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In The Half Light I'll See You In Time

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She knows the moment she sees her; silver hair and eyes hidden behind sunglasses, suit a deep shade of red. She moves like a predator, all feline grace with a promise of violence if crossed. A dog trots alongside her -- or what looks like a dog to the untrained, she knows it's anything but -- large and she taps the appearance as a husky. She wonders which of the Vampire's guards it is distantly, her fingers drumming against her steering wheel.

"Edelgard von Hresvelg." Her father had said that morning, taping a picture up on their board. Byleth looked up from where she was pouring her coffee, squinting through the sleep still weighing on her. "Our new target." He turned, propping his hip up on the counter. "Known also as 'The Flame Emperor,' entrepreneur, dangerously cunning and deceptively charming. Master of the Adrestia coven, an offshoot of the Garreg Mach coven."

She blinked slow, thoughtful, absorbing all of the information that had just been dropped on her. "How close are they related to the Garreg Mach coven?" She asked finally, rubbing her eyes with the hand not holding her mug. 

"Direct. Hresvelg was sired by Seiros, rumor has it she was one of the first Seiros ever turned."

Byleth frowned, lifting her mug to take a careful sip and consider the picture on the board. Edelgard wasn't smiling in the picture, her expression neutral and stance polite. Caught in the middle of a meeting. She was pretty, looked to be in her mid twenties. "Why do they call her The Flame Emperor?" 

"Because of her relation to Seiros she's capable of using the old vampire magics that have since died out of the bloodlines. Pyrokenesis to be exact, leaving her immune to fire itself. She earned the nickname during a few coven wars when she mercilessly burned swaths through her enemies."

"Huh." Another sip. "Why are we after her? She doesn't seem to be causing trouble lately, else I would have heard of her before now."

"You're right, she's been doing nothing but good lately. Runs a business that helps out a lot of the local hospitals and shelters. Makes sure all the local vampires get fed so they don't have to resort to breaking laws. But someone still wants her dead, for a pretty hefty fee too. I want to find out why before we decide if we're going to take the job or not."

It wasn't like they were short on money anyway, the last few hunts having paid well enough for them to live comfortably for the next few months easily. So they could take their time with this one, watch their target and learn even more about her.  Find out what it is she was doing that had painted a target bold enough to get her and her father involved.
They didn't take just any odd job, their targets were always ones that deserved it, the big ones less experienced hunters couldn't take care of. Edelgard absolutely fit the bill of 'too dangerous for the newbies' but she still hadn't done anything that made her seem like a problem.

Byleth also hadn't seen her do more than walk with her werewolf companion and get a coffee she very clearly added blood to before she bothered to even do more than look at it.

Across the street from her Edelgard pauses at the corner, leaning her elbow into the cross light button, coffee cup still held in one hand. She looks bored, or tired, or a mixture of both as she waits, watching the light and standing among the gathering crowd like she was just an average everyday businesswoman. The werewolf sits beside her and yawns, ears shifting to listen to the likely drone of conversation rolling around them. Someone says something that catches the Vampire's attention, her smile is slight but sly, and Byleth wishes she could hear what she was saying.

From the look she casts at the werewolf beside her it must have been about them. Probably about the fact that they weren't on a leash. She wonders if Edelgard told them that her dog wasn't at all a dog. Or if she lied and just said they were well trained.

The light changes, and for a moment Byleth loses sight of Edelgard and her werewolf among the crowd crossing the street. "Dammit," she mutters, leaning on her steering wheel like it would give her a better vantage, squinting into the flurry of movement. She finds the werewolf first, bounding up onto the crosswalk and turning to wait until Edelgard emerges from the crowd and stops, reaching down with her free hand to pat the wolf, lips moving on words she assumes are a mockery of their curious passerby. Either that or she was talking about something completely unrelated.

Maybe it really was time for her to learn to read lips.

She gets out of her car as soon as Edelgard starts to walk again, phone in one hand, keys in the other. Thumbing a text to her father while she shuts the door with her hip, hitting the lock button on her keys before she clips them to a belt loop. Jeralt texts her back when she's halfway down the sidewalk, and she half glances at her phone.

-Got it. Be careful.

The phone goes back in her pocket.

She follows her for an hour, having to turn into the crowd once and pretend to look at something on her phone when Edelgard stops to look over her shoulder. Byleth watches her out of the corner of her eye as the other woman scans the crowd behind her, gaze passing right over where she stands. She blends more in with the crowd walking on their side of the street after Edelgard decides to move on again. Byleth types out another text, finding irony in looking like every other twenty something or younger on the street with a phone.

-She's attentive, caught on to the fact that someone is tailing her.

-Did she see you?

-Yea, but she didn't realize it was me following her.

When she looks up again Edelgard has vanished into one of the countless restaurant, bar and lounge hybrids that litter the city. Just upscale, meant for the type of people Byleth usually liked to stay a ten foot pole and change away from. 

Usually. It unfortunately wasn't an option this time and as under-dressed as she was she knew she was about to stick out like a sore thumb, but in she went anyway. In all her leather jacket, band t-shirt, torn jeans, boots and ball-cap glory.

Fortunately, no one really pays her any mind beyond a few mildly offended glances as she passes by. No one says anything, no one stops her so she wanders through like she belongs, through the restaurant and bar to the lounge. Only once does one of the staff stop her to ask her if she wanted anything. Her refusal is polite.

She finds Edelgard right where she suspected she would, lounged out casually on one of the couches like she owned the place (and she very well could, Byleth didn't know).

There's some horror movie playing on the TV that Byleth can place from the sound alone, memories of late night Halloween movie binging with her father, Leonie and Alois filtering in.

Edelgard isn't impressed, arms flung over the back of the couch and expression one of graceful boredom bordering on dozing, what Byleth assumes is a piece of blood laced licorice hanging out of the corner of her mouth. The werewolf from earlier lays on the couch beside her, head against her thigh and a brunette woman sits off to her other side, looking far more entertained by the movie then the vampire beside her.

Byleth watches for a moment, noticing the stillness of age in the other woman. Old enough that she has to think to breathe, to move like a human would instead of staying still for hours like some kind of incredibly lifelike statue. But she doesn't need to pretend here, so she doesn't bother, the only motion she makes is her slow chew of the licorice that's more than half gone now. 

"You're not supposed to be back here."

She tenses, turning slowly to face the man behind her. Tall, dark and with enough edge to cut. She had no idea they made upper-class goths, and her smile freezes on her face at the look he pins her with. "I...uh took a wrong turn on my way to the ladies room." His eyes narrow as he leans over her, forcing her a step back.

"Hubert," someone drawls behind her, and she wants to assume it's Edelgard, the faint accent in her voice curling on the 'r' in his name. "Don't terrorize customers." The sound of her voice sends a shiver up her spine and throughout her, making her fingers tingle and things low in her body tighten.

It's not a good thing. It's not a good thing at all.

"She was staring at you, Lady Edelgard. It's natural for me to be suspicious."

"Oh. Let her look, there's no harm in it."

Byleth turns, just slightly, angling her head to keep Hubert in her peripheral. Edelgard is watching her and so is everyone else in the room, movie forgotten about despite the shrill screaming coming from the speakers. Edelgard smiles, slight, just a flash of teeth without giving away the tips of her fangs. 

Oh. She was so fucked.

"Sorry, I-uh-I didn't meant to stare," she stammers, rubbing the back of her neck. Seasoned hunter, right here everyone. "You're just...your presence is very captivating." So. So very fucked.

Edelgard moves, recrossing her legs at the ankles. "Could it be that perhaps you aren't lost at all?" Her hand lifts, fingers splaying against her jaw to support the lean of her head. "Though I understand if you couldn't help yourself, people often do stare." The brunette beside her laughs, leaning into her side, head rested against her shoulder.

"Edie is very captivating. That's what drew me to her, everything else just kept me around." Human, Byleth thinks, rocking back on her heels. Could be any number of things given her perceived closeness with the vampire. Edelgard didn't seem like the type of person to just let anyone hang off her the way that woman did, the line of her body relaxed instead of tense. "Oh, Edie she's shy. Hubie stop looming you're clearly making her uncomfortable."

Her eyes skip back to him in full, hands lifting slightly to play deeply into the uncomfortable angle. She wasn't, not entirely, concerned maybe, knowing she probably couldn't get to her gun before he decided to rip her throat out. She smiles sheepishly.

He glares, staring her down for another minute before finally relenting, stalking off to another corner of the room and taking a seat by another man whose attention was fixated on her like everyone else's. Byleth relaxes, hands lowering back to her sides, turning to face the room proper.

It puts her attention fully on Edelgard, her eyes accidentally meeting the other woman's. It's the biggest mistake she's made all afternoon (and there's been a list of them. Really, she's a professional she swears).  Edelgard smiles again, the hand closest to the brunette shifting to curl across her shoulders and twirl a lock of her hair around a finger. Byleth forgets her voice, mind slowing to a crawl.

She's in a room with probably one of the most dangerous Vampires she's ever faced and she made the rookie mistake of meeting her eyes. "You don't have to make up any excuses," Edelgard says over the horror strings on the TV. "Are you interested in being a donor?"

At least her performance as an idiot off the street is convincing. "Um. Yea..." A donor, sure she could just keep making bigger mistakes if it meant getting Edelgard alone for five minutes. To talk, just to talk.

She shouldn't have come here alone.

"Lovely, Dorothea here already fed someone today and I don't want to drain her more." The brunette  -- Dorothea -- hanging off her laughs, shoving at her shoulder. 

"Oh Edie, it's been long enough I'm fine."

When Edelgard smiles next it's all teeth, the edges of her fangs hooking on her bottom lip. "I know-"

"I understand, she is very pretty."

Byleth's face heats and she coughs once to remind them all she was still very much within earshot. Dorothea breaks out into more laughter, sliding off the edge of the couch. "I guess I'll go find where it is Ingrid ran off to. Come on Petra." There werewolf hops off the edge of the couch and trails her, looking up at Byleth as they pass. Okay, so, now only the guy in the corner by Hubert didn't have a name yet.

The sudden lack of sound from the TV brings her back into focus, eyes cutting back to Edelgard as she sets the remote back down on the table in front of her. She's on her feet when Byleth blinks next, then in her space with a few steps. She's shorter then she expected, by a few inches, but she knows that her height meant absolutely fuck all when it came down to a fight. And Byleth really wasn't in the market for getting cremated today, or...at all, ever.

"This way," Edelgard says, slender eyebrow raised. Byleth is staring again and that look just says Edelgard is acutely aware of where her attention has decided to slide. Her lips look soft...

In highly over her head.

She texts her father as she follows Edelgard.

-I may have made a mistake.

-What do you mean, mistake?

-I'm about to play blood donor.

-You're WHAT??? Kid, you can't actually be serious!

-Hahaha....I'll text you later!

Jeralt was going to give her an earful for that, and by the near constant buzz of her phone he already was. She silences it completely and puts it back in her pocket, trailing Edelgard to a smaller, but just as comfortable looking, room. "Have a seat," Edelgard murmurs, gesturing to one of the few chairs set up around the space. She does, perching on the edge of an armchair to slip out of her coat.

Edelgard's gloves are black leather, she realizes, finally even registering she had been wearing them the entire time. She focuses on her hands as she slides out of her own coat, her eyes sliding up the pale expanse of the neck she exposes with it. Twin scars sit as perfect mirrors on her jugular veins, a memory of an almost decapitation. She can see more where her dress shirt hangs open at the base of her throat and she wonders what sort of life the other woman had lived up until now.

It clearly hadn't been kind.

They don't take away from her beauty, and as Edelgard closes the distance between them Byleth shifts to sit properly, watching her approach. 

"Am I really so captivating?" she asks, looking down at her. Her head tilts, violet eyes studying her face.

Her eyes really are so pretty-

"Yes."

The look that crosses Edelgard's features speaks of a blush that might have colored her cheeks if she were well fed or human. The quirk of her lips and the way her eyes avert to the space right beside Byleth's head. 

"Honesty. I like that," Edelgard murmurs, eyes flicking back to her face as she perches against the arm of the chair. "I know that you didn't just come to play blood donor, but I won't pry into your reasoning," she adds as she leans closer, the leather of her glove cool as she pushes Byleth's hair away from her neck, tucking it behind her ear with a care that makes her heart pound.

Gentle. Kind. Patient. Intelligent. Charming.

Ruthless. Cunning. Predator. She can read you like a book and kill you in a second flat-

Her mind wars with itself as Edelgard leans in, as she tips her head back and willingly bares her throat to the other woman. "Do you consent to this?" Edelgard's fingers curl against the opposite side of her neck and around the back of it, index finger teasing at her hairline. It's a rare question to hear from a Vampire, a desire to affirm that Byleth did, indeed want this.

Did she?

"I do." 

"I don't even know your name," Edelgard says after another moment, close enough her words tickle against her skin and raise goosebumps over her arms. "But there's something about you..."

"Byleth," she breathes, swallowing. "My name is Byleth."

She feels cool lips against her skin seconds before the prick of fangs follows, the spark of pain dulled immediately by the toxin hidden there. Numbing and if held too long, pleasurable. Her eyes close and she listens as Edelgard swallows, her fingers tightening where her hand still rests. Her own hand lifts to curl around Edelgard's neck in response, thumb resting against her throat, feeling it as it bobs with each drink she takes. It's exceptionally intimate for a first meeting with someone.

But that's how it was with Vampires. Just she didn't think it was normal for Edelgard.

It makes her wonder if they were both playing their own hand of cards against one another, running blind and hoping for the best. It also makes her wonder if she was reading the situation entirely wrong. Makes her wonder if Edelgard recognized her from earlier on the street. Makes her wonder too late if maybe the other woman was going to drain her dry and leave her for dead.

Edelgard pulls away just as the numbing had begun to burn at the edges of arousal, as her head had started to swim and her instincts kick up. She shudders at the sensation of a now hot tongue against her bite marks, her hand slipping away as Edelgard draws back. She's even prettier fed, she thinks, looking at the human like flush on her cheeks. How she can just barely see the beat of a pulse and the rise and fall of shoulders as she breathes. 

Byleth blames it on the toxin, blames it on the natural vampire charm that comes with those Edelgard's age.

"So, Byleth, what really brings you here?" 

The sound of her own name coming off Edelgard's lips makes her shiver, her eyes lowering to watch as the other woman licks her lips, chasing the excess blood off them.  "I-uh." It's not the most intelligent answer she's given all day, lips pursing as her face heats in another wave of embarrassment.

Fortunately, her host is well fed and patient, settling with a supernatural grace in a position that would make anyone else uncomfortable. The chair arm isn't exactly thin, but she's sure with the way Edelgard folds herself across it, legs crossed and elbows at her knees, that it takes a balance not many possessed.

"You were following me. I saw you in the crowd and I'll admit I didn't think much of it until you walked into my lounge."

Fuck.

"Someone put a hit out on you." Time for more honesty, the hand she had smartly rested against her thigh inching back towards the gun at the small of her back. "I'm just trying to figure out why. Because from what I've seen so far you're not like some of the other Vampires I've hunted."

Those violet eyes cut down to the motion of her hand, but the other woman makes no move to stop her. Instead her attention flicks back up, fingers curling against her chin as she props it against her palm. The picture of nonchalant calm, something that could easily turn violent without a moment's notice. "So you're a hunter." She gives her a once over that makes her think she should be offended. "Not like any I've seen."

"I don't like to stick out. Kinda defeats the purpose if you stick out."

Edelgard laughs. Byleth likes her laugh.

Byleth thinks immediately afterwards that she's an idiot.

"Don't flirt with the mark." Her father's words hit her after her thought, and begrudgingly she admits to herself that it's...far too late for that one. She fed the mark.

Which was also a pretty big 'do not do this.'

"Well," Edelgard begins, pulling her from her thoughts. "You almost had me fooled."

Almost.

"I'll admit I wasn't trying as hard as I could have. Like I said I'm trying to figure out why someone wants you dead...dead. I know about everything you've done for the local weres and vampires and even just the general populace. I'm not here to kill you, Edelgard, I'm just here to get information."

For a long moment Edelgard considers her, index finger tapping against her lips in thought. It stretches on until Byleth grows anxious, shifting awkwardly in her chair and feeling like a butterfly stuck to a pin-board. In the face of this woman she was prey, even if she could put up a good fight.

She was prey.

"I assumed as much, or else I likely would have had a bullet in my head already." Edelgard blinks, slow, her breath leaving her in a long sigh. "I appreciate your boldness and your honesty. It makes sense why you took this risk, baring your throat to me. I don't know why anyone would want me dead. Hubert doesn't often leave our enemies alive."

Well that's terrifying.

"Doesn't change the fact that there's someone out there gunning for you, and they tried to hire me to do it.  For a lot of money."

Edelgard stands with that, sliding off the arm and rising in such a fluid set of motions Byleth can't tell one from the other. "I will have my people look into this, I appreciate you bringing it to my attention. Even though it will make it exceedingly more complicated if you do decide to come for my head."

Yea her father was going to lose it.

"I think you're dangerous," Byleth risks, leaning her elbows against her knees. "But for the right reasons.  You're trying to improve life for weres and Vampires, trying to help us all live equally instead of crushing one everyone but your own under your heel in some campaign of arrogance." She hopes what she says is true, hopes that while Edelgard had the potential to tear a bloody swath through the city and every hunter that is probably out to get her now, she won't unless pushed to her absolute limit.

"You have an impressive ability to read people," Edelgard comments as she pulls her suit jacket back on, pausing momentarily to consider her again. It feels less like she's about to die and more like Edelgard sees her as a potential ally...

Or a useful tool.

"How about this," the vampire says after another moment, buttons done up and arms folded over her chest. "We work together. You continue to conduct your own investigation and I'll conduct mine...then we can share our results."

It's a good deal, she thinks, tapping her fingers against her knees. And it benefited them both in the sense that Byleth and her father could get into places Edelgard's people might not be able to and vice versa. Every inch covered. With the colossal downside of putting her at a severe disadvantage if things do go sour. Her, but not her father.
She could take that bullet.

"Alright. I accept."

Edelgard returns to her, extending her hand. "We have a deal, then." Byleth nods as she takes her hand, noting how firm the other woman's grip was. Short, professional, withdrawing after the brief shake.  "You're welcome to come back to the lounge any time you need to talk, then," Edelgard adds as she heads back across the room. "I'm here most days and if I'm not someone will get the message to me."

Byleth leaves the lounge without further incident, Edelgard at her side as she checks her phone for the half a dozen messages her father had left her. She texts him back, frowning as she sticks closer to the vampire's side to keep from getting underfoot.

-I'm fine, dad.

-It's been nearly two hours, kid. I've been going out of my mind with worry, where are you?

-Black Eagle Lounge. I'm just leaving now. I'll be heading home soon.

-Good, you and I have a lot to talk about.

She cringes. Of course they did.

"You look troubled."

Her eyes flick to where Edelgard stands beside her on the sidewalk, laughing sheepishly as she pockets her phone again. "It's..nothing really important, just my dad."
The other woman hums low in her throat, turning her attention back to the road and the people around them. "I see." Byleth watches as she heads to the waiting car, putting a hand on the door. 

Something's not right-

"I'll see you around then, hunter."

The engine turns over and Byleth hears the delay, moving on instinct. "Get down!" Her body hits Edelgard's just as the car explodes and the world goes white, throwing them both to the sidewalk with enough force Byleth's head ricochets off the cement.

She blacks out.

Chapter Text

She wakes slow, coming up out of the haze that chases dreamlike shadows back into the corners of her mind. She opens her eyes to the darkness of a familiar room -- hers -- her head throbbing and her body sore. It's quiet, beyond the distant noise of traffic rolling by outside. For a moment she wonders if the whole day was just an elaborate, very realistic dream. Wonders if she slept her day away instead of doing anything useful.

The bandage she brushes with her hand as she sits up, slow and easy, cringing at the disapproving throb of her head, tells her that it wasn't. She sits like that for a time, hand rested gently over the bandage on her neck, staring down at the sickly shadows the streetlights outside cast through the blinds. She plays her hand through them, casting her own shadows in finger-lengths that dance skittering and fractle with each flick of her wrist. It keeps her from thinking, the distraction making her head ache less and the soreness in her muscles become something tolerable.

Only then does she decide to try and get up, easing her legs off the edge of the bed and sitting another moment when the pain in her head lances up and reminds her it's still there. Tells her that maybe she might have earned herself a concussion for her simple act of heroism. She hopes Edelgard is okay, hopes that the other woman got away as unscathed as either of them possibly could as close as they were.

Byleth would be feeling it longer, damn vampires and their quick healing.

But she wouldn't know for sure until she could see her again, knew she wouldn't be able to until she recovered. Her vision swims when she stands, hand shooting out to press against the nightstand beside her and keep her balance. 

Another point in the 'concussion' column. Outlook: grim.

She grimaces, waiting until the room stops spinning and she thinks she can walk without falling over and doing more harm then good to her already hurting head. She makes it to the door on steadier feet, letting herself out with a twist of the knob and a cautious lean.

The hall light is off.

It's a relief, she thinks, hand brushing against the wall as a 'just in case' as she makes her way down the hall to the bathroom. She doesn't turn the light on there either, navigating by the night light's sepia glow to find the painkillers hidden in the medicine cabinet. She downs two dry with some regret when she finally finds them, lips drawn in a scowl as she caps the bottle and puts it back in the cabinet.

Byleth doesn't once look at herself in the mirror.

She crawls back into bed as soon as she makes it there, laying back and staring up at the ceiling until sleep pulls her under again.

----

The smell of coffee and the distant taste of dust on her tongue pull her awake, swallowing once to chase it away. There's no grit, but the memory it stirs haunts her anyway, and she chases it away before the shadows creeping from the corners of her mind can take form. Her head aches less then it did when she woke up last, the soreness in her body now from sleeping in the same position too long.

Getting up is easier, finding her feet is quicker, the room only swimming for a few seconds rather than a few minutes. It still meant she'd be spending time indoors and not doing much anyway, acutely aware of the consequences if she didn't. An injured hunter is a dead hunter.

But she still hated inactivity, hated being given time to think.

She heads downstairs after another trip to the bathroom, leaning on the banister as she goes, slow and careful and with a grinding irritation settling in her chest. She's thankful the sunlight filtering in through the windows is that of overcast gray, she's sure she wouldn't have moved had it been clear.

"--Should have taken her to the hospital, Jeralt."

Byleth stops at the sound of another voice, leaning her head slightly to see a familiar woman leaning against the kitchen counter. 

"I know," she hears her father reply from out of sight, exasperated. "But I called you instead."

"This morning, not yesterday after it happened. Not last night when she didn't wake up, now. What were you thinking?"

"I wasn't, Manuela. I panicked. I saw her surrounded by a bunch of vampires, unconscious and all I could think was 'what if I lost her too?' and that was it. I acted irrationally and now here we are."

She puts the pieces together from there, assuming her father must have been coming to the lounge himself to meet with her instead of waiting until they both arrived home. Thinks that Edelgard must have been set up to send her to one of the hospitals ran by her own people.

"You said yourself you didn't mind Hresvelg or her people."

(He knew her?)

"That was before what happened, now I don't know how I feel."

(She wonders briefly if she herself should trust her completely, but-)

What happened. Her eyes slide to the pictures on the wall, memories of a whole family. Her and her brother, them and their mother. Old school photos and family vacations. Two now gone and the survivors irrevocably changed. 

They don't take pictures anymore.

Something else falls into place with it.

"She's been different ever since Alyth's death, more distant. I see shades of the old her but..." She hears him sigh and guilt blossoms in her chest, eyes averting to the floor. The loss of their mother had ached enough, but Alyth was like losing a limb, like losing a part of her that she couldn't ever get back.

"She was traumatized, Jeralt, seeing what she did-"

Byleth makes herself known with a cough and a slow meander into the kitchen proper, expression tight. Manuela, to her credit, immediately switches gears, pretending like the conversation they were having before she walked in wasn't even happening (but they both know she heard them.)

"Thank goodness you're awake." And she's thankful Manuela keeps her voice low. "How are you feeling?"

She shrugs. "My head hurts and I'm a little dizzy. But I'm better than I was last night."

Manuela nods, and at her quiet insistence, Byleth allows her to examine her. Doing each little thing she requests without little more than a flinch or a mild protest. She doesn't look at her father the entire time, attention fixed either on the floor or on Manuela each time the older woman flits into her line of sight.

"I'm sure by now you've figured out yourself that you'll be cooped up in the house for the next week or so," Manuela says finally, arms folded underneath her chest. "You're lucky that you weren't more seriously injured." Byleth tunes out the rest of the lecture, eyes wandering from her to the coffee maker. They've done this song and dance before, and she knows all the steps.

"Byleth, are you listening?"

"Yup."

Manuela knows she isn't.

She gets up and pours herself a cup of coffee anyway, adding creamer to it before she leaves without much beyond a 'thank you' and a 'it was nice to see you' to Manuela before she's gone, back up the steps and into her room. She turns the TV sitting on her bureau on to drown out any more of the potential conversation the two still downstairs might have.

That's where she stays for the rest of the day. Coming out once to find food and a few other times to use the bathroom or get more painkillers. She sleeps to the drone of a newscast.

----

The next week is spent in and out of Manuela's scrutiny and her father's clear desire to talk to her about what happened at the lounge. She weathers it on the couch with the TV on again, watching anything from the news to sports to movies to bad soap operas. Each day offering a new channel and a new program she hardly pays attention to. Her father comes and goes and he answers her questions about the investigation with answers she wasn't satisfied with.

'Nothing yet...' 'I keep hitting dead ends...' 'Don't worry about it just focus on recovering...'

It's frustrating, but she expects it. She still wants to get out onto the streets again, to do something besides sit and try and find something else to not really watch but have to keep her from thinking. The shadows still wait and the corners of her mind, edging in whenever she grows bored or tired and her focus turns inward. Blood and wood smoke, ash like dust on her tongue.

Sulfur-

The door slams.

Byleth jumps with the noise, shooting up from her near lay on the couch, eyes bright and wild. She fell asleep, she thinks as she comes off her adrenaline high, chest heaving and sweat cooling on her skin. It's dark, the TV and whatever's playing on it lighting the living room in electric blue, casting long shadows from where it's light doesn't reach.

"Hey kid." She looks up, finding her father standing in the doorway to the hall. He looks tired, haggard even.

She can't place what day it is.

"Hey."

He steps into the room and she turns away to go for the remote, muting the TV. Beside her a bag hits the table and her attention is drawn to it when the smell of take out reaches her nose. Then up as Jeralt folds himself into his armchair nearby, sighing out his exhaustion. 

"How are you feeling, Byleth?"

Her stomach growls as she's setting the remote back down and the smile she gives him is sheepish. "Hungry..." But she knows that's not what he's asking, and she considers the answer as she digs through the bag, coming up with a burger for her and enough fries to be a meal on their own. There's a second burger buried underneath that she fishes out, reaching across the table to hand it to her father. "Good. Head doesn't hurt and I can move around without feeling dizzy anymore." She doesn't mention the dream that he woke her from.

He doesn't need to know.

"Glad to hear it," he replies, rising from his chair long enough to get napkins from the kitchen. "I got a lead about who might have hired us today," he says when he returns, and she takes the wad of napkins he offers her, draping one across her lap.

"Really?" She asks as she unfolds the tinfoil around her food and takes a bite. It's his way of apologizing, she thinks, humming her enjoyment. Going out to their favorite burger place and bringing her home food. She forgives him on the second bite, watching him as she chews.

"Yea," he mutters between mouthfuls. "I think it's a front, but I still say we look into it. Provided Manuela gives you a clean bill of health." He looks around, raising an eyebrow.

"She left earlier today," Byleth states after she swallows. "Said I was doing okay and told me to call her if I had any issues. I'm fine, dad. I'm ready to get back out in the field."

Please.

"Tomorrow then, we'll go see what we can dig up."

She nods, then pauses, frowning. "Did you get my car back?" She'd forgotten about it until now, the realization hitting her that her car had been sitting on the side of 8th street for God knows how long.

Jeralt laughs. "Yea, I had Alois drive me out there so I could pick it up."

"Thanks dad."

They lapse into silence after that, focusing on their food and the muted TV. They clean up when they're done and depart to their respective rooms each with a 'goodnight' and a slight smile.

She dreams in shades of red.

----

"Redmayne Security, huh?" She says as she steps up onto the sidewalk, hands in her coat pockets and face tucked into the collar of her turtleneck against the breeze that still manages to chill her through anyway. "They new?"

"Nah," Jeralt replies as he joins her, keys jangling where he shoves them in his pocket. "Their normal business is vampires and weres. They don't normally cater to humans, which is why I thought it was odd that their name came up."  It is odd, and she hums her agreement as they start their way inside.

"So how are we playing this?" She asks, hand on the door. "Unless they're willing to talk with hunters..."

"They might have 'hired' us," he replies, pushing through the door beside her. "So I'd think they'd be willing to have a chat." She snorts, slipping through the door in his wake.

"We'll see about that," she mutters, shoving her hands back in her pockets but freeing her face of her turtleneck. She walks with her shoulder slouched, relaxed and attentive, looking as harmless as a  woman like her could be. Always alert, always ready.

The lobby is pristine, too clean, white floors and red walls. The counter takes up most of the space in front of them, and to the right a space for visitors to wait. The space is occupied by only a few people, all in their own worlds. To her left was a hallway barred by a door and a single security guard who watched them as much as she took to watching him in return.

"Can I help you?" Her eyes slide to the woman now standing at the counter, coldly polite and wary. It makes her think that their clientele was a lot more exclusive then her father thought. They knew them all by name and by face, likely those vampires and weres well off enough to pay high price for questionable security.

"Yea. I was directed to your office yesterday," her father starts, leaning his elbow on the counter. She sticks close behind him, shuffling her foot against the too clean floor. It doesn't scuff and she admires the wax job. "It was regarding a job I took recently, apparently someone from here called it in." The woman's eyes flick to her while her father speaks, and Byleth raises an eyebrow.

"I see," the woman says, attention drifting down to her computer. "We don't usually hire outside hands, especially not humans." Byleth snorts, hiding the sound against the crook of her arm, shrugging when attention is drawn back to her. "No offense," the woman tacks on as an afterthought, her smile trying for sincere and missing by a mile. "May I ask what the job entailed?"

"A contract."

Silence.

"Involving Edelgard Hresvelg."

The silence that stretches after is something else, something alive and viscous, leaking over them and deafening them all. It's complete and total, the people in the waiting room having turned to look at them. Her father risks a look back at her, and she presses closer on instinct, her shoulder to his back, keeping an eye in every direction he can't.

"I heard...she was in an accident recently," the woman says after another beat of now nearly choking quiet. "What was it? An explosion?" She's fishing and Byleth knocks her elbow into the small of her father's back, hoping he gets the clue.

"Yea so did I," he replies, and she feels him shrug. "Heard she survived it, too."

"Word on the street is someone saved her. She was fortunate."

Someone. 

The tension eases out of her slightly.

"But that doesn't answer my question," Jeralt presses, leaning a little more on the metal and glass underneath his arms. "Who called me, and why was I directed here?"

She hears typing before the woman speaks again. "I'm afraid I don't have an answer to that question Mr..."

"Eisner."

Byleth slides her gaze back, peering around her father's arm to watch the way the woman reacts. She knew their name was a staple among high level hunters. She also knew that everyone always expected Jeralt and Alyth, not the younger twin. How times have changed.

"I...see well, Mr. Eisner I'm sorry I couldn't help you today." A dismissal, clipped, polite. It makes her skin crawl. "But I'll be sure to look more into it, is there a number I could reach you by?" Byleth's eyes narrow, suspicion filling in the lines between her discomfort. In any other case it would make sense, but she didn't like anything about this.

"Sure, here's my card." She hears the tap of the card being set on the glass, and the tightness in her father's voice. He had caught on to the same feeling she had, and she knew the card he'd given her had a number attached to a phone in an office they hardly used. People left messages, they checked them.

Jeralt made the choices to call them back.

The woman takes the card, studying it a moment before she tucks it away in her breast pocket. "If I find anything out I'll be sure to give you a call," she says, her sincerely insincere smile back in place. "Have a nice day."

"Yea," Jeralt replies, gruff. "You too."

She's halfway to the door by the time he's turned around, the cold outside a relief to the tension in the office. They don't speak again until they're in the car, buckling seat-belts with the engine purring and the heat running. "What do you think, kid?" He asks, flicking a glance at her as he puts the car in gear and pulls out into traffic.

"I think it's a load of shit," she says, elbow on the door and chin propped against her fist. "They're lying. They know something and they won't tell us. Talking to them might have been a mistake."

"I agree."

She glances at him out of the corner of her eye. "But?"

"But sometimes you have to spring a trap to get the information you need."

It's a fair point, and a tactic they often were forced to use when it came down to roundabout cases like this. But she had a feeling this was much bigger and much more complicated then either of them. "Yea, here's hoping it doesn't get us killed." She recrosses her legs, turning her attention out to the city as it passes them by.

"That's why I want you to use your new connections. Talk to Hresvelg, see if she knows anything about Redmayne. I can drop you off at the lounge."

The glass is cool against her forehead, arm lowering to the rest. "Why can't you talk to her? I though you knew her." It's a cheap tactic, sticking him with this the way she was. But she needed to know what connection they had. He sighs, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel once they roll to a stop at a light.

"I did business with her step-brother," he says. "A few times I went to meet with him she was there visiting him. I didn't get to know her since she wasn't the most talkative woman. There was one job I did go to her about to ask her, since she knows a lot about the movements of the other vampire covens in this city. That was the only time I spoke to her."

He's not telling her everything and she knows it, but she doesn't pry right now either. Having taken her swing and gotten enough of an answer to satisfy for the moment.

"Okay," she relents, recrossing her legs. "Drop me off at the lounge and I'll see what I can get out of her."

"Just don't play blood donor again."

"Dad," she stresses, hiding her embarrassment behind her hand. "It was a spur of the moment plan, okay? I never said it was the brightest one, but I got her alone so I could talk to her."

He snorts, reaching out to ruffle her hair. "But you still fed the mark."

She groans, shoving his hand away with her forearm. "You're never going to let that go are you."

"Nope."

-----

It's late enough in the day the atmosphere in the lounge is different. The low hum of conversation from the restaurant is more charged, and the music choice has a beat that Byleth nods her head along to. There's someone behind the bar, blonde hair cut short to accent chiseled features and a sharper stare. She moves with a practiced ease that spoke of years of experience, smiles easy coming and orders made in-between sparks of conversation. 

She spots Dorothea at the far end of the counter, drink sat in front of her and attention on the bartender. Beside her another woman sits,tan skin with a simple tattoo under her eye, purple hair drawn up in a braided ponytail. She doesn't see any sign of Edelgard or the rest of her usual entourage, so she makes her way over to the counter.

"Evening," she says as she slides onto a stool, smiling when she catches the attention of the bartender.

"Good evening," the other woman says, leaning her hands on the polished wood. "What can I get you?"

"Whiskey," she says, elbows resting on the space in front of her. "Neat."

Dorothea slips into the space beside her as soon as the bartender's back is turned, glass clinking softly as she puts it down. "Hey stranger," she says, head propped atop her hand. "Long time no see."

"I was laid out for a bit," Byleth replies, leaning forward on her elbows. "Didn't leave me much room to come back and see how things were." The purple haired woman joins them a moment later, taking the spot on Dorothea's other side. Byleth nods in greeting.

The bartender sets her glass down in front of her before Dorothea speaks again. "Thanks," Byleth says, curling her fingers around it. The blonde nods once, offering a private smile at Dorothea and her companion before she was gone again, down to the other end of the counter to take more orders.

"It was pretty crazy for a bit," Dorothea says finally, tracing her finger around the rim of her glass. "The cops showed up right after you got picked up and Edie was assessing the damage to the lounge." The other woman glances at the windows, waving her hand towards them. "The cops crawled around for over an hour, looking over the scene and interviewing both Edie and everyone in the lounge at the time. We ended up having to replace the front windows because they were cracked so bad."

Byleth cringes a little, nodding and lifting her glass to take a sip. It goes down smooth, and she savors it another moment before speaking. "Did anyone see anything?"

"Nope, but Petra had a look around when the cops where distracted, though she wasn't able to find too much. It still gave us a jumping off point, though." Dorothea turns to the purple haired woman beside her, reaching out to touch her bicep.

So that's what Petra looked like in human form.

"Whoever planted the bomb was not human," Petra says and Byleth's eyes find the other woman's, the same color as her hair and a stare just as sharp as the bartender's. "It was not vampire or were either." Slowly she takes a sip of her own drink, expression serious. "I know not what it was."

"So," Dorothea says as Petra falls silent again, frowning. "That's...where we are. Did you...find anything?"

"Maybe? Do you guys know anything about Redmayne Security? I was hoping to talk to Edelgard about it."

Dorothea stiffens and so does Petra, both of them exchanging a look. "Is that who hired you?" Dorothea asks, leaning over the counter to flag the bartender down. 

"We're not sure," Byleth says, stretching. "We went to talk to them today and the lady at the counter wasn't helpful at all. I think she was hiding something."

"They are full of secrets and lies," Petra mutters, looking up as the blonde joins them again.

"What's up?"

"Ingrid, this is uh-" Dorothea glances, trailing off.

"Byleth," she supplies, flicking a wave. Ingrid nods once, arms crossed over her chest.

"She's the one who rescued Edie from the explosion." Dorothea spins her glass slowly between her fingers. "Apparently Redmayne might somehow be involved."

Byleth watches the way Ingrid's expression hardens, green eyes turning to cold steel. "Edelgard isn't here right now," she says after a moment, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. "But if Redmayne is involved we have a lot more on our plate then we want."

"Wait," Byleth interjects, holding a hand up. "What's so bad about them?"

Ingrid sighs, arms shifting to press hands to her hips. "I'm not sure-"

"Edie is working with her, It's okay," Dorothea comments, reaching across the bar. "You can trust her." Ingrid's eyes jump from Dorothea to Petra, the back to Byleth.

"Fine. Alright. A few years back Edelgard hired them for a job, an event she and a few other leaders were hosting for the local covens and packs. The event itself went fine, but after a couple of weeks some people started dying. Our people, people from other covens. Redmayne denied all involvement, but Edelgard always believed they where somehow at fault or had something to do with it." Ingrid shrugs, leaning back against the shelf behind her. "The deaths stopped abruptly soon after a high ranking coven master died and there's been nothing since. At least until now."

Odd.

Byleth frowns, pondering her drink as she mulls over the information she was given. Where they connected? Or was it just an incredible coincidence? It certainly painted a picture of guilt, but she couldn't be sure until they actually found a concrete link. Concrete proof that they were linked to the murders from a few years ago and this new hit on Edelgard.

"I gotta get back to taking orders," Ingrid interrupts her thoughts, bringing her back. "Leave your number with Dorothea and I'll have Edelgard get in touch with you whenever she shows up again. Unless you want to wait, and in that case so long as you have money I'll keep giving you drinks." Her lips twitch in an almost smile. "Since you saved our Emperor I'll even give you a discount." Then she's gone, pushing up off the counter and slipping off back to the waiting crowd gathered at the other end away from them.

"Sorry about that," Dorothea says. "Ingrid is a little...she doesn't trust easy."

"It's fine," Byleth assures, downing the rest of her drink. "I understand."  She doesn't ask for the story it likely entails because it's ultimately none of her business. Instead she fishes for her phone, pulling open her contacts. "I'll hang around for a bit," she adds, glancing to Dorothea and Petra beside her. "But just in case I'll leave you my number."

"Sure thing, I promise to keep any texts purely business related." 

Byleth blinks and Dorothea laughs, pulling her phone out of her pocket.

She hangs out with them for a few hours and a few drinks more, letting Ingrid call her a cab when it gets late enough and she gets buzzed enough she figures it's time to leave.

Edelgard never shows.

She dreams of fire and figures twisted in black.

-----

The buzzing of her phone startles her awake and leaves her blinking into the sunlight flooding in and lighting the room a vibrant golden and red hue. It's still early, she thinks, fumbling for the phone on the nightstand beside her, squinting at the display. 7:30am and a text.

Saint Indech's Church. 10:30am.

She doesn't recognize the number, but she assumes it must be from Edelgard. "Alright," she rasps, putting the phone down. "10:30 then." She rolls over, closing her eyes.

----

She parks a little up the street from the church a half hour before she's meant to be there. It's one of the older ones, chipped paint and cracked brick, a sign out front declaring the verse of the day and another talking about upcoming renovations. She climbs out of her car a few minutes later, keys on her belt and phone silenced and tucked into her pocket. 

Pulling her coat around her she starts to make her way up to the church, leaves blowing across the street in small clusters of reds, yellows and oranges, only to be run over and scattered by a passing police car. It's quiet out here, the drone of the city and it's traffic and crowds a distant thought.

It's even quieter inside the church, the silence settling over her like a shroud as the door creaks shut behind her. There's a scattering of people sitting in the various pews, all with their heads bowed in prayer. She feels out of place now; a heretic walking into the sanctuary of the devout. She bows her head and crosses herself anyway, out of respect for a faith she used to have.

When she looks up she sees Edelgard near the altar, staring up at the effigy to the Saint this particular church was named after. A man stands beside her, easily dwarfing her with his height and stature alone, all broad shoulders and muscle, blonde hair long and shaggy yet neatly tied back. He notices her as she's finding a pew out of the way, and he bends down to whisper in Edelgard's ear.

Byleth keeps her head down, fingers laced together and waits until she feels someone sit down beside her.

"Are you a religious woman, hunter?"

Only then does she look up, finding Edelgard seated beside her. The man with her stands a little ways away, out of earshot but within distance to keep an eye on them both. He's missing an eye, she realizes, an eye-patch covers it but does little to hide the scars that run rampant on that side of his face.

"I used to be," she replies finally, attention sliding back to the vampire beside her. "I'm not so much anymore." Not since her mother and her brother died, not since every prayer she ever whispered was always answered with silences. Not since she decided to take matters into her own hands.

"Hunters usually are," Edelgard murmurs, throwing an arm over the back of the pew and crossing her legs. Too casual for a place like this. "Usually. It doesn't mean all of them have to be."

"What about you?" Byleth asks, turning slightly in her seat to lean her side against the wood. "I mean, do vampires have their own God or?"

Edelgard huffs a laugh into her the back of her hand. "We're a melting pot of every culture and religion on the planet, since we all used to be human once we all carry over our habits from when we were alive. It's true that collectively vampires do have a sort of God, but most of us just stick with what we know."

Byleth waits, listening to the whispers of people's prayers and the creak of wood as they move.

"I'm not religious," Edelgard says after a moment. "But I've seen a God at work."

She raises an eyebrow, unable to contain the curiosity the other's statement elicits. "How?"

"Most vampires aren't old enough to remember when our Progenitor walked the earth, but I am one of the few. I walked alongside her with the old bloodlines and my sire. She was...a sight to behold, worthy of worship." Edelgard trails off then, stare distant as if remembering a time far, far beyond Byleth's knowledge of history.

"What was her name?" It's facts she doesn't know, history most vampires either haven't been taught or don't know. All of them know they originated from the Progenitor, but none of them know the name.

"Sothis."

Byleth commits the name to memory, rolling the pronunciation over in her mind. "Did she die?"

Another laugh, still quiet. "No, she's been asleep for many many years and it's the duty of the remaining members of the old bloodlines to protect her until she wakes again."

Byleth isn't sure she wants to see that happen, isn't sure what sort of 'God' the Progenitor is.

"But our opinions on religion aren't why I called you here," Edelgard continues, turning her head to meet her eyes. "I heard from Dorothea and Petra about your visit to Redmayne, she also told me Ingrid told you the story of what happened the last time we dealt with them."

Byleth nods, sliding her fingers across the wood of the pew. "They said they would call us if they found anything out. I'm pretty sure it's going to come back to bite us. The woman we spoke to try to fish for information about what exactly happened to you."

Edelgard's eyes slide off to the side of them, her eyebrow rising. "Really. How odd. What did you say?"

"Just that we had also heard you had been in an accident and that we had heard you survived." She leans back a little, gripping the back of the pew to support her weight. "I figure that if they are involved they weren't involved with the car. But the may very well be the ones that got me and my dad involved."

The 'why' was still up in the air and slowly taking a sinister turn.

"The question we have to answer is 'why' did they get you involved. I have a theory as to why they may be after me, if it's proven they are indeed connected to both what happened back then and what's happening now." Edelgard's fingers tap a soundless beat, her eyebrows knitting together. "But if that theory is true....then there is someone as old as I am behind it."

"You mean someone from the old bloodlines?"

"For a time, after Sothis fell to slumber, there were people who wished to claim her power for their own. A vampire's blood, especially from a master vampire such as myself, can grant humans great power. So they hunted us down for it, and tortured a lot of us to try and get to Sothis' resting place." Tap. Tap. Tap. Seconds that draw by between them, seconds of life that's no more than a drop in an ocean to Edelgard.

"That's...horrible," Byleth whispers once it's clear Edelgard has nothing more to say on the subject. "So you think...that..."

"I'm not sure, but one of the vampires that was killed during that incident was a master vampire. And soon after the killings stopped, like the people responsible had gotten what they wanted...for a time." It fits in the puzzle too well, makes her concerned, makes her wonder what on earth they could be using the power for.

"Do you know what they wanted it for? What they might want it for now?"

Edelgard looks to her again, gaze cold like the fall sky outside. "No," she replies, low, nearly inaudible. "But what we do know for sure now is that there is something dark going on under the surface of this city," she adds, just as quiet. "Something that is hidden in the shadows and is waiting for the perfect time to strike. It means that we must be wary of it."

We. We, because she had painted a target on her back by choosing to save Edelgard. We, because she was in this just as deep regardless of her choices. We, because someone wanted her attention as much as they wanted Edelgard dead. "Yea," she agrees finally, jaw clenching. "We do."

Slowly Edelgard shifts, hands threading together where they now hang between her knees. "I have one last question for you, hunter."

Byleth hums her acquiescence, tilting her head.

"Why did you choose this path?" The other woman looks up at her. "If it's not too personal, of course, do not feel pressured to answer."

For a moment Byleth considers keeping her secrets to herself, holding her reasons and her motives close to her chest. But Edelgard had offered her her own hand, had told her a small piece of her own past. A piece for a piece, she thinks. "As tribute," she says, looking up at the state behind the altar. "My twin brother died four years ago on a hunt and I decided to pick up where he left off as a way of keeping his memory alive and keeping my dad from doing something stupid."

Turns out she was the one to do something stupid instead.

But the jury was still out on that.

When she looks back Edelgard is contemplating her quietly, the look of surprise and sympathy hitting her in a way she didn't expect. It tightens in her chest and her throat, making it hard to swallow. Four years and talking about him still hurt.

"I'm...so sorry, forgive me I shouldn't have asked."

Byleth reaches out, hand brushing the bend of Edelgard's elbow. "No it's...it's okay." It feels odd to talk about it with someone outside of her circle of family, to someone who was only on the fringes. She wonders if maybe Edelgard knew her brother like she knows her father, but she doesn't ask.

"You are a very noble woman, Byleth," Edelgard says, gloved hand laying against where her fingers still ghost against her elbow. "I wasn't sure I could trust you at first, but now I see that maybe I was right to decide to work with you like this."

It makes her smirk, her own laugh coming out muffled where she presses her face into her shoulder. "Yea, I wasn't sure I could trust you either, and I let you bite me anyway." Her smile turns wry, head lifting to meet Edelgard's stare again. "All because I couldn't think of a better plan to get you alone."

The vampire's eyebrows raise, lips drawing back in a smile that keeps her fangs hidden. "That explains a little bit more about why our first meeting went the way it did."

"I didn't plan to actually get caught, I just..." Her face heats as she trails off, shoulders drawing up around her ears. "You were really distracting. You still are." Because like it or not she was still drawn to her, allowed the woman to hold all of her attention when she shouldn't. Found herself wanting to know more and more about her.

Vampire, she tells herself, shifting a little and watching while Edelgard muffles her laughter against her forearm.

"I'm glad I was distracting, though I am truly sorry about Hubert. He's very paranoid."

"I'm amazed he's not here," Byleth comments, then casts a look around them. "He's...not...right?"

"No," Edelgard affirms and Byleth relaxes. "Dimitri is here instead," she adds, turning to gesture to the man still waiting nearby. "My step-brother."

Step-brother, the same step-brother her father did business with.

"Dimitri," Edelgard says as soon as he's within earshot, leaning down to lean on the arm of the pew. "This is Byleth, the woman I told you about."

His eye lifts to her, and the tightness in his expression softens slightly. "A pleasure," he says, nodding. "I'm glad to finally get to meet the woman who saved my step-sister. We may not be related by blood, but she is still the only family I have left besides those in my pride."

Werelion, then. She smiles slightly, looking from Edelgard to him. "I couldn't just stand by and watch when I knew something was going to go wrong, regardless of how I felt about her at the time."

"Still. Thank you," he murmurs, straightening, a hand resting on Edelgard's shoulder. "We should leave soon, sister."

"I do owe you a debt," Edelgard comments, her eyes flicking to Dimitri in acknowledgement of his words. "If there is anything else I can help you with, please do not hesitate to ask."

She wants to ask if she knew, but she's not sure she's ready to hear the truth yet. "I'll keep that in mind, since we both have each other's numbers now." Her lips quirk in another smirk, hand thumping against the pocket that contains her phone.

"Indeed, I realize I should have given you a better way to contact me but." She waves a hand, shaking her head.

"I wouldn't have been sure if I wanted to return the favor, so it's fine. We still managed to get in touch with one another. Though, why a church? Why not the lounge?" So she'd ask one of the odd question she had wandering in her head, the one that was beginning to grate on her the longer they sat here.

"So we wouldn't be interrupted."

And that, that makes a whole lot of sense.

"Touché."

They part shortly after, the three of them leaving the church as quietly as they likely came in. Slipping through the creaking front doors and out into the fall chill that sends Byleth huddling back in her coat. A police car screams by as they reach the sidewalk, all of them stopping to watch as it stirs up a small tornado of leaves in it's wake, the sirens echoing a doppler pattern off the buildings and trees until it drifts away into silence.

Freezing them like it might have stopped for them, like they had committed some sort of crime when in reality it was just instinct to stop and watch.

"I hope to see you around more in the coming days," Edelgard says, as Dimitri slips behind the wheel of a car parked nearby. "Perhaps for something other than our current mystery."

Byleth curls more into her coat, burying her hands into her pockets. "I'd like that," she replies, tucking her face into the collar. "But I dunno how much peace we'll really have."

Edelgard hums, turning away. "That," she says, looking up at the sky. "Is something only time will tell us." She waves as she walks away, climbing into the passenger's seat of the car that now idles. She exchanges words briefly with Dimitri and Byleth stands on the sidewalk watching as they drive away.

This time, nothing explodes.

This time, she gets to return to her car and drive home under her own power.

Chapter Text

The train sways in a way that would be soothing if it weren't for the suffocating press of too many people and the drone of the conversations they carry on with. They're both exhausted, leaning against each other, shared headphones and Alyth's phone between them on the seat. The playlist is something they both cobbled together huddled in front of Alyth's laptop, shoving at shoulders and snickering until their father had told them to shush and go to sleep.

They'd shushed, but sleep  had been something they refused to do until the playlist was perfect and they were falling asleep on each other through half heard conversations.

Now they were paying for it, dozing unintentionally during lulls in noise and twitching awake as soon as it got too loud again. Alyth, she realizes, the weight of his head on her shoulder heavy, had actually finally managed to fall asleep. It leaves her to pay attention, cheek against the top of his head, eyes open enough to watch and still catch a bit of a doze here and there.

She wakes with the downtown announcement, blinking into the morning sunlight and staring out the window across from them. Enbarr City stands monolithic and sprawling in the early morning light, skyscrapers high and imposing and casting it in scattered, blinding waves as the train hurtles along the track.

"Alyth," she mutters, reaching up to pat as his cheek with her fingers. "Hey, we're almost to our stop." He mumbles and pushes her hand away with his own, proclaiming that he wishes for another five minutes. "Dude, come on I can't carry you." She tries again, poking at his nose and his cheek. "We can get coffee at Blue Lion."

He groans, slitting an eye open to glare at her fingers as though they'd personally offended him, in a way they had, disturbing his sleep, before he finally sat up. It's slow, breath leaving him in a long, suffering sigh. He rubs at his eyes with the hand not holding his phone still, muttering darkly at the fact that he needed to be awake.

She can commiserate.

"I'm only awake because you said 'coffee,'" he grouses at her a moment later, leaning his head back against the seat and squinting into the light. "So you better make good on that promise."

"So if I hadn't said coffee you would have kept sleeping?"

He looks at her out of the corner of his eye. "Yes."

"You know I would have left you, right?" She wouldn't and the insufferable smirk that settles on his lips lets her know he knows she wouldn't. Knows that she would have rode to the end of the line and back just to let him sleep a little longer. It grates on her, because it meant she would have missed her first class of the day cashing the cheque both of them wrote by staying up until four in the morning.

The train slows as another announcement pings over the com, informing them that they had reached their destination. So they collect their things and join the crowd lining up near the doors and wait, leaning back as the train comes to a complete stop.

She steps off the train, following the ghosts of the her of the past and the brother who left her behind. It feels odd to be back here after what had happened, standing alone on a crowded train platform, people weaving around her like a river current around a rock. It feels wrong, empty somehow, the missing person leaving something loose and rattling in her chest. It feels like she's forgetting something important, something that she told herself to remember no matter what.

Behind her the train doors hiss close and the engine winds back to life as it departs, the slow rhythmic clacking of the wheels pulling her back from the precipice of the hollow pit in her mind. She blinks once, the large clock in the center of the station chiming the hour as an announcement of the next train arrival rattles out over the din of the crowd.

8:00am.

She starts down the steps, weaving between the slow goers and the lingerers and the people coming in the opposite direction up the wrong side. It continues once she reaches the ground floor, joining the other people in a rush in their dodge through people standing around and in line or looking down at their phones. One of which she nearly collides with, the other woman pinning her with a dirty look as she brushes by without so much as an apology.

Byleth thinks she recognizes her, but she can't place from where and she doesn't stop to ponder it, shoving her way through the turnstile and out through the doors. The streets aren't much better, the morning crowds and traffic creating a cacophony of noise that causes a headache to thrum a low throb at the center of her forehead.

Because she needs one.

The city hasn't changed any since the last time she was here, still making her feel like an ant scurrying between the feet of steel and concrete giants. So she pays attention to where she's going instead of looking up until she was dizzy, hands in her pockets against the breeze that cuts down the street between the buildings. It's warmer here than it is in Remire city, but the breeze still makes her happy to have a coat.

Four years, she thinks, four years since she left the university here to take up her brother's spot at her father's side.  Four years almost to the day since the last time her and Alyth walked the streets together, her feet taking her along the same path. She doesn't know why she came here beyond chasing the ghosts of her past, beyond trying to keep the memory of their last day together alive.

And maybe fill in the blanks she now finds when she reaches back for certain pieces.

("What she saw-")

The murders, Alyth's death (both, she had come to discover, had happened around the same time. The murders having started the year before and continued until shortly after Alyth died) She still feels as though there's a connection she's missing, something that her mind had shut out in an attempt to protect her. Something she'll have to dig for if she wants to find, to pick apart and out of the recesses it's hidden itself in. She regrets not asking Edelgard at the church last month, the words the other woman spoke to her haunting her ever since.

"There is something dark going on under the surface of this city. Something that is hidden in the shadows and is waiting for the perfect time to strike. It means that we must be wary of it."

But what? What is it that waits, that hides. Both her and and her father had spent weeks picking through everything they could find about both Redmayne and the murders and in the end (despite all they found) she still came here, to Enbarr. Walking and old path that she's tread for years. Redmayne never called them back (as expected) and Byleth hadn't had a chance to see Edelgard since (disappointing, but not surprising.)

We can't wait, she thinks as she pushes the door to a familiar cafe open, breathing in the scent of coffee and baked goods. But they can't move forward either, having hit a wall neither they nor the Vampires working with them can climb. All they have is an idea, and a potential perpetrator.

"Byleth? Is that you?" 

She blinks, looking back from her absent stare out the window. "Huh?" Her eyes fall on the familiar face behind the counter; orange hair, green eyes. But she looks different from the last time she saw her, older, the hair she used to keep up all the time falling freely down over her shoulders. She's filled in to her role as a barista and now the owner of this little shop, the collection of people here more numerous then she remembered. The tables are all full and she's thankful for the muted conversation that rises and falls over the music playing.

Some alternative song she doesn't recognize.

"Hi Annette," she says as she approaches the counter, resting her hands against the surface. "Been a long time."

"No kidding!" The other woman says, looking her over and then at the vacant spot beside her. She had hoped she wouldn't notice, but she should have expected it, the way the other's eyes search then draw back to her, the frown on her face saying more than any question could. "Four years," she adds, quieter. 

They practically fall in through the doors, stumbling and shoving at each other's shoulders between bouts of giggling. The cafe is full with the usual morning crowd, Ignatz with his drawing pad in a corner, Lorenz with his latest  date attempt, Raphael with his plate stacked high of his favorite pastries, his sister sitting across from him. Mercedes and Annette weave to and fro behind the counter, taking turns talking to customers and prepping orders.

It's their usual hang out, everyone from the university coming here in the morning before classes to get coffee and breakfast and do homework or just have a place to sit and relax before the day begins in proper. Byleth joins the end of the line, rocking back and forth on her feet while Alyth looks at something on his phone beside her.

He looks a little more serious then she expects, and a curl of worry makes itself at home behind her ribs. "Alyth?"

"It's nothing serious," he says, slipping his phone into his pocket. "Dad wants me to meet him at the office after this. So I can't walk with you to class." It's a load of crap that, and she knows he's doing it not to worry her. Yet she can read him like a book, the way the tension sets in his shoulders and at the corners of his eyes. He's nervous.

(He's lying.)

"It's not 'nothing serious'," she pries, leaning into his line of sight. "I can see it written all over your face. You're worried about something." He looks at her for a moment, expression tense and eyes searching, leaving her wondering if this is one of those 'don't tell your sister' missions. She hated those. "Come on Alyth," she says, frowning. "If you're trying not to worry me you're doing a shit job at it." Because she's already worried and his silence is only making her worry more. It wasn't like she could try and find anything on the news, since she had no idea what she was looking for, that and  most of the time everything involving them was handled outside of the public eye. Just because it was common knowledge Vampires and weres and all sorts of other supernatural things existed, doesn't mean everyone needed to know their business.

Not unless it was serious enough people needed to be ready. A rogue vampire or feral were, or a loose demonic beast of whatever kind. Those got out, those were brought to the public eye when the hunters couldn't act on it fast enough. If they could? Or if someone from a coven or pack took care of it? No one had any idea.

So long as nobody died.

Alyth opens his mouth to speak but is saved by Annette clearing her throat, both of them turning to see that it's their turn at the counter. "Oh, sorry!" She exclaims stepping up to the counter and placing her and her brother's order.

Annette watches her now with much the same expression, patient and waiting. But there's an air about her that speaks of sympathy that's not voiced, though there's no pity in her eyes or on her face. "Where's Mercedes?" she asks, tapping her fingers on the counter to the beat of the song. 

"Had an errand to run, you just missed her," Annette replies, hand hovering over the register. Byleth considers for a minute, frowning up at the sizes and the choices. She knew she wanted coffee, just what she wasn't sure about. "We have a new pumpkin spice mix that's gotten good reviews." Her eyes flick back to Annette and the smile she wears now. "And Mercedes had just finished a new batch of cinnamon rolls before she left, are you interested?"

"Oh. Hell yes I am," Byleth says around a laugh, pulling her wallet out of her coat. For a moment it's just like old times, falling in to chatter about what either of them had been up to, about how Annette's classes were going, how everyone was doing. There was just an Alyth shaped hole beside her that couldn't be ignored.

Byleth slides away from the counter as another customer comes in, leaning by the pick up end and looking around. There's no familiar faces here today, though she spots a few students from Enbarr University scattered around with their laptops and their notebooks, looking from screen to paper and back. 

Her eyes burn and she digs her knuckles into the corners slightly, rubbing in a futile attempt to make it stop. She's been here for the better part of the afternoon, papers scattered at her side and laptop screen full of notes and reading and the essay she's a quarter of the way done with. Mercedes wordlessly stops by with a refill and a smile, and Byleth smiles back, nodding her head and reaching for her now full (again, and she's lost count how many she's drank, able to feel the telltale jitters of too much caffeine) mug.

She holds it between her fingers as she reads what's on the screen, nodding along to her own words.

She takes a sip, the coffee scalds.

Alyth still hasn't texted her since he took his coffee and left that morning.

"Here you go."

She turns to the click of a cup and the rustle of a paper bag being set down on the counter, murmuring a 'thank you' as she picks both up and retreats to the corner she always used to take up. Tucked nicely out of the way with a view of everyone else coming in.  She's halfway through the cinnamon roll when her phone buzzes, leaving her to scramble to wipe off the frosting on her fingers and answer.

"Enbarr City huh?" Her father says as soon as she picks up. "What are you doing out there?"

"I went to the Blue Lion," she replies, leaving the half eaten cinnamon bun on the bag and going for her coffee.

"Tell me you didn't take an hour train ride at seven in the morning for a cup of coffee."

"It's really good coffee, dad," she fires back, taking a sip to steel herself before she speaks again. "But you're right that's not the only reason I came out here."

"Then?" She can hear him getting into his car in the background, the door slamming and his keys jingling. He doesn't start it, and she can imagine him sitting there in their driveway.

"Enbarr University's library," she explains, taking another drink. "Has a supernatural archive, so I was hoping, and it's a long shot, I know, that maybe they might have something we didn't." It's worth a shot, since the murders that happened had started here before spreading out to Remire. She wonders, and not for the first time, if that was what Alyth had been looking in to.

Wonders who it was that had even texted him that had made him so nervous, that had made him decide to lie. She wishes now she had pressed him on it harder, wishes now that she had called him out about it instead of playing stupid.

Had she known...

(She doesn't tell him she's retracing Alyth's steps-)

"Worth a shot, though don't get your hopes up. Though I figured you'd just ask your vampire if you wanted a more first hand account." It's teasing, but it still makes her face heat.

"She's not 'my vampire' dad," she mumbles, embarrassed. "Besides she's been about as busy as I have." While she was almost positive Edelgard would drop everything to meet with her, she didn't want to do that to the other woman. 

"Well, let me know if you find anything out," her father says, and she hears the engine turn over. "I might have got us a new contract, so I'm going to see what it's all about. I think it's best we make it look like we've moved on, maybe make Redmayne finally take another action if they don't think we're looking at them anymore."

We can't wait, she thinks again, someone else will die...And she can only hope it's not someone she knows, though she'd rather no one at all. At the same time she knows he's right, it was time to move on while still keeping an eye on their alleged opponent. "Alright, let me know what it's about," she says instead, draining the rest of her coffee. "I'll let you know if I can dig anything up."

"Good luck kid."

"You too."

She clicks off at the same time he does, phone returned to her pocket and attention back on her food. She finishes it without further interruption, returning the mug and throwing out the bag, flicking a wave to Annette as she heads out. "Come by more often!" The other woman calls after her when she reaches the door. "Everyone misses you!"

"I'll do my best," she replies, smiling over her shoulder and heading back out into the cold.

----

The university is much as she remembers it; quiet, despite the hectic nature of people rushing from place to place. She joins in the morning crowd, ignoring the low drone of conversation that starts among the students. 

She's late by a few minutes, rushing through the doors and down the hall, weaving between people as she jogs up steps and slides into her classroom with a minute to spare.

Claude sits in the back by her usual seat, feet kicked up on the desk, chair leaned back. It's obvious from her vantage that he's asleep.

Leonie hasn't arrived yet, but Ignatz and Lorenz have both beat her here. Ignatz waves a greeting as she passes, and she nods in return, pulling her notebook and her laptop out from under her arm as she reaches her spot. 

She swats Claude's leg with her notebook as she slides into her set. "Up, The Professor will be here any minute now."

Blearily he looks at her, squinting and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "Anyone ever tell you you're a rude alarm clock?"

"Yea, Alyth does frequently, but I still get his ass going."

He laughs and sits up, both of them turning to face the front of the room as the rest of the class fills in. Professor Hanneman shows up shortly after.

Alyth still hasn't texted.

The library is quieter then the rest of the University, the silence settling between the rows of shelves like a blanket. She navigates the rows with intent, scanning the labels on each as she goes. Fiction, Non-Fiction, textbooks - She rounds the corner, catching sight of Supernatural Archive hanging nearby a collection of tables and computers, a librarian's desk standing just off to the side of the archive's shelves. The man that sits behind it is one she recognizes, and it eases the tension in her shoulders a little as she approaches.

"Hey Seteth," she says, keeping her voice low. He looks up at the sound of his name, surprise immediately coloring his features at the sight of her. She figures by now she should be used to it, but she's not, tacking on an unsure smile and a sheepish wave. "I know it's been forever," she adds before he can say it himself.

"Ms. Eisner, what a surprise. How have you been?" He looks at her, then to the side of her, that same sympathetic but not pitying look that Annette wore coloring his own features. They all know why she left the University, even if she had wanted to finish her courses. It just wasn't in the cards, not after Alyth, not when so much had suddenly fallen to her shoulders and left her with a choice.

Of course it wasn't much of one, having decided to pick up where her twin left off without any hesitation. 

As tribute-

"I'm doing okay," she says, hands tucked into the pockets of her jeans. "Been keeping myself busy, putting what I learned here to use." If she could have had one more year, she thinks a little bitterly, where would she have been now? "You? How's Flayn?"

"Both of us are well, thank you," he says, folding his hands. "Flayn is in her last year here, so I've been trying to decide if I wish to say here after she graduates or find another job." She finds it comforting that he's still so open with her, that everyone she's run into speaks to her like it was just yesterday they last saw her.

"You've got a bit of time left," she assures, rocking back on her heels. "Though it doesn't hurt to look to see what you have for options if you do decide to leave." Mundane, and she shifts through the rest of the pleasantries with ease.

"Well," Seteth starts, quietly amused. "A hunter hm?" He doesn't say what she can see in his eyes: just like your brother. "So you didn't just come to visit, I shouldn't be surprised, you never did before." 

She laughs at that, shrugging. "You got me," she says, looking up. "I'm looking deeper in to the vampire killings that happened a few years ago and I figured this was the place to start." Or she hoped it was, because if it wasn't she'd be stuck heading to the Saint Maculi Cathedral library and she really didn't want to have to pay a visit there. The place was a maze to end all mazes and navigating it would take her the better part of the afternoon.

And she wanted to be back in Remire before nightfall.

"You're in luck," Seteth says, eyes on his computer screen. "Just last year a student in the supernatural history branch cobbled together everything she could find on the subject and submitted it to the archive here. So it would be 'easier to find' rather than having to go to the cathedral library. A gruesome case, that one."

(She wonders if the murders themselves are the actual link and she's been blind to it the whole time, shuddering at the thought.

If they are- )

Thank whatever God might be listening, she thinks, making note of the section he tells her before she's off with a wave and a 'I'll try to come back before the end of the semester.'  She finds what she's looking for, books, journals and files all neatly organized in boxes pertaining to the student's case studies.

Material for would be hunters studying up for exams, and for veterans looking to brush up on past cases or find links to current ones. She starts with the folder, flipping through the hunter reports and the grainy, photocopied pictures from each of the scenes. It's pretty much the same stuff they found back home, a whole lot of dismembered bodies with nothing useful for information.

Demonic in nature, one report scrawled, the vampire's body was drained of blood before being viciously dismembered. So far no humans have been killed, but we're beginning to wonder if we should inform the public.

Same M.O as before, the next read, and she looks at the picture it accompanies. Just a puzzle of limbs and a ruined torso, entrails scattered across the floor in indecipherable smears. Still no blood.

Still nothing new.

She trades the folder for the leather bound journal, flipping through it bit by bit until something catches her attention. Hresvelg is pissed, the entry starts. Apparently the vampire that got slaughtered recently was one of hers, so while she had been content to stay out of our way before she's not anymore. At least she's not like other Master Vampires who shut us out, she's at least willing to work with us.

Her retainer is fucking creepy though.

She snorts a laugh at that, knowing exactly who it was the hunter who had written the journal was talking about. Again she returns to flipping, scanning pages and notes about the murders and the killed vampires, about Edelgard's mention of Redmayne's potential involvement.

About the hunter's and their failed investigation into it.

(She sees the pattern-)

We tried to get Eisner involved. She stops on that page, brows knit together on a frown. He didn't answer, but his kid did. Since he's been working with his dad for so long we figured why not, that we should let him in on it if he wanted to. At this point we're not gonna turn down help. At least that Alyth kid isn't a greenhorn. He's smart and knows his shit, knows how to stay out of the way while being active in the middle of it all.

He said he'd try to get Jeralt and the rest of his team involved but we'll see. 

Byleth shuts the journal on that, slipping it back into the archive box and slotting everything back into place. She found what she needed and the truth sits heavy and leaden in her stomach, a sour taste burning in the back of her throat, copper on her tongue.

The text he got at the Blue Lion that day was from the other hunter group. Going down the list of other high ranking hunters in hopes to rope others in.

Her phone buzzes and she reaches for it, pulling it loose from her pocket. "Dad-"

He cuts her off, voice a low grind. He's angry. "You need to get home kid, Redmayne decided to get in touch with us. And you're not gonna like what they had to show."

Her chest constricts more, making it a little hard to breathe. "I'll get the next train out."

She hangs up and goes.

The train ride home is spent in a coil of anxiety, trying to figure out just what the hell she was still missing. She had to talk to Edelgard, had to drill her father to find out what it was he wasn't telling her. Had to force herself to focus on her nightmares.

There's a single message on her phone when she checks it on the train home that evening. It's from her brother, and she immediately lifts the phone to her ear to listen.

"Hey Byleth, I probably won't be home tonight. This is taking longer than I thought to look in to. I mean I know it's kind of common for me and Dad to be out for days on end or come home after you're asleep. So this isn't anything new for you I just-" And there's something in his voice that sets her on edge, that makes the hair at the back of her neck stand and a sick feeling settle in her stomach.

"-Wanted to make sure you knew. I love you."

She stares at her phone and the numbers blinking on the display. 

----

Her father is waiting for her in the lobby when she pushes her way into Redmayne security for the second time, tense and pacing. "Dad?" She asks when she's close enough, keeping her voice low. "What's going on?"

"This way," he replies and leads her off down the hallway, past the guard that let's them through, his eyes on her the entire time. He leads her down, down further and she looks at the sterility of the place, still all white and red and too perfectly polished. Through another door and into a room with a collection of monitors and the woman who was at the desk the last time. She sits at the front of them, turning to look at them as they return.

"Ah, Mr. Eisner, I see your daughter finally arrived."

"Sorry," she says, tries for polite and fails just this side of it. "I was in Enbarr."

The woman studies her for a moment, eyes narrowed. "I see." 

Byleth can't place what it is about the way she looks at her, but she doesn't like it.

"Run the video again," her father says, crossing his arms. 

Byleth looks up at the monitors when the woman turns away, focusing on the video playing in fast forward on the screen. Just people coming and going out of a building she's not entirely sure where is, day to night. She watches as the lights flick on as the sun sets and the people coming and going change to just the occasional person passing by on the sidewalk.

The video slows and she catches sight of Alyth and a couple other hunters passing underneath the lens of it, her brother looking up briefly before dipping out of sight. Ice burns in her veins, and her eyes widen, fingers threading together at her back and squeezing until it hurts.

An hour later someone emerges, short cropped dark hair and darker clothes. Hubert, she realizes and a second later Edelgard appears in frame behind him, turning around to look up at the camera. And she thinks there's something wrong about the way she looks, eyes coal black and patches of skin discolored. She looks angry, she looks....

She's covered in blood.

Byleth's heart stops.

"That's not all," the woman says suddenly, and Byleth makes a noise like she's being crushed.

Edelgard and Hubert disappear from the video feed and she watches the blank space, mind screaming, but muscles frozen. Was it her that killed him? Had she saved and been working with her brother's murderer? Had her reaction to meeting her and when she told her about her brother's death fake? Was it all fake?

Or was Redmayne trying to mess with them?

A flicker of movement on the screen snaps her back in time to see herself, wild eyed and pale, racing up the steps into the building.

She doesn't remember being there.

Chapter Text

Tick. Tap. Tock. Tap. Tick.

Edelgard's fingers beat a staccato pattern in rhythm with the old clock on the wall, her eyes on the paper Hubert had given her when he came in a few minutes ago. He sits in the chair in front of her, hands folded across his stomach, eyes on the clock. Beside her Ingrid reads partially over her shoulder, leaning slightly against the desk. "Is this some sort of ultimatum?" she asks finally as Edelgard puts the paper down.

"It's politics at it's finest, Ingrid," she replies, smirk curving slightly on her lips. "Though I assure you it's not always people sending underhanded notes to one another. Sometimes we actually see each other and then it can get absolutely riveting." 

Hubert snorts at the sarcasm dripping off her tone as Ingrid's eyebrow raises a little higher and she fights not to allow herself the laugh Edelgard can see twitching at the corner of her mouth. "Regardless, it's not up to me what happens to that old territory," she comments, leaning back in her seat. "If they want it they'll have to negotiate with Rhea."

This time both Hubert and Ingrid laugh.

"I pray for their souls," Hubert states as he stands, shaking his head. "Lady Rhea surely will run them through the wringer." 

"Can you blame her?" Ingrid asks, standing straight, arms folded over her chest. "I mean that's old vampire territory and they have the audacity to just tell us 'hey we're going to build on this so can you maybe call off your dogs?' "

"I'm sure they weren't aware that it is still our territory," Edelgard offers with a slight rise of her shoulders. "We aren't the most forthcoming people and since that building has been abandoned for so long it's only natural for them to believe it to be available."

It wasn't, and while Edelgard had originally had plans for it, she had little desire to go spend three hours having a gratingly cyclical conversation just to get what she wanted.

She knows if she asked Rhea would give it to her, she just hated the way the older vampire seemed to find humor in annoying her in any way she could.

The woman took too much after her mother.

Dealing with them both at once had been an absolute nightmare.

Of course, she wasn't going to be able to ignore it anymore anyway. She had other things she needed to discuss with the other woman, and putting them off was something she couldn't do. Not if she wanted the charity event to actually be more than a plan discussed among various covens. By now Rhea must have heard of it, if not she'd have to fill her in.

Someone is laughing; high, hysterical peals loud enough to carry over the dull roar of the lunch crowd still occupying the restaurant. She weaves through, offering quiet greetings to those who speak to her and ignoring the rest, slipping through the half open door to the private lounge out back. She finds the usual suspects, Petra curled up and dozing in her favorite spot on the couch, Hubert and Ferdinand murmuring quietly to one another, close enough that she knows they'll jump apart if they see her.

As if she wasn't aware of their relationship already.

She doesn't disturb them, instead making her way towards her office.

It's there she finds Dorothea and Ingrid, curled together on the couch and crowded around Dorothea's phone. She hears music coming from it, and the tear tracks running down Dorothea's face gives her an idea that it was her she heard laughing. Ingrid looks amused, but less so, head resting against her companion's shoulder, lips pursed to hide her smirk.

(She does a poor job at it.)

"What are you two so amused about?" She asks as she crosses into the room towards her desk, setting the folder tucked under her arm on it's surface. Behind her she can hear them both jump, Ingrid's stuttering explanation starting and stopping twice before Edelgard turns, sliding into her chair.

"Tik-Tok," Dorothea says, beside her Ingrid slumps against the couch, face red with 'recently fed' embarrassment.

"What?" Edelgard's head tilts, eyebrow quirking faintly. She's sure she might have heard of it in her scrolls through various articles on her phone while she was bored and waiting for a train or a car or looking for something to do when she was just sitting around. Though she often found herself on Youtube or Netflix (when she actually had time to sit and watch a movie or a show.)

Dorothea blanches a little, blinking. "You've never heard of Tik-Tok? You're always on Youtube on your phone-" Edelgard flinches, expression twisting to one of mild embarrassment. Of course Dorothea would call her out on it. "-You have to have seen at least a mention of it, like a compilation or something. It's all over the place."

"I probably have at least seen mention of it, but I have more important things to worry about then what the current fad is." She's seen too many over the years, and for a bit she tried to keep up with them, blending herself into the ever changing current of humanity as a whole. Even if at it's core it never changed. "I stopped trying to do that when everyone had to have those phone charms from...Gods what was it again?"

Dorothea looks puzzled, her eyebrows raising the longer Edelgard searches for the memory, until beside her, Ingrid speaks up. "Karma Zoner? I remember a while back everyone had those charms that made the little noises from the game. It drove me nuts." She blinks when she realizes Dorothea's attention has swiveled back to her and the small smile the other woman wears makes her flush come back in full, eyes dropping to her hands.

"Ingrid you're adorable," Dorothea murmurs, leaning into her side. "But let me guess, Sylvain and Felix both had them?"

"Yes," the other woman sighs. "Sylvain dragged Felix along with him and they stood in line for hours to get them when they were first released. I had to put up with them messing with them constantly and Sylvain wonders why I moved out." Her smirk is wry, head shaking slightly. Edelgard knew she cared about both of them a great deal still, even if she'd chosen to move in with Dorothea and Petra when the other woman had offered.

Ingrid still frequented her old apartment to make sure her two friends hadn't gotten themselves killed. So far, things had been going well for them, beyond Sylvain's enjoyment of driving Ingrid and Felix nuts in equal measure. "But enough about that," Ingrid says, folding her arms over her chest. "Edelgard, was Karma Zoner what you were thinking about?"

"It was," Edelgard confirms. "Catherine used to have one and that's how I learned more about what the little character was hanging from everyone's phone." The other woman had been overjoyed at the chance to talk about it and Edelgard had learned all about a game she was never going to play. But it made her happy, and gave both Rhea and Shamir a moment to finish their discussion.

"Well, Tik-Tok is a different kind of thing. It's a little like-do you remember vine?" At Edelgard's nod, Dorothea continues. "-It's kind of like that. You share short video clips, usually with music but it doesn't have to be. Some are funny, most are really kind of cringy." She thinks she understands, but she was about as impressed with Vine as she likely would be with Tik-Tok.

Which is to say, not at all.

It doesn't stop Dorothea from showing her a few videos, mostly of people doing various grades of stupid or nonsensical things. They were amusing, but certainly not funny.

Fortunately for her, Dorothea knows that her general amusement is about as good as anyone gets most of the time and she humors the other woman by letting her keep going, talking about things or showing her things.

One video catches her attention, her smile fading around the edges as the name sticks out like a sore, bloodied thumb: investigating the old Vantablack Building. She seizes Dorothea's wrist before the other woman can pull her phone away, grip easy, but the request is all the same. Stay put. So Dorothea does, only moving enough to step around the side of her desk to see what held her attention. She doesn't hear anything the young man on the video is saying, her gaze fixated instead on the abandoned derelict behind him.

"This was dated a week ago," Dorothea says, frowning. "I wonder if he actually went in there. Can I have my hand back, Edie? I'll see if I can find a video of it." 

"The Vantablack Building...isn't that?" Ingrid questions, eyebrows raised. "Where-"

"Hubert!" Both women with her jump at the sound of her voice, and she reaches out to run a soothing hand along Dorothea's arm. "I'm sorry," she murmurs a moment later, smiling slightly when Dorothea reaches out with her free hand to pat the back of her own.

"It doesn't look like he actually went in there, but I did find out that strange things have been going on around that area the past few days. There was a couple disappearances and some people were sighted going in, but when the cops went in after them to investigate they didn't find anything." Dorothea's lips twitch around a huff of laughter. "Seems like that kid thought it was haunted."

"In a way it is," Hubert drawls as he comes in, Ferdinand behind him. "As you all are well aware. By things much worse then spirits." His words drag a collective cringe from every occupant, Dorothea pockets her phone.

"Yea, we sure are," she says, crossing back to the couch to sit back down beside Ingrid. "I guess that huge 'no trespassing' sign doesn't mean much to people."

"People are drawn to the forbidden and the mysterious," Hubert comments with a slight shrug. "What is it you needed Lady Edelgard?"

"We're going to Enbarr."

Hubert nods. "At once."

A heavy industrial beat grinds out of the speakers as she makes her way down the steps into the club, the sound growing louder until she can feel it in her chest. She's never quite understood the appeal of clubs like Crimson Flower, but she also wasn't about to hold people back from their guilty pleasures. 

Rhea included.

She expects the crowd, letting the few with her press in closer to keep out of the way as they cross around to the VIP lounge. She squints against the strobe of lights, red, purple and blue all sparking  in patterns to the music and the mass of writhing bodies on the dance floor. Through another door in back, then up another set of steps. A descent into hell with the option to ascend to limbo.

There was no heaven here.

Shamir waits for them at the top of the steps, arms crossed and eyes focused. "Evening," she says once Edelgard reaches the top step. "Rhea's been waiting for you." She almost apologies for it, but all of them know coming from Remire to Enbarr isn't the fastest trip. Especially by car. So she shrugs instead, and is rewarded with the faintest twitch of Shamir's lips before the other woman turns, heading down the hall.

Edelgard follows.

It's quieter up here, the drone of the bass something distant but still present enough she can pick out the song if it's one she knows. She understands why Rhea enjoys the room she has, the large glass window behind where she sits offering a perfect view of the club below. The woman in question watches her as she enters, her eyes drawing down from the window to meet Rhea's.

"Hello my dear," she drawls, languid and amused, chin rested against fingers. "You just missed a group of rather grating humans, you should consider your traffic delay a godsend." Or what passed for God for either of them, her lips curving with the same faint amusement she sees mirrored on Rhea's face.

The older vampire looks different from the last time she saw her, long hair tied in a ponytail that doesn't bother to hide the inhuman nature of her ears, earrings lining the left while the right sports only a single one; the symbol of their coven. An upside down cross coiled by a dragon, it's ruby eyes glinting in the low light each time the other woman moves. She wears her own as a pendant around her neck, currently hanging free from the confines of her suit.

"Believe me I do, they had the audacity to send me a letter as well." She crosses the room as she speaks, taking a seat across from the other vampire. "I wanted to tell them that building was going to be in use, but the nature of the letter made it clear they were willing to undermine my authority." But no one dared to undermine Rhea's, only the truly stupid. 

"For all their talk about wishing for harmony between our people they do a poor job of it," Rhea comments, reaching for her drink. "Ah. Though given how they treat one another I suppose I should not be shocked." 

Edelgard makes no comment beyond a grimace.

"No matter," Rhea adds a moment later, sitting back with her glass held between her fingers. "I told them as much as I assume you would have 'no.' For their sake I hope they listen." If not they'd be stepping on the toes of the last people they probably wanted to. They would just have to find another place for their pet project.

"Good, as I said over the phone, I wish to use it," she says, watching quietly as Rhea takes a slow sip of her drink and regards her over the glass. She readies herself for the woman to pull her leg, to yank her around until finally saying 'yes' but the moment doesn't come.

"What for?" Rhea asks instead, to the point, glass clinking as she sets it back down on the table. 

"Another clinic," she explains, not showing her relief at the distinct lack of chain pulling. "And I plan to host an event to help gather funds for it. Perhaps even invite some of our human friends in the government so they can finally properly rub elbows with all of us and feel like they've done something good for vampire and were kind." 

Rhea laughs at that, loud and long, lifting one hand to muffle it against her knuckles. "How manipulative of you!" She says amid dying snickers, eyes glistening with unshed tears and malicious amusement. "I love it. Allow me to help you arrange things."

'Charity' in the loosest sense of the term.

She finds Rhea in much the same place, just as she makes her way down the hallway and into the club proper, the older vampire is down on the floor. It's silent, save for the few employees getting ready for the day; cleaning, moving bar stools and carrying shipments of varying types of liquor into the back room behind the bar. Catherine notices her first, turning her head and then flicking a wave and a grin at them. "Edelgard is here," she says and Rhea straightens from her lean on the bar and turns. 

There's a distinct lack of humor on the other's features, acidic green eyes glowing dully in the dim club. She's not at all pleased. "I should have had that building demolished after what happened." Her voice is sharper, a low grinding cadence to it that shows the frustration Edelgard shares. Both of them have been haunted by it. "Or I should have let those humans have it, then they could have dealt with it."

"You know we still would have gotten involved," she says, watching the way Rhea's earring dangles against her jaw as she tilts her head. "As soon as they encountered and issue they would have been pointing fingers at us and telling us to deal with it."

Rhea's snort is derisive, fingers threading through her hair. "Yes, that is...indeed true." The older vampire sighs, eyes sliding away. "Also I wish you had told me this sooner. About being targeted-" she clarifies, flicking her fingers dismissively, "-The building is certainly a concern but not so much of one I'm going to ignore your life being in danger."

Edelgard shifts underneath the sudden scrutiny Rhea pins her with. "I have it under control," she mutters, staring at her feet like a scolded child. "I hardly believe I needed to disturb you for my problems."

"My dear," the other woman starts, and Edelgard looks up, guided by Rhea's fingers against her chin. Gentle and familiar. "I know you love handling everything yourself, and you are exceptional at it, but there are some things you must tell me. You may have your hunter friend, but you of all people know how fickle humans are."

"Byleth isn't-" She bites her tongue, leaving the rest of her words to die in her throat. Because no matter what she believed, she had the first hand experience to know Rhea was right.

Something could always go wrong.

"Our kind isn't much better," she says finally, arms crossed across her chest.

"Oh no, they aren't," Rhea agrees, and the smile that inches across her features would be terrifying if Edelgard didn't know how the other woman ticked. "But that is what happens when you use humanity as your base. Arguably we can be even worse."

This time it's Edelgard who snorts, just as derisive. "Yes, Redmayne is a prime example of that."

"Them again," Rhea drawls, bored. "This time we will catch them in the act, one way or another. Catherine," and she turns slightly as she does, hands steepled together in front of her. "We'll be accompanying Edelgard and Hubert to the Vantablack building." 

That. That she wasn't expecting.

It becomes a large enough affair her own people couldn't handle it all themselves, not when she wishes for them to all have time to relax. To not have to worry about security and watching everyone that needs to be watched like hawks. She knew there would be those who would, herself included, but she still looked for other companies. Making call after call as the date drew nearer and nearer. 

Rhea took care of most other things, calls between them frequent and brief, questions or affirmations.

The Redmayne representative shows up at her office a week before the event, sharply dressed and making her immediately uncomfortable. She remembers making the call, how clipped and to the point the woman was that she spoke to. 'We'll come to you.' And that had been it.

"We're willing to offer our services to you, Lady Hresvelg."

Ingrid shifts beside her, expression twisted into one of obvious mistrust. "Just like that?" She asks, stepping a little closer to Edelgard's side. "You barely talked to her for more than three minutes and you show up here all ready to offer your help?"

The man before them doesn't react, his attention remaining on her as if Ingrid hadn't even spoken, as if Hubert wasn't a silent threat looming behind him. Edelgard wants to say no, thinks that she should, but the reviews she's seen had painted this company in a shining light. But every single person she'd met or spoke to had given her an odd feeling.

"One moment." She picks up her phone where it sits in front of her, eyes never quite leaving him while she texts Rhea.

-Redmayne?

-I heard they were half decent.

-So did I, but their people don't leave me with a good feeling.

-Hm. I would say go with your gut, my dear, but we don't have much room to be picky anymore.

She clicks her tongue, focusing back on his face. Rhea was right, they couldn't afford to be picky. "Fine, you're hired."

It was the biggest mistake she'd ever made since becoming a Vampire.

The charity event had gone off without a hitch, Redmayne staying true to their word of top notch security, the humans invited getting to play the part of good charitable people. It had given her enough funds to start work on resorting the old building and converting it into something usable even if the act of having to play nice with people she'd much rather eat tested her patience to it's thinnest point. Drinks and dancing and political talk, deals made and negotiated, promises made and broken just as fast.

Typical.

They stop briefly at the Cathedral, Rhea telling her to wait a moment while she slipped inside to retrieve a few things regarding the building and the things that had happened in and around it. "A refresher neither of us want," she'd said, slipping out the door and leaving Edelgard and Hubert alone, Catherine having elected to follow her.

"Lady Edelgard," Hubert says and she meets his eyes in the rear-view mirror, a quiet hum sounding in her throat. "You look troubled."

"It's too similar to what happened," she says after a moment of consideration. "The disappearances, the break in. But this time humans are involved, Hubert."

"It could just as easily be a fluke," he comments, leaning his arms on the steering wheel. "Some kids breaking in and getting lost all thanks to that one young man and his almost exploit." But he doesn't sound convinced. "It's odd," he says, breaking the unsettled silence that had fallen over them. "You and I have been here in Enbarr for thousands of years and we didn't have trouble with that area until Ollithar's coven came. It was like they stirred up whatever was there..."

Edelgard looks out the window, watching the people pass by on the sidewalk beside where they're parked. "You're right," she agrees, tapping her finger against her knee. "We lack the knowledge of what was here before Enbarr was founded, I don't even think Emperor Wilhelm knew."

And they couldn't exactly ask Sothis.

If Rhea knew she would have said something, even if the woman was fond of keeping her secrets. There were things she gave up when she knew the risk was too high to play her usual guessing games and half truths. There was no day to dig, either, no historical archive to root through to find some long forgotten document.

They were the history.

"Sorry it took me so long," Rhea says as she slides back into the seat beside her, door shutting with a thump audible enough to jar her out of her thoughts. "The Cathedral is still a disastrous maze, even if you know where it is you're going."

Catherine dips into the front seat beside Hubert, laughing slightly. "She hates that place with a passion and complains every-HEY." The seat jerks and Catherine's hands thump against the dashboard before the other woman is turning to glare over her shoulder. Rhea withdraws her foot, crossing it back over her knee with a smug look on her face.

"What was that?" She asks, polite, patient.

"You know I'm right."

Rhea ignores her and opens the file she has in her hand. Edelgard leans slightly into her side as Hubert starts the car and pulls into traffic, the conversation he starts with Catherine background noise. "I remember how we were content to stay out of the way after the first couple of murders. Even knowing how all the deaths were linked."

"Until Garth," Edelgard states, staring down at the black and white picture on the page. "That was too close to home. I knew I couldn't just stand by and let the hunters handle it."

"Like they wanted our attention. Like they knew just killing random guests wasn't going to work," Rhea murmurs.  

She beats the hunters there, the call having come early that morning from a very concerned Linhardt. "Um," he'd started, sounding caught between confusion and revulsion. "Garth is dead and in...very many pieces."

Edelgard didn't expect the scene she was met with, her mind taking a moment to process it. "There's no blood," Linhardt mumbles from behind her, and she looks to see him studying things with some sense of morbid curiosity.

"Like the others?"

"Yes, just like the others. No blood in the body at all." he states, waving for silent permission and moving by her when she steps aside. He's careful not to get too close, stepping over a severed arm, and wrinkling his nose against the smell of the intestines strewn about carelessly by the torso. "Like he was drained entirely before he was killed." She notices the sulfur underneath the sick scent of death, her lips drawing back from her teeth slightly.

The hunters show up as they're both attempting to figure out how exactly this all happened, answering the questions they have before they get to work. Edelgard leaves them to it, Linhardt trailing her. "You know I took this position because it was quiet and I could nap uninterrupted, mostly." He frowns, grimacing. "I don't know if I should feel guilty or elated I took last night off."

"Because Garth took your shift, didn't he?"

He looks at her, nodding slow. "Yes, if I was here-" 

She doesn't want to think about it. 

"Hey, Hresvelg." 

Turning, she raises an eyebrow at the hunter approaching them, clearly nervous. "What is it?" she asks, folding her hands behind her back.

"It is just like the others, blood drained, body dismembered. As for what did it..." He trails off, staring down at the floor with a look of a man haunted by past experience. She waits, dread settling like lead in the pit of her stomach. She had already had a feeling of what it is they're dealing with, but she wanted to be wrong.

"We think it's some kind of Demon," he finishes, and Edelgard lifts her eyes to the ceiling, cursing internally.

"Oh lovely," Linhardt says, sarcasm coloring his usual lazy drawl. "Sure would be nice to know why a Demon of all things is after us."

"We'll figure that out," The hunter says, bringing her attention back to him. "Look, uh, I have one last question for you."

She waves a hand, then slips them in her pockets. 

"This guy was one of yours right?" At her nod he goes on. "Okay well, humor me, I know I said one more question but, I need to know. There's been three others, is there any connection at all?"

Her lips purse, and she exchanges a silent look with Linhardt. "Yes," she says, fixing her attention back on the hunter before them. "All of them were guests at an event I held."

"Could you supply us with a list?"

"I can," she says. "And I'll offer you my aid." As much as the other death's had bothered her, this was one of hers. And so far none of the other coven leaders that had lost members had done anything beyond leave it to the hunters.

"Welcome aboard, I guess."

The building looked even worse up close, aged cement cracking, windows cracked and some completely broken. The front doors sat ajar and shattered even with the sign warding off tress passers. The security camera that used to hang over the doors was a thing of the past. Only the base and a few dead wires remained, and she looks up at it as she passes underneath, boots crunching on glass. She's careful as she steps through the broken door, ghosting gloved fingers over the jagged edges without touching them.

Grafitti litters the main hall and the floor, some faded with age, others bright and new. None of them were welcoming; I have seen hell. Turn back. Abandon all hope.

I can still hear the screams.

She passes them all, slipping deeper into the consuming darkness that had always hung over this building. Vantablack was possibly the most appropriate title for the place, the inky shadows eating all sense of light and leaving them navigating blind. "I can't see a damn thing," Catherine grouses, sticking as close to Rhea as Hubert did to her. "Even with night vision, what the hell is this place?"

"Nothing good," Rhea says, squinting  ahead of them. "Had I known what would happen when Ollithar built this place..." It hearkens back to the other's earlier comment about demolishing the building. Yet all of them knew destroying the place might do more harm than good. She'd set foot here all of four times before this, the first to appraise the building to see if it was fit enough to meet her needs, contractors in tow. The second to oversee the beginnings of construction, the third to investigate Garth's murder, and the fourth...

She arrives on an anonymous tip, the caller telling her someone had broken in to her property and set off the alarms. It had dragged both her and Hubert from their hotel, a text sent to their hunter friends as a 'just in case.' 

Something wasn't right.

It's late when they step into the building, alarm blaring and lights out. The backup generator hasn't kicked on yet, leaving the hallways stained in eerie red from the oscillating alarm lights. The sound bounds down the hallways in a shrill echo that makes Edelgard's ears hurt and sets her teeth on edge, buzzing in her skull. It makes it impossible to hear anything else but that, the constant flick from red to blackness making it impossible for her night vision to remotely attempt to adjust.

Where the hell was the guard? Why hasn't the alarm been shut off yet?

Hubert presses in behind her but doesn't bother to speak as they both slowly making their way down the hall to the security room. Hallway by hallway, both of them scanning every direction they can each time the alarm light flares. Nothing but tarps and buckets and ladders, forcing them to navigate through the hazards as the alarm does it's best to render them deaf.

She thinks she sees a shadow stretch at the opposing end to one hallway they pass, long and gangly, but she passes it off as a trick of the light. A ladder she can't see casting an odd shadow, a beam leaning against a wall. Nobody would be stupid enough to attack a Master Vampire, let alone one with a guard.

But-

The security door is ajar, and the scent of blood hits her a moment later coupled with the stink of death and terror. Hubert goes in ahead of her, fangs bared and hand on the gun holstered at his side. The guard is dead, and it takes several seconds for her mind to process the mess. This time there's blood everywhere there could be, the walls, the monitors, the floor, the control panels.

The body is in pieces, ripped asunder by something much bigger and stronger than the poor man. The look of horror he wore is now frozen on his features, ribcage jutting horrifically from his chest. Edelgard scowls, lifting her hand to her face as Hubert makes his way across the room, doing his best not to step through the blood.

A moment later they're plunged into silence. The lights freezing red, and giving them something more reliable to navigate by. But they don't move yet, waiting until the ringing in their ears fades. "We should not linger," Hubert says finally, speaking low.

"I agree," she replies, but something stops her as she turns, some shiver of movement in  her peripheral that sends her backwards instead of out. Hubert is at her side in an instant, hand held out across her chest, even as a mutinous growl vibrates low in her chest and hisses out between her teeth. She hopes it's the hunters, or that the tension that hangs over the entire building is just getting to her and Hubert is merely humoring her until she calms down.

Yet the body says otherwise.

So does the thing that lumbers, twitching and convulsing, into the doorway. It reminds her a little of a Piranha, if it was three feet taller than her, emaciated and standing on two feet. It looked broken, bones jutting out at all the wrong angles, a noise like rusted hinges wheezing from between it's too sharp teeth. Skin like burnt flesh, eyes as hollow as a skull's and horns jutting from it's head like some kind of broken halo.

"What the-" Hubert breathes, the realization that both of them were very trapped hitting them the same time the creature screams and lunges for them, dropping to all fours and scrambling unnaturally across the floor. Hubert's gun roars and the creature screeches, writhing and retreating up the wall. "Run!"

Hubert doesn't need to tell her twice, her feet slipping slightly in the blood as she tears out of the room at a dead sprint, pushing all of her supernatural speed to it's limit. Yer she can still hear it, claws clattering across the floor and wheezing screams following in their wake. She can hear shouting from somewhere else in the building, high, panicked and agonized. A shrill scream follows, distant but similar.

There's more than one. 

She diverts their path, cutting down another hallway on sliding feet and barely kept balance, sprinting up a set of steps with both Hubert and the creature -- Demon, she reminds herself, that thing was a Demon -- on their heels --

It vanishes as soon as they reach the next floor, the sudden silence at it's lack of presence driving a wedge of anxiety into her chest. She's furious, she's terrified, each step she takes leaving her anticipating an ambush that doesn't come. Every sense is on high alert, the feral beast that hides underneath her skin awake and pushing against the cage of her bones.

But the only thing the building offers is silence, the Demons seeming to have vanished back into the darkness they emerged from. 

"Is...someone...there...?"

"Lady Edelgard?" 

She tenses, startled out of her memory by the sound of Hubert's voice so close to her ear. "I'm fine," she says automatically, turning to look up at him. The look he wears tells her he knows what she was thinking about and he makes no comment on it.

"There is nothing on the first floor," he says instead and she allows him to lead her to where Rhea and Catherine wait at the steps to the second, both of them wearing looks of shared concern. "We're going to go floor by floor to see if anyone has gotten trapped somewhere."

Or worse, he doesn't say.

Killed by those things.

The second floor is much the same until they come to the last room on the floor. In the center a body sits, twisted up like some kind of contortionist. She's dead, Edelgard thinks, paranoia driving her to expect something to jump out at them. 

She's human.

Edelgard pulls out her phone before she can think more on it, dialing Byleth. 

"There's been another murder," she says the moment Byleth picks up, and for a moment all the other woman does is breathe, like the sound of her voice had affected her in some way.

"Where?" Byleth finally says, impossibly quiet.

"Enbarr," she replies, staring down at the body in front of her. "At the Old Vantablack Building."

"We'll be there soon."

Chapter Text

The ride to Enbarr is one plagued by tense silence, her father white knuckling the wheel and her staring out the window, watching the scenery streak by as urban life gives way to fields and pastures then back to the sprawling metropolis she'd just recently left. The sun is going down by the time the city fully comes into view, sunlight streaking reds and oranges across and giving the illusion of a city in flame. It would be pretty if she didn't have a leaden weight in her stomach.

It would be pretty if she wasn't haunted by the sound of Edelgard's voice.

"There's been another murder..."

"Are you sure about this kid?" Jeralt asks finally after they've merged into city traffic, the light burning as red as the skyscrapers now towering over them. She considers the question, as she watches people pass by on the sidewalk. Was she? No, but she wanted answers. She wanted to know the truth from Edelgard herself.

Not from a company that could just as easily be lying to them as they were telling the truth.

"No," she says finally, choosing honesty. "I'm not sure." She turns then, meeting his eyes and letting him see the conflict going on in her mind. "But the only way I can be sure is if I talk to Edelgard. Besides, Redmayne hasn't done anything to make themselves appear trustworthy. And Edelgard..." Had been open enough with her, maybe not entirely, but there was a sense that the older woman would have answered had she asked.

Just like Byleth had been perfectly willing to answer her.

"Alright," he says after a moment, eyes turning back to the road as the light switches and he presses down on the gas pedal. "I have just as many questions for her, to be honest."

"She was traumatized Jeralt, what she saw-"

"What did I see?" she asks, quiet, almost too quiet for her father to hear. She thinks back again to her nightmares, of the twisted figures and flickering shadows. Reds and black and ash on her tongue. But nothing fits, nothing makes sense. All she finds is that same blank she keeps encountering, again and again and again.

It's simply not there.

Beside her, Jeralt says nothing, and while she briefly wonders if he heard her and was pretending not to or if he really didn't, she doesn't say anything. Maybe she really doesn't want to know. Maybe she needs to know.

She closes her eyes and leans her forehead against the window again, the glass cool against her skin.

------

There's a woman she doesn't recognize waiting for them when they pull up at the curb, arms crossed and expression pensive. She notices them as soon as Byleth opens her door and gets out, stepping up onto the sidewalk and staring up at the building before her. It feels familiar.

It all...feels...familiar.

She pushes it aside as her father joins her and they head up the steps to meet up with the person waiting on them. "Hey," the woman says soon as they're within earshot.

"Name's Catherine,  Edelgard's waiting upstairs." She gives the impression of someone whose normally a lot more boisterous, but the nature of the meeting has left her restrained and uncomfortable.

Catherine jerks a thumb over her shoulder after casting a glance at the street, then turns and heads inside. "Watch out for the glass," she calls over her shoulder as she does, and Byleth hears it grind underneath the other's boots. She notes the old security camera mount as she passes under it, thinking that this could be the building they saw in the video.

Which meant...

Her father's hand rests heavy and reassuring against her shoulder, bringing her attention from the darkness of the building to him. He squeezes once, then pats her back as he passes her by and heads inside. She follows after another second of hesitation, dipping between the broken doors, casting a glance over the collection of graffiti scribbled across the walls and floor.

Red lights and tarps, ladders and buckets she nearly trips over in her mad dash up- 

The image of a lobby in better shape is superimposed over the sight she sees now, a tarp hanging over the front desk, buckets and a stack of wood meant for another area that hadn't been moved yet. But it's gone as soon as she blinks, the ghostly image fading back into the recesses of her mind. She blinks again, squinting and shaking her head.

She follows after Catherine and her father at a distance, watching the bob of Jeralt's phone flashlight as they walk through the winding hallways and up a set of stairs. She'd run this before, she thinks, hands smacking into walls, an ankle twisting as she stepped wrong on the bottom step and nearly fell on her face.

"Byleth?" She startles at the sound of her name, inhaling sharply and jerking her head up, blinking owlishly.

"Huh?" 

Her father looks down at her from the top step and she can just barely see the lines of worry in the light from his phone. "You don't look so good, kid. You alright?" 

No, she thinks, smiling tightly at him. She's not at all okay. "Yea," she lies, making her way up the steps finally. "Just tired from all this running around." It's believable enough, she hopes as she steps up by where Jeralt still stands and squints into the darkness.

This time she doesn't try to chase the shadows that reach towards her. She pushes forward and away from them, making her way down the hallway to where Catherine now leans against the wall, watching them both. Her father trails behind her, the light bounding off the walls and casting multiple copies of her shadow, and she tries not to watch the way they skew and waver along the hallway.

Catherine enters the room ahead of them, and Byleth hesitates in the doorway, a feeling of cold dread closing around her lungs, leaving her short of breath and disorientated. A second, two, blood, blood everywhere, cold and wet on her hands, her face-

She blinks once, squeezing her eyes shut and forcing herself to breathe, forces herself to focus on the present. Opens her eyes to the room as it is now, occupied by several people and a body. Edelgard stands off to one side of the room with another woman she doesn't recognize, tall, mint-green hair tied tight in a braided ponytail, suit a deep blue and eyes glowing acidic green when she turns her attention to Byleth in the doorway.

"Ah," she drawls. "So you're Edelgard's friend." Her attention flicks to Jeralt, eyes narrowing slightly as light spills into the room.

"Archbishop," her father says, and the green eyed woman sneers, sharp edged and amused.

"So that's what they're calling me now."

Behind her Edelgard snorts, knuckles pressed to her mouth to muffle the noise. "She's hardly a holy woman," she says, the edges of her tone holding her thinly restrained amusement. "Though given the name of our united Coven I suppose it is appropriate."

"That's the irony of it," Jeralt says, stepping around Byleth's side. "When you name your coven after an abandoned monastery people make jokes."

Byleth realizes then who it is she's looking at, surprise flicking across her features at Seiros' derisive snort. "You're-" she starts, confused. "I didn't think I'd ever-"

"What, meet me? Contrary to popular belief I am a lot more involved in Vampire affairs then people like to think. I may go out of my way to make it difficult for people to find me, but that's only because I trust Edelgard implicitly to take care of things otherwise."

Once again behind her, Edelgard rolls her eyes, pressing gloved fingers to the bridge of her nose and Byleth has to try not to let the smile threatening to curl on her lips appear. "Rhea enjoys making people's lives difficult. Including mine."

Byleth files away the name change, struggling to keep the smirk off her face. "I'll keep that in mind," she says, looking up at the taller vampire. "It's nice to meet you, Rhea."

"Oh," Rhea hums, looking at Edelgard. "She's polite too." The vampire steps closer, extending a scarred hand. "The pleasure is all mine, hunter," she drawls, her smile not something Byleth is sure she trusts.

Just as dangerous as Edelgard, if not more so. At least Byleth understood Edelgard's motives, Rhea -- she thinks as she takes the other woman's hand, unsurprised to find her grip just as firm, just as quick -- was a blank page.

"Now that we've gotten that out of the way," Rhea murmurs, turning. "Our main problem."

Byleth directs her attention to the center of the room where the corpse still sits, twisted up. Wide, unseeing eyes staring out at them. Hubert is bent down beside it, examining it.

"Drained entirely like the ones before," he reports grimly, looking up at them. "But unlike the other's she's human."

A dead human meant involving the human government and the police. It meant it would become as much of a human problem as it would a Vampire problem, a hunter problem. It meant it would slow them down. It meant that word would spread and the entire city would become paranoid.

Who would be next? Had the Vampires finally lost it? Where they the ones who did it?

"Whoever killed her did it on purpose," Edelgard says, arms crossed tight over her chest, shoulders drawn and expression pinched. She's more closed off then usual, her easy posture and calm stoicism traded for this tension. "They knew that even if it was a mimicry of the previous murders it would still cast suspicion on us. Making them all wonder if a Vampire or Were was playing copycat."

"So we don't say anything," Jeralt says, staring down at the body. It's clear he's not happy about the decision, and neither is Byleth, but it's also the only way to keep them from getting bogged down by investigations and other suspicious people.

"So we just...what, leave her?" Catherine asks, looking between all of them. 

"I'll call in an anonymous tip," Jeralt assures, stepping by them all to bend down by where Hubert is. "Say that there was more suspicious people coming and going in the middle of the night. It won't necessarily save us, since we were all in here too, but it might keep them occupied for a bit."

"But why...here? Why do this?" Byleth asks, having a feeling she knew the answer but needing to hear it anyway. Her attention falls on Edelgard, searching the other's face. 

"Because we got too close," Edelgard says, refusing to meet her eyes. "And because of this place's history." 

History, Byleth thinks bitterly. "All the death that happened here, you mean." It comes out more biting then she intends it, and she watches as Edelgard flinches slightly, guilt settling in the way her jaw tenses and shifts.

Guilt?

Her teeth grit, and she looks away when Edelgard's eyes raise again. She occupies herself by focusing back on the body, making her way closer even as something presses in against the sides of her head until it throbs. "I think I recognize her," she says after a moment, bending down to get a better look at her face. "Dad isn't this that...medium mom used to..." she trails off, staring. "I did a research paper about her."

"You're right kid, it is her."

"That's odd," Rhea says suddenly much closer than Byleth expects her to be, and she looks up, catching sight of the silver earring that dangles against her jaw as she peers down at them. "Medium's aren't usually killed."

"What do you mean?" Byleth asks, hesitant.

"I mean-" and Rhea's eyes fix on her, the shuttered nature of her expression making her as impossible to read as before, "-That mediums are more useful alive then dead. Most of the time Vampires and Weres contact them for help when dealing with corrupted areas. They can track demons easier than we can. And for the less savory types, they can be used to house demons."

Silence stretches between them after that, interrupted only by the muffled sounds of passing traffic and the occasional shout. "You said your mother was a medium?" Rhea asks after another second, low, quiet. 

Like she knew something.

"Yes," Byleth responds, rising up to her full height. "Why?"

"What about you or your brother, have either of you displayed the gift?"

Her headache grows worse, pain drilling deep into the back of her skull and blossoming white across her vision. She sees Rhea moving at the same time she senses herself falling, the older woman's expression shocked.

Then nothing.

-----

She sits at a table in a house she doesn't know, a cup of tea coiling steam into the air between her fingers. It's silent, muted, but bright, each color vibrant and demanding her attention. So she looks, ignoring the way the tea that should be hot feels like nothing. Like her hands are numb, like she doesn't belong here.
Like she's dreaming.

But it doesn't feel like a dream, she thinks, her fingers tracing the rim of the cup, thumb arching through the steam and watching as the action disturbs the coil and disperses it for only a moment.

"Hello--"

Her head turns, the kitchen and it's colors becoming blurred as she refocuses on the owner of the voice.  Again, again she doesn't know, doesn't recognize the woman who looks at the space she occupies...but not at her. 

"--Someone here?"

It's like being underwater, the words muffled and barely heard, her eyes narrowing as she attempts to make out in full what the woman was saying. Yes she says, but the word doesn't make a sound even as her lips form it. Yet the way the woman reacts says otherwise, eyes refocusing on her, sharp and attentive, surprised. She reminds Byleth of Rhea, the same regal air, the same height. The same green hair that falls well past slender shoulders and blends with the sun dress she wears.

"Shouldn't be here--"

I don't know how I got here. She says, shrugging helplessly, watching as the other woman approaches her, eyes narrowed as though attempting to get a better look at an object she can't see in full. And maybe she can't, maybe Byleth is little more than a voiceless phantom here.

Wherever 'here' is.

"Marian? What---here?"

Marian? She blinks, lips parting around the shock that rattles down through her at hearing her mother's name after so many years. No she whispers, shaking her head, rallying her mind to work by the tightness in her chest. I'm her daughter.

She had been studying things like this, visions and otherworldly contacts. But she never believed she would experience it. Had always thought that no matter how badly she wanted to follow in her mother's footsteps originally she didn't have her gift. Always thought she wouldn't ever be able to do things like this until now -- until that building, until Edelgard and Rhea. Was it them who acted as the catalyst, or the building?

Had what she seen been what had done it?

It left her with further questions and still hardly any answers.

"Byleth--told--about you." 

She looks up to see the woman now right before her, features gently angled, fangs barely hidden behind the lips drawn back in a casual smile. And Byleth wishes she could hear everything she was saying to her. Mind scrambling to put a name to the face, feeling like she should know who this was who was trying to talk to her. 

"--Remember--I am--can you?"

I've never met you before.

The other woman laughs, then nods. Slow, her expression changing to one of sympathy, of sadness, then a steel line of something much more serious and concerned. "Sothis."

Her hand lifts, fingers pressing to the air between them as if a barrier kept them from coming into contact.

"Don't let---know.

---about to wake up."

------

She wakes to a ceiling she doesn't know, to her father leaning over in his seat to look down at her. "Hey," he rasps, worried, exhausted. "How are you feeling?"

Slowly she sits up, hand pressing to her face. "Dizzy, but fine other than that," she murmurs, waiting for the odd feeling of rotation to stop. "Did I black out again?" She asks, peering between her fingers when she trusts her sight not to be double. "And where are we?" 

"The VIP lounge of Crimson Flower," Rhea says from somewhere beside them, bringing her attention flicking over to where the woman sits on the couch across. Lounged casually, Edelgard asleep against her thigh. It's an odd sight to see a vampire asleep, the stillness of death claiming them entirely. She looked peaceful. Her eyes skip back up to Rhea's face. "And yes," the older woman drawls, low, quiet, as if she didn't want to disturb the woman below her. "You did black out, gave us all quite a scare."

"The Archbishop," Jeralt starts, and Byleth watches the way the corners of Rhea's mouth tightens in something like annoyance. "Allowed us to come back here and stay until you were able to get back on your feet. I was going to bring you home but, you started talking in your sleep."

Byleth blinks, eyes jumping between the two before her. Had they heard her half of the conversation she had with Sothis? Did they know? "What did I say?" she asks, shifting to sit up properly on the couch, feet touching the plush carpet blanketing the floor.

"It sounded like you were speaking to someone," Jeralt says, brows knitting together in worry. "What were you dreaming about?"

Sothis' half warning sits in the back of her mind; don't let them know. But was it them, or was it their enemy? "I don't remember," she lies again, biting her tongue and withholding her truth. Sothis, the Vampire God. A woman supposedly still sleeping somewhere, had somehow come into contact with her.

Or was it the other way around? Had she blundered into Sothis' dream?

Did Vampires dream?

Something in Rhea's expression shifts, like she knows Byleth is lying but chooses not to call her out on it. Her father just looks sad, worry still written plain across the tight lines of his face. "Let's go home, kid," Jeralt says, standing up from his seat. "I'm sure you're still really tired."

"Yea, you could say that." And she knows his attempt at an escape when she hears it, so she humors him, slipping off the couch and pushing herself up to her feet. "Thank you for letting us stay, Rhea," she says, focusing on the other woman briefly before lowering her eyes to Edelgard.

She still had so many questions.

"You're welcome," Rhea says, bringing her attention back. She's smiling, and it's gentle, kind. "You can come back anytime you wish, you both are always welcome here." A typical vampire response to hunters, always welcoming, always accommodating, but not always trusting.

Byleth leaves with a chill creeping down her spine.

------

She doesn't remember what she dreams, but she wakes with an acute sense of dread coiling in the pit of her stomach and spreading like something venomous through her limbs. It leaves her off balance and distracted, going through her morning routine in halves, remembering one thing, forgetting another and having to go back to finish it. Her coffee is too bitter, her keys left on the counter even if she remembered her wallet and her phone. And there's a part of her that wants to run as far away as possible from Fódlan until whatever she could feel coming blew over.

Not that she would, she wasn't a coward, but it was a struggle to fight that base ingrained instinct writhing around inside of her like a caged animal banging against it's bars. It's how she found herself in front of Black Eagle Lounge again, standing on the sidewalk and trying to convince herself to seek out the one person she both needed to talk to and dreaded the truth from.

She wanted to believe Edelgard hadn't done anything wrong, that Redmayne was simply trying to manipulate her into turning against the older woman, but she also couldn't take what she saw on that video lightly. She didn't know how Redmayne got it, or if they doctored it or not and the only way she would find that out is if she screwed up the nerve to ask Edelgard point blank what happened.

It's quiet as she pushes her way inside, the breakfast crowd having mostly filtered out and the lunch crowd having not yet filtered in. There's only a few hold outs, people with laptops or a few couples huddled together over steaming cups of coffee and talking. Ingrid isn't behind the bar and Byleth passes it with half a glance, weaving her way through tables and the couple of waitstaff winding along.

The quiet extends to the private lounge, people she got used to seeing absent. It leaves her wandering a little aimlessly, peering in through ajar doors in the hopes of finding anyone, even Hubert.  It's a whole lot of empty silences, the rooms clean and similarly decorated, a couple that look like offices. The last door she comes across is the one she hears voices behind, muted but agitated and she recognizes Dimitri and Edelgard both. Arguing.

"--Should have told me, El."

"I wanted to forget, Dima," Edelgard says a moment later, sounding defeated. "I know I should have said something but those Demons just...vanished into thin air. I would have wondered if I had somehow been hallucinating if Hubert hadn't seen it too, if the hunters..." she trails off, and the sound she hears filtering from behind the door sounds pained. She can't hear Dimitri's reply, but she can hear the low soothing drone of his voice.

Demons. Edelgard saw Demons and likely what happened to her brother.  

"Eavesdropping?" 

She tenses, fear skittering across her skin like insects as she looks over her shoulder to see Rhea looming behind her, Catherine and another woman she doesn't know flanking her. "I-uh-" what is it with her and getting caught doing things she shouldn't lately? "I was about to knock." Smooth.

Rhea's expression eases into something far more amused, her head tilting slightly to one side. "I see, you didn't look quite ready to knock. You looked conflicted, actually." The taller woman contemplates her for a long moment, acidic green searching her face. "Are you here to visit, or do you have business?"

"Both," she answers automatically, straightening back to her full height.

"Both," Rhea parrots, eyebrows raising. "Well, how about you knock then?" 

She doesn't, knuckles freezing right before they can rap against the heavy wood.

"Why are you so nervous?" Rhea asks, suddenly so much closer behind her. "As far as I know you and Edelgard got along quite well, did something happen to change that?" A slender, scarred hand finds her shoulder, resting heavy but otherwise almost comforting.

Byleth can't bring herself to answer, face scrunching up into something resembling the same conflict warring inside of her. Wanting to know, wanting to remain oblivious, even with her mind slowly starting to lead her through the blank. 

"Rhea, Byleth?"

She looks up to find Edelgard standing in the doorway, surprised, Dimitri looming tall and imposing behind her. 

"I wasn't...expecting any of you today," Edelgard adds after a second's pause, recovering from her surprise. "What can I do for you?"

"May we?" Rhea asks, and her other hand comes to rest on Byleth's opposite shoulder. 

Edelgard glances back behind her at Dimitri and they both step aside,  the smaller woman extending her arm in invitation. Byleth has half a second to try and think of an excuse before Rhea makes the choice for her by shoving her inside of the office and leaving her to stumble helplessly to try and stay on her feet. The door shuts behind them all, and she turns to find Catherine and the still nameless woman on either side of it, standing guard.

"I was thinking of holding a council meeting," Rhea starts in as soon as Edelgard settles behind the ornate desk, Dimitri easily coming to stand beside her. "It's about time we got to the bottom of this, and the only way to pin Ollithar down without going on some wild goose chase is to force him to show himself. It probably won't net us anything useful, but we can attempt to grill him as best we can." 

Byleth shouldn't be here.

"A council meeting," Edelgard repeats, slow and thoughtful. "It's certainly better then trying to route out where he and his coven have hidden themselves...but-"

"We'll hold it at the Monastery," Rhea interjects, seemingly aware of the question Edelgard was about to ask. "I know it's a bit of a hike, but if something does occur we'll be able to handle it quickly and quietly and without involving any humans." Those acid eyes find her, smile curving wicked across her lips. "Save, perhaps, one."
What the fuck had she been shoved into?

"Wait--I--"

"I think that's up to Byleth, isn't it?" Edelgard interrupts her stammering, voice hard edged and almost defensive. "She's in deep enough as it is, but hunters tend to not like to get involved in the meat of our politics."

"True," Rhea concedes, and Byleth is relieved when her gaze shifts back to Edelgard. "But ever since we were in the old Vantablack building she's been staring at you like you have some great secret that she wants the answer to."

Byleth's blood goes cold, and she turns slowly to look at Edelgard. The other's eyes are already on her, brows pinched in confusion, then a quiet, dawning realization. Then it's gone, shuttered off in favor of that familiar cold stoicism the other woman had worn at the murder scene. "If you do come, you may get some of the answers you seek," she says when the silence has stretched to the point of snapping.

The response sticks at her in a way that rankles her nerves, raising her proverbial hackles, but she swallows down her snide remark; why can't you just tell me? Maybe there's more to it and the meeting would show all the sides, or maybe Edelgard just didn't want to face the consequences without other people to watch her back. Or maybe Byleth was jumping to conclusions and Edelgard honestly didn't know what questions she even had.

She'd go with that.

"Okay, I'll go with you."

Rhea hums, low and pleased, Edelgard just looks...distant, uncomfortable. 

"I'll make the call, then," Rhea says.

"I'm afraid I have other business I need to attend to," Edelgard says as they're all starting to file out. "I'll text you when the meeting has been set up." 

Byleth glances at her and nods, stopping in the doorway to look back at her. "I'll see you then, I guess?"

"Yes."

She leaves, trailing behind Rhea and her guards.

-----

The text comes a week later, containing an address she doesn't recognize and the time she needs to arrive. Her father is out on a new job, Byleth having delegated to stay behind so as to not be involved in something else. Part of her had almost wanted to go with him anyway, but she had found other things to do instead, delving back into the murders and the Old Vantablack Building.

Researching Demons and returning to her roots in Parapsychology.

It's busywork, bringing her from one library to another, back to the university and finds her holed up in a corner in the supernatural archives, reading for hours. She leaves tired and sore from sitting hunched over books and files and journals, eyes burning. But she knows she won't entirely be left behind during the council meeting.

-------

That's how she finds herself two days later, following her GPS as she makes the early morning drive from Remire to Garreg Mach Monastery. Supposedly abandoned, apparently save for the vampires, weres and (rare) hunters who use it for large scale council meetings. She can't shake the feeling of anxiety that chills in her chest and makes her twitchy when she's stuck at stops, the radio doing nothing to distract her from the constant run of thoughts in her mind.

She watches as the city fades way to mountain scenery through her windshield, the roads growing more winding and less populated as her GPS chimes out directions in it's too cheery robot voice. There's nothing out here, she thinks as she makes a turn from asphalt to dirt, grimacing as her car struggles to make the trip along the maze like roadway. It's a slow, painful ride, fingers white knuckling the steering wheel while she wonders if it would be easier to park somewhere and walk.

It's not, she decides as she crests the hill, relieved to see other cars parked at the mouth of what looks like an old abandoned village. She thinks that at one point that road hadn't been more than a path people walked up and down and into the nearby cities, and wondered when the dirt road had even been made. She also thinks she doesn't want to make this trip again, the chill immediately biting into her as she gets out of her car.  "Winter in the mountains," she mutters, stopping to look up at the Monastery itself looming. It's built almost perfectly into the mountain itself, spires and walls seamlessly set into the cliff-sides.

It's beautiful as well as intimidating, and she curls tight into her coat as she makes her way through the village, one hand on her gun. The town turns out to be more of a small city itself, one section giving way to another as she makes her way up an old stone stairwell and she finds herself almost able to imagine what it was like bustling with life. People everywhere and merchants hawking their wares, the smell of horses and food mingling in the crisp mountain air.

The Monastery itself is something different all together, her eyes immediately drawn to the massive cathedral settled at the back of the grounds. And that, she thinks to herself as she makes her way along the old stonework, cracked and invaded by plants, is where she's supposed to go. But it doesn't stop her from looking around a bit, great halls with their aged and rotted wood, told a story she wanted so badly to learn. Classrooms with weather worn flags she couldn't discern, overgrown gardens that looked like they were once neatly kept and well traveled.

She makes it to the Cathedral with three minutes to spare and a sense of wonder replacing her anxiety, relieved to see the small group of gathered people all standing around in the cavernous space. A statue stands tall and worn at the back, sword in hand with a winged headdress that gave the impression of something draconian. Another stands just off to the side, with a horned crown and an elaborate battle axe held high in triumph.

"The immortal Emperor and Saint Seiros," someone says from behind her, and she turns, startled. The woman that stands behind her is tall and well built with tan skin and silver eyes, black hair tied back in a tight, professional ponytail. "You must be the Adrestia's Hunter," she says a second later, extending a hand. "I'm Corsica Illiean, leader of The Agartha Coven." Her features were sharp but her expression kind, and Byleth couldn't help but notice the way her eyes didn't quite focus on her.

"Byleth Eisner," she replies, reaching out and taking the Vampire's hand. "It's a pleasure."

"Byleth." The tone of Corsica's voice is thoughtful as she repeats her name, handshake just as firm and short as every other Vampire she'd come into contact with recently. "I've heard that name before. Do you happen to know Claude Riegan?"

That was a name she hasn't heard in ages, and it brings a sense of nostalgia for quieter times welling up to the surface. "Yea, we used to go to school together, he's an old friend."

"Then you'll be happy to know he's doing well," Corsica says, smiling. "He's our local Hunter, actually. Been working with my coven for a few years now, ever since Mikhail was killed."

Mikhail, the original Master Vampire of The Agartha Coven. Corsica had served as his second seat since the founding of the three covens, and after his death she had been the one to take the reins and become the new Master Vampire.  It made her happy she had gone back to read, so she didn't end up asking stupid questions. "I'm glad to hear he's doing good, did he come with you?"

"No," Corsica says, smile wry. "He's got himself up to something or other back home, though Rhea's call sure caught his interest, so I'm sure you'll be seeing him soon."

"Sounds like Claude," Byleth replies, distracted by the other people coming in. Another Vampire, male, tall, shrewdly kept. She immediately doesn't like him or his close cropped, slicked back hair and too expensive suit.

"That's Ollithar Legrand, head of Vantablack Coven. It's normal not to like him, " Corsica says, sniffing. "He's kind of a twat."

Byleth struggles not to laugh.

Her humor flees her as she notices the woman following him, reminded of the woman she ran into the other day. The woman she's sworn she's seen somewhere else before, just as richly dressed as Ollithar with an air of entitled arrogance about her. 

"She's...new," Corsica says, and Byleth glances up at the woman beside her. Her eyebrow is raised, head tilted like a curious cat watching a particularly interesting bird. "What is he up to now?"

Edelgard trails him, looking decidedly less formal with a red leather duster coat, black dress shirt and slacks. Her hair tied up and her gloved hands laced behind her. Hubert, Dimitri and Petra all walk behind her, all dressed in various states of relaxed formal.

"Ah," Corsica hums. "The little Emperor herself. Excuse me." 

She watches as Corsica makes her way over, spreading her arms and engaging in friendly conversation with the smaller woman, Edelgard's tense expression melting into one much more happy. They hug, Corsica curling over her to touch her nose to the pulse point underneath Edelgard's jaw. Edelgard returning the gesture a moment later. She realizes it's custom, a quick glance around showing other Vampires doing much the same.

A greeting, and one she's never seen before.

Then again, she guesses not many humans are privy to this kind of meeting either. 

Both Corsica and Edelgard move off to mingle with the other Vampires, both grudgingly greeting Ollithar with just a handshake and a few terse words. And she notes that the greeting clearly only applies to friends. Not acquaintances or less than favorable.

Byleth is content to settle herself in one of the old pews until the meeting itself begins, watching as the vampires and their were companions interact. They're no different from humans, forming groups of friends and laughing about stories told. Catching up on all the time they hadn't seen each other. It almost makes her forget that they're all ancient, powerful supernatural creatures.

She sees Rhea part from one of the larger groups finally, one hand raising to get the attention of the others. "I'm so glad all of you could join us!" She calls, and her voice carries easily through the old building. "As you know, we're here to discuss a rather grim topic." Silence settles in full as Rhea's voice fades, attention drawing to where Ollithar stands away from most of the other vampires.

He smiles. Byleth likes him even less.

Edelgard finds her as they're all making their way to another part of the Monastery, falling into step beside her. "I'm glad you made it," she says, looking up at her. "I hope this will help shed some light on the questions you may have."

She didn't seem to know.

It's almost a relief.

"Yea, me too."

The group gets smaller as they walk, until only a select few of them remain. Corsica and her companions, Ollithar and his companion, Rhea and Catherine. Edelgard, Hubert, Dimitri and Petra, and Byleth. The highest ranking in each of the Covens and Packs, as well as a singular Hunter invited along for the ride. They make quite a sight, she thinks as Rhea leads them across the Monastery grounds and into a large meeting hall, each of them finding a seat at various spots at the table. It's the only room that looks to still be in use, but even then only recently dusted.

Byleth stands behind Edelgard, watching as the Vampire shrugs off her duster coat and takes a seat nearby Rhea at the head of the table. They wait until the chatter dies out, until silence drains into the room and the tension steadily begins to inch higher bit by bit.

"So," Ollithar finally says, tapping his finger against the table. "We're here about my old Coven building. I don't see why we're having this meeting now, when you deigned to bring it up when it was a problem."

"You're right," Rhea states, leaning forward on her elbows. "We should have brought it up when it became a problem originally, an error on our parts. But it's become a problem again. Another body was found." Silence dips as hushed conversation starts and looks are exchanged.

"People die all the time," Ollithar drawls, bringing everyone's attention back. "Why does it matter?"

"Because this woman was killed in the same manner as the others. A human, not a vampire." Edelgard sits back as she speaks, arms crossed. "Which, unless this turns out to be an incredible coincidence, won't be the only body we find."

"How do we know it's not a copycat trying to make us look bad?" Corsica asks, shifting in her seat slightly. "The original murders were targeting Vampires, why start going after humans?"

"The human was a Medium," Rhea adds, and Byleth watches as Corsica's eyes widen and flick to the older vampire's general direction. She wonders a moment if the Vampire was blind and her power had simply evolved to help her work around it.

"A Medium?" Corsica asks, stunned. 

"Yes," Rhea affirms, folding her hands in front of her. "We're operating on the belief this might be a copycat, the only problem is, most humans are well aware a Vampire or Were in their right mind wouldn't kill a Medium. So if they planned to try to make us look suspicious, it certainly isn't going to work."

"The news hit the media earlier this week, " Edelgard says, clearing her throat. "So far it's about what we expected, a lot of theorizing. I've been dealing with police and politicians answering questions. There are those who are suspicious, but the majority seems to just be confused."

"Then I don't see what the problem is, " Ollithar complains, slouched in his seat. "For all we know this is a fluke and some human killed another human and decided to be showy about it. The murders from a few years ago didn't hit mainstream media, after all, and some killers are very creative."

"What the problem is," Edelgard grits out, clearly annoyed at the interruption. "Is your goddamn building."

"Well it's not mine-" 

"Don't try and deflect," Edelgard snaps, cutting him off. "It might not be yours anymore, since I did take it over after you abandoned it, which, by the way, was rather odd. Why did you?"

All eyes turn to Ollithar, his expression one of mild indignation. "I see you're just as cutting as ever, Lady Hresvelg," he says, resting his hands atop the table. "But if you must know, it simply wasn't to my liking anymore. Vampires move house all the time, you left for Remire, after all, what's so wrong about me leaving that old building?"

"Well, I don't know, maybe that there were demons there?"

The silence that falls after is palpable and Byleth quickly begins to feel as though she's suffocating in it, standing tense and twitchy.

"Demons?" Ollithar says after a moment, incredulous. "I had nothing to do with any Demons, that must have happened after I left."

"Famine Demons don't just show up in empty buildings, Legrand. While it's possible the homeless could have taken up residence in the building before I took it over,  I found absolutely not evidence of anyone having been there." She sits forward, and Byleth can hear the leather of her gloves creaking. "I understand that Famine Demons often don't leave anything behind, eating everything including skeletons, they do still leave traces."

Ollithar looks uncomfortable, trying to play it off with a smug smile. "Well, you've answered your own question, haven you? A couple hobos get eaten, the rest of them scatter like startled ants and that's why you found no traces."

"Then why do you look so uncomfortable?" Byleth asks, so quiet she's almost not heard, but Ollithar's eyes flick to her; nearly black and angry.

"And who are you, girl? Are you Edelgard's new pet? You seem to have a new human every time I see you, Hresvelg."

Edelgard's shoulders twitch, tension straightening them and making the older woman tense. "Don't try to change the subject, Legrand." She's angry now, angrier then Byleth has ever heard her. "Byleth--" and she stresses her name in a way that makes Byleth feel like she belongs, "--Is a hunter who has been working with my Coven on another case. She just happened to end up being involved with this mess too. Now, do answer the question, why are you so uncomfortable?"
Byleth has to admit she's impressed, Edelgard doesn't let things go when she's after answers.

"We had an issue with one of the members in our coven," the woman with him says, and Byleth's skin crawls at the sound of her voice. "He was...doing experiments that Ollithar was unaware of, which...might have caused the Demons to be called to that space."

"And you didn't think to report it?" Edelgard spits through her teeth. "Do you know the kind of damage a Famine Demon can do-" and she pauses, her voice screwing off on a noise that sounds like a death rattle. "Of course you knew. You were the ones that tried to sell that building to those contractors weren't you? But instead I got it."

"Quite an active imagination, Hresvelg. But no, we didn't know the Demons had actually manifested, we thought we had stopped his experiments well before. We didn't think to warn you because we had Redmayne come in and make a sweep," Ollithar states, plainly, extending a hand to his companion. "After all, I've been working hand in hand with Redmayne for many years."

The woman beside him smiles, and Byleth hears a low, horrifying growl from the other end of the table, her eyes cutting to where Rhea sits; fangs bared, the sound rolling from deep within her chest. "You dare bring them to our table?" She hisses, fury rebounding off her and effecting the other members sitting at the table. "After all the trouble they've caused us, you dare bring one of them here?"

"Please, calm yourself Archbishop," the woman murmurs, an attempt to be soothing that falls decidedly flat in the face of Rhea's rage. "I assure you those in my company that have caused issues have been dealt with, I promise."

That's how they got the tape, Byleth thinks, staring across the table at the woman so primly seated there.  "You're the CEO of Redmayne," she says out loud, remembering now why she was so familiar. "You can't tell us you don't know anything about what happened in the Vantablack building, not when your people had footage from the camera the night those hunters were slaughtered."

By the Demons.

The woman's attention slides to her, an eerie calm settling across her features. "My, aren't you perceptive. It's true we continued to monitor the building after we had left it without alerting our compatriots, because we wanted to make sure nothing adverse had happened. Like Hresvelg was saying, Famine Demons out in the general populace would be dreadful. But they never left the space."

"Because people kept wandering into it," Corsica interjects, disgusted. "It's an abandoned building in the middle of a fucking city, every curious idiot or person desperate for a place to hide's gonna go there and then get fucking devoured. You assholes didn't bother to say anything because you didn't care, did you?"

"Isn't it better that a few people go missing compared to an entire city?" the woman asks, and Byleth can hear both Dimitri and Petra let out low noises of disgust matching the expression that twists across Corsica's face.

But she had a point.

Even though--

"You should have said something anyway," Byleth says, stepping up to the side of the table. "Hunters, Vampires and Weres could have gone in there ready to fight instead of just to be slaughtered."

"Like your brother?" The woman says, eyes fixated on her. "I knew I recognized you from somewhere, and your name too. Alyth's younger sister."

"How do you--" the rest of the question gets stuck in her throat, shock making her forget.

"I supplied him with information, it's a shame what happened to him, really. Edelgard you were there that night, weren't you?"

"What are you insinuating?" Edelgard seethes, acid dripping off each word.

"Let's be frank, while this all could be the work of Famine Demons...no one saw them but you, your second seat and those that died that night."

Edelgard's seat scrapes against the floor as she stands, nearly toppling it, hands slamming down against the surface of the table. "You don't know anything that happened in there, you don't know the terror Hubert and I felt as we fled from those things! How dare you attempt to shift the blame on me by implying I went feral!"

"Because you certainly looked as if you had on camera," the woman sates, and Byleth remembers the way the other woman had looked up at the camera. 

"Enough!" Rhea barks, silencing them all before Edelgard's retort can be given voice. "I see this isn't going to get us anywhere. But Ollithar, I'm not done with you or your friend."

"Oh of course not," Ollithar says, watching as Edelgard shoves away from the table and leaves the room. Byleth can see she looks a little sick, eyes widen and face paler than usual. "I'm sure you'll grill me for hours, It'll be a wonderful chat."

"The rest of you are dismissed," Rhea says, casting a glance at the rest of the table. "Go home, get some rest.  I'll be in touch."

Byleth files out with the rest of them, shaken, her mind churning through potential theories as she walks. She makes the drive home on autopilot, again wishing she had tried to go find wherever it was Edelgard had gone off to.

I've put this off long enough, she thinks as she gets out of her car and heads inside, the house quiet and dark. She doesn't bother turning on any of the lights as she makes her way upstairs and showers. I have to talk to her.

Tomorrow, she resolves.

I'll get the truth.

Chapter Text

The TV drones white noise, some news report playing light across the early morning gray of her room. She rolls over as she wakes up, reaching out to silence the incessant buzz of her phone, instead knocking it and the remote off her nightstand, swearing silently when both clatter to the floor. Her phone goes on buzzing, the noise burrowing into her skull and forcing her up, shivering in the chill that settles across bare skin like a shroud.

She finds the remote first, tossing it onto the bed, then leaning back down, fingers brushing across carpet and wood before finally her phone. She doesn't look at whose calling, hitting accept and lifting the phone to her ear, her voice still rough with sleep. "Hello?"

"Byleth." There's a sense of relief at the sound of Edelgard's voice filtering through the line, sounding just as tired as her for different reasons. Byleth had just woken up, Edelgard clearly hadn't been to sleep, and she's left resisting the urge to ask her a dozen unrelated questions.

"Edelgard," she says instead, sitting up properly. "What's up?" She pauses, dread suddenly twisting in her chest. "Are you okay?" Several more questions surface with the gnawing worry, fingers drumming against her knee.

"I'm fine," Edelgard replies, but the unsure way with which she says it leaves Byleth feeling hollowed out. "I'll be fine," she corrects a second later, breathing out a sigh that's all for show.

"What happened?" Byleth asks, turning her head away to cough and clear her throat, pushing away the last bits of sleep still clinging to her.

"It's nothing you need to concern yourself with-" Edelgard stops, pauses, a sound like a bitter laugh catching in the line between them. "I'm sorry, I'm not used to letting people...in." There's another pause, this one longer, dragging out until the cold Byleth feels has nothing to do with the temperature of her room.

"Hey," she whispers, curling herself up underneath her blankets, holding her phone closer like it would offer some kind of comfort to the other woman. "Edelgard, talk to me, please..."

("Do you trust her?"

"I...don't know.." 

But she wants to, hearing the tone of her voice, seeing the way she reacted. 

"I wanted to forget, Dima--")

"I understand now, what it is you wanted to ask me about. Why you pulled away from me. It's about your brother, isn't it? What happened with him, how I was involved..." And God she sounds so tired, so broken down and sad.

"I do, it's been something I've been trying to figure out for years. Him and my Mother, and the security footage Redmayne showed me--" She chokes on the rest of her words, pressing a hand to her face. "I saw you, but I've wanted to believe so bad that you didn't do anything wrong. That you were just there by chance..."

And now she's afraid, so afraid that Edelgard is going to tell her what the darker part of her mind has been whispering. That Redmayne was right, that Edelgard was the one who killed her brother. 

"I didn't kill him," Edelgard murmurs, a pained sound like static on the line as she hears the other shift. She's hurt. "I couldn't save him either, look, Byleth. I-" Silence, stretching, stretching until the proverbial band is ready to snap. "I don't want to tell you this story over the phone, you deserve more than this."

"Okay," she says, repeats. "Okay." And she's moving, shoving the blankets off and getting up. "Where?"

"I'll text you my address...later, though I need...I need some sleep."

It stops her, hand half in the drawer of her bureau, attention fixed on the line of underclothes to choose from. "When was the last time you slept?" she asks, low, whispered, worried. So, so worried.

"It was..before the meeting, I-look I'll be fine." 

"When was the last time you ate?" She asks next, pulling out her choice of outfit for the day one handed and mindless, desperately needing something to occupy her free hand.

"Byleth-"

"Edelgard."

For a moment she's wondered if Edelgard hung up on her, exasperated and tired and not in the mood to be coddled as well as scolded by a woman so many years her junior. But she hasn't, and Byleth hears the other woman sigh again, long and defeated. "Last night."

"But?"

"But nothing-"

"I'll give you blood later," she interrupts, balancing the phone between her ear and her shoulder as she gets dressed. "And don't, I can hear you trying to talk your way out of it already. Just...please."

Tap. Tap. Fingers on plastic, considering silence, a breath-- "Fine. I'll see you later?"

Byleth let's out the breath she didn't know she was holding, leaning her palm against the aged wood of her nightstand. "Absolutely." Her phone buzzes shortly after they end the call and she looks down at the screen, scanning the address; 114 Azure Way, Apartment 23.

The Azure Moon building. A team effort between Edelgard and Dimitri as she had found out, populated by nothing but Coven and Pack members of the Adrestia, somewhere safe. Or she hoped somewhere safe, given the attack of Black Eagle Lounge. But it was only once, only enough to warn them or gain their attention.

Or was it? Her mind returning to the pained sound Edelgard had let out, leaving her wondering what the Vampire hadn't told her. She'd see tonight, she thinks, shoving her phone in her pocket and taking a moment to look at herself and make sure her outfit matched.

(It does.)

There's a knock on the door as she's in the middle of making coffee, the coffeemaker merrily dripping away while Byleth freezes and turns. Her father hadn't forgotten his keys, Edelgard had promised to meet with her later, and anyone else who would have showed up would have called or texted or something to let her know to expect them. Not this, not the knocking she hears echoing again.

Sharp, professional, increasing in volume the longer she doesn't answer. 

Slowly she goes, step by step, unsheathing one of the many hunting knives they keep hidden around the house as a 'just in case.' It's comfortable in her grip, a reassuring weight she hides behind her back as she reaches for the knob and pulls the door open slightly. Just enough to see out, to see a whole lot of nothing. She blinks, squinting and edging the door open a little more, still seeing nothing but an empty walkway and her car in the driveway, leaves littering the lawn and the stone.

"The hell?" she mutters, checking the ground and the door for a package or a letter and still finding nothing. Not even a car on the street, no people, just breeze driven silence.

She shuts the door, sliding the lock home and making her way back into the kitchen to fetch her coffee.

She keeps the knife with her.

Nothing happens for the rest of the day, the silence in the house interrupted once by her father to update her on how his hunt has been going (successful) and a second time by her nearly dropping her laptop off the side of her desk, her swear rebounding off the walls, leaving her sitting there for several seconds afterwards, laptop held awkwardly in her hands and every sense in tune for an intruder.

Her searches all come up with dead ends, beyond a pattern of suspiciously similar articles. Everything about Redmayne was always positive, and the wording too similar; They were great, they did their job perfectly. I felt so safe with them, their security made it easy for me to relax during my party.

A bunch of red flags.

She digs into The Vantablack, into Ollithar and the Redmayne CEO whose name she's almost sure isn't her real one. It's also a whole lot of nothing, articles about things she's already seen before. The abandoned building, Ollithar's business practices--

Rumors.

But nothing concrete.

She shuts her laptop five hours later with a headache drilling in between her eyes and a sense of annoyance replacing her earlier dread. She pops two painkillers with another cup of coffee, eats something for dinner, then heads out of the house, pausing again to side eye the street and everything on it as she slowly pulls the door shut behind her.

The paranoia crawls up her spine as she jogs to her car, senses on high alert until she's behind the wheel with the door shut and locked, engine rumbling to life. She sits a moment, shuddering out the night chill before finally starting her drive.

The Azure Moon building is a monolithic thing, stretching high and imposing and speaking to Byleth of danger if anything ever went wrong. She doesn't think about how many people live here as she makes her way across the lobby, looking down at the massive double headed eagle painted into the floor. Gold on blue, stylistic and modernized. The single guard posted at the desk looks up as she crosses to her, tapping her fingers against the wood. "I'm here to see Edelgard? She's expecting me." 

For a moment the guard contemplates her, then holds up a single finger, reaching for the phone and making a call. Byleth waits, turning around to lean back against the desk and stare out at the lobby. It's quiet, and she can hear the low murmur of conversation from behind her as the guard talks to who she assumes to be Edelgard, voice a low, calm hum.

"Byleth?" 

She turns then, looking back at the guard who now watches her with a little less suspicion, an easy smile settling on her features. "Yea?" she asks, eyebrows raised.

"You can go on up. Floor 4."

"Thank you," she replies, nodding once and pushing off from the desk, steps quick as she makes her way over to the elevator, hitting the call button and waiting. It makes her anxious, shifting her weight from foot to foot while she watches the numbers count down, too slow, too fast. The door dings and she jumps, jerking her eyes down. It's empty, her mind whirring like she was expecting someone to be there, greeting dying on her tongue. She puts it out of her mind, stepping into the elevator and hitting the floor she needs.

The anxiety climbs with the elevator itself, eyes once again drawn to the numbers as they light up. The ride smooth; 1,2,3,4- 

She steps out into a quiet hall, radios, TVs and muted conversations echoing dully from various apartments as she passes them. She stops outside 23, staring up at the door in pensive silence, seconds ticking by again until she finally screws up the nerve to knock. She promised herself this, Edelgard told her she'd talk to her. She needed to know, absolutely...needed to know.

What happened to Alyth.

Edelgard answers the door a moment later, dressed down and favoring one side. Her hair falls free over her shoulders and she sports a loose shirt and a pair of lounge pants that makes her look so much more human. "Hello," she says, smile tight but still warm. "Come in." And she stands aside, leaning on the door she opens more to allow Byleth the room to pass by.

The apartment reminds her of Edelgard's office at the Lounge; sparsely decorated, clean and just as stylistic and modern as the rest of the building. It's like the other woman is used to losing things, so she never bothers getting them, like she's never had her own sense of identity, so she lives with whatever she finds comfortable. It's lived in, the space welcoming despite it's spartan edge.

"Make yourself comfortable," Edelgard calls from the hall, and Byleth turns to find her limping up behind her, hand cradling her side. "Oh don't give me that look," she scolds, moving by. "Every time you pout like that it makes me feel like I kicked your puppy or something."

"But-" she starts, trailing the older woman. "You got hurt and--"

"You weren't there to help me?" Edelgard finishes, waving a hand at the couch. "Nonsense, Byleth, you can't always be there. Besides, I'll be fine, Vampire healing and all that."

"I know I just-" she stops as she sits, wringing her hands. "I pushed you away and now this."

"I understand why you did," Edelgard states, a quiet offer for a drink Byleth accepts slipped between sentences. "You were worried that I had something to do with what happened to your brother and Redmayne did it's best to attempt to make sure you pushed me away entirely."

She watches as Edelgard slowly makes her way into the kitchen, voice echoing slightly once she slips out of her line of sight. "I'm fortunate you're not as easily manipulated as some people can be. I think the CEO realized you were too perceptive to be entirely fooled."

"I'm not sure if that's an insult or a compliment!" She calls, words hiding laughter. "So I'll take it as a compliment coming from you."

"I wasn't intending to insult you." Edelgard comes back in, brandishing two wine glasses, each half full. "I forget that my words sometimes come off like that, we had a different way of speaking back when I was alive...and as old as I am it's hard to shake habit." She holds one of the glasses out with a smile that makes warmth coil in Byleth's chest.

"It's okay, I get that Vampires sometimes forget all the social graces of modern times, or lack thereof." She accepts the glass, carefully taking it by the stem and cradling it. Drinking wasn't something she usually made a habit of, but the past times she has the context had called for it. She watches as Edelgard stiffly sits down across from her and swirls the wine in her glass, letting it breathe.

Byleth is less graceful about it, but nothing spills.

"So what happened, I mean, to your side."

Edelgard looks down at the offending, but hidden, injury, taking a slow sip from her glass. "Blade between the ribs," she says, leaning over slowly to put the glass down on the table between them. "They came up from behind us, and Ingrid didn't see them coming soon enough. There was a small scuffle, but both Ingrid and Hubert were able to pull them off before anything too serious happened."

"Was it Redmayne?"

"Likely, It was a greenhorn hunter that had probably taken the job out of desperation, I felt rather bad for them." Her eyes lower, expression somber. "We let them go, with a stern warning."

"Coming from Hubert I imagine it was more of a threat."

Edelgard laughs, then cringes, regret pinching at the corners of her mouth. "Laughing still hurts. But you're right, it was more of a threat."

They lapse into silence with Edelgard's words hanging in the air between them, Byleth busying herself with a sip of wine rather than with the question still itching at the back of her mind. It's sweet, she thinks, fruity without being cloying, and it goes down smooth. Something easily lost track of. "I need to know," she says finally, setting her own glass down. "I'm scared, but I need to know, what happened?"

She pauses, hesitates, looking up and holding Edelgard's eyes. "What happened to Alyth?"

It's like all the air gets sucked out of the room with the way the vampire's gaze shutters off, the natural stoicism of her features becoming colder, blank. A void that Byleth can't hope to begin to try and read. But neither of them look away.

"I didn't know it was him," Edelgard starts finally, all of the warmth from her voice gone. She looks haunted then, a woman reliving an event that traumatized her. "When I saw you that first time I knew I recognized you but I couldn't place why, and now I know." She breathes, and breaks the stare to close her eyes. "I was called in because someone broke in and set off the alarms, or at least that's what I thought. When Hubert and I arrived, the doors were shattered, the power was off and there was nothing else to indicate a break in. However-" 

Silence, pressed lips and wringing hands. 

"We found our security guard dead, ripped to pieces."

"By the Demons," Byleth ventures, remembering the conversation from the council meeting. "Famine Demons."

"I should be dead," Edelgard whispers. "Hubert and I both should be dead, Famine Demons never stop eating, never stop hunting. The fact that they just vanished the way they did doesn't make any sense. It's bothered me ever since that night, how and why we were so lucky."

Like they were being set up.

But how? Byleth asks herself in the silence between, absently chewing at her thumbnail, it was impossible to control demons. Unless...

"I tried to get to your brother and his hunter friends. It was my fault they were there, I texted them about the break in and since we had been dealing with that rash of murders I-"

"It's not your fault," Byleth interjects, shaking her head. "As hunters we make the choice to put ourselves in danger like that. They knew going in that they might encounter something nasty. I just don't think they were prepared to encounter a Demon. Even though all the killings had been demonic in nature."

Edelgard presses a hand to her forehead, sighing. "It was a mess, we were all unprepared. I should have known better, told them to prepare better. I wanted to think it was just some run of the mill criminal looking to make a quick buck or a teenager breaking in on a dare. Or it was those humans that wanted to buy the building in the first place hiring someone to make things a problem for me."

A million possibilities, with the worst possible one coming to pass.

"Always prepare for the worst," Byleth murmurs, reciting one of her father's rules.

"And we didn't, and for it six lives were ended. Torn to shreds and feasted upon."

People think of Vampires as blood hungry, salivating at the sight of carnage and the chance for a free drink like some kind of leech or vulture. But they're wrong, because right now Byleth sees nothing but someone haunted, someone deeply disturbed by whatever it was they saw.

The same thing she, herself, probably saw.

"Your brother called out to us after the Demons disappeared. I went to him, or what was left of him. I knew looking at him that there was nothing I could do to save him, but I-" Her words hitch, hand pressing to her face. "He just didn't want to be alone."

Her words and tone chip pieces off inside of her, breaking her down and making her ache all over again. That yawning void where her brother used to be suddenly persistent and invasive, a wound scarred over but now open and bleeding again. "You didn't even know him," she whispers, the words wrung out of her. "And you stayed by his side to make sure he wasn't alone while he died..."

That's why she was covered in blood when she left, why she looked so furious. She was hiding her pain through anger, hiding her fear through a determination to do something. 

"Edelgard," she says, gritting her teeth against the heat of tears that threaten to spill, forcing her voice through the knot doing it's best to lodge itself in her throat. "Thank you...for being there when I couldn't...for making sure that he had someone there in his last minutes."

It's a relief to know he didn't die alone and scared in some unknown place. It's a weight off her shoulders to know that Edelgard was everything she had hoped the other woman to be. She draws a breath, wet and shuddering, hands pressing to her face to try and force herself not to cry. But the tears come anyway, and she sits the way she is, trembling and struggling to muffle her sobs.

She feels more than hears Edelgard settle beside her, the other woman's hand cool on her shoulder, rubbing soothingly across her back. There's no murmured words of attempted comfort, but Byleth finds the other's mere presence so close beside her enough as she let's herself work through the whirlwind of emotions tearing her in every which direction. 

Renewed grief, relief, self loathing, anger, frustration. 

It leaves her unsure how much time as passed before she comes back to herself, digging the heels of her hands into her eyes and sighing. "I'm sorry I didn't-"

"Don't apologize," Edelgard cuts in, her presence disappearing from her side. She looks up in time to see her returning with a tissue box. "He was your brother, and clearly you were both very close."

"He was my best friend," she admits, taking the tissues and doing her best to wipe away her grief. "Sure we had our moments were we fought but...I could always count on him. So his loss hurt and not being able to remember half of what happened-" she clears her throat, taking a drink of wine to aid in it. "Everyone always just told me it was an accident."

And in a way it was, but it was also so much more than that.

Now there was only one more blank to fill. 

What she saw.

That, she knew, would come in time. 

Edelgard sits beside her again, dragging her attention outward from the chaos in her mind. "Edelgard, I have...another question...well more like two."

The other woman focuses on her, head tilted slightly and a questioning hum sounding low in her throat.

"Why are Mediums so important to Vampires?" She could answer any other question about them, what they did, how their abilities worked, what the dangers were of being one. But she had no idea why Vampires seemed to consider them so special.

"Because they can help us combat Demons, if they choose. Their abilities allow them to keep the creatures distracted while we move in for the kill. They're a great, yet rare, asset. Corsica used to be one before she was turned, helped us to deal with the War Demon we accidentally summoned during a coven war."

That answers that, and how Corsica seemed to be able to navigate and just know even with a lack of sight.

"Maybe my brother made the Famine Demons go away..." Byleth mutters, frowning. "Our mom was a Medium, but Alyth and I never believed we'd ever inherit her gift. But just maybe..."

"It's entirely possible," Edelgard agrees, leaning against the arm of the couch. "He unconsciously summoned up his gift and used it to somehow banish them temporarily."
Food for thought, she tells herself, filing it away.

"Last question, I promise," she starts, liking the way Edelgard's lips curve into the smallest hint of a smile. "What did you mean by 'going feral'?"

For a moment Edelgard considers her, eyes studying her face while she gathers her thoughts. And she's almost happy to see the way the expressions play across her face again, muted but present. 

"When vampires are pushed to the very limit, whether it be out of fear or injury, we go into a state of survival at any cost. It's similar to your flight or fight response, we just turn the dial all the way up to fight. We gain a huge boost to strength and speed, at the cost of leaving us vulnerable when we come down from the rush. Going feral means you kill everything attacking you or you die."

"So the CEO was implying you were so consumed by your own paranoia you snapped and killed my brother and the hunters yourself, thinking there was something else there. And that Hubert covered it up afterwards."

Edelgard nods once, frowning. "I almost did, having that thing chasing me made me think I was going to have no choice but to turn around and fight with everything I had and hope I won."

Not good odds.

"Thank you, for telling me all this. For being so open with me."

"You deserved to know," Edelgard replies, leaning closer. "All of it. Had I known I would have told you sooner instead of dancing around the topic and stressing myself out."

She laughs, laughs and covers her mouth, turning away. She's not sure what it was that struck her, the look, the smile, the tone of the other woman's voice. It's funny and touching and she realizes then that there's more to her feelings about Edelgard, something else she's been doing her best to shove down and ignore.

It's Vampire charm, she told herself the first time they met and locked eyes, it's natural to be drawn to them, attracted to them. But this, this is something so much more than that, deeper and blossoming the longer they spend together, the more they get to know one another.

She hesitates to put a name to it.

"Speaking of stressing yourself out," she says after she gets her laughter under control again, nearly losing herself in the amused warmth of Edelgard's expression. "I bet you're hungry."

The Vampire snorts a laugh that doesn't look like it hurts, eyes sliding to her forgotten wine. "I am, what little blood I added to my wine wasn't enough. It was just a snack to tide me over since someone --" and those eyes flick back to her, alight with mirth, "--insisted they had to feed me."

"Because you're always so damn busy I have to wonder when you feed, or who you're feeding off of. So I figured if it was me I'd know that you-what, why are you looking at me like that?"

Puzzled, confused, surprised. Edelgard's lips part, eyes once again searching her face. "What you're implying, it sounds like you're offering to be my exclusive donor."

Byleth tilts her head, blinking. "Well, yea, I-" might have feelings for you "-want to. Only to you, being a hunter I was always told not to feed the mark but you're...not the mark anymore, you're...an ally, hell right now you might as well end up being my partner for real. Since my father is off on another hunt."

Partner, exclusive donor. It's all very intimate suddenly, and at another point it might have all been too much. Instead they toe a line now, gently dancing around one another while they attempt to figure out what path to take. Entwined, fluid, almost able to predict one another but not quite.

They fit.

"Very well then," Edelgard murmurs, sliding closer until they're almost touching. "I will only feed off of you when it comes to in person donors."

Your Vampire, her father's remark comes back to her as she slides her coat out of the way and pulls the collar of her shirt down, exposing the line of her neck to the other woman. More like I'm her human, she thinks, tipping her chin up as Edelgard leans in, biting the inside of her lip as familiar fingers wrap cool around the back of her neck.

There's no hesitation this time, no moment to think about it before Edelgard sinks her fangs into her jugular, the pain flicker quick and then gone again. This time she buries her fingers in the other's hair, letting the soft strands slide between them as she curls her palm around the back of her head. She rides it out without over-thinking herself into paranoia, without the fear that maybe Edelgard might drain her dry.

Because they're no longer strangers.

Edelgard pulls back slow, the swipe of her tongue across the marks more lingering then the first time. And she stays close, when Byleth doesn't let her go much further, hand sliding from the back of her head to the back of her neck. There's still so much she wants to ask the other woman, wants to learn her story, her history, what made her tick. But she also just-

"I really want to kiss you," she mumbles, then immediately regrets it, watching as Edelgard's cheeks color with the blood she'd consumed. Her blood.

"Then kiss me," Edelgard replies, leaning closer until all Byleth has to do is tip her head.

So she does, eyes slipping closed as their lips meet. It's chaste, gentle, a press and slide that sparks warmth in her chest and let's her know her earlier feeling wasn't just a fluke. She wants to hold onto it, to harbor it and let it grow, but she also knows they have a threat looming over their heads.

That this moment of peace would stretch and break just like before.

"Stay the night," Edelgard whispers between kisses, making Byleth realize it's probably late enough to warrant the other woman making that comment. 

She breathes a laugh as she draws back slightly, resting their foreheads together. Edelgard is warm, alive. "At least take me to dinner first."

"Oh?" The other woman hums, eyebrow raising. "Is that how I seduce you? With food?"

"Yea. You've already got everything else leaning in your favor. Besides, you're still hurt."

"Yes, you're correct, I shouldn't do anything too strenuous right now."

But it doesn't stop Byleth from kissing her again, a little deeper, with a little more feeling, a gentle tease of tongues between parted lips. Soft sighs and fingers tracing the lines of cheeks and jaws.

They stay tangled for the rest of the night, curled around one another on the couch and talking about anything and everything. Shared interests, books, hobbies, what Byleth studied back at the university. She wants to hold on to it forever, this quiet intimacy and she does as she drifts off finally hours later, head against Edelgard's shoulder.

The sound her phone, once again, is what wakes her. The incessant buzzing pulling her up from her comfortable drift and forcing her away from the warmth of Edelgard's side. She blinks as she works the stiffness out of her neck, rummaging through her coat pocket.

"Hello?" She whispers as she gets up, carefully slipping off the couch even with the awareness of Edelgard pretty much being 'dead' for however long. 

"Kid, where are you? You never came home last night."

Ah. She forgot to tell him. "I'm fine, dad, I stayed the night with Edelgard." She told me what you wouldn't. The thought isn't bitter, because she understands now why he didn't.

What it was he was trying to spare her from. "I'll head home now, just let me leave her a note or something."

He sighs out in relief, and she can hear him shuffling things around in the background. "You didn't get up to anything bad did you?"

Her cheeks heat, embarrassment rising as an ugly coil in her chest. "Dad!" she hisses, covering her face with her hand. "Ohmygod, no okay, no." Because she was totally not going to tell her father she made out with Edelgard, at all.

Ever. That was none of his business.

"Alright alright," he says, laughing. "I'll see you back at home, I finished with the other hunt, so I'm ready to play catch up about what's been going on here."

"Alright, I'll fill you in when I get back. Bye." She clicks off at his reply, shoving the phone back in her pocket and looking around for something to write on. She settles on leaving the other woman a text, pausing to watch her sleep for a few seconds. Edelgard looks so peaceful like this, head leaned back against the couch cushion, expression smoothed out.

But Byleth can't sit here and wait until she wakes up for the day. So she leaves, slipping out the door and shutting it behind her quietly. 

The ride down to the lobby isn't as stressful as it was coming up, shoulders lax, tension gone. She's happy, even, content. The weight finally gone, but she feels like there's something still wrong. Some instinct that rattles around in the base of her spine as she makes her way across the empty lobby.

No security guard, no residents. 

It puts her on edge, makes her quicken her step as she heads out of the building and down into the parking lot. Part of her wants to believe it's just early, that the guard had stepped out and everyone living in the building had left for work early or hadn't gotten up yet. 

She doesn't reach her car, a hand closing around her mouth from behind and yanking her off balance. Adrenaline spikes and she struggles, nails digging at skin and a heel lashing out at an instep, but there's more of them then there are of her, and she hears the hiss-pop of a taser seconds before it's buried in her side.

She seizes, muscles slipping out of her control as the current rips through her and drops her, head spinning, body twitching. Her vision swims, and she can't make out the shadows looming over her.

"Our boss would like a word."

The world goes dark.

Chapter Text

She shudders awake on an inhale, blinking into the darkness of her surroundings, memories coming back to her as instinctual panic wells low in her gut. She breathes by it, swallowing down the metallic tang of anxiety and nausea, waiting while the rest of her body comes back to life. Everything hurts, nerves still tingling and humming with the reminder of the taser's shock. Slowly, so slowly, she moves, lifting her head, shifting her hands -

Clank!

Byleth stiffens with the sound and the resistance, wiggling her fingers until she finds the chain that links the cuffs together, holding her. "Fuck," she whispers, shifting and finding her feet similarly bound. The chair she sits in isn't entirely uncomfortable, she thinks, cushioned well enough that while she'd be stiff she wouldn't be in actual pain.

"Okay," she says after another second, straightening, breathing more to quell the second wash of anxiety.

"Well this sucks," she drawls, looking around as her eyes adjust. "I guess I shouldn't have left..." So there's that regret, and the awareness that both her father and Edelgard were going to lose it. She could only hope her father didn't take it out on Edelgard, didn't blame her for anything when it wasn't her fault.

"Speaking of that," she says a little louder, gritting her teeth. "Anyone wanna tell me where the fuck I am?! And more to the point, what the fuck do you want with me?!" She gets nothing but the echo of her own voice rebounding off the walls in answer.

The silence makes it worse.

"What kind of sick joke is this," she whispers, testing the give of the cuffs holding her. "Kidnapping someone and then leaving them alone in a dark room. I didn't sign up for a fucking horror movie." She talks to quell the panic that she can't quite shake, every instinct on fire and keeping her alert and suspended in a limbo of fight or flight. Adrenaline sings in her blood with nowhere to go, leaving her shaking, heart racing, a cold sweat prickling across her skin.

"Come on!" she shouts, hating how high and thready her voice sounds. "I know someone is here! Stop fucking around, this isn't funny!" Again the echo of her own voice fading, fading, plunging her back into the complete silence she wants so desperately to stop. But she won't beg, she thinks, she won't cry, won't submit to the panic attack rallying in the back of her mind.

"Okay," she mutters, leaning forward and forcing herself not to hyperventilate. "Deep breaths, Eisner. Freaking out isn't going to save you, you gotta think." She closes her eyes, shuts out the darkness and the silence and focuses inward on her own pounding heart and the terror threatening to grip her still. "You can get out of this," she says, huffing out a sigh. "You've gotten out of worse."

"That's right, you have."

Her eyes snap open and she's momentarily blinded by the flood of sunlight, the familiar surroundings from her not quite a dream from a few days ago fading into view around her. 

Sothis sits on the porch outside, back turned to her. "It's about time you finally figured out how to make this connection," she says, looking over her shoulder with a wicked grin. "Too bad you're in the situation you are, though." Sothis extends a hand slightly, patting the wood beside her.

"Come sit down, child. I'll keep you company until your kidnappers decide to arrive."

Byleth goes.

------

Something rings incessantly, shredding in to her waking haze and digging piercing claws into her skull. It blossoms into a headache that throbs dully as her eyes open and her body comes back to life. A slow draw of air she doesn't need, eyes narrowing against the light that floods in from the living room window. She's alone, the space Byleth once occupied empty with no sign of the other woman anywhere in the apartment. She thinks, at first, that maybe the hunter had gone home.

She thinks, at first, that everything is fine.

Until her phone starts to ring again, and she goes for it, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and clearing her throat. She sees a text from Byleth sitting below the caller ID: Unknown. 12 Missed Calls.

All from the same number. She frowns, worrying the back of a fang with the tip of her tongue before she answers it. "Hello?" She still sounds half awake, still nurses the dull throb of her skull and the awareness of the way her body still seems to drag her down even as she moves with little issue.

"It's about time you picked up," Jeralt grinds out without preamble, and the tone of his voice raises her hackles as well as puts her on edge. "Is Byleth still there with you? she was supposed to come home."

Anger abates in the face of the worry that flares immediately up, and it gets her moving faster, her version of adrenaline knocking the cobwebs out of her limbs. "No, I thought she had gone home," she says, weaving through the rooms of her apartment and getting dressed in something more fitting to be outside in. "But since you're calling me, It means she never made it." And it's not hard to come to that conclusion, but it means.

It means something has gone very wrong.

Or. "You tried calling her?"

Maybe she got distracted, sidetracked-

"Yea," he says, gruff, short. "I did, went right to voicemail every single time. Look I have a feeling something happened to her, Hresvelg, and you're the last one who saw her."

The annoyance trickles back, lips drawing back from her teeth on a growl she doesn't let build. "I certainly hope you're not implying what I think you are."

"No. I'm just--If there's any clues as to what happened, you're gonna be the first one to spot them. I'll be over soon, because like it or not you and I are going to be attatched at the hip until we find my daughter."

He hangs up and she glares down at her phone with a warring sense of irritation and panic fighting for dominance. She dismisses the call and reads the text Byleth left her; Heading home, sorry I didn't try and hang around until you woke up, my dad wanted to talk about something.

Thanks for last night.

The phone goes in her pocket as she leaves her apartment, locking it and yanking her duster coat on while she makes her way down the hallway to the stairs. The elevator would take too long, and she has a desperate desire to stay in motion, knowing that if she stopped now she'd break down. She needs answers, and the only way to find them is to go, to look, to start wherever it is she possibly could.

There's a different security guard at the desk, the sight of him making her pause, frowning. "What happened to the new hire?" she asks him, recognizing his face almost immediately. He looks up, shrugging.

"Dunnu, didn't show up for work today."

"Ashe," she says, careful, slow. Waiting until he looks up from his work again with a thoughtful hum. "I want you to look into that new hire, find out what's going on, alright?" 

"Sure, I can do that." 

"Thank you." 

She's out the door before he can ask 'why.'

There's no attention paid to the street or the people on it, tuning out the traffic and the morning rush. She hardly notices when Hubert and Ingrid appear at her sides, both of them clearly summoned by the spike of her anger. She wants them here, needs them, knows that no matter how much she may end up wanting to tear something apart she couldn't do it alone. 

"Byleth's car is still in the parking lot," Ingrid says quietly, directing her attention with a gesture. "I found her keys and her phone."

Edelgard's gaze casts out to the parking lot, zeroing in on the familiar Challenger still sitting in it's guest space. "Your opinion?" she asks, looking back at them both. They exchange a glance, a frown, both worried. "Well?" It's sharper then she intends it, word bitten out between fangs that ache for the flesh of the people that did this. 

"The phone was cracked," Hubert says, slow. "Not from being dropped, the pattern suggests the hunter likely fell upon it. My opinion is that she was taken by force. There's no blood and none of the cars took any damage, suggesting she was ambushed and not given a chance to fight back." Because everyone knew attacking a Hunter usually ended in blood being spilled.

She thinks back to the meeting, to the CEO's interest in Byleth and bares her teeth, growling low and furious. "I have a feeling I know by who. Call everyone in, I want them at the Lounge in an hour. Ingrid, stay with me."

"Yes, Lady Edelgard," they say in unison, Hubert turning and hurrying away while Ingrid remains. They wait, Edelgard with her arms crossed and Ingrid with her hands laced behind her back, both watching everything that goes on around them. 

"What are we waiting for?" Ingrid asks after a few minutes of silence between them rolls by, the other's eyes flicking to her. 

"Jeralt," she replies, sniffing. "He told me we're going to be 'attached at the hip' until we find Byleth."

"Great," Ingrid mumbles, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "That's going to make it hard for us."

"I think you underestimate how angry he is. Remember, Byleth is the last blood family he has." She looks at the other woman as she speaks, the realization slowly filtering into the green of Ingrid's eyes.

"That's right," she breathes, frowning. "Shit, I can't believe I forgot that."

"We all wanted to forget, Ingrid. All of us."

The silence returns.

-----

She's running, stumbling, tripping, cold air cutting her throat and her lungs as she gasps for breath and pushes her body faster. The hallways feel endless, stained in emergency red from alarm lights frozen mid rotation. It's a maze and she has no way of navigating it, no map, just a blind run. Hands hitting walls and feet tangling in construction equipment. She falls once, the wind punched out of her lungs as she slams hard into the floor and lays there, stunned.

Gasping, choking on the very air she needs to survive. "Alyth," she rasps, shoving herself up to unsteady feet. "I have to-" she's slower now, jogging, weaving like a drunkard while her body tries to work past the shock of her fall. 

"Coming to the Vantablack building might have been a mistake, there's something here...stalking us. I don't know where the Vampires are, but they're in just as much danger.

Byleth I'm--oh god what the fuck is that--?!"

The line went dead and it had urged Byleth here, urged her out of bed and out of the safety of their home. Urged her to make the drive at a not so law abiding speed at an hour early enough not many people were on the road. Urged her straight into danger with the sudden, all consuming need to help a brother she wonders is even still alive. Was she too late? Was she about to charge right into the arms of whatever killed him?

She had asked herself these things as she ran into the building and into the maze of hallways, asks herself again as she practically falls her way up the steps, twisting her ankle and hissing as pain sparks through it even as she keeps running on it.

The scent of sulfur hits her nose once she reaches the top of the stairs, overpowering, invading her lungs and her throat until she coughs. It's like ash on her tongue and she swallows it as she stumbles closer, terror seizing in her lungs like a vice, squeezing and squeezing until she can hardly breathe more than a slight hiccuping hitch that aches all the way down to her bones.

Her mind refuses to process the room once she reaches it, red and black and things that might be people. The conscious part of her digs itself away, puts itself behind a dozen barriers that makes the world around her drain to a pinpoint of adrenaline and the animalistic need to run, run, run. To get away, to not try and make sense of what it is she's seeing.

But she doesn't listen, and her first step splashes, drawing her eyes down to the pool of red that stretches out. Blood. So much blood. And it's everywhere, stretching up the walls and onto the ceiling, even the window at the back of the room is unscathed, a streak of red across the center of it.

The bodies filter in next, the stink of fresh death burning in the back of her throat and her nose and making her ill. She doesn't recognize anyone at first, just pieces of hunters caught by surprise by an enemy more powerful then they are. Figures twisted in shadow, wide eyes and horrified faces.

She registers Alyth last, the sight of him, blood covered and gouged open, face an unrecognizable mess. She collapses, stomach heaving, bile burning up the back of her throat and spilling onto the floor between her hands. Tears prick at the corners of her eyes and scorch down her cheeks as her stomach empties itself, leaving her gasping and sobbing and shaking. It takes her a minute to move, and it's an agonizing pace, pushing herself up to her feet.

Step by step by step--

Until she collapses at Alyth's side, touching his cheek, his hair. "Alyth," she mumbles and she knows he's dead, knows that there's no way anyone could survive the kinds of wounds he has. Cut open from the ribs down, a leg and an arm gone, eyes gouged out of his skull from a downward swipe of a claw. But she still shakes him, still begs him between shuddering sobs. 'Wake up, wake up, please don't leave me all alone-you promised--you promised you wouldn't ever leave-'

But she knows better, even as she cradles his body and sobs into his shoulder, rocking back and forth even as blood seeps cold into her jeans and her turtleneck and her jean jacket. She doesn't even care that she's going to be a disaster going home, that if someone sees her covered the way she is they'll think she did it--

Something catches her attention, makes her breath stop and her blood grow cold in her veins. Power prickles across her spine and pings every single cell in her body, jamming the dial hard to the flight side of her fight or flight response. She hears it coming, steps wet and clicking, breathing a horrifying rusted hinge screech. It pins her to the spot, makes her hunch over to blend in with the pile of bodies already on the floor, eyes fixated on the door.

Because it's coming from the direction she needs to run, because it's too close for her to make the dash out and try and get by it. It because no human makes that sound, it because the emaciated, twisted figure that twitches it's way into her line of sight is anything but human. Demon, something in the back of her mind screams, don't move, play dead. Wait. 

Wait.

And she does, watching, body still, breath barely leaving her despite the hammering of her heart and the blood pounding in her ears. The creature bends unnaturally, spindly limbs and spine twisting as it wobbles it's way into the room proper and off to one side, collapsing over one of the bodies and starting to eat. 

Gorging. Flesh tearing and bones snapping underneath unnaturally sharp teeth. And she can only watch, frozen in terror while it eats. Flesh and bone and cloth all disappearing into it's mouth. Then it moves on, crawling to the next body, a little further away from the door. A little too close to her.

If she didn't move she'd be consumed too.

Wait.

She waits until the creature has shoved its face into the stomach of another one of the dead hunters, then she goes, inch by inch, practically crawling across the floor to make as little noise as possible. And she keeps the sight of it in her peripheral as she goes, freezing every time it lifts it's head, tensing and getting ready to run for her life every time it snuffs or looks anywhere vaguely in her direction. It's agonizing, mere feet feeling like a mile as she goes. 

And she can hear a second one coming, ears picking up the faint sound of it's breathing as it stumbles along from wherever it had hidden itself. The other direction, and she prays, prays to whatever fucking God might listen that she can get out before it comes, that she can get out before the other thing notices her.

You'll be fine, just keep moving.

She rises to a crouch as she nears the door, fingertips dragging through the blood as she inches her way the last few steps. Her hand closes around the door-frame, and she slips out out of the room, rising shakily to her feet, blood on fire with adrenaline. She goes, slow and first, creeping through the caustic red shadows of the lights, breath still a hyperventilating hiccup that saws through her lungs and chest--

Something screams from behind her and she runs, shocked into a sprint that sends her barreling down the steps and back the way she came faster than she's ever moved before.

------

Byleth jerks awake to the same darkness as before, fear and adrenaline still tingling in the tips of her fingers, sweat cooling on her skin. She's alone again, the warmth and the light of Sothis' presence, their shared world, gone save the echo of her words.

"You want to remember don't you? I'll help you."

She breathes, in, holds, out, holds.

"So, you're awake."

Stills. Eyes lifting slow to look out from under the fringe of her bangs.

Not alone, then.

"You're the Redmayne CEO," she says, recalling the other woman from the meeting. As prim and proper as ever, black hair in a perfect bun, not an article of her suit out of place or dusty despite their surroundings. A basement, she thinks, eyes having finally fully adjusted. Storage. The old school desks scattering the space enough of a hint.

Where.

How long.

"What do you want?" she asks a second later, fixating on the shadowed angles of the other woman's features, meeting the ice blue of her eyes. "I think you've kept me waiting long enough by now."

"I want your help."

"Not gonna happen," she spits, shaking her head. "I don't help people who kidnap me."

The other woman sighs, tilting her head to stare off at the empty space beside them. "I didn't intend for this to occur the way it did, Byleth--" and she stiffens at the sound of her name coming from her, a kind of chill not influenced by the drying sweat on her skin or the air around them sinking into her bones, "--I just couldn't have you struggling and creating a scene."

"Then you should have gone about it differently," she rebukes, scowling. "Or do you not know how to extend a proper goddamn invitation?"

There's a flash of something like anger, the other's eyes pinning her to her spot as she turns her attention back. "You would do well to listen to what I have to say, hunter. Your choice will dictate whether or not Master Hresvelg survives the month."

Edelgard--

Byleth's eyes narrow. "It was you assholes who put the hit on her in the first place, why the sudden charity?"

The CEO's smile is malicious, a snake unafraid to face down the mongoose stuck in a bear trap. "Because you're in play."

"Me? what's this-" the thought strikes her as soon as she starts to speak, eyes widening. "It's because I'm the daughter of a Medium isn't it? That woman we found the other day, that was you wasn't it. Those 'experiments' from back then, that wasn't some random vampire was it. It was you."

All of it was you.

"Now let's not be hasty, you don't know the full story."

Byleth scoffs, then laughs. "I don't, but I bet you're going to tell me. Since I'm currently your captive audience."

The CEO uncoils, rising to her full height and crossing the distance still between them. 

"I've been attempting to call forth the Hegemon War Demon and seal it in a place where it can be used without harming anyone. Unfortunately, as I found out, Sothis hid it away inside of a vessel already."

"Out of your reach," Byleth finishes, bitter. 

"Inside Edelgard."

"What?"

------

Jeralt shows up later than she expects him, and she's glad she gave everyone the hour she did. The words exchanged between them are few, Ingrid handing him over Byleth's keys and cracked phone without any. And they arrive at the Lounge with little fanfare, the back office filled with everyone Hubert had called.

Edelgard takes up position at her desk, slipping into her seat and gesturing for the door to be closed so as to not disturb their patrons. "Hubert has likely filled you in about why we're all here, yes?" Everyone nods, faces all set in grim lines, all determined.

"Then I'll get directly to the point," she says, sitting forward and folding her hands across the desk. "We're going to storm Redmayne. I've grown tired of playing their little games and I want answers no matter the cost."

"This will be seen as an act of war, you know," Ferdinand says, shifting from his spot beside Hubert. "It's probably exactly what they want."

"I know," she replies, curt. "They've been trying to start a war with us for years."

"Then why does it have to be us who finally makes the first big move?" He questions. "I know your hunter friend was kidnapped but how do you know it was by them?"

"Because Redmayne's CEO was awfully interested in her at the meeting," Corsica pipes up from behind them all, leisurely wandering through the door with a man Edelgard and Dimitri both recognize. "She didn't make it real obvious, sure, but it was enough I picked up on it. Redmayne has been our problem child for a while, no matter how long they got quiet after Mikhail's death, all of us knew they'd be back."

"We," the man says, leaning against the wall by the door. "Just didn't have any idea how, until now."

"Claude," Dimitri grunts from beside her desk, arms crossing over his chest. "We've all been wondering when you'd show up."

"Well, now you know." He flicks a wave, grinning slightly. "Because if you're going to raid Redmayne, you need a plan. And as everyone here knows, I'm very good at plans."

Edelgard nods, gesturing him over and sitting back.

They get to work.

-----------

"Inside Edelgard?" Byleth sputters, repeats, refusing to process just what was said. "A Demon?"

"Where do you think Master Vampires get their powers?" The CEO asks, fingers splaying up from where she has them set against her bicep. "They consume the blood of demons. They are, after all, the only ones that can safely drink it without going mad."

She does the math in her mind, churning through all her knowledge of vampires and demons, of what Edelgard told her. Drinking a Vampire's blood gives humans great power. We were hunted because of it.

"Wait but, don't all vampires have some kind of power?"

"They do, but the powers that Master Vampires hold are from the Demons they choose drink from. Ollithar and his Cryogenesis, Edelgard and her Pyrokenesis, Corsica and her Telekenesis. Rhea, well. Rhea is another beast all together, being the direct creation of Sothis." She sniffs, smiling. "Sothis brought Vampires to this Earth to combat the Demon threat rampaging across Fódlan. She created the first Vampires, the Nabateans and sent them out to aid humanity in pushing back the darkness."

Byleth shifts, ignoring the stiffness in her back and her arms. "And the Nabateans drank from the various Demon lords to inherit their 'extra' power," she guesses, raising an eyebrow.

"That's right. But because of it humanity wanted that power too, and realizing they could consume the blood of Vampires safely...well. The Nabateans were almost entirely wiped out. Until a certain Hresvelg scion was rescued from her plight and allowed to take the throne that belonged to her. She sheltered them, and in turn they aided her. But that's another story, the point is when Edelgard was turned, it wasn't done using the normal methods."

It's a lot, she thinks, watching the other woman. All these secrets that Vampires hold behind the scenes. 

"She's right, though."

And she's on the porch again, sitting beside Sothis, her eyes sliding to the side of the elder vampire's face. She looks sad, worried. "When I raised Edelgard again I couldn't do it by draining her and having her drink from me, she was too close to death. So In a desperate attempt to help the woman who had kept me and my children safe for so long, I used the flesh and blood of the Hegemon Demon as well as my own blood to raise her again. I used my magic to seal it away inside of her so she could access it's power without it taking control...but..."

"But?"

"Redmayne has been trying to push Edelgard into losing control. The attacks on the Gala guests didn't work, the demons in the Vantablack building didn't work, the attacks on her life didn't work. So now they've turned to you, because they know that absolute fool will come charging in to save you."

Don't let them know.

She blinks back in the middle of a sentence she doesn't hear, the CEO's eyes lowering back to her face. Don't let her know what you know.

"Let me get this straight, you want the Hegemon Demon from Edelgard so you can use it for it's power. But to do that you need her blood, so you've been trying to kill her in the hopes that you can get a hold of her body, right? You've been doing a pretty shit job at it."

Get her to admit it.

"Ollithar and I made the mistake of leaving it up to other people in the company. Now that we've taken a more...active role behind the scenes, well." Her hand extends, fingers flicking in Byleth's direction. "We have you. Which brings us to your choice. With your help, assuming you can access the full range of your abilities as a Medium, I can potentially extract the Hegemon Demon from Edelgard without killing her. Or, you can refuse and...well, she'll definitely die."

"Oh go fuck yourself."

She wasn't at all about to help them try and get a war demon from where it was sealed inside of a woman strong enough to hold it back. 

That was why Edelgard sounded so tired.

Why would they want a sealed Demon in the first place?

"To control the others."

--------

"We'll go in after dark. There'll still be people in the building, but there won't be a bunch of people out on the streets. So we'll be less likely to be seen, and it'll be hard for Redmayne to pin the blame on us publicly if we sabotage their security too. 

Leave that to me. As for the rest, well, El. I think you, Dima and the others can handle that."

It's an agonizing wait until the city activity dies down to as silent as Remire ever gets, to wait until people are gone from the bars and the streets are empty but for a select daring few who are still out wandering. It's agonizing, but they do it, all spread out and waiting, chattering quietly over radios. More plans, plans of what to do if they don't find anything.

"We can hit Club Shambala if all else fails," Claude says at one point and the grin is evident in his voice. "I heard Ollithar runs it and if he's really working with Redmayne welllll."

"It's not an 'if' at this point, Claude," Corsica says. "He showed up with the CEO to the meeting, said a lot of 'we' shit. They're working together."

"So we hit Shambala, then," Dimitri cuts in. "After this. Because I'm certain there's much to find here."
Edelgard shifts in her seat, glancing at Jeralt sitting beside her in the driver's seat. His eyes are still on the building, fingers tapping against the steering wheel. Waiting, Waiting.

"Are you done yet, Claude?" Ferdinand asks a moment later, voicing all of their thoughts at once. "Some of us are getting bored."

"Lady Edelgard," Hubert interjects into the middle of it all. "Are you certain you're healed enough to do this?"

She sits forward, finger depressing the button on the radio to speak. "I'm fine, Hubert. The wound is all but gone."

"To answer your question, Ferdinand," Claude says as soon as she's done talking. "Yes, I'm done. The cameras are scrambled, and now that we know our esteemed leader is fine, everyone can join me. I took out the security guards so you don't have to worry."

Edelgard bites back her retort, shoving open the car door and getting out instead. Jeralt follows, slinking up the steps and into the building. "Claude never fails to surprise me at how quickly he makes work of security systems," Jeralt says as they enter the lobby and wait while the other's filter in.

A team small enough to not attract a ton of attention, but large enough to take down a potential demonic threat. "We split up," she says, once they're (almost) all there. "Corsica meet up with Claude in the security room, see if there's any footage that might point us to where Byleth is or what the hell Redmayne is up to. Ferdinand and Hubert, I want you two to dig into the documents, whatever you can find. Dimitri, Jeralt and I are going upstairs to the CEO's office. Keep in touch."

They break as soon as they head through the doorway leading deeper into the building, Jeralt and Dimitri automatically taking up positions to protect her should anything happen. Not that she needed it. Not when Aymr burns to life in her hand, flame licking up from her fingers as the axe forms in full, dripping molten and hungry for blood. They hit resistance as they reach the next floor, a team of five, well armed, body armored.

Expecting something.

She doesn't wait as Dimitri's lion springs forth from his skin, doesn't wait as Jeralt draws his gun. She's a blur cast in flame, axe bearing down on the nearest unsuspecting guard and cleaving him in two. The smell of burnt flesh hits her nose as she reaches for the second, blood bursting between her fingers as skin gives way as she tears his throat out, twitching away from the spray of it hitting her face. Dimitri takes out the third, roaring moments before teeth tear through flesh, paws and weight bringing down the helplessly thrashing guard. 

All hell breaks loose with it, 

Guns go off, another security team comes to the aid of the first now dead and bleeding all over the floor. Flame springs to life at her fingertips again and she slings it down the hall at the oncoming guards, charging after it with Aymr bared. The flame catches and sparks at her silent command, bursting out into a blossoming wall that eats along the floor and wall and any guard a spark springs to. They burn, screams cut short by Aymr's blade as she comes through like a whirlwind, one after another falling.

She stills in the center of it, flame licking at her boots like the fingers of a lover, Dimitri and Jeralt waiting silently on the other side of the wall. They're both as covered in blood as she is, and she sees the bodies behind her, the ones she missed and was able to trust the men with her to handle. The flame goes out like a candle extinguished, smoke coiling in the air around her as she makes her way off down the hallway, Dimitri padding along behind her.

Jeralt takes another moment to catch up.

"So that's what all the leather and body armor is for," he says when he does, taking in the outfit she wears. Leather pants and armored boots, fastened leather coat molded tight to the body and the light armor fit perfectly to her chest and back. Leather gloves and the armor that climbs from her fingers to her shoulders. Light, flexible but impossibly strong.

"Vampire tech," she says, shoving through a set of double doors. "But that is what it's for."

"Hunters need some of that," he replies, drawing her attention.

"Perhaps we can negotiate with you," she says, pushing her ponytail back over her shoulder. "Later." Aymr disappears with the part of her fingers, sparks flickering and dying as the axe melts away until she calls it again.

"Sure," Jeralt says, stepping a head of her. "Nice to finally see what you're capable of first hand, instead of just hearing about it." He glances at her as they walk, and she meets his eyes, raising an eyebrow. "Glad you're on our side."

She smiles. Dimitri rumbles a low growl from beside her.

It's Jeralt that goes through the office doors first, and while they were expecting nothing, they're surprised instead by the sight of a man at the desk. Watching them as they come in, eyes falling from Jeralt, to her, to Dimitri.

"I assume you made a mess of my building on your way here," he says, leaning his hands on his desk. "I wish you hadn't."

"This isn't your building," Edelgard rebukes as she crosses the office, anger blistering underneath her skin. "But since it seems like you expected us, you know damn well why we're here 'making a mess of your building.' " She doesn't know who he is, doesn't care beyond if he has the information she wants or not. 

"You're looking for information, I know. And I assure you you won't be finding much of anything. What I can assure you of is, that you've fanned the flames of --" 

Her hands find his collar, viciously hauling him from his seat and over the heavy oaken desk. "My brother is still hungry," she snarls, shoving him closer to where Dimitri now stands, jaws open wide and a furious growl reverberating from his throat. "And I'm out of patience to deal with another round about of talking with snakes like you. So I'll get to the point, you can't prove anything this time. There's no camera evidence, there will be no bodies. And if you don't talk, there won't be any you to try and spin the tale."

Dimitri inches closer, fitting his jaws easily around the throat of the man still in her clutches. Her fingers shift, lowering until skin rests against teeth. Until all Dimitri had to do was bite down to tear his head straight from his shoulders. "Talk. Or I'll take my time feeding you piece by piece to my brother."

She watches quickly as the man's previous cool crumbles immediately under her threat, under Dimitri's promise. He blubbers, the acrid scent of urine hitting her a breath later.

"I don't know anything I swear!" He says and she drops him, stepping back from the mess he'd made of himself. "All she told me was to sit here and keep you distracted!"

"Why?" She grinds out, reaching down with burning fingers.

"To-to give her time! I don't know she didn't tell me anything! Please I swear I know nothing, I'm only human!"

She freezes, smoke lifting off her hand and burning in her nose.

"Here I thought Redmaye prided itself in not doing business with humans and in having staff that was all supernatural," Jeralt cuts in, coming over to bend down beside the man. "So, that leads me to wonder, what are you doing here?"

"I-I'm the son of a medium, th-the woman that was killed recently. The CEO told me that if I did this one thing for her she would help me find out who killed my mother."

"You're working for the person who killed your mother," Edelgard bites out, clenching her fingers until the leather hisses underneath. "She's been yanking us all around on a chain with her games this entire time."

"Hey, uh," Claude's voice filters over the line, confused, worried. "I got some good news and some bad news?"

"What?" She asks, stepping down on the medium's back when he tries to crawl away. "I'm not done with you," she hisses, freezing him to his spot. "Claude?"

"So, bad news, I didn't find anything about where they might have taken Byleth. Good news is Ollithar's hanging around in Shambala so if a few of us head over there we can have a word with him. I'm also worried we're walking right into a really big trap."

"We're in agreement," Edelgard replies, nodding her head at Jeralt and heading off. She can hear the struggle behind her as she goes. "But let's spring it, I need you to come up with another plan, Claude."

"Sure, let's talk while we're on our way."

Chapter Text

There's a problem, and she becomes aware of it when the Redmayne CEO turns away from her and lifts her fingers up to her ear. She can't quite see the annoyed tick of her jaw, but she catches enough of the shift it makes her smirk a little. "They did what?" the other woman hisses, shifting her weight. "How?" The fingers of her free hand drum against her thigh. 

Byleth almost wishes she could hear the other side of it. Wonders what it is the person on the other line could be reporting. She assumes it's about Edelgard, relief mingling with worry. She wanted to know if the other woman was okay, wanted to make sure that she hadn't lost control like Redmayne wanted. 

"Tell Ollithar not to kill Hresvelg, no matter how much he might want to."

The worry edges out her relief, brow pinching as she frowns and starts to test the give of her cuffs again. She wasn't any use stuck here like this, painfully aware that even though Redmayne wanted her help, what they really wanted was to use her to lure Edelgard. And from the sound of it it was working, just...not entirely in Redmayne's favor. The chain clatters and the CEO turns to stare at her out of the corner of her eye, the look is a warning, a silent threat to comply or face whatever consequences the other woman was willing to enforce.

Byleth bites out a sneer in reply.

What she wouldn't give to punch this woman in the face right about now.

"It's not important, we can replace them easy enough. He can lick his wounds and get back to work after, we all went into this knowing how much of a problem Hresvelg would be." She pauses briefly, staring down at Byleth where she's still seated, playing innocent. "Tell him he can kill the rest of them if he's that upset."

She waits, waits until the CEO has lowered her hand back to her side and retaken her seat, waits until the frustration evens out of the other's features. "You're not going to get what you want from her, you know. She's resisted you this long."

The other woman considers her, a single eyebrow raising. "Oh. I will, because she's willingly charging right into the palm of my hand. One way or another I will break her, and I will get the Hegemon demon." Byleth has a feeling she's no longer being left with a choice whether or not to help.

It renews her desire to escape, her mind turning over idea after idea.

"Let's go back a little," she says as a way of buying herself a little more time. "I know you said you wanted to seal the Hegemon Demon away somewhere else to use it's power, but you never specified why. Surely you don't want to use a nuclear bomb to bake a cake."

The other woman laughs slightly and shakes her head, shifting, one leg crossed over the other. Stare distant, searching, like she was looking through Byleth to where Sothis observes through her eyes. She can feel her there now, quiet and noninvasive, a spectator carried in the mind of another.

"No, but that kind of power can be used to do real good in the world. Instead of letting it fester away like some kind of frayed wire in a time bomb." The CEO stands again as she speaks, smoothing out the wrinkles in her pants and her blazer. 

She's lying.

Byleth isn't sure how she knows this, since the CEO's face and stature give away absolutely nothing. She's a stonewall, everything tucked neatly in the brickwork and unseen to even the keenest eye. But somehow Byleth knows that entire line is bullshit, spoken to placate instead of rile. To fool her into thinking that maybe the CEO wasn't some kind of terrible person with an evil master plan.

"Real good?" Byleth parrots, prods, risks backlash for the sake of making even the slightest crack in that mask again. "Like what? It's a war demon, they thrive off conflict. So unless you're planning to use it to, I don't know, keep the less fortunate warm in the winter or end some war, you're pretty limited on what you can do."

The other woman smiles, and the look makes her skin crawl, a shudder digging into the base of her spine and threatening to spread along it. She tenses to keep it at bay, but still twitches once involuntarily. There was something very wrong about the Redmayne CEO, like if Byleth dig and prodded and picked enough something else would come out when the mask finally fell off completely.

"If you'll excuse me," the other woman says, taking a step back and turning. "I have other business to attend to."

Byleth watches her leave, squinting in to the darkness as she exits out of a door on the opposite end to where she's stuck, two guards stepping in to watch her. Of course, she thinks, sitting back and pursing her lips. Of course this wasn't going to be easy.

So she reaches back to the presence in her mind, returning to the porch and the memory of sunlight warm on her skin. And the smell of sweet spring air after the rain. Sothis is still there, feet swinging idly off the edge of the porch. The older woman looks up at her as she joins her again, staring out into the yard she can't quite see clearly.

"I have more questions," she says, picking at a splinter on the railing with the care of someone expecting to get stabbed if they didn't. She's not in the mood to test if it would still hurt, not in the mood to test how much of her is actually here versus back in her body. But she knew the mind of a Medium was a powerful force, knew that if they drifted too far they could get trapped.

She could get trapped here.

"If you ask the right ones," Sothis says, almost teasingly. "I may have answers for you."

"...I'm guessing that's your way of saying 'don't ask stupid questions,'" she says, deadpan, carefully phrasing it to avoid it sounding like a question in and of itself. Sothis grins at her.

"You're good, swiftly sidestepped that trap."

She was beginning to see why Edelgard was always so exasperated with Rhea. 

--------

Two Hours Earlier.

The drive across the city to Shambala is tense, the chatter running across the radio lines serious and filled with what they're going to do next. "Ollithar won't give us anything without...convincing," Edelgard interjects between Hubert and Dimitri's verbal sparring, smoothly cutting them both off and stepping down on their flaring frustrations. 

"Like the violent kind?" Claude asks, likely already aware of the answer Edelgard would reply with. He affirms her thought a second later with a hum and a, "well, we know Dimitri is really good at making people talk...and so is Hubert."

"Which is why-"

"This isn't a contest!" Edelgard interrupts again, sharply, silencing the entire party once again. "Dimitri and I will go to see Ollithar--" she falls silent as a warning to the protest she can practically hear Hubert thinking, giving him a moment to consider where her temper laid. He grunts. "While the rest of you see what you can find inside the club." Stay out of sight goes unsaid but implied. 

"What happens if someone sees?" Claude asks, more to poke at her then anything serious. He wants to see what she says and she knows it, lip drawing back from her teeth. 

"Well, that's certainly a problem for them, isn't it?" It's all the permission any of them need to hear from her, all of them aware of the rules. Kill only if you have to, subdue otherwise.

It made her wonder how much Ollithar's coven actually knew, how many of them were involved or how many of them were innocent and oblivious to the sordid going ons behind their backs. She was sure the rest of her party would find out while she did her best to either keep Ollithar distracted or force him to speak.

She was banking on the former. Knowing well enough that to get him to talk would force her to sacrifice something she wasn't willing to. Or, which she was considering doing, let Dimitri beat him within an inch of his life and see what happened. 

"I don't like this," Jeralt says, his words dragging her out of her head and bringing her attention to him. She raises an eyebrow and he flicks a glance at her. "He's probably expecting you, and going with just two of you-"

"Surely you see the benefit of it. If something should happen to Dimitri and I, that still leaves the rest of you to continue the search. If all of us get incapacitated, we'll never find Byleth." She considers a moment, looking back out the wind shield with a small smile. "However, she's strong. I believe that even if we were to fall, she would eventually save herself."

Her eyes flick back to him, and she catches another flicker glance. "And all of us," she adds. The faint, ghosting smile she sees cross Jeralt's features proves that both of them are on the same page. "I'm serious though, if anything should happen to me--"

"It won't," Jeralt says as he pulls the car into a stop in Shambala's parking lot. "It won't," he repeats, turning to look at her, the engine still rumbling, his fingers having not left the shift. "Because you're too fucking stubborn to let anything happen."

She laughs. He shakes his head.

"Out of everyone Byleth could have fallen for," he says, so quiet she almost misses it, pausing  halfway out of the car. "I can say now that I'm glad it was you, Hresvelg."

She smiles to herself, and pretends she didn't hear, shutting the door behind her and heading off to go meet Dimitri. She can feel his eyes on her back, watching her as she walks away, the duster coat she'd pulled on over her armor billowing in her wake.

It feels too final.

She shuts it out of her mind.

------

Dimitri meets her by the door to the parking garage, stepping up behind her like a shadow made flesh. He doesn't say anything as they head towards the entrance of the club, both fishing for the pendants they wear around their necks. The bouncer doesn't stop them as they pass, catching sight of the ornate silver and nodding in greeting. She expects Shambala to be empty, expects the club to be closing down for the night with how late the hour is, but it's anything but. The bass still thunders, black lights strobbing and casting everything in hauntingly industrial shadows. People still occupy the dance floor and the bar, laughing and drinking and dancing. 

"There's something wrong," Dimitri says, pressing closer in behind her to be heard. "The smoke masks it, but I can smell something else, something underlying."
She frowns, looking out over the floor as they ascend the stairs to Ollithar's office. "We have to leave it to the other's to figure out," she replies, glancing up at him out of the corner of her eye. "If there's something here, Corsica will find it."

"Sure will," Corsica says, sounding vaguely concerned. "Soon as we walked in I felt something weird. The music makes it hard to focus, though so I'm gonna need some time."

"You'll get it," Dimitri replies, slipping by her and pushing through the door to enter Ollithar's office first. She follows on his heels, folding her hands behind her back. The man himself looks up as the door swings shut behind her, setting his pen down and folding his hands. 

He smiles, but the look in his eyes speaks of his displeasure at the sight of them. "Blaiddyd, Hresvelg. To what do I owe the honor of your presence?"

Dimitri's smile is even less pleasant, lips curling off teeth too sharp for a human mouth, his lion pressing close underneath the confines of his flesh. "I think you know, old man," he replies, stepping forward. "Where's your CEO friend?" he asks before Ollithar can balance himself and seize control of the conversation. "She wasn't at home."

Edelgard leans quietly against the wall behind them, arms folded across her chest, head tilted back to rest against the expensive wood. She watches instead of involving herself, watches as Ollithar blinks up at Dimitri, who leans menacingly across his desk. It's put him off balance, how forward and aggressive Dimitri is. And she knows her step brother is the furthest thing from actually angry.

This, she knows, is just a show.

Ollithar, however, has little clue.

"Ah, that explains the call I got about a break in at Redmayne. I'm not surprised it was you people who were responsible. Do you know what this means, Hresvelg? I'm sure you do." He directs it at her, but his eyes never leave Dimitri, still too close for his comfort and leering closer, growl rumbling low and threatening in the barrel of his chest.

"Your friend started it," she says, half looking at him. "I'm simply making it official. She wanted a war, I'll give her one." But it's going to be fought on her terms, quickly and with as little violence as possible. One side overwhelming the other in a single assault. She'd moved the same day she'd dropped the flag, castrated half of Redmayne's forces and came after the rest.

This would be over before they had a chance to rally. 

At least, that was the plan.

"A war wasn't what she wanted, that I assure you. We all remember what happened the last time we had a large scale war." Ollithar is careful about his words, practiced and stalling just like them. 

"Oh yes," Edelgard says, flicking a hand. "How could I forget? After all that was what forged the entire alliance in the first place! Funny how you take this stance after one of yours kidnaps one of mine." The words come out sharp like broken glass, fingers tightening where she holds her biceps.

"Now I wouldn't call her one of min-" he's cut off by Dimitri grabbing hold of his collar and pulling him up from his chair.

"What is it with you and yours? You're either pushing blame off on someone else or denying when the truth is right in front of everyone's face." Dimitri practically snarls the words out in his face, looking half like he wanted to just bite it right off. Ollithar looks affronted by the handling, resting his hands against Dimitri's shoulders and turning his head away.

"Please, I would ask that you put me down."

Dimitri ignores his request. 

"If she's 'not one of yours' then now is your chance to talk. You can tell us what she's up to, why she took my hunter," Edelgard says, testing, picking at just how far he was willing to take his front. He looks at her slightly, eyes shifting to keep both her and Dimitri in his line of sight.

"I'm afraid I don't know the answer to that one," he says, and it's a predictable response. One that makes her shift slightly, feet hooking at the ankles and shoulders rising in a shrug.

"Of course you wouldn't."

He smiles. Edelgard smiles back.

Dimitri drives his fist straight into Ollithar's face. He goes down in a spray of blood that speaks of a broken nose, sputtering and cursing and Dimitri follows him over the desk. Edelgard contemplates the plates of armor covering her fingers while the struggle goes on in front of her, listening as Dimitri hits him a few more times before the other man is telling him to stop.

"Dima," she says, quietly. He looks at her, then nods, hauling Ollithar back up to his feet. "Shall we try again?" she asks, setting her hand back against her arm. "I really don't want to have to hurt you more." And it was true, the fact that she was even forced to resort to these methods in the first place went against a lot of what she had tried to uphold over the years after the last great coven war. "But, as you know, I'm also not at all afraid to give the order."

Corsica interrupts before Ollithar can speak next, tone unsure, "Hey, Edelgard? I have some news you're not gonna like." She turns her head, holding up a finger to let him know she needed a moment. Dimitri holds him tighter.

"What is it?"

"Remember that scent Dimitri caught? And the odd feeling I had? Well, I figured it out. I can't pinpoint it due to all the damn noise, but there's a Lust Demon somewhere in here that's fucking with the humans, keeping them enthralled." Her eyes slide back to Ollithar as Corisca speaks, catches the momentary flash of something resembling concern in his eyes and knows the look she must be wearing is something worth fearing.

"...I see. Claude."

"Yo."

"Make the noise stop," she says, still pinning Ollithar to his spot with her glare. "It's time for everyone to go now." 

"You're really spoiling me, Edel, letting me do all this fun stuff today."

"Don't get used to it," Corsica replies, and she can hear the smirk on the other woman's face. "She'll be back to playing noncombatant as soon as we get Byleth back."

"Then I better enjoy causing havoc while I can," Claude says around a laugh. "See you downstairs Edel, Dima!" The line goes off, and she leaves the team downstairs to carry out her order.

"A Lust Demon," she comments, pushing off the wall and walking over to the desk. "What sort of club are you running that you would acquire one of those? It looked pretty normal when we came in." She circles the side of it, running her fingers over the surface. "Is there a back room my people might find? Or do you have some dirty secrets waiting to be aired?"

"I had no idea-"

"We're beyond 'you have no idea' at this point, Ollithar. This is the second time one of your buildings seems to have inhereted a Demon problem. Once I can understand, twice is a pattern. If I didn't know any better I'd think you were summoning them on purpose." She looks down at her fingers, noting the lack of dust. Then fixes her eyes back on him.

"But no one does that, do they?"

She knows she's caught him by the way his mask chips slightly, as perfectly composed as he liked to think himself, he still had tells. Still had moments when something would give even the slightest bit and she had learned over the many years dealing with him how to read the breaks in his poker face.

"Do they."

"No, Hresvelg, they do not."

She turns away,  circling back around the desk to the sound of Dimitri slamming the other man into his desk. Just once, growling. "I'm not above eating Vampires, you know."

"Is that not a little extreme, Blaiddyd?" Ollithar sounds pained, choked in a way that tells of a clogged nose. She turns back, leaning against the desk.

"Don't eat him, Dima, filth like this will give you indigestion."

"Filth-?!"

"You're right," Dimitri says, talking over the man below him. "I suppose I'll just have to rip him apart."

"Wait!"

Both of them look down, raising an eyebrow as Ollithar struggles against Dimitri's hold on his collar. "Redmayne has been trying to summon a particular Demon, but to do that they have to perfect the ritual...so they've been summoning lower level Demons as tests. The Famine Demons in my old building, the Lust Demon in this one. Lord only knows how many others."

Her eyes narrow. "How? To summon them normally you would need a place heavily charged with the type of energy they're attracted to."

"Not...when you use the blood of Mediums."

"So," Dimitri says, leaning over him more. "That Medium that died recently?"

"I assume her blood is being used in another ritual."

"Which means Byleth..." she trails off, meeting her step brother's eye. 

"Is safe, and before you ask me where she is, I honestly don't know." The look he gives her tells her that he isn't lying, but she hesitates to believe him still, eyes narrowing. 

"Demon summoning is forbidden knowledge," Corsica cuts in over the radio suddenly. "It was supposed to have died out with that band of demonoligists centuries ago."

"How do you know all this?" Dimitri asks in Corsica's stead, fingers tightening their hold slightly as a warning; don't lie.

"A Demonologist, at least according to the CEO that's how she found out. She told me in exchange for information about the Vampires." He holds his hands up as Dimitri yanks him back up to his feet, letting out a startled grunt when Dimitri simply drops him back into his chair.

"Why would she be interested in us?" Edelgard asks as she crosses back to the door, preparing to leave. They've exhausted all they're going to get out of him, can tell they've reached the limit of what he was willing to give without further threats and violence.

And she has other things she needs to do.

"To know how we acquire our 'extra' power as Master Vampires, one secret for another. A fair exchange. Unlike the both of you." 

Dimitri punches him again before they leave, following her out of the office and back down the hallway. "I suppose we'll be joining the hunt for the Lust Demon?" he asks, both of them noticing the distinct lack of pounding bass.

"If these Demons are all linked to the CEO, perhaps we can spook this Demon into leading us back to her," she says, making her way down the steps and scanning the area for the rest of their team. 

"That!" Claude cuts in, and she spots him over by a door at the back of the club, waving to them. "Is an amazing idea."

They join him.

------

Present.

"My first question is, what happened to my memories? And before you make some snarky remark about trauma, yes, I know that had to have been part of it...but it's not all of it, is it?"

For a moment Sothis looks impressed, chin tilted up and eyebrows raised, lips curled in a slight smirk. "You really are good, and right. The trauma of seeing your brother and those Demons certainly didn't help...but I sensed magic there too. It kept us from coming into proper contact, so when you did manage to reach out to me, albeit accidentally, I was able to begin chipping away at it." The older Vampire stretches, arms held high over her head. 

"That's how you were able to help me remember that night...or at least part of it," Byleth says, looking down at the grass below the porch. It's all she can see clearly out of the blur of green and other colors further out. She's not here fully, knows that in some way she's still tethered to her body. "So...whatever tampered with my memories was after...that."

"Yes," Sothis affirms, leaning back on her palms. "And I've figured out a way around it. Are you ready?"

"Not really, but show me anyway."

Sothis reaches out and the world shifts, winds and goes dark.

-----

Her ankle throbs, her lungs burn but she keeps running, casting glances over her shoulder and expecting something to burst out of the red tinted shadows behind her. But nothing ever does, and she hopes that the second Demon had simply been too hungry to chase live prey and had chosen to eat the dead. She hates herself for thinking that way, hates herself for leaving Alyth's body behind like that to be consumed. But she knows there was no way for her to do anything without help.

And she wasn't about to doom anyone else.

She slows to a stop as she nears the foyer, gasping for air and leaning against the wall beside her to take some pressure off her ankle. Everything hurts, and part of her just wants to sit down and rest despite the risk that would entail. Is a side she ignores, shoving herself up off the wall and limping along the hallway to the entrance.

"The Famine Demons didn't work."

Byleth freezes at the sound of a voice, catching sight of a group of people in the foyer. All nicely dressed, all looking around like they were expecting something else and disappointed that they're met with what they see now. Nothing. Silence. Slowly she creeps behind the desk by her, pressing herself underneath it. She knows she can't trust them, not saying things like that.

Yet it doesn't stop her from watching, peering around the edge enough to see. 

"A change like that doesn't happen immediately, especially if she ran from them rather than engaged them. No conflict means the seal will remain intact. We'll just have to try another method."

Two women stand among a group of heavily armed men. She notices that, despite their suits, each of them carry guns. Guns large enough to slow down a Demon enough to give them time to escape. She frowns, wondering exactly what it was these people were up to, half hoping they went somewhere else so she could leave, half hoping they said something more before they did.

She had to tell her father...

The taller of the two women hums, lifting her head. "Yes, you're correct. There really is no way for us to do this quickly without the right catalyst. And unfortunately we lack one at present. We have no way of knowing when and if we'll ever find one...such a difficult girl...and she has no idea what she has inside of her."

Byleth wonders distantly who it is they're talking about, leaning back around the desk and considering. But it's all blanks and guesswork, wildly reaching for theories and names that makes her feel foolish, like a child refusing to let go of a question no adult would answer.

"Hey, who are you?" 

She tenses, jerking her head up to the sight of one of the guards, panic welling back up in her chest. 

"You aren't supposed to be here, this is private property."

"Sorry I uh--I got lost--"

"Did they hear anything?" She hears one of the women ask, the sound of high heels echoing off the floor as she approaches.

"Nope, nothing." The panic grows worse, tightening in her lungs and her chest and making her heart pound hard. "Look I'm--uh, I'm just gonna leave and we can pretend we never saw each other! It'll be fine--"

The woman rounds to the guard's side, peering down at her quietly. "Yes, of course we can just pretend we never saw each other," she says, reaching out for her. Byleth tries to move, rallying herself into another adrenaline rush and jerking back up to her feet, but the other woman is faster, seizing hold of her jaw and holding fast when she struggles.

A second later the guard takes hold of her. The woman says something, something she doesn't understand, and her vision swims and goes fuzzy at the edges.

Then nothing.

She wakes up in the front seat of her car the next morning, unsure of why she was even there.

---------

"That woman was the one who tampered with my memories," she whispers as she comes back to the porch, to Sothis now sitting with her hands in her lap. "They wanted me to forget that I had heard them talking about Edelgard, about the Demons." She looks up at the older Vampire, blinking. "Well that just answers a few more questions right there."

"Good! I'm glad."

"The last one, though, what the hell is the CEO?"

Sothis' expression scrunches, and she looks away like she's eaten something sour and doesn't want Byleth to see her reaction in full. "I don't know," she says a few seconds later, pained like the very idea of not knowing something bothers her. "But I do know it's not human."

"Nice to know we're in the same boat," she says, smirking slightly. "We can figure that one out together, I guess."

Something touches her and she snaps back to her body again before Sothis can reply, leaving her blinking awake to the sight of one of the guards in her face, palm resting against her cheek. 

"Did she die?" he mumbles, patting her face again. "Hey?"

She bites him, sinking her teeth into the webbing between his thumb and forefinger hard enough blood bursts across her tongue and he screams. "You bitch!" he shouts, making the mistake of drawing too close, fingers grabbing her hair in an attempt to pull her off. She let's him, relaxing her jaw and moving with his hold.

Only to jerk her head forward, slamming it into his face hard enough she sees stars. He goes down, however, crashing into the ground at her feet, thankfully unconscious. She can hear Sothis laughing as she spits blood out into the dirt, scowling. 

"Time to get out of here."

------

"What the hell is this?"

An hour of searching had yielded little beyond the usual things. Alcohol and nonperishable snacks, documents on shipping. Finances, bills, everything one would expect in a club. There wasn't any hidden sex den, nor did they find any sign of their Demon. 

Until now, Claude's exclamation having brought all of them to where they were now. The room looks like something out of a satanist's wet dream, various symbols carved across the floor, ceiling and walls, all looking as thought it had been done in blood.

And at the back of the room a door stands open, revealing an unlit tunnel. 

"I wonder where that leads," Jeralt muses, gingerly picking his way through the room and over to the door.

"Probably nowhere good," Corsica says, joining him a second later. "But it's probably where our Demon is hiding out. Claude must of scared it when he fried the turntables." 

"Hey, that means I did us all a favor," he says, shrugging. "Edel wanted to scare it into leading us to the CEO and Byleth so..."

"You did save us a few steps," Edelgard agrees, joining them all at the entrance to the tunnel. "But we must proceed with utmost caution now. There could very easily be more Demons down there then just our Lust Demon, and we're not exactly equipt to take on more than a couple at once."

Sure, two Master Vampires was a force to be reckoned with, but they tired just like anyone else and against enough Demons, even they would eventually be overwhelemed and killed.

"We should call Rhea," Dimitri says from behind her, Hubert letting out an agreeing him from his place beside. 

"Yes," he adds a moment later. "We should, Lady Edelgard?"

She slips her phone out of her pocket, scrolling for the other woman's number and hitting the button to call. Rhea picks up on the third ring, voice it's usual low drawl. "Hello, Edelgard, how goes your search?"

"Well I've certainly turned up more than I expected, to be honest," she says, then proceeds to fill Rhea in on everything that she and Dimitri had learned, and what they were looking at now. Rhea is silent for a long moment after she finishes speaking, and Edelgard lets her processes.

"It's a shame you didn't kill him," she says. "But I understand why." There's a pause and Edelgard hears as Rhea pours herself a drink. "I don't like the idea of you going down into those tunnels, you know."

"I'm hardly alone," she says, shrugging. "I brought a team for a reason."

"But not a big enough one, shall I send reinforcements?"

"Perhaps that may be wise." This wasn't exactly a quick hit and run anymore, it was much...much bigger than any one of them in the room with her now. They did need more bodies, more power, more people to search the probably expansive pathway that lay out before them.

"I'll send--" Rhea goes quiet, and briefly Edelgard wonders if the line had cut out. Until she hears the sound of Catherine's growl filtering through, loud and menacing. Rhea speaks again a moment later, but not to her. "Who are you?"

The responding voice is too far away for her to hear, but whatever they say makes Rhea scoff. "You best have a very good reason for being here, because if you don't, my wolves will eat you alive before you even have a chance to scream." The phone shifts, and a second later she hears.

"I've come to warn you, Archbishop. You and your people don't know what sort of danger you're all about to walk in to."

"And you're going to tell me, I assume?" Rhea asks. Edelgard pulls the phone away from her ear, quickly putting it on speaker so everyone else with her could hear as well.

"I should think you would want to listen to the last living Demonologist. Especially when it comes to matters pertaining to my field."

"Quickly, then. Catherine gets impatient when people don't get to the point."

Chapter Text

There's a tension in the air that's only built upon by the silence, the Demonologist choosing to hold her silence to instead study her, casting her eyes across her face and down across her body. She leans back against the couch, elbow propped against the arm and chin rested atop her fist. "I thought you came to talk," she prompts when the silence and the study go on long enough Catherine growls beside her and rises up to her feet.

Shamir shifts restlessly in her spot by the door, dark eyes pinned on their unwanted guest. Rhea knows that the hands folded behind Shamir's back contain a knife, knows that the woman before them knows who it is she's chosen to confront. She hears someone cough, the sound buzzing faintly with static and her eyes flick down to the phone on the table.

Then back up. "You had so many words a few moments ago," she adds finally, lifting the hand she's not using as a rest. "Had I known you were coming and found me so fascinating I would have worn a nicer suit." 

Edelgard scoffs, and she can practically feel the eye roll in it.

"Don't be envious, my dear, it's not good for your health," she chides and for a long moment there's nothing but silence on Edelgard's end. Only after someone snickers does a sharp, exasperated sigh filter through.

"Please this has absolutely nothing to do with envy, besides why would I be envious? I've more than had my fill," Edelgard shoots back, another round of snickered laughter sounding over the line. "But I have to agree, you're wasting our time. Or was that your goal?"

The Demonologist's eyes dip to the phone, eyebrow climbing up to her hairline. "Edelgard Hresvelg," she says, voice a low murmur. "I assume you're in Shambala, aren't you?"

Edelgard's silence is suspicious. "Yes," she finally affirms, the tone of her voice edged. Rhea imagines those violet eyes narrowed, focused. "What does it matter?"

"You're walking right into a den of monsters," The Demonologist drawls, taking a breath and letting it out again. "Underneath that place is a haven for all the demons Redmayne's CEO has called. I'm sure by now you've found the entrance, that's why you called The Archbishop."

She still dislikes that title, and the way it rolls off the Demonologist's tongue makes her jaw tick, fingers tapping against her cheek. Her patience holds. "So she's been summoning demons," she interjects, latching on to the train of thought she already knows Edelgard shares. "Why?"

"Yes," Edelgard agrees half a second later. "Why. And why bother telling us?"

"Because our ideas came into conflict. Demonology is, as you know, the study of them. I studied them when they were called to this world by people, by accident, by situations. In the past those of my bloodline called upon them for help fighting."

Oh. Rhea remembers that, her eyebrow creeping up and her head lifting in some blatant display of defiance. The Demonologist's eyes flicker, dropping from her face to the phone, then to the floor. 

"I agreed to help Redmayne because I believed that they wanted to study the demons, to better learn how to fight them or contain them. And while that was the case in the beginning it didn't stay that way. I saw that they were summoning them, using Medium blood as a catalyst...and Vampire blood as a food source." She trails off, frowning, fingers clenched at her sides. 

Someone makes a noise over the line, derisive, disgusted. She recognizes it a second later as Jeralt. Rhea fills in some of the blanks, and from the way the Demonologist won't meet her eyes now, she knows her expression isn't one that speaks of pity. "All those dead," she whispers, sitting up. "It took you this long to come to us?"

"I had to wait, It wasn't like I was able to just leave when I wanted to. Edelgard's assault on the company was what I needed to get away and then I came here. You have to understand that...the CEO isn't human, hell most of the upper echelon of staff isn't either."

Corsica's response is a bark of laughter, choked down before it becomes too hysterical. "No shit Sherlock!" she snaps, and Rhea imagines her gesture, hands tossed high, exasperated. "Everyone figured that out!" 

"That's not what I mean," The Demonologist hisses, breathing another sigh. "They're demons that have taken human form."

The silence that follows is crushing, alive with the lingering force behind the other woman's statement. Rhea picks it apart, piece by piece, well aware that it's not the first time they've seen it. "It's been many years since we last encountered demons that powerful," she admits, shifting. "After the defeat of the Hegemon Demon I always wondered if they had disappeared simply to lick their wounds before they returned."

"In a way that theory is right. The CEO is a wrath demon, desiring the revival of a time when humanity feared demons and treasured what they had. Now, with the Covens and the Hunters protecting them they don't have to fear. They take things for granted. She seeks to remind them of what true fear is."

"How...generic," Edelgard drawls. "But no less dangerous." There's something in the tone of the other vampire's voice that makes Rhea listen a little harder, eyes lowering to the phone. "However, that leads me to wonder. Ollithar informed me that the CEO asked about how Master Vampires gain their power in exchange for information about Redmayne's motives. I would think a demon would know already, especially a high ranking one."

She immediately picks up on what Edelgard implies with her words, with her tone. "She was testing to see how much he trusted her, to see how easy he was to manipulate. He didn't give you any trouble did he?"

"No, not even a bit of fight. I suspect it was all part of some plan of his that I'm following perfectly, but at least I can say I'm going in expecting something instead of blind." She doesn't sound convinced, at all. If anything there's a sense of concern there still, pressing up underneath her usual nonchalance. 

"Speaking on Redmayne's motives, though," she continues, and Rhea holds her thought on the tip of her tongue, letting Edelgard take control. "Ollithar also informed me that they're trying to summon a specific demon, and the other's were simply a 'test' to 'perfect the ritual.' Given what you just told us, I'm inclined to believe it was just the CEO's way to keep him placated? Or did he lie to me."

"A...fleeced version of the truth," the Demonologist replies. "They are trying to summon a specific demon, and it requires a specific ritual. I helped them call lower level demons to test things, helped them control them. Not that they needed the help...but it was a front, after all." She looks guilty, staring down at the floor, wringing her hands. Any sense of her earlier pride gone.

"And what Demon is that?" Rhea asks, a feeling like she knows settling in the barrel of her chest. She doesn't want to hear the answer, but at the same time she has to know if she's right or wrong. 

"Hegemon."

Rhea's eyes roll, slight, head canting to one side on a sigh that drags out and takes all the tension with it. "That Demon is long dead," she says, recrossing her legs. "It's body sealed away in some far off corner of the world."

"Is that what Sothis told you?" The Demonologist asks, there's no emotion behind the curl of her tone. No mockery, no pity, just an honest question. Rhea's eyes still narrow, head tilting faintly to one side.

"Yes." And she draws the syllables out a little, edged on the suspicion she displays freely on her face. "She did."

The other woman nods, nods again, looking away and pursing her lips. "I was afraid of that," she mutters, words almost inaudible. She looks back then, meeting and holding Rhea's eyes. She doesn't flinch when she speaks next, words firm, clear, "Sothis sealed the Hegemon Demon inside of Edelgard."

It's like a physical blow, air she doesn't need wrung out of her lungs, eyes widening, body going still as a statue. She freezes up, mind emptying out of any form of thought beyond something ugly and wrathful that quickly overtakes her shock. "You're lying," she hisses, rising to her feet. The Demonologist doesn't once look away from her, seemingly accepting the death Rhea is half tempted to give her. "Mother knew the danger, she knew what that thing could do. It-" 

It nearly killed Edelgard.

Rhea reels back, fangs bared and fury still burning hot in her veins. But she remembers, remembers carrying Edelgard's broken body to her mother, after the war, after the execution attempt. She remembers cradling the barely breathing form, bandages soaked through with blood, once vibrant violet eyes clouded over and dull. She remembers handing her over to Sothis, begging her to save her.

And Sothis had taken her, cradled the Emperor with the same care she had. A hand against her chest had stopped her, Sothis shaking her head gently before she disappeared into the room behind the throne. She hadn't asked at the time, had simply slipped to her knees and prayed.

"She wouldn't have," she whispers, her foundation shaken.

"Rhea!"

She snaps back on an inhale, sharp and sawing. Catherine and Shamir have both moved, the Demonologist wary of the both of them now too close and threatening. 

"Rhea, Please!" It's Edelgard, she realizes after a second, the sound of her voice something sharp, almost desperate. She'd done something, she thinks, covering her face with her hand. Said something, slipped too far while she'd gotten lost in the past.

"I'm here," she says, and Edelgard sighs. "Stand down," she adds, sinking slowly back into her seat on the couch. Shamir shifts back to her spot by the door, eyes narrowed and shoulders tense. It takes Catherine longer, glaring down their guest and pushing the limits of Rhea's limited patience before returning back to her side a second shy of Rhea's next warning.

She still earns a withering look, eyebrow arched, lips thinned in exasperation. Catherine shrugs as much as a wolf can, then lays back down, head rested atop her fore paws. Rhea rolls her eyes.

It's the slightest dampener on the wedge settled in her chest, easing her anger in increments. 

"We can't exactly ask Sothis," Edelgard is saying, dragging her back in full. It forces her to breathe, fingers pressed to the bridge of her nose and a sharp sigh hissing between her teeth.

"So what," Dimitri interjects, sharp, frustrated, worried, a dozen emotions all at once warring in the tone of his voice. "Do we just believe this woman? Belive that Sothis put possibly the most dangerous war demon inside of you?!"

"I'm not saying that either," Edelgard grits out, ever in control, ever calm until she wasn't. "But we can't discredit it either, given the events leading to my death and rebirth. I remember nothing from the time when I was hanging between life and death. But I did come in contact with that Demon. It was Rhea and I who struck the final blow, after all."

"And it was because of that contact your enemies began to question if perhaps you had been corrupted by Demon blood," Rhea adds, tapping her fingers.

"Which lead to my attempted execution," Edelgard finishes, and she can hear her shift, loose stone grinding underneath heavy boots. "And after that it's a perfect blank until I woke up again, with you and Sothis both looming over me. Demonologist, what proof do you have that this is truth?"

Ever testing, poking, prodding for holes that she could stick her fingers in to and shred open to reveal the liar underneath...or tear back the ugly truth to something even uglier.

"Also about those reinforcements," she adds while the Demonologist seemingly collects her thoughts. Rhea starts slightly, laughs. Shamir is gone on a look, slipping out through the door and down the hall.

"I've sent Nevrand to handle it," Rhea assures, fixing her attention on their guest.

"Video footage of you leaving the Vantablack building, the way your eyes changed, and the discolored patches of skin. You described it as 'going feral' but no Vampire changes like that. Only you."

"I see. Hubert?" 

Rhea imagines the way she looks now, thoughtful, casting her eyes to the one man who had been following her longer than even Dimitri.

"As...much as it pains me to agree, she's correct, Lady Edelgard. I hadn't thought much of it, since Master Vampires are in such a world of their own, it was easy to dismiss it as a quirk of your power. Which it could very well be, you are the only Master who has ever consumed the blood of a War Demon," he replies, assuring, as logical and cold as ever.

And so...so...so very loyal.

"Hm...so, you'll understand if I'm more inclined to believe my retainer over a woman who was working with our enemy." But Rhea knows Edelgard is still filing it away to pick apart later, knows that she's not the type to just dismiss something when it could have some grain of truth.

Still.

Still.

"You're right, ultimately I can't convince you to believe me, but nevertheless I've said my piece. Take heed, Master Hresvelg, if nothing else."

"Oh I will, I can promise you that," Edelgard replies. "Thank you for coming to speak with us, even if we hesitate to believe everything you said."

Surprise twitches at the corners of the Demologist's face, and the noise she releases is a half hearted reply. 

"However," Rhea interjects, sitting forward. "You'll have to forgive me when I say I cannot allow you to leave."

"I would rather be held in custody by you, then killed by whatever Demon the CEO chooses to fed me to," the other woman replies, tipping her chin up in some sense of pride.

Rhea nods. 

She picks up the phone again at that, turning the speaker off and holding it back up to her ear. "Edelgard," she says, slow, turning her head away to focus on the couch arm that was once in her peripheral. "My dear, please be careful. Losing you once was agony, I don't wish to think of losing you again."

Edelgard is quiet for a moment, her laughter gentle. "You won't, I'm too stubborn to die again."

The call ends once she hears Ingrid in the background, Edelgard saying her goodbye before she was gone, line silent. 

"Catherine, find our guest a place to remain...and some guards to make sure she doesn't go anywhere." The wolf at her side once again rises, shifts, the woman who remains behind grinning with too many teeth. It's not friendly.

"Right."

She turns away as they leave.

Mother...

------

The plan comes to mind quicker than she can execute it, mind churning over the how to's and the important do's and don'ts as she looks around the room for what best to use. Wood, rusted metal, nothing exactly sanitary or safe but it was all she had. "Okay," she mutters, pressing her feet into the ground. "Here goes." She pushes, weight pressed into her feet at uneven angles, pushing hard to one side. It takes a couple tries, takes her throwing her weight into her shoulder to fully unbalance the chair and send her crashing onto the ground, hissing as the impact blisters through her shoulder and neck, muscles tensed to keep her head from bouncing off the dirt. "Alright, step one," she mutters, flicking her attention down to her feet. It takes too many seconds to unhook the chain from around the chair legs, time wasted with precision and fear that scrambles like insects through her nerves. It takes her extra time to scramble loose of the chair entire, shoulder, chin and knees shoved into the dirt as she pulls and shifts.

Then stops, laying quietly to let the ache from various parts of her body subside, counting in her mind. More time wasted, more time that could bring the second guard or the CEO back and set her entire plan on fire. "Time to move," she mutters, rolling over onto her back and shifting, sitting up and rising higher onto her knees, twisting and shifting, shoulders and elbows and wrists protesting as she moves her arms from her back to her front, tangling knees to her chest and gritting her teeth. The shoulder she fell on throbs and she ignores it as she hoists herself to her feet and riffles through the unconscious guard's pockets; lint, a wallet, car keys. She takes only the gun she finds on his belt, shoving it in her coat pocket after checking to make sure the safety was on.

"Step two," she says to the room at large, pushing up to her feet. She was on the move soon after, hunting through the room for something sturdy enough to use, testing wood and metal with feet and fingers dirtied by dust and rust. It takes her too long to find something that works, something old and jammed into the floor enough it doesn't move which she kicks it, once, twice, adding enough force she nearly knocks herself flat on her ass. "That'll do," she mutters, kneeling down to fit the cuffs over the top of it, fingers around the chain closest to her wrists. She pulls, twists and jimmies until the metal gives with a protest, body tensing as her hands jerk apart with the snap of the link she'd focused on. She's sore from the exertion, sweat beading across her forehead and around the collar of her coat. She doesn't give herself time to rest, knowing that the chain linking her feet together will take longer to break.

And it does, forcing her to beat the chain down with the handle of the gun to a thicker point of the old metal, yanking hard enough the force of the break sends her straight down, wind knocked out of her as her back slams into the ground, dust dispersing in a cloud that settles across her.

"Step three," she gasps, coughing around the dust clogging in her throat and nose. "Remind me to invest in a lock picking kit," she says, rolling over and pushing back up to her feet. "Because if this shit keeps happening I think I need one."

I'll be sure to make sure you get one. Sothis comments from the back of her mind. Now move.

She does, sprinting across the seemingly never ending room, gun held between her hands and panic welling high in her chest again. She feels another minute wasted with her back pressed to the wall beside the door when she hears the second guard coming back, waiting until he was inside and yelling to his companion before she moves, striking him hard in the back of the head with both fists and the handle of her stolen gun.

She stops as soon as she's outside, staring out at the cavernous tunnels before her. Two ways, both completely unknown. "The one time I wish I had a map," she mutters, inching forward. She needed to decide, eyes darting from one path to another. "This is just great, get lost or get lost. Probably die down here and no one will ever find me." She can hear Sothis in the back of her mind, scoffing and likely rolling her eyes.

You won't die.

"Oh?" she asks, turning her head, half expecting to see the older vampire there but hardly surprised when it's nothing but stone. "How can you be so sure?"

I'm here, I won't let you die.

"You're not 'here' if you were here you'd be beside me in this mess too, not in my head God only knows how far away sitting comfortably on a porch!" Sothis laughs at her for her spluttered outburst, voice rising in it's whisper until it cracks.  She hates it. Hates this. "Fine, oh great powerful progenitor, which direction?" Because she was going to guess otherwise, jogging up to where the path sectioned off into one of the two paths.

She had no idea how many more splits like this she would encounter, where each pathway would lead, what dangers lay in them. At least, she thinks, leaning towards the right path, she had a gun.

There's movement in the shadow she notices as she leans a little further, stepping up closer to the wall in an attempt to see through the shroud of it. Stone and dirt crunching underneath steps taken in high heels. Byleth flees left, pressing herself against the mouth of the entrance and poking her head around the corner to watch. She's tired of running, of hiding, but she's clueless as to what any of these people are. She can't decide if she wants to slip by and go down the path the CEO emerges from, or if she wants to run down the path she chose herself.

It could be a trap, both could be a trap, this could all just be one big trap that she was willingly blundering her way into. 

Yes.

"'Yes' what?" she whispers, barely audible, eyes still on the CEO as the older woman stops and frowns at the door. She inches further into the shadow of the path she'd chosen, hiding in it as the CEO casts her eyes around the space. Searching. For what she doesn't know, the guards? Her? Someone else she was expecting? 

To all of it.

She turns and runs as the CEO pushes the door open to the sight of two unconscious guards and a missing hunter, runs as she hears the other woman shouting. She runs with the knowledge that she going to be chased, hunted down similarly to how she hunted her marks on missions. She runs until her lungs burn and her muscles ache, choosing path after path on Sothis' silent guidance. Left, right, straight--

"How long are these tunnels?" she gasps, leaning against an alcove, hands to her thighs and head bowed. "I feel like I've been running for hours." And it could have been hours, or minutes stretched out to feel that way. It feels like being trapped back at the Vantablack building, of burying herself among corpses in waiting for the monsters to notice her, of crawling across the floor with her breath held in her lungs and terror gripping her to her soul.

("You don't have to fear the monsters under your bed or in your closet." Their mother had told her and Alyth both as they huddled together underneath Byleth's quilt. "Do you want to know why?" And they nodded, terrified and fascinated all at once. 

"Because those monsters are often hiding from the bigger ones outside."

Like the ones their father hunted, like the ones Alyth would grow up to hunt too.)

Like the ones Byleth now faced, things that may or may not erupt from the shadows around her. But Byleth could be just the same, she could be the monster hiding in the darkness to someone else, a lesser demon as afraid of her as she is of it. She tries not to think about it as she looks out of her hiding spot, tries not to imagine something watching her from the opposite wall, a mirror of herself. She presses closer to the cool stone and breathes, heart pounding in her chest and blood rushing in her ears.

Calm. Calm. Calm.

Focus, Sothis says suddenly, abruptly, a weight like hands against her shoulders. Focus on what's around you, listen, feel. Reach out into the darkness with the intent to find what lays within. Touch, but do not draw, hear, but do not make a sound. Don't think about it, just do it.

She doesn't get it, eyebrow raised, lips parting and a breath taken to ask her what the hell she was even on about. 

I said don't think, you fool!

"I can't just empty my head of thoughts at a moment's notice, Sothis!" She's lucky she can even think past the intrusive thoughts her anxiety pushes at her. That she has to go, has to run, has to move or someone will catch her. That there's something in the shadows waiting for the chance to strangle her as soon as she drifts even the slightest bit out of focus. She can see it just out of the edge of her mind, the hand curling around her throat and squeezing.

She pushes it aside but the tide rises again, pooling around her feet. 

So there is depth to that vacant expression you always wear.

"Sothis I swear." The anxiety recedes in favor of a spark of annoyance, lips pressing around the sigh she heaves through her nose. 

Good! I'd much rather you be annoyed then afraid. Now focus!

She does, or she tries, closing her eyes and pushing her thoughts down. She focuses on the silence around her, on her own breath and her heartbeat thundering in her ears. She reaches past herself, dulling the sounds she can explain in favor of the nothingness outside, she reaches until she thinks she feels something, something familiar, something warm, something safe.

A beacon in a maelstrom, she realizes, the twisting writhing mass of energy coming at her all at once. It's chaotic and merciless, threatening to drown her until she retreats back into herself with shadows dripping ice down her throat, breath sawing harsh and sharp in her chest. "What the fuck was that," she whispers, instincts on high alert. 

That, Sothis says, concern humming low in the tone of her voice. Was a lot of Demons between you and your Emperor.

"That first spark was Edelgard?" she breathes, amazed. 

Yes. That was Edelgard. But I don't think you can get through all those Demons to get to her on your own. Knowing her there are people with her, so all you can do is try to get as close to her as possible and wait for your chance to join the fray. Once we're out of this mess I'll teach you how to harness your abilities as a Medium.

I had to teach your mother too.

She wants to ask about that, about the powers, about her mother, but she doesn't have the time. So she tucks it away, adds to the pile of questions she still wanted to ask and takes off running again, keeping herself focused and reaching. It's clumsy and she knows, her focus wavering as she continues through the maze of tunnels, trying to keep a feel for that spark she knew as Edelgard, blazing and alive and she can feel the undercurrent of the Demon inside her, slumbering in it's darkness. Just like she can still feel the other Demons between them, making her avert her course to avoid them, to take cover in another outcropping to let others pass her by. 

Byleth can't see them and she's glad for that.

But they can probably see her and she prays they don't.

I'm coming, Edelgard.

----

She hears it like the whisper of a breeze through a canopy of trees, feels it like a presence ghosting intangible fingers across the back of her neck. It drags her attention away from her words, map and plan forgotten in favor of casting a glance over her shoulder, studying the empty mouth of the nearest tunnel. A stone crushed underfoot, a thought like a fleeting dream. 

"Lady Edelgard?"

Her breath catches as she draws it in, turning back to the team with her with wide eyes and confusion like lead in her throat. "Sorry," she says, shaking it off. "I thought I heard something coming from the tunnel is all." It makes her pay a little more attention to her surroundings after that, listening for any possible sound from the area behind them while the conversation drawls on in front of her.

"This entire place is a huge maze," Claude says, tapping his finger against the map Shamir had brought. "So exploring it all is going to be...well we'd need a much bigger team and a lot more time." 

Time they didn't have, her eyes casting down to the pathways and the caverns. "What's the center here?" It was the largest of any of the caverns around them, taking up a great portion of the map itself. 

Claude hums, thoughtful, considering. "I think it was an old storage site."

"Then that's where we're going," Edelgard says, rapping her knuckles against the point on the map. "Claude, figure out the best way to go. I'm going to take a small squad and scout a little ahead." 

"Sure thing, it won't take me more than a couple minutes. Head left, we'll catch up," he speaks without looking up, finger tracing pathways and committing it to memory.

"Right." She leaves with Hubert, Ingrid, Dimitri and Jeralt a moment later, heading down through the left tunnel. The same tunnel she had sworn she heard something from. They move slow, easy, all of them pressed close together but far enough apart not to inhibit movement. She's reminded of that night again, the only thing missing the burn of alarm lights and it's howl.

Here it's just darkness, consuming Jeralt's flashlight beam and leaving them navigating blind, inch by inch, hands brushing against the walls, searching. Her eyes have adjusted enough to see the stone, to see the blurred edges of the path before it disappears into the shadow ahead.

By now they all know what it means.

"Well," Jeralt says as they come to another opening, the cavern smaller then they one they left. "At least we know the girl was telling the truth about this."

She can hear them, the sulfur of their presence burning in her nose and her throat. She's not sure how many, the darkness too cloying to show each twisted shape flickering at it's edges. She wonders about type, about rank, scanning for the occasional spark of an eye. Wrath, she assumes, War, Famine-

Something drops on top of her from above, pain exploding in her shoulder as razor teeth tear into flesh and bone, claws and talons digging into her back and sides, flesh giving and the liquid heat of blood burning through the leather between her armor. Hubert's cry is enough to have the rest of them descending, rippling out of the darkness. Violence erupts with it, Jeralt's gun roaring in time with Dimitri's lion, Ingrid's spear blazing electric in her fingers as she calls upon the gifts Edelgard had granted her.

Aymr burns, the flame igniting the darkness as Hubert's magic sparks behind her. The Demon atop her does it's best to tear her jugular out, teeth snapping and scraping, sinking where it can before she's heaving it off, fire burning at the tips of her fingers and scorching it's flesh where she holds. It screeches and she throws it into the Demon nearest her, bringing Aymr to bear and setting flash-fire to the ground at their feet. Her wounds bleed sluggishly, drizzling onto the ground at her feet as she fights, Demon after Demon flooding through the line of flame.

It takes all of them each time, dancing and weaving, calling out to each other when it's time to attack. Which Demon to target, coordinated, efficient. But it's not enough, not with Edelgard wounded, her vision swimming as she struggles to keep on her feet, to keep swinging her axe, cleaving an arm off in a shower of blood, disemboweling another and kicking it away as it's innards spill onto the dirt to be consumed by a nearby Famine Demon.

She doesn't realize that the others have arrived until an arrow buries itself into the eye of a War Demon, Claude's voice shouting an apology. A rock crushes the head of a lesser Demon as Corsica springs past her line of sight, staff in hand and telekinetics alive in her fingers.

"How many did this crazy woman summon?!" Claude shouts over the din, arrow after arrow nocked and fired, dancing and weaving with the rest of them until his back hits Edelgard's and they fight like that, his arrows and her flame, bodies ducking and swinging around each other like two dancers.

"A small army, clearly!" she shouts in response, smoke hissing between her teeth as her axe comes down across the chest of another. "But I noticed that they only belong to the classes she was directly involved with. Wrath, Famine and War." It's the War demons that she's most concerned about, their large hulking frames harder to cut through then the smaller spindly ones of the Wrath or the emaciated Famine. They linger back, the one who lost it's eye making the most noise. The strategists she remembers and she knows of their intelligence compared to the others, recalls how the Hegemon was on par with any human general.

"Duck!" Claude calls and she does, dipping down underneath his body as he leaps over her and she swings around without a need for him to call out the target behind them, axe burying itself and cleaving through the head of the Wrath demon behind her. She stumbles as she straightens, clutching the wound on her shoulder. 

"Hey," Claude says, closer, hand pressed to the one over her wound. "Shit that's bad, El, are you gonna be okay?" She wants to tell him yes, wants to tell him that she isn't flagging, isn't slowing, that her eyes aren't heavy and her vision isn't blurring in and out of proper focus. 

"I'm not sure," she says instead, flicking a glance at him. The fight is dying down, the watching War Demons running out of grunts, and as she looks around at the rest of the team she sees the exhaustion on all of them, leaning on weapons or on each other. Dimitri is gore stained, blood and viscera covering his snout and his fur but she still lets him get close, still lets him push his face against her hip and rumble his worry. "Yes, Dima," she whispers, threading her fingers into his mane. "You might need to carry me out of here."

She feels something press against the lines of her consciousness as she dips, as her vision swims and nearly blackens, something great and alive and angry. She can feel it like scales against her skin, rough and smooth all at once, lava like flame blazing underneath the joints of armor. It reaches wicked claws for her, brushes them against the edges of her skull and she doesn't reach back, instead she pushes, pushes it away and breathes, finding herself leaning heavily against Dimitri's shoulder as both him and Claude try to keep her on her feet.

So the Demonoligst wasn't lying about this either...

The adrenaline drains out of her as fast as it had risen, and the War Demons watch them, remaining in their shadows, red eyes blazing.

"Edelgard!"

"Kid!"

She looks as Jeralt's exclamation leaves him, eyes widening at the sight of Byleth running towards them, covered in dust and dirt and God only knows what else. She risks only half a glance at the waiting Demons before she's at Edelgard's side, hands hovering, worry written all over her face. "Edelgard, you're hurt--again," she rasps, touching her face, thumbs running across her cheeks and her jaw, smearing the blood that had spattered there. "Jesus this is awful." Her fingers brush more, skirting the jagged edges of the bite that sunk through her armor, and she hisses with it as pain sparks underneath even the gentlest touches.

"Well now that you're here," Claude says, glancing at Byleth then back at her. "We can get the hell outta here." 

The creature underneath her skin pushes again, presses against the confines of her bones and digs it's claws into her lungs. She feels herself waver, flickering like a flame, bounding between spectator and subject and it's Byleth's touch that keeps her grounded, that keeps the beast vying for control inside while she battles against the bloodloss and the shock that settles cold in her fingers and toes.

Colder then normal.

----

"Edelgard...your eyes," Byleth whispers, blinking as the other woman looks up at her again, half lidded, half gone. They remind her of the War Demons surrounding them, crimson pooled in onyx and it doesn't take her long to figure out what she's looking at. Just like the video. 

Hegemon.

"I'm fine," Edelgard mutters, squeezing her eyes shut and sucking in a breath. "I just...I need blood and to rest." It's a lie and she's more aware of it then she thought she would be, able to feel the Demon underneath the other woman's skin, pressing, trying to claw it's way out of her flesh and rebirth itself using her body. Byleth knows that she's keeping it at bay somehow, Sothis' whispers of placation and calm an constant reminder.

"I'll give you blood once we get out of here," she says, cradling Edelgard's cheek in her palm. "Then you can sleep and I'll stay with you okay?" She leans in to press her lips against her temple, listening to the way Edelgard's breath hitches ragged around a laugh that doesn't quite make it out.

"After last time, you better not leave."

"I won't," she says. "I won't."

She shouldn't have left in the first place, feeling like a fool for not telling her father she would return once Edelgard had woken up. It was her fault they were in this mess in the first place, her fault for thinking she'd be fine even with the knowledge of Redmayne's interest in her. Stupid rookie mistake, and she'd been making a lot of those lately, the past few months full of things she normally wouldn't ever do.

Exceptions she wouldn't ever make.

"Well, isn't this a sweet little reunion."

Byleth turns to see the CEO standing at the mouth of the cave she'd come from, suit coat draped over her arm and expression sour. The War Demons flock to her, crowding around her like some kind of honor guard. "I had hoped to catch you again before the rest of you showed up, but I shouldn't be surprised you're as crafty as you are." Her eyes shift, blue burning electric as she fixates on Edelgard behind her.

"And you, you're looking a little out of sorts, Hresvelg. I had honestly hoped to do this a different way, but you've left me without much of a choice. I'll just rip the Demon out of you." Byleth watches as her coat drops to the ground, as her skin splits and her body twists in on itself, human form giving way to whatever it is that lays underneath.

"She's a Wrath Demon," Edelgard whispers, hand landing on her shoulder as she pulls herself up to stand beside her. "Her plan was to revive the Hegemon War Demon and bring Demons back into power, to bring humanity back to when they were terrified of them." It means Edelgard knows what sleeps inside her, and it makes her tuck away an errant thought behind the lines of her focus.

"I see my Demonologist decided to talk." All of them look back and the beast standing there now, all whipcord muscle and wicked spikes sprouting from shoulders and back, claws long and electricity jumping between them. She reminds Byleth of a hammerhead shark, teeth triangular and horns spreading out from her temples.

Byleth knows all of them are too tired to fight, that none of them can actually win this. 

Unless. 

"You have to let go," she says, turning to Edelgard beside her, reaching out once again to touch her. "We need the Hegemon Demon to win this, none of the other's can fight and I sure can't win this myself. Medium or not." Edelgard looks at her like she's sprouted an extra head, crimson eyes wide and lips parted in confused shock. 

"Byleth-"

"I can bring you back," she interjects, pressing closer, forehead to forehead. "I promise I'll bring you back." It's a bold claim to make and she knows it, as unsure as she still is about how her power works. But she can't deny that connection she feels with Edelgard, can't ignore the spark she sees blazing in her mind's eye.

Don't worry, Sothis whispers, her presence unfurling in her mind. I'll help you bring her back.

She doesn't sound happy about it, but everyone knows running would only bring the CEO and her War Demons pursuit and they couldn't bring them out into the general populace.

Edelgard looks at her, meets her eyes and gauges her truth, her confidence. She can see her slipping, outfit glistening with shed blood, her skin chilled with a clammy sweat.

"Okay," she whispers after a moment, and Byleth brings her hand to the other's chest. "Okay. I'll do it. I'll give her the Hegemon War Demon. Stand back."

She does, stepping away with the others surrounding them as Edelgard drops to one knee and fixes a merciless glare on the CEO that Byleth only catches a glimpse of. 

Something breaks, bends and warps and she can only watch helplessly as Edelgard's body twists with it. Hands find her head as horns sprout from her skull, curving wicked from the front of her head to the back. It's violent, skin sloughing off in slabs as scale erupts to claim the patches of exposed bone and muscle. Edelgard contorts, gasps, shaking and sobbing silently with the agony of the shift of her body, bone and cartilage snapping to fit the beast pushing it's way out of her limb by limb. She looks away when the gasps turn to hoarse yells and guttural snarls, only able to listen to the wet snaps and pops until silence dips into the cave again.

Silence that heats, blazing with ash and sulfur that draws her attention back to the Demon standing where Edelgard used to be. She's still reminded of her, silver hair still falling down her back in the same ponytail Edelgard always wore. She's reminded of a Dragon, armor cascading down arms and legs, both ending in claws and wicked talons, spikes climbing up from her shins, shoulders and forearms.

The same spikes crawl down her spine between great wings that remain folded at her shoulder blades, ending only where the tail that lashes angrily against the ground begins.

"You wanted the Hegemon," Edelgard says, voice warped and Byleth looks up at the other woman and sees, sees her face split in favor of razor teeth that almost put the Famine demons to shame, scaling covering her chin and jaw and her cheeks. 

"Here I am."