"It is said that our creator—the goddess Sothis— sat upon this very throne."
Byleth Eisner knew all too well that this was not merely said. Since she was a child, she'd seen this very seat, in this very tomb, countless times. However, she had only seen it in dreams, before now. Never in person. Never... unoccupied.
She pushed the thought from her mind, before the Archbishop continued, almost as if on cue. "Professor... Do you recognize this throne?"
All she could do was stare silently at the thing. It didn't feel right, just... sitting there, like it was, silent and empty. Her first and closest friend and confidant, nowhere to be seen. Absently, she offered a vacant nod in response. Her mind was elsewhere, lost in her memories, unable, just for that brief moment, to consider the implications of a truthful answer to that question.
"So long," Rhea intoned. "I have waited so very long for this day..."
Something about that response sent a shiver down Byleth's spine. Part of it was due to the words themselves, of course; she'd known the Archbishop less than a year. A wait that someone she knew to be her father's senior would refer to as "so long" couldn't possibly be encompassed by such a brief timeframe. Whatever Rhea had planned for her, it had been in the works before Jeralt had even spirited her away from the monastery. From her very birth. For a moment, she thought of the dreams she used to have, visions of a battle between the long-dead king, Nemesis, and a woman who looked and sounded exactly like the Archbishop she would only later come to meet, and wondered if Rhea hadn't been waiting even longer than that. The other part was the way she said it. The only word Byleth could think of to describe it was "hungry." As though she'd been lost in the desert without food and water for days on end, and the woman before her was the biggest, juiciest apple she'd ever laid eyes on. Thinking too hard on it, she had to physically suppress a shudder.
"Sit upon the throne," she continued. "I have no doubt you will be gifted a revelation from the goddess."
She had been called the Ashen Demon, once. Severing heads from the necks of enemy soldiers with the same quiet dispassion she might display while buttering toast. On the battlefield or off, displaying emotion was not something Byleth was known to do. But that wasn't to say she didn't feel emotions. Perhaps she didn't feel them as strongly as most, but she felt them all the same. The sadness of losing her father. The fury that filled her as she struck down Kronya and Solon. The pride in watching the Black Eagles grow and mature this past year. She'd felt it all.
None of it, however, was as strong as the fear she felt in this moment. Jeralt had said in his diaries that Rhea terrified him, and anything that could scare her father, frightened her that much more. Now, she was left with a choice: whatever punishment disobedience would bring, or what would happen to her if she did as she were told and took a seat.
In her mind, she weighed her options. If she went with the latter, something might happen, or something might not. If she chose the former... well, it was fairly certain what her own fate would be. More than that, though, was that she feared what might happen to the students of a known dissenter to the Church. She looked back at those thirteen faces as they stared expectantly at their professor, and without any further hesitation, she sat.
Rhea smiled that same motherly smile she always gave her most cherished followers. "Well?"
Several seconds of silence passed. Nothing happened.
"It was supposed to be but a step away... What could-"
The stone armrests cracked under Byleth's grip, her vision went white, and she screamed at the top of her lungs.
"C-captain, sir?" one of the soldiers stuttered, "I-is that the signal?"
Metodey's eye twitched at the sound of the sniveling little idiot. "The signal will com from the Emperor, you mewling quim!" The look he shot the man should have been enough to stop his whining, but he could only hold it for a moment before turning his eye back to the sight before him, whatever the absolute hell it was supposed to be. That woman on the throne - the same one Her Majesty had brought to her coronation, if he recalled correctly - had begun screeching like a wounded animal, bathed in a pillar of white light as bright as the noonday sun. No, that wasn't right... the light didn't bathe her. Under closer scrutiny, or at least as much scrutiny as he could afford to give without being blinded, it emanated from her. Even from this far back, he could see it. It was brightest at those pinpoints where her eyes and mouth should have been, the rest of her body a trembling silhouette.
He wasn't a particularly caring man, something he saw no reason not to admit to. If anything, he quite enjoyed the screams of his foes. But this screaming hadn't abated in the slightest for what had to have been two minutes now. She hadn't even stopped to breathe. This was more than even Metodey would have cared for. Disgusted him, even. If they were up against an enemy that would do this to one of their own...
He tightened his grip on his sword. He was going to take that much more pleasure in making this pond scum suffer.
"Stay patient, you maggots. Her Majesty has no doubt planned for this."
Edelgard had not even remotely planned for this.
The very instant the scene had changed, she had rushed forward, shouting her professor's name, only to be stopped by a firm hand gripping her shoulder.
How dare this monster lay so much as a finger-
"Be patient, my child," the snake hissed at her, smiling that same damnable, disgusting, fake smile she always did when she spoke her pretty little lies. "All shall become clear soon, I promise you."
Edelgard ceased to make any effort to hide her disgust at this, this thing standing beside her, and shook her shoulder free. "Have you lost your mind?!" she shouted directly in the Archbishop's face, as though it was something people simply did. "Is it not obvious to you what pain she's in?! Help her, damn you!" At any other time, she would wonder why she was imploring Rhea, of all people, for help, but she was operating on pure instinct now. There was no time waste on something as unnecessary as thought.
Rhea abandoned that smile for a stern glare, though it was less cold reptilian disdain, and more disappointed mother, for some reason she couldn't be bothered to fathom. "Do you truly think so little of her," she responded, "that you believe she needs our help?"
Edelgard stopped, not to consider that answer, but to be utterly baffled by it. She cast a glance back at her fellow classmates, all too far back to hear their words over the professor's screams. Bernadetta was shaking in terror where she was crouched behind Ferdinand. Dorothea, Lysithea, and Ashe were faring better, but were still visibly trembling themselves. Leonie, Petra, and Sylvain all tightened their grip on their weapons, preparing for the worst, while Linhardt had to physically restrain Caspar. Hubert was as disturbed as she could remember ever seeing him, and Flayn was... Flayn looked to be weeping openly. As though the professor was already gone.
That was an outcome she would not allow. How could she achieve all she dreamt of, if she lacked even the power save the one person that she'd come to care for the most?
She ran for the throne, heedless of the consequences, ignoring Rhea's calls for her to stop. Squinting her eyes through the blinding light, she reached for Byleth's hand, just as she believed the professor would do for her.
"My teacher!" she cried out. "Please, if you can hear me-"
A shockwave swept through the room, nearly knocking everyone back. In an instant, the light died out, the screaming with it.
Several seconds of silence passed. Nothing happened.
Slowly, Edelgard began to open her eyes. "My teacher-"
A hand shot out, grabbing her by the wrist.
Something in the way Byleth said her name felt... different from what she was used to. Her voice was calm and measured, but not in the way it usually was. There was a clear, deliberate undertone of soothing reassurance to it, as though she was reading her a bedtime story.
It was a sharp contrast to what was a very firm grip.
"I believe I can appreciate what you are trying to do, truly, I do." Edelgard raised an eyebrow, but for some reason, Byleth seemed especially disinclined to meet her gaze. "But I am going to ask you, as politely as I possibly can, to withdraw your troops."
Before she could object, or even process how the professor could know about that already, she released her wrist and raised her hand up to shush the Emperor of Adrestia, of all things. "And do not give me any of this 'what on earth could you mean' nonsense, because I've fought them off twice now, and would vastly prefer we do this without bloodshed, if it would please Your Majesty. I am doing you the courtesy of asking you this now, while your classmates are still too far away to hear us."
To say Edelgard was flustered would be an understatement of the highest order. The first words out of her professor's mouth are not just to undermine her plans, but to be sassy about it?! Fought them off twice? What does that even mean? Hastily, she attempted to gather herself and refute the suggestion, but all she was able to get out was a half-hearted, "A-and why, exactly, should I?"
Byleth - or whoever this woman was now - simply closed her eyes. Something in her expression changed - if she had to guess, she would almost think there might be some sort of sadness to it.
"Because I want to help you, Edelgard. As I was unable to when you asked it of me all those years ago."
Slowly, the realization crept like a shiver up her spine.
No... it can't be...
Edelgard tugged twice on her earlobe. Hubert would understand it to be the retreat order and pass it along. Whatever was happening in this tomb, it was bigger than anything even she could have prepared for. This wasn't a variable she could have ever even begun to account for in advance, and if she wasn't misreading this, it changed everything. It wouldn't -couldn't - stop her from what needed to be done, but she was playing an entirely different game now. But while the Flame Emperor reorganized her plans, Edelgard herself hoped desperately that she was mistaken. That this was, somehow, still her teacher.
...And then there was this particular problem, which, in her panic, had nearly slipped her mind. She glared at the Archbishop, not noticing a second pair of eyes opening beside her, filled with an anger neither of them could ever hope to match.
"Mother..." she said, her voice trembling as she approached, "Is that truly-"
Byleth's voice boomed throughout the cavernous halls of the Holy Tomb, at what must surely have been the upper limits of furious projection that human vocal chords could achieve. She stomped forward with a deliberate authority, and proceeded to greet Rhea's cheek with an open palm, which somehow seemed to echo even louder than her voice had mere moments ago.
"How DARE you?! Do you understand what you have just done, you insolent child? Do you even CARE?!" Like Edelgard before her, Rhea was permitted no opportunity to interject. "Did you truly believe exchanging an innocent life for my own was something I would want? That I would be PROUD of what you had done? That I would thank you for murdering the only friend that I had known for the past THOUSAND YEARS? The same one I offered my very EXISTENCE to save not one month ago? JUST WHAT WERE YOU HOPING TO ACCOMPLISH, CHILD?!"
For a moment, Sylvain was able to tear his gaze away from the scene unfolding before him, just to confirm that the rest of the Black Eagles were, indeed, just as confused as he was. Indeed, he wasn't alone; not a face among them failed to betray some form of shock, bafflement, or a combination of the two. Some, like Flayn and, strangely, Hubert, mixed in shades of worry, as well. He turned back to the drama between the professor and Lady Rhea. He'd heard every word - at that volume, how could he not? - and all he knew for certain was that he didn't at all like where this was headed. The professor had struck the Archbishop, called her a child, and accused her of murder. That was, as far as he knew, a straight path to the guillotine.
What was really weird was that the Archbishop had actually seemed cowed by this, and Sylvain couldn't decide if that boded better or worse than the alternative. He could only see her back from here, but she actually seemed to be trembling under the weight of Byleth's palpable anger.
If his suspicions about Edelgard weren't off the mark, and he hadn't imagined the footsteps he'd heard behind them earlier, then that left absolutely no one in the Holy Tomb who was acting in character right now. It was deeply unsettling.
"Please," Rhea implored, her composure coming apart at the seams, "I beg of you, you must underst-"
"YOU WILL BE SILENT."
The professor closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and rubbed her thumb and forefinger against the bridge of her nose. "I am in no mood to listen to your excuses. The line that you have crossed today is merely the start of the wrong you have done." She looked up again, to give the Archbishop one last murderous glare. "You will return to your quarters until such time that I am prepared to speak of this with you. Begone from my sight."
There was a brief moment of stillness, and then Lady Rhea... turned and walked slowly away? That. That couldn't actually be what was happening, right? He thought he'd misheard when she'd addressed the professor as "mother," but no, she literally just told the most powerful person in Fódlan to go to her room. And she listened! The actual Archbishop of the Church of Seiros was grounded!
The tomb was filled with the deafening silence of absolutely no one having any idea what to even make of this. Nary a word was spoken until Rhea was out of both sight and earshot, the Black Eagles still as statues. However. someone had to break the silence, and while Sylvain didn't necessarily want to be the one to do it...
...the words just sort of slipped out.
"Are we gonna talk about what the hell just happened, or...?"
"Yes," Hubert followed, sounding as theatrically villainous as ever, "I'm quite curious to know the answer to that question myself."
To his left, his classmates started whispering their own speculations amongst themselves, save Linhardt, who looked close to working it out on his own, and Flayn, who, strangely, was fidgeting about like she knew already. Of course, the professor was quick to silence the chatter with a raise of her hand. "And answers you all deserve," she told them, ever so gently, "though I must first apologize that you had to see me like that."
Her expression softened, but remained just as somber as it had been. "I will not mince words with you, children. The woman you know as Byleth Eisner is, for all meaningful purposes, deceased."
"It was not at all my wish for this to have happened, and try as I might, it is beyond even my power to return her to you."
No, seriously, what.
"I... am afraid I am not understanding, professor," Petra interjected, "How can you be dead, but also be telling us this?"
"Seriously, how can you even joke about something like that? After everything that's happened-"
"I can understand why you would be upset, Leonie," Byleth - or whoever she was supposed to be - offered, "I assure you that I am as well. Your professor was... very dear to me. However, I am afraid that her soul no longer occupies this body. It is... she is with Jeralt and Sitri now, if that is of any reassurance to you."
Everyone just stood there, stunned, processing the words of the entity wearing the professor's face, as she walked towards the small crowd of students. "While I fully understand that a lack of transparency played no small part in this tragedy, I would ask you all to keep what has transpired here to yourselves, at least for the time being. The Church is about to undergo a significant change in direction, if I have anything to say about it, and time will be needed to prepare for what must be done. Linhardt, I would ask you to keep an eye on Caspar, as we both know he cannot keep a secret to save his life."
"She's not wrong, you know."
She didn't miss a beat, continuing as she passed by everyone, gesturing them to follow her toward the exit. "That being said, I have no intention to keep anything secret from all of you. I anticipate we will have much to discuss in the coming days, and while I do not intend to replace your professor, I will do my best to watch over you in her stead. She... she cared deeply for all of you, and thus, so shall I."
While everything she said made sense to Sylvain, at least insofar as he knew what the words meant when arranged in the order given to him, there was still a piece of the puzzle missing. A glaring hole, right in the middle of this narrative, that he needed filled.
"So wait...if you aren't the professor, who exactly are you?"
For just a brief moment, she hesitated mid-stride.
"Ah. I have neglected to introduce myself, haven't I?"