Chapter 30: Lying in Wait

The Black Eagles’ trek to Remire Village through the Oghma Mountains lasted into the late afternoon. Jeralt told the group that he had paid for a night’s room and board for most of the class. With only enough beds to house eight people, the conversation was dominated by discussions about sleeping arrangements, with most of the group unwilling to forgo the comfort of a soft bed in exchange for sleeping under the clouds. After much deliberation and argument, Byleth decided to assign the rooms herself – Bernadetta and Flayn would share one room, Constance and Dorothea would share another, Hubert and Linhardt would share the third room, and Monica and Petra would share the last room. Caspar was hardly disappointed about being the odd one out of the group. “I don’t get to do this often,” he admitted, “so it’ll be exciting for me. If I see anything suspicious out here at night, I’ll holler for you guys, alright?”

“Try not to holler too loudly, Caspar,” said Dorothea. “We don’t want to scare anyone any more than they probably are.”

“At least with my room assignment,” said Hubert, glancing over at Linhardt, “I can be assured a good night’s rest under more normal circumstances.”

“It’s too bad everything we’ve dealt with over the last few weeks has been anything but normal,” said Monica.

Flayn, who had been sitting quietly between Dorothea and Bernadetta in one of the carriages, appreciated the opportunity to get out and stretch her arms and legs once they arrived in Remire. “I must thank you again for convincing my brother to allow me to join you, Professor,” she said.

“It’s no problem,” said Byleth. “Just stay close to our group and you should be fine.”

Monica watched two of the three knights accompanying Jeralt as they unloaded a pair of tents, one large and one small. The larger tent had a patch of taupe fabric stitched and taped over the hole where one of Raine’s thugs had shot it. There were no signs of impending rain, so she thought it unlikely that the patch was waterproof, and only Jeralt or Leonie knew for sure.

“Hey, Professor,” said Caspar as one of the knights handed him the smaller tent, “I’m sure you and Captain Jeralt have done this lots of times before, so, uh…do you think you could give me a hand setting this thing up?”

“Of course,” said Byleth. “Just put your axe down somewhere and we can get started. Everyone else, please follow Captain Jeralt to the inn to get yourselves checked in.”

“Yes, Professor!” said the rest of the class.

While Byleth helped Caspar with his tent and sleeping bag, the others followed Jeralt to a wide two-story building with a hand-painted sign reading “Ol’ Swampy” hanging over the front door. The group had every reason to believe that the inn got its name from the patches of moss and vines on the outer walls. “I certainly hope that this inn is more inviting on the inside than it is on the outside,” said Constance, earning her a brief dirty look from Dorothea.

“No use complaining about it now,” said Jeralt. “This is where you’ll all be staying for the evening. Fight or not, we’ll have you back at the academy by this time tomorrow.” He turned around to do a quick headcount before entering the inn. “I know I only paid for eight of you, but don’t you guys usually have two more? The orange guy and the white-haired one…where are they?”

“Lady Edelgard could not make the trip with us,” said Hubert. “Our professor assigned her and Ferdinand to another assignment closely related to this one.”

“That so? Let’s hope they don’t get themselves killed out there.”

When they entered Ol’ Swampy, the innkeeper sitting at the front desk laughed and did a double-take upon seeing the line of students forming behind Jeralt. “There you go, always finding ways to surprise me,” he said. “All these moppets yours too, Jeralt?”

“Nah…I’ve still only got the one,” Jeralt responded. “These are all her students.”

The innkeeper laughed again. “Students? I didn’t expect someone her age to make such a drastic career change. I don’t really blame you for wanting to take her away from that lifestyle.”

“Neither of us got to make that call…”

“I’m just saying… With the money she’d make from that teaching gig, she could retire early, settle down, find herself a nice mate…” The innkeeper trailed off and looked at the students again as he reviewed his visitor and registry logs. “Anyway, your rooms are upstairs. Just remember these two things: don’t disturb the other patrons, and make sure everything is as you found it before you leave.”

“You don’t have to worry. My daughter made them promise to be on their best behavior while they were here. Me and my crew will be outside helping patrol the area, just in case things get sticky.”

Jeralt signed his name in the registry log and walked out, murmuring something to himself too quietly for anyone to hear. The class took turns signing their names in the visitor log, with Hubert, Flayn, Monica, and Dorothea receiving keys with tags corresponding to their respective rooms. Instead of numbers, the tags were marked with dot patterns similar to those found on dice. “It’s too bad we couldn’t all get rooms,” said Monica, looking at the two-dotted tag hanging off her key. “Oh, well…we might as well make the most of it while we’re here. Just so that we’re all clear on where to find each other, Petra and I will be in room number two.”

“Bernadetta and I will be resting in the fourth room,” said Flayn.

“I’m in room number six with Constance,” said Dorothea.

“And I will be sharing room three with Linhardt,” said Hubert. “Do not be surprised if you have to yell a little louder than normal in the event of an emergency.”

Linhardt turned around and examined doors one and five, which were closed and locked tightly. “Who do you suppose could be in the other rooms?” he asked.

“Whoever they are, we should definitely leave them alone,” said Bernadetta. “If they want to come out and see us, they’ll ask for us. I mean, you wouldn’t like it if some random stranger knocked on your door, would you?”

Constance turned around to face everyone after looking at the door to the room she would soon share with Dorothea. “What do you propose we all do in the meantime?” she asked. “It is unsettling to think this village may become a battlefield at any moment… I believe that some of us ought to go out and take a look around while things are still relatively peaceful.”

“I am in agreement with Constance,” said Petra. “If we are to go outside, then we should take caution not to be doing or saying anything that will cause unnecessary fearfulness.”

“Makes sense to me,” said Monica.

“In that case, I propose that we take turns walking around town,” said Hubert. “Linhardt…you, Bernadetta, Flayn, and I will take the first shift. The rest of you should stay here so that we do not have to go far to find you if our enemies should attack while we are out. If we should return before that time, then you are free to explore at your leisure. Are there any objections?”

Monica shook her head, believing she would have done so regardless of the person making the request. No one else – not even Bernadetta, who looked forward to resting in bed after spending hours on the road – had anything to say, either.

“Then we shall return after inspecting our rooms and making our rounds.”

Linhardt grunted and rubbed his eyes. “Well, I suppose if we’re doing this in the interest of scouting ahead, I’ll go along. I’d much rather inspect the beds to see how comfortable they are. For research purposes, of course.”

“But Linhardt, I recall seeing you fall asleep the moment we left the monastery,” said Flayn. “Are you still exhausted after all of that riding?”

“It’s not a matter of exhaustion, Flayn. It’s all about conservation of energy. If I were to exhaust myself too early over something trivial, then I would be a liability to everyone in more serious situations. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“I suppose you have a point… However, I am eager to see as much of this village as possible while we are stationed here.”

Hubert, on the other hand, disagreed. “Only you would find a way to turn laziness into an asset, Linhardt.”

Without another word, everyone went to their assigned rooms to unload their belongings. Hubert, Linhardt, Bernadetta, and Flayn only spent a few moments examining their rooms before leaving the inn to explore Remire. When Monica and Petra went to sit on their beds, they were both disturbed by the lack of “bounce” they had in comparison to their beds in the Officers Academy dorms.

“These mattresses have much hardness,” said Petra. “I am worrying that none of us will be sleeping well tonight.”

“I know… It feels like laying down on a table,” said Monica. She then picked up the pillow at the head of her bed and gave it a good squeeze. “At least the pillows are nice and soft.”

Petra tested her bed’s pillow for herself to see if Monica was telling the truth, squeezing it and then resting her head on it while trying to ignore the hardness of the mattress she was laying on. “This pillow is very comforting…”

After twisting and turning to find a comfortable resting position, Petra rolled over to see Monica reaching into the bag by her side. “What are you searching for, Monica?” she asked.

“Just a little something to do while we wait,” said Monica as she pulled out a deck of blue-backed playing cards.

“Are you wanting to play cards with me?”

Monica smiled and winked. “If you’re feeling up for it. I’m going to see if Connie and Dorothea want to play, too. I’ll be right back.”

She rose from her bed and left the bedroom to knock on door number six with the cards in her hand. Dorothea answered while Constance sat uncomfortably on her bed, running her right index finger across the pages of a book. “Hey there, Monica,” said Dorothea. “I’ve been trying to tell Constance that it’s okay to relax for a few moments, but she insists on sitting there and poring over that magic book of hers.”

“And I was explaining to Dorothea that I must continue to refine and improve my technique if I am to achieve my goal,” said Constance. “I was dissatisfied with my performance in our last battle. I am certain I used the proper incantation before, but the spell should have been stronger than it was…”

Monica recognized the cover of the book as that of Winter’s Chill, the spellbook she helped Constance buy from Anna. While she was glad that her gift was being put to good use, the subject of magic was still new to her, so she couldn’t offer much in the way of practical advice. “Sorry, Connie,” she said, “but I’m with Dorothea on this one. Maybe the answer will come to you if you step away from that book for a while.”

“And what do you propose I do with myself in the meantime, Monica?”

Monica held up the deck of cards and waved it in front of the two girls. “How about playing a few rounds of spades with me and Petra?”

Constance closed her book and leaned in for a closer look at the cards. “Well… it has been a while since I have had a chance to properly amuse myself…”

“See? There’s nothing wrong with having a little fun now and then,” said Dorothea. “Where do you think we should play?”

“It appears as if these rooms are too small to comfortably hold more than two people. There must be a free table available downstairs that we could use.”

“Great!” said Monica. “Let’s hurry downstairs before someone else claims it.”

With the three of them in agreement, Monica went back to her room to invite Petra to play. The group went back downstairs to the common area and sat at a small square table next to one of the eastern windows. Dorothea looked behind the curtains to see a field covered in mud and dried grass, where a few children were playing tag. “Not the most scenic of views,” she lamented, “but it’ll have to do for now.”

Monica happily sat down next to Constance, even though she knew it meant they would play on opposite teams. After explaining the rules to everyone, she shuffled the deck and dealt the first hand, occasionally looking over at one of the neighboring tables where a group of young men and women gathered to play poker. The jingling sound of chips being tossed toward the center of the table reminded her why she chose to play spades – gambling, even for pretend money, was forbidden by Officers Academy rules. The embarrassment of losing all of one’s money and having to beg for more was just as much of a deterrent as a suspension for anyone who got caught. Considering how she and Petra lost three of four rounds to Constance and Dorothea, Monica doubted she would make it back to the academy with her uniform intact if she had been “invited” to play at the poker table.

The girls stopped playing just as Hubert’s group returned. “How are things out there, Hubie?” asked Dorothea.

“Very tense,” said Hubert. “There are only a small number of villagers walking out and about at the moment. From an outsider’s perspective, it would appear that we are the reason everyone has suddenly decided to hole up in their houses. How ridiculous…”

“Have you seen or heard from Caspar or the Professor?”

“They have set up their tents on opposite ends of the village. Caspar is stationed at the north, and the Professor and the knights are watching the south. A dozen villagers have taken up arms and are prepared to face the enemy when they arrive. It remains to see how well they have been trained.”

The girls at the table were also worried, but they were relieved that they wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of defending Remire all by themselves.

As Monica scooped up the cards on the table and wrapped them with a rubber band, Flayn stepped ahead of Hubert and handed individually wrapped chocolate candies to everyone. “You should try one of these candies, Monica,” she said, smiling after taking one out of the tiny bag in her hand and eating it. “One of the boys from the village directed us to a confectioner’s shop that sells these delectable fruit-flavored chocolates. The owner gave us free samples to drum up interest before he closed for the day. I could not wait to purchase a bag of my own to share with the rest of you.”

“Ooh! Thanks, Flayn!” said Monica. Her concern about Constance’s reaction to Flayn giving her a piece of candy was quickly forgotten when Constance unwrapped the morsel she received. Monica ate her candy at almost the same time, tasting a hint of cherry in her chocolate. She had a sudden urge to figure out the recipe – especially the part with the fruity filling.

“Hubert was the only one who did not eat his candy,” said Flayn. “Do you suppose he is saving it for later?”

“Something like that,” said Dorothea, covering her mouth to hide her giggling at Hubert, who glared back at her when he noticed.

“I am still wanting to go outside,” said Petra, “before we are forced to be fighting in the darkness.”

“Me too,” said Monica. “There may not be much to do here, but we can’t really say we’ve been to Remire if all we’ve done is rested at this inn, can we?”

Everyone went back to their rooms, with Monica and Petra returning to the common area with their swords at their belts. Dorothea and Constance, who didn’t bring weapons with them, had gone downstairs ahead of them and waited by the front door.

“So, do you think we should check in with the Professor first?” asked Dorothea. “I’ll bet she’s probably wondering how we’re all doing right now.”

“I will be going with you,” said Petra, “but we should not be forgetting about Caspar.”

“Monica…would you care to take a walk with me?” asked Constance. “To…check on him…that is?”

“Of course!” said Monica. “I’m worried about him, too. Uh…n-not that I doubt that Caspar can take care of himself…”

The four girls split up from there, with Monica and Constance walking toward the north side of Remire, and Dorothea and Petra heading south. Rather than head directly to the north gate, Monica and Constance surveyed the residential area, sticking to the cobblestone walkways and watching the knights and village watchmen keep the lanterns lit. There wasn’t much they could do to keep anyone from hiding in the shadows, but they would at least help those who were still outside to find their way home before it got too dark.

Between peeking down alleys in search of any enemies that may have slipped through cracks in the outer walls, Monica looked at her surroundings and wondered if she would ever truly see her old home again. Not Drachen Village, where she and her parents had lived since the war against Brigid, but the grand castle at the center of the city of Machstadt, which stood for decades until Brigid’s army made its way through the western mountains and smashed it to pieces. Thinking about how much time and money it had taken for the baron to try to rebuild everything made her sigh so loud that it caused Constance to jump and break hand contact.

“Monica? What is the matter?” asked Constance.

Monica folded her arms and looked down at the ground as she walked at Constance’s side. “Nothing…just a little homesick, I guess.”

“But had you not recently returned home? To see your father again?”

“I did,” said Monica, sighing a little quieter. “I don’t know… I guess I’m just looking forward to the end of the year. That way I can go home and help out my parents…maybe see how the castle is coming along.”

“I know that feeling all too well…” said Constance, looking wistfully at the gradually darkening sky. “Not a day goes by when I am not thinking of ways to return to my homeland with my head held high. Until I have proven myself worthy of the title Countess Nuvelle, I will not be satisfied!”

“Does this have anything to do with that ‘secret project’ you told me about earlier?”

“That is but one component of it, yes. I cannot yet divulge the full details of this project, for I am not able to describe it in more understandable terms. However, I can assure you that you will recognize it as my handiwork when you see it!”

“I’ll be looking forward to it,” said Monica. Whatever ‘it’ is, she thought, I hope it doesn’t involve me getting zapped again.

They both reached the north gate and saw Caspar by his tent, stomping on the corner pegs a few times to make sure they stayed down. He lowered his axe as they approached, hoping not to bring any harm to them or himself. “Hey there, ladies,” he said. “What’s it like on the other side of the walls?”

“So far, so good,” said Monica. “For someone who says he’s never gone camping before, you did a pretty good job with this tent, Caspar.”

“Thanks! The Professor helped me with most of it.” Caspar turned around to admire the tent, lightly tapping it a few times to make sure it stayed upright. “The hardest part is keeping these things in place so that the top doesn’t collapse.”

“It doesn’t look that hard… Then again, I’ve never set up a tent like this, either. The closest I’ve gotten to camping out is sleeping in the back of a wagon in the rain.”

“There is no way you would ever find me partaking in such an activity,” said Constance, cringing at the thought of what she would have to deal with if she was in Caspar’s position. “The cramped quarters, the sunlight bearing down on me upon awakening, and the bugs…”

“I don’t blame you,” said Caspar. “I’d be able to relax more if we weren’t on guard duty. All this waiting around for the enemy to attack is putting me on edge!” He gripped his axe so tightly that Monica could see his knuckles turning white.

“Please…do not say that out loud! What if one of them were hiding among us?”

“Then we’d just have to find them and take them out, wouldn’t we? If it’s as easy as finding the ones we fought in the forest, then—”

Caspar was interrupted by the sound of a crude bell ringing from the northwest watchtower, followed by shouts of “They’re here!” and screams of terror and pain.

“Is that easy enough for you?” asked Monica.

She, Caspar, and Constance ran back within the walls and headed toward Ol’ Swampy as quickly as they could while the villagers scrambled to get inside to escape the looming threat. It took Caspar a few minutes to gather Flayn and the other Black Eagles resting at the inn, and slightly longer for Byleth, Dorothea, and Petra to arrive at the designated meeting spot with a few armed and lightly armored villagers. “What’s going on, Professor?” asked Monica. “Where’s Captain Jeralt?”

“He’s already engaged the enemy,” said Byleth. “It’s just as we suspected…Myson and his gang have brought some demonic beasts with them.”

“They have more of those things?” said Bernadetta. “What could they possibly want with this place?”

“Who knows, and who cares?” said one of the villagers, a tall, broad-shouldered man dressed in leather armor and carrying a billhook. “We won’t let those dastards overrun this village without a fight!”

The two younger men and younger woman behind him, while nervous, cheered on their leader and raised their weapons in the air.

“It doesn’t look like we’ll be able to keep any of them away from the village this time,” said Byleth. “We’ll have to defeat them quickly and stop them from doing too much damage. If you see any civilians still wandering around, get them inside immediately before they get hurt.”

Byleth’s students, as well as Flayn and Constance, nodded affirmatively. The man with the billhook looked at them and scratched his head, asking, “Are you sure it’s a good idea to put these kids out there to deal with these monsters?”

“Right now, we need every able-bodied warrior we can find. My students and I have fought this enemy before. We know how to deal with them.”

“If you say so… I guess it’s pointless to be choosy about help in a crisis, right?”

Everyone drew their weapons when they heard a loud crash and more screaming coming from the east. “It seems our enemies are more numerous than the previous ones,” said Petra.

“It doesn’t matter… We’ll beat them all just like we did last time,” said Caspar. “Right, guys?”

“It’s what we’re here for,” said Monica.

A short distance to the south of Remire, a small group of black-robed figures gathered around a rotting birch tree, picking at the exposed bark and kicking the dirt around it to relieve their boredom. The only ones not engaged with the tree were Myson and the young soldier he extracted from the Sealed Forest, the former of whom had his eyes on the sky above the walled village.

“Hey, Myson! Are we gonna move out soon?” his companion called out to him. “We’re all getting restless over here.”

“Our moment will come, Kronya,” said Myson. “We must wait for the signal.”

The girl named Kronya turned away from her slacking subordinates to look at the empty space where Myson was pointing. The hood of her jacket dropped to her shoulders, revealing her short orange hair and alabaster-white skin to her group. “It’s just not the same. After all the trouble I went through to get the materials for your experiments, I wanted to be part of the first wave and see everything up close. To watch those little worms squirm around and cry for help before we snuff the life out of them…it’s such a wonderful sensation!”

Kronya’s mouth twisted into something resembling a smile. Myson looked down from the sky and quietly glanced at Kronya out of the corner of his eye. “Aww…don’t tell me you’re still sore from getting shot in the arm,” she teased. “Trust me…I know how that feels. You’ll get your chance for vengeance soon enough.”

“The scars I have suffered pale in comparison to the torment we are wreaking on our enemies as we speak,” said Myson. “Despite the setbacks we have suffered, I am certain that Lord Solon will be pleased with our progress.”

A yellowish-white fireball shot up from the ground in the distance, fading out before exploding in a shower of sparks.

“Now… we continue the hunt,” he added, holding his arms up and clapping his hands, attracting the attention of the soldiers behind him.

The soldiers split off into groups of four, with the mages lining up behind Myson and the swordsmen and thieves teaming up with Kronya. As Myson and the mages chanted to create a large teleportation circle, Kronya checked inside the suit beneath her robe to make sure she had her short sword and dagger ready before they charged into battle. “This is going to be so exciting!” she cheered to herself. “I wonder if I’ll see that little red rat again… Once I find that disgusting creature, it’ll take weeks for them to clean up the mess her corpse leaves behind!”

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