Had to change quite a bit of the story, since the computer that had all my story notes finally died back in January. All written in one sitting, not yet corrected, so probably plenty of typos ahead.

Will be uploading a one-shot I've written that serves as a prequel (of sorts) to this story, but it's a little dicey because it's written in second person POV, and from what I vaguely understand of FFN site rules that's banned (no idea how that came to be). My fics are cross-posted onto AO3, so check it out there if it gets deleted or if I get banned, or something.

Ah, enough about that. Here's the chapter, and hoping that it at least makes more sense than my first year report that will have to be written with only a few months' worth of experimental data (good job, coronavirus).


Chapter 12: Benthos

Benthos: n. (ecology) the flora and fauna found on the bottom, or in the bottom sediments, of a sea or lake.


Question 8. An enemy force is besieging Garreg Mach Monastery. You are a sniper participating in its defence, stationed up on the walls at an elevation of twenty-three metres. You have been provided with a variety of bows for you to choose from. Assuming that all bows are constructed using elm of identical quality and Wyvern sinew bowstrings of identical draw-weight, discuss:

The factors that may affect maximum distance travelled by an individual arrow.

The relative advantages and disadvantages of choosing between a standard-issue longbow, recurve bow and reflex bow. Suggest, with reasoning, the material composition of your favoured bow if allowed free choice over its construction.

The angle in which you would aim your arrow, making reference to the Arrow Paradox. Show all your calculations clearly.

Ashe fought down the urge to groan. All around him, his fellow students were currently hard at work at their own certification exams. He'd probably passed the practical test with flying colours, having landed most of his shots on target (a feat he could hardly have replicated just a few moons ago), but Byleth's training hadn't prepared him for this.

Seriously, wasn't this for defensive strategy? Who would have time to make the necessary calculations during an actual siege? Questions like these seemed more along the lines of what Annette would enjoy. For someone who was looking to become a Warlock, she certainly knew a lot about the finer theoretical details of archery.

Come to think of it, hadn't he asked Annette a similar question a few days prior? What had it been; something about a ballista inside a castle and the angle that should be used?

He was so grateful toward Annette for explaining how the physics of it worked. He didn't fully understand everything, but it should hopefully be enough to satisfactorily answer this question. Quickly, he wrote down the answers to the question in as much detail as he could, then continued on with the rest of the exam.

Only two questions remained. At least those two seemed simpler. In the end, calculating flight trajectories when already being given variables, factors and constants was just a matter of simple trigonometry.

Of course, that didn't mean that he actually enjoyed working out such theoretical considerations. It wasn't as though that group that had killed Lonato, attacked the Holy Mausoleum, and then kidnapped Flayn would stop and quiz him on the air resistance of his shots. More than likely, it'd come down to a contest of whether the end of a lance would find his heart before his own arrow buried its way into their skulls.

His face darkened, and his expression turned steely. No. He had no time for such idle thoughts. This – all of this – was so he could become a Bow Knight as quickly as possible, and uncover the truth behind all these mysteries that Byleth had promised to reveal. His annoyance numbed down, he returned to the work at hand, methodically working his way through the equations.

When it was finally over, he heard the loud grumbling of the other students that had chosen to take their certification exams that weekend. Most wouldn't have expected to pass, seeing as most students from the Monastery only earned their Advanced Class when they were close to graduation. It was still only the Verdant Rain Moon, after all.

Still, Ashe could not afford to wait that long. He needed to improve and to become a Bow Knight. There was no other choice. He needed for Byleth to recognise that he was ready to take the fight to Lonato's murderers, and if it meant having to work tirelessly for this certification exam then so be it.

Of course, certification exams weren't perfect in measuring actual skill in combat. It was one thing to know the theoretical basis for choosing different bows, and another thing entirely to have the draw-strength needed to effectively wield a reflex bow. His interest in becoming a Sniper was in learning some of the techniques available only to those of a chosen Class, that would be of significant benefit in improving his performance in combat. Besides, theoretical knowledge of what he was supposed to do would translate well into his progression during training.

He rubbed at his mildly aching shoulder. Three hours of gruelling writing had taken its toll. He shuddered to think what it would have been like nary a few moons back, before he had taken up archery with renewed determination.

"Man…" Ashe turned at the disappointed sigh, only to find a glum Raphael slowly putting away his pencils back into his bag. "That exam was hard, huh Caspar?"

"Eh?" Caspar asked, surprised at being addressed. "Well… I wasn't too sure about question twelve, but I think Byleth mentioned something about muscle synergies and variations in grappling techniques in relation to different body habitus?"

"Was that the answer?" Raphael's despair only deepened. "Oh no…"

"Hey, don't sweat it, Raphael!" Caspar said quickly. "I saw you in the practical exam! You aced it completely!"

"You think?" Raphael looked at him hopefully.

"Yeah! I'm sure you passed!"

"Daww, thanks, Caspar!" Raphael grinned, a hand behind his head in mild embarrassment. "Say, all that thinking's made me hungry! How about we grab some lunch and then go for a quick spar?"

Grappler talk. Ashe tuned them out. He'd seen the pair duking it out many times on the training grounds, and after learning about how he and Byleth had begun training before classes, they had taken to arriving at progressively earlier times in friendly competition over training. He was fairly certain that they would both do fine in their exams.

"You're looking contemplative over there," Claude noted, lazily slinging his satchel over his torso. "Don't fry your brains out over that exam."

Claude had also increasingly started to join in on the morning training sessions, particularly when they focused on archery. He wasn't too keen on training with lances and riding, saying that he far preferred firing arrows form atop a Wyvern than while mounted on a horse, but Ashe had been surprised by how dedicated he was in joining their sessions. For all that Claude seemed to be laid back, he clearly was a driven individual.

There was no denying his skill with a bow, too. For all the effort that Ashe had put in recently, Claude had always been a step ahead of him. Whatever training he had prior to joining the Officer's Academy had already laid out the basic framework for solid archery, and Ashe was only now playing catchup.

"Not in a talkative mood today, huh?" Claude continued, as they walked toward the door. "You know, I've seen you and little Teach at the training grounds even more than I've seen Raphael."

"I'm trying to catch up with everyone else," Ashe finally replied. "Everyone else in my House has got plenty of experience in combat, and well, I…"

He trailed off. As much as he hated to admit it, he was a little envious of his peers. Prince Dimitri and Dedue had trained since the time they were children. Felix, Sylvain and Ingrid had worked diligently as they grew up among the nobility, excelling with their weapons of choice ever since Ashe had first known them. Mercedes and Annette were both well-versed in sorceries and magical theory of all forms from their prior education in the Royal School of Sorcery.

In comparison, he was... well, he was but an orphaned thief, only surviving because of one man's generosity and magnanimity. The first time he had ever held a bow had been in the few moons of frenzied training he had prior to enrolling in the Officer's Academy.

All that, combined with all their natural talent and his own lack of one, meant that he needed to work doubly – no, triply – as hard as them. Sure, Mercedes might gently chastise him for thinking so negatively, but all he saw was the bridge of competencies between him and the rest of his House, one that he needed to quickly work at remedying. He knew that she didn't mean it, and he could hardly hold a grudge against someone like her, but her complimenting his talent when he had confessed to his thoughts regarding his own inadequacies stung worse than outright agreeing with him.

Thankfully, Byleth had proven to be an excellent mentor in that regard. He was practical and direct, never once falsely complimenting his skills. Some might call his methods overly brusque and harsh, but Ashe would gladly welcome all the criticism he could get.

Claude snorted, and the jarring sound dragged him forcefully out of his contemplation. Damn it. Inattentiveness like that would get him killed. Byleth had repeatedly drilled that point into his brain during their training sessions, and still he allowed his mind to wander.

"You think you've got no experience in combat?" Claude spoke, and Ashe was surprised to see that he looked almost serious, for once. "You launched – what, thirteen arrows out of fifteen right on target, from a distance of a hundred fifty metres?"

"Twelve," he corrected automatically. "The fifth shot was five centimetres off-mark."

"Wow, such horror. That means the arrow cuts straight through parietal and occipital lobes rather than embedding straight through the middle of the target's brain. Truly, a disgrace," Claude retorted dryly. Ashe blinked, caught unaware by Claude's sudden use of proper nomenclature mixed in equal measure with sarcasm. "What? You don't expect me not to have picked up a thing or two when all you and little Teach do is discuss stuff like this during your daily morning rendezvous?"

"No, I didn't mean –"

"Relax, Ashe. It was a joke." Claude sighed, rubbing at the side of his head tiredly. "Really, I should introduce you to Lysithea one day. How both of you can put in so much effort into your studies while still remaining so glum, I can never understand."

Lysithea? Ashe hadn't interacted with her much, beyond that first joint training session that Byleth had held many moons ago, before they'd even gone on their first mission. He did see her in the library often, though, whenever he went to look up a reference text or to borrow a few books to read during his downtime, but she had always been engrossed in a tome of her own.

Several tomes, in fact. She'd always been at the same table in the library each time he saw her, completely absorbed in the material of her study, looking as though she hadn't had a good night's sleep for months. He knew that Byleth was concerned for her, but Ashe didn't think it was his place to pry for the reason why.

"Well, don't let me hold you up," Claude said, gesturing nonchalantly with his thumb toward the corridor once they left the room. "Knowing you and little Teach, I'm betting you've already got a training session planned?"

Ashe nodded slowly. They were supposed to be working on lances today, after weeks of training focussing on archery in preparation for this examination. He still couldn't fight anything close to how Dimitri, Sylvain or Ingrid fought, but at least he no longer tripped over his own feet like he had the first time he held a lance.

"Man, you two really need to lighten up." Claude sighed again, but then looked at Ashe with utmost seriousness. "Say, Ashe. I know we don't know each other all that well, but help me keep an eye out for little Teach, alright?"

Now was his turn to snort. Look out for Byleth?

"If there's something Byleth can't handle, I'm not sure I'm in much of a position to help."

"It's not about that," Claude denied. "Little Teach… he's taking on a lot more than he should. Teach doesn't say it, but I know he's worried about him. The rest of us are, too. You saw how he was like after everything at the Holy Mausoleum."

That gave Ashe room for pause. Professor Eisner was worried about Byleth? Come to think of it, Ashe had never seen Byleth ever truly relax before. When he wasn't helping with Ashe's training or those of the other students, or engaging in patrols with Alois as per his duties as a squire, he was always either partaking in his own drills or poring over obscure texts in the library. When had been the last time he'd even seen Byleth take the time to eat a proper meal?

And after the Death Knight had attacked the Golden Deer during the Goddess' Rite of Rebirth… Goddess knows just what had been going through Byleth's mind. Even bedbound, with more injuries than Ashe could fathom, he'd apologised to him for being unstable to assist with what should have been his own independent training.

Yeah, he could see what Claude was driving at. If Ashe was already exhausted by his present routine, he could hardly comprehend how Byleth could keep that up. Once he got the basics of lancework out of the way, he really should start seeing if Ingrid or Sylvain were willing to help offer some pointers, to help free up some of Byleth's time.

He would have asked Prince Dimitri for help, but he didn't seem to be his usual self ever since the accident at the training ground some time back. Outside of classes, he kept his distance from the rest of his classmates, and in the few moments where Ashe had taken a good look at the prince, he seemed almost to be lost. He understood that well, seeing as how he'd been in a similar situation for weeks following Lord Lonato's assassination.

That wasn't something to think about now, however. Sylvain said that he would make sure that Prince Dimitri didn't take things too far, and that Ashe didn't have to worry.

"I'll look out for him," he promised. "Don't worry. I'll let you know if something comes up during our training sessions."

"Thanks, Ashe," Claude said, patting him on the shoulder, then nodded, the playful spark returning to his eyes once more. "Good chat."

Well, that was something. He shook his head, as the sound of Claude's whistling faded into the distance. He began making his way toward the training grounds, readying himself for what was undoubtedly going to be a harsh few hours of practice.

Pain and exhaustion didn't matter. Lord Lonato must have faced far worse. One way or another, with Byleth's help or with those of his classmates – even working independently, if it came down to it – he would become a Bow Knight, and he would make damned sure that those monsters were brought to justice.

-o-o-o-

"You're proposing we increase the scale of the Battle of the Eagle and Lion?"

Byleth skimmed over the scattered pieces of parchment laid out on the table before him, a large and well-annotated map taking centre-stage. Truthfully speaking, it wasn't anything he hadn't seen before, since the Gronder Field was a territory he had come to know well from countless strategy meetings on the sides of the Empire, Kingdom and Alliance, and they needed every advantage in a time of war.

This, however, was not yet the war that would grip Fódlan in a stalemate for years. For a training exercise, the boundaries and scale of troops for the proposed upcoming Battle was honestly staggering. He didn't think that the Church had offered that many resources to stage what was essentially a mock war game in past lives.

"Succinctly put, Byleth," Seteth said, nodding. "Indeed. After the discussions that we have had, and the plans we have already put into motion, I believe that the logical next step is to nurture our students and future wartime leaders and ready them for what is undoubtedly going to be a war with our old enemies. We have already been caught on the back foot, and though we do not know when they will strike, we must be ready when the time comes. I have already briefed Professor Jeralt, but I would value your input as well."

Don't get him wrong, Byleth liked the idea. His former students were progressing rapidly in their development. Ever since things had begun to wind down after Flayn's kidnapping and rescue, Seteth, Jeralt and himself had been hard at work putting their own plans into action. Thus far, they had agreed to keep discuss things privately between themselves for the time being, until they could be more certain of the Agarthans' plans. For once, Byleth had no prior experience to draw upon, and could only postulate what they were currently plotting at based on what he knew of them from countless past lives.

For his part, he continued on his lectures on military strategy, drawing on a long list of skirmishes and veritable sieges he'd been privy to on both sides of Edelgard's campaign. It was obvious that he was beginning to draw suspicion from Edelgard, given that his so-called hypothetical scenarios were uncannily similar to what she might have come up with on her own. He needed to keep it up, to have her remain distracted, so that she wouldn't be able to focus on her role as the Flame Emperor.

Then again, was she still being kept in the loop by Thales and the Agarthans? Without Jeritza or Kronya around, transmission of information couldn't be easy. Had her own loyalties been tested as well, given the more drastic measures that her allies had taken with Flayn's kidnapping? After all, she had personally denied having ties with the massacre at Remire Village in all his past lives, since senseless slaughter was never part of her plan.

Already, his training was starting to bear some fruit. Ashe, among several others, had achieved his Advanced Class certification after his examination two weeks ago. Now, he had taken to training his skills with riding and with mounted combat diligently. Better yet, Byleth had more than once seen him working with Ingrid and Sylvain, and to his surprise Ferdinand, sometimes even in the hours before Byleth's personal training. He had no idea what had spurred on this sudden change, but he would hardly turn away this pleasant surprise. Their ability to cooperate seamlessly with one another would be invaluable in seeing them through the war, and fostering relations with the Adrestian noble was always welcome.

Similarly, Caspar and Raphael were now regular sparring buddies, both of them having become Grapplers in the same examination as Ashe. Their methods of fighting were completely different, given their contrasting physiques, but still they managed to temper each other's technique. Given how often he had seen them together outside of classes, it seemed that they were quickly becoming close friends.

Yes… that was good. Building up such relations between members of different Houses might just delay Edelgard's attack on the monastery, buying them all precious time to prepare.

"Do you have any thoughts of your own, Byleth?"

He eyed the map before him. Unlike past battles, the scope of the battle had expanded to incorporate some of the nearby natural environment. While the familiar fortification that housed the ballistae whose range covered nearly the entirety of the field was still placed at the centre, the boundaries of the battlefield now included the base of a nearby mountain, forests, vast grasslands and more.

Considering that the proposed plan was for each House to be given charge of five hundred troops, complete with the logistics needed to support such an army for the potential of several days of battle, he could see why the battlefield had to similarly be expanded. Still…

"How are you planning to provide that many soldiers, though?" he queried. "We agreed that the monastery had to be kept defended at all times. Would there still be enough knights left at their posts?"

"Rest assured, Byleth. We have already taken that into consideration." Seteth reached for another scrap of parchment. Byleth scanned it rapidly, his brow rising with each sentence. "As it says, your father has already reached out to and secured the services of several mercenary companies. Together with the knights already present in the monastery and those that will return with Catherine and Shamir, we will be able to maintain our defence over the monastery."

He hadn't successfully received help from mercenaries in the past, but he supposed that his father knew just where to look for the right resources. With those bolstered numbers…

"That leaves roughly a thousand soldiers behind in the monastery," he said, contemplating carefully. "Gronder Field is a day's march away. Even if they should attack, we will at least be able to mobilise for a counterattack quickly enough."

"That is our reasoning. We should not have any cause for worry regarding the logistics of our troops," Seteth agreed. "Do you have any comments on the other arrangements?"

He peered over the rest of the notes. Troop positions, local environments and sites of strategic value stared back at him. He considered the information carefully, both from what was presented on paper and what he knew from personal experience, having fought on that same battleground many times over.

"I'd suggest opening up the territory here for the Battle as well," he finally said, pointing to one corner of the map. "It provides natural cover from the ballistae, much like the mountain range to the southeast. It gives more room for strategic manoeuvres by other Houses from the one taking hold of the central encampment."

"Hmm," Seteth mused. "Yes, I see your point. It does provide a more even playing field for all of the three Houses. You certainly have an eye for tactics, Byleth."

Hah. His appreciation for sound strategy had been won through blood. The only reason he suggested it was because he had hidden out in that same area many lives past.

"You'll be asking Rhea for permission, then?"

Seteth nodded. "I will need to make arrangements to incorporate these changes, but that is correct."

"Remember, Seteth," he warned. "Rhea… she cannot know of the truth. Not yet."

Rhea was temperamental, was the best way to put it. For all that she genuinely cared for those under her charge, being confronted with the failure of Sothis' return and the string of betrayals by those she trusted – Edelgard and Jeritza foremost among them – tended to cause her to turn down a darker path, bringing about a return of a vengeful Saint Seiros.

"Of course," Seteth agreed. "As much as it pains me to keep Lady Rhea in the dark… I understand the necessity of it. Until the time that you and the Professor are in agreement as to whether to include her among our number, I will not betray the trust you have given unto me."

"Thanks, Seteth," Byleth said gratefully. With that matter settled, it was time to ask about one of his personal curiosities he hadn't yet had the time to follow up on. "And Flayn? Is she still with Linhardt?"

Seteth sighed, more vexed than he'd seen the older man be since his daughter's kidnapping. "Flayn… Flayn is alright, thankfully. It appears that her Crest has returned."

"Isn't that good news?" Why did Seteth sound so annoyed?

"It is. However, the heir of House Hevring now appears to be more fascinated with her than ever before."

Ah. He could see the problem there. Seteth… well, he tended to be slightly overprotective.

"He means well, I can assure you."

Ailell-damned, he doubted he could ever recall a time where the idea of romance had even crossed Linhardt's mind. Sure, he grew close to others in past lives, but that had been the result of Crest-fascination and a healthy dose of aggressive pursuit and reciprocation on the part of the other party.

"I know," Seteth sighed. "That is precisely what bothers me. Part of me wants to drag him away from Flayn, while the other part hopes that he can give her as close to a normal life as possible for one of our kind, especially given her – given the ordeal she has gone through."

More than a moon had passed, but the kidnapping still clearly weighed heavily on his mind. From what little interaction with Flayn that he had been able to squeeze out in his limited time, however, she seemed to be recovering well.

"Don't worry about it. I could go check up on them, if you want," he offered. "Library again, I'm guessing?"

Seteth nodded. "That boy devours more tomes than a Queen Loach does its food."

…well, Seteth must be at least slightly fond of Linhardt, if he was making that kind of comparison. Byleth knew just how seriously Seteth took to fishing.

"It is growing late, however. Are you sure you have the time to spare?" Seteth followed on, as he picked up the bundle of scrolls that he had prepared for his proposal to Rhea. "You do have another lecture to give early on the morrow."

"I'll be fine," he insisted. Most of his lectures were just made up on the spot, anyway. He didn't need much planning, given that he'd lived through all those battles in the past. "Besides, I wanted to check up on Lysithea, anyway. It's been some time since I spoke to her."

"Ah… her condition." Seteth's concern was on open display. "How is she? Regrettably, I have not yet found any information that may be of use."

"She's still tired and overworked," Byleth said, annoyed. "Honestly, she really needs to understand that this isn't something she can handle alone."

Despite repeated nagging from his part and from those of the Golden Deer, she still forced herself to carry on with her research well into the night. He wouldn't be surprised if she'd already cleared her way through the vast majority of the library's books.

Seteth laughed, and the thought of that was so outlandishly insane that Byleth had to take a moment to confirm that he hadn't simply imagined it.

"This, coming from the man who faced dozens of foes a few moons back with nothing but a sword by his side? The same man who fought down the Death Knight, and then rushed headfirst into danger against Solon all by himself, and then later to Zonado?" Seteth responded to the questioning look Byleth sent him. "Are you really sure you should be lecturing her on that point, Byleth?"

"Tch," Byleth made a sound, snorting. "You get my point. Besides, I had it all under control. She doesn't."

"I really would not classify the sort of injuries you sustained in the Holy Mausoleum as anything close to being 'under control', Byleth."

Bah. At least this meant that Seteth trusted him, if he was speaking so candidly with him.

"I'll see you later, Seteth," he said instead, bringing their conversation to a close. He'd been lectured enough on that point; he really didn't need to hear it all again.

"Take care."

With that, he exited Seteth's quarters that now served as their little operations base of sorts, and began heading toward the library.

Though a section had been closed off courtesy of the damage caused by the battle between Solon and himself, repairs had taken place surprisingly quickly. Some priceless tomes had been regrettably lost, but they were fairly cheap in comparison to saving Flayn's life. From what he remembered of reading them in past lives, that section covered obscure myths pertaining to the Monastery, anyway.

Seriously, an underground city known as Abyss? Who could ever believe that? He had given a passing search of the area in one of his early lives after reading that book, but never uncovered any useful information. Even if Abyss truly did exist, it honestly didn't factor into his present considerations, since as far as he knew it had no impact on the war to come.

Lysithea was at her usual spot, the table that allowed her a view of the entire library. She would never admit it to him at present, but in past lives she had revealed the reason why she chose it upon his return to Fódlan during the war. Claude's guess of her keeping an eye out for ghosts wasn't far off the mark, it seemed.

He spotted Flayn and Linhardt, the latter pestering the girl with an unmatched enthusiasm. Flayn seemed to be equally drawn into the conversation, politely and patiently answering each of his queries (and based on how many sheets of parchment lay on their table, there were a lot of them), and neither of them seemed to have noted his presence yet. He set them aside for now, heading over toward Lysithea, who only now noticed his presence.

Well, she at least looked slightly better than she did before the events at the Holy Mausoleum. Still, though, she was taxing herself immensely.

"Lysithea," he greeted, pulling aside the chair at her table. "Mind if I join you?"

She looked at him for a moment, before relenting. "Sure," she said, then hesitated. "Claude didn't put you up to this, did he?"

"Claude?" he asked, surprised. "No, I haven't spoken to him since last week's lecture."

"Good," she said, temporarily taking a well-overdue break from her research, finally now putting down the quill in her hand. "Sorry about that. It's just that after he sent Raphael and Hilda to check up on me, and then Ashe a few days ago, I can't be too careful."

"Ashe did?" He didn't think that Claude and him had gotten so close, but then again he didn't much pay as close attention to his students' affairs as he did in previous lives. How he ever had the time to go so far as to play matchmaker in his very first few lives, he never knew. "Never mind, that. They're all worried about you, you know."

"They don't need to be," she snapped, but even that lacked the usual fire it had. "I'm fine. I can do this on my own."

"You do remember what I told you all those moons back, right?"

She stiffened, then turned her challenging gaze away from his. "I know…"

"Come on," he sighed tiredly at her continued refusal to ask for help. "We've been over this before, Lys. Solving this unifies Reason and Faith theory."

"Lys?" she repeated curiously.

He cursed silently. This Lysithea wasn't the same one who he had spent countless sleepless nights with fruitlessly attempting to reverse-engineer and take apart Agarthan magic. Nor was it the one who helped him perfect his Agnea's Arrow. Nor was it the Lysithea who he had a friendly competition going on over who could cast the most consecutive spells most quickly.

Those Lysitheas were dead. Gone. The only Lysithea that mattered now was the one sitting across from him, waiting impatiently for his reply.

"Sorry. Old habit. Blame Claude."

"He calls me Lys?"

"Only occasionally. Don't worry about it," Byleth said. Hopefully, Claude would never know how he had just thrown the blame onto him. "More importantly, though – have you had any luck, Lysithea? Otherwise, I'm going to have to drag Hanneman into this, as we agreed."

He stared down her immediate protests before it even took hold. This was his teacher look, one he had perfected for use with an unruly student many times over.

"I have conjectures," she finally said, ignoring his threat.

"Really?" he asked, excitement blossoming within immediately. "What are they?"

She didn't reply immediately, folding away a page in her notebook before closing it. "Before that, though, I want to ask about anything you have come up with."

He hesitated. Much of what he had was still based on very brief discussion with Seteth and even more flimsy guesswork, but he had a hypothesis of his own.

"I don't have any concrete formulation to prove it, but I'm now working under the possibility that the Crests of Charon and Gloucester are incompatible," he said slowly. He knew that black magic was still possible even with two Crests, as Edelgard could attest to. He had glimpsed her casting a Fire just a few days back. "I looked into the records of past wielders of those Crests. While none offered much solid evidence, the Crest of Charon appears to boost martial prowess, while that of Gloucester amplifies magical ability. I'm now looking into the possibility of whether such incompatibility can be backed by existing literature on magical theory."

Unexpectedly, rather than the excitement he had anticipated as her reaction, she slumped over on the table, rubbing at her eyes tiredly. "You too, huh?" she sighed, then withdrew a stray piece of parchment among the countless many already lying on the table. "Don't bother."

That's…

"Theodel's Model of Magical Symmetry?" he spoke, recognising the equations haphazardly scrawled on the paper.

"You know about that?" Lysithea asked, momentarily surprised, before slumping over once more. "Of course you do. Why am I not even surprised anymore? I had to search for weeks before finding that tucked away in Gremory Athol's Encyclopedia Magica."

Funny. He'd read it from the same book, too. Probably even the same copy placed in this library.

"But how does it link?" he quickly followed up, thoughts running through his mind. He hadn't been keeping his knowledge of magical theory as refreshed as he'd like it to be in this life, but he was still a Mortal Savant, Warlock and Dark Knight, among other titles.

"Grendel's Third Law."

"Conservation of magical momentum?" he translated absentmindedly, then eyed several pieces of paper whose inscriptions had caught his eye. "Those matrices…"

Dark magic on one side. Black magic on another. White magic made another central pile.

When presented like that, along with what she had already outlined, the reason why she didn't sound at all surprised by his proposal was blindingly obvious.

"They're dissymmetrical," he breathed. "Dark and White Magic. Their arrays give a net magical vector, even if your Crests are anathema to each other when placed in their respective spell-circles. Black Magic operates on true Theodelic symmetry for resonance-boosting of its magical effects, and so…"

"Boom," she concurred, a small plume of pathetic Fire coming from the Black Magic spell. "It annihilates."

"But then that means… even your Dark Magic isn't at its true potential?" he asked, equally incredulous and awed. This was the Gremory who could already blast aside ranks of knights with a single spell. "Sure, based on these spell formulae – at present, there's still a net effect of eighty to ninety percent of the spell taking hold –"

"Seventy-eight for Miasma. Eighty-three for Swarm. Seventy-two for Luna," she corrected. "I've done all the calculations, right down to five decimals."

"But that – that's amazing, Lys!" the words rushed out from his mouth, uncaring that he just used her nickname once more, as he greedily flipped through the pages of her offered notebook. "This is formal proof – now we just need to –"

He paused. Something gnawed at him.

"Lysithea von Ordelia," he said slowly, staring at her unblinkingly. "How long have you been holding onto this knowledge?"

Her only reply was a muffled sound.

"What was that?"

"…six weeks."

"Goddess damn it," he sighed with annoyance both fond and genuine, leaning back into his chair. It took a few seconds before he could gather his thoughts. "Why haven't you told anyone?"

"I can do this on my own –"

"You can remove a Crest on your own?" he interrupted harshly. "Because to me, short of reinventing every single magical sigil in existence into linear constructs to bypass symmetry and thereby opening a new branch of magic entirely, removing your Crest of Charon seems to be the most obvious solution."

"No, but –"

"Then don't do it on your own." He placed a hand on her shoulder, and she stiffened. "You're gifted at magical theory, Lysithea. You uncovered all this on your own, through sheer talent and that unerring determination of yours. Crest and Faith theory isn't your forte. It's alright to ask for help."

Though she hated being treated as a child, at times like these, Byleth didn't know any other way to get it through that stubborn mind of hers that this was not her curse alone to bear.

"No one can know about –"

"They don't need to know all the details. We don't even need to talk about your two Crests."

"It's my problem –"

"Well, too bad," he said flatly. This had gone on for long enough. "Besides, I have it on good authority that removing a Crest is actually possible."

Abruptly, her protests faded into nothingness.

"What?!"

"Yup," he said. "Seen it myself."

With that, he dragged her by the hand up onto her feet, ignoring the indignant yelp coming from her. Conveniently, Flayn and Linhardt were looking over at them at the sudden outburst.

"Hey, Linhardt! Flayn!" he shouted. At this hour of the night, the entire library was empty save for the four of them. "Lysithea here needs help with her Crest!"

"Did you just say Crest, Byleth?" Linhardt immediately questioned.

"Yeah. Charon, to be exact," he continued saying, ignoring how Lysithea was squirming uncomfortably, trying to pry his hand away from hers. "It interferes with her Black Magic. She needs it removed."

"Byleth, did you say removed?" Flayn shivered for a moment, no doubt remembering just what had happened to her, but then looked at Lysithea sympathetically. As always, there was nothing but genuine support and empathy from the child-like Nabatean.

"Well, removed, or at least dampened," Byleth corrected. "Lysithea's too stubborn to ask for help, so I'm going to be forcing her to make friends with you two. Is that alright?"

"Of course!" Flayn nodded readily, already pulling aside a chair for Lysithea. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Lysithea!"

"Removing a Crest?" Linhardt was still muttering to himself. "An interference with Black Magic? But then –" Abruptly, he yelped, bolting upright, and stared at Lysithea with wide eyes. "Does this have to do with your two Crests?!"

Byleth blinked.

Well, Linhardt had been the one to figure it out first, but he never suspected he would have known about that this early on.

"How did you –" she blurted out immediately, then glared accusingly at Byleth. "You told him?"

"I didn't!" he quickly denied. "Linhardt –"

"Aha!" he continued triumphantly. "I knew it! My intuition was correct!"

"You – you tricked me?"

"Trick is such a strong word. I prefer an educated hypothesis," he corrected, leaning in closer toward her. "But enough about that! Please, tell me everything!"

Lysithea squirmed helplessly, looking over at Byleth. The previous accusation was now lost, and in its place was confusion and uncertainty. He shrugged.

"Will you three be alright on your own?"

"Of course, of course," Linhardt spoke distractedly. "What a splendid evening, isn't it, Flayn? All that discussion about your Crest, and now this! And to think that my wild hypothesis was correct! It's like – like casting a line and thinking you've landed the Big One, but then you reel it in and it's Seteth!"

Byleth blinked once, and then again, before deciding that it wasn't worth deciphering just what he meant when he was in this state.

"Linhardt!" Flayn scolded, then looked at Lysithea apologetically as she looked genuinely unsure of just how to react to what was going on. "Sorry about that. Linhardt is just very excitable when it comes to Crests."

"Well, have fun, you three. I'll catch up with you later, alright?"

"Byleth!" Lysithea called out, equally in warning and nervousness.

"You are departing so soon?" Flayn seemed mildly saddened at that. He really needed to find the time to have a chat with her and Seteth at some point.

"Take care!" Linhardt took a moment to reply, before turning back to Lysithea. "Now, then…"

He had initially considered whether or not to stay, of course, but then decided against it. Lysithea had uncovered all this on her own. Linhardt was the expert on Crests here.

While he did genuinely want to know just what he could come up with given the present information, he knew that his presence would only serve to halt sorely-needed interaction between Lysithea and her peers. He knew, courtesy of Claude's interventions in past lives, that Lysithea had to be thrown into the metaphorical wolves before she even considered making friends with others.

Well, the night was still young. Initially, he'd thought that he might have had the time to discuss magical theory with Lysithea for a few more hours to work on what he thought to have been a novel theory, but it seemed that she had things covered on her own. In that case, he may as well get some training in.

Of course, he wasn't going to be that lucky. When he arrived at the training grounds, it quickly became clear that he wasn't alone. That was surprising, because even Felix and now Ashe knew the value of taking a proper night's rest.

It all soon became clear, however, once he saw just who it was training in complete solitude.

Well, he already had a sincere chat with one former student. What was one more?

-o-o-o-

Blood.

The sight used to fill only his nightmares, but now his waking moments too were haunted by it. He could see them – in the corners of his vision, in the cracks in the walls, in the fires of the braziers that adorned the monastery's walls. Glenn. Father. The knights.

For a time, he had thought himself to be free from the horrors of Duscur. For months, he had believed that things could truly return to how they had been before.

Then, he had lost control, nearly killed a friend in what was supposed to have been a friendly training exercise, and he knew that Felix had been right all along. He truly was nothing more than a savage beast.

At least the voices were somewhat silenced, now. He didn't think he could stand to hear more of their pleading and demands for things he couldn't even begin to make sense of. Their scornful looks and judgmental stares as he still failed to deliver on their final requests were already taking their toll.

How long had it even been since the day he had injured Edelgard? Weeks? Months? The fact that it was an accident didn't matter. Were it not for Byleth's readiness and timely intervention, he would have been no worse than the monsters that had slaughtered his coalition of nobles and knights at Duscur.

He had merely been going through the motions day by day for some time. Professor Hanneman's lectures were easy enough to follow that they distracted him from the spectres of the dead sitting among his peers in the classroom. Even the previous mission that had been assigned to the Blue Lions had been remarkably simple; a mere patrol task within the Kingdom's territory. Were Lady Rhea and the others within the Church wary that he might lose control once more? If so, he had to thank them; the last thing he wanted was to claim the life of another because of his mistakes.

Heh. And to think that he'd previously told Felix that he couldn't fathom why his childhood friend hated him so. More than everyone else, Felix had seen so clearly through the act that Dimitri didn't even know he had been putting up.

He didn't quite know what the others in his House thought about him. Were his other childhood friends equally wary of him? Had Mercedes and Annette come to resent him as well? And what of Ashe, who he'd seen training diligently with an unmatched intensity?

Did it even matter what they thought of him? Did someone like him even truly deserve to be the leader of the Blue Lions?

Dedue remained ever loyal to him, but he at least respected his request to have some space for himself for the past few weeks. It was only during moments like this, in the dead of night when there wasn't even a remote chance that he could hurt someone, that he dared pick up his lance to train.

As always, as the blood raged in his veins and his breaths quickened with each swing, he heard them once more.

Avenge us.

Flee! Run! Run, Prince Dimitri!

Dimitri! Run! I'll hold them off!

Coward! You left us all to die!

Why? Why did this happen?

Go! Survive! Take – take care of Felix for me!

A myriad of voices, mixed in perfect dissonance, a cacophony with only a few he could audibly discern. Father. Glenn. The knights. A few scattered civilians that had been caught amidst it all. They blended together with the sounds of rushing air as the tip of his lance cut through imaginary foes, heavy footsteps and rapid breaths punctuating their anguished cries and harsh rebukes –

"You're up late."

Abruptly, he paused, and the voices vanished as clarity returned to his mind. When had that much sweat even built up? He ran a gauntleted hand across his face, wiping off streaks of perspiration as he continued breathing heavily.

"You know, when Sylvain told me that he was worried, I didn't quite think that it would be this bad," Byleth continued saying, walking toward Dimitri. "It's already – what, eight hours since sundown? How long have you been training here?"

"Sylvain's worried about me?" He responded, surprised. "I thought that…"

He trailed off. Byleth raised an eyebrow, patting a nearby stone railing in a gesture for Dimitri to sit, and he obliged.

"Not just Sylvain. Hanneman's been concerned that you haven't been keeping up on your training with the rest of your House, although that's clearly untrue." He gestured pointedly at the lance in his hands, its steel tip chipped from repeated use. "Manuela's still telling me off for organising that training session without proper supervision –"

Dimitri started at that admission. "I didn't mean to cause any trouble –"

"That really isn't the point I'm trying to make," he interrupted, sighing heavily. "Felix won't admit it, but he's caught between wanting to strangle you and beating the crap out of you while demanding that you spill everything that you've been bottling up. I haven't spoken with Annette, Mercedes, or Ingrid, but Ashe tells me that all of the Blue Lions are worried about you."

"They are?"

"Goddess," Byleth swore silently, and Dimitri was momentarily taken aback. He always seemed to be in such complete control of himself ever since the day they'd crossed paths back in Remire Village, ever calm and prepared. "It's been four weeks since the last mission, Dimitri. Ashe says that you haven't said more than a sentence to anyone from your House since then. The Battle of the Eagle and Lion is coming up at the end of the month. Yes, I think that they have cause to be worried."

"That was not my intention –"

"Look, Dimitri. I know we haven't spoken much in this – I mean, outside of training – and I won't pry anything from you that you're not ready to say, but you need help," Byleth said, correcting himself mid-sentence.

"I'll be fine," he insisted, ignoring how the spectre that wore Glenn's face flickered in the edge of his vision. "I can handle myself. I apologise if I have been the cause for any worry."

He made to stand, but was surprised when Byleth tugged him back down. He felt a momentary surge of anger – why couldn't he just leave him alone?! – but paused at the sight in Byleth's eyes.

They looked… empty. Hollow. Heavy. That alone startled him enough to sit back down.

"Just listen to me," Byleth said, removing his hand from Dimitri's gauntlet. "Something like the Tragedy of Duscur isn't a memory that will fade away."

What?!

"How did you –"

"No offense, Dimitri, but it's kind of obvious," he interrupted once more, a complicated emotion in his eyes. "I won't profess to having experienced what you've gone through, but I've lost people I cared about as well. They won't come back."

"I'm sorry," he said automatically.

Byleth eyed him curiously, then sighed. "I know what it's like to live through something like that. You heard how I got distracted in the middle of my battle with Lonato, but now I'll let you in on a little secret. At that moment, I hesitated because I saw someone I knew dying, and it cost me. He got a clean hit in."

Dimitri remained silent. He could see it all again. His lance, cutting through Edelgard's armour, all while the tormented cries of the dead rang in his ears while fires raged around him.

Byleth continued nonetheless. "I know how heavily it weighs down on your soul. You see them in everything you do, and you hear their voices all the time. Sound about right?"

"You have –" he started saying, eyes wide, but paused. "Who… who did you lose?"

Byleth looked barely a few years older than he did. Why did he seem to carry so heavy a burden?

"That's not important now," Byleth brushed him aside, revealing nothing. "The point of the matter is this: what you're doing now? All of this – training in secret, isolating yourself from everyone else? It won't work." He smiled mirthlessly, his eyes downcast. "Take it from someone who's tried that before."

Dimitri didn't know how in all of Fódlan he could respond to that. The Byleth in front of him now was drastically different from the one he had known over the past few months, albeit distantly. Now, for some unknown reason, he was baring his vulnerabilities to Dimitri, uncertain and lost – much like himself – and altogether different from the one who was always calm and in control, with the martial prowess to back it up.

"Part of me wants to continue their legacy, to fight for what they believe in. For a long time, I tried to do that, but I've realised that that is impossible." Byleth looked down at his own hands, continuing to speak without looking at Dimitri. "In the end, you can't fight for them all, because their beliefs contradict. Each of them was their own person. All you can do is to make sure that their deaths were not in vain. It took me the better part of my life to understand that."

Again, he gave a mirthless smile, a dark joke that Dimitri couldn't comprehend. His mind was more preoccupied on other lines of thought.

That… that meant that he couldn't have been older than Dimitri at the time that he lost his entire world. Had he – had he lived through something like the Tragedy? Had he been suffering in silence all this while? But he always seemed to be in such control of himself –

"If you're willing to listen to some advice? Acknowledge it. Acknowledge it all." Byleth said, his gaze returning to Dimitri. "The dead. The sacrifices they've made. Their beliefs. All those are important, but ultimately you need to live for yourself."

Father. Glenn. The knights. Their dying words.

"The dead are gone, Dimitri. Fight for yourself. Fight for their memory."

"But how?" Dimitri finally asked, after the silence had stretched on. For once, he let the worries and fears he had kept hidden and buried beneath layers and layers of falsehoods show. "How do you – Byleth… how do you remain so calm and in control all the time, after experiencing something like that?"

He knew a prince shouldn't be sounding so vulnerable, but for some reason, he didn't much care. He'd never knew anyone who had lived through something like the Tragedy, much less regain a semblance of normality as Byleth had. He was desperate for answers.

"Calm? In control?" Byleth repeated, snorting loudly. "Hardly. Like I said, there was a time – quite long ago, actually – when I was just as lost as you. The only thing that changed is that my realisation that there's nothing wrong with being lost. Live for yourself, even while remembering the dead."

"But how?"

"That –" Byleth paused. "That's difficult to answer. You need to find your own way, Dimitri. Even I don't know if I'm going about the right way honouring their memories."

"You don't?" he followed up. "But you always seem so certain and determined. You don't – you don't lose control, like I did back with El –"

His words caught in his throat, as that memory returned in full force. For several seconds, Byleth simply sat there silently, his expression utterly unreadable.

When at last he spoke, he did so with more sincerity than Dimitri had heard from the squire before.

"I'll let you in on another secret, Dimitri," he said, standing up. "I'm angry. I have been angry for a long time. I hate the state that Fódlan is in, I hate how good people have to die, but most of all I hate how nothing I do changes anything."

For all that he spoke of hatred, his voice was utterly level and calm. Nonetheless, he continued. "But I've come to learn that you need to take hold of anger and fury. Striking out at everything, moving without so much as a plan – all of that achieves nothing, and only harms those few remaining that you're trying to protect."

Abruptly, he withdrew the sword that he kept secured by his hip, presenting it to Dimitri. Surprised, it took a moment before he accepted it.

"What do you think of it?" Byleth asked.

"It's… reinforced silver, is it not?" he half-asked, half-spoke, confused. He studied it further. "And its make… the pattern on the hilt and edge… this is a Zoltan creation?"

"Good eye," Byleth said, taking the sword back from Dimitri. "Now, watch."

Without warning, he swung the blade forcefully against a nearby training post, the Crest of Flames manifesting in the air a split second before impacting against the hard stone.

The stone shattered into pieces, but that was not the most surprising thing.

A blade of reinforced silver, crafted by the most masterful of blacksmiths, lay broken in two halves, one clanging loudly against the training post below while the other remained attached to the hilt held in Byleth's hand.

Dimitri was lost for words. He was stronger than most, having accidentally bent more training swords than he could count growing up, but this was… It took a moment for him to register what had happened, and the words came tumbling out from his lips.

"What – but that – that's a Zoltan – why?!"

"A demonstration. Besides, it's about time that I got it repaired, anyway. My point is this – anger is a powerful force," Byleth said easily, pointing at the broken blade. "That's you if you keep going like this, by the way."

He paused. "Well, not you you – but – you get the analogy." He moved over to retrieve the blade, before looking at him directly in the eyes. "Anger is powerful, Dimitri. For a long time, it was the only thing that drove me. I imagine you hold such resentment in you as well, as much as you don't show it."

There Byleth was again, speaking as though he could see straight through into his inner thoughts. He had kept up appearances, convinced even himself that those of Duscur who had been responsible for the Tragedy had already paid for it with their lives, but even then the flame of vengeance still yearned for kindling.

"Eventually, though, it will make its presence known. Whether it breaks or reforges you remains to be seen. All that I'm asking for is that when the time comes, you learn to channel it productively."

He gestured at the broken blade, and though Dimitri couldn't fully understand what Byleth had experienced, he thought that he at least knew the point he was trying to make.

Acknowledge the Tragedy. Let the dead move on. Turn the wildfire that threatened to leak past his control into a blazing kiln of strength.

Simple words, and yet so mind-bogglingly complex and difficult. To do so seemed as though to be a mockery of all that they had fought and died for. Already, he could see their faces closing in again.

"Just keep what I said in mind," Byleth said, the sword already secured onto his person. "And for the love of the Goddess, talk to your classmates. I don't think I've ever seen Sylvain flat out ignore a girl talking to him before. Felix completely whiffed two strikes during our last spar. If that isn't a cause for concern, I don't know what is."

With those parting words, he left Dimitri alone in the training grounds. The ghosts of Duscur stayed with him, completely silent, watching for his next move.

Take hold of his anger, huh?

He didn't know if he could forget the wishes of the dead as Byleth had. He didn't know whether he could shatter reinforced silver as Byleth had through sheer strength alone – well, not yet, at least.

But taking charge of the resentment he'd been denying for years? Making sure that the Tragedy would never again be repeated?

Yeah… he could do that.

Hopefully, the peers of his House would still be willing to speak to him after distancing himself from them for so long.

They had an upcoming Battle of the Eagle and the Lion to win.

-o-o-o-

She was excited. Enthusiastic. Ecstatic!

She had personally been summoned by Thales, of all people! She'd only seen him in person a few times before, back when she had been tasked with the task of infiltrating the lair of the Beast back before the plan had been scrapped, but she had been completely awed by him.

Thales seemed so… so wise, so determined, so amazing and inspirational! It was as though he knew everything that there was to know in the world – even the surface world, outside of Shambhala – and he led their people with conviction and strength. She had personally learned of all the trials and tribulations he had gone through as the leader of Shambhala during her early years, and it had been the greatest of honours to be distinguished enough in her combat prowess to be gifted with a Crest Stone of her own.

She could feel the implanted stone thumping in her chest, as though in agreement with her sentiment. Yes, to be personally singled out by Thales was an honour indeed. It was why she made special care to arrive extra early to his chambers, while still taking the time to greet those she recognised along the metal corridors of Central Shambhala. Rudeness was not an Agarthan virtue!

Yes, indeed. Kronya strove to be the very model of the Good Agarthan, just as her tutors taught her to. 'Restore the Light to Agartha,' she could recite the Prime Tenet verbatim, as every Agarthan was taught to do. 'Bring enlightenment to the misguided souls of the surface world. Crush the vermin who worship at the feet of the Beast. Punish the remaining Beasts for their past transgressions.'

That was the core of Agarthan education. Do everything you can for the betterment of Agartha. Some day – and she had the feeling the day was coming soon – they would all be called upon to fight for the future of Agartha. She could hardly wait for it.

Maybe that was why Thales was summoning her? Her pulse quickened. Could it be that they would finally send her in to infiltrate Garreg Mach Monastery? Oh, perhaps she could see Edelgard again? She had only met her, once, in her role as the Flame Emperor, during the one occasion where Kronya had been allowed into the surface world. The world above Shambhala was breath-taking, and it irked her that their people had been forced into hiding below.

It was to her surprise, when the metal doors to the room slid open after showing her authorisation to the guard on duty, that there were already several others present within.

"Solon? Death Knight?" she greeted, confused. Wasn't this supposed to be for her personal mission? Why were they here?

"Oh? Thales summoned you, as well?" Solon spoke disdainfully, and she fidgeted slightly. For all that she tried to distinguish herself, he never did like her, for some reason. "Well, I suppose you do have a Crest Stone."

"Damn right I do!" She thumped at her chest loudly. "Say, do either of you know what this is about?"

Death Knight stared at her impassively, wearing his full suit of armour as he always did. He never did reveal his real name, but to her he was simply the Death Knight, the right-hand of Thales himself. That made him ridiculously cool in her book. She bet he could perform a textbook slaughter of an enemy, bisect him and rip his organs out within a matter of seconds. He just had to be that good. She had heard the hushed rumours from some of the other Agarthans who had been on missions with him in the past.

"Fine, fine, keep your secrets," she said, shrugging, bouncing on the soles of her feet as she waited nervously for Thales. Her nerves were on full display, but she really couldn't be blamed for that, seeing as she would be meeting Thales himself. Thales!

Thankfully, she didn't need to wait too long. There was a faint popping sound – teleportation, she recognised. The door to his inner chambers opened, and Thales stepped forth, accompanied by a pair of –

"Humans!" she hissed automatically, holding her Athame before herself, her stingers poised and at the ready. "Lord Thales! Get back!"

Thales chuckled. "Relax, child," he rebuked. "These are surface humans, yes, but they are also our guests."

Humans as guests?!

"My Lord, I do not understand –"

"Quiet, child," Solon snapped. "Really, Thales? I must raise my objections to bringing Kronya into the fold! Her presence threatens everything we've worked for!"

"Patience, Solon," Thales said, holding a regal hand out. "She may be young, but Kronya has distinguished herself as a combatant to be feared. She will be invaluable when we finally make our move."

…was this really happening? Was Thales actually praising her?

"We must move on to other matters, however," he gestured at the pair of humans, who were looking around the room; a man and a woman. The woman made no effort to hide herself, while the man wore a thick, hooded coat that concealed every part of his identity.

How curious! Kronya hadn't met a surface dweller in the flesh before – well, aside from Edelgard, she supposed. She didn't reallllly count as one, anyway, since she supported them as the Flame Emperor.

"I trust that most of you are familiar with Cornelia?" Thales spoke.

Kronya gasped. This was her? The one she had only heard rumours of, who had taken it unto herself to stir the beginnings of unrest that would lay the foundation for their return? This was the same master mage who instigated the Sacrifice of Duscur?

"Charmed," Solon said, bowing his head slightly. "A pleasure meeting you again, Cornelia."

"Solon," she greeted. "I must say, Shambhala does have a certain… charm about it, to say the least."

"Of course!" Kronya blurted out. "Shambhala is the pinnacle of Agarthan civilisation, the culmination of generations of hard work from those who have come before –"

She shut up abruptly, at the warning look that Thales sent her, looking at him abashed.

"Well, you certainly know how to pick your lieutenants," Cornelia commented, sounding amused.

"Kronya is easily excited," Thales said, and she shifted nervously once more. She really needed to learn how to control herself before she embarrassed herself – and worse, Thales! – once more.

"Hmm," Cornelia hummed, then glanced at the remaining human, who made no move to reveal himself. "Well? What do you think?"

"Shambhala…" he finally said. "Agartha… they really exist…"

"Ah, yes. Cornelia has informed me that you were from the Church. There is a great deal of misinformation that will need to be corrected," Thales said. "Cornelia, will you mind doing the honours after this matter is concluded?"

The mage snorted. "Not like I have much to do with my time, anyway, after that mess in Fhirdiad. You still owe me for that, by the way."

"But of course. Agartha never forgets to repay her debts."

"Cornelia, you…" the hooded human's voice trailed off, before he shook his head. "No, never mind that."

He turned to face Thales, but still made no move to remove his cloak. Such hubris! It took all the restraint she had to force herself not to step over and demand that he showed Thales the respect he deserved.

"Is it true?" he demanded. "Can you really – can you really return the dead to life?"

Wordlessly, Thales nodded toward Solon. The mage stepped over to the corner of the room, toward the place that all Agarthans knew, but few witnessed. He keyed a few buttons on the control panel, and one of the walls of the room slid away, revealing what lay within.

Nemesis. The forefather of all Agarthans, blessed be his name.

"It's true," the man breathed, staring unmovingly at him. "Nemesis. You have him here. He – he's alive?"

"He is in stasis," Thales corrected. "It is not yet time for his glorious return… but to answer your question – yes, that is within the realm of our abilities. Make no mistake – it is costly, but if you can fulfil your duties as Cornelia has promised, then all this and more will be yours to grasp."

Hah. Kronya could practically feel the greed and desperation coming from the man, now. Surface dwellers really were predictable.

"You – you swear it?"

"Of course," Thales assured him. "Agartha remembers those who have helped her." He eyed him critically. "Well, then? What is your decision?"

"I…" he said, clearly warring with indecision. "I – I accept."

Well, well. It seemed this human had some brains, after all.

"Excellent." Thales nodded. "Now, then. The item, as agreed."

He dug into his cloak, withdrawing a small vial of a dark liquid. Kronya eyed it curiously, but knew better than to raise her voice.

Thales' hand glowed for a moment, a sigil appearing in the air, before vanishing into bright sparks. "It is the genuine article. I am impressed." He looked at the man quizzically. "The inheritor suspects nothing?"

"She believes it to be part of research to rid her of her little problem."

"Well, well. To think that little Hapi would have run off to your little hideout after all these years. I did wonder where she'd escaped to," Cornelia commented lightly. "Our chance meeting couldn't have been more fortuitous, Aelfric."

"Enough of this. Can you do it?" the one that Kronya now knew as Aelfric urged Thales. "Can you bring her back to life?"

"Patience," he rebuked gently. "This will plant the seeds for the fall of the Church, but we may have need for more of your services in time. I can assure you, however, that when that day comes, all that you seek will be yours to take."

"And when will that day come?" he challenged.

"Soon. Very soon."

A moment later, Solon closed the door to the chamber that held Nemesis (blessed be his name) once more, and only then did Aelfric take his eyes away from his resting form.

"Oh, and one more thing, Aelfric?" Thales commented idly, but there was no mistaking the threat in his voice. "Should you even so much as attempt to speak to anyone else about what you have seen and heard here today, you will find that Agartha does not take kindly to those who would betray her. We have eyes and ears everywhere."

He swallowed audibly. "I – I understand."

"Good." He turned to face Cornelia. "Cornelia, would you mind?"

Wordlessly, she grabbed Aelfric by the shoulders, and the pair of them teleported away from Shambhala. A powerful magical feat, considering that she was not originally of Agartha.

Now that the matter was concluded, Thales returned to addressing them. "Solon. We will shelve the original plan aside, for now. Begin researching into applications of the Crest of Timotheus at once. Divert the work of all our research divisions to this process." The mage nodded. "Death Knight; Kronya. I want the two of you to double your training. Once we achieve a breakthrough, we may have need to call for an attack at but a moment's notice. We will give those fools respite as they play at their little Battle at the Gronder Field, but once our research is complete, we will strike at once."

This was it. This was her moment.

She would be part of an actual mission! After all those years of sitting through lessons upon lessons, defeating all the training constructs and her peers in practical combat, she could finally do her part in restoring the light to Agartha!

"I will not fail you, Lord Thales!" she proclaimed.

"Good. Kronya, you are dismissed, for now. The three of us have other matters to discuss."

She would have bristled at being excluded from the group, but she could care less about that right now. She, Kronya, Agarthan of the Twenty-third Generation, had been chosen as part of the most important mission that Agartha had known since Nemesis' Conquest in the days of old.

She left the room quickly, already making her way to the training halls. Suffice to say, she would make damned sure that when the time came, she would carve out her own crest of blood from the vermin that worshipped at the feet of the Beast.