This battle is still going to be such a pain though.” Hilda stopped to let out a groan before she continued, “My big brother won the Battle of the Eagle and Lion when he was in the Officer’s Academy, so it’s this huge deal to him. He already wrote me a letter to tell me how excited he is to hear about our victory. He’s setting his expectations way too high. If we lose he’s going to be so disappointed.”

Claude chuckled, shaking his head. Leave it to Hilda to find a way to make this all about her and her overbearing brother. “In that case I am going to have to up my scheming game to make sure we win. Can’t go letting down the vaunted General Holst Goneril.”

Hilda still looked none too pleased, “Ugh, but if we do win he’s never going to shut up about how proud he is, and it will be so embarrassing. I’m actually not sure which is worse.”

“Oh come on, you can’t tell me you wouldn’t like to hear some praise from your big brother. Or at least, please don’t tell me you would hate it so much that you’d intentionally throw this battle just to avoid it. Because Holst’s reaction aside, I’d actually really like to win this thing.”

“I know, I know. Don’t worry, I promise to do my best.” Hilda grimaced, “But I also promise you I’m not going to like it.”

Byleth was as thrilled by the prospect of the fishing tournament as Claude had expected, perhaps even moreso. Claude had no idea how utterly unprepared he would be to discuss it with her until it was far too late and she was drilling him with questions he could only struggle to answer. He found himself mostly struggling to describe fish he’d only seen from a distance from memory, since he didn’t know what any of the species were called. Impressively, Byleth managed to identify them all readily, even from his shoddy descriptions.

Then again, he supposed being a creation being necessitated a complete and thorough knowledge of the world’s fauna.

“It sounds like fun.” Byleth finally admitted. She didn’t quite sigh, but Claude could hear the longing in her voice all the same. 

Maybe sharing with her had been a mistake, as living vicariously through others could only be satisfying up to a point. But it did seem to make her genuinely happy. The best thing to do probably was focus on that and keep steering the conversation away from the negative.

“Everyone who participated seemed to have a good time,” Claude confirmed, “And that was just the warm-up. The real excitement this month will be the Battle of the Eagle and Lion.”

Byleth cocked her head to the side. “What is that?”

“Right, I guess it makes sense that no one would have told you about it before. The Battle of the Eagle and Lion is a yearly tradition at the Officer’s Academy. It’s a big mock battle between all three houses. It’s supposed to commemorate the War of the Eagle and Lion when the Kingdom first seceded from the Empire, hence the rather showy name.”

Byleth frowned.

Claude could only admit surprise at that reaction, “Not your thing? I’m surprised. You enjoy sparring so much after all.”

She shook her head, “I fight to protect the things I care about. Humans fight each other out of hatred, or for power, and then you glorify your wars.”

It was a curious sentiment coming from a goddess who was known in scripture first and foremost for her prowess on the battlefield, that was for certain. But Claude could see where she was coming from. “You’re certainly not wrong. But I’m not sure if it’s that simple either. Sometimes, those people really are fighting for what they believe is important too. Take the Alliance for example--a long time ago they fought a war to gain independence from the Kingdom. Now we consider our independence of utmost importance, so we protect it fiercely. Sometimes by fighting, if it comes to that. Whether these things actually justify war, well, that’s always going to be in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?”

Judging by her expression, Byleth was not the least bit swayed by his words. “It is trivial. You dress it up like you are all so different from each other just because of where you were born and use it as an excuse to kill each other, even though you’re really all the same.”

The surprises just kept coming today. Claude didn’t know how to handle Byleth’s words at first. To hear her so plainly state something so similar to his own beliefs, considered so radical by the rest of the world, was overwhelming. It wasn’t bad by any means, but it was the last thing he expected, and it was a lot to take in.

There was a crossroads here. He could do nothing--laugh it off and move the conversation along--or he could open up to Byleth a little. It was risky, but maybe not as much so as normal; if she didn’t like what he had to say it wasn’t like she could tell anyone else. 

That didn’t mean it was easy to put himself out there. “I can only agree with you there. But if someone could change that, if they could destroy those barriers we’ve built up between each other, maybe that would be worth fighting for?”

Byleth didn’t dismiss the idea as quickly as she had the rest of the conversation, at least. She thought it over carefully before she finally said, “Hmm. Maybe it would be.”

Claude let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. He was more nervous about her response than he’d expected. Besides the risk he had taken, he was suddenly aware of how much it would have hurt if Byleth rejected him in this. He wondered when he’d come to place so much value on her opinion.

“I’m glad to hear you think so. Although I suspect that’s not the sort of change you could simply force on people with, well, force.”

Byleth nodded thoughtfully. The atmosphere had grown heavy around them, although it wasn’t unpleasant or tense. For a moment, they were both lost in thought.

Byleth was the one to break the silence, “Good luck.”

Thinking she was still talking about his dream, Claude panicked slightly. He thought he’d done a good job of keeping it hypothetical, but maybe she was far savvier than he had given her credit for, “W-what?”

“You said you have an important battle coming up. I may not completely agree, but good luck. I hope you do well.”

Right, she was just talking about the Battle of the Eagle and Lion. That was a relief. He winked at her, “Wow, how lucky I am to have the blessing of a goddess on my side. I’d say now my victory is assured.”

Byleth rolled her eyes.

The Golden Deer house was thrumming with excitement by the time they were all taking up position around Gronder Field for the Battle of the Eagle and Lion.

Jeralt had spent the month training them hard in preparation for the battle, but that was the extent of the help they would be receiving from him. Professor Manuela was unable to participate due to still needing to recover from her encounter with the Death Knight, and so both professors Hanneman and Jeralt had agreed to abstain from participating as well. It was a little disappointing, as having Jeralt on their team would have been a massive advantage. But Claude was confident in their chances regardless--they were still the only class who’d been trained by Jeralt after all, and he’d helped them grow into a cohesive, powerful force on the battlefield in the time since the first mock battle.

Claude also liked to think he’d come a long way personally since then. And as the class was taking formation they all automatically looked to him for guidance. 

He surveyed the battlefield. They were definitely better prepared now than they had been the last time all three classes clashed, but that by no means meant this battle would be easier. They had an intense fight ahead of them.

“The Blue Lions have situated themselves a good distance away. They’ll probably be happy to sit back and let us and the Black Eagles start to pick each other off first, so we won’t have the luxury of relying on that strategy this time. We should start by taking the central hill--it’s a strategically important location and we can definitely take advantage of the ballista there. Once we have control of it we can figure out how to move next.”

Everyone agreed to that. The trumpet sounded, signalling they may start. The Battle of the Eagle and Lion was underway.

The cavalry took some work to push through, but Claude had to question Edelgard’s decision to leave Bernadetta to hold the central hill. He had witnessed her archery skills in training and tournaments and there was no doubt they were impressive, but she wasn’t the sort of steadfast soldier he would leave guarding such a strategic location. Even as Raphael pushed forward to take the hill for the Golden Deer, she didn’t put up much more of a fight than to cry out 
“D-don’t come any closer!” Raphael didn’t hesitate, but he looked a little guilty after taking her out.

The hill was a huge win for their house, but they’d put themselves in a bit of a precarious situation as well. While they’d been pushing forward, Hubert had been coming up on the right along with several classmates on pegasi. And on their left Ingrid, who also had the benefit of flight, had gone around and was now closing in on them from behind. In the meantime, Sylvain and Dedue had also started pushing forward towards the Black Eagles in front of them. They were properly flanked. 

“Looks like we’re going to have to split up from here, gang.” Claude evaluated, “Ignatz, Raphael, and Flayn, you stay here to hold the hill. Ignatz, your first order of business is to take out Ingrid with the ballista.”

“I’ll do my best.” Ignatz agreed.

“Hilda, Lorenz, Lysithea, head west and start putting pressure on the Blue Lions who chose to hang back.”

Hilda sighed, “Sounds like a pretty big pain to me. But if you say so.”

“Leonie, Marianne, and I will go east and take on the Black Eagles. Now that they’re engaging in the north, hopefully they’ll take each other out somewhat. If we can, we’ll fall back to help you handle Dimitri.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Leonie confirmed with a nod. And with their strategy laid down, they all moved out to execute it.

Since he had the advantage, Claude was able to quickly and easily take down one of the pegasus knights as they moved in, and Leonie pushed forward to take on another. Handling them so quickly was all well and good, and Claude had no complaints about it, but he also knew they weren’t the real problem.

Speaking of problems, he swiftly jumped aside to narrowly avoid a sudden miasma spell. There was the real thorn in his side.

“Hubert,” He called out, turning to face in the direction the spell had come from. His tone was light and jovially, but he already had an arrow at the ready. “Fancy meeting you here! That was a little excessive for a mock battle, don’t you think? Pretty sure you’re supposed to be using dummy magic.”

“Hmm? How curious,” Hubert answered, voice dripping with a sarcastic sort of glee, “I’m not sure the self-proclaimed schemer has any business accusing others of foul play.”

“Oh, I came prepared for all sorts of situations. If I were you, I wouldn’t tempt me to prove it. Turnabout is generally considered fair play, after all.”

Truthfully, the fact that Jeralt would be both angry and disappointed was the only thing stopping Claude from firing off a poison-tipped arrow, no matter how badly Hubert deserved it. Hubert should probably count himself lucky for that.

“My, such threats.” Hubert continued to goad, grinning madly. 

Claude was growing tired of the banter, and it seemed Hubert agreed because he fired off another illicit miasma spell. Claude leapt backwards out of range, and without Hilda meandering behind him the maneuver was a success this time. While he was still in the air he loosed an arrow, hitting Hubert square in the chest. And as soon as he had his footing on the ground he unleashed a second, landing another direct hit before Hubert had a chance to counterattack or try anything underhanded. 

That removed one of the biggest threats from the field, but the battle was far from over. With Hubert eliminated Claude's group pushed north. 

The other two houses had been engaging for some time now, and they'd fortunately done a number to each other's forces. Dedue had barreled his way through many of the Black Eagle students defending Edelgard's stronghold. He took Dorothea out just as Claude was approaching, although it looked like she had made him pay for it at least; he was running ragged at this point. A little ways behind him, Sylvain and Caspar were locked in combat.

Back on the central hill, Ignatz and Raphael were doing an impressive job of defending their territory, and looking as fresh as ever thanks to Flayn keeping them healthy. Ignatz had managed to take Ingrid down with the ballista, and now he turned his sights on removing Caspar from the battlefield. Petra tried to push her way on to the hill, but Raphael met her head on and did not yield. 

On the western side of the battlefield, their allies were also holding their own. Ferdinand had pushed forward into Blue Lions territory and taken down Anette on his way in. But Lorenz, who had just eliminated Mercedes, was ready to stop him in his tracks before he could get any further. Lysithea had managed to back Felix into a corner. And perhaps most impressive of all, Claude had turned his attention that way just in time to see Hilda charge full force at Dimitri. She endured a direct hit from his lance before retaliating with a fierce swing of her own axe, taking the prince out of the battle.

It was with a swell of pride that Claude realized it was the successful execution of his tactics that was allowing their class to dominate the battlefield. And with a second, greater swell of pride that he realized it was all of them working in tandem, showing off their skills, growth, and teamwork that allowed his tactics to be so successful. Each and every one of them was showing what they were made of today.

He returned his attention to Leonie and Marianne, "You two think you can handle Dedue and Sylvain while I deal with Edelgard?"

Both girls agreed to that strategy, and Leonie promptly rushed Sylvain while Marianne made her way to Dedue. There wasn't a doubt in Claude's mind that they could handle themselves, which meant that the last obstacle between him and victory was the imperial princess.

He approached her stronghold, bow at the ready, “Hey Princess, heads up, there’s a rat by your imperial feet.”

This was usually the part where Edelgard rolled her eyes and scoffed at his teasing. It was the game they played, a part of the dance they did in an effort to see who could push the other’s buttons harder, or more quickly. 

But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, Edelgard’s eyes widened and she leapt back slightly, letting out a shriek. She composed herself impressively quickly, although the reaction had been impossible to miss, and frowned at him, “How dare you make a fool of me. You will not rile me with such childish tactics.”

“Ah, so the sheer terror in your eyes was . . . something else entirely. My mistake. Anyway, it was only a joke.”

Despite hiding it, Edelgard was obviously still frazzled. Claude wasn’t sure what to make of the reaction, but he definitely didn’t feel good about it. Instead of egging her on he’d thrown her off her game, and she ended up going down with much less of a fight than she normally would. It wasn’t really the tone with which he wanted to mark his victory.

At least, that was what he thought until he realized the Golden Deer hadn’t claimed their victory quite yet. Linhardt, probably with the intention of focusing on healing from a distance, had been holding position behind Edelgard in the stronghold and was still on the field, having avoided combat the whole time. 

Claude quickly nocked an arrow, but Linhardt was much less responsive, stretching languidly before holding his hands up in surrender, “Don’t even bother. You win.”

Linhardt yawned as he strolled off the battlefield.

Claude shook his head as he lowered his bow. That was . . . also not how he had expected to win.

The trumpets sounded again, and the whole class burst into celebration as the Golden Deer were declared this year’s winners of the Battle of the Eagle and Lion.

Claude left the battlefield and headed over to Jeralt, who Hilda had already joined on the sidelines. Jeralt clapped him on the shoulder.

“Nicely done. Good leadership out there today.”

Claude grinned, “Hilda is obviously the one we should be praising. Taking down His Highness all by herself like that. Someone has been downplaying her own abilities.”

Hilda huffed, “It’s not like I wanted to fight Dimitri. But someone had to do it, and waiting for you was going to take way too long.”

Speaking of Dimitri, he and Edelgard both approached them now. Dimitri was smiling, and Edelgard was doing her best to hide a grimace.

“Well done today,” Dimitri said jovially, “I’m afraid we were no match against your tactics on the battlefield.”

“Yes, I suppose congratulations are in order.” Edelgard added.

“Thank you. It means a lot, coming from Your Highnesses.” 

It was a cheeky response of course, and Claude considered gloating while he had the chance. But he couldn’t help but think of his conversation with Byleth, about her calling this little more than glorifying war. Maybe she was right, but he didn’t think she had to be. And in that case, maybe beating the other houses wasn’t the point.

“Actually, as the victors, I have a request for you both,” he began instead, “When we return to the monastery, let’s all celebrate together. No winners, no losers, no houses. Just everyone coming together, and enjoying each other’s company.”

Dimitri nodded, “Yes, I agree that would be wonderful.”

Surprisingly, even Edelgard offered a small smile. “Very well. That does sound like fun.”

Claude smiled too. Maybe bringing everyone together wouldn’t require fighting after all. 

Chapter Text

“Congratulations on your victory in the Battle of the Eagle and Lion.”

Jeralt offered a slight bow, “Thank you, Lady Rhea. Though I believe the students are the ones that truly deserve the praise.”

“You are far too modest. Surely the students owe their success to the staunch guidance you’ve given them these past months.”

“As much as we would love to continue celebrating,” Seteth continued seriously, “I’m afraid the mission we have for you this month is rather grim. Your class will be journeying to Remire Village to investigate an abnormal occurrence there.”

Jeralt arched a brow. He’d spent a lot of time in Remire in between jobs as a mercenary, and of course it was the place where he’d ended up being dragged back to the monastery. He didn’t like to hear that the people there might be suffering. “What sort of occurrence?”

“We do not know the details yet, but apparently the villagers have been acting strangely. We’ve already dispatched knights to verify the reports.”

“I know that Remire Village holds . . . important significance to you,” Rhea continued, “I thought you would appreciate the opportunity to be involved in this operation.”

“It’s true that I owe the people of Remire much.” Jeralt answered. “Thank you for your consideration. Of course I will do all I can to help.”

Claude was definitely intrigued by the business in Remire Village. It was a mystery, and of course there was nothing he loved more than a good mystery. And this one was especially important, because the longer in took them to crack, the more the people in the village suffered. 

They were technically still supposed to be leaving it to the knights, but Claude couldn’t accept that so easily. A few of them had just returned from scouting, and Claude was eager to hear what they had learned.

“Kid, if you’re really so desperate to eavesdrop, you might as well just come talk with us.”

Claude made sure to make his face look as sheepish as possible as he slinked into the infirmary, where Shamir was reporting on what she had seen in Remire to Jeralt and Manuela. Jeralt was pinching the bridge of his nose and Shamir was wearing the tiny half grin that was the closest she ever came to smiling as far as Claude had observed. Manuela looked between the two of them in surprise.

“Wait, did you both know he was out there? How in the world were you able to tell?”

Claude would love to know the answer to that question as well, though he couldn’t say he was surprised either of them had caught on to him. Jeralt had already proven himself adept at it, and the church relied on Shamir for reconnaissance for a reason.

“Nevermind that,” Jeralt dismissed, “You were saying, Manuela?”

“Right. I’m afraid there’s not much to say. With so many different, unrelated symptoms, it's hard to imagine a normal disease could be responsible. Though I’ve never heard of magic that could cause such a thing, either.”

Shamir’s face was complete seriously once again, “Is it possible it’s some sort of combination of both?”

“It could be,” Manuela nodded thoughtfully, “Though if that’s the case, I think it would have to be some pretty powerful dark magic that was responsible. All I can really say is, you should all be careful out there. Whatever this is, I have a bad feeling about it.”

“Alright. Thank you for your help, Manuela.” Jeralt answered.

“Of course.”

Shamir headed on her own way, probably to the Knight’s Hall, and Jeralt returned to his office next door. Claude followed behind him.

“It’s kind of strange, don’t you think, Cap?”

Jeralt shrugged, “Sure, but I think everyone agrees that whatever is going on in Remire is strange.”

“Yeah, yeah, but I mean Remire Village is the place we first met, right? I guess there’s no reason it couldn’t be a coincidence, but if so it’s a pretty big one.”

Jeralt considered it for a moment before answering. “It’s definitely something to keep in mind, but I don’t think we have enough information to draw any conclusions just yet.”

Jeralt was packing up supplies into a satchel, Claude realized. His eyes widened, “Wait, are you going to Remire right now?”

“There are still far too many unknowns. I wouldn’t be comfortable bringing any soldiers to such a battlefield, let alone students. It’s not that I don’t trust you all, but I need to make sure I’ve done my job to prepare you as much as possible. And that means seeing things for myself before I bring you all there.”

“Let me come with you.”

“Not this time. I need you to hold down the fort here while I’m gone.” Jeralt glanced towards the doorway, making sure that they were alone before he continued, “I might be gone a while. I’ll be visiting our friend while I’m away as well.”

Claude nodded. He didn’t like taking no for an answer, but he understood in this case. Plus, it had probably been a while since Jeralt and and Byleth last got to see each other. She would like that, and they deserved the alone time.

“Fine. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure Lorenz believes he’s babysitting me and not the other way around.”

Jeralt rolled his eyes and was on his way. 

Claude sighed. He knew that Jeralt’s decision wasn’t one meant to leave him out of the loop, but he hated being out of it all the same. He would have to focus his attention on something other than Remire Village for now.

Fortunately, there were no shortage of options when it came to investigating mysteries around the Monastery.

Claude knew what he was next most interested in. That honor went to his newest classmate, Flayn. She was a curiosity, though a frustrating one to get to the bottom of. Claude didn’t think he’d ever met anyone who was simultaneously such a terrible liar, and also so secretive. She wore her emotions right on her sleeve, but that didn’t stop her from being completely obtuse and avoidant. Combined with the fact that pushing her too hard was sure to result in Seteth breathing down your neck, and it ended up being mostly impossible to getting anything out of her beyond her obvious lies.

None of that had stopped Claude from trying perhaps a little bit too hard in the past few weeks, and now Flayn all but ran in the opposite direction at first sight of him. Truthfully he had no one to blame for the dead end he had run into but himself. There was little to do about it besides give Flayn space until she warmed up to him again. 

Since he was already so close to the library, he figured he might as well go back to it and comb through some of the books for new information again. He felt like he’d already exhausted the library of its valuable information at this point, mostly because it seemed to be intentionally devoid of the sort of information he was seeking, but it couldn’t hurt to quadruple check in case he had missed something.

Upon entering the library he caught sight of Ignatz, sitting at a table and hunched over a piece of paper. Ignatz was lost in deep concentration on whatever he was working on and didn’t seem to notice Claude had joined him. Peeking over his shoulder revealed Claude might not be the only one who had taken a recent interest in Flayn.

“Working on some drawing, Ignatz?”

Ignatz nearly jumped out of his skin, then scrambled to shuffle his papers around and cover his work with his arm. But it was too late. Claude had already seen.

“Claude! N-no, it’s nothing. Really. I . . . I was just. Doodling.”

“That looks awfully impressive to be just a doodle to me.” Claude countered, “It’s a drawing of flayn, right?”

“What? Of course not! Well. Not exactly.”

Poor Ignatz looked absolutely horrified. Claude felt a little bad, but not so much so that it stemmed his curiosity. If anything, Ignatz’s reaction was only fueling it. “It’s okay. I’m not judging, just interested. But if not Flayn . . . who is it supposed to be a drawing of?”

Ignatz was flushed, his entire face and ears a deep red, “You’re going to laugh.”

“You have my word that I won’t.”

“Very well. I wanted to draw Saint Cethleann. But I wanted my portrait of her to be lifelike, and copying the statue just wouldn’t do that justice.”

Huh. Very interesting. “So you used Flayn’s likeness?”

“She seemed like an appropriate model, is all. There’s something about her that captures the grace and classic beauty I believe Saint Cethleann would possess.”

Very interesting. Perhaps Ignatz was on to something here. Suddenly Claude had a new theory about Flayn; it was wild and seemingly impossible, but Claude had sure seen some wild and impossible things since coming to Garreg Mach.

And he knew of a surefire way to test his new theory.

“When you put it like that, it does make a lot of sense,” Claude began graciously, “Although I would be careful not to let Seteth hear you talking like that.”

Somehow, Ignatz blushed even deeper, “I-it’s not like that!”

Claude wasn’t sure he entirely believed that, but he wasn’t trying to rile Ignatz up at the moment. “You don’t have to tell me. But that doesn’t mean her over-protective big brother isn’t liable to misinterpret such reverent words. What’s anyone supposed to think, really, walking by and seeing you drawing pictures of her like this?”

“I hadn’t thought about it like that, but you’re probably right. Maybe it would be better if I abandoned this particular portrait for now.”

“That would be a shame, it really is lovely work.”

But Ignatz just shook his head, “It’s alright, really. There’s always next time. And if I can get Flayn’s permission, I’ll have an even better model for my portrait. Or in the meantime, maybe I’ll find other inspiration to help me draw Saint Cethleann.”

Ignaz began to fold the paper up so the image was no longer visible, and Claude went in for the kill, “I can get rid of it for you, if you want. If anyone happens to find it, I’ll probably have an easier time explaining away why it’s in my trash.”

“Thank you. That would be great, if you don’t mind.” And just like that, Ignatz handed over the drawing as Claude hoped he would. Claude pocketed it.

He was about to take his leave when another illustration caught his eye. “Did you draw that, too?”

“Huh? Oh this--no, that was just sitting on the table here. I figured it must belong to the librarian, but I haven’t seen him at all to return it.”

“I think I’d like to borrow that for a while, I’m sure Tomas won’t mind.”

“Oh, sure. That’s what the library is for after all, isn’t it?”

Ignatz handed over the mysterious drawing as well. This trip to the library had been much more productive than Claude could have ever anticipated. 

“Thanks. I think I’ll take these both back to my room now.”

“Of course. Thank you again for your help, Claude.”

Ignatz’s gratitude sounded so genuine that Claude couldn’t help but feel a little guilty for manipulating him. At least he earnestly hadn’t seemed too upset about giving up his artwork.

Once he made it back to his room, Claude took a moment to properly investigate the illustration he had taken. It was of the Immaculate One.

The Immaculate One was said to have been sent by the goddess to protect the people of Fodlan. Claude had read stories about it before, but it was rarely described in great detail, and he’d never once seen it illustrated. Here it was depicted as a massive, powerful dragon. And perhaps most interesting of all was the crest symbol upon its forehead.

Could there be some connection to the crest stone on the forehead of the Black Beast Miklan Gautier had transformed into? And if that was the case, did that mean there was some connection between the Heroes Relics and the Immaculate One? They were both said to be gifts from the goddess Sothis.

Claude’s head was spinning. There were just too many questions. It was time to get some answers.

Jeralt had been gone for about a week and a half. Claude felt about ready to crawl up the walls during that time, desperate to act on his latest plan. But he didn’t dare risk sneaking away from the monastery while Jeralt was also gone for now. There was no way of knowing who might be keeping a closer eye on them in their professor’s absence.

On his first free day after Jeralt’s return Claude barely took a few minutes to shove some breakfast in his mouth before sneaking away to visit Byleth.

Unfortunately, in that time Claude had been a little too careless with the illustration of the Immaculate One. Seteth had caught him studying it in the library and had very promptly confiscated it, stating that it didn’t belong there. Claude saw through the flimsy excuse easily enough, knew that Seteth simply didn’t want the image in the library where people could see it, but there was little he could do to protest. Tomas had also been curiously absent all month, so he wasn’t around for Claude to ask about it. It was a huge disappointment; that drawing was the best lead Claude had found in a long time, and now he’d lost it.

At least he hadn’t had much reason to stare at a picture of Flayn, so that one had remained secretly in his possession without any trouble. He carried it in his pocket now as he traveled to Zanado and crossed the threshold into Byleth’s jungle.

When he approached her, she smiled and said, “Claude, I wasn’t expecting to see you so soon after Jeralt’s visit.”

“I thought it might be a nice surprise. Hopefully I’m not disturbing you.”

“Not at all. I’m glad you're here.”

She sounded so genuine it was almost like she was happy to see him specifically, and not just glad for any company to ease her lonely existence. The thought made Claude feel warm.

But he couldn’t let it distract him from the task at hand, “I actually have something to show you today, if you don’t mind.”

Byleth cocked her head slightly, curiosity piqued, “What is it?”

Claude took the paper containing Ignatz’s drawing out of his pocket and unfolded it. He held it out so that Byleth could get a good look, “Do you recognize this person?”

There wasn’t a second of hesitation. “Of course. It’s Cethleann.”

Claude could feel his heart thumping, and his mind racing. Now wasn’t the time to give in to that, though. He had to stay calm and confirm what she was telling him. He winked at her, “Got it in one. This is a depiction of Saint Cethleann. As someone who had the opportunity to meet the real deal, I was curious how well you think it captures her likeness.”

“It’s her spitting image. Even the expression on her face is just like Cethleann. This must have been done by a truly talented artist."

Claude swallowed, did his best to hold it together and force a nod, “He really is incredible.”

This was what Claude had been expecting, of course, the reason he’d wanted to show Byleth the portrait in the first place, but to have it confirmed was far more shocking than he expected. Flayn was Saint Cethleann. That meant he could probably assume Seteth was Saint Cichol. And it had some interesting implications for Rhea as well, although Claude wasn’t sure he could draw any definitive conclusions about her just yet.

There was a part of him that wanted to write it off as impossible. But the fact that he was so willing to accept it as truth alone told him that it was. As for how he felt about it, well, that was going to take a bit more think time to figure out.

Byleth was still gazing at the portrait in his hand. She wore a small smile, but her eyes looked sad and wistful. 

"You can keep it, if you'd like."

She turned her intense gaze toward him, "Are you sure?"

"Completely. I only really brought it to show to you. And I'm sure the artist would be glad to know you enjoyed it."

Byleth took the paper from him carefully, holding on to it like it was priceless. "Thank you, Claude."

Her smile was more than thanks enough.

Remire was a truly horrific scene. 

They'd been called in abruptly after the situation in the village took a sudden turn for the worse. Between hearing reports from both Shamir and Jeralt, Claude had thought he was prepared for what he was walking into. But nothing could have prepared him for this. 

The town was ablaze, and the people were killing each other. Everything was so chaotic it was difficult to tell who had succumbed to the affliction that had brought their class here, and who was just desperately trying to defend their own life. If this went on for too long it wasn’t likely to matter anyway; no one would be spared.

“It’s hard to believe things could have escalated so much since I was last here.” Jeralt was the closest to unsettled Claude had ever seen him, but he was holding himself together well. Probably for their sake.

“Claude, look. There are some . . . strange looking people over there.”

Lysithea sounded uncharacteristically frightened, but given the state of the town that was understandable. Claude looked where she was pointing, and it wasn’t hard to find what she was talking about. Amongst all the chaos and terror, the people who were standing still and calmly watching it all unfold certainly stood out. 

“You’re right. They don’t seem to be affected by whatever is driving the villagers mad. Perhaps they’re the ones responsible?”

“You might be right,” Jeralt agreed, “But our first priority has to be protecting the villagers. As long as they’re content to just stand there, let them. Once the people are safe we can figure out how to deal with them.”

“Of course. So what’s the plan, Cap?”

“We’ll have to spread out if we want to get to all of the villagers fast enough. But make sure you’re never alone. Stay in pairs, at least. Move along the outskirts of town looking for stragglers. I’ll push through the middle with the knights to deal with the brunt of the chaos, and clear a path to those strangers in the back.”

“I hate to be the bearer of even more bad news,” Hilda chimed in, “But it looks like the Death Knight has joined us as well.”

“Of course he has,” Jeralt sighed, “I doubt we can count on him leaving us or the villagers alone today. Lysithea, you managed to take him on last time, do you feel comfortable trying again?”

“Leave it to me.” Lysithea answered resolutely.

“Great. Claude, why don’t you stick with her. If the Death Knight proves to be too much, retreat back to me immediately.”

“Sure thing.”

With a plan securely in place, they moved out. Claude and Lysithea made their way directly toward the Death Knight, hoping to have the advantage of catching him off guard by going after him before he could come to them. 

On their way they saved the villagers who were being attacked by their crazed neighbors. At first Claude was trying to incapacitate them without killing them, since they were obviously not in their right minds and therefore not responsible for their actions. But that proved more complicated than expected. Whatever had driven them mad also seemed to be blocking their pain receptors, or maybe just driving them to ignore the pain they were feeling; either way injuries that should have easily stopped them in their tracks were having no effect whatsoever. They were blindly driven to keep fighting as long as they had life in them, leaving him and Lysithea little choice but to use lethal force.

What sort of people would do this, and why? It was completely senseless.

The Death Knight had a couple of lackeys with him, but they were nothing. It was the horseman himself who was a truly formidable foe. Claude wasn’t good for much more than causing a distraction while Lysithea prepared to do the real work, so he did his best to do just that. Claude fired off a couple of arrows; both hit their mark, although they didn’t seem to bother him all that much. The Death Knight raised his scythe to counterattack with a spell, and for an instant Claude thought he might be done for. Then Lysithea dropped a massive dark spikes spell before the Death Knight had his chance to counter, knocking him clean off of his horse. Too injured to continue, he mounted once again and made his retreat.

Claude let out a long, low whistle, turning to Lysithea and speaking with awe in his voice, “Remind me never to piss you off.”

Lysithea scoffed, “Unlikely, no matter what I say, you seem to enjoy irritating me far too much.”

Claude didn’t have a good rebuttal for that, or at least not one that wasn’t likely to get him incinerated, so he conceded for now. 

With the Death Knight out of their way, Claude and Lysithea had a clear path to come up behind the mysterious group that seemed to be causing the calamity. They moved in close enough to see what was happening, but didn’t reveal themselves just yet.

“Those mages . . .” Lysithea said quietly, growing somber. Whatever it was about them that struck her, she did not elaborate.

But that didn’t remain at the forefront of Claude’s attention for long, “Wait a minute . . . isn’t that Tomas, the librarian?!”

Jeralt had just moved up to confront him directly, and had come to the same conclusion, “You! The one causing all of this was Tomas?”

The librarian chuckled darkly, “My name is not Tomas, it is Solon! You were all so easily fooled by this pathetic disguise.”

That apparent disguise melted away now, revealing Tomas--or rather, Solon’s--true form: unnaturally white skin, black eyes, and bulging veins. Just who, or maybe even what, was he?

“I don’t care who you are,” Jeralt retorted, “What do you want with the people of this village?”

“These people are irrelevant. This was merely an experiment, and they the most convenient test subjects.”

Claude had never once seen Jeralt lose his cool in battle, but he looked truly angry now, “How dare you. You’ll pay for the suffering you’ve caused here.”

“Take me on if you believe you can. It is only a world of pain that awaits you.”

Solon was preparing a spell, and Claude knew this was his chance. He jumped out of his hiding place to stand directly behind Solon, bow at the ready, “Not so fast!”

Solon paused, turning around to see just who had interrupted him. He was now cornered, wedged between Jeralt’s lance and Claude’s bow. He frowned.

“I can’t afford to fall today. Fortunately, our work here is done. It seems it is time that we take our leave.”

The remaining mages, Solon included, teleported away.

“Dammit, they got away.” Jeralt growled. There was little point in wasting time being upset about it though; defeating the enemy hadn’t been their true objective after all. Jeralt seemed to realize as much, and composed himself quickly, “That should finally put a stop to the violence at least. Let’s all take another look around, there are probably still villagers who need our help.”

Claude set to work doing just that, pulling a few more people out of the rubble and helping them to Marriane or Flayn for first aid. Once the situation seemed to be under control, he snuck back to where Solon and his fellow mages had been lurking.

Claude set to searching the area carefully, looking for clues to their mysterious new enemy’s identity. They didn’t seem to have left anything of note behind, though. He was just about to give up when the setting sun glinted off of something on the ground, catching his eye. Claude crouched down, carefully picking the object up.

It was small and thin, fitting in the palm of his hand, and rectangular in shape. He didn’t recognize the material it was made of, some sort of shiny black metal, and there were grooves in the surface that reminded him of the tiles on the floor of the Holy Mausoleum and the pedestal controlling Byleth’s barrier, although it was not currently aglow with magic as they were. And one of the short ends was jagged, with more rectangular grooves of various sizes, not unlike the teeth of a key.

Was that was this was, some sort of strange key? Claude had never seen anything like it before.

“Claude?! Where did you go?”

Claude jumped, quickly stuffing the mysterious key in his pocket, and spinning around to face Hilda just as she approached him.

“Where have you been?” Hilda asked in a huff, “We’ve been looking everywhere for you! The Flame Emperor was here.”

“What? Again?” Claude asked hurriedly. How disappointing that he’d missed the enigmatic figure again, “What happened?”

“Not much, honestly.” Hilda answered. Her tone suggested she knew just how anticlimactic her words were, “He said some more cryptic stuff and then disappeared again. I wonder what his deal is.”

“It’s hard to know with so little to go on.” Claude agreed.

“Anyway, we should hurry back to the others. They were worrying about you. Plus, I’m ready to get out of this place. It’s way too depressing.”


Back at the monastery, the class sat together in the dining hall eating a late supper. Usually after a successful mission there was an air of levity and good spirits amongst the group, but that was not the case tonight. They sat in relative silence, slowly picking at their food. Even Raphael was unenthused. It was hard to feel good about their victory after the things they’d seen that day. 

Dimitri and Edelgard approached their table. The prince was the first to speak, “We just heard about Remire Village. I’m sorry, that must have been terribly difficult to witness.”

“Honestly, it was horrible,” Leonie answered, eyes fixed on the still mostly full plate in front of her, “I could never have imagined something so evil, and it was nothing more than a cruel experiment to them.”

“There’s no doubt that the ones capable of committing such a vile act are monsters,” Edelgard agreed firmly. After a pause she added, “I heard you had another run in with the Death Knight?”

“Not just him, but the Flame Emperor as well,” Lorenz replied, “They’re just as bad, if not worse, I say, for willingly associating with such villains.”

“I can’t believe I missed him again.” Claude sighed. It was sort of beside the point, but he hated being the last one to know.


Claude looked to Edelgard, arching an eyebrow, “Something on your mind, Princess?”

“Nothing in particular. Besides the fact it’s awfully curious that your class has encountered this so-called Flame Emperor twice now, and yet both times you were conveniently absent when he appeared.”

Claude narrowed his eyes at Edelgard, trying to puzzle out the purpose behind her words. He was about to ask her what exactly she was playing at, but Lorenz jumped in before he had the chance to say anything.

“That is curious, isn’t it? I might even go so far as to call it downright suspicious.”

Claude laughed, “Come on, you can’t be serious.”

Lorenz simply crossed his arms and glared at him.

“Stars above, you are serious. You really think I could be the Flame Emperor? You realize that’s completely ridiculous, right?”

“If it’s so ridiculous, I’d love to hear your proof that it’s not true.” Lorenz goaded.

“It’s almost impossible to prove something isn’t true,” Claude retorted, “How about you present some proof that it is? And not having seen us side by side isn’t going to cut it; by that logic, both of their Highnesses are equally as suspicious as I am, as are most people in the world.”

“True, and yet neither of them had any cause to be around Remire Village today,” Lorenz answered coolly, “You’ll have to forgive me my suspicion, Claude, but frankly there is a lot about you that arouses suspicion.”

Claude didn’t feel the need to forgive anything, quite frankly, but he also wasn’t going to sit here trying to justify himself to Lorenz when the other clearly had no intention of listening. The rest of the class had descended into awkward silence.

Edelgard, for having stirred this trouble up, didn’t seem to have anything to say about it now.

Dimitri chuckled uncomfortably, an obvious attempt to diffuse the tension, “Perhaps it would be best if we didn’t jump to conclusions just yet.”

Claude frowned. He did not have a good feeling about this.


Chapter Text

“This month we will be holding a ball for the students. It’s a yearly tradition I’m sure you remember.”

Jeralt nodded. “Of course. I’m sure the students will be thrilled.”

Normally it wasn’t the sort of thing Jeralt would care much for. It still wasn’t, he supposed, but he found himself looking forward to his students’ excitement surrounding the event. He wondered when he’d grown so attached to them.

“Yes, certainly.” Seteth continued on Rhea’s behalf, “However, we must not devote all of our time to frivolity. Your mission this month is to investigate a recent break in at the unused chapel.”

“The chapel? And nothing has been taken, I’m assuming?” There wasn’t much to be found in such a place worth taking, after all, as it had been long abandoned.

Rhea shook her head, “We are not sure who entered the chapel, or what their intentions were. But given recent events, we cannot afford to take even these minor occurrences lightly.”

That was a bit of an overreaction, in Jeralt’s opinion. Most likely, the culprits of this particular incident were students looking for a safe place to get up to no good without getting caught. Still, with everything that had happened over the past few months, he could understand Rhea’s caution.

At least the rest of the Golden Deer were on his side. 

Claude was honestly not too bothered by Lorenz’s distrust. Lorenz had made a conscious decision to be suspicious of Claude before they’d even met, and while that was frustrating at times Claude could understand why. It would always be something with Lorenz, if not this Flame Emperor ridiculousness then he would find another excuse. If it was just Lorenz, Claude probably wouldn’t care at all.

Unfortunately, the rumor that Claude might be the mysterious and hated Flame Emperor had spread quickly through the academy. Where his classmates in the Golden Deer were able to be discerning, the majority of the students from other classes who didn’t really know Claude were all too happy to latch onto such a dramatic possibility. And just like that, overnight he had become public enemy number one as far as the student body was concerned.

Claude was used to being a pariah, of course, but he found himself surprised with just how quickly he’d gotten used to having a more normal social experience. People might find him odd at times (which, compared against the other children of noble families at the academy, he could only admit was a fair assessment), but for the most part he felt as though he’d been generally well-liked around the monastery, and definitely tolerated. Now people were whispering to each other when he entered a room, hastily avoiding eye contact with him, getting up and moving away when he sat at a table in the dining hall. It was a familiar scene, but while Claude had learned to steel himself against poor treatment from his peers in Almyra things had been different here at Garreg Mach; now it felt like reopening an old wound, and the pain was fresh all over again.

He had a small saving grace in the form of the ball, which at least meant that people’s attention was somewhat divided from discussing how he was probably an evil overlord. Claude was the source of mystery and drama for the moment, but the ball was the source of excitement. Claude loved a good party as much as anyone--though he suspected his definition of partying was not quite the same as the Church of Seiros’--but it was hard for him to get properly excited about it when he anticipated standing off to the side while everyone else avoided him like he had some sort of contagious disease.

Claude thought himself rather adept at hiding his emotions, so he was surprised when just a few minutes into his latest visit Byleth cocked her head ever so slightly to the side and asked, “Is something the matter?”

How she had read him so easily Claude had no idea, but it seemed pointless and counterproductive to his plan to gain Byleth’s trust to lie, so he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Nothing terribly noteworthy. I just seem to have found myself in a period of extreme unpopularity. It’s nothing but the typical schoolyard stuff, really.”

“I see.” Byleth replied. This was normally when she would allow the conversation to drop, her curiosity having been satiated, and would move on to something else or even nothing at all until Claude offered another topic for discussion. But this time she continued to look at him, her eyes soft and her mouth creased in a tiny frown, “I’m sorry. That must be difficult.”

Byleth continued to be full of surprises, but maybe this shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. If Church of Seiros scripture was anything to go by, she must know better than most what it felt like to have everyone turn their back on you, and certainly she knew what it felt like to be lonely. There was a part of him that wished he could convey to Byleth just how much this loneliness--for better or worse--was something they had in common. Not just because he was trying to gain her trust, but because he’d never had someone who could truly understand this part of himself, and he could only admit it would be nice to have a kindred spirit in Byleth.

But not only did he stand to gain little from bringing the mood down so low, Claude certainly could not afford to be so vulnerable, so instead he shook his head and said, “Eh, I’ll be old news before long anyway. With any luck, maybe even by the time the ball rolls around at the end of the month.”

Byleth perked right up, her curiosity clearly latching right on to the new topic at hand, “Oh, is there a ball?”

He hadn’t really meant it, but Claude should have known it would be the perfect distraction. Byleth loved to hear about all of the goings on at Garreg Mach, even the comparatively much more mundane. She was essentially living vicariously through him at this point.

“Oh yeah, it’s an annual tradition,” Claude explained, happy to steer the conversation away from the dark cloud hanging over him, “And the rumor about it is even more wild than the ones about me. You’ll get a kick out of this, I’m sure: supposedly, if two people make a wish together at a particular spot at Garreg Mach Monastery on the night of the ball, the goddess Sothis is guaranteed to grant it.”

Byleth practically snorted. It was perhaps the least divine gesture Claude had ever witnessed, although the light, warm chuckle that followed it was very much the opposite. That was a sound he could stand to hear a little more.

“That’s ridiculous,” She finally offered in response.

“Ah, somehow I figured you’d say as much,” Claude admitted with a little sigh. “It’s a shame though. There goes the most interesting part of an otherwise uninteresting evening.”

“Oh, come on. You must at least be looking forward to the dancing.”

Claude wrinkled his nose, “I’d hardly call it real dancing when you’re forced to follow the same steps as everyone else the whole time.”

“Sounds like maybe you’re just not good at it.”

Claude opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again, observing her carefully first. It wouldn’t have been the first time Byleth had bluntly pointed out his shortcomings, but maybe that wasn’t what was happening here. The corners of her mouth were upturned in the tiniest of smiles, and there was just a hint of laughter dancing in her eyes. Was she teasing him?

It was definitely a first if so, and it sure seemed like that was the case.

That gave Claude an idea, and without really thinking it through or considering the implications of his actions, he held out a hand to Byleth, “Let’s go, then.”

Byleth just blinked down at his offered hand, “What?”

“You’ve just challenged my pride. You didn’t really think I’d just take that lying down, did you?” Claude winked at her, “Now I’ve got to prove you wrong. And even if you’re right, that means I could use some practice. So let’s go. We’re dancing.”

Byleth’s smile shifted into a fond expression that left Claude’s stomach doing cartwheels. He felt heat creep up his neck all the way to the tips of his ears as she looked him in the eye and took his hand.

The night of the ball Claude found himself lingering in the Golden Deer classroom. He’d offered himself a lot of different excuses for why he was delaying his attendance, from his formal wear being far too stuffy and uncomfortable to still not caring for the rigid Fodlan style of dancing. But the truth of the matter was he was afraid to go and face the rejection of the entire student body all at once.

“I’m surprised to find you here. Not that I’m encouraging this, but I expected you’d be off trying to spike the punch by now.”

It was Jeralt. He’d strolled into the classroom with a pile of paperwork in his arms. He obviously had about as much intention of going to the ball as Claude did at the moment.

Claude shrugged his shoulders. He attempted to sound flippant, but he could tell it just sounded forced as he spoke, “Come on, Cap, that old trick’s far too trite for me.”

Jeralt sighed. He dropped his papers down on his podium and turned his attention fully to Claude. “They’ll get over this foolish rumor eventually, Kid, just like they always do.”

Claude nodded. He knew Jeralt was right. He’d reassured himself the same thing plenty of times. But he also knew how easy it was for people to write you off or turn on you because of something they perceived to be true about you, whether there was any merit to it or not.

“. . . You know what they’re saying about me isn’t true, right?”

“Of course I do.” Jeralt answered assertively. “They all probably know it, too, they just want something to talk about.”

All Claude could do was nod again. He wanted to insist he didn’t care what the others thought of him anyway, but given his current demeanor he knew that would be a fruitless endeavor. Still, he did care about Jeralt’s opinion a lot more than he cared about that of most of the other students. So to hear his professor deny the rumors so soundly was somewhat of a relief, at least.

Jeralt seemed to recognize that his words had not quite assuaged Claude’s self doubt. He took another deep breath and placed a hand on Claude’s shoulder. “Listen, Kid. I’m sure this thing will pass. But if it doesn’t for some of them, if they really can’t see the sort of person you truly are, then don’t worry about them. You are a good person. If . . . well, if I had a son, I’d have been proud to see him grow up like you.”

Claude could only stare at his professor, too moved by the words to form a response. 

“Cap, I . . .”

He still wasn’t sure what he wanted to say, but Claude didn’t get a chance regardless. Just then the rest of the Golden Deer burst into the room. They were all dressed in their formal wear and ready for the ball, although he couldn’t say why they weren’t already there.

Here you are,” Hilda said to him, sounding exasperated, “We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“Here I am,” Claude agreed, slightly bemused, “What did you guys need?”

“We’re waiting to go to the ball, obviously.” Leonie answered.

“You didn’t really think we’d go without you, did you?” Hilda asked, tone still exasperated.

“It would hardly reflect well on our class if our house leader was to skip the festivities, after all.” Lorenz said haughtily.

Ignatz was the next to speak up, “Besides, it just wouldn’t be the same without you there."

“I agree,” Lysithea added, “You certainly do bring a particular type of excitement to these sorts of things.”

“And I wish to attend the ball together with my whole class!” Was Flayn’s contribution.

Typically, Raphael’s response was, “Yeah and I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving! So we’d better hurry up before all the food is gone!”

Once again, Claude was speechless. He’d trusted that the other Deer had his back, certainly, but never expected them to go out of their way for him. He’d known from the beginning that they were his classmates here at the Officer’s Academy. Along the way he’d even come to think of them as his teammates. But it was only in this moment that he realized just what else they had become to him. Friends. 

In his defense, it wasn’t easy to recognize a friend when you’d never actually had one before.

Everyone was looking at him expectantly now, obviously eager to go join the party. But Claude was still recovering from his realization. On top of that, Claude had just had an idea, and he didn’t easily let go of things once they were on his mind. Might as well field it now, while he had everyone’s attention.

“Hey, I just thought of something. Let’s all promise to meet back here five years from today.”

“Five years?” Marianne asked softly, “That would be the Millenium Festival, wouldn’t it?”

Lysithea nodded thoughtfully, “Oh, I see. No matter what we’re all doing in the future, that would be the perfect opportunity for us to step away from our responsibilities and meet up with each other again.”

“Oooh like a class reunion? Sounds like fun, I’m definitely in.” Hilda answered gleefully.

“What about you, Captain?” Leonie asked, “You’ll join us too, won’t you?”

All eyes turned to Jeralt. He’d been working away at his paperwork, pretending not to hear their emotional exchange. He seemed momentarily surprised that they’d even remembered his presence. But he was obviously considering the question.

“I don’t like making promises I’m not sure I can keep. It’s hard to know where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing in five years.”

Everyone wilted. Claude fixed on his best fake pout, “Aw come on, Cap, you wouldn’t really leave your precious Golden Deer hanging like that, would you?”

Nine pairs of puppy dog eyes must have been enough to do the trick, because Jeralt let out a deep, resigned sigh, “Fine. As long as I am able to, I will do my best to join you.”

Claude grinned, “Great! Then it’s a promise, so we all better be sure to keep it! Now let’s go, I think we have a party to crash.”


Attending the ball with the rest of the Golden Deer really was fun, more so than Claude would have ever expected. And yet it was still a predictably stuffy event, and before long Claude needed to slip away and distance himself from it all.

He wasn’t really sure what made him come to the Goddess Tower. He’d hardly believed the rumors even before Byleth debunked them properly anyway. But maybe it was the very fact that it was supposed to be forbidden, that the tales more or less dared him to try and sneak up here tonight, that meant he just couldn’t stay away. 

He was on his own, though, no partner to make a wish with. Unsurprisingly Sylvain seemed to have attempted to bring a girl here. Even less surprising, the two of them hadn’t even made it to the top before opting to duck into a dark corner. They were so preoccupied with their extracurricular activities that Claude was able to easily sneak right past them unnoticed.

And now here he was, sitting atop the Goddess Tower, looking up at the stars, alone. At this moment, he couldn’t help but think of Byleth. Maybe the rumors weren’t true and the goddess wouldn’t really just grant your wish, but if Byleth were here she could certainly help make Claude’s dream come true.

More than that though, he realized, he just wanted Byleth here for Byleth. He’d had an enjoyable night laughing, dancing, and celebrating with his friends, but something had been missing. And in his second massive revelation since the evening had started, he recognized that something to be Byleth.

Byleth had started as a potential means to an end for him. He needed her as an important ally to help him achieve his goals. But somewhere along the way she had become something more than that without him evening noticing. Claude didn’t want to manipulate Byleth into helping him. He wanted her here fighting by his side, knowingly, because she believed in his dream too.

Maybe that was the sort of hopeful thinking he had already deemed pointless. And maybe it was even more pointless given that he had no one here to hope for it with him. But maybe right now Byleth was also looking up at the stars wanting to be by his side too. And just maybe that was enough.

A little wishful thinking couldn’t hurt, right?

The next day Claude strolled into the classroom to find Jeralt there alone. His professor nodded at him.

“Hey, Kid. Good timing. There’s something I wanted to discuss with you.”

“Sure thing. What’s up?”

Jeralt shook his head. “Not here. Let’s g--”

But whatever Jeralt was going to suggest he never had a chance to finish. Alois burst into the classroom suddenly. He looked alarmed and appeared to have been running.

“Captain Jeralt, here you are! I’ve been looking all over for you. We have a situation.”

Jeralt cursed under his breath. “We’ll have to finish this later,” he said to Claude before turning his attention fully to Alois, “What’s the problem?”

“There are monsters in the chapel, and students trapped in there with them!”

Jeralt arched an eyebrow, his expression the closest he ever came to looking shocked, “That’s impossible. How could a bunch of monsters have gotten past the perimeter of the monastery without us hearing about it?”

“As far as we can tell the perimeter is secure.” Alois answered, seeming no less confused than Jeralt, “The monsters seem to be coming from inside the chapel.”

“Isn’t that equally impossible?” Claude asked. There was a knot forming in the pit of his stomach. Something about this just didn’t feel right.

Jeralt considered the situation pensively, but only for a brief moment, “I supposed the how isn’t important for now. If students are in danger, what matters is helping them as quickly as possible. We can puzzle out the mystery late. Claude, go find your classmates and all of you meet me there.”

Claude nodded and dashed off to follow his orders.

They really did find the chapel crawling with monsters. As alarming as that was, their class had come a long way since their first encounter with such a beast. Combined with their drive to protect their peers, their skills were more than enough to face this challenge. It didn’t take long to fell one of the beasts, but it did take them by even greater surprise when they did.

“The students. . . are the monsters? How is that possible?” Jeralt asked incredulously as he gazed down at the prone body of the student laying where the monster had stood just a moment before.

“It’s just like with Miklan Gautier.” Claude observed, not that it made the situation make any more sense. It still provided no explanation for how such a thing had occurred; unlike in the case of Miklan, there was no Heroes Relic in play, after all. “But you said to worry about the question of how later, right?”

Claude looked back up to Jeralt, who nodded, “Yes. There are still more students in danger. Let’s take care of the rest of the Demonic Beasts, then we can figure out what’s going on here.”

They were able to do just that, although the knowledge that they’d really been fighting their fellow classmates put a damper on everyone’s spirits. Still, in the end they’d managed to save everyone, including the students who had transformed. Once again unlike Miklan Gautier, they were simply unconscious after their ordeal. The class was just about to head back to get all of the injured students to the infirmary and consider what exactly might have happened here when one last call for help came from inside the chapel.

It was Monica von Ochs.

That knot was forming in the pit of Claude’s stomach again. All of this was far too strange, and the fact that Monica was once again wrapped up in it far too much of a coincidence. Something wasn’t right here. Still, even recognizing that much, Claude was never prepared to see Monica whip out a dagger and stab Jeralt in the back with it just as he was trying to help her to safety.

There was a collective yell throughout the area as the class watched in horror as their professor collapsed to the ground. Maybe it wasn’t the most strategic first response, but Claude quickly loaded an arrow and fired it right at Monica. He wasn’t thinking about how she might be useful for getting information out of or honestly thinking of much at all as he felt his blood boiling. None of that actually mattered though. His arrow never met its mark; before it had the chance another mysterious man had appeared, shielding Monica from his shot and then just as quickly disappearing with her in tow.

Trying to figure out where they had gone would likely prove just as futile as when Solon had pulled the same trick on them. But that hardly mattered at the moment. The confusion had brought Claude back to his sense enough that he realized that was hardly what he needed to be worrying about at the moment. He hurried to Jeralt’s side. 

The Golden Deer all huddled around Jeralt, who was obviously struggling. Leonie cradled his upper body just off of the ground. She was sobbing as she insisted, “Do something, Marianne. You have to heal him!”

“I’m trying . . . I’m sorry, I’m trying!” Marianne shrieked through hysterical sobs of her own. Her hands were shaking as she tried healing spell after healing spell, but it was plain to see none of them were having any effect. 

Throughout all of this Jeralt looked as calm as ever, even as he must realize what was coming. “S-sorry, I didn’t mean to leave you all so soon.” With incredible effort, he turned his head just enough to look right at Claude, “Take care of things for me, will you Kid?”

Claude nodded resolutely, because what else could he do at a moment like this? Just like he had the day they’d both gone to meet Byleth together, Jeralt smiled.

And then he was gone.

Chapter Text

Claude didn’t know what to do with his feelings in the wake of Jeralt’s death.

He was no stranger to death, certainly. He’d had plenty of close encounters of his own with it since he was young. He’d taken the lives of others when he had to. Claude had always had little choice but to live with the guiding principle of kill or be killed. But in spite of all of that, this was the first time he’d really experienced loss.

Some of the others, like Leonie, had barely left their rooms since the incident. But Claude found that sitting still or laying in bed simply wasn’t an option for him. It left him feeling itchy and anxious, full of nervous energy he wasn’t sure what to do with. 

He knew he needed to channel it somewhere, though, which is how he found himself in Jeralt’s office. He still wasn’t sure what he intended to do, what he was looking for if anything, but it was where his feet had carried him. Being here was a strange mix of unsettling and comforting. It still looked for all the world like Jeralt would be back here at any moment. Partially completed paperwork was still strewn across the desk. His satchel was still slung over the back of his chair. Even the flask that Jeralt had been perhaps a little too attached too was left behind. It all created the impression of a place that Jeralt had had every intention of returning to before long.

But now he never would.

Claude wasn’t really sure what he was looking for as he gazed around his professor’s office, but when he saw the few books that were slightly out of place on the bookshelf he knew he had found it. He moved them away to find another book tucked in the back.

Quickly leafing through the pages proved that it was a journal. For a moment Claude hesitated, considering hiding the item back on the shelf and pretending he had never seen it. He’d learned his lesson the hard way about invading Jeralt’s privacy once before, and his professor had obviously chosen to hide this for a reason. It was none of Claude’s business.

Then again, as much as it was painful to think of it this way, it wasn’t as if Jeralt’s privacy mattered all that much anymore. And there could be information contained within the journal that would answer some of Claude’s questions about the church, or at least give him clues to get closer to an answer. And if that was the case, if Jeralt’s writing could bring him closer to solving these mysteries, and in turn closer to achieving his dream of making the world a better place, then wasn’t it better that his professor’s secrets didn’t die with him?

In the end, there was simply no denying Claude’s curious nature. He opened the journal. 

As he first started to read, Claude grew dubious that the journal would be as helpful as he initially hoped. Jeralt was meticulous in his recordings to the point of dullness, making daily recordings of the weather and his simple, mundane tasks. Once Sitri entered the picture the entries became almost exclusively about her. It was hard to imagine his stoic, gruff professor being much of a romantic, but the evidence to the contrary was displayed clearly on the pages before him.

There were entries about Byleth, too, of course. But while they were heartwarming, at first glance they didn’t tell Claude anything about her or about Jeralt that he didn’t already know.

What was curiously absent was any hint of the animosity toward the church, and Rhea in particular, that Jeralt had clearly shown in the time Claude had known him. This was little more than the personal mission log of a perfectly dutiful knight, which did not jive with Claude’s impression of his professor at all. Something obviously changed for Jeralt at some point, and whatever caused that change in him was probably exactly what Claude was looking for.

He skipped ahead to what Claude estimated was around the time Jeralt first left the monastery.

Day 20 of the Horsebow Moon. All is cloudy. I can’t believe she’s dead. Lady Rhea said she died during childbirth, but is that the truth? And still, the child she traded her life for doesn’t make a sound . . . Lady Rhea says not to worry but a baby that doesn’t cry isn’t natural . . . I had a doctor examine the child in secret. He said the pulse is normal but there’s no heartbeat. 

When I told Byleth about the child she was even quieter than normal. Like me, I think she suspects Rhea did something to the baby. If she knows any more than that she didn’t say, although I can hardly begrudge her the silence. Byleth hardly owes me anything, when I’ve done little more for her than be complicit in her imprisonment. Is Rhea’s judgement to keep her here really right?

Day 2 of the Wyvern Moon. Sunny. I feel I must take the child and leave. But the church is always watching us . . . I don’t know what Lady Rhea has planned. I used to think the world of Lady Rhea. Now I’m terrified of her. And what would happen to Byleth if I left?

Day 8 of the Wyvern Moon. More rain. The child was all I had left of Sitri, and now he’s gone as well. I meant to use the fire as a distraction to escape the monastery with the baby, but then it grew out of hand. Lady Rhea is in a state over the news. I’m confident now that her grief is not for the loss of the baby, but whatever she had intended to do with him.

I have no choice but to leave now. Whatever Rhea is planning, I can’t be complacent in it anymore. I must escape the monastery, and find a way to free Byleth from her prison as well. I’ll search the whole world if I have to. She’s all I have left now.

Claude closed the journal, his heart somehow even heavier than it had been when he’d first entered Jeralt’s office. He’d found the answers he was looking for, though it was nothing he might have ever expected.

“if I had a son, I’d have been proud to see him grow up like you.”

Jeralt’s words from the night of the ball rang in Claude’s head, having taken on a whole new meaning, causing a new sort of pang in his chest.

Beyond that, his head was swimming. Jeralt had been trying to free Byleth. He’d told Claude about her and no one else. He’d wanted to talk to Claude about something important before they had to go to the chapel to fight the demonic beasts. And right before he’d died he’d asked Claude to take care of things for him.

This couldn’t be what Jeralt had meant, could it? There was no way he could have predicted that Claude would find his hidden journal, find these particular entries within it, and then correctly interpret his meaning that he wanted Claude to finish what he had started. There were way too many variables that could go awry in that scenario. And yet, Jeralt had to assume that Claude would come digging around in his office for answers. Maybe, with no time left to explain, that had been enough for Jeralt to hope that Claude would reach this point.

Whether that had been the true intention behind his professor’s actions, Claude would never know. But it hardly mattered now. Claude had already wanted to free Byleth for his own selfish reasons, but now he knew he had to find a way, whether she was willing to help him once she was free or not. 

Jeralt had said he was willing to search the whole world for a means to help Byleth escape, and Claude believed he truly had that conviction. That meant the answer had to lie in the one place Jeralt hadn’t been able to search. Right here within the monastery.

“Claude, there you are. I suppose I should have known I’d find you here.”

Claude started; he’d been so caught up in his own racing thoughts that he hadn’t even heard anyone approach. He quickly pocketed the journal and hoped he was fast enough that he wouldn’t be asked any questions about it.

Lorenz was standing in the doorway, looking somber. Claude and Lorenz had never exactly been on good terms, and they definitely weren’t friends, but the past few months had been a particularly low point in their relationship. Lorenz had been one of the most vocal when it came to accusing him of being the Flame Emperor, after all. 

“Just. . . reminiscing.” Claude answered, sidestepping the truth of what he’d been up to without actually lying. He was feeling even more guarded than normal around Lorenz, and might have been quick to worm his way out of this conversation, but he tried to bear in mind that Lorenz was currently grieving too. Still, there was only so much sympathy he could muster, “Did you need me for something?”

Lorenz grew suddenly awkward, breaking eye contact and shifting on his feet, “I just. Wanted to let you know. . . I know Professor Jeralt was very important to you, and you would never work with the sort of people who would harm him, let alone . . . What I mean to say is, I apologize for accusing you of being the Flame Emperor. I know now for certain that you are not him.”

Claude was speechless. He’d thought Ailell would freeze over before he’d ever hear Lorenz apologize for anything. But such an earnest, heartfelt admission was far more than Claude knew how to handle. Lorenz was also having a hard time handling it, if his increasingly visible discomfort was anything to go by.

As much as Claude was deeply moved, he needed to bring this back to territory more comfortable for the both of them. He clutched his hand to his chest, “Why, Lorenz Hellman Gloucester, are you actually admitting to being wrong about something?”

That seemed to do the trick. Lorenz spluttered, his discomfort immediately replaced with indignation, “I’m merely acknowledging that given the most recent evidence I have reevaluated my opinion. I hold that previous information made my suspicions perfectly reasonable.”

Claude laughed, having gotten exactly the reaction he’d been aiming for. But he didn’t want the vulnerability and courage it had taken for Lorenz to talk to him about it to go completely unacknowledged, “I’m just messing with you Lorenz. It means a lot to have your trust, seriously. Thank you.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say I trust you.” Lorenz replied coolly, serious again, “but you’ve proven yourself not to be an enemy, at least for now.”

“I’ll take what I can get, I suppose. Especially since we’re all going to need to work together if we want to get back at said enemy.”

Lorenz arched an eyebrow, “I’m not sure what you mean. The Knights of Seiros have already been dispatched to find and eliminate the enemy. Surely Lady Rhea would never leave such a dangerous task to students, not after seeing Jeralt defeated so easily.”

Claude crossed his arms in front of his chest, “Sure, but are you really satisfied with just leaving it to the knights?”

“I suppose not, though I’m hardly sure what else we’d be able to do about it.”

“Neither am I, that’s why we’ve got to keep our ears to the ground for any information that might help us come up with a plan.”

Lorenz gave him a scrutinizing look, considering the words for a long moment before he replied, “Very well, if you’re going to be scheming anyway I suppose I’d best be a part of it--someone needs to keep an eye on you, after all. If any such plans come to mind, let me know.”

“I promise you’ll be the first to know of any and all brilliant plans that come to mind.”

That was true as far as his plans for revenge went, anyway. Claude was serious when he said the whole class would need to work together to make defeating such a dangerous enemy possible, and they all deserved the closure that would come from doing so.

Claude also had some much bigger plans to start working on, though, and those he would have to keep close to his chest for now.

The first day that class resumed, The Golden Deer all found themselves seated in their classroom as was their norm, though Claude wondered if any of them was really sure why they’d come. It wasn’t as if Jeralt was about to walk through the door and start instructing them.

It might have been their routine, but it certainly didn’t feel right today. Normally the room would be abuzz with chatter while they were waiting for class to begin, but now everyone was quiet. Leonie, who Claude was honestly impressed had even mustered the will to come at all, had her head down on the desk in front of her. Even Raphael, who was generally oblivious to the seriousness of most situations, was uncharacteristically morose. 

Claude sensed that it was his responsibility to do something about it, to try to rally everyone’s spirits. But while he’d come a long way in the leadership department under Jeralt’s tutelage, he didn’t feel even remotely ready for this. What was there to say under these circumstances that would truly help? Claude wasn’t sure, but he knew he had to at least try. He was bracing himself to take his feet and do exactly that when he was stopped by the sound of determined footfalls entering the classroom.

Everyone except Leonie sprung to attention, perhaps momentarily convincing themselves that somehow, miraculously, Jeralt really had arrived to teach them. But of course it wasn’t their professor who walked through the door. It was Seteth.

Seteth approached the front of the room and came to stand behind the podium, acting as if it were not even slightly out of the ordinary for him to do so. He was all business as he began, “Good morning. Thank you all for coming. I know it has been a challenging few days.”

No one said a word in response. Perhaps noticing all of their stares and correctly interpreting the silent question behind them--‘what are you doing here?’--Seteth cleared his throat and continued, “Ah, apologies. I’m sure you must all be wondering why I am here. After some discussion with the Archbishop, it was decided that I would act as head teacher of your class for the remainder of the year, rather than seeking a new staff member straight away.”

His answer did not win anyone over. Still no one said anything. Even Flayn was offering nothing to help shift the mood in her brother’s favor.

Surprisingly, Seteth did not get flustered or upset. Contrary to how Claude had ever seen him before, Seteth softened. He was much more earnest now, “Please do not misunderstand. I have no intention of attempting to replace Jeralt. I know you all felt his loss more strongly than anyone, and that I could not possibly hope to fill such a void. I will not insult you by trying to do so. Instead, know that I am simply here to support you however you need, and that I promise to do my utmost in that regard.”

“Then let us help.”

To everyone’s shock, it was Leonie who had spoken. She was finally sitting up for the first time since Claude had entered the room, and even with her red rimmed eyes she was looking more resolute than ever.

Seteth clearly didn’t know what to say to that, “Beg pardon?”

“We want to help find the people who did this to Captain Jeralt. If you really want to support us, then let us fight too.”

Claude turned his attention back to Seteth to gauge his reaction. Honestly, he didn’t doubt that Seteth was sincere in his desire to help them. But Leonie had just pulled an incredibly impressive power move on him. If he really wanted to prove his sincerity to the Golden Deer he was going to have to back it up with his response to her request. 

Seteth obviously recognized the position he was in and now his more typical flustered manner became apparent, “That’s quite the request. I can understand why you desire such a thing, but I can’t help but question whether--”

“I’m going to have to agree with Leonie on this one,” Claude chimed in before Seteth had a chance to offer any well-crafted excuses, “I’m sure it would help us all get the closure we need. Besides, I for one think Jeralt more than prepared us for this.”

Seteth seemed to be seriously considering their argument, at least, “I can’t discount the training you’ve received these past months, that much is true. Yet I question whether vengeance will really bring you the peace of mind you expect it will.”

“Please, brother. This is important to us.”

That was almost certainly the final nail in the coffin of Seteth’s resistance. He’d time and again proven himself powerless when it came to saying no to Flayn.

“Very well,” Seteth let out a deep, exhausted sigh, “I cannot promise I will get you the results you desire. But you have my word that I will advocate on your behalf to the Archbishop.”

The air in the room finally grew lighter. Seteth had managed to win over the Golden Deer for now.

The next time he was able to sneak away to see Byleth, Claude paused on his way to investigate the pedestal that controlled her barrier. He doubted it would do him much good, especially considering there was almost no chance Jeralt hadn’t already tried to figure the thing out and he’d obviously failed, but it was counterintuitive not to at least try for himself. The effort was just as fruitless as expected though; there was no obvious power source, and no levers or other contraptions that might be used to control it. He even tried the mysterious key he’d found in the ruins of Remire Village, which he had brought along that day for admittedly different reasons but could only admit the two pieces of technology were somehow similar in design. Even that did him no good; there was no place on the pedestal to insert the key and no reaction from the two being in close proximity. 

Claude couldn’t spend too much time dwelling on that today, though. He had a much more pressing, heavier task to face.

Byleth offered one of her tiny but bright smiles when she saw him approach, which had become the norm at this point but only caused the pit in his stomach to grow this time.

“Claude! How was your evening? I hope you didn’t step on too many feet.”

Claude could only stare blankly at her, “Huh?”

Byleth’s tiny smile gave way to confusion, her eyebrows knitting ever so slightly, “You went to the ball, didn’t you?”

Oh right, the ball. Claude had actually forgotten entirely; with everything that had happened since it felt like it had been several lifetimes ago. But he supposed it made sense that it was still fresh on Byleth’s mind. “Oh yeah, I suppose I did.”

His noncommittal response did not alleviate Byleth’s confusion at all, “Well . . . how did it go?”

Claude grimaced. It felt wrong to talk casually about the ball with her while he had the more pressing news weighing heavily on his mind, like he would be withholding it or avoiding the conversation. But he didn’t care to destroy her mood when she was so genuinely interested and excited. In the end, he could only acknowledge that what he had come to say was going to hurt Byleth no matter when he told it to her, and that if he held it in any longer he was sure to burst, “Byleth . . . Jeralt is dead.”

Not his most eloquent delivery, but how did one be eloquent about something like death?

The confusion lingered on Byleth’s face for a moment or two, before it was replaced by an expression he had never seen before--anger. Her eyes narrowed, “That’s not funny.”

On another occasion he might have been frightened to see even the smallest amount of a goddess’ rage directed at him, and maybe he still should be now. But he couldn’t find it in himself this time; Byleth had a right to her response, even if he was just the messenger. “I’m sorry . . . but I hope you know I would never joke about something like this.”

Byleth did not answer straight away. Her expression didn’t budge as she stared at him, as if searching his face for some indication that he was telling her a lie. Claude could only admit that earnesty was not a particular strength of his, but something in his face must have conveyed it to Byleth now. She finally spoke again in a much softer voice, “What happened?”

“He was stabbed,” Claude answered directly. He wasn’t going to do the disservice of sugarcoating it for her, “The weapon used was . . . strange. Faith magic didn’t work on the wound. There wasn’t anything we could do.”

Byleth was still staring, although her attention had shifted away from him. Now her gaze was pointed toward the distance of the lush greenery that surrounded them, whatever she was truly looking at or thinking about unseen by Claude. “I apologize, it’s just. Hard to believe.”

“That’s understandable. I--I was there and yet there’s a part of me that’s still struggling to believe it.”

Byleth didn’t look back at him or respond, still lost in whatever thoughts about Jeralt and his terrible fate had found her. As much as he wanted to let her grieve, Claude had a question he needed to ask her, and he knew he needed to ask it before she was lost any further in her reverie.

“Hey, do you recognize this?” 

He removed the strange key from his pocket and held it out in the palm of his hand for her to see. Her immediate, strong reaction to the sight of it was more than enough to answer his question, “Where did you get that?”

“I found it. I think an enemy dropped it after a battle, one of the people responsible for Jerslt’s death. Ring any bells?”

Byleth’s eyes narrowed, her expression angry again. But this time it was darker somehow, and even though he wasn’t the target of her ire, now he did find himself a little frightened. “The Agarthans.”

It was a name Claude had never heard before, but he could sense that at the moment it wasn’t wise to ask her to elaborate. Even if he thought he could he didn’t have the chance—he’d lost her attention again.

Byleth spoke again; her voice was tinged with barely restrained frustration, and it was obvious her words were not meant for him, “and here I am, trapped in this forsaken place. Powerless to do anything about it once again.”

Claude couldn’t help but feel relieved that she was obviously not seeking a response from him. He had no idea what he could possibly say. He couldn’t even wrap his head around the idea of anyone ever having made Byleth feel powerless.

Byleth’s shoulders sagged, suddenly giving the impression that she was attempting to support the weight of the whole world on them. Claude supposed he had unloaded quite a lot on her today. She sounded almost tired when she told him, “I’m sorry, I think I need to be alone for a while.”

Claude nodded. He knew how much it was to process, and a request for alone time certainly didn’t come lightly from Byleth who typically seemed to loathe the loneliness she lived in. “Of course. I’ll come back soon, then.”

“Claude.” He’d already turned to leave, so he had to pause to face Byleth again when she called out to him. The darkness that had tinged her face and voice before had returned, “They have to pay for this.”