Chapter 25: Pest Control

The Black Eagles left the monastery in two groups of five – one led by Byleth, and the other by Edelgard. Although they were going in the same direction, they found it more convenient to leave separately when there wasn’t as much going on. It also stood to reason that a larger group would have attracted more unwanted attention, and the last thing they wanted was to cause an unnecessary commotion.

When they entered the forest, Ferdinand looked to his left to confirm that the monster footprints he spotted earlier were still around. Bernadetta, who was trying to make as little noise as possible by stepping around the fallen leaves, had other things on her mind.

“Where are we?” she asked. “The stillness of the air is giving me the creeps.”

“They call this place the Sealed Forest,” said Byleth.

“What exactly is sealed in here?” asked Monica. “The name obviously can’t be referring to the forest itself… If these footprints are any indication, it looks like anyone can come and go as they please.”

“All I’ve heard is that this forest was an important site for the church in years past, but it’s fallen out of use for a long time.”

As the group passed the boulder that Ferdinand, Caspar, and Petra hid behind during their encounter with the hooded Sage and his cohorts, Linhardt noticed a darker object of approximately the same size off to his right. “What do you suppose that is, Professor?” he asked, pointing to it from afar.

“It doesn’t look like an ordinary boulder,” she replied. “It looks like it’s made up of multiple pieces.”

Edelgard slowly stepped forward to get a closer look at the object. “Such an odd shape… It looks almost like a suit of armor, but it’s too large for anyone to wear. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more like this in this forest. How did they get here? And what were they being used for?”

Petra looked around the forest for more boulders and fallen trees to hide behind. There was plenty of overgrowth off the dirt roads, but she thought it made for inadequate cover. Ferdinand occasionally looked up at the sky to see if he could spot ambushers hiding in the trees.

Byleth ordered the class to split off into pairs so that they wouldn’t be targeted all at once. The groupings were made up of established friends who had paired up long before Monica’s return to the academy – Edelgard with Hubert, Ferdinand with Bernadetta, Linhardt with Caspar, and Dorothea with Petra – leaving her to fight alongside her teacher, the young woman she steadily felt more comfortable around knowing that she wouldn’t be another victim of the Sword of the Creator.

To the north of their position, a pair of archers and a mage in jet-black robes stood watch between a pair of stone pillars. The archer standing to the mage’s right looked toward the south, then toward the west, and reached for his quiver to draw an arrow.

“Put that down,” the mage ordered, his voice as calm and stiff as the air surrounding them. The archer complied, slowly lowering his hand back to his side.

“Forgive me if I sound out of line, Lord Myson,” he said, “but should we not remain on guard? There could be any number of foes lying in wait for us.”

“Be vigilant,” Myson cautioned, “but don’t make it look so obvious. A trap is better sprung when the enemy least suspects it. If they attempt to bare their fangs at us, then we are within our rights to give them the swift deaths they deserve.”

The second archer remained silent, scanning the forest to the south and east for any unusual signs of motion. The first archer tapped his partner on the right shoulder and directed his attention to the road leading west, where Sage and his two swordsman bodyguards approached. None of them looked happy to see Myson, and Myson refused to look directly at them, keeping the brim of his cone hat tilted forward to avoid showing his face.

“What are you doing here?” asked Sage. “You have no business entering this place.”

“Is that so? Then forgive me for not knowing or caring to ask for permission to pass through such an important stretch of land,” Myson retorted.

Sage waved for the Sabers to stand down. “Your callousness does you no favors, wizard.”

“And your unwarranted possessiveness does you no favors, either.”

The Black Eagles had scattered around the ruined armor to try to get a better view of the two parties standing by the pillars. Byleth, Monica, Edelgard, and Hubert were the closest to the viewing area, but they found it difficult to hear what they were saying.

“It seems we have found our targets,” said Hubert.

“Which ones? It looks like they’re all wearing the same uniform style,” said Monica. She thought she saw one of Myson’s archers looking in their direction and reaching for his bow, prompting her to hold her shield closer to her chest.

“Hold still, Monica,” said Byleth. “We can’t let any of them see us yet. If we attack too early, we’ll wind up having to fight both sides at the same time.”

The black-suited archers continued to act as Myson’s eyes and ears as he continued to argue with Sage and his crew. “If it is so important for you to know the reason behind my presence,” he said, “then listen closely, for I do not wish to repeat myself. You see, I require a peaceful environment for my research, and there are few places where I can carry out my experiments without interruption. Unfortunately, even a place like this forest is not immune to rat infestations.”

Saber 1 quietly scoffed. While Myson continued to look away from them, his archers sneered at the trio. “There are probably such rats crawling around this area even as we speak,” he said. “Observe for yourselves.”

Sage and his men found themselves in an uncomfortable position. If they tried to openly defy Myson by attacking him or not looking around, they were sure to be attacked in turn. Venturing too far from the stone pillars to verify his claim of other intruders left them open to ambushes from either side. To ensure they had all their bases covered, they examined the forest in every direction, including the hills behind them, to verify that no one was watching them. The only creature they were able to clearly see through the trees to the south was a horse. It interpreted the men as a potential threat and scampered away.

“Rats? What rats?” asked Saber 2, trying hard to muffle a snicker. “Looks like there’s a horse or two, though.”

“Hmph… Whatever it is you think you can conceal from me, I will find it. And when I do find it, I will make you all regret having set foot in this forest.”

The two archers got out of Myson’s way as he looked toward the south and drew a small “Z” shape in the air with his right hand. A small swarm of bees gathered around his right hand and launched toward Sage and his crew. While Sage tried to fend the attack off with a magical barrier, Myson smirked and drew two more Z’s with both of his hands, this time aiming around them and sending bigger swarms toward the south.

The Black Eagles, trying their best to stay concealed behind whatever trees and rocks they could find, noticed the magical bees flying around them. Dorothea and Petra, the farthest group away from the action, were the only ones to avoid getting stung.

“Our enemies have located us,” said Petra.

“Well…no point in hiding any longer,” said Dorothea. “Should we strike back now, Professor?”

“Do not use haste, Dorothea. There is something missing…I mean, something is amiss.”

Petra noticed that half of the men in black had disappeared after Myson unleashed his swarm of bees against them. Only Sage’s group remained, and they were holding the backs of their necks to deal with the stings they received. By the time Byleth’s party had emerged from their hiding spots, the bees had disappeared, along with their summoner.

“Don’t come any closer!” Sage warned. He and his bodyguards drew their weapons in response to Byleth and the armed students surrounding them.

“Wait a minute…you’re the guys we ran into the other night!” said Caspar. “You weren’t thinking of attacking us again, were you?”

“Just who are you, anyway?” asked Ferdinand. “And who were those other men you were speaking with?”

“We would advise you to answer these questions truthfully,” said Edelgard. “You’re currently outnumbered.”

“I am well aware of that.”

Sage lowered his hood and tapped his staff to the ground, generating a flash of light that blinded everyone in the area. By the time the light faded, Byleth had spotted several arrows embedded in the grass at four different angles, and more than a dozen black-cloaked figures brandishing an assortment of weapons at them. “Figures…”

“There goes our chance for a peaceful interrogation,” said Monica.

The enemy archers fired alternating volleys of arrows at the group, with the shots from the north nearly hitting Saber 1 in his right thigh. After blocking a few of the arrows coming from the west side, Monica noticed one of the enemy mages casting a ball of dark energy at them that reminded her of the blood she drained from one of the wolves when she used Nosferatu on it. The bolt slammed against her shield and left behind a puddle of sticky, dark purple slime, some of which splashed onto Saber 2’s arm. He stood up and glared at Monica, who had knocked him off-balance in an attempt to save him from taking the full brunt of the attack.

“Monica! Why did you jump out ahead like that?” asked Edelgard.

“Whoever these guys were talking to must want to kill them as much as they want to kill us,” said Monica.

“For someone so reckless, you are surprisingly perceptive,” said Sage. “I do not know whether or not you came to aid us after our previous encounter, travelers, but I am thankful for your timely arrival, nonetheless.”

“We’ll discuss that after we deal with these fiends,” said Byleth, who noticed two axe-wielding warriors approaching her from behind. In response, she unfurled the Sword of the Creator and struck both of them at once to try to scare them away. The warriors continued to push forward, forcing Byleth to kick one of them away when he got too close for comfort. Another sweep of her sword brought both attackers low, collapsing to the ground in front of her in a heap. “Hubert! Ferdinand! Bernadetta! I want the three of you to go with Edelgard and take out the archers and mages, while the rest of us deal with the other troops,” she ordered.

“Yes, Professor!” they all said, and split off toward the eastern and western roads to find any ranged troops hiding in the trees.

As more of Myson’s soldiers approached the main group with swords, axes, and spears, Sage pointed to his two companions and then pointed toward the cluster of trees to the south. “Phil! Theo! Go with them and make sure they don’t get hurt.”

The two swordsmen nodded and split up, with Phil following Edelgard and Hubert, and Theo following Ferdinand and Bernadetta.

As Dorothea and Petra fought off a couple of thieves rushing in from the east, Dorothea had to be mindful not to use any fire magic, for one errant spark could potentially set the whole forest ablaze. Their enemies also seemed aware that a burning forest would give them fewer places to hide. Byleth observed the archers’ movements and the kinds of spells that the enemy mages were using, realizing that it was less about them not wanting to light up the Sealed Forest and more about them not being capable of doing so with all the acidic muck they were flinging around.

Caspar, who had no trouble fending off the spearmen attacking him, had to watch his footing near the puddles of slime that were forming around him. Linhardt’s attempts to shield himself and Caspar from the slime attack proved troublesome, and he had to resort to telling Caspar when and where to dodge to minimize the damage they took until Edelgard’s party could locate them.

Meanwhile, while Byleth and Monica tried to assist their fellow Black Eagles in their fight, Sage spent much of the battle at a safe distance away from them as he was still unsure whether they could fully trust each other. After sending Phil and Theo to provide Edelgard with some much-needed backup, he knew that he had to rely on Byleth and her students not just for his survival, but for theirs as well. For every enemy soldier they felled, he was on hand either to heal them or to provide supporting fire with his magic staff.

Edelgard and Hubert located one of the enemy mages on the north side of the field. They had battled to an apparent stalemate as most of the attacks the mage and his archer companions tried to use against them bounced off Edelgard’s shield. The mage smirked when a direct hit from one of Hubert’s spells had no immediate effect, but he was distracted long enough for Edelgard to close in on him and strike him dead with one swing of her axe. The two archers, lacking any close-range defensive options, tried to flee to a safer vantage point, but Phil cut off their escape route and killed them before they could fire any more arrows.

After most of the main enemy forces had been defeated, Monica noticed a cloaked, masked assassin rushing toward her left flank at full speed. She turned around just in time to parry a blow from the assassin’s short sword, and then had to dodge out of the way when her attacker reached for a dagger and lunged at her stomach.

“Oh no, you don’t!” Monica shouted as she smashed the hilt of her sword into her attacker’s head. The cloaked figure grunted in pain and scrambled to stash away the dagger that fell to the ground, hastily running away from Monica and toward the southern end of the forest, where Ferdinand, Bernadetta, and Theo had cornered the last of the enemy’s ranged fighters.

For the first time in their encounter, Myson tilted his head up and looked around his adversaries to greet the assassin coming in behind them. “About time you showed up,” he said. “What took you so long?”

“That’s not important.” Unlike Myson, who masked his frustration by not raising his voice, the assassin spoke with an unmistakable sharpness that made it hard for Byleth and the others to tell which one was in charge. “What matters is that we get out of here before they finish us off, too!”

Myson waved his right hand in a cross formation, sending encroaching columns of black spikes toward Ferdinand’s group, forcing them to dive out of the way to avoid being skewered. Bernadetta knelt on the grass and fired two arrows at Myson and the remaining archer, striking the mage in his left arm and the archer below the right shoulder. When the assassin tried to backstab her with the dagger, Bernadetta yelped and tried to hide behind one of the trees where neither Myson’s dark magic nor the assassin’s blades could reach. Ferdinand lunged with his lance to retaliate, but his target jumped just outside his range.

In response to Bernadetta’s cry for help, Sage, Byleth, and the rest of the Black Eagles closed in on Myson and his remaining forces.

“Give it up,” said Sage. “Your forces lie broken. Unless you wish to join them, you will leave this forest at once and never return.”

“I tire of your insolence,” Myson snapped. “If not for this injury you caused me, I would kill you where you stand.”

“Come on, Myson! Stop wasting your breath on these losers and let’s get out of here already!” said the assassin, pushing past Ferdinand and Theo to grab Myson’s injured hand. A flash of light enveloped the duo as they escaped from the forest. The last archer, having missed his opportunity to make a quick getaway, collapsed as he tried to escape, falling to his side and then on his back to lessen the pain of his death.

After Byleth ordered a few of her students to look around the forest to make sure Myson hadn’t brought any more reinforcements, she met with Sage’s group at the east entrance, away from the battle scene. “Now that that’s over,” she said, “I’d like to ask you some questions, sir.”

“Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to begin with introductions first?” asked Sage.

“Very well, then. I’m Byleth Eisner, and I’m a teacher at the Officers Academy over at Garreg Mach Monastery.”

“And I am one of her students, Edelgard von Hresvelg, princess of the Adrestian Empire,” said Edelgard.

Sage looked around at the Black Eagles, some of whom tried to clean the blood from their weapons. “Well met, both of you. I feel I must thank you again for your assistance back there. You may call me Myron. I take it that these young ones are also your students, then?”

“Yes,” said Byleth. “While we are sometimes called on to help resolve incidents outside the confines of the church, it’s my responsibility to educate them and ensure that no serious harm comes to them.”

Myron and the swordsmen lowered their hoods when they were sure they were safe. While Theo and Phil looked only slightly older than everyone in the Black Eagles, including Byleth, Myron appeared old enough to be the father to all of them. “Allow me to apologize on behalf of my guardsmen, Phil and Theo,” he said, bowing his head in contrition. “When we encountered some of your students on our way to the monastery a few nights ago, we mistook them for the enemy.”

“After taking that tumble earlier, I’m still not so sure,” said Theo, the darker-skinned of the two guardsmen.

“Sorry about that,” said Monica. “When those mages were going to attack you, I couldn’t just stand by and let you take the hit. I didn’t mean to hurt you on purpose.” She looked at the damage caused to her shield and was thankful that only a little of the enemy’s magic splashed onto Theo. The slime itself had mostly melted away, but she knew she would have to spend a lot of money to get it repaired.

“Eh…I’ll live.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, Myron,” said Byleth, “where are the three of you from? When I first saw you, I thought you were—”

“Some of Myson’s minions?” asked Myron as he looked for any untrusting stares among Byleth’s students. “We may wear similar dark colors, but I can assure you that he and I are definitely not on the same side.”

“Were you aware that he was leading you into an ambush? Why didn’t you bring more guards with you? If we hadn’t shown up, they would certainly have killed you.”

“Actually, we knew all along,” said Phil. “We saw a few of Myson’s goons hiding out to the north and east while we were ‘scouring the area for vermin’ or whatever. We just didn’t tell him about it. Had to make the act convincing, you know?”

Ferdinand reached underneath one of the suits of rusted armor to gather his saddle and bridle, and then whistled for his horse so he could try to calm it down and get its equipment appropriately fitted.

“Wait…was that your horse that we saw?” asked Theo.

“Indeed, it was,” said Ferdinand. “I did not mean for him to get away as he did. Unfortunately, this terrain is not ideal for fighting on horseback, and I could not tie him down without making too much noise.”

“I gotta hand it to you…that was pretty clever, even if you didn’t expect it to turn out that way.”

Myron stepped forward to take a closer look at Byleth and her students, now that he felt he could trust them. “Have any of you heard of Saint Timotheos?” he asked.

Byleth and the Black Eagles collectively shook their heads.

“Ah…I suppose I should have expected that response. Timotheos was said to be a faithful servant of the goddess who settled in a forest around this area a very long time ago. Many of the stories surrounding his deeds waver between the fantastic and the outright unreliable, but the one thing these tales have in common is that he had a knack for understanding and caring for animals. The village we live in is named after him.”

“Timotheos? This is the first time I’ve ever heard that name,” said Linhardt.

“Yeah…I thought there were only four Saints,” said Monica. “Okay…five if you count Saint Seiros…”

“Never mind that…what are you all doing out here?” asked Phil. “This place doesn’t look like it gets many visitors…much less heavily armed ones such as yourselves.”

“The monastery was attacked recently,” Byleth explained, “and we were asked by Archbishop Rhea to investigate. All of the clues we’ve gathered so far have led us to this forest.”

“You guys were attacked too, huh? That must explain why the guards were so on edge…”

Byleth watched Theo and Phil gather around their leader the same way the students bunched around her. “What brought you three to the monastery, anyway?” she asked.

“We simply wanted to speak to the archbishop or someone in the Knights of Seiros,” said Myron, “and ask them why they think Hapi was responsible for the attack on Larkspur Town and where they’re holding her.”

“Larkspur? That’s—” Bernadetta began panting heavily, and her face went white with shock. “That’s right on the edge of Varley territory! Oh, no…why did this have to happen when I was still in school? And why do I get the feeling that the count is going to blame me for not doing anything about it?”

“Take it easy, Bernadetta,” said Edelgard. “He can’t blame you for something that none of us were around to stop.”

“I heard a rumor that Hapi was either leading or being chased by monsters near Larkspur around the time she was arrested,” said Byleth. “Is she also from Timotheos?”

“Indeed, she is,” said Myron. “However, she likes to travel a lot, so it wouldn’t surprise me that her name would come up in connection with the Larkspur incident. I would caution against putting too much credence in such rumors. Hapi would never use her powers to harm innocents…not intentionally.”

“Wait a minute…you know about Hapi’s ability to control monsters, and that doesn’t scare you?”

“Of course not! In fact, I was one of the first people she confided in when she first learned she could communicate with animals and non-human creatures, and we worked together to help her properly channel her new powers. When I saw Hapi again a few years ago, she had grown up, but she told me her powers had become ‘corrupted’ and she no longer felt comfortable using them.”

“Corrupted? How so?”

“She wouldn’t tell me. I doubt she’d be eager to reveal that information to total strangers.” Myron leaned over to his right to listen to Phil whisper something in his ear, and he whispered something to Theo in turn, prompting both swordsmen to reach for their weapons and scan the area one more time before turning back to Byleth and her students. “I’m also concerned about where Myson and that mysterious masked soldier went off to. He said he was using this forest to conduct research and experiments.”

“Would these ‘experiments’ include Crest Stones, by any chance?” asked Edelgard. “We found some fragments of a Crest Stone in this area and around the monastery.”

“That’s not my area of expertise, I’m afraid,” said Myron. “If he was, then I’m surprised that he and his soldiers didn’t put them to use when they set their trap.”

“It wouldn’t do for him to use their power against just the three of you. That would draw too much attention for a simple ambush. He’s obviously saving what he has left for his next target.”

“Then we must act quickly if we are to prevent him from causing any more harm. Can I rely on you to assist us with these issues?”

“We’ll do what we can,” said Byleth. “How can we contact you?”

“Considering that the three of us might have trouble getting into the monastery after our last encounter with the guards,” said Myron, rubbing his temple with his left hand, “I’ll send a messenger to the gate at sunset within the next few days and have them ask for you. Look for someone in a short-sleeved green robe.”

“Okay. I’ll keep an eye out. Thank you.”

Myron and his bodyguards went south toward Larkspur, hoping to avoid being mistaken for the enemy soldiers lying in the Sealed Forest. Byleth and her class wanted to get away from there, as well. Dealing with Myson and his soldiers was terrible enough, but most of them wondered what would happen when news of their encounter reached the Church of Seiros. It was likely that the knights would close off the forest and monitor it daily to prevent any future intruders.

“I’m not sure what to make of that,” said Byleth. “We defeated the ambush forces, but their leader got away. I think it’s safe to assume that he’s our prime suspect in this mission.”

“What did that Myson character want with Myron, anyway?” asked Ferdinand. “It could not have been for anything good if he were to lead them into this secluded area… And these prints that we spotted earlier…could these have been left by the monsters that attacked Larkspur?”

“They appear to be heading off in that direction,” said Hubert. “Larkspur must either have been a distraction or a test case for the attack on the monastery…and there may be more coming.”

“And all this is happening when the other houses are away from the monastery,” said Dorothea, looking at her classmates with worry. “You don’t think we’ll get attacked again, do you?”

“It’s hard to say,” Edelgard replied. “The monastery battle occurred when we were at full strength. Even if our enemy was aware of that, they wouldn’t attack us so soon again after losing the first time. They’ll probably choose a softer target close to this forest, or close to wherever they can obtain the most ‘resources’.”

Byleth took a moment to think about it, and one name popped out at her…

“Remire Village?”

Byleth remembered the last time she had been to Remire, several months ago. The village lacked enough able-bodied fighters to deal with a surprise bandit attack in the middle of the night, so it was up to Byleth and Jeralt to protect Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude on their way to the Officers Academy. The attention she and Jeralt received from the skirmish eventually landed her a teaching position at the academy, much to her and Jeralt’s surprise and Seteth’s initial dismay.

“Yes, exactly,” said Edelgard. “I fear they may be caught further off-guard if they are targeted by a larger-scale attack than the last one.”

“The only solution I can think of is sending a handful of soldiers to the village to help them watch for the enemy,” said Monica. “It’s too bad the Knights of Seiros have their hands full protecting the monastery while everyone’s away.”

“And the Empire’s soldiers wouldn’t get there in time without exhausting themselves. Unfortunately, a localized defense force is the only option we have.”

“If you need someone to help out with that, I’d be happy to—”

Edelgard placed her left hand on Monica’s right shoulder. Monica looked down at the white glove, and then up at Edelgard, and couldn’t help shuddering a little even after having known and fought alongside her for several weeks. “Let’s take this one step at a time, Monica,” said the princess. “The enemy’s next move is just one of the things we still have to worry about. There’s also the matter of how Hapi got entangled in all this to begin with, and why she was handed over to the Church. To get the answers to those questions, some of us will need to go to Larkspur and speak with whoever’s in charge.”

“Not it!” Bernadetta blurted out. Monica looked over at her and noticed how she got even more nervous than usual whenever the subject of Count Varley came up. Monica wanted to know what it was about him that scared Bernadetta so, but she knew it was impolite to pry too closely, especially since she didn’t know what she would do about the information if Bernadetta ever decided to tell her.

“If we need someone to go on a diplomatic excursion,” said Ferdinand, “then perhaps you and I should go to Larkspur, Edelgard.”

Hubert, Caspar, and Dorothea looked at each other, unable to believe what they were hearing. Edelgard, on the other hand, was unmoved.

“Actually…that’s not a bad idea,” Edelgard admitted. Having Ferdinand at her side when there was nothing for them to compete over made her feel slightly more comfortable.

Byleth looked toward the entrance to the Sealed Forest and wondered how long it would take to clean up the mess within. “Let’s head back to the monastery for now,” she said. “I’m sure you’re all tired after today’s fight. We’ll resume normal activities on Monday.”

None of the Black Eagles argued against her. There was only so much that Monica and Linhardt’s healing magic could do to undo their fatigue.

After watching the Battle of the Eagle and Lion from the sidelines, Monica was proud to have received the opportunity to fight alongside her Black Eagles classmates once again. Although their foes in the Sealed Forest fell without much trouble, they appeared far better disciplined and organized than Raine’s gang. It was unfortunate that Myson got away before they could either kill or interrogate him. His command of dark magic and his tendency to hide in the shadows made him a more challenging adversary than the pompous wind mage who preferred to fight out in the open. She had no doubt that the Eagles would see him again, along with the masked knife-wielding soldier who aided his escape.

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