Monica did a double-take when she saw the young man, who looked just as afraid of her as she thought she did of him. He met the physical description of the grieving father from Remire almost exactly – dirt-flecked brown pants, brown leather boots, a crumpled, long-sleeved black shirt, and messy orange-pink hair. The only thing his father didn't mention was the skinning knife in his right hand. She would have pegged him for an assassin if not for how quickly he surrendered when hit by Hanneman's wind spell. Monica relaxed a little when no other potential attackers came out of hiding, but she still couldn't fully trust the young man until she knew what he was doing there.
"H-how do you know ab-about Remire?" he asked. "Were you one of the ones who attacked it?"
Monica and Dorothea wanted to set the record straight with the boy, but he was too panicked to listen to them. They waited a moment for him to put away his knife before approaching.
"We were called on to help reinforce the village," said Dorothea. "After we had driven the enemies away, someone told us that a young man fitting your description had gone missing in all the chaos."
"And he said that you were at a friend's house when the attack happened," said Monica. "Did you hear the alarm bells ring?"
"I heard them," said the boy, quaking with fear as he recounted his ordeal, "but by the time I tried to head back home, a bunch of soldiers in black had already made their way into the village. I thought I would be safer at Dex's house. 'There's no way they'll get us in here, Josey,' he said. Just as we found our hiding spots, someone set the house on fire and blocked the exits. I suppose dragging us out into the streets and butchering us wasn't good enough for them, so they decided to just burn what they couldn't kill. Monsters, the lot of them!"
"But if you were trapped in your friend's house during the attack, then why couldn't we find you or Dex afterward? What happened to you two?"
"To be honest, I don't really remember. I couldn't see a thing through all the smoke. It was so hard to breathe, I thought I was going to die. The last thing I heard before passing out was a loud crash. Next thing I knew, I woke up in a strange, dimly lit room. I wanted to get out of there and get back home as soon as possible, but I felt too weak to move, even after someone came and tried to heal me."
Monica looked at Josey and sighed. Here he was, a boy probably no older than seventeen, having witnessed a vicious attack on his home village and nearly dying trying to hide from the monsters responsible, only to be taken away to a strange place and not being sure if those walls would be the last ones he would ever see. She knew the feeling and thought she understood why he was scared. Everyone else relaxed a bit and, in the interest of their collective safety and security, brought Josey over to their bonfire to let him explain his situation further.
"So, how did you get out of there, and how did you wind up here?" asked Lysithea, getting straight to the point.
Josey sat down next to Hanneman while the other students formed a semi-circle on the opposite side. Sylvain and Monica tossed in a few more dead branches to keep the bonfire going, warming their hands while taking care not to use their magic to send the flames higher.
"That first part of the story isn't very exciting, really," said Josey. "After Dex and I got treated, he told the healer about our situation and where we came from, and they just…let us go."
"Just like that?" asked Lysithea.
"Well, sort of. They insisted on returning us to Remire under the cover of night, saying it would be dangerous for them to be seen during the daytime. My parents cried and yelled over me going missing for two whole days. I thought it would have been just as bad for me and Dex!"
"At least you and your friend were fortunate enough to return to your homes after that attack," said Hanneman. "I now have to ask who it was that came to your aid that night, if not Monica, Dorothea, the other Black Eagles, or the Knights of Seiros."
Josey looked up at Hanneman and folded his hands into his lap. "They told us not to tell anyone what they looked like."
"How vexing… A mysterious enemy, operating from the shadows to sow destruction, and another mysterious entity, also operating from the shadows to undo some of that damage… Is there anything that you can tell us about your situation?"
"Only that it was past midnight when we returned. We must have walked for several hours."
"That long? Sheesh! I bet you must have wanted to collapse into a nice, soft bed after a death march like that," said Sylvain.
Monica stood up to stretch, feeling uncomfortable from sitting down by the fire. "If you don't mind me asking, Josey… Where are you at right now?" she asked. "It's pretty unusual for someone to happen upon the remains of a holy site like this, especially a place that most of us academy students don't even know about."
"Right…about that…" Josey took a deep breath and exhaled with all his might. "A few days after the funeral, someone mentioned that they thought they saw a wicked-looking knight while all of the fighting was going on. Both the knight and their horse wore this scary, spiky black armor. If not for those glowing red eyes, you'd think you were looking at a living shadow."
"Living shadow? Glowing red eyes?" Lysithea murmured. "That could only be..."
Hanneman and the other students listened to Josey's description and came to the same conclusion as Lysithea.
"…the Death Knight!" everyone but Monica exclaimed at once.
"You mean you know that fiend?" asked Josey. He looked around as the group suddenly put on angry frowns, and he was quietly grateful that they weren't directed at him this time.
"We've had a few run-ins with him," said Sylvain. "He broke into one of the church's holy sites, and then later kidnapped one of our fair church maidens and sent a bunch of soldiers after us. He's definitely not the kind of guy you want to mess with."
"Tell that to the guys on the road out west. We thought we saw this 'Death Knight' around Remire again recently, and we followed his last known trail to this area. I thought I'd stumbled upon the entrance to his hideout."
"Is that why you were sneaking around those bushes?" asked Lysithea. "I hope you weren't thinking about taking him on all by yourself if you found him. The Knights of Seiros had a tough enough time fighting the Death Knight with two dozen soldiers. Besides, no one's seen him around the monastery for more than two months. Are you sure the information you received is up to date?"
"I'm serious!" said the boy, throwing his hands up in response to Lysithea's challenge. "We saw him, and we needed to find out for ourselves where he was going so we could warn anyone we came across. It's just a simple scouting mission, nothing more."
"This is the first time I've ever heard of anyone other than the Knights of Seiros actively looking for the Death Knight," said Sylvain. "You're lucky you came across us instead."
Josey rubbed his right hip gingerly as he tried to stand up straight. "Uh…would it be all right if I had a look around? I'd feel a lot better if I knew there were no hidden passages or caves around here the Death Knight could use to get away. He could kill anyone he wanted to – especially any one of you – and hide away again before anyone could catch him."
"I apologize for injuring you, Josey, and I understand that you came a long way from home to complete your search," said Hanneman, "but I cannot assent to your request. These ruins are private property, accessible only to church personnel. It would put the church's security at risk if we were to allow just anyone to wander around for any reason. The most I can do for you is pass on your warning to the archbishop, and she will deal with the issue accordingly."
With his head bowed in resignation, Josey sighed and said, "I guess I should have expected that. Um…maybe I should return to my scouting group and tell them what I found." He looked at everyone again, and then at his knife. "Sorry for scaring you all like that."
Dorothea looked off into the distance beyond the bush where they discovered Josey, wondering how far he had to go to catch up with his fellow scouts from Remire. "I don't know if we'll see you again," she said, "so…just be careful on your way back, okay?"
While Hanneman, Sylvain, and Dorothea headed west to reunite the scouts, Monica and Lysithea stayed behind to clean up as much as they could of their used equipment before returning to the monastery. The leftover splinters from the damaged training dummies, the splashes of ash and soot lining the walls and grass from everyone's residual magic, and the piles of dirt the two girls poured onto the bonfire to smother it had taken away much of the old cathedral's mystique. Now that it had been used, the girls expected any other outsiders to see it as just another ruin.
After the training group reformed to help pick up what was left, Monica and Sylvain carried their trash along the dirt road to be disposed of later. While Monica's bag wasn't as heavy as she thought it would be with all the wood inside, she spent most of the return trip looking toward the ground. Dorothea noticed and broke away from her conversation with Hanneman to check on her. "Something wrong, Monica?" she asked.
"What do you all make of everything Josey said to us?" asked Monica.
"If his story checks out," said Sylvain, "then it sounds like he was given a really bad hand. Being trapped in a burning house during a monster attack, then being saved by someone who won't even tell you their name… I'm surprised he was able to keep it together after all that."
"What about the Death Knight? I don't remember seeing him or any of his troops in Remire." Monica shut her eyes for a moment and tried to conjure up an image of the masked knight in her head based on Josey's description of him. Even in the midst of the chaos, a red-eyed 'living shadow' would have been difficult to miss, especially one as dangerous as the rumors suggested. "You don't think he could have come back after kidnapping Flayn, do you?"
"I hope not, especially with the ball coming up," said Dorothea.
"Assuming that the rumors haven't reached the monastery already," said Lysithea, "Lady Rhea has no choice but to take this seriously. We should be prudent ourselves and be ready in case he does try to attack again."
"I'm with Dorothea on this one," said Sylvain, struggling to put on a smile as he did the heavy lifting for the group. "Lady Rhea gave us the month off, so I think we should enjoy it to the fullest. I've still got a few weeks to score a date for the dance. All I need to do is redouble my efforts."
Lysithea crossed her arms and scowled at him again. "Why am I not surprised?"
The news of the "unexpected visitor" to the old cathedral reached the archbishop's ears that night, and within the next few days, conflicting rumors circulated throughout the town about what happened. A few people took the report of the Death Knight using the ruins as his new lair at face value, citing it as the real reason why the church had kept the area off-limits. A more popular but less plausible tale dealt with the ghost of a priest who died when the building collapsed, with his last words being frantic screams to pull him out from beneath the rubble. When patrols around the town and monastery changed to incorporate new routes and more knights, the rumors quieted down, but never completely went away.
On the Monday after her magic lesson with Hanneman, Monica planned on inviting Dorothea to the training grounds for some light-hearted swordplay, but she had to delay her invitation when Dorothea left early with Byleth to continue her dance lessons for the White Heron Cup. Unsure of how long those lessons would take, Monica returned to her room to review her Fire magic scroll to get a better handle on the spell so she could use it in a practical setting. When she got to her room, she noticed two Knights of Seiros standing watch in the alley between the dormitory and the sauna.
There weren't any guards in that alley when I saw Anna come out of there. Just where does that lead, anyway?
Her curiosity would go unsated for a few moments longer as she saw Flayn approaching her from the sauna side.
"Ah…there is no sensation quite like an invigorating hot steam bath," said Flayn, sporting a smile that glowed as bright as her skin.
"It really is amazing," said Monica. She pushed the sight of the alley guards into the back of her mind and walked toward the greenhouse with her scroll, prompting Flayn to follow her. "Are you excited for the upcoming ball, Flayn?"
"Oh, absolutely! It will be the first time I will have danced in front of a live audience."
The two girls paused to watch Linhardt at the fishing pond. His line had barely budged from its place in the water, and he had barely moved from his spot on the pier, not even to reel in his line for another shot at catching a fish. He acknowledged Monica and Flayn with a nod as they waved to him, and then turned his attention back to the pond.
"So, Monica," Flayn continued, "did you go to the ball last year as well?"
"Yeah," said Monica, "but I didn't get any invitations back then. I spent most of my time on the sidelines enjoying the music and the food."
"You mean you did not dance with anyone?"
"I didn't mean to say I didn't dance with anyone," Monica clarified, "just that nobody asked me out to the ball. There was this one g—"
Before she could identify her former suitor to Flayn, Monica noticed Constance entering the dining hall, looking depressed as the sun shined overhead.
"Was that not Constance we saw just now?" asked Flayn. "I hope there is nothing troubling her."
Monica knew that Constance would be all smiles and laughter once she got under the main building's roof, but she didn't know how to convey that to Flayn. Sensing a new opportunity opening up, she put her plans to practice her Fire magic on hold to see what was going on. If anything had been bothering Constance, it was hard for Monica and Flayn to tell by the way she perked up when talking to Hanneman about Crests and fine cuisine.
"Monica! Flayn! What a pleasant surprise," she said after wiping some fruit tart crumbs from her cheek. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?"
"Well…Monica and I were going out on a walk," said Flayn, with Monica quickly nodding along to hide the fact that Flayn was only partially telling the truth. "And then—"
"And then," Monica echoed, "we saw you and wanted to stop to say 'hello'…and ask you a question or two. Well, I wanted to ask you a question or two, if you don't mind."
"I am open to any question you might deign to ask…but first, I must request that you allow me a moment to finish this meal," said Constance.
Monica waited for Constance to finish eating before sitting in the chair across from her, forgoing the long lunch line and trying to convince herself that her own appetite could wait. The sudden jump in her heart rate told her that one of the questions she wanted to ask, however, could not.
"You know, Connie, there's a big ball coming up in a few weeks," she said. "Would you like to go there with me? There'll be a lot more delicious food and great music!"
The pounding feeling in Monica's chest only got stronger when she saw Constance and Flayn staring at her, their eyes wide open. Uh oh…did I ask that too soon?
"That was far from the first thing I expected you to ask when you approached me," said Constance. "I believe we should continue this discussion somewhere where fewer people are listening. Would you pardon us for a moment, Professor?"
Hanneman, who had kept his calm in the face of Flayn and Constance's surprised expressions, nodded. "When you are finished, Constance, I would like for you to stop by my office for a moment when you have the time."
Constance looked out the nearest window and sighed, noticing that there would still be a few more hours until sunset.
After agreeing to Hanneman's request, she and Monica walked over to the southeast corner of the dining hall where the fewest people could eavesdrop on them. "Did I hear you correctly, dear Monica? You wish to ask me to this year's ball?"
"Yes! I mean…that is, if you're up for it," said Monica, doing her best to maintain eye contact with Constance without blinking. "Have you danced at balls like this before?"
Constance laughed and answered, "'Have I danced at balls before', you say! Admittedly, it has been years since I have attended such parties regularly, but even a former noble such as myself does not easily forget how to dance!"
Monica clasped her hands together expectantly. "So, does that mean you'll go?"
Constance held her hand out for a moment, and Monica briefly entertained the idea of holding it before looking around at the growing crowd and contemplating a retreat to the reception hall. "I will take your offer into consideration. Others may not be so bold as to leave their homes for too long with the recent rumors going around."
"Oh, yeah…those rumors."
Monica lowered her voice to a near-whisper to make sure she didn't raise a panic. Invoking the Death Knight, even in passing, would have sent the peaceful dining hall into an uproar. "I hope they're not true," she continued, folding her arms in frustration, "but so many weird things have happened since I came back to the academy, and I don't know how to explain any of it! This ball and the White Heron Cup couldn't have come at a better time."
"I agree," said Constance. "Unfortunately, I must go meet with Professor Hanneman again, but I shall look forward to seeing you on the night of the ball, if our paths do not cross again sooner." She smiled at Monica and left through the reception hall exit, hoping to get to Hanneman's office under as much shade as possible. Monica, feeling pleased with herself, returned to sit across from Flayn, who had been busy eating a slice of grilled pike while Monica and Constance talked amongst themselves.
"I am still somewhat surprised, Monica," said Flayn. "I did not expect you to approach Constance so readily to ask her out to the ball. It appeared that the two of you were having such a lively chat. If only I were allowed to be so bold when approaching people about such things…"
"Sorry, Flayn, but I'm probably not the right person to ask for advice on courtship," said Monica.
"Oh? That is unfortunate…" Flayn's lip quivered slightly as she lamented Monica being unable to help her. "In any event, I do believe you were on your way to practice your magic before Constance showed up, correct?"
Monica nodded, noting that she was still carrying her scroll.
"Then please allow me to join you for a few moments. I would not want you to fall behind in your studies." Flayn held up her hands to make sure she had fully wiped them off, and Monica thought she saw Flayn's plate move an inch without either of them touching it. "In addition, I would like to refine my own magical abilities in case I am involved in another incident like Remire. I do not like violence or bloodshed, but I will do what I must do to protect myself and others."
"Sounds good," said Monica. "Practice goes a lot better with a partner, anyway. Speaking of, I wonder if Dorothea's finished her dance lessons with our professor…"