Chapter 42: The Village the World Left Behind

Byleth lit another torch as she and Monica followed Yuri and Balthus further along the tunnel network beneath the monastery. Their uniforms had been shredded during their fight, and neither of them expected to find a tailor skilled enough to stitch them back together before they returned to the surface. Monica was frustrated because she already had her uniform stitched up once during her visit to Ochs territory. She was sure that the punishment she had taken from Yuri and Balthus had opened those holes anew, and any further work on them would be difficult to hide.

As the cold, gray stone of the caves gave way to smooth, red brick walls, Monica grew less concerned about the state of her wardrobe as she yearned to find out what awaited her in Abyss. The rogues accompanying Yuri had little to contribute to the small talk that filled the dead air as the group approached the long staircase leading to their destination. One of them kept his hand a few inches from his dagger as he walked, ready to draw it against anyone who got too close.

When they all reached the bottom of the stairs, Monica was awed by what lied before her – people in plain clothes walking about, exchanging gossip, drinking ale, and mostly minding their own business. A few people murmured to themselves when she walked by, noticing that she was “one o’ them academy girls” and making Monica aware how much she stood out as both an academy student and a noble among the commoners that made up most of the rest of her traveling group.

Standing watch several feet away from the entrance was a man in dark leather armor and a helmet that covered his head and nose. He unfolded his arms and nodded to Yuri and Balthus as they approached.

“Back for more, eh?” he said. “And you brought a new friend with you this time! Just make sure you keep her out of trouble, got it?”

“It’s a bit early for us to start throwing around the ‘F’ word,” said Yuri. “We’re just here to sate Monica’s curiosity about Abyss. As long as her professor’s here—and me and Balthus, of course—nothing will happen to her…provided she doesn’t run off somewhere dangerous.”

Monica didn’t deny that she wanted to see more of Abyss than time or her escorts would allow. More than that, she wanted to make it back to the monastery in one piece on the slim chance that she would be allowed to visit the place again one day. Although the dark, gloomy atmosphere reminded her of some of the dungeons she had been passed around, the denizens looked unbothered by it. She guessed that most of them had been used to living underground.

“Well, if you’re looking for a place to take a load off after your little scrap,” said the watchman, looking at everyone’s torn clothes, “then hop on over to the Wilting Rose down the street. We may not have the best food or ale, but you won’t find a better atmosphere anywhere under the surface. Just don’t go racking up a big bar tab like this guy.”

Balthus shrugged off the man pointing a thumb at him. “Come on! You know I’m good for it!” he protested.

“That’s what you said to the bartender four months ago,” said Yuri. “You should be thankful he’ll even let you look at the table until you pay up.” He turned to Byleth and Monica and held out his left hand, pointing in the general direction of the tavern. “Anyway, our dear keeper of Abyss has a point. There’s no sense in staying on your feet all day, especially after our last battle. You should get yourselves something to eat or drink first. Then I’ll show you around this place for a little while so that you get back in time to give your next lecture.”

The others followed Yuri into the tavern. While it didn’t appear as big on the outside as Ol’ Swampy in Remire Village due to its location in a tucked-away corner, there were almost twice as many tables on the floor to make up for the absence of bedding. Ale was also more readily available due to its customer base skewing older. Nearly three-fourths of the customers had a full mug waiting for them, but only one of them chose to buy something to eat along with it.

The bartender looked up at the group after wiping his table, paying special attention to Balthus as he approached. “So, which one of your friends is paying for you this time?” he asked.

“Relax, pal,” said Balthus. “Sure, you’ve got more mouths to feed tonight, but one of ’em isn’t mine, for once.”

The bartender turned to his right as Monica sat down in a stool and tried to make herself comfortable. “First visit to Abyss, huh?”

“Er…yes!” she said, folding her hands and sitting up straight. “It must be obvious, isn’t it?”

“Well, yeah. Don’t see too many kids like you come down here these days…not on purpose, anyway.”

“She’s with me,” said Byleth. “I’m her guardian.”

“Heh…I had a feeling you were an academy kid. Unfortunately, the Wilting Rose doesn’t give student discounts. Up high, down low…no matter where you’re from, everybody pays the same in here. That said, what strikes your fancy?”

Without a menu before her to help her decide, Monica was left with no choice but to go with her gut, and her gut demanded something warm. “Do you have any soup?” she asked.

“That depends. Do you have any money?”

Before Monica could check her coin purse to see if she had enough money for her soup, Byleth had already placed a handful of coins on the counter. “It’s okay, Monica. This one’s on me.”

“Thanks, Professor…but don’t you need that money for eq—”

Byleth put a finger to her lips, and Monica said no more.

“So kind of you to pay for our meals, Professor,” said Yuri. “Far be it from me to turn down such a generous offering…” He rested his right arm next to Byleth’s coins and pushed them toward the bartender. “I’ll have a soup, too.”

“And one for me, as well,” said Byleth.

The bartender signaled for the cook next to him, a young man with a wiry frame, to prepare three bowls of soup. What he lacked in muscle compared to his boss, he made up for it with deftness with the knife and spoon. Being underground made it difficult for Byleth and Monica to determine the time, so they weren’t sure how long it had taken for the scent of onions and fish to reach their noses. Regardless, they were both grateful when their meals arrived.

After the bartender took Byleth’s payment, she and her group took their bowls to an empty table in the corner, with Balthus arranging the seats to have his back facing the counter, hoping to minimize the chance of anyone starting trouble with them.

Monica ate her soup slowly, savoring each spoonful and allowing it to warm her up. “Thank you, Professor,” she said.

“What for?” asked Byleth.

“For allowing me to indulge my curiosity. I knew the monastery was old, but I never imagined anything like this underneath it!”

“You’ll be surprised by the things you find if you dig deep enough,” said Yuri. “Just be careful where and how far you dig. You might not always like what turns up.”

Yuri, hoping to scoop up a few pieces of diced onion, spat out a few flakes of onion skin.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Monica.

“Speaking of curiosity,” he added after finding a more favorable morsel in his soup, “what drove you to come down to this place, anyway? I understand the church does its best to dissuade people from wandering into ‘dangerous’ areas.”

“I couldn’t very well leave a secret area like this alone when the path to it is sitting right under my nose.”

“I think Yuri means why you and your professor chose to come down here tonight of all nights,” said Balthus.

“We wanted to investigate some rumors that have been going around,” said Byleth. “Someone from Remire Village happened upon the monastery recently and he thought he saw the Death Knight come this way. This place is full of hidden passages, and we want to make sure he didn’t escape into one of them to attack anyone else.”

“The Death Knight, you say? I’ll tell you this much, pal…if a guy like that was lurking around here, these streets would empty faster than you can say, ‘Goddess, forgive me!'”

Monica looked up from her bowl and noticed that no one at the nearby tables had reacted to their discussion. She didn’t know whether to credit Balthus’ presence for keeping them away, or the bartender for providing strong enough drinks to dissuade them from snooping on anyone. “I can’t say that answer helps me sleep easier,” she said.

The servant boy who had cooked their soup came to collect their bowls once they finished eating. Byleth left a few extra coins on the table to give to him as a tip.

“I suppose now would be a good time to give you a quick guided tour of Abyss,” said Yuri. “Word of advice: stick to the lit roads. You never know who or what could be lurking in these alleys.”

Monica and Byleth followed Yuri out of the Wilting Rose Inn and wandered around the streets. Although Monica found the brick walls and torches more inviting than the caves where she fought Yuri and Balthus, there was nothing that immediately stood out as housing or living quarters in the area, leaving her to worry about where everyone would sleep for the night. From the look of things, the tunnel from Garreg Mach led directly to the commercial district. The market stalls sold assortments of fruits, vegetables, and grains, but in lower quantities than in the markets Monica frequented on the surface. In a booth several yards away from those, one merchant hurried to throw a large yellow drape over his table after a customer walked away with a knife that was kept in an unusual scabbard. The merchant was quick to shoo any potential customers away from the table.

On one street leading into the back alleys, a young woman and a young man walked into a room that resembled a fortuneteller’s booth, listening to the woman at the table dole out advice on love and companionship. Outside of the Wilting Rose, it was the cleanest place Monica had seen so far, if not the most vibrant in color. Behind them and to their left, an old man erased some writing on a chalkboard and replaced it with a message reading “Good morning!” and a drawing of rays of sunshine peeking through a window.

“You have a classroom down here?” asked Monica, scanning the room’s bookshelves to find out what the old man used as his teaching tools.

“You bet! In fact, the teacher there used to be a professor at the Officers Academy,” said Balthus. “He may have lost his job, but he never lost his passion for teaching.”

“Did you have him as a teacher, Balthus?”

“Nope. He was way before my time. Doesn’t mean the new generation can’t learn a thing or two from him, though.”

“What about you, Yuri? You said you had gone to the academy just like Monica,” said Byleth. “What was your experience like?”

“A bit too short for my liking,” said Yuri, “but I don’t regret the time I spent there. Right now, my focus is on keeping Abyss safe, and keeping my ear to the ground for any troublemakers. That doesn’t mean I don’t follow what goes on above ground.”

“Is that so? Because the same young man who started the rumor about the Death Knight told us another interesting story,” said Monica, “about someone who saved him and one of his friends from a burning building and nursed them back to health before disappearing into the night.”

“He did, did he? Now that you mention it,” said Yuri, “one of my men had brought in someone one night who was in really bad shape, with cuts and bruises all over his body. Why his attackers didn’t kill him when they found him, I don’t know. We found out he and his friend were from Remire after I healed them. As one might expect, they were ill-equipped to handle the soldiers terrorizing their village, so they ran and hid, but even that didn’t save them. As much as I wanted to tell them it would be safer in Abyss, I decided to escort them back home, under the condition that they keep my identity a secret to everybody.”

“Even if he can’t tell anyone else you were the one who helped him, I’m sure Josey is grateful for you saving his life.”

The group left the classroom area and followed Yuri eastward through a rusted iron grate, away from the market stalls and onto streets that bore only slightly less resemblance to a castle’s dungeon the further they got away from the entrance to the tunnels connecting Abyss to Garreg Mach Monastery. While the cavern ceiling beyond the gate had risen to the point where the “sky” was nearly black, the streets were dotted with torches of varying heights to keep pedestrians from being completely in the dark. A lack of easy access to building materials left most of the houses looking rustic and run-down.

“Are these houses considered part of Abyss too, Yuri?” asked Monica as her guide stopped her from venturing too far ahead.

“Right you are, Monica,” said Yuri. “Anyone who knows about this place only considers the central area – the part with the tavern, the classroom, and the wayseer – the ‘real’ Abyss. But even a place like that can’t hold everyone. We all need a place to rest our heads for the night, no matter where we come from.”

“Does that include you two?”

Yuri turned to Monica and waved his right pointer finger at her. “Maybe…but I couldn’t tell you exactly where. You understand, right?”

Monica thought she understood. She knew she was taking a big risk by taking advantage of the gap in the church’s security to sneak into Abyss in the first place. If there was anyone in the church who had any reason to go after Yuri or Balthus, then her presence would potentially put them, as well as the rest of the Abyssians, in danger.

While they didn’t learn where Yuri and Balthus spent their nights, Monica and Byleth were allowed to follow them around the residential area for a while. The Abyssians, who were not used to seeing armed visitors, kept their distance from the outsiders, but several of them greeted Yuri more warmly.

“Don’t feel bad, pals,” said Balthus. “If you spend enough time down here, I’m sure some of these folks will warm up to you.”

“It’s a shame we can’t do that regularly, given our positions,” said Byleth. “For now, however, Monica and I need to return to the academy. I’m sure I’ll have to answer a lot of questions about where we’ve been.”

“While we can’t guide you all the way back, I can get you far enough so that you can make it the rest of the way on your own. You do know the way back from there, don’t you?”

Byleth folded her arms and stared blankly at Yuri.

“Just thought I’d ask. Now then, shall we get going?”

Monica felt that it took longer to get from the residential area of Abyss to the central commercial area than the other way around. She didn’t know whether the path was actually longer or that it only seemed so because she was tired from fighting Balthus and Yuri earlier. The other entrance gates in the residential area were so far away, and Monica wondered how safe it was on the other side, and where one would end up after they passed through.

As they approached the stairs, Monica saw a woman in a fancy purple gown disappear into an alley to their right. The woman appeared out of place compared to everyone else they had seen in Abyss, and Monica had a hard time identifying her due to the black veil she wore over her face. Byleth waited a moment to see if the woman would return from the alley before going that way herself. A weathered stone statue of a hooded figure with large skeletal wings overlooked the room as the woman placed a green stone on the altar and knelt down, uttering a prayer in a language neither Byleth nor Monica had heard before. The statue had a gloomy air about it, but it did little to deter four more people from praying before the altar, none of whom were dressed up like the woman they had been trailing.

Hmph. If you ask me, that statue leaves a lot to be desired. If the church really does know of this place, I am surprised that they choose to leave it standing. As for you – I hope you will not make offerings or prayers to random statues of unknown origin.

Byleth made a mental note of the statue, taking care not to say or do anything that would reveal her connection to Sothis to the others, which made Sothis pout again when Byleth didn’t respond to her observation.

When the group returned to the stairs to the tunnels, the Abysskeeper folded his arms and nodded, warning them not to get themselves killed. Yuri took the lead once again, grabbing a torch from the wall to light the way for his guests. “So, what did you think of our little hideaway?” he asked.

“I can’t really say,” said Monica. “I only wish the Professor and I had more time to look around.”

“You’ll get your chance one day,” said Byleth, “but don’t forget about what I said earlier. If you want to come down to Abyss again, make sure to find me first when I’m not busy.”

For a moment, Monica felt like she was being scolded by her mother again, despite Byleth not being that much older than her. She quickly conceded the point – without her teacher, a mercenary with years of experience, watching over her, she knew that Yuri, Balthus, or one of Yuri’s henchmen would have had no trouble disposing of her.

The walk back to the surface led the group back to the open room where they first fought. Everyone looked at Byleth as she stopped short of one of the exit tunnels.

“Wait,” she said as she reached to wrest the Sword of the Creator from its custom scabbard. “Something’s coming.”

“Heh…whoever’s trying to ambush us really ought to think twice,” said Yuri. “I know these tunnels better than just about anyone.”

Everyone else quieted down so they could listen for what Byleth thought she heard. The cavern’s silence was periodically interrupted by drops of water from a nearby corridor. A loud splash preceded the sound of footsteps approaching their position. Monica and Yuri looked around, reflexively reaching for their own swords to prepare themselves for trouble.

Just off to their left, the source of the noise revealed itself – a horse wearing a helmet that resembled a bull’s horns. Sitting atop the dark-maned steed was a knight wearing a torn red cape and armor with more spikes than Monica thought looked comfortable, topped off with a skull-shaped helmet with horns taller than the knight’s head. To complete the menacing ensemble, the knight also held a scythe that looked sharp enough to split a column in half with a stroke.

There was no doubt about it. Their quarry – the Death Knight – had somehow found them.

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