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Goddess Against the Church

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Professor Byleth was still unsure what Archbishop Rhea had planned, or what she meant by a divine revelation, as her and her students filed into the Holy Tomb behind Rhea. After all, she was Sothis, and she was increasingly certain she was indeed the goddess – how could she possibly recieve a Revelation from herself? And how much did Rhea know about her? She only grew more confused as she gazed around the vast tomb and realized it was exactly the same as the realm inside her head where her two halves had conversed before they'd fused. Her memories gnawed at her – she'd clearly been here before, in the physical sense, but she just could not remember anything more than a vague sense of familiarity no matter how hard she tried.

Perhaps something of her confusion showed on her face, for Rhea interrupted her thoughts to remark "Are you surprised, Professor? This is the Holy Tomb."

Byleth was unsure how to reply, but Edelgard thankfully replied instead, voicing her surprise at the vast room. Several of the other students chattered away as well; Lindhardt and Professor Hanneman were full of curiosity, discussing something about crests as they always did. The very religious Marianne, Manuela, and Mercedes quietly expressed their awe. Alois seemed to be making bad puns about the tomb that nobody except Bernadetta laughed at. Even Caspar and Raphael seemed for once to be interested in something other than food, training, and their families, looking around the room with interest along with everyone else. Only Shamir, Felix, and oddly enough Flayn looked unimpressed; perhaps Flayn had been here before.

Rhea hushed them with her imperious gaze once they approached the throne at the focal point of the room. Her throne, one she used to sit on constantly before her two selves fused. "This is where the goddess who created this world was laid to rest, along with her children. It is said that our creator – the goddess Sothis – sat upon this very throne. Professor... Do you recognize this throne?"

How odd. The more Rhea spoke the less Byleth understood; she was quite certain she was alive, for one, yet Rhea seemed to be implying this was her tomb. But perhaps there was some truth to what she said? If only she could regain her memories somehow!! "I do," Byleth replied, her stoic half helping to hide her confusion.

Rhea seemed happy at this reply, and bid her to sit. There was nothing else to do, she supposed, as she sat in her throne, as she had done countless times before. And she continued sitting. The minutes passed, thirteen minutes to be exact. Nothing happened. The class started growing restless, Caspar and Raphael in particular having a loud conversation about what they planned to eat for dinner that was entirely inappropriate for a solemn religious affair, Sylvain even having the audacity to start hitting on Dorothea yet again. Rhea started muttering to herself, sounding disappointed, seemingly so much so that she didn't even bother to hush the students.

It had now been thirty-three minutes. Just as Byleth was about to break her silence and ask how long she must continue to sit, Edelgard's commanding voice interrupted. "Stop right there!" Her voice rang out.

An army of what appeared to be imperial soldiers rushed in beyond Edelgard and Hubert. Byleth stood up and quickly hurried over to her students as Edelgard explained: She was the Flame Emperor, and was here to seize the crest stones. Several of the students expressed surprise, drowning each other out in their clamor, a feeling Byleth shared. But before Byleth could muster a response, Rhea yelled back, dubbing Edelgard a traitor and ordering Byleth to destroy the assembled Imperials.

Edelgard spoke, her voice sorrowful but determined. "I'm sorry, my teacher. I cut this path, and now I must follow it. My friends... I ask that all of you stay back! It is not my intention to fight you."

She reiterated her order to grab the crest stones and kill anyone who resisted, and the imperial soldiers charged, and worse Byleth glimpsed two demonic beasts had just entered the Tomb as well. It was far too much for Byleth to process; overwhelmed, she stopped time to process what was happening. The world, including Byleth, froze.

Edelgard was the Flame Emperor? She had believed the Flame Emperor to be a villain, an accomplice of the group that killed her father, kidnapped Flayn, and massacred the people of Remire Village. But that could not be – Byleth had known her for nearly a year, and Edelgard was a kind-hearted if pragmatic person, devoted to making the world a better place. Could it all have been a deceit? Byleth looked over her memories, and had to admit it did make a certain sort of sense – Edelgard clearly disliked the Church and had never been present when the Flame Emperor appeared, and had always seemed to have an oddly sympathetic opinion of the Flame Emperor. But Edelgard had also helped her avenge her father's death! It had indeed been Edelgard's axe that buried itself in Solon's forehead, killing him.

Byleth expanded her senses, peering at Edelgard with more than eyes. Presumably because of her divinity, Byleth seemed to have the ability to evaluate people on a deeper level, peering at their souls directly. Rhea, Flayn, and Seteth unfortunately seemed somehow inscrutable to this higher sense, but not others – notably, she had sensed a darkness in Tomas's heart long before his reveal as Solon. But when Byleth looked at Edelgard, she just saw... Edelgard. Her star pupil, and increasingly, best friend. She sensed no malice, no darkness, just a young girl who wanted to make the world a better place with all her heart. That was who she truly was, at her core.

But that girl was attempting to commit grave robbery against her tomb, and threatening to kill them all if they interfered! She was clearly no friend. And she even seemed to have some of those foul demonic beasts at her command! Sothis was outraged at the sheer audacity, such a villain must be brought to justice!

Wait. Sothis? Not Byleth? No. Something was wrong. Byleth quickly realized that her internal turmoil had gotten so severe that the fusion between her two halves, which she'd previously assumed was irreversible, was on the verge of falling apart, and she could even feel a sudden painful headache coming on to emphasize the point. That would not do! She was one person now and intended to stay herself. Time continued to stand still as Byleth forced herself to decide a course of action calmly and rationally, one that would satisfy both parts of her.

Finally, Byleth was of one mind again. Surely there was a reason for Edelgard's drastic action, and Rhea as well was clearly withholding many secrets. If only she had her memories back, perhaps she would know! But without her memories, there was only one option. She would protect her Tomb, capture Edelgard and Hubert alive. She would then demand both they and Rhea explain what was truly going on here. Ending the time stop, Byleth's uncertainty was gone, and she quickly shouted orders to her students.

The fight was fierce, particularly against Edelgard's two pet demonic beasts, but ultimately Byleth's victory was inevitable. Edelgard may have learned from the best, but the student could not defeat the master, especially not when Byleth could rewind time itself at will. Not even a single crest stone made it out of the tomb throughout the battle, and both demonic beasts were destroyed by her students' well-led batallions. Sword of the Creator in hand, Byleth blazed a bloody trail through the Imperial troops, until she finally brought a badly wounded Edelgard to her knees in defeat. Seeing their Emperor falling, the remaining Imperial troops all moved to surrender or flee. Edelgard continued to gaze at her defiantly, and the words she spoke were not ones of surrender. "So it is my teacher who stands in my way. I always knew it would come to this..."

Archbishop Rhea strode forward, clearly undisturbed by the many soldiers' corpses she stepped over, accompanied by Byleth's many students. Handing Byleth a bag, Rhea quietly whispered, "Because of your heroism, there was no damage to the tomb; I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Take these as a small token of appreciation for your efforts."

Without waiting for a reply, the Archbishop then turned to face Edelgard, her face suddenly contorted with rage, and continued her rant of condemnation from the battle.

Byleth opened her mouth to interrupt and start asking Edelgard to explain what was going on here, but Rhea silenced her with her next orders. "Professor. Kill Edelgard at once."

Shocked, Byleth began to turn around to reply. She knew Rhea was rather merciless, but surely she could not possibly believe she'd follow an order to kill her own student? Without even interrogating her, or determining a motive, or anything? It wasn't just merciless, it was downright foolish; if Edelgard really was at the heart of a vast villainous conspiracy, she was potentially a treasure trove of information about the Wicked Ones. Not to mention the fact that executing a sitting Emperor was a good way to provoke a full scale war with the Empire in which thousands would die. "No-" she began, but before the words exitted her lips she felt time itself scream. Reflexively, Byleth stopped time again.

She had intended to simply refuse to kill Edelgard and politely explain she should be taken alive, but somehow she could tell it would not be that simple. She could sense somehow that whatever she did here, whether she obeyed Rhea's order or not, would somehow have drastic consequences on the timeline of Fodlan. The choice she made would impact the lives of millions, perhaps all of Fodlan. All her divine senses were screaming at her to decide carefully. But the worst part was she had no idea why.

She didn't know what Rhea or Edelgard were planning, or why Edelgard had robbed the tomb. She could not percieve what lay inside Rhea's soul no matter how hard she tried, and Edelgard's soul seemed to contradict her actions. Nothing about this situation made sense, at least not with her memories gone; she felt somehow sure she'd met Rhea before coming to the monastery, somewhere in her lost memories, but could not remember. Byleth tried again to jog her divine half's memories, trying to remember anything that would help her decide what to do, something about Rhea or the Church of Seiros or the Adrestian Empire but as they had the last hundred times, the efforts came to naught. It was so frustrating!

Byleth spent a long time, or in a sense no time at all, agonizing over the decision and complaining to herself about her amnesia, and getting nowhere. Ultimately, she decided to try to analyze her memories of Rhea and Edelgard with this new information in mind.

She remembered Jeralt's reluctance to return to the monastery. She remembered her outrage at Rhea repeatedly sending mere children to fight the Church's battles. She remembered the Church's report on information gleaned from interrogating Kostas's arrested subordinates, implicating the Flame Emperor as the one who hired them, perhaps to assassinate Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude; had Edelgard sent assassins after herself? She remembered Lonato, desperately trying to avenge his son whom the Church allegedly killed unjustly, while Edelgard subtly implied she agreed with Lonato. She remembered the Western Church declaring Rhea a heretic and Rhea ordering them slaughtered mercilessly in retaliation, with Byleth and Edelgard helping to carry out that massacre. She remembered what happened to Miklan, how Sylvain had been forced to kill his own brother and he then turned into a Demonic Beast, and how Edelgard expressed sorrow over the whole situation. She remembered Edelgard revealing her childhood and the massacre of her entire family in vile experiments ordered by Duke Aegir, to instill the Crest of Flames. She remembered how Edelgard seemingly played both sides and helped kidnap and rescue Flayn. She remembered Jeralt's death, and how Edelgard and Hubert had been rude to Byleth in her mourning but also helped avenge Jeralt. She remembered Jeralt's diary, detailing how he fled the monastery out of fear for what Rhea had done to Byleth. She remembered the Flame Emperor promising that she opposed what Solon did in Remire, and again recalled Edelgard's axe burying itself in Solon's body. She remembered Edelgard telling her friends that she did not intend to harm any of them, but also telling her troops to kill them all if they got in the way.

Ultimately, after going over all the facts, Byleth decided – there was no clear, logical answer here. The politics here were clearly complicated, and there was too much Byleth did not know, too much contradictory information. Rhea and Edelgard had both been hiding far too much from her. Ultimately, all Byleth knew was that she could not follow a sudden order to kill her own student and friend without even understanding what was going on. It was not only foolish, it was morally wrong. Resolute in her decision, she resumed the flow of time.

"No, I will not kill my own student," Byleth said, turning to face Rhea. "We should - "

"YOU.. HOW DARE YOU!" Rhea interrupted, with pure venom in her booming voice, stunning Byleth into silence. Gone was the matronly Archbishop – Rhea's face looked like that of a crazed killer. For perhaps the first time in her entire life, Byleth felt true fear – something in Rhea's face and tone of voice made Byleth feel like Rhea had killed millions, and that Byleth was next. Bernadetta, watching from among the students, gave a screech of terror. Edelgard and Hubert (who had seemingly just Warped in, even though Byleth distinctly remembered Hubert saying he had no skill with teleportation magic; another lie Byleth supposed) spoke something that sounded like thanks behind her, but Byleth was a bit distracted, and Rhea soon interrupted them anyway. "So this is the choice you have made. YOU ARE JUST ANOTHER FAILURE. Your presence soils this Holy Tomb and disgraces my brethren. I will not allow one who would lend our enemies strength to wield the power of the goddess Sothis."

"I-" Byleth began, trying desperately to explain, but Rhea interrupted immediately, her voice growing louder with every word as her body itself began to change shape.


What followed was chaos. Rhea was suddenly a dragon and was breathing fire at them. Hubert and Edelgard were shouting something about an "Immaculate One" and Rhea being a monster. Bernadetta was screaming, clearly having a panic attack, only for Caspar to pick her up bodily and run for the Holy Tomb's exit, presumably too confused by the situation to determine who to punch; and Raphael promptly did the same with a similarily panicking Ignatz. Byleth reflexively wielded the Sword of the Creator to deflect the dragon's fire breath, but much of it still got through, and Byleth was only saved from immolation by Alois knocking her to the ground at the last second. Alois shouted at the Archbishop a request to please calm down as he did so, but Rhea clearly wasn't listening.

To their credit, several of the students took the madness in stride and charged into the fight; but they quickly found themselves in over their heads. Leonie, reacting without hesitation upon seeing her mentor's daughter endangered, galloped towards Rhea in a fearless charge, her batallion following. She shouted some battle cry about how Jeralt warned her about Rhea, and looked incredibly gallant for a few seconds, but was swiftly thrown off her horse with incredible force as Flayn unleashed an Excalibur spell at her and scored a direct hit, which also sent most of her batallion flying. Lysithea and Hubert counterattacked, sending Miasma spells flying at Flayn, and the air lit up with magical explosions as their magical duel escalated. Flayn demonstrated a level of magical skill that far exceeded anything she'd ever revealed in the classroom, enough to nearly overpower even a Thyrsus-wielding prodigy like Lysithea; Byleth quietly noted that her suspicions that Flayn was older than she looked had probably been correct. Petra dived down from the air on her wyvern at Rhea, but her axe merely bounced off Rhea's thick scales; Rhea countered with her claws and sent Petra and her wyvern crashing to the ground, the wyvern screaming as it entered its death throes, while most of her batallion sacrificed themselves to protect Petra from a follow-up attack as the injured Brigid princess rolled away. The flash of several healing spells could be seen as Linhardt, Dorothea, and Mercedes desperately tried to keep people alive without knowing who was friend or foe, Mercedes notably healing both Flayn and Leonie. Rhea let loose another breath attack at a wide-eyed Mercedes, who was saved at the last second by Felix jumping in front of her with his Aegis Shield relic; most of her accompanying batallion was far less lucky, screaming as they burned alive. Annette, outraged to see her best friend endangered, cast Sagittae, sending a hailstorm of magical arrows flying at Rhea, and by some miracle actually caused the Archbishop to flinch for a moment; but still left no visible injuries.

All that, in the few seconds it took Byleth to pick herself up off the ground and quickly heal a mildly burned Alois so he could do the same. Many of the students, such as Ingrid, Ashe, Marianne, Ferdinand, Lorenz, and Sylvain, were too confused and shocked to even react, merely looking around dumbfounded as their former allies started trying to kill each other. They were clearly too disorganized and unprepared to defeat a foe this strong, and Byleth was pretty sure Rhea wasn't interested in calming down to talk, not least because Alois's continued pleas for calm were falling on deaf ears. "We need to escape!" shouted Hubert, but he was barely heard in the chaos, especially with all the very loud blasts of wind magic that Flayn was throwing at him.

Someone had to take command. As one, Byleth and Edelgard shouted out "BLACK EAGLES, RETREAT!", cutting through the din even as Rhea let loose yet another breath of fire that left Hubert's batallion almost entirely slaughtered and the man himself covered in serious burns. Shamir, Hanneman, and Manuela looked around at each other and their surroundings, clearly just as dumbfounded by Rhea's transformation as everyone else despite being faculty, before promptly all running for the exit along with the students, with Manuela helping the badly injured Hubert to his feet and mostly carrying him out. Felix and Byleth used their relics' powers to act as a hurried rear guard to hold off Flayn and Rhea while the rest escaped. The surrendered Imperial soldiers, however, were left behind to Rhea's likely nonexistent mercy – there simply was no time to save everyone who was injured, and the Black Eagles all prioritized their friends over the soldiers who had been enemies mere minutes ago.

They ran, rode, carried the injured, teleported, and flew. The Knights of Seiros guarding the gates reacted with confusion but made no move to stop them, thinking them allies, with Byleth and Alois shouting vague excuses about urgent business. They also passed Claude and Dimitri on the way out; Dimitri looked on in confusion, Claude asked where they were going, but neither made any attempt to follow or stop them. Rhea, thankfully, was seemingly too big to exit the Holy Tomb in her draconic form, and Flayn hadn't made any move to give chase, so they had at least a little time, though unfortunately not enough time to grab their belongings. It was lucky Byleth had most of the Black Eagles' equipment stored in an extradimensional "Convoy" only she could access.

They slowed to a more reasonable pace once they were clear of the Monastery, but continued fleeing until well into the night, following Edelgard. Byleth was still unsure what to make of Edelgard and her motives, but considering that Rhea was probably busy giving orders to her knights at this very moment to hunt Byleth down and kill her, she didn't have much choice but to trust her friend and student and hope they'd have safe haven in the Empire. She was surprised though that every last one of her students except Flayn, and even her fellow Professors and Shamir, had followed. Perhaps seeing the Archbishop go completely berserk had made them reconsider their loyalties.

The group was mostly silent as they marched other than the occasional scream from Bernadetta, who was still in shock and being carried by Caspar; and Alois, who either couldn't read the mood or didn't care and continued trying to make jokes that nobody laughed at. But nobody told him to be quiet either, not even the largely humorless Edelgard; perhaps on some level they all appreciated the attempt at levity after... Whatever that battle had been.

Finally, they saw Imperial flags in the distance, and Edelgard soon announced they'd reached their destination. After being saluted by her troops, apparently led by a pair named Randolph and Ladislava, Edelgard directed the exhausted students and professors to some appropriate tents, and told them they could talk in the morning, once everyone had slept and the many injured, Hubert included, regained consciousness.

Byleth was rather impatient for an explanation for what had just happened, but instead she followed Manuela to help treat the injured with her own healing magic; she supposed it made sense to wait until the morning, once everyone had rested.

For now, she could only think in silence of what she had witnessed. Was that really Rhea's true nature? A murderous "monster," as Edelgard had called her? And what of Flayn, who had seemingly been completely unsurprised and leapt to Rhea's defense, demonstrating an almost mythical level of magical skill despite her likely false youth? Were Flayn and Seteth also dragons, perhaps? What was their relationship with Byleth, or rather, with Sothis? If they truly viewed Byleth as their god, why would Rhea try to kill her so suddenly? And if Flayn was older than she looked, perhaps the same was true of Rhea? Byleth remembered how eerily similar to Rhea the Seiros in Byleth's dreams had looked; previously Byleth had dismissed it as merely a coincidence or family resemblance, as no human could have lived that long. But now she was less sure; perhaps dragons did live that long and Rhea really was Seiros herself.

Byleth desperately hoped Edelgard would have some answers for her in the morning. But on some level she feared that only Rhea truly knew about the truth of her forgotten past as Sothis, if anyone alive did, and somehow Byleth doubted that Rhea would be forthcoming with that information. No part of her regretted the decision she had made, however; Rhea's berserker rampage at the mere suggestion of mercy had amplified her concerns about Rhea's cruel and secretive behavior quite considerably, suffice it to say.

After about a half hour of work, Manuela turned to Byleth. "You should get some sleep, you've used up the last of your healing magic anyway. Thanks for all the help. And Professor?"

"Yes?" replied Byleth.

"Let me know if you find out where the Imperial Army is keeping its alcohol, and I don't mean the medical kind. I think I'm going to need a drink after today."

Chapter Text

Just after breakfast, everyone assembled, summoned by Fleche, who was apparently Randolph's younger sister. Byleth, Edelgard, and Hubert stood at the front, while the other (former?) students and faculty assembled to listen. Edelgard had quietly informed Byleth they'd talk in a smaller group afterwards.

"We somehow managed to escape," summarized Edelgard. She had abandoned her Flame Emperor attire and was back in her officer's academy uniform; Byleth was unsure if it was out of a genuine attachment to the uniform or merely a propaganda tool to seem more friendly to her peers. Knowing Edelgard, there was a good chance that it was actually both.

"This is one of the Imperial army's provisional camps. Here we can organize our forces." Hubert added, stating what was perhaps obvious at this point.

"Before we go any further, I want all of you to really ask yourselves if you're certain you wish to join us. As expected, Flayn has chosen to leave our ranks."

"Really? I didn't notice," interrupted Leonie, clearly sarcastic. Her horse had died yesterday to Flayn's Excalibur, and Leonie herself had barely survived the spell.

"The important thing is we all survived!" declared Alois.

"When I saw our professor running off. I ran about as fast as I could to catch up," announced Caspar; Edelgard look flustered as the entire class started talking, sabotaging her attempts at making this a speech.

"My grandfather was the leader of Brigid, and I hope for us to be allies with the Empire. I will be staying," declared Petra.

"The same is true for me. You're my best friend Edelgard, and I hope for House Ordelia to have good relations with the Empire, too," echoed Lysithea. Best friend? Byleth had noticed their friendship, but hadn't realized they'd become that close. It was interesting; Edelgard had always been a bit distant when talking with students from other countries. Perhaps it had something to do with both of them having two crests?

"I'm happy to help so long as you pay me," added Shamir; Leonie nodded in agreement.

"W-was this a good idea? Did I make the right choice? Oh, but my family is part of the Empire, and our professor is here..." Bernadetta stuttered, as Caspar tried to reassure her.

"Though it's true certain houses were against the Imperial princess..." noted Caspar, glancing awkwardly at Ferdinand. Wait. How did Caspar of all people know that? Come to think of it, Byleth had noticed him talking to Randolph in the morning while she'd been on her way to this assembly, perhaps that was how he'd heard.

"I assume you are referring to my family," replied Ferdinand, catching his meaning. So, it seemed Ferdinand had also somehow heard about Duke Aegir's arrest; Byleth looked on curiously to see his reaction. "I must believe the conclusion I came to is the correct one. You are the emperor now..." He gestured at Edelgard. "I am the only one left who is qualified to guide you at this point." Byleth smiled with pride at her student; the fact that Ferdinand could take his murderous father's arrest in stride showed he really did value his principles as much as he claimed.

Linhardt muttered a complaint about how standing against Edelgard would be troublesome, but was quickly interrupted by Dorothea. "I'm not just here for you, Edie," apparently untroubled at the idea of calling a sitting Emperor by such an informal nickname. "I'm here to follow our dear Professor. Of course, I don't have any territory to offer... so Hubie may not even want me here." It was a transparent lie meant to tease Edelgard; Byleth was well aware of how close their friendship was, and doubted Dorothea would ever willingly take up arms against Edelgard.

"The greater our numbers, the better. Your reasons-" Hubert began, but was interrupted, this time by Felix.

"Enough of this pointless banter. What the hell was that? Even the Boar isn't as bloodthirsty as Rhea was, I can barely believe that was the Archbishop."

"I really can't believe it... The Archbishop, she... Nearly killed me..." muttered Mercedes, looking on the verge of tears. Annette moved to hug her, and Byleth had to suppress the urge to follow suit. Sylvain also moved to join the hug, but a murderous glare from Annette repelled him.

"Yes, Edelgard, I think you owe us an explanation," agreed Ingrid.

"I was trying to get to that," sighed Edelgard, looking flustered but finally resuming her speech. "I think I understand where you're coming from. But now, I wish to hear of your resolve. Like you, I have risen to meet my destiny. I cut this path, and I will see it through to the end. Following me is akin to pointing a sword at the goddess herself. One misstep, and we fall to our ruin." Byleth internally did a double take at that statement, seeing as she was the goddess, but Edelgard continued.

"You have now winessed the archbishop's true self. She is a cruel beast. Those who rule this world use that beast's power to fabricate miracles, all to control those who blindly believe in the goddess. They conceal the truth and force their lies on the nobility. They mercilessly annihilate anyone who defies them. I know this because I have lived it. After what you have seen, is there any room for doubt? The Church of Seiros has great influence and power. Their control over the lands of the Kingdom and the Alliance is nearly absolute. We are the only ones who can stop this indomitable enemy that has plagued our world for ages. We fight for humanity! For all of Fodlan! If you dare walk this path with me, take your first step. It's now or never!"

It was a charismatic speech; even Byleth felt a bit inspired. Caspar, Ferdinand, Lysithea, Dorothea, and Petra stepped forward without hesitation. Bernadetta was only a second behind, despite looking terrified. Linhardt was next, despite looking like he'd rather be napping.

Shamir looked at Edelgard expectantly. "Yes, you will be paid, Shamir, and you too Leonie, as will all who serve the Empire," the Emperor clarified. "You can meet with Hubert to discuss specific terms of payment later today." Shamir stepped forward, immediately followed by Leonie, who'd always dreamed of being a great mercenary like Jeralt.

Several minutes passed in awkward silence while the other students thought about it. Byleth, too, contemplated her pupil's words, and sighed internally as she did so. As inspiring as they were, they clearly came from a position of significant ignorance. Edelgard clearly knew nothing whatsoever about her past as Sothis. Edelgard's motive was now clear to Byleth; she'd blamed all of Fodlan's many problems on the Church of Seiros, and Rhea in particular, and was thus seeking to overthrow them. Byleth supposed she wasn't entirely wrong, other than the part about waging war on the goddess who was, in fact, standing right next to her. Rhea did indeed appear to be a cruel and merciless ruler, one willing to kill even her own Goddess for defying her. Moreover if Rhea was indeed Seiros and had been the effective theocratic ruler of Fodlan for the last thousand years, one really could argue that everything that was wrong with Fodlan was the fault of her immoral or incompetent leadership, and the kind of idealistic reforms Edelgard wanted to implement were impossible without first deposing Rhea. That was undoubtedly the motive behind all of Edelgard's actions as Flame Emperor.

So Edelgard clearly had a point; but she was still just an ignorant mortal in the end. Edelgard had with her own eyes witnessed Byleth's full divine power as she cut through dimensions to escape Zahra. Sothis was not some false goddess built on fabricated miracles, and her student's sheer willful ignorance bothered Byleth.

But mortals were inevitably flawed and limited in their perspective, and there was no reason Edelgard should be different. If Byleth truly was the god worshipped by the people of Fodlan, was it not her duty to help those people? She was troubled; she did not know how long she had been asleep, but she could not help feeling she had failed in her duties as a Goddess by not being there for the people while she slept and Rhea apparently mismanaged the continent in her name. The kinds of horrific experiments that had killed Edelgard's entire family, the vile acts of the Wicked Ones, the cruel nobles aplenty who abused their own children and treated commoners like cattle. Fodlan was full of horrors.

Edelgard clearly was a powerful mortal who wanted to fix this world, despite her incomplete understanding of it, and that idealism offered Byleth an opportunity to help rectify the consequences of her sleep. Byleth felt she could trust her friend to do the right thing, with some guidance. And, ultimately, her human half loved her student deeply and cared little about the high-minded moral questions that troubled her divine half; Byleth doubted she could bring herself to oppose her, now that she understand where the new Emperor was coming from, without the resulting internal turmoil tearing their fusion apart. Still, they would need to talk in private later; Edelgard's ties to the Wicked Ones bothered all parts of her greatly.

Finally, Alois brought Byleth out of her reverie and broke the silence, looking to his self-declared adoptive sister. "I harbor no ill will towards the Church of Seiros, but I will not let the Archbishop kill you; my family comes before the Church. Jeralt would never forgive me if I let her rip your heart out." He stepped forwards, for once deadly serious. Byleth was touched; Alois had been practically next-in-line to be Captain of the Knights of Seiros, but he was throwing all of that away for her. It was clear he hadn't just been joking about the idea of being adoptive siblings. She nodded to Alois in acknowledgement; perhaps she really could come to see him as an older brother, given time.

Manuela and Hanneman glanced at each other. "I'm too old for fighting a war on the frontlines. Will I still be able to continue my crest research in peace?" asked Hanneman.

"Of course, Professor. I aim to abolish the Church's crest-based hierarchy, and your research will be invaluable to accomplishing that objective."

He sighed. "I must admit I never really planned to return to the Empire after I left, but I have no wish to fight against my own country. Moreover, in her current state I fear the Archbishop would execute me if I returned. I will happily accept your offer," he said, stepping forwards.

Manuela was next to speak. "I'm no soldier, but Hanneman is right, as much as I hate to admit it; I don't feel safe going back, and I also don't want to fight against my own country. I'll lend my medical expertise to the Imperial army." She stepped fowards.

None of the Kingdom students had stepped forwards, and most of the Alliance students were standing still as well.

"What you said about the Church controlling the Kingdom and Alliance... We could end up at war with our own countries if we join you," said Ingrid, finally, voicing what they'd all been feeling. "We joined the Black Eagles because we wanted to learn under the Professor, we didn't sign up for this."

Caspar decided to take the initiative. "Raphael, Ignatz, didn't you say you wanted to become a knight to support your families? I'm sure Edelgard here can make that happen, right?"

Edelgard sighed. "I can't make a promise like that. I can, however, promise to make it happen if you are worthy of it. Commoners will not be discriminated against in my army – I aim to end the hereditary system of nobility and replace it with a meritocracy where people rise or fall by their own merits, not their birth or Crest."

Raphael and Ignatz looked at each other. A few seconds later, Raphael stepped forwards. "I don't know much about politics and religion, but if I can fulfill my goal of becoming a knight to support my sister, you have my support!"

Ignatz blinked in surprise. Finally, having gathered his courage, he also stepped forwards. Byleth looked at him in concern; she was well aware that Ignatz's true dream was to become a painter, even if he was trying to obey his family's wishes by becoming a knight. Byleth would have to make sure he didn't throw his life away before he could realize his true dream.

"What's this you've been saying about abolishing the Church's crest-based hierarchy?" asked Sylvain.

"The Church of Seiros has created a cruel system where peoples' status in their society is determined almost entirely by their Crests. I aim to end that. Perhaps by eliminating Crests entirely, if our experts can find a way to do that."

Sylvain stepped forwards, as did Marianne. The Kingdom students all looked at Sylvain in shock.

It was an interesting idea, and Byleth could see why it would appeal to people who'd been hurt by Crests. Byleth wondered if it was even possible, though, and what the consequences would be. What even were Crests, for that matter? Were they truly tokens of the Goddess's power, or rather, of Byleth's power, as Rhea claimed? Again, she simply could not remember.

Ashe, seemingly inspired by Sylvain, stepped forwards next. "Lord Lonato, my father, died opposing the Central Church of Seiros. At the time, I believed what the Church said about him, but now I wonder. He was a good man, and a good father, and the more I think about it, the more I feel the Church was wrong to kill him. I will fight for you in his memory."

"If you two do this, the Boar will kill you," said Felix.

"I killed my own brother Felix. He deserved it, but I hated it. He became the way he was because he was disowned for not having a Crest. If Edelgard is promising a world where something like that never happens again, I'm not turning her down. And besides, I can never say no to a lady as cute as you," Sylvain explained, winking at Edelgard. Edelgard sighed while Hubert glared daggers at him.

"Sylvain..." warned Byleth.

"Oh, are you jealous, Professor? Don't worry, you're cute too," winked Sylvain, seemingly undisturbed by almost the entire room glaring at him. Hubert and Ingrid especially looked like they'd actually get violent if he continued. Thankfully, for once Sylvain seemed to catch the hint and took a less flirtatious tone. "Anyway, Felix, since when have you ever feared Dimitri? Are you planning to serve him as he defends the Church, like the chivalrous knights you so adore? Fight a war in defense of that monster who calls herself Archbishop, the same one who nearly killed Mercedes, all in the name of honor and duty? Because you know full well that's exactly what Dimitri will do."

That seemed to get to Felix, who finally stepped forwards. "No, I won't serve the Boar. But you'd better fulfill your promises to make the world a better place, Edelgard, or I'll kill you myself."

Hubert looked like he was... displeased, to put it mildly, at that last remark, but Edelgard quickly waved him down. "Of course," she promised.

Ingrid looked horrified. "Felix, Sylvain, this isn't something to joke about! If you do this you'll be traitors! You'll be cast out from your families and become fugitives in Faerghus! I might... I might have to fight and kill you!"

"You don't have to do anything," replied Felix. "Do you really want to risk your life in defense of a monster like Rhea? She tried to kill Mercedes. Mercedes!"

Ingrid looked troubled, and could not seem to muster a reply to that.

She, Mercedes, Annette, and Lorenz were the last holdouts.

Lorenz finally spoke up. "I am dutybound to obey my father's wishes, and cannot join your cause without his consent. However, House Gloucester has long been friendly to the Empire, and I'm sure he will be willing to support your cause, Emperor, if certain... promises... Are made."

"I look fowards to a productive discussion," nodded Edelgard. "You can make your choice after consulting with your father; it will be a few weeks before we are ready to attack Garreg Mach. Hubert can meet with you later today to discuss the specifics, and we can arrange a messenger to carry a letter from you to your father. The Empire has in fact already begun negotiations with your father, but a word from his son would surely help sway him to our cause."

"You are most gracious, Emperor." He did not, Byleth noted, step forwards, but Edelgard seemed satisfied nevertheless. Byleth also noted that he was the only one so far not to call Edelgard by her personal name.

Annette turned to Mercedes. "Mercie, what do you want to do?"

Mercedes sighed. "I don't want to hurt anybody, and I can't agree with your talk of waging war upon the Goddess, Edelgard. My dream has always been to serve the Goddess and help people. But... the Goddess herself has gifted the Professor with her divine power, just as the Goddess once did for Seiros, and the Archbishop still tried to kill her. I can't believe the Archbishop is truly serving the Goddess anymore, given that. I feel I must protect the Professor, even if it means waging war upon the Church of Seiros." She stepped forwards. Edelgard and Hubert looked displeased with this reply, but did not object. Good; it seemed their hatred of religion was not extreme enough to persecute the devout.

Byleth was touched by what Mercedes had said, and nodded in acknowledgement. And it was an interesting point, one Byleth agreed with; she still could not understand why Rhea had called her a failure and tried to kill her, mere days after declaring her to be chosen by the Goddess.

After another minute of silence, Annette sighed. "I really don't want to fight my own father or my own country, but I can't fight against you either, Mercie, or let you fight alone. I'll join you. But Edelgard, know that I'm only here for Mercie, I don't care about your Empire or your nonsense about waging war upon the Goddess. Don't you dare let her come to harm, or I'll never forgive you." She stepped forwards.

Ingrid looked at all her classmates, and everyone in the room looked to her. She was the only one left who had yet to announce her intent. The minutes ticked by in awkward silence.

Finally, Felix broke the silence, blunt as ever. "For once in your life, make a decision yourself! Or do you intend to slink home to your father, let him make all your decisions for you, and be married off to some random rich bastard who only wants you for your crest? As I recall the last 'gentleman' he found outright tried to kidnap you. Choose! Do you wish to serve the Boar, or not?"

Edelgard interjected. "I intend to invite all the noble houses of Fodlan to join our cause, regardless of nation. If you are concerned about betraying your family, as Lorenz is, it is possible we might be able to convince House Galatea to join us, especially if you lend us your aid in the negotiations; though I admit it will not be an easy task."

"No. Felix is right. I should make my own decision. Edelgard, you're right to oppose crests. The whole reason so many ill-intended suitors want me is because I'm just a crest to them, and I've always hated it, no matter how hard I tried to bear it and do my duty. I want to be a knight, not a crest to be sold for dowry. I'll try to convince my family to support you, but you have my lance even if they don't. Just don't break your promises, or I'll help Felix kill you." Ingrid stepped forwards, suddenly decisive.

With that, everyone except Lorenz, who had deferred the decision, had taken the first step, and Edelgard seemed ecstatic. "Thank you, my friends. We are the true face of the Empire, and we will triumph!"

She proceeded to inform them all that she had dispatched messengers carrying formal declarations of war upon the Church of Seiros late last night, and that it would take the better part of a month to get the Imperial Army in position. Even with several of Edelgard's allies having known about her plans in advance, it would still take time to mobilize an entire country to a war footing. So for now, they were dismissed and would have free time; she'd have more orders for them once their services were needed over the coming days. Shamir, Leonie, and Lorenz stayed behind for a few more minutes to set up times for meetings with Hubert for later that day, then left as well. Only Hubert, Edelgard, and Byleth herself were left.

Chapter Text

Byleth, Edelgard, and Hubert stood alone in the camp, everyone else having filed away. Well, not truly alone; but the members of Edelgard's batallion, presumably tasked with the duty of protecting the Emperor from assassins, were all at a respectful distance, well out of earshot and trying to maintain a low profile. Well, as low a profile as heavily armed and armored soldiers could maintain.

"That was incredible, Lady Edelgard," praised Hubert.

Edelgard looked relieved. "Thank you. Honestly, I'm relieved. They really chose to follow me... I was resolved to move forward alone if I had to, but in my heart I hoped it wouldn't come to that."

"So long as I am here, you will never be alone, please do not forget that. And... it would seem the protessor also has a key role to play in this." Hubert looked at Byleth with respect, a marked difference from his prior distrust.

"You're right," agreed Edelgard. "Now, I must speak with our dear teacher. Please, make preperations. The messenger should be here shortly. Professor, may I speak with you?" Hubert bowed and left. What messenger, Byleth wondered? No, that was unimportant.

"Of course," said Byleth, who was quite eager to start this conversation.

"I appreciate it. Follow me." The Black Eagles had assembled outdoors in the middle of the encampment, but Edelgard led Byleth through the camp (which mostly consisted of tents) into an actual building. Byleth was unsure what purpose the building normally served, but Edelgard informed Byleth that it was now a command post. Apparently, it consisted of a war room and modest private quarters for the camp's highest ranking officers; Edelgard noted that she could secure Byleth a room, if she wished it. Byleth turned her down for now. They passed Randolph in the war room, talking with a subordinate and making notes on what appeared to be a map of Imperial troop movements – General Randolph, Edelgard informed her, an appointment she had just confirmed last night, as part of her hasty efforts to organize the Imperial army for war.

Finally, they entered Edelgard's private quarters, and Edelgard turned to Byleth, looking troubled. "I..."

"What's wrong?" asked Byleth.

Edelgard answered. "I'm just... Anxious. It feels the weight of this burden is crushing me. At this very moment, on my orders, I'm starting a war. An army far larger than the one that attacked the Holy Tomb last month will soon be locked in battle. Long-devised strategies are unfolding across Fodlan. Leaders are deciding their loyalties and preparing to fight... So many generals and soldiers will die. It's inevitable that civilians will get caught up in the chaos as well. There will be countless casualties. With a single command, the flames of war will rage across all corners of this realm. And I am the one who is giving the order."

Oh no. She hadn't brought her here for answers at all, but for emotional support. Part of Byleth wanted to protest, but another part of her only wanted to support her beloved pupil, and the supportive part of her won. "This is the path you chose, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is," declared Edelgard, seeming reassured at her teacher's words. "There is no turning back. No matter how much blood flows at my feet, I will not relent. We must break the bonds that the depraved church has placed on Fodlan. These sacrifices will allow us to create a future where we never need sacrifice again. It may seem contradictory, but it's the only way. Heh... Listen to me. I made up my mind long ago. Yet here I am, seeking your approval. Tell me the truth, my teacher. Are you happy with your decision to stay by my side? Unlike me, you can still walk away from all of this." No, she really couldn't short of fleeing the entire continent, not with Rhea likely mobilizing the full armies of the church to kill Byleth, but she let Edelgard finish. "This path leads to the death of the archbishop and the servants of the church. Can you live with that?"

It was definitely time to address the dragon in the room. "Before I answer, I need you to look me in the eyes and tell me you weren't responsible for my father's death."

Edelgard hesitated, then averted her gaze, looking guilty. "I'm sorry, my teacher, I can't. I didn't order Jeralt's death or anything like that, you have my word, but... I still gave assitance to Kronya, acting as her guide to the monastery, sharing information with her. So ultimately, I do bear responsibility for her crimes. I didn't know she was planning to kill Jeralt, but that isn't really an excuse. I'm sorry, by the time I found out all I could do was help you avenge him, my teacher. It was just like Remire all over again... Solon is dead now, but he was just a member in a large organization about which I know precious little, and his associates hold an enormous amount of power within the Empire. It was they who assisted Duke Aegir in carrying out his... Experiments. I could never have secured rule over the Empire without their consent, at least not without a civil war, and we have a common enemy in the Church. I dislike working with them, but for now it is necessary. Once this war is won, though, I will mobilize the entire resources of the Empire to hunt down Solon's associates and bring them to justice. As I said before, with the Sword of the Creator on our side, with you on our side my teacher, we will soon no longer need to fear them." She sounded worried, but also determined; desperate for Byleth's approval, but also like she was preparing herself mentally for Byleth to abandon her.

Byleth reached out to hug Edelgard, doubts resolved and her answer decided. "I chose this path too."

It was possible that Edelgard was lying, but Byleth could not believe that. Even now, peering at Edelgard's soul, Byleth still saw not the slightest hint of evil. She would do everything in her power to make Edelgard's dream of a better world a reality; together they would lead Fodlan to a new dawn, and defeat the Wicked Ones.

Edelgard blushed, perhaps surpised at the physical closeness, but returned the hug. "I never thought... I believe in you, Professor. And you believed in me." The two broke off the hug. "With that knowledge, I have the strength to keep fighting. Let's go. There's something I need to say to Hubert once he finishes with his current business; meet me in the war room in an hour."

Byleth left, using the time to do some morning training with Leonie. They were not alone in the camp's training grounds. Caspar and Raphael, Ingrid and Felix, Ferdinand and Lorenz, Petra and Bernadetta, Alois and Shamir, and Mercedes and Annette had all paired off and were going through training routines, sparring, or magic practice together. There were also dozens of regular Imperial soldiers there, though Edelgard had apparently ordered that the Black Eagles be reserved their own seperate section within the camp's training grounds.

Byleth returned to the war room an hour later to find Hubert talking with Randolph. Nine seconds later, Edelgard entered from behind Byleth, saying quick goodbyes to an accompanying Lysithea, who left. Hubert turned to address Edelgard. "Your Majesty, the latest report indicates that our main army is advancing as planned. Also, the preperations for your manifesto are almost complete."

"Manifesto?" asked Byleth.

"We will be distributing our manifesto to every lord within Fodlan," Edelgard explained. "We will expose the dark side of the Church of Seiros and the foul practices of the nobles from the Kingdom and the Alliance. We will force the people of Fodlan to open their eyes to the truth and relinquish any remaining conviction to unite against the Empire. Certain nobles have already offered us their support." Byleth didn't know much about the complexities of political intrigue among the nobility, but she doubted it would be so simple. Still, it was always nice to hope.

Hubert continued. "Yes, there are other nobles who oppose the church. We will condemn those who deserve condemnation and forgive those who deserve forgiveness. We have already purged some of the nobles who are morally rotten. My father among them. How unfortunate." Byleth wasn't even surprised at that last bit; she would never cease to be impressed by the depths of Hubert's fanatical loyalty to Edelgard.

"And soon we will invade and conquer Garreg Mach," continued Edelgard. "Our main army has already departed the Imperial capital. They will arrive at the monastery in two weeks time. There, we will join forces with them. As for us, I'd like your opinion on how we should be positioned in the army, my teacher."

"We are the Imperial sword," declared Byleth. It had its practical benefits, but Byleth also had ulterior motives; from the front, Byleth would be ideally positioned to confront Rhea, Flayn, and Seteth, and perhaps get some answers out of them. She also hoped she could find a way to talk them down without killing them; though Byleth doubted Rhea, at least, would be willing to talk at all, given her behavior at the Holy Tomb.

They spent the next few minutes hammering out specifics; apparently Byleth would be given command of an elite strike force consisting or her former students and co-workers. Officially imperial propaganda would name Edelgard as commander of the unit, with Byleth listed as second in command, as the Emperor serving under another would apparently violate strong cultural taboos. Byleth didn't mind; fame and glory had never been something she concerned herself much with.

Interestingly, Edelgard praised her teacher's command skills, noting that Byleth was so skilled it was almost as if she could see the future; Byleth laughed internally, resisting the urge to clarify. It was probably for the best that she not try to force Edelgard to face the reality that Byleth was Sothis; Byleth had good reason to suspect she'd refuse to believe it anyway, given her vocal hatred for the Goddess, and it would only harm their relationship. Hubert would be even less amused. Nevertheless, Byleth resolved to tell her someday, perhaps once Edelgard was older and had matured enough to accept reality.

All that was left was to settle on a name. "In honor of our time at the academy, how about we call ourselves the Black Eagle Strike Force?" proposed Edelgard.

"I love it," replied Byleth. It was an excellent name, sure to inspire comradery.

"I'm so happy you feel that way. I must confess that I spent all night thinking about it." Edelgard replied, excited. She was adorable, and Byleth found herself smiling. It felt good to settle back into their friendship, now stronger than ever with no more lies weighing it down. Byleth had not enjoyed being forced to fight her own pupil. "I'll leave it to you to prepare the Black Eagles Strike force for departure."

It would be Byleth's first time leading her pupils into an actual war. She would make sure they won, and none of them died. There were apparently two weeks to make sure they were ready. Ready to face not only the Knights of Seiros, but also Rhea's draconic form, which Edelgard and Hubert had called the Immaculate One. She hurried out of the room; her first task would be to make her rounds through the camp, and talk to all the Black Eagles individually.

But the first such conversation would be of significant personal import. Now that he was no longer under Rhea's authority, and any realistic chance of asking Rhea herself was likely gone, it was time to ask Hanneman some questions about what Rhea did to her. He almost certainly would not know, but if anyone had the expertise to figure it out, it was him.

She found him in his tent, looking through the contents of a knapsack. "Oh, come in, Professor!" he said, waving Byleth inside. "What did you need?"

Byleth informed him of the Black Eagle Strike force, to which Hanneman sighed. "I suppose I should be happy Edelgard put me under the command of someone I trust, but I would really prefer not to kill my former colleagues. I would appreciate it if I wasn't part of the attack on the monastery, my talents are better suited to research anyway. Thank you for letting me know, regardless."

"What does Edelgard have you researching?" asked Byleth, suddenly curious. She glanced at the knapsack. Come to think of it, Byleth remembered Hubert wearing that very same knapsack at the Holy Tomb; Byleth hadn't really paid it any mind at the time, as she'd had more important concerns.

"Oh this? Hubert apparently managed to steal a handful of Crests Stones from the Holy Tomb while you were distracted fighting Edelgard's forces." It seemed her student had outsmarted her after all; Byleth couldn't help feeling a bit proud, though Byleth's stronger emotion was irritation at having her own Tomb robbed. "He's asked me to research their potential military applications. I admit I previously assumed Edelgard wanted the stones to create Demonic Beasts, but it seems she doesn't actually know what to do with them; perhaps I was too hasty in my conclusion. Either way, it is an exciting opportunity; the Church always guarded its crest stones closely, and even I rarely had the opportunity to study them."

Interesting. Byleth had little doubt that Hanneman was actually correct in his assessment; most likely Edelgard had indeed been intending to use the crest stones to create demonic beasts, given that she brought two of those monsters to the tomb with her. Perhaps Edelgard no longer felt it necessary to make such moral compromises now that she had Byleth on her side. Byleth loved her pupil dearly, but it troubled her that Edelgard was willing to go such questionable lengths to achieve her objectives. Byleth still remembered Edelgard's beasts reverting into human corpses after they'd been slain, though she had not recognized either of the victims. A small number of fatalities in the context of a war, she supposed, but it seemed an incredibly horrifying way to die.

After an awkward silence while Byleth was thinking, Hanneman continued. "That all said, I am quite busy with my research, and I am sure you are even busier. Unless you had some other business, perhaps we can talk later?"

"I do; I needed to ask your expertise. It is a rather sensitive matter, so I ask that you keep it on a need-to-know basis." She then told the crest researcher about what she'd read in Jeralt's diary. She wished she had the actual diary, but Seteth had confiscated it, claiming it as evidence in the investigation of Jeralt's death. Byleth had been too grief-stricken to argue.

Hanneman looked deeply disturbed, but also rather skeptical, at what she was saying, but waited until she was done. "No heartbeat, you say? How odd. May I check?" Byleth nodded, and he put his hand on her palm, and then her chest, and his skepticism turned to surprise when he withdrew his hand. "How curious. I have never heard of a human with no heartbeat. Are you sure you're human?"

"No," replied Byleth. "I was hoping if anyone could figure out what Rhea did to me, it was you."

Hanneman furrowed his brow in thought for a few minutes before replying. "Unfortunately, I lack the tools here to properly investigate this matter, but if you will permit me to indulge in some speculation, I do have an experiment we can try. Can you please take out your Sword of the Creator, put it on the ground, and step a few feet away from it."

Byleth did not understand what her elderly colleague hoped to accomplish, but she followed the instruction. Just as she was reaching the tent's exit flaps, she saw the Sword's crest stone vanish. "Stop! Now come back," instructed Hanneman. As Byleth stepped closer, the crest stone reappeared.

"How odd. I thought it a wild theory, but it may actually have some merit. You can put the sword away now, by the way," he gestured, and Byleth did so. "Normally it would be impossible to use a relic weapon's power without its crest stone, even if you have the appropriate crest, but you were able to do so from the moment you found it, even if its power was reduced. That is quite without precedent, but at the time I concluded it might be because of a unique property of the Sword of the Creator. But somehow, the crest stone just magically appeared one day, only to vanish again if you are seperated from the Sword. I cannot confirm my hypothesis with the instruments I have at my disposal, but I now strongly suspect that the Sword of the Creator's crest stone... Is inside you."

Byleth blinked, a small measure of surprise reaching her face. "Do you think Rhea could have... Put the stone inside me?"

Hanneman furrowed his brow again, then shook his head. "As I said, it is just idle speculation. I know of no precedent for such a thing, and crest stones are, as I am sure you are aware, extremely dangerous artifacts if handled incorrectly. If the Archbishop knows how to safely embed a crest stone within a human body, let alone an infant's body, then her expertise on the subject is well beyond mine. I also do not know whether that is in any way related to your lack of a heartbeat. I can perhaps study the matter further once I have my office and research equipment in Garrech Mach back, should it survive Edelgard's attack, but for now all I can do is speculate. Don't put too much stock in an unproven theory. Anyway, this conversation was extremely enlightening, but I really do have to get back to researching these crest stones, I do not think it wise to disappoint Hubert. The man terrifies me. I will let you know if I discover anything relevant to your condition."

Byleth nodded and left the tent.

Chapter Text

As she prepared to make her rounds, Byleth reflected on how time-consuming managing such a large class had become in the last few months, once students in other Houses had noticed her skills as a teacher and started clamoring to transfer. It would have been impossible without Hanneman and Manuela picking up some of the slack, coming to act more as her assistants than coworkers by the end, with Dimitri, Dedue, Claude, and Hilda being the only students who didn't join the new arrangement.

Even if the students themselves had been the ones to demand it, Byleth still wasn't sure why Rhea had allowed Byleth to break with centuries of tradition and recruit almost the entire student body into the Black Eagles, despite Seteth's very vocal protests. Even Jeralt had complained, concerned his daughter was being overworked, no matter how much Byleth assured him she was fine. Apparently in most years only one or two students on average transferred Houses, and generally only students who'd made arrangements to emigrate after graduation. Or according to rumor, as as a rare disciplinary action in reaction to severe personal conflicts that were tearing a house apart at the seams, but weren't severe enough to merit expulsion. From what Byleth had heard, Rhea had refused to so much as give an explanation. It was just another of Rhea's incomprehensible behaviors.

But Hanneman and Manuela were no longer professors – she suspected all the work would fall on her shoulders going forwards. She would have to rise to meet the challenge. Byleth spent most of her day making her rounds of the monastery, telling everyone of the Black Eagle Strike Force and dedicating time to listening to each of her student's concerns.

She found Ingrid first. The young pegasus knight was concerned about betraying her father and expressed pessimism about the odds of recruiting him to the cause – Byleth wished her good luck, feeling a little guilty for dragging Ingrid into this, even if it had ultimately been her decision. Ingrid's father would almost certainly disown her as a traitor.

Caspar and Linhardt were the next ones she found. Caspar seemed fine, just glad that he didn't have to fight his own father, while Linhardt took the opportunity to pass on some political news. Apparently Caspar and Linhardt's fathers, the Ministers of Military and Domestic Affairs, were among Edelgard's political supporters. Byleth filed the information away in case it ever mattered, though she didn't care very much about such political manuevering. Perhaps she would have to start caring if she was to serve as an Emperor's advisor.

She found Ferdinand next, who expressed his concerns about Edelgard arresting his father; he was a lot more upset and conflicted in private than he had been in public. Even if he recognized his father had done horrible things, he still loved him. Byleth praised him for standing by his principles, but it didn't seem to help; he'd just have to work through his feelings alone it seemed.

She then stumbled on Dorothea and Petra. Dorothea was just shocked over current events, and expressed her worries about their prospects in battle; Byleth did her best to reassure her, promising they'd win and survive. Petra on the other hand seemed confident, and expressed faith in Edelgard and Byleth.

Finally, Byleth found one of the students she was most worried about, Bernadetta. She seemed fine, at least by her standards; she just seemed to be missing her room. In a bit of good news, Bernadetta informed her that Bernadetta's abusive father had been purged by Edelgard, and was currently under house arrest. Byleth wondered if it was for practical political reasons or to punish him for what he did to Bernadetta. Knowing Edelgard, it was again likely to be both – she loved killing two birds with one stone, as the saying went. Bernadetta was not upset at Edelgard, of course; merely terrified of going home lest she have to face her father, who would now be home all the time. Byleth assured her that she would make sure Bernadetta would never have to see her father again.

For a moment, Byleth wondered privately if perhaps Hubert could arrange for an... Accident... So Bernadetta could inherit the title prematurely, then dismissed the thought. Her mind flashed back to what had likely been Edelgard's botched assassination of Dimitri and Claude, the day they'd all met. Byleth supposed it didn't make much logical sense to have moral scruples with assassination when Byleth had spent her entire life killing people, hundreds of people. But the idea of assassination... Just felt dishonorable, it wasn't how Jeralt had raised her.

Marianne was next. Byleth was curious as to what she was thinking; she hadn't spoken at all during Edelgard's recruitment drive this morning. She quite unabashedly dodged Byleth's questions about her motives, instead expressing admiration of Edelgard, and saying she felt inspired to change the world herself. She spoke of Edelgard as if she were a role model. The development was unexpected, but if it helped Marianne overcome her depression, then it was excellent news. Byleth wondered if the real reason had anything to do with the Crest she went to such pains to keep hidden, but did not press the issue.

Annette was next, and buried Byleth with pleas that she not be forced to fight her father. When Byleth asked to know who her father was, however, she suddenly dodged the question and started nervously stuttering about how she definitely agreed that the church was corrupt and needed to change. Byleth did not press the issue, though she failed to see how she could fulfill the request without knowing who Annette's father was, short of removing her from all battles against the Church entirely. She tried to think who it could be. The name Gustave had been listed on school records, but Byleth could not think of anyone at the Church with that name. Gilbert had always looked vaguely similar to Annette in appearance, come to think of it, but the name was wrong and they almost never interacted, so it could not be him. It unfortunately must be some lower-ranking Church official whom Byleth would not recognize anyway.

She then found Felix, and as always he was not one for emotional heart-to-hearts. He just declared to Byleth that he'd long been preparing for this, to blaze his own path. He sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

Ashe was next, and unsurpsingly, Byleth spent a good sixteen minutes listening to him vent about his father and brother's death at the hands of the Church of Seiros. He had clearly kept his feelings bottled up under a pile of Church propaganda for months, and was eager to finally get it all off his chest. Byleth couldn't think of much to say, but did her best to listen. She was at least able to honestly reassure the highly religious Ashe that the Goddess would surely not approve of the Church's actions against his family. While listening, Byleth wondered idly whether Edelgard had had anything to do with inspiring Lonato's rebellion; knowing her, probably.

By now it was lunchtime. Byleth headed to get some food; it was standard military fare, incredibly bland compared to the monastery's legendary cooking, but it would serve. Leonie saw her looking for a seat and waved her over. A few moments later, Alois also joined them. Byleth took the opportunity to relay the news about the Strike Force. Alois seemed happy, responding with more bad puns, but Leonie said had already heard from Hubert; apparently they'd hammered out the details of her mercenary contract before lunch.

Suddenly, Leonie's face turned serious. "I never pressed him for details, but Captain Jeralt was always suspicious of Lady Rhea, wasn't he?" she suddenly asked, looking like she expected a reply.

Byleth glanced around; nobody was sitting next to the three of them them, but Byleth still lowered her voice to a whisper when she replied. "I found his diary, after he... After he died. She did something to me, when I was an infant, something that terrified Jeralt enough to flee the monastery. I'm still trying to figure out what. Please don't spread this around."

Leonie nodded. "I'm on your side no matter what. I promised him I'd support you, and that's what I plan to do."

Alois looked deeply troubled. "That... Explains a lot. I'm here for you too." He spent the next few minutes uncharacteristically quiet, only making two puns the whole meal.

The three of them mainly just discussed training after that, but still, being with them made Byleth feel better. It was reassuring to have their support; even the stoic Byleth was feeling a bit psychologically exhausted after the emotional roller coaster she'd gone through since entering the Holy Tomb. Edelgard was a great friend when it came to practical matters. But when it came to offering emotional support to others, she was terrible. It had taken her months of knowing Byleth to even learn to accept emotional support from her friends, let alone give it. Her sheer insolence this morning in asking Byleth for emotional support, after what Edelgard had put her through yesterday, still grated a part of her. She understood, of course and loved her friend regardless; Edelgard's childhood had taught her to repress her feelings. Byleth could also relate; her human half didn't have any emotions at all, had hardly even felt alive, until less than a year ago, when her Sothis half had woken up and she'd started to change. Byleth could barely even remember those parts of her life.

As they were standing up after lunch, Byleth noticed Lysithea getting up as well, and got her attention; she had been eating at a table with Edelgard and Hubert, Byleth noted. Lysithea had already heard of the Black Eagles Strike Force from Edelgard, unsurprisingly, but Byleth still wanted to hear if she was OK or had any concerns. Lysithea replied with a long and charismatic monologue about the evils of crests, and praised Edelgard's heroic leadership in taking the shortest path to change; Byleth noted dryly that Hubert should have put her in charge of writing Edelgard's manifesto, though for all Byleth knew he had. But her last words were interesting. "That said, if Edelgard strays from her noble path, I trust you will set her straight again. Won't you? I am counting on you, Professor." Perhaps she was not as fanatical as she appeared.

Byleth nodded. If Edelgard so much as thought of betraying her ideals after everything she'd said and done, Byleth would drag her back onto her path, kicking and screaming if need be. Her own father and the innocent people of Remire Village had died as collateral damage for her ideals, and many more would die once this war began in earnest; Byleth would not let their deaths be in vain.

She found Raphael and Ignatz next; they too had already heard about the Black Eagle Strike Force over lunch, it seemed word was spreading. Much like Lysithea before them, they appeared completely undisturbed at the idea of committing high treason, and quickly reassured her they had no concerns at all on that front; the Leicester Alliance did not inspire much loyalty in its people, it seemed. Raphael sounded eager to prove himself worthy of being a knight, while Ignatz seemed nervous but determined.

After that Byleth found Shamir, who unsurprisingly had no need of therapy. In fact, Byleth needed her for business. After confirming that Shamir had finalized her mercenary contract with Hubert and was aware of the Black Eagle Strike Force, Byleth put her in charge of the Strike Force's reconnaissance on the monastery. Shamir nodded and began preparing to set out, saying she'd have her first report sent tomorrow.

Lorenz was next. He assured Byleth that negotiations with Hubert had gone well, and a letter would be dispatched to his father later today. He seemed confident his father would approve, and asked Byleth to treat him as an interim member of the Black Eagle Strike Force pending a reply. His one regret was apparently the fact that he'd likely have to fight Claude, whom he'd apparently been very fond of. Byleth had never really gotten to know Claude well, but shared the sentiment; she was not eager to fight any of the former students, and hoped she could find a way to avoid it or at least to avoid killing them.

Mercedes, meanwhile, seemed to have recovered from yesterday's trauma, assuring Byleth that as far as she was concerned she would be fighting in the Goddess's name to end the corruption of the Church of Seiros. Byleth again felt touched, and impressed at her emotional resilience. She also invited Byleth to a prayer group that night for all members of the Black Eagles Strike Force; Byleth promised she'd attend if she could find the time.

Byleth then stopped by the armory and made some orders, purchasing some new weapons and dropping off several items from her extradimensional Convoy for repair or upgrade. They would need the best weapons they could afford if they were going to face Rhea in her Immaculate One form; Byleth remembered Petra's iron-forged axe bouncing off her hide.

Last of her students, Byleth found Sylvain, who was drinking alcohol alone and looked, well, horrible. He'd seemed confident this morning, but now he looked downright depressed. Byleth sighed internally. Byleth didn't even like Sylvain very much, thanks to his habit of constantly hitting on her (and all the female students) in a very inappropriate way; but it was her duty as his teacher to help him as best she could. Byleth had always suspected Sylvain was putting on a confident playboy act to bury his trauma, especially after he killed Miklan, and it appeared the act had finally collapsed in the face of his high treason. This would be a long conversation. Sylvain spent a long time venting about how terrified he was of his father and Dimitri, and how we was going to die horribly. He even forgot to hit on Byleth. Finally, an hour and two Divine Pulses later, Byleth had somehow managed to talk Sylvain out of drinking himself into a stupor, and his bravado was restored, sort of, with him declaring he was ready to fight. He still didn't hit on her though, which was both worrying and a relief.

Byleth concluded by asking him where he got his supply of alcohol, and went to deliver the information to Manuela as she'd requested. Manuela was pleased at the information, and had already heard of the Black Eagle Strike Force, but Byleth then had to listen to another eleven minutes of venting from her. She apparently had over a dozen ex boyfriends among the Knights of Seiros and alternated between regret that they'd probably all be dying soon and excitement that they'd probably all be dying soon. Byleth did her best to listen, but couldn't think of much to say. Romantic relationships weren't something she had any experience in, unless you counted Sylvain and Dorothea hitting on her (mainly Sylvain). She was starting to suspect her feelings towards Edelgard were romantic, admittedly.

Exiting Manuela's tent, Byleth was greeted by Ladislava and General Randolph, who bowed and formally introduced themselves, though they had met in passing before. Apparently Ladislava's official title was captain of the Royal Guard, she had been handpicked for that role by Edelgard herself. General Randolph introduced himself as Caspar's uncle. They both looked excited to meet Byleth; apparently Edelgard had lavished praise on her. Byleth was slightly embarassed, but mainly happy to have Edelgard's respect to such a degree. Byleth returned the greetings. She supposed they were her new coworkers now; hopefully they'd get along well.

Byleth had finally talked to everyone, come to think of it. She asked Ladislava for directions to Edelgard. She directed her to the war room, where Edelgard was meeting with Hubert. Byleth reported she'd talked with all the Black Eagles, and that she'd start making preperations for battle tomorrow once Shamir's first scouting report came back.

Edelgard nodded seriously. "The monastery is a foretress built on steep ground, but it's never seen battle. That means we don't know much about it from a military perspective. But if we use all of the power at our disposal, we will capture it. From a purely mathematical standpoint, we most certainly have the power to win. If, however, the battle becomes a clash of beasts with inhuman strength, you will be our only hope. I believe in you."

Byleth was touched; she really had abandoned her Demonic Beasts plans to risk it all on her professor's shoulders. Byleth would not let her pupil down.

Hubert bowed, and added a request for Byleth to do her best to keep the Black Eagle Strike Force's morale up. His demeanor towards Byleth had changed completely, Byleth noticed; before the Holy Tomb Hubert had treated her with constant distrust, and kept a strictly professional distance from her to an almost rude degree. But now his body language and tone of voice towards Byleth implied... Friendship. It was strange, Byleth had always assumed Edelgard was his only concern and he was incapable of having other friends. Had he changed overnight? Byleth peered at his soul out of curiousity, but found only fanatical devotion to Edelgard, with an undercurrent of darkness; same as before. It was still the same Hubert. Perhaps he'd just finally decided Byleth was valuable to Edelgard. Still, Byleth appreciated it.

It was getting late, and time for dinner. Byleth ate a quick meal with Edelgard, Hubert, and Lysithea, discussing the coming battle and potential anti-draconic magic. Lysithea seemed to think Seraphim would be their best bet. After dinner, Byleth left for Mercedes' prayer session.

She found Marianne, Mercedes, Annette, Manuela, Ignatz, Ashe, and Ferdinand attending. Byleth wondered if Ferdinand had showed up specifically to contrast himself with the sacrilegious Emperor; Byleth was glad to see him in attendance. Ferdinand could be Prime Minister someday, should Edelgard judge him worthy of filling the vacancy; in the long term, he might be an excellent ally in pushing back against Edelgard's anti-religious tendencies.

Together, following the lead of Mercedes, they prayed for a swift end to the war, with as few casualties as possible, and for the faith of Sothis to be cleansed of its mortal corruption. Notably, Mercedes made no mention of Seiros, a marked contrast from Church prayers that focused on Seiros and almost never mentioned Sothis.

Mercedes concluded by asking Byleth to lead a prayer session. She thought for a moment, before deciding a topic.

"We pray for those who did not live to see this day. For Lord Lonato, for my father, for all those whose lives were taken too soon by this cruel world. We pray for a future in which no such senseless and premature deaths need ever happen again." She could see Ashe's eyes water as Byleth spoke.

Byleth spent the rest of the night before bed performing some drills with her batallion, before finally heading back to her tent. As she was getting into bed, or rather her bedroll, that night, Byleth hesitated. She retrieved her father's ring from her Convoy. The prayer session had made her wonder...

She reached out, expanded her divine ability to sense souls to its utmost limits, using the ring as a focus of sorts. Her divine powers still appeared to be drastically limited, even after the fusion; she somehow felt reaching into the afterlife should be much easier for her, as the alleged Arbiter of Every Soul. Whatever had stripped her of her memories had also likely stripped her of much of her power. But finally... There. She sensed him. It had worked, if only barely. She could glimpse her father's soul, and it looked at peace.

Byleth slept contently that night.

Chapter Text

They were finally marching on the monastery. Lorenz was with them, having received permission to participate from his father. It had been a long two weeks full of work, but Byleth had gotten the Black Eagle Strike Force ready for battle and put together an assault strategy together with Edelgard, General Randolph, and once he arrived at the head of the main Imperial army, Lord Bergliez. Shamir's reconnaissance had been extremely valuable, and on a personal note Byleth was glad to hear from Shamir that Claude and Hilda had been spotted fleeing the monastery instead of choosing to defend it.

"We will soon arrive at Garrech Mach Monastery!" declared Edelgard, as she called the Black Eagle Strike Force to attention. "Forcing a surrender here is extremely significant, both strategically and symbolically. Of course, this is personal as well. This is where we all came together to learn and grow. I have no intention of yielding to our former classmates, so I ask that you prepare yourself for anything." Edelgard was deeply attached to the Monastery, Byleth could tell, and eager to reclaim her home away from home.

"You may face people you know. Accept the surrender of any who yield, but do not hesitate to kill them if they don't, or they will be the ones who kill you," added Byleth.

Linhardt looked tired as always and muttered a complaint, and Bernadetta expressed her anxiety, but the other Adrestian and Leicester Black Eagles cheered; Lorenz's cheer sounded very forced, as if he was just trying to curry favor. The Faerghus natives among the group, however, were silent, but looked on with grim determination. They had been informed that Dimitri had not, to their knowledge, fled. Hanneman and Manuela were not present; Hanneman had been loaned to Lord Bergliez as a guide to the Monastery, and Manuela was getting a medical tent ready to handle what was sure to be an influx of wounded.

"Thank you all. Now, let's talk strategy."

Hubert quickly walked them through the battled plan. Lord Bergliez's forces had already surrounded the monastery from multiple directions. The Black Eagle Strike Force, together with Randolph and Ladislava, would spearhead an assault on the main gates and draw The Immaculate One's attention, leaving the rest of the monastery undermanned. Lord Bergliez would use the distraction to quickly overwhelm the fortifications from multiple directions and takeover the interior of Garrech Mach.

"I will protect you all!" declared Byleth, then turned to advance, students following.

The main gates were knocked off their hinges under a thunderous combined assault of magic joined by all the mages and coordinated by Hubert; supposedly the gates were in fact enchanted to resist such attacks, but whoever had enchanted them clearly hadn't made them Lysithea-proof. The gate's immediate defenders were quickly overwhelmed, and Randolph and Ladislava seized control of some nearby siege engines.

However, reinforcements charged into the monastery's courtyard before they could advance any further. Byleth heard shouted orders from Seteth, Flayn, and Gilbert, but also...

Dimitri charged forward ahead of the rest of them, face maddened with bloodlust, looking past Byleth, at Edelgard. He was... Laughing? "Is this some kind of twisted joke?! I've been looking for you... I will take that head from your shoulders and hang it from the gates of Enbarr!"

So this was the mythical mad Boar Felix was always talking about. Byleth quickly ordered the mages to support Ladislava on the west flank against Gilbert, the cavalry and fliers to charge on the right flank against Flayn, the archers to use the siege engines to hold off any enemy fliers, the healers to act as support for all three, and the infantry to follow Byleth down the center. They advanced to meet Dimitri.

Dimitri, in a decision that betrayed just how frenzied he was, threw his spear with superhuman strength and advanced unarmed. The spear hit home, piercing Edelgard's armor but missing any vitals; she grunted, halting her advance so Linhardt's magic could heal her. Felix and Byleth instead were the ones who moved to stop Dimitri.

Dimitri punched his way through several members of Byleth's battalion and somehow managed to deflect Felix's Killing Edge, pick him up, and throw him several feet through the air with his gauntleted hands. He was less successful employing the same tactic against Byleth's Sword of the Creator, which cut through his gauntlets and into his hands, leaving severe injuries as Dimitri stumbled backwards shouting in agony. The wounds would not be fatal, at least not with magical healing, but successfully broke his charge.

"Yield!" demanded Byleth.

"YOU," he screamed in both agony and rage. "How could you serve that monster! She killed her own mother! Stand aside, or I will kill EVERY LAST ONE OF YOU!" Edelgard killed her own mother? What nonsense was the Prince talking about? Edelgard loved her parents, she'd said as much at the Goddess Tower on the night of the Ball; the accusation was so absurd Byleth wondered if she'd misheard.

She did not have a chance to clarify. Dimitri directed a kick with incredible force at Byleth, but a recovered Felix jumped to block it with his Aegis Shield. The relic shield budged not an inch even to Dimitri's absurd strength, and Byleth thought she heard the crunch of breaking bones as Dimitri fell backward, collapsing to his knees. Yet his face was still full of rage, and he moved to force himself to stand back up. "EDELGARD, I WILL KILL YOU!"

"There is no point trying to reason with a mad boar," advised Felix, voice dripping with both contempt and sorrow.

Well, she'd tried, but he clearly intended to fight to the death regardless of what they said. It saddened Byleth to do so, but her Sword of the Creator lanced out to finish her student. Suddenly, however, the Prince was yanked backwards; Dedue had finally caught up. "Your highness, you cannot die here! The Kingdom needs you!" He picked Dimitri up and moved to withdraw, ignoring his screaming protests about Edelgard.

Before any of them could react, more Knights of Seiros leaped out of nearby bushes, from behind and to the side, as Seteth's forces also charged past Dedue to engage. An ambush? No matter. Edelgard had been healed of her injuries, and she, Alois, Raphael, and Caspar carved a bloody path through the knights to reach Byleth. Alois called out for the knights to yield, but the only reply he recieved were shouts declaring him a traitor. Seteth's charging knights were annihalated by Felix, Byleth, and by ballista and onager shots from Bernadetta and and Shamir. Not a single one surrendered, all fighting to the death.

By the time the charge was broken, Dimitri and Dedue were gone, having escaped. Piles of corpses surrounded Byleth. Byleth paused, saddened at all the carnage, vaguely recognizing the faces of some of the knights she'd killed. There was the Gatekeeper, who'd always taken pride in defending the entrance to Garrech Mach; of course he'd be here. Byleth regretted never asking his name.

"My teacher, I don't think they're in the mood to surrender," advised Edelgard.

Alois chimed in. "Professor, we need to defeat the commanders, or we'll likely have to, as the Prince put it, kill every last one of them." He was clearly trying to be humorous by quoting Dimitri, but it was just as clear his heart wasn't in it; he looked distraught at killing his former comrades and subordinates.

"Attack Seteth!" Byleth ordered, leading the charge, glancing quickly at their flanks to make sure her other students were faring well.

"You shall not pass! I will protect Garrech Mach!" shouted Flayn from the right, as Randolph, Ingrid, Leonie, Sylvain, Petra, Lorenz and Ferdinand reached her position. Loud blasts of magic rang out, Flayn somehow managing to hold off all of them at the same time, and several flashes of healing magic from Marianne echoed in response.

"Unfortunately, you must die here. You should never have defied the goddess!" shouted Gilbert from the left, irony lost on him, as Ladislava and the mages closed in.

Then suddenly he said something else, something much more concerning. "Annette, throw down your arms!"

"I'm sorry, father, but I have made my choice. I will stand by Mercedes. I'm not going back to the monastery, to the Kingdom, or to you, Father!"

"Forgive me goddess. Annette. If you side with the Empire, I have no choice but to kill you."

Then he screamed, as Annette's wind magic blasted him. A horrified Byleth was about to rewind time when she heard Gilbert shouted out an order to withdraw, having survived the blast. Annette, unsurprisingly, let him go. Good, she hadn't just caused Annnette to commit patricide. If anything, it had worked out for the best; Gilbert might have fought to the death against anyone else.

They were approaching Seteth when he suddenly shouted orders for Flayn to retreat. "Stay safe, Fa-brother!" she shouted back, before teleporting away. Byleth was glad her student had survived, even if she'd preferred to have captured her, or at least talk to her before she fled.

"We will lend the Empire strength!" came another shout, as the Death Knight charged onto the battlefield through where Flayn had been moments ago.

"Don't worry, we're allies!" clarified Edelgard in a commanding voice, causing Ingrid to hastily abort an attack on him with a Horseslayer lance. "I'll explain later!"

Byleth put two and two together, remembering the Flame Emperor say that the Death Knight was her subordinate, and concluded the Death Knight must have been part of Lord Bergliez's army. He had likely ignored the planned division of forces in search of challenging opponents, considering that appeared to be his obsession. But Edelgard was right, there was no time for such questions. "Archers advance down the center! Flanks, focus on breaching the walls!" ordered Byleth, as Seteth charged on his wyvern. "Seteth, please stop this senseless bloodshed!"

"Traitor! I will not forgive you for turning on Rhea!" answered Seteth, lance thrusting at Byleth.

"She tried to murder me!" the goddess replied, but Seteth ignored her. His lance buried itself in Byleth's shoulder as she dodged a thrust at the heart, but Edelgard leaped into the air and buried an axe in his side, while Byleth counterattacked him with a Nosferatu spell. The resulting wounds were serious, if not necessarily fatal with magical healing; he clearly could not fight on.

"Yield!" demanded Edelgard.

"I cannot yield!" Seteth replied, throwing her off his wyvern before fleeing into the sky, his battalion covering his retreat by sacrificing their own lives as Bernadetta, Ignatz, Ashe, and Shamir advanced and fired arrows upwards. Well, so much for any hope of getting answers out of either him or Flayn today. The only one of the three that was left was Rhea; where was she?

As if in answer, Rhea soon joined the battle, in her human form, commanding reinforcements and summoning monstrous moving statues that appeared out of thin air. Somehow, perhaps a fragment of knowledge resurfacing from her lost memories, Byleth knew they were called golems. Byleth quickly divine pulsed back a few seconds to warn the front line units so they wouldn't be caught by surprise and slain. What were these "golems?" What other secrets was Rhea hiding? Catherine and Cyril also joined, at Rhea's flanks.

The golems and Cyril soon fell, Cyril fleeing after losing a fight with the Death Knight, and Catherine was all that stood in the way of Rhea. "I trusted you! Lady Rhea trusted you! I won't let you live after what you've done!" accused Catherine, as she ignored her steadily increasing wounds and charged through a rain of arrows and magic at Byleth.

"SHE TRIED TO MURDER ME!" replied Byleth, louder this time but again to no avail, as their relic swords clashed violently and repeatedly in a dance of death. Finally, an arrow from Shamir pierced Catherine's arm, and she stepped back in shock, bleeding profusely but somehow managing to hold on to Thunderbrand.

"You?" she said to Shamir, aghast. "After what Lady Rhea did for you?"

"Just business," replied Shamir. "I've been ordered to accept your surrender, if you offer it."

Instead Catherine fled, with the remnants of her battalion covering her retreat.

Finally, only Rhea and her personal battalion was left, surrounded by the entire Black Eagle Strike Force, Randolph, Ladislava, and the Death Knight. The surviving Knights of Seiros had fled along with their commanders. Not a single one had surrendered, to Byleth's sorrow. Edelgard and Hubert had warned her during their strategy meetings that religious fanatics did not understand the meaning of the word surrender, and it seemed they had been correct.

Alois tried diplomacy, as they'd planned ahead of time; Byleth had concluded that he was the one she was most likely to listen to. "Please, Archbishop. I don't know why you tried to murder the Professor, but it's not too late to talk this out like mature adults. None of us here want to kill you. Well, Hubert definitely wants to kill you. And Edelgard probably wants to kill you. I'm not helping my case, am I... But my point is we can talk! We could end this war here and now and find a peaceful solution. At least tell us why you're trying to kill her! Please?"

Rhea, to her credit, waited until he was finished, but did not so much as glance at him as he spoke. She was glaring at Byleth, face contorted in venomous hatred. When Alois finished, she spoke her reply. "You worthless piece of garbage... I will punish you myself!" Well, so much for diplomacy. It had gone about as well as Edelgard had predicted. Rhea and her battalion charged, seemingly unconcerned about fighting outnumbered roughly thirty-to-one; it was soon clear why.

Even in her human form, the woman fought like an avatar of war, moving with blinding speed and with unrivaled skill and grace. Byleth's suspicions about her being Seiros were effectively confirmed; she clearly had more combat experience than all of them combined, far more than any mortal. She danced through their forces, predicting their attempts at attacking and defending perfectly, dodging or turning into a glancing blow everything thrown at her, exploiting every opening and creating new openings with ease. She wielded her sword, fists, and powerful magic that far surpassed anything even Lysithea wielded. She killed countless members of their battalions like they were insects, and Byleth had to use five divine pulses after Felix, Lysithea, Bernadetta, Lysithea again, and Edelgard respectively died to her relentless dance of death. Finally, though, after several minutes of fighting, Rhea's entire battalion was dead and she herself began to collapse under the combined weight of countless minor injuries.

"IN THE NAME OF THE GODDESS SOTHIS, I DEMAND THAT YOU YIELD!" ordered Byleth, wielding the full imperious charisma of a goddess. Diplomacy hadn't worked; perhaps an appeal to her religion would work better. She was Rhea's goddess, after all.

It didn't. "I will not... Allow Garrech Mach... Or my mother to fall!" Her mother? A massive blast of dragonfire struck Byleth as Rhea screamed in anger and suddenly transformed, causing instant death. She didn't even have a chance to stop time in reaction, it was so sudden.

"Professor!" were the last words she heard as the fire took her, spoken by Edelgard in a worried, almost panicked, voice.

Sothis blinked in surprise, glancing around. She was floating in a dark void. She was... Dead? No, that could not be. It definitely would not do. She refused to die here, or let her other half die either. They would both survive, at an absolute minimum until they found out the truth of who they were and saved Fodlan.

Sothis felt reality complain, insisting that no, they really were dead. But that was absolute nonsense! She was the Goddess and reality would just have to accept that she was not dying today, certainly not in such a pointless way. She exerted her will, insisting that they were both in fact alive.

But reality would not yield so easily. Sothis poured more and more of her strength into the fight, insisting quite aggressively that they were most definitely alive, commanding reality to stand aside. Finally, reality gave in, screaming under the strain of letting the impossible become fact, but accepting that it could not defy its own Beginning.

But the effort was exhausting. Byleth was so very sleepy... Perhaps a nap was in order. Maybe... She yawned... Just a few years...

Chapter Text

For years, Byleth dreamed, as she floated in the darkness of a void. She dreamed of her father, of years of fighting alongside and being protected by him.

She dreamed of Alois and Leonie, laughing at Alois's puns. Jeralt was there too, laughing away, all one big happy family.

She dreamed of her coworkers, of learning magic from Rhea and Manuela, or researching her Crest of Flames, with Hanneman, or improving her master of the sword under Catherine's tutleage.

She dreamed of Sothis. Of them guiding and empathizing with each other as they tried to figure out who they were and keep themselves and their students alive in a harsh world. Of how they had trusted each other enough to give up their individuality and fuse so they could escape Zahras.

She dreamed of her students, of long conversations helping Bernadetta and Ignatz deal with their anxiety. Of sparring with Felix, Ingrid, and Leonie. Of stuffing her face together with Raphael and Caspar. Of cooking with Mercedes, Bernadetta, and Ashe. Of long nights spent studying in the library trying to make herself smart enough to actually teach genuises like Lysithea and Linhardt. Of leading church choir with Ferdinand, Dorothea, Lorenz, Annette, and others. Of watching Marianne and Bernadetta bond with the horses in the stables the way they never could bond with humans. Of celebrating holidays and special occassions, even breaking the barriers between houses to hold a grand inter-house feast after the Battle of the Eagle and Lion. Of learning under Dedue's tutleage how to manage the Greenhouse so she could crow crops and flowers for her students. Of countless tea parties. Of taking hours out of her day to act as everyone's portable lost and found, because she cared about her students so much. Jeralt had constantly teased her for being a workaholic, and expressed genuine concern for her health, but Byleth had never once hesitated to devote her entire life to her students, and remembering those days made for such happy dreams.

But most of all she dreamed of Edelgard, her favorite pupil. Of saving her life from that bandit, on the day Byleth had woken up. Of how when she was first starting out as a teacher, how Edelgard had welcomed her as a friend and patiently taught her how to teach, not once being impatient or indignant at Byleth's complete lack of qualifications for the job. Of delightful tea parties together. Of fighting alongside each other to save the people of Remire. Of comforting her after her frequent nightmares. Of how happy she looked to recieve piles of stuffed teddy bears and carnations from Byleth. Of the look of trust and affection in her eyes, in the days after the Holy Tomb, when Byleth refused to kill her.

No. Not the Holy Tomb, down that path lay darkness, death, violence. Her own death. She wanted to dream of happier things... Of Dorothea winning the White Heron Cup, perhaps...

"You... How long do you intend to sleep?"

No, she couldn't. The dreams were so happy, she wanted to return to them. She wanted to dream of more tea parties with Edelgard. But the voice refused to leave her alone. "Your body is awake. Your eyes must open now, and you must find the strength to stand upon those legs of yours."

That voice, it was familiar... "Like so much rain, a pool of blood has fallen to the ground... As spears and arrows pierce the Earth, it weeps. And even now, it weeps."

The voice reminded her of Sothis... No, that couldn't be, they'd fused... "In order to survive, they kill. And so the people of this world are lost in an abyss of suffering. They weep as well."

Byleth was starting to wake up, the nagging voice making sleep impossible. It really did sound like Sothis. "The only one who truly knows the nature of such things is I... Or rather, you."

Perhaps their consciousness had drifted apart, over five years of sleep? "I'm still sleepy..." muttered Byleth.

"You are a complete and utter fool! Have you not changed one bit?! Get on your feet! Right now! I'll coddle you no more! You are just like a child, always needing me to hold your hand..." Sothis lectured, sounding irritated.

Byelth sighed, opening her eyes, and looking at Sothis, who floated in front of her. There was nothing else around them, just a dark void. The Goddess was right, and Byleth nodded.

Sothis floated back into her, and they fused again. The reunited Byleth closed her eyes again, focusing. She willed herself back to Fodlan, to the world of the living. Her students needed her, and Fodlan needed its goddess.

Byleth's eyes opened to find a concerned looking man standing above her and calling to her, an ordinary commoner based on his dress. Byleth asked where they were, and he informed her they were in a village at the base of the monastery. The villager claimed she'd been found floating down the river, and Byleth realized her clothes were suddenly wet, as if confirming his testimony. Apparently reality was doing its best to retroactively accomodate her reentry into the world of the living by retconning minor aspects of the timeline to try to have it make logical sense, even though it didn't.

Byleth asked some further questions to assess the situation. Apparently, the Church of Seiros had abandoned Garrech Mach despite Rhea's successful murder of Byleth, and the Imperial Army was now in control. It was apparently 1185. It really had been five years, and the... Millenium Festival was today?!

Byleth remembered her promise to Edelgard, to reunite at the Millenium Festival. Oh no, she'd almost missed their class reunion! Admittedly she had been dead, but that was no excuse for a goddess. "My students are waiting for me." she said, as she began walking to the monastery. The villager called out a warning, telling her it was dangerous, that the Imperial Army was there. Byleth ignored his protests, though she did make a mental note that the commoners of Garrech Mach were apparently terrified of the imperial army. Hopefully the man's fears were baseless and Edelgard hadn't turned into a bloodthirsty tyrant without her professor's guidance.

The professor entered the Monastery. The whole facility looked heavily damaged, presumably by a certain dragon's rampage, but also well on the way to being repaired. The front gates were open, but very heavily guarded by Imperial soldiers, she noted, who were inspecting all traffic coming in. The Knights of Seiros had done similar inspections. A soldier confronted Byleth. "You don't look like any merchants I'm aware of, what is your business here? That sword... Are you perhaps a mercenary come to seek employment under the Emperor's armies?"

"I'm Byleth, Edelgard's professor," Byleth replied. The soldier started, face aghast, like she'd seen a ghost.

She called over the gate's on duty commander, who also looked like he'd seen a ghost. It was... the Gatekeeper? But hadn't he died? No, his soul was different, Byleth realized after a quick glance. After a moment, the man finally recovered his senses enough to speak. "You... I remember you. You're the one who died on the same day my twin brother died, the day we took Garrech Mach. The professor Her Highness was obsessed with."

He resumed gaping before regaining his composure once more and continuing. "The Emperor gave official orders denying your death, and ordering us to search for you. We wasted years following nonsensical orders to search for a dead woman. Hundreds of people saw you die, but the Emperor refused to hear such talk. Or at least, we thought it was nonsense. I only saw you briefly, once on that day five years ago, but it really is you. Are you sure you're not a ghost?"

Byleth shook her head. She was very much alive. "I need to see Edelgard."

The new Gatekeeper, apparently the old one's twin brother from the Empire, waved her through.

Byleth heard Edelgard's voice as she approached, though it sounded somehow... More mature. "Five years ago to the day... If things had continued on as they were, today would have been the millenium festival..." Suddenly her voice rose. "Halt! Who's there?"

She turned around, hand reaching for her axe, which appeared to be some sort of relic weapon, only to find Byleth standing behind her. She dropped her hand, looking on in total shock. "It can't be... Professor? Is it really you? But I searched everywhere and never found a trace."

Her pupil simply stared in shock for several seconds, and Byleth used that to assess how she'd changed. She looked beautiful, and more regal than ever, having matured into a true Emperor. Her soul still shined with the same youthful idealism, but tempered, more mature, as if Edelgard had come to truly understand just how hard it would be to make her ideals a reality, how many people she would have to kill. Good, she hadn't lost her way. Finally, Edelgard recovered from the shock and continued. "My teacher... What have you been doing all this time? Where have you been?" she sounded desperate.

Byleth doubted Edelgard would believe her, but decided to trust her with the truth anyway. "I was dead."

Edelgard smiled and laughed lightly. She had to be overjoyed; Edelgard had almost no sense of humor, and her laughing was a rare occassion. "Joking? At a time like this? You do realize it's been five years since you disappeared!" Well, Byleth had been right, her pupil was still in denial about Byleth's divinity, assuming it was a joke, even after seeing her literally resurrect from the dead.

Edelgard's laughter ended quickly, and she looked down, looking guilty and sorrowful. "Do you have any idea how guilty I felt? How broken my heart was? I searched high and low after you vanished. Although there was no proof, I somehow knew you were alive."

The sheer lengths of Edelgard's blatant denial of reality were becoming increasingly hilarious, and it took every ounce of self control Byleth had to maintain her stoic face when she wanted to laugh. Edelgard had seen her die in front of her eyes, and was now seeing her alive again, and she rationalized it as Byleth merely vanishing? But no, now was not the time for laughter, that would be cruel. Instead, Byleth forced herself to look sympathetic, and hugged her pupil.

"All this time, I led everyone as best I could and fought with all my heart. It's been a difficult path to walk alone," Edelgard continued, as Byleth held her. She looked like she was only barely holding back tears.

Edelgard returned the hug, tone shifting from guilt and sorrow to joy as she swiftly regained her composure. "Wecome back, my teacher. I'm so happy that you're safe."

She paused a moment, simply enjoying the hug, before continuing. "Five years... Such a short time, but it feel like an eternity ago. Do you... still feel the way you did all those years ago? You said then that you would fight at my side no matter how many enemies we should amass. As for me, my resolve has not faltered. I'm determined as ever to see this through to the end. I will defeat the false goddess. I will save this world from those creatures and give humanity its freedom back! So, my teacher... are you prepared to stand with me?"

Byleth nodded. "I am. We'll save Fodlan together." Wait... Defeat the false goddess? Did she mean Sothis or Rhea? If the latter, that was a genius move; declaring Rhea a pretender goddess who'd usurped the faith from the true Goddess was a good way to rally the faithful against her, especially since it was in fact partially true. If the former, this was very awkward. It was probably best for Byleth to ask someone else for information, however.

They broke off the hug, and Edelgard looked at Byleth with adoration in her eyes. "I... thank you. Truly." Byleth felt her heart beat, just once, as she gazed back. What was this feeling? She loved Edelgard as her pupil, of course, but... This felt different. Were Byleth's suspicions from 5 years ago coming true? Was she really romantically attracted to Edelgard?

She had no time to ponder such thoughts, as Edelgard rapidly shifted gears. "Now then, I assume you understand the situation at hand, yes?"

"I really was dead all this time..." replied Byleth.

"Another joke?" asked Edelgard, eyes wide. "Or... are you telling the truth? I suppose you must be."

That was unexpected. It had taken two attempts, but Edelgard... had believed her? She really had matured over the last five years, it seemed.

"In that case, I'll tell you all that has transpired as you slumbered these past five years." Edelgard answered.

Wait. Slumbered. That wasn't what she said. Byleth stopped time and glanced back at the timeline, replaying the conversation. "I really was asleep all this time..." Hearing her past self speak these words, different from what she'd actually said, Byleth finally realized that it wasn't just Edelgard's fanatical anti-religious beliefs at work here. Reality was actively retconning what she said to try to bury any evidence of her admitting to miraculously coming back from the dead, perhaps as a form of damage control for her miracle brute forcing past the laws of reality. It was quite annoying, but Byleth concluded she'd have to bear with it; it would be irresponsible of her to use her divine power to pointlessly interfere with such damage control. And she had in fact been asleep, in a sense, even if the sleep had been in the afterlife. The important thing was that she was alive, the details of how she'd survived were unimportant.

Resuming time, Byleth listened as Edelgard spent an hour catching her up. Faerghus, led by King Dimitri, had unsurprisingly aligned with Rhea and offered her refuge in the Kingdom capital, joining the war against Edelgard. Claude, the new Duke Riegan, had spent the last 5 years secretly supporting the Kingdom but publicly feigning neutrality and holding Edelgard off in a violent diplomatic battle for control of the Alliance, which had effectively turned into a low-intensity civil war between pro-Imperial and anti-Imperial factions. Technically Edelgard was winning the war since she controlled Garrech Mach and a decent chunk of Kingdom territory along the border, and hadn't lost any Empire territory. But without Byleth's guidance and faced by the diplomatic genius of Claude, the brute strength of Dimitri, and the relentless religious fervor of the Church of Seiros, Edelgard's war had ground itself into a brutal stalemate. "With you in the fray, I believe the state of the war will shift immediately." the Emperor declared with confidence. "The church, as well as the Kingdom and the Alliance... The time has come to eliminate them all."

"Is it really necessary to eliminate the Kingdom and Alliance?" asked Byleth.

Edelgard nodded. "I had hoped to convince them diplomatically to cooperate in overthrowing the Church of Seiros and its foul crest system, but only a small minority of foreign Lords answered my call. Most, especially in the Kingdom, have joined the Church and Dimitri in condemning me as a heretic, an apostate, a sinner, a traitorous rebel, a murderer, a liar, and a monster; the list of condemnations grow longer by the day. There have been sixteen assassination attempts on me in the last five years, and that's only counting the ones that were serious enough for Hubert to tell me about them, or that came close enough to success for me to have to personally defend myself. They also disowned any members of their families who supported our rebellion. It is regrettable, but if we are to eliminate the crests from all of Fodlan, there is no other way left but to conquer them by force. Reuniting the Empire's old borders will also please revanchists within the Empire, most notably Count Bergliez, who controls the bulk of our army; once the Kingdom joined the war, he became quite insistent in demanding we conquer them, and it would be very difficult to placate him if I refused the demand." She was, as always, seeking to kill two birds with one stone.

She looked at Byleth in sympathy. "Although we were of different Houses, we were companions who lived and learned together. You are not alone in being hesitant to battle against them..."

Byleth nodded. It was unfortunate, but if Dimitri was still the insane berserker they'd met 5 years ago, Edelgard was undoubtedly right to think violence was the only option, at least regarding the Kingdom. But Byleth did privately hope she could somehow recruit Claude, at least, to their cause, or at least convince him to yield, even if Edelgard had failed for five years.

"Good. Well then," Edelgard declared, "I believe it's time for a little reunion. Let's not keep them waiting any longer."

Byleth agreed, she couldn't wait to see everyone again.

Chapter Text

They met in the monastery's advisory room. All her students looked so much older, more mature, and all looked overjoyed to see her back from beyond the grave. The Adrestian students had arrived first.

"Well now, that face is certainly familiar. I am glad to see you alive and well, Professor," declared Hubert, bowing. There was genuine affection in his voice; had the cold, calculating Hubert... Missed her?

"Professor! It's me, Bernie! Do you remember me? I can't believe your here!" spoke Bernadetta, with much less anxiety in her voice than Byleth remembered.

"I can't believe it! Is this a dream? Can we really be this lucky?" spoke an excited Caspar, almost literally jumping with joy.

"This is not dreaming. Our professor is with us again! Welcome to the back! I mean... welcome back!" confirmed Petra, somehow having failed to improve her skills with the language of Fodlan much in five years. Perhaps the war had left her with little time for such matters. Or perhaps she'd stopped home during the interval? She seemed to be waring attire foreign to Fodlan, presumably a style of dress from Brigid.

"Our group isn't the same without you," added Ferdinand. "I am overjoyed to see you again!" He looked positively dashing, like the chivalrous knight of a noble that he'd always aspired to be.

"It's been so long! Seeing you again fills my heart with hope!" Dorothea said, looking more beautiful than ever.

"Great, now everything will be easy. Um, that's great you're safe, Professor. I'm deeply, deeply moved." Linhardt seemed to just be glad this might mean less work for him; Byleth appreciated his joy all the same.

Alois and Leonie suddenly sprinted into the room, and practically tackled Byleth with hugs. Leonie broke off the hug shortly, but Alois continued the hug and started crying profusely. The hug was so tight it would likely have hurt someone less muscular than Byleth. "I looked for you for five years! I searched all of Fodlan for any sign, even volunteering to scout deep into enemy territory for the Empire with Shamir. I knew a little dragonfire wouldn't be enough to kill my sister!"

"Only the Captain's daughter could defy death itself," added Leonie, as Alois finally calmed enough to let Byleth go. "While Alois took charge of looking for you, I've spent the last fiver years making a name for myself as a mercenary in Edelgard's armies. One day, maybe I'll measure up to Jeralt's legacy. Oh! And by the way, Alois and I formally adopted each other as brother and sister, Edelgard's legal reforms to how familial adoption works made the process easy!"

The other Alliance students soon shuffled in, all looking overjoyed, Raphael first. "Professor! Not sure how you're alive, I never understood much about religion, but it's great to see you again! I earned a knighthood while you were gone, all thanks to your teaching!" Byleth was gladdened at the words. He still didn't look like a knight, but Byleth supposed things like that wouldn't matter anymore in the new world Edelgard was building.

"I earned a knighthood too!" added Ignatz. "I'm glad you came back to us, Professor!" Like Bernadetta, he too seemed to have gained a tiny bit of confidence over the last five years.

"You really are blessed by the Goddess... It's good to see you Professor," added Marianne, in a quiet voice. She looked less depressed than she had five years ago, Byleth was happy to note.

"It will be good to have your skilled leadership again Professor, I look forwards to bringing this war to a swift end. I admit I was was most distraught at your alleged death," Lorenz chimed in. The words actually sounded genuine, rather than just fake diplomatic politeness.

"You're really alive, just like Edelgard said you'd be..." added Lysithea, gazing in wonder. "I admit I thought she was being illogical. It's good to see you again! I've spent the last five years continuing my education under Professor Hanneman, I'm sure you'll be impressed at my skill."

Hanneman filed in behind her. "Yes, I must admit I share Lysithea's surprise; I heard multiple eyewitnesses, Lysithea included, confirm the Archbishop turned your entire body to ash. I am very interested to study how you survived. Perhaps the Crest of Flames has more power than we ever imagined, or perhaps... No, we should discuss such research later, please come by my office when you have a chance." Byleth was very interested in doing so.

Then came Manuela. "It is wonderful to see you Professor! I always knew the Goddess wasn't done with you just yet, whatever the eyewitnesses said. You should have had more faith and less logic, Hanneman," a barb to which Hanneman could muster no reply.

Byleth noticed that it seemed to be fine if other people theorized about her resurrection? She just couldn't explicitly confirm her miracle. She wasn't sure why it had worked out that way; again, she wished she had her memories back. She had a certain instinct for such matters, for example intuitively understanding that her father's death had been impossible to prevent, but the rules were incredibly vague to her. Unless she could regain her memories, it would likely take years of experience for her to understand these matters on a more practical level.

Shamir was next. "Good to see you," she said, with the same stoic tone of voice she always had. She was smiling, though. Byleth smiled back, nodding.

Finally, the Kingdom students shuffled in.

"Professor! Good to see you again! I stayed alive five years despite my fears, just for you," flirted Sylvain with a wink. Would he ever stop hitting on her?

"Took you long enough," was Felix's rather rude greeting, but he looked happy. "I'll finally be able to prove I've surpassed you, I look forwards to sparring." Byleth also looked forwards to it, wondering if her five years of sleep after her temporary death had dulled her skills at all.

Ingrid spoke next. "I'm glad you're alive, Professor! With you here, maybe we can finally bring this long war to an end! You'll be happy to know I'm one of Edelgard's knights now, all thanks to your teaching; Raphael and Ignatz too, if they haven't already told you." She looked the part, too, looking just as dashing as Ferdinand, in her own way.

Byleth smiled. "They did."

Mercedes had clasped her hands in prayer, looking like she was having a religious experience. "It truly must be the Goddess's will that you returned to us, Professor. I hope you'll finally lead this land to peace. Seeing so many people die, sometimes having to kill them myself, has been quite distressing. I did get to reunite with my brother Emille thanks to you and Edelgard, though, so you have my thanks! I'll have to introduce you two later."

Annette nodded, looking haunted. "I know Dimitri has gone completely insane, but I hate fighting my own country... I've had to kill people I used to call friends, and my own family disowned me. Disowned all of us from the Kingdom, really. Please bring this war to a swift end, Professor, the last five years have been horrible." Byleth nodded in sympathy, as did most of the students, including Edelgard. Seemingly realizing she was ruining the mood, Annette added. "But I don't mean to be depressing, it's so good to see you again! We were all horrified after what that madwoman did to you, especially Mercie."

Ashe chimed in next, also looking overjoyed to see Byleth. "Yes, I'm so happy to see the Goddess saw fit to return you to us! With you leading us, I'm sure we can end this senseless violence soon. It's been horrifying to see so many innocent people hurt by this war." He shook his head, expression suddenly sorrowful.

Edelgard was looking increasingly uncomfortable at all this religious talk. "Quite the reunion, isn't it Professor? Everyone's happy to see you." she summed up, clearly trying to change the subject.

"Come on, Edelgard." chastised Caspar. "You must be happier than all of us combined! She took it really hard when you disappeared Professor." Edelgard blushed furiously but did not deny it.

"Edelgard has been leading us as Emperor, but after you disappeared, it became apparent that you were her anchor," agreed Dorothea, and the rest joined in clamorous agreement.

"We all longed for your presence and your leadership. Myself included," Edelgard admitted.

Talk soon turned to business. Now that they had Byleth back in command of the Strike Force, the plan was to quickly dismantle the alliance by capturing Derdriu, the Aquatic Capital, with the first objective being to capture the Great Bridge of Myrddin. Lorenz and Lysithea's houses Gloucester and Ordelia had already pledged to support Edelgard. If they could takeover Claude's House Riegan, Edelgard would have majority control of the Alliance Roundtable and the remaining houses would hopefully fall in line without any further bloodshed. Edelgard had apparently attempted such an offensive multiple times before in the war, but the attempts had failed; the Emperor, however, declared she had absolute faith that Byleth's unmatched skills as a military commander, and her Sword of the Creator, would change all that. Byleth was touched by Edelgard's faith in her. They spent the next few hours hammering out a strategy.

Edelgard adjourned the strategy meeting with a brief speech. "Join me, my friends, as we begin our journey to bring peace and solace to this war-ravaged world." They all nodded grimly. "But for the rest of today, let us celebrate the Millenium together with the Professor. We can't spare the resources for a festival, and there wouldn't be time to prepare one anyway, but we can at least have a feast together."

And so they did, eating and celebrating until late into the night in the dining hall, which Edelgard noted had been fully repaired after Rhea's rampage. The food was just as good as Byleth remembered; apparently Edelgard had managed to keep the monastery's chefs on staff, at least, or found replacements of equivalent skill.

Byleth observed with interest the relationships that had formed and strengthened over the years; notably, she spotted Petra and Dorothea kissing each other multiple times that night, and Byleth assumed they were now dating. On a less romantic note, Lysithea and Edelgard, Lorenz and Ferdinand, Caspar and Raphael, Mercedes and Annette, Alois and Bernadetta, and the trio of Leonie, Shamir and Alois all seemed to be tight friends, moreso than five years ago. Ferdinand and Hubert appeared to actually be civil towards each other, and Ferdinand was far friendlier to Edelgard than he had once been. Even Bernadetta seemed to be incredibly social, laughing frequenly at Alois's terrible puns.

A few conversations that night were especially noteworthy. Edelgard vented to Byleth at length about how incredibly hard it was proving to rewrite the laws of all of society. Thankfully, she'd somehow managed to secure the tentative support of most of the Imperial nobility for the reforms that would literally unmake them – in part because Duke Aegir and Count Varley had reluctantly abdicated most of their power to their children, in part due to skilled diplomacy, and in part due to Hubert's... assistance. However, even with all that theoretical support, actually hammering out specifics was proving difficult. Ferdinand had convinced her of the (in retrospect obvious) fact that she could not simply abolish the nobility without replacing it with something else, lest anarchy ensue. Unfortunately, figuring out a solution to such complex problems would likely have to wait until after the war, and until then Edelgard could only pass minor reforms that would not disrupt the war effort, such as the reforms she'd passed to make familial adoption easier and give adopted family full inheritance rights, a legal change she'd apparently been inspired to make by Ashe's family situation. Notably, she'd also passed a reform levying heavy fines upon noble families that threw their crestless children out onto the streets, perhaps inspired by what happened to Sylvain and Miklan.

Ferdinand chimed in to say he was sure they'd figure out a solution to these complex problems, and asking the Professor to chime in if she had any advice. Did she have advice, Byleth wondered? She replied for now that she would have to think on the matter. She was slowly learning by observation, but politics was still not her strong suit.

But that was not the end of Edelgard's venting. Implementing her ideals weren't the only problems facing her. More urgently, Mercedes and Dorothea had brought to her attention that crushing the church within the Empire had the side effect of crippling the country's orphanages, as well as many other charitable services the Church had once provided, and Edelgard had had to scramble to find room in the Adrestian Empire's already strained budget to replace the church in those matters. There was also the inevitable wartime plague of bandits, and economic problems from the disruption of trade with the Kingdom and Alliance; Edelgard and her Minister of Exterior, Duke Gerth, had been hard at work figuring out how to import goods from outside of Fodlan that the Empire had once imported from Kingdom and Alliance territory, and the Empire's small navy had been fighting a naval war against Alliance and Kingdom-backed piracy aiming to disrupt that trade. Brigid had been nothing but helpful in that regards, Petra noted with pride, welcoming the opportunity for stronger trade ties with the Empire. There were a million problems demanding the Emperor's attention every day; Byleth was glad she'd at least be able to relieve some of the burden by taking over much of the burden regarding military matters.

In another conversation, while Edelgard was busy partaking in deserts with Lysithea, Byleth managed to pull Ferdinand aside and asked him to explain Edelgard's "false goddess" talk. He did so, for once in his lifetime keeping his voice quiet. "Edelgard believes that both The Immaculate One and Sothis are false goddesses. However, she has, reluctantly, listened to my advice and focused Imperial propaganda on painting Rhea as a false goddess, while saying nothing negative about the Progenitor Goddess. My advice was, of course, wise, and the revised propaganda has largely succeeded in eliminating religious rebellions against Edelgard's rule within the Empire, which were a serious problem early in the war, when she was openly calling this a war against the goddess." He seemed quite proud of himself. Then he lowered his voice further. "I understand why you are concerned. I advise against bringing up the subject of your divine blessings to Edelgard; I'm sure she is already well aware of them, but I fear she may never admit that you carry such a blessing. Our arguments on the subject of religion have been quite... uncivil. Her Highness holds deep contempt for the goddess and the faith. She seems to believe religion only serves to turn the people into weak, helpless sheep. It is... Not a perspective I understand."

It was unfortunate. Perhaps unable to reconcile her hatred for the Goddess with her love for Byleth, Edelgard appeared to have responded to the contradiction with denial. Breaking the truth to Edelgard about who Byleth was would not be easy.

At another point during the feast, Hanneman, Linhardt, and Lysithea eagerly told Byleth the tale of them working together to successfully unlock the secrets of crest stones and forging a new custom-made relic for Edelgard, her axe Aymr, an unprecedented achievement in modern crestology. Crestology in general was advancing by leaps and bounds throughout the Empire, having arguably progressed as much in the last five years as it had in the previous thousand. Linhardt theorized that the Church had been actively suppressing Crestology, so fast was the field advancing. Hanneman admitted in response that he himself had avoided certain research purely because of Church taboos or Rhea's orders; the idea of creating a custom relic, for example, would have been deemed heretical, since according to Church teachings relics were gifts from the Goddess. Apparently this had been the case even back when he worked for an Imperial research institution in his younger days.

Byleth also decided to ask Felix, Ingrid, and Sylvain about Dimitri's apparent insanity five years ago. They exchanged glances, before Felix replied. "The boar is apparently convinced Edelgard masterminded the Tragedy of Duscur, nevermind the fact that she was a thirteen year old child at the time, and her own mother apparently died in the tragedy. He hasn't even presented any evidence of his claims. He's become obsessed with revenge beyond all reason, and sworn to kill the rest of us for our treason. It's no wonder he gets along well with that insane Archbishop... Worse, the Kingdom nobility, my father included, are all following him and Rhea into their madness like sheep to slaughter. I always knew the boar was a bloodthirsty beast, but still... It's sad to see what he's become. It falls to us to put him out of his misery." Hearing how far Dimitri had fallen saddened the professor; he had once seemed like such an honorable gentleman, similar to Ferdinand, even though Byleth had long known that darkness lurked in his soul.

But outside of such serious matters, the night was incredibly fun. Alois's puns only grew worse throughout the night, and perhaps thanks to him Bernadetta was much more social than she had ever been five years ago; something about Alois just seemed to set her at ease. Shamir told some tales of her youth as a mercenary in Dagda that were quite entralling, especially to Leonie. Marianne and Ignatz were mostly quiet, but even they seemed to be having fun. Hubert and Sylvain spent a good deal of time playing board games after they'd finished eating, Hubert smiling more maliciously every time he crushed Sylvain in the game. Edelgard herself seemed surprisingly at ease talking to all the non-Adrestian members of the Strike Force, whereas five years ago she had been stiff and distant with all of them except Lysithea. Five years of wartime comradery had clearly truly turned the Black Eagle Strike Force into a group of ironclad friends, and Byleth was glad to see it.

Finally, they adjourned for the night. Byleth returned to her room, which had been preserved almost as she left it, either spared from Rhea's rampage or restored to pristine condition by the monastery's repair work. Indeed, all the dorms seemed in excellent repair. The professor was pleasantly surprised to find Jeralt's diary waiting for her as well, on the desk; presumably Edelgard had retrieved it after capturing the monastery. Tomorrow, Byleth would be buried in work, but for today she was glad she got to celebrate a happy reunion.

Still, she wished Claude, Hilda, Dimitri, Flayn, and Dedue could have been there.