Byleth had known something was up when she opened her eyes that morning to find Claude already wide awake and staring at her. Perhaps she should have found it rather sweet, that he was watching her sleep, but the expression on his face just screamed that he was up to no good and it had set her immediately on edge. Well, not on edge per se, but she’d definitely been wary when he’d all but leapt out of bed to fetch a folded set of clothes for her the moment she opened her eyes, a mischievous glint in his own.
“That’s your scheming face,” she’d said, taking the clothes and peering at him distrustfully.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he’d said like she’d insulted his entire lineage. “Get dressed, I've got plans.”
Despite the fact that he’d effectively confirmed her suspicions, Byleth had abluted and dressed without comment, momentarily distracted from Claude’s suspicious behaviour by the sheer joy of finding that her outfit consisted of trousers. Trousers! And a simple shirt! At last! Light and soft but durable and resilient and though she’d still been deeply suspicious of Claude’s plans, she’d been so ecstatic to wear something more practical than the flowing robes she’d been wearing constantly since they arrived that she’d decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and follow along with his whims.
And currently she finds herself wondering why she’d ever doubted Claude at all.
Najima and Reus are waiting for them outside on that great platform in the mountainside, saddled and harnessed and ready to take off at once. Reus wriggles when he catches sight of her, thrusting his snout into her chest the moment she approaches, snuffling at her like an oversized puppy and purring when she scritches under his chin. His scales are shining in the late morning light and he looks happy and well-fed, but that doesn’t quite ease her guilt at having neglected him for so long, though he’s so happy to see her that it soothes her misgivings considerably.
She checks over the straps on his back and chest, making sure the buckles are fastened well, and she’s intrigued by the strange saddle sitting between his wing joints, less bulky than the one she always fits him with, little more than a padded diamond of cloth that molds to the curves of his spine.
“It’s built for speed,” Claude explains, tightening one of Najima’s own straps. “The saddles you’re used to are for long-distance and battle. We won’t need those today. Today you’ll get to learn what flying is really like.”
Byleth can’t deny the rush of excitement the notion sends thrilling through her chest as she climbs onto Reus’ back. The saddle isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world, too thin to afford much protection from the hard scales of Reus’ back, but when he moves she can feel every twitch of his muscles, feel the way they coil and tense as he strains impatiently towards the sky. This way, she can move more easily in synchronicity with him, bank when he banks, dive when he dives. She understands now that the Almyrans have developed these saddles so that rider and wyvern can move as one.
Claude ties a pack to Najima’s saddle and mounts her quickly, waving the attendants away when they step forward to assist him. He winks at Byleth and guides Najima towards the very edge of the platform.
“Try to keep up, dearest,” he calls to her over his shoulder and Najima roars deafeningly before throwing herself off of the platform into a steep dive.
Byleth laughs and guides Reus to follow, heart lurching with a heady mix of fear and excitement as his entire body uncoils like a tightly bound spring released, wind rushing through her hair as they spear through the air like an arrow, and when the ground falls away beneath them, opening up into the vast, burnt orange of Almyra far below, she cannot help the wild cry of exhilaration that bursts out of her.
Below them, starkly white against the dark landscape, Najima corkscrews through the air in a tight spiral, flaring her wings at the last moment to catch the updrafts and soar back up into the sky. Reus bellows joyfully and swoops up to join her and as they near her Byleth can hear Claude’s delighted laughter faintly over the rush of the wind.
“Do you see the edge of the forest?” Claude calls down to them, pointing towards the horizon where a dark slash of grey sits between the verdant sea of pine trees and the violent orange of the desert. She nods and Najima dips lower to their level, great wings spread wide as she glides easily on the currents from the earth below. “That’s Qabr Hadidiun. The Iron Tomb. That’s where we’re going.”
Curious, Byleth looks towards their destination, squinting to try and decipher what it is that awaits them. From this far away it’s hard to make out, the dark shadow on the landscape that borders the desert and the forest refusing to be defined from a distance. The lure of the unknown is strong, and Byleth touches her knees to Reus’ sides, urging him eagerly forward. He responds instantly with a powerful beat of his wings and Byleth gasps as they’re propelled forward at a speed she’s never experienced, slicing through the air like a honed dagger.
The saddles are a marvel of engineering she finds, crafted expertly so that they might move as one. Byleth gets to experience the exhilaration of flying as intently as Reus must, almost as though she’s being carried forward on her own wings instead of his. He careens through the air like joy incarnate, as though he’s quite forgotten the rider at his back and he and Najima soar around and around each other in a beautiful dance so perfect and wild it could never be choreographed. All Byleth can do is grip the reins and flatten herself to his back, swept along by his radiant jubilation.
They fly for just long enough for Byleth to forget what it is to be confined to the land, existing so separately from what is below and what is above, that when their wyverns finally level out into a languid guide she feels as though her head is still spinning and her limbs do not belong to her. She can feel every breath in Reus’ lungs expand hers, every beat of his powerful heart rock through her own chest. She feels unbound and limitless and it’s in the midst of discovering the intoxicating sensation of true freedom, that she gets to watch Claude do the most stupid and irresponsible stunt she has ever seen him attempt before in her life .
Before she can even think no don’t— he is throwing himself from Najima’s saddle and somersaulting through the air like an acrobat, yelling and tumbling down through the air at such a speed that Byleth feels her own stomach drop. He spreads his arms out, exhilarated cries snatched away by the wind, and panic sets in like a vice around her heart as the ground rushes up to meet him.
But just before the ground can claim his life, Najima swoops underneath him and catches him safely on her back, spiralling back up through the air as he clutches her round her neck, expression wild and fierce with frenzied elation. She evens out so he can right himself and then they’re easing into a slow descent towards Qabr Hadidiun while Byleth has a mild heart attack in her saddle.
Reus follows them down without a word from her to do so and Byleth finally gets to see what the Iron Tomb actually is. It’s a huge stone temple, a pantheon with huge ivory columns holding up a long arching roof, wide stone steps below it leading down towards the umber sand of the vast desert they’ve crossed in seemingly no time at all. The forest looms up behind it like a wall of shadowed green, regal trees taller than she's ever seen standing silently sentinel over the forgotten temple.
Reus alights rather roughly, panting heavily and slumping onto the stone of the temple’s forecourt. Byleth carefully dismounts, her own legs unsteady, and has to clutch his neck for balance while she remembers how to stand. Claude is nowhere near as steady, to her amusement, trembling with adrenaline as he rolls off of Najima into a heap on the ground. He laughs breathlessly, hair a snarled mess and cheeks tinged pink from the wind.
“You’re an idiot,” Byleth tells him. He gives her a shaky thumbs up. “You could’ve died.”
“Yup,” he pants, grinning. He struggles to his feet, using Najima’s leg as a prop. “Except no because Najima would never let that happen, would you, girl?” She turns her great head toward him and regards him for a moment before parting her jaws and licking him from jaw to hairline. “Oh, gross!”
Byleth snorts, patting Reus’ neck as she takes a step towards the pantheon. “What is this place?”
There’s something in the air here, similar to the strange, otherworldly presence that she had felt thrumming in the Holy Tomb at Garreg Mach, or in those faded, dreamlike moments when she’d stood before Sothis. There is power here, she can feel it, but it is deeper and far, far older than the power she’d grown used to from the progenitor god. It’s an uncanny sensation to be standing in a place that feels older than the god named as the beginning.
“The Iron Tomb,” Claude says, untying the pack from Najima’s saddle and hefting it over his shoulder. He steps up behind her and takes her hand. Perhaps he can feel her unusual disquiet, or perhaps he just wants to be close to her. Both options are reassuring. “It’s not made of iron, so it’s seems like a bit of a misnomer, but I think it fits and you’ll see why. Come on, I’ll tell you about it inside.”
And inside is… Remarkable.
The doorway is humble for such a vast monument, a doorless entrance set within a ridged frame chiseled from the surrounding stonework. It’s a misleading entryway in that it hides the sheer size of the room within; an unbounded hall interspersed with similar columns to the ones set outside, supporting a high arching ceiling. Their footsteps echo almost endlessly through the cavernous hall and Byleth’s soft gasp is almost deafening when it reverberates through the stillness.
Before them lie rows and rows of rusted swords, each varying wildly in craft and design, driven blade first into the ground like unusual gravestones. And Byleth suddenly understands the name, but that small sense of comprehension pales in comparison to the sudden intense desire to know what this place really is.
“Oh, now I feel bad,” Claude says, watching her face. “You want to know why they’re here.”
“Yes, of course I—“ She breaks off, tearing her gaze away from the blades to stare at him. “You don’t know ?”
Claude shakes his head. “No one does. It’s been here since before the city was built. There are no records about it, no explanations in any of the texts. It’s just something that is. There are hundreds of mysteries like it in the world, some explained and some not, and as much as it drives me crazy, I quite like not knowing.”
“It’s… Incredible,” Byleth breathes. “I can’t believe it. There’s really no information about it?”
“Not a scrap,” Claude says, leading her through the rows of forgotten weapons. “Some religious factions heralded it as a place of power, made pilgrimages to it, but it died out a couple of centuries back. Some people still come here, but it’s more for sightseeing than veneration.”
“There is power here,” Byleth confirms, reaching out to touch the hilt of a nearby claymore but snatching her hand back at the last moment. It feels wrong to disturb something so inexplicably hallowed. “I don’t know how to explain it. It feels… Old. Ancient. And powerful. Something sleeps here but I can’t understand what it is.”
“Oh, good, that's not terrifying at all,” Claude says, laughing nervously.
“Don’t worry, I don’t think we can wake it.”
“Byleth, I am begging you not to say anything else. For my sanity and also in the interest of leaving my britches unsoiled.” Claude’s hand tightens around hers. “Might never come here again, actually. Might never sleep again.” He glances at her out of the corner of his eye. “You can really feel something?”
“Yes.” She stops amid the weapons, tugging his hand to make him stop too. He turns to her, confused, and he stills when she steps forward to cup his face, leaning her forehead against his.
She doesn’t know why she does it, doesn’t know what it is that tells her that she can do it, but when she touches her forehead to Claude’s and closes her eyes, she lets her consciousness drift away from her, into that hazy place between wakefulness and sleep. It feels like second nature to do it, like blinking or taking a breath, she doesn’t have to think about it, just lets the power in her body - her crest - shimmer and expand like a single ripple in a pond. It drips down through her body and into the ground beneath her, humming in her ears like the first roll of thunder in a summer storm and prickling along her skin like the static of the lightning that follows. At her whim Sothis’ power bleeds down into the ground below them. And from far beneath, somewhere hidden and unknown, a fathomless power answers.
“Holy shit!” Claude cries, jerking away from her. “What— What the fuck— What the fuck?!” He clutches his chest, fingers clenching into his shirt. “You can feel that?!”
Byleth nods, overwhelmed. “I told you I couldn’t explain it. Better to show you.”
“I’m terrified,” Claude says, eyes wide. “I’m terrified and awed and a little bit aroused, I’m not going to lie to you.” He reaches out to take her hand again. “You’re incredible.”
She flushes and shushes him. “Let's move, I don’t think we should stay here too long. If we’re curious about whatever sleeps here, then there’s every chance it might be curious about us, too.”
“And we're moving!” Claude says, a touch frantically, and drags her through the hall. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but never do that again. My tiny, mortal mind can’t handle it.”
“Noted,” Byleth says, unoffended. “I’m not sure I want to.”
Momentary terrifying encounters with ancient unknowable forces of power aside, Byleth is more curious about where Claude is leading her than the entity slumbering below. The only furnishing in the hall seems to be his destination; a moth-eaten curtain draped along the far wall, held up by large iron nails hammered into the stone. He lets go of her hand when they reach it, grabbing one corner to pull it back and revealing a hidden, crumbling hole in the wall just big enough for a person to fit through.
“While I would normally say ladies first, I have to make an exception on this occasion.” He grins and ducks through the hole, calling out a moment later. “Okay, come through!”
Perplexed, Byleth follows.
And her jaw drops.