"Hello? Is someone out dere?"
No one answers. Not a sound is heard within this forest I've been wandering for God-knows-how long. Not even a breath of wind.
"Come on, someone please answer me! Professor? Shamir? Anyone?!"
I don't like this. Not one bit. One moment I was with the Blue Lions, and then I was here. How? Why?
The starless night sky above me doesn't put me any more at ease. Back in my world, the absence of stars was because of the light pollution. You had to go to remote areas to even glimpse only the brightest of stars. But that was not Fódlan. Fódlan has always had stars-filled skies. So what changed now?
At some point, my wandering leads me somewhere where the soil feels...different from the rest. It's...smoother. And harder.
And, as I kneel to better look at it, I realize something. Something that startles and confuses me even more.
It's not the same kind of soil I've been marching with the convoy on these past few days. It's asphalt. In the middle of Fódlan.
What the absolute hell is going on here?
Right as I ask myself that, my attention is caught by a sound. The first sound I've heard ever since coming to this maze of trees.
I turn in the direction of the anachronistic sound, and far in the distance I catch sight of lights within the dark.
With no better alternative, I sprint in the direction of those lights. As I get closer and closer to them, their brightness steadily increases and, for some reason, the vegetation starts thinning out.
I realize why that is only when I stop my sprint.
Standing before me is the street where I live. Same lanes, same traffic lights, same streetlights, and same buildings that make for the neighborhood. Including the one I live in.
My heart almost jumps in my throat. I'm...home? This...this is…
Wait! There wasn't a forest where I lived! This can't be…
Turning around, I find that the forest is gone. There are still the few trees and bushes this street has always had, but nothing too extravagant.
No idea what's going on here. And honestly? I don't care. This whole ordeal with Fódlan and the Church of Seiros is finally over! I'm finally ho-
A loud roar cuts off my line of thought. A roar I heard once before and had hoped to never hear again.
And right after it, a pillar of dark flames comes down from the sky, forming a large ring of black and purple fire around me.
And outside of the ring, to my horror, lands the same monster that attacked me and the Blue Lions. Same draconic body, same black fleshy skin, same baleful red eyes.
It roars at me. A loud, guttural roar filled with malice I can only recoil at.
And then, if at all possible, I'm scared even more by another sound. That of glass breaking behind me. Or at least, one that resembles that.
"Oh, poor poor Eugenio." I turn around at the sound of Lion's distorted voice mocking me, the sight of the tall witch in front of me sending shivers down my spine. "Did you really think I had only one pet to throw around?"
Four more of that sound occur around me. I glance around and my fears are quickly confirmed. It's Tigress and the other Night Cats. Including the one I...I…
"And did you think," the short one says, pointing at the hole in her chest. "That you could just walk away after this, old timer? That you could return to the life you knew with blood on your hands?"
I can only gulp at that question.
"And even if that weren't the case, did you really think you could stay hidden in the corners?"
The new voice catches me by surprise and I hastily turn to him. It can't be! How did he even appear without making that sound?
"That we would let you, after all the trouble we went through to take you here?" Solon snickers, the usual kind expression I've seen him wear thus far replaced by a sinister smirk and a devious gleam in his eyes.
I'm cut off by a hand grabbing my face with a speed an old man shouldn't be capable of. A gloved hand instead of the naked one he'd usually have. And between his fingers, I manage to glimpse Solon's true appearance. The wide wrinkles, the balding pale blue hair, those uncanny eyes…
"No, you ignorant beast," Solon notes with an air of amusement. "Now you are part of this too."
"Why…?" I try to ask, his hand muffling my voice.
"You will see," Solon cackles as he starts clenching his grip on my face, air struggling to enter my nose and mouth.
I gasp for breath as consciousness returns to me and my eyes go wide open. What greets me is not a forest or modern buildings. It's a ceiling.
"Where…?" I mutter. "What…?"
"Ah, good afternoon, Mister Eugenio," A...familiar voice says from my right. "It is Eugenio, isn't it? I don't think we have met before."
Slowly, I turn my head. There is a woman by my side. A woman with a green dress that leaves her...assets more exposed than decorum would usually allow. Covering her shoulders, there's a white coat with orange ornaments.
What tells me who exactly this woman is, however, is the matching brown colour of her eyes and hair and the orange make-up around her eyes and on her lips.
"Professor Manuela?" I ask.
"Oh, you know me?" she replies, a smile on her face.
Ignoring her reaction, I test what material I'm currently lying on. It's soft, too soft to be soil. It feels like a...mattress?
A mattress...and now that I think of it, I shouldn't be at the level of Manuela's chest if I were on the ground. The game said she was one of the tallest women in the cast.
So...a bed of some kind? And if Manuela's here, this can be only one of two places: the infirmary or her room.
I look at my surroundings. All I can see are other beds, lockers, and boards with some kind of bottles on top of them. Judging by the fact the place isn't nearly as much of a mess as Manuela's room is said to be and the bottles aren't the alcoholic kind, it's got to be the former.
But...how did I get here?
Okay, let's try to remember. The Lions and I were cut off from Hanneman and Shamir. Two more of those Slitherers cut the Lions off from me. I tried to fight off a fifth and then I…
She looks to me, her mask making whatever her expression is impossible to see. She makes a few unintelligible gurgling sounds, each shorter and quieter than the previous. And then she falls to the soil, her body not moving in the slightest. Perfectly still. Forever.
I have never taken a life before. I have only ever heard stories about what killing for the first time is like. Stories of how it can change you.
So why am I not feeling anything?
"Hey, are you okay?"
Manuela's question manages to snap me out of it. "I'm fine," I reply as I turn back to her, her previous smile now replaced by a concerned look. "Just trying to remember how I got here."
Her face becomes neutral as she crosses her arms. "Well, I would be surprised if you remembered since you were unconscious when you did."
What? How did that happen?
"What's the last thing you remember?"
I gulp at her question, my mind going back to those memories again.
"De Blue Lions and I were attacked," I explain. "I got in a fight wit one of our attackers and…"
"How about dis, instead?!" I snarl, placing a hand in front of her chest.
"And...dat's it." I lie.
At first, Manuela arches an eyebrow and gives me an inquisitive look that makes me worry she's going to ask more. But thankfully, she relents after a few moments.
"Well, in any case," she says, "While you were fighting, another one of your attackers threw an axe at you and hit you in the back."
I look at her in disbelief. "What?!"
"Yeah." she awkwardly replies. "It left a rather nasty slash on your back and it knocked you out there and then."
I look at my chest and, at that very moment, I realize my usual tunic is gone and I'm bare-chested. Or rather, I would be if it weren't for the bandages covering me. Looking further down, the pants seem to still be on at least.
"Don't worry," Manuela giggles, "I'm a professional."
Yeah, a professional with no issue getting constantly drunk and following an unhealthy search for a husband.
"In any case..." I intervene, trying to move the conversation away from...that. "What else happened? I don't suppose dose people just up and left after dat?"
To my surprise, Manuela's expression falls at my questions, "Actually, that is more or less what happened, according to the students."
I look at her in confusion, "I'm sorry, what?"
The Slitherers come out in the open for me, go through so much effort to try and capture me and when they've got me knocked down they just leave? That makes no sense.
Manuela twirls a lock of her hair. "Strange as it may sound, it's true. They broke off their attack and ran away. Almost got the last laugh, though. Had it not been for Miss Mercedes, you and Dame Shamir may not have made it to the Monastery."
...guess me revealing I know who they are made them decide they don't necessarily need me alive.
"You tink you know me?" I whisper, "You tink you understand what it is I'm going trough, Mercedes von Bartels?"
She freezes at hearing that name.
"You tink escaping House Bartels with your moder by your side compares to my situation?" I continue, slowly rising in volume, "To being taken away by your homeland wit no clue of what happened and being left wit finding your own way, in a land of strangers who don't speak your language or even ever heard of where you came from, alone?"
I massage the bridge of my nose. God-fucking-dammit, did I really slip like that? I thought I had grown better than this! Mercedes of all people didn't deserve that!
Wait a moment! What did Manuela just say?
"Me and Dame Shamir?" I ask, my brow furrowing at the ex-performer. "What happened to Shamir?"
Manuela freezes at my question and tries to avoid making eye contact with me. Which only serves to worry me more.
"What happened?" I insist.
Manuela doesn't say anything. Instead, she circles around my bed and gets to the other side of it. It is then that I notice there's a curtain separating the bed I'm on from the one next to me.
"This might be a bit of a shock," she warns, now looking me in the eye with that very same sad look.
I can only gulp at her warning. Just what happened to Shamir to warrant all this dancing around?
"I'm ready." I probably am not. But whatever happened to her, I doubt there's a way to be ready for it. Better I just see it. "Show me."
"Very well," Manuela sighs before pulling the curtain, revealing exactly what Shamir has been reduced to.
Her usual attire has been replaced by a white tunic, not unlike one you'd see on patients in a hospital. That she allowed it to be changed in that is the first sign of how badly she's been reduced.
Her right hand is in a cast, her fingers so enveloped in it they can't possibly move. Her face has taken an unnatural purple colouring, with her nose set at an angle it wasn't originally. Her breaths come out weakly, with her brow furrowing a few times when they do.
She doesn't seem to be conscious. But her closed swollen eyes do not make it clear if that's true.
"What de hell did dey do to her?" I ask bewildered.
Manuela looks at me, with a look in her eyes that seems to say 'it isn't pretty'. "Are you sure you want to know?"
I nod. I don't think I actually want to. But I must.
Manuela then sighs and points at Shamir's bandaged hand. "Broken wrist."
Clenching my fists is the reaction I have at hearing that.
She points at Shamir's chest. "Cracked sternum and four cracked ribs."
My body starts shaking at that one.
She points at her face "Broken nose plus several bruises covering her whole face."
"Maledetti figli di puttana." I mutter in a low voice.
"And that is not even the worst part," the former songstress concludes.
I arch an eyebrow as I turn to her. What could exactly be worse than getting all of that?
Manuela then points towards Shamir's...butt? I swear if this is gonna be a sex joke or some other crap like that…!
"They hit her spine, causing severe damage to the nerves passing through them. Permanent damage."
...what did I just hear?
"Are you saying…?" I intervene, dread filling my voice, "Dey paralyzed her?"
Manuela doesn't answer. She merely closes her eyes and lowers her head.
Time seems to freeze as that news hits me. After all, I did to prevent events from deviating from how they were supposed to go, this was the final result? Shamir beaten half to death and no longer able to walk when she was supposed to survive at least until the timeskip? Shamir, one of the first faces I met...one of the few friends I made, crippled for life?
No...no, no, no! This can't be real! This isn't what was supposed to happen!
"No!" I snap as I shoot up from my bed. Which turns out to be a bad idea as pain spreads all across my back and forces me to hiss.
"Easy, easy." Manuela chastises me as she rushes to my side, the warm feeling of Healing Magic washing away the pain. "If you stress your back too much, you'll reopen your wound."
Yeah, I figured that one out.
"I'm sorry." I tell her, "But Shamir…"
As if on cue, the archer begins to stir, her eyes struggling to open. And seeing a woman as strong and confident as her, being unable to do something that simple...it hurts to watch.
Manuela immediately lets me be and rushes to her side.
"Easy, Dame Shamir," Manuela tells her as she starts going over her body with her glowing hands.
"Where…?" Shamir asks with a weak voice. A weak voice that has no right to come out of her mouth. "What…?"
"Don't worry," Manuela shushes her before placing a finger between her eyes. "Just go back to sleep."
As if to obey that command, her eyes return closed and she relaxes again, her labored breathing the only sign of pain she shows.
Good lord, why did this have to happen to her?
Manuela turns back to me once she's made sure Shamir is sleeping again. "I'm sorry you had to see that," she tells me. "I can close the curtain again if you wish."
I shake my head. Pretending this isn't real won't help either of us.
"Alright," she sighs, "Just...let her rest okay?"
I nod and she leaves me alone with Shamir.
Shamir is probably one of the toughest ladies here at Garreg Mach. A war veteran who lost a partner and lover to the Adrestian Empire. And from what I gathered with the available information surrounding her and what she said, former street urchin, who grew into the mercenary she is today. One of the few people in the game who had their baggage of issues but knew how to work through it.
And now, she has been reduced to this. And if I hadn't gone with the Blue Lions, the Slitherers wouldn't have come after me, wouldn't have attacked the group, and wouldn't have paralyzed her.
This is all my fault.
I'm not sure how much time I spend watching Shamir as raising and lowering her chest are the only things she does in her condition. The one thing I do know is that my attention is drawn away from her only when I hear an excited voice I'm all too familiar with.
"Glad to see you're okay!" Alois says as he grabs me in a bear-hug. One that makes me wince as the pain in my back comes again.
"Easy there, Alois," a smiling Catherine intervenes as she tries to loosen his grip on me, "You don't want to be scolded by Manuela."
"Oh, right, sorry!" he lets me go, "How are you doing, Eugenio?"
"...physically, I'll recover," is what I reply in a low voice, unable to share in the two's joy. I turn back to Shamir before continuing. "But dis…"
Immediately, the faces of both fall as they also turn to Shamir. Alois sits next to me. Catherine stays where she is. And I stay quiet as I keep watching Shamir.
"Have you been told about…?" Catherine tries to ask, though she's unable to complete her question.
We remain in silence after that. A silence that lasts for a while longer. Until I tell them the one thing that's on my mind right now.
"I'm sorry. I never wanted dis to happen."
Alois places a hand on my shoulder. "It's not your fault," he says in a reassuring tone, "You didn't know your kidnappers would do something like this."
"But I should have," I retort, lowering my head. "All dis time, I've been behind de Monastery's walls. And de moment I stepped out of it…"
"Hey," Alois shaking me interrupts my thoughts, "Everyone here thought the same as you. If anyone should have thought about it, it's us. This is not your fault."
It is, Alois. Not for the reasons you think, but it is. And for your sake, I can't even tell you why.
I mentally sigh. What am I going to do now? The Slitherers won't stop coming because they failed this time. And if I know Rhea, she won't let these events go unpunished. How can I stop future events from changing further? How can I prevent more people from getting hurt because of me?
My mind is turned away from those thoughts when another hand, this one more firm than Alois, comes on my other shoulder. Raising my head, I find Catherine looking at me, a serious expression on her face.
"Look," she says, an authoritative note to her words, "Who is to blame for Shamir's condition doesn't matter. What matters is finding the bastards responsible for it and making them pay. And we need your help to do it."
...fuck, that's right. I called the Slitherers out in front of both Hanneman and the Blue Lions. Of course, they'd report that fact.
Goddammit, how much worse can this get?
"I don't know what kind of help I can be," I sigh, trying not to freak out too much, "What I do actually know about dese people is not much. And besides, dey are only after me. Dis is my problem."
"They made it the Church of Seiros' problem too when they attacked innocents," Catherine resolutely retorts, "And the fact you were able to recognize them means what you do know is critical information."
Well, now what do I do? I can not hide the fact I know of the Slitherers. And refusing to share what I know would raise more trouble than it's worth. But if I do share it, Rhea will want me dead the moment she learns I know the history she's tried so hard to hide. And even if she doesn't, the events that are supposed to happen will change. I don't know how, only that they will. And when they do, what then? Will this Fódlan reach the destination it's supposed to?
...unless I contain the damage to just the Slitherers. Not extend it to Edelgard's wider goals or Byleth's situation with the Crest of Flames. It's going to be riskier than anything I've done so far, but it's my best shot at preventing too much of a derail. And I've managed to trick Seteth once before. I can do so with Rhea as well if I play my cards right.
"I assume de Archbishop wants to hear dis too," I tell Catherine, "How soon can she hear me out?"
A satisfied smile comes to her face. "Tomorrow morning."
Good. Enough time to think of what to say but still soon enough.
"Are you sure you want to do this so soon?" Alois suddenly asks me with a concerned tone. Something Catherine reacts to with an incredulous look, "If you need time to process-"
"I don't," I cut him off. The sooner I do this, the least likely I am to lose my nerve, and the sooner I can go back to working at the library and let things go back to normal.
I may have never read the Hobbit or watched the movies they made out of it, but thanks to social media osmosis I do know who Smaug is and what his deal in that story is. And when you think about it, his lair and Garreg Mach are not so different past the appearance.
Both are ancient. Both reside in the mountains. Both are the home of a cunning dragon with issues against humanity. And both have seen an idiot trying to outsmart said dragon. In Rhea's case, that's me.
These are the kinds of thoughts that go through my head as Alois and Catherine escort me to the Archbishop's chambers the following morning. A place I had hoped not to go again after the day I first arrived. And yet, here I am, with Alois and Catherine by my side.
And as Catherine knocks on the door, a knot instantly forms in my throat. Why did I think this was a good idea again? Rhea is a nutjob way too easy to set off. And if I screw this up…
I shake that thought away. Who am I kidding at this point? I already screwed up with the Night Cats. Now it's a matter of unscrewing things.
"Enter," the serene voice of the lady with mommy issues responds to the knocks. Catherine immediately opens the door and waves at me to enter, which I immediately do. Catherine then closes the door again, her and Alois waiting outside.
What I was expecting to find was just Rhea and Seteth ready to interrogate the living shit out of me and no one else. Instead, standing by them, I find that there are also Hanneman and Dimitri, the latter looking awkwardly at me while the former's posture is slouched down. That coupled with Seteth's...slightly more furrowed brow than usual and Rhea not keeping up that fake serene smile of hers doesn't exactly bode well.
"Welcome, Eugenio." Rhea's greeting at first seems the same kind of cordial as the last time I met her. But that impression quickly fades away when I notice the disappointed look in her eyes. Is she just angry for this whole ordeal the Lions went through? And if not, what have I done?
She gestures at the two actual humans that were already in this room beforehand. "Professor Hanneman and Prince Dimitri have already provided a report of the events that have transpired." she lowers her hand and the same disappointment that I saw in her eyes seeps into her words. "And also of the secret you consciously decided to hide from the Church."
I glance towards Hanneman. He has his head lowered, refusing to look at me. Which tells me all I need to know.
He cracked. Fuck…
"Lady Rhea, I…" I attempt to say, before the crazed reptile shuts me up with an icy glare.
"I have already heard all that needed to be said," she states matter of factly as she starts walking towards me, "You have knowingly kept secret from the Church the misuse of Relic artifacts. An action that not only was an affront to the same Church that has offered you sanctuary, but also allowed wicked souls to run free on the land protected by the Goddess and harm innocents."
She says all that without ever raising her voice. No angry cracks or any other emotion put into her words. Just a cold, neutral series of statements.
Somehow, that's even worse than her just going apeshit.
"If you wish to atone for this, you shall reveal all that you know about these infidels. And you shall do so at once," she concludes as she stops just a few centimeters from me. She is only a couple of centimeters taller than me. That much I remember from the game. But the look in her eyes makes me feel like an ant next to her.
Okay, better keep my wits together. I've only got one chance to sell what I've come up with. And if I fail I doubt I'm walking out of this place alive now.
"Dere isn't much I know," I start, doing my best to keep an even tone. "What I do know is what little could be gadered about dem across de years."
Rhea has no apparent reaction to my words. She only replies "I said all that you know. Who are these Night Cats?"
Here we go, I guess. Into the dragon's maw. Almost literally.
"De Night Cats demselves are merely agents of a larger group known as 'de Nightcrawlers'," I start. No way I'm risking it by dropping their actual names. And I'm not calling them 'Those Who Slither In The Dark' when there's a chance what I'm saying will reach Edelgard's and Hubert's ears. No matter how slim.
"Nightcrawlers." Not a muscle on Rhea's face moves aside from her mouth as she parrots my words. "Is that what they're called?"
Okay, she isn't calling out lies. Yet. That should mean I can go on with this.
"It's de name dey're commonly referred to." I answer "No one knows what dey're actually called. Or why dey do what dey do."
This way, should the name 'Agarthans' come up, I have a cover for not giving it sooner. And also for Rhea not to suspect I know her people's history with them.
"And what is it they do?" Rhea asks, an impatient note starting to enter her voice.
"Dey are responsible for several people's disappearances," I tell her. "For de longest time all dat was known was dat people were taken by dem and den were never seen again. Dat is until one person - a woman by de name Tara Platt - managed to escape dem and revealed what she saw under deir custody."
Again, Rhea's face remains impassive. She doesn't say anything about my claims. Which I take as a sign to go on.
"She spoke of underground labs where she and oders suffered from experiments. Experiments in which dey were cut open, repeatedly made to bleed or underwent extremely invasive surgeries." At least that's what I'm imagining the experiments Edelgard and the brat went through involved. "She also said dat, during her time dere, she saw dem train horribly disfigured monsters and practice casting strange spells."I pause before saying the part I came up with to justify recognizing them. "Strange spells such as de one used by 'Lion' when she first made contact wit us."
"And I'm assuming that is how you were able to identify them?" Rhea comments with the same steady tone as before.
"Dat," I reply, "Plus deir need to wear masks."
Finally, her face does show some kind of reaction. Just an eyebrow slightly arched, but still something.
"De fact cases of people disappearing could be linked to de Nightcrawlers is tanks to deir peculiar physical features. Skin white as a sheet and unnatural-looking eyes, some wit black sclerae and oders wit no pupils at all."
I'm not sure if it's just my imagination, but Rhea seems to slightly tense at my description of the Slitherers. What I'm sure I'm not imagining is the fact that her eyes seem to unfocus on me. Taking that opportunity, I glance around at the other people in this room. Seteth's brow is much more furrowed than it was before. So is Hanneman's, although he seems more pensive than whatever Seteth is. And Dimitri...Dimitri has tensed and is looking at...nothing in particular. With his gaze not focused at all. As if lost in thoughts. What is he…?
"Are these Nightcrawlers actually humans or are they demons?" Rhea interrupts my thoughts, her whole stance back to business.
I shake my head at her question. "Unknown. Dey could be eider. Or anyting in between. Dey usually come to deir targets, take who dey're after and den disappear before anyone can realize what's happening. No one ever managed to capture one of dem and learn more."
"Hmmm," Rhea replies, her head nodding ever so slightly, "And from what they claimed, you were purposefully brought here. So the question is 'why are you here?'"
That is the one question I couldn't think of an answer to. I'm not especially bright or strong or knowledgeable or important. Even among people who have played this game, there are thousands out there who know more of it than me and can certainly speak English much better than me. Not to mention that if that had been the reason, Lion shouldn't have been surprised by me knowing who they were.
"I have absolutely no idea," I answer. The first honest thing I've told her so far. "I'm noting special back where I lived. De only ting I can tink of is because I know de legends about Fódlan from my homeland. But even den, dere are many more dat know more dan I do."
Again, Rhea doesn't react to that. She just stares at me, her lime eyes drilling holes into mine. It gets so uncomfortable I'm tempted to turn my eyes away from her and yet...I just can't.
"I see," she says when she's finished staring me into the eyes. "So all that you can say about them is what crimes they've committed and what witnesses have seen them do. But not what their actual goals are. Or why they would have an interest in you. Or why they would even come to Fódlan."
I nod. "Dat is correct." I have to hope this is believable enough. The only other explanations I could think of for recognizing the Slitherers were even more convoluted than this.
Rhea takes a step backward. "Then you are at least the closest thing in this land to an expert on them."
I, uh...guess I am? What of it?
"And whatever their reasons may be, the purpose for which they took you must be of the utmost importance if they were willing to reveal themselves like this."
Debatable since apparently, I can do even if not alive. Still...she might be onto something.
"For that reason, I believe your skills are best employed somewhere other than the library."
"As of now, your place will no longer be by Tomas' side at the library. It will be under Professor Hanneman's tutelage. As one of the Blue Lions."
...it takes me a moment to register what she said. But when it does, the only thing I can do is cry out, "What?! Why?!"
Rhea maintains her composure as she answers. "Because this is not the last we will see of them. They have failed this time. But they will be coming again. And this is the only way to use that fact against them."
I...I can't even…" Are you saying you want to use me as bait for dem?"
Rhea doesn't nod or say anything to confirm my question. But the fact she doesn't do anything to negate it either must mean she just doesn't want to put it that way.
"You can't!" I protest vehemently "I'm not even an actual fighter!"
"Not yet," she concedes as serenely as always, "But your triumph over one of the Night Cats shows you have potential. A potential the training of the Officers' Academy will see realized."
"I don't have 'a potential'!" I counter, my patience for her bullshit starting to wear thin. "I only took advantage of a cheap shot dat won't work again!"
"If I may intervene, Archbishop," Seteth chimes in, drawing the attention of both of us to him. Behind him, Hanneman and Dimitri are looking at each other uncomfortably. "I agree with him. Besides his obvious inexperience making him a liability on a battlefield, this arrangement would also put the Blue Lions into unnecessary danger."
"Danger will come regardless," Rhea replies, still so irritatingly serene. "Now that we know who they are, the Nightcrawlers will grow bolder. If it is not out there with the Blue Lions, it will be here with all of the students and the Church's personnel. Would you rather it came to that, Seteth?"
"Of course not," her brother rebukes, "But…"
"Then I have spoken," she cuts him off, ending the debate there and then.
"And what if I refuse?" I keep protesting.
To that, Rhea turns back to me, bends her neck backward, and gives a piercing glare that is...way too similar to the one she gives Byleth when he sides with Edelgard. And just like the one Seteth gave me not too long ago.
Is that glare a frigging family trait or something?
"You seem to have misinterpreted your situation," she says, her tone noticeably colder than before, "The Church welcomed you here when you had nowhere else to go. And you repaid that kindness with lies and deceit. That you are being made a student of the Officers' Academy is better than what you would have received under normal circumstances." She arches an eyebrow before continuing, "Unless, of course, you have more to say about the Nightcrawlers to explain why you can't face them?"
...I have no idea whether she's just asking a question or she's implying she knows I have not been completely honest with her. But either way, I get her message. 'Back off or else.'
"No," I tell her, defeat in my voice. As much as I hate this, this is the woman with the power and authority to make my life so much worse.
Her head returns to normal. "Good. Then it's decided." She briefly glances at Hanneman and Dimitri. "The two of you can leave with him."
Without missing a beat, the three of us go straight for the door and get out of the room.
"So how did it go?" Catherine greets with a smile, mimicked by Alois. Both of their expressions fall, however, when they see ours.
"What happened?" Alois asks with concern.
"In short," I groan, rubbing the back of my head, "It seems I'm officially joining de Blue Lions."
"What?" the two Knights ask in unison as their eyes widen.
After Alois and Catherine recovered from the initial surprise, Hanneman decided to let me explain the finer details to the two while he and Dimitri met with the other Lions and informed them of these developments, adding that I could join the lessons starting from tomorrow.
Dimitri was strangely quiet through it all. Quiet and not entirely present, with his gaze focused elsewhere most of the time. And I think I overheard him mutter something to himself. Knowing that during the war phase he becomes Mister 'Kill every last one of them', I really don't like what the implications could be.
In any case, the three of us then decided to retreat to the dining hall, where we would have slightly more privacy while the students are busy with the lessons. From there, I proceeded to tell them all that transpired within Rhea's chambers. Alois looks more and more baffled as I go on. Catherine just keeps furrowing her brow.
"So wait, let me get this straight," she says when I'm finished, "Hanneman found out you had a new type of Crest - a type these Nightcrawlers gave to you - and you chose to keep quiet about it from Lady Rhea?"
I nod. "You know even better dan me how big of a deal having a Crest is to begin wit. I didn't want to draw dat kind of attention."
"What sort of thinking is that?" Catherine retorts, "We all knew circumstances weren't normal when you first came here. What made you think that hiding this because it would make you stand out less was a good idea?"
I purse my lips as I lower my head. The answer to her question is simple; I didn't want to alter their coming future in any way. I thought this would be like those isekai fanfics I used to read where there was not an actual reason as to why someone is taken from Earth. Even after Hanneman told me there was actually a reason, I still thought if I laid low I'd avoid messing everything up like I always do.
And now, Shamir lies in the infirmary with her legs all but lost, the Slitherers' are no longer hidden from everyone else, Rhea and Dimitri might have taken a step towards insanity sooner than they should have, and I've just made the Blue Lions targets.
It was all for nothing.
"Oi, you still there?" Catherine interjects, "Come on, don't space out! Say something!"
"...I'm sorry," is all I can say in a low voice.
Catherine seems to relax at that. "Well, that's...mmmph."
Raising my head again, I find that Alois has placed a hand on Catherine's mouth, whose eyes are now throwing an icy glare at him. One he doesn't seem to be concerned by.
"What are you apologizing for?" he asks me, a perplexed look on his face.
Isn't it obvious already, Alois? "For de burden I've been. For getting you all tangled up in dis mess. And for Shamir."
Immediately, Alois comes to my side and places a hand on my shoulder. "You have not been a burden. And you are not responsible for what has happened."
"I am," I retort, "Had you two not found me dat day, de Nightcrawlers would never have been de Church's problem." At least not before Edelgard made them.
"Doubtful," Catherine scoffs, "If they're as bad as you say, they would have become the Church's problem sooner or later now that they've come to Fódlan."
Just proving my point without realizing it, Cat.
"And remember," Alois adds, "We chose to welcome you here. And the Night Cats are clearly people that would have stopped at nothing to get at you. With others, they could have done so much worse. With us, there is a fighting chance."
At the price of dooming your future. Yours and everyone else's.
"And consider this," Catherine continues, "If Shamir were here to say her piece, what do you think she'd want you to do? Wallow in self-deprecating thoughts? Or react to what's happened?"
"You can keep telling yourself the Varholm cover will work indefinitely. But mark my words: it is only a matter of time before someone figures out the truth."
"Now Professor Hanneman and the Blue Lions know something is up with you," she continues unperturbed, "What do you plan on doing about it?"
"You may as well tell the truth. It'll be less of a headache for everyone."
"It's time you stop being ridiculous about this," she scoffs.
Same as when it was just about me trying to pass as a native, no doubt. Stand up for myself instead of hiding. Or in this case not just standing aside and watching as everything falls in disarray.
"You're right," I sigh. "I've got to deal wit de Nightcrawlers. Whatever it takes."
A smile comes on the face of both Knights. "That's the spirit!" Catherine adds.
I pray no harm comes to the Blue Lions in the end.
Still, with this attack already altering what was supposed to be, maybe I can take this chance to set them on a different path than the one they take in Verdant Wind. One that potentially doesn't lead to their deaths.
And there is a certain someone I need to talk to to get started on that...
"Rhea, I need you to know that I disagree with this course of action!"
"I know, Seteth," she replies. "But this is the only one we have."
"Is it?" I counter "Hiding Eugenio in Abyss until we could find these Night Cats would have been a safer option for everyone." Not to mention the perfect method to make sure he wouldn't divulge what he knows of me and Flayn.
Rhea shakes her head. "No. That he would leave on the same mission as the Blue Lions was a fact only those within these walls could know. If they are not safe, neither is Abyss." She looks me in the eye and for just a moment, they seem to turn slit. "And you know who these Nightcrawlers truly are. Only one group ever learned that spell they used to separate Hanneman and Shamir from the others."
She then turns her head away as her hands tighten on each other. "They survived." I hear her mutter. "They always survive, while we lose everything."
It takes her a few moments before she can continue. "What do you think Eugenio's reasons for lying even now could be? Fear of the Agarthans? A past among them? Or something more nefarious?"
That question reminds me of the information I have to tell her. I had hoped it would not be necessary considering how rash Rhea has always been, especially today. But now it's too important. I had warned Eugenio if his action would threaten the Monastery I would act accordingly. Whatever the consequences.
"I believe the reason is tied to the fact he and his country are not of this world."
She turns back to me, shock evident on her face. "How do you know this?"
I then proceed to recount to her what transpired between Eugenio and I. Of how I discovered his Crest long before today. Of how he recounted stories first shared with us by Mother. And of how he realized my true nature.
Rhea frowns more and more as I go on.
"So he assumed you're one of the Divine Tribe and threatened to reveal the existence of dragonkind," she summarizes at the end, her face now fully morphed into a scowl. "Does he know about me and Flayn?"
"He's met Flayn and knows she's my 'sister'," I answer. "As for you… I don't know. But with how much he knows about us, he will likely figure it out if he hasn't already."
Rhea silently contemplates my words before continuing, "It seems we have allowed a snake within Garreg Mach. A snake chased by other predators, but a serpent nonetheless."
"Indeed," I concede. "But this also means the Agarthans have gained the means to travel through the Outrealms. There can be no saying what horrors they've collected in their journeys."
Rhea closes her eyes and takes a deep breath after my comment. After that, her face returns to a normal expression. "Then all the more reason we have to go through this. They must be found and exterminated. Only then will we deliver the punishment Eugenio deserves."
I wince at her words. "Wait, Rhea, I don't think such drastic measures…"
"Cichol," she cuts me off. "This parasite has exploited our goodwill on more than one occasion. And the fact that he is an Outrealmer from Mother's old world alone would be a threat to all that we've built. The fact that he is not afraid to use it against us makes him far more dangerous than anything we've faced since the War of Heroes. Too dangerous to be left alive."
"I…" I sigh. As much as I detest to admit it, she has a point. "I understand. But I told you he claimed to have countermeasures in place should anything happen to him."
She merely nods. "If such countermeasures exist, we will find them. And we will eliminate them."
I nod to that. That much, at least, I can agree on.
Thus the escalation begins, with Eugenio being thrown into the fray of things and Rhea putting him into her crosshair.
Little piece of trivia: 'Nightcrawlers' was a fan-translated name for Those Who Slither In The Dark I found on some forums when they were revealed in Japan but had yet to be given their localized name.
Thanks once more to Softandhappy and Stormtide Leviathan for betareading this. You can join us at the TreeHouse Discord server, code: 9XG3U7a
I'll see you guys in next chapter with Eugenio settling into his new position.