“So. You’ve made it, at last.”
The castle’s dread master stands before them, tall and majestic. He could be carved from marble, Rodrigue thinks, readying his spells. A glance at Glenn tells him that his son is ready, too--more than ready, if he knows that gleam in the boy’s eye. He smiles. Between the two of them, all they have to do is keep the Fell Lord busy until Lambert can score a decisive blow.
“You were foolish to doubt us,” Lambert replies, standing just as tall, just as majestic, whip in hand. Rodrigue would follow him into the pits of Hell themselves. “Prepare yourself, Dracula. Today, your wickedness comes to an end!”
Dracula chuckles. It sounds to Rodrigue’s ears like the rumbling of a coming storm. “Come, then, Belmont. Show me what pathetic tricks the human race has conjured this time to kill the unkillable.”
The fight is quick and deadly. Glenn runs interference with expert swordplay, and Rodrigue has never been more proud. He himself keeps his distance, healing the others when they need it and harrying the Vampire King with the holy power the Goddess has seen fit to grant him. And Lambert…
Ah, Lambert is a vision in blue, every inch the Belmont. His whip cracks with perfect accuracy and unbridled strength. Whenever Dracula gets too close for the Vampire Killer to be effective, Lambert reveals the one-man arsenal he is, stabbing with knives or getting in close to swing with his gauntlets.
It’s all going so well. If Rodrigue were the superstitious sort, he might say it was going a little too well. When it’s clear that both Lambert and the Demon Lord are beginning to flag, he catches Glenn’s eye and nods with a gesture--it’s time. His son knows just what to do. The ritual they unearthed in the castle’s library was like a gift from the Goddess herself, just as they had been worrying over how they would keep Dracula from returning. Glenn’s ducking and weaving takes on a new purpose, maneuvering subtly to get himself into position to place the four crystals that define the ritual’s boundaries. Rodrigue chants quietly to himself as he follows in Glenn’s wake, activating each crystal in turn while he keeps his eyes on the battle.
And what a ferocious battle it is! He almost hates to interrupt it, watching the fierce joy with which Lambert fights, even here in the heart of their enemy’s lair. But of course, he must. The words of the ritual’s final stage upon his lips, he weaves the magic that will banish this monster once and for all. He’s nearly finished when--
A cry of pain nearly jars him out of his casting. His eyes widen to see Glenn on his knees with Dracula’s infernal claw thrust into his back. It takes all the willpower Rodrigue possesses not to abandon the spell and rush to his son, to call out his name...but he must not. He cannot. If he doesn’t complete the ritual, this will all have been in vain.
Lambert shouts it in his stead. “Glenn!” With the fiery rage of a man willing to give everything he has to win, he launches himself at their immortal foe in a flurry of blows. Rodrigue can do nothing to help when even Lambert’s Belmont strength isn’t enough to keep Dracula from seizing him by the throat and lifting him off the floor with one hand.
“It’s over, Belmont,” Dracula says in a self-satisfied purr, squeezing hard. Lambert struggles to no avail. Rodrigue is careful to stay where the vampire can’t see him, to chant in a shaking voice that’s hardly above a whisper, even while tears spill from his eyes to watch this horrific scene unfold. Lambert would want him to finish this, not to throw his own life away in a futile attempt to save him.
Finally, after an agonizingly long and frozen moment, Lambert goes limp in Dracula’s hand. “Quite spirited, wasn’t he?” Dracula muses aloud as he carelessly tosses the body onto the floor. “As for you--” He turns, and his face transforms in fury. “No! What are you--”
Rodrigue reaches out a hand as the crystals glow in answer to his magic. “Goddess take you, you monster,” he seethes, clenching his outstretched fist at the culmination of the spell. The crystals’ light grows brighter and brighter, nearly blinding in its silvery radiance, and Dracula roars as his body stiffens, refusing to obey him.
“How dare you!” The devilish glare of his eyes bores into Rodrigue with red-hot rage, even as he begins to dissolve in the brilliance of captured moonlight. “Curse you, Morris--curse you all! Yes...a curse,” he hisses with renewed maleficence. “I curse the child, the Belmont heir. When next the moon is full on this exact night, at this exact time, that child shall bear the burden of destiny fulfilled. I will return, and he will be my vessel. I will end the Belmont line once and for all!”
These final words echo in the sudden silence of the throne room, as the last vestiges of the Fell Lord dissipate into motes of light. The crystals’ glow dies, leaving Rodrigue alone. He rushes first to Glenn, then to Lambert...but no healing touch can revive them. They are gone. He huddles there on the floor, clutching Lambert’s body to his chest and letting his tears fall upon that beloved face, until the castle shudders and he knows he must go. Absent its master, it will return to its abode in Hell, and Rodrigue has no wish to visit that wicked place.
“Goodbye, Lambert,” he whispers, turning at the doorway to give them one last look. “Goodbye, my son. Rest easy, and may the Goddess receive your souls in joy.”
“Ah, Felix, you’re back!”
Felix grunts at Dimitri and shrugs off his jacket, but keeps his pack with him when he trudges upstairs. Dimitri trails after him. “Felix? Is everything all right?”
“I’m fine,” he grumbles. “I’m just tired. I’m taking a nap.”
“I see.” Dimitri seems to deflate a bit, but he stops halfway up the stairs. “I will wake you when dinner is ready.”
“If you want.” Felix enters the sanctuary of his room and shuts the door behind him with a sigh, pulling off his sword belt and leaning the weapon against the head of his bed. He is tired, but he isn’t sleepy. Bone-weary, perhaps. He lies back on the bed for a few minutes before hauling himself back to his feet to empty his pack. First things first--
“Felix?” A knock sounds and Felix jumps, but it isn’t Dimitri.
“Come in,” he grunts, crouching there with his hand around the handle of the weapon but still inside the pack, until Rodrigue closes the door behind him. Only then does Felix pull the Vampire Killer out and set it on his desk. “What do you want?”
“How did you fare?” Rodrigue stays near the door, as Felix prefers, folding his hands.
“Fine. The demons are dead.” Felix continues to unpack his tools, stowing them away in the hidden drawer under his desk so that Dimitri won’t stumble over them.
“Good. And...how are you feeling?” His tone is cautious, careful.
“I said , I’m fine. Leave me alone.”
Rodrigue sighs. “Will you please tell me what’s wrong? You have been harder and harder to reach lately. I only want to help you.”
“I’m sick of this.” Felix flops back onto his bed again, glaring at the ceiling. “Sick of lying to Dimitri. Sick of carrying that stupid whip. Sick of you and your attitude.”
“ My attitude?” Rodrigue frowns. “I could say the same of you, son.” But he softens. “I don’t like lying to Dimitri either, I assure you. But we must, at least until the prophesied night has passed. We cannot allow him to fall into Hell’s clutches. His father and your brother died to--”
“I know ,” Felix snaps. “They died to banish Dracula, we can’t let it be in vain, I’ve heard it all before, I get it. I just hate all this...sneaking around. And I hate all this talk of duty . We’re not Belmonts. This isn’t our job.”
“Who else will do it?” Felix has no response to that. “Clan Morris has been allied with the Belmonts for centuries, you know that. And it isn’t for much longer. The nineteen-year cycle will end before this year is out. After that, we can give Dimitri’s birthright back to him, as it should be.”
“...I’m not even a good liar, he’s just an idiot,” Felix mumbles.
“Shut up, never mind. Go away, I’m tired.”
Rodrigue sighs. “Very well. Get your rest. I’ve received word that a clutch of cockatrice eggs has been spotted up in the mountains, and--”
“Great,” Felix says, rolling over onto his stomach and pulling his pillow over his head. “Cockatrice eggs. Wonderful. Can’t wait.”
Dimitri tries to be optimistic even when Felix is in one of these moods. He really does. It’s hard, though, when it seems like his brother would rather do anything else than talk to him. And he tries--he tries hard --not to be lonely. He focuses on his studies and his training to keep his mind off the feeling that there’s supposed to be more to his life. And, he tells himself, it’s a disservice to the wonderful family and friends he has to say he’s lonely. He has more than many people do. He has Rodrigue and Felix, Professor Byleth, the Belnades sisters...to say nothing of the comforts of the Morris ancestral home and the wealth they enjoy. He has never wanted for anything.
So why does he feel so often that there are holes in his heart that he can’t fill?
Dinner passes quietly. No amount of coaxing gets Felix to tell him anything about how his hunt went that day, although Dimitri can’t imagine that much could go wrong for someone as skilled as Felix is on a routine boar hunt, so he’s not sure what’s caused this dour mood. He finds that he doesn’t have much of an appetite tonight, either, so it’s while he’s idly sliding a few green beans around on his plate that the sound of the knocker on the front door echoes through the manor.
“Hm?” Rodrigue looks up from his plate. “Who could that be at this hour? You boys weren’t expecting anyone, were you?” They both shake their heads.
The three of them wait in silence until a servant appears. “Lord Rodrigue, you have a visitor. He asked me to tell you that Claude von Riegan is here to see you.”
Dimitri looks to Felix, who shrugs--but they both see Rodrigue’s eyes widen slightly at the name. “I see,” says Rodrigue as he dabs at his lips with his napkin and stands. “Thank you, I’ll meet him at the door.” Felix stands, clearly intending to come along, and so Dimitri follows suit. Rodrigue glances at them but doesn’t object.
When they arrive at the front door, the servant pulls it open for them to reveal a figure huddling under a thick, woolen cloak, its hood pulled up such that Dimitri can’t make out any distinct features. Snow has begun to fall lazily from the sky and the wind has picked up--it’s clear to see that their visitor is chilled to the bone. Before Rodrigue can say a word, Dimitri speaks over Felix’s head (much to Felix’s annoyance). “Please come in, it’s much too cold outside for us to speak on the threshold like this.”
“Ah, much appreciated,” says the stranger, gratefully stepping inside and letting the servant close the door behind him. He shakes the snow from his cloak with gloved hands. “Whew! It really is chilly out there, isn’t it? I’m glad I made it here before true night fell.”
Finally, he reaches up with both hands to pull his hood down, and Dimitri has to suppress a soft exclamation. The stranger is absolutely beautiful in the flickering torchlight, dark curls mussed in fetching fashion from the hood and eyes of a startling green peering up at them as a smile plays over his lips. “I’m Claude. Claude von Riegan.” He holds a hand out to Dimitri, presumably because he’s the one who urged him to come in.
“...hello, Claude.” Dimitri clears his throat when his voice comes out softer than he would have liked and shakes the fellow’s hand. “It is an honor. I am Dimitri Blaiddyd.”
“Likewise, Dimitri.” Claude holds his hand out to Rodrigue next. “And you must be Rodrigue Morris.”
“I am,” says Rodrigue with a welcoming smile, although he still looks a bit stunned. “I must say, Claude, I am quite pleased to meet you, but I had thought the Riegan family had died out long ago.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot around here.” Claude’s smile turns into a smirk. “But I assure you, I’m just as alive as anyone else. This is my first time in Faerghus, though.” He turns to Felix, then. “So you must be...Glenn?”
Dimitri visibly winces, watching Rodrigue’s jaw set and Felix’s face fall into a scowl. “No,” Felix snaps. “I’m Felix. Glenn was my brother.”
“Ah--sorry,” Claude replies. “I guess my information is outdated--makes sense, but I apologize for your loss and my blunder.”
“It’s...fine.” Felix huffs, and Dimitri’s proud of him for making an effort to be almost sociable. “What are you doing here?” ...okay, a weak effort, but still.
“Manners, Felix,” Rodrigue mutters.
But Claude just laughs. “It’s a fair question, me dropping in on you unannounced like this.”
“Surely, this conversation need not occur standing here in the foyer?” Dimitri offers. “Claude, have you eaten? We were just having dinner.” Felix shoots him a look, which he ignores.
Claude’s eyes light up. “I would love dinner, thanks!”
Once they’re all seated and eating again--Claude proves to be quite the voracious eater--Dimitri expects Rodrigue to ask their guest why he came, but he doesn’t. He asks about the trip, talks about the coming snowstorm, reminisces about his own previous journeys through the mountains, but never addresses the elephant in the room, and Claude seems oddly fine with that. Felix doesn’t seem to have noticed, or else he’s just ignoring it. Dimitri’s curious, but the man must have his reasons, so he stays away from the topic as well.
When the time comes to retire to the sitting room for brandy and dessert, Claude finally says, “I bet you must be wondering why I’m here.”
Dimitri can’t help himself. “The question did cross my mind, yes.”
“Ah, but you must be tired,” Rodrigue interjects. “If you’d like, we can wait until morning for all that.”
“Are you kidding?” Claude takes a gogoașă from the plate and turns it over in his hand, looking at it like it’s unfamiliar yet intriguing. “I’ve been looking forward to this the whole way here, I’d rather not wait another minute.”
Dimitri isn’t sure, but he thinks Rodrigue hesitates briefly before smiling. “Very well. Please, continue.” Dimitri glances to his brother, but Felix is steadfastly focused on his drink. He can’t help but think that something seems...off. Normally, Felix would be insisting that Rodrigue quit beating around the bush, or something like that.
Claude’s taken a poorly timed bite of his pastry, but he half-opens his mouth anyway to respond before he seems to realize his mouth is full. He stops to chew and swallow first. “Well, from what you said, you’re already familiar with my family. I’m hoping that means you know something about Riegan lunar magic.”
Lunar magic? Dimitri’s never heard of such a thing, and Felix looks equally perplexed, finally looking up to quirk an eyebrow. But Rodrigue says, “Yes, I’ve heard of it. Are you a practitioner?”
“I wish. That’s actually why I came.” Claude leans forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his knees. Dimitri watches the way the firelight makes his skin seem to glow with warmth and his eyes seem to dance with a sudden intensity. “All I know is that it’s a legacy I can claim. My mother--the Riegan side of the family--never practiced it or spoke of it. I recently learned about it through other means, and the only lead I found to pursue it was your name.”
Rodrigue doesn’t reply right away. He takes a slow sip of his brandy, seeming thoughtful. “I see. Much as you’re welcome to stay here as our guest if you like, you would be better off talking to the Belnades sisters. They’re quite the magical prodigies, and they possess a much more comprehensive library of sorcerous knowledge than I.”
“Belnades, huh?” Claude muses, taking another bite. “All right. Where can I find these sisters?”
“Their estate isn’t far from here. I’ll take you there in the morning and introduce you.”
Claude smiles and sits back in his chair. “Sounds great, thanks.”
They sit chatting companionably on other topics for a little while longer. Finally, Rodrigue excuses himself to go to bed and Felix follows suit soon after, leaving Dimitri alone with the stranger as the fire burns lower.
“So, Dimitri,” says Claude, tucking one leg beneath himself and getting comfortable. “What’s your story? You’re not a Morris, but I think I heard Rodrigue refer to Felix as your brother?”
“Ah, yes.” Claude’s question is a casual one, expected, but the way he asks it makes it seem like he’s delving into some forbidden mystery. “Adopted brother, technically, but we do not see a need to make the distinction. The Morrises were like family to my birth father, as well.”
“Understood.” Dimitri can’t shake the feeling that Claude’s eyes see so much more than what’s in front of him, although he can’t imagine what more there is of himself to see. “I take that to mean your parents are no longer with us?”
“That is correct,” Dimitri replies softly. “They died in the plague that ravaged the land when I was but an infant.”
“I see. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Dimitri smiles. “I never knew them, and while I adore hearing stories of what they were like and their lifelong friendship with Father--that is to say, Rodrigue--he and Felix, and the Belnades sisters, are the only family I truly know.”
“Oh, are they related?”
“To me, yes. They are my half-sisters.” Dimitri swirls his brandy around in his glass, looking into it drowsily. “My birth father was my mother’s second husband, you see.”
Claude nods along and finishes off his own drink. “I don’t suppose you know anything about how your family and mine are connected, do you?”
“Not at all,” says Dimitri. “I was going to ask you the same question. No offense meant, but I had never even heard of your family until tonight.”
Claude laughs lightly. “None taken, I assure you. Unfortunately, I don’t know either. The only reason I even discovered the Morrises was through an old letter I found in my mother’s correspondence.”
Dimitri’s brow furrows. “Forgive me, I fear I am feeling quite tired, but did your mother not explain any of this to you before you left?”
Claude’s smile settles on his face like a wagon in a rut. “She didn’t.” He sets his glass down on the table and stands. “I should let you get to sleep. It was lovely to meet you, Dimitri. I hope we see more of each other while I’m here.”
Dimitri smiles, too, though it’s obvious there’s more that Claude isn’t saying. The man’s entitled to his privacy. “As do I. Have a good night, Claude.”
Claude learns three things the next morning:
First, he learns that everyone else in the house is a morning person and he is by far the last to wake; Rodrigue was kind enough to ask the servants to keep some breakfast warm for him, though.
Second, he learns that Felix is often out hunting, sometimes for days, and spends little time with his family, which seems to disappoint his brother. He leaves for a hunt right after Claude wakes up.
Third, he learns that Dimitri Blaiddyd is adorable with horses.
He learns the last one because just as he and Rodrigue are preparing to leave for the Belnades estate, Dimitri returns from his morning ride, and Claude happens to be waiting for Rodrigue by the stables at the time. He’s going to speak up and say hello, he really is--but just as he opens his mouth, Dimitri opens his and starts talking to his horse, clearly not having noticed Claude there.
“There we are, Aramis, there’s a good boy,” he’s saying as he coaxes the white steed to lift one of its hind legs so he can clean out the hoof with a pick. “I am sorry for speaking so sharply to you back there, but it was very important to move quickly before that bear smelled or heard us.”
Did Dimitri just apologize to his horse?
Claude watches and listens as he continues to pamper his mount--cleaning out the other hooves, brushing out its coat and mane, feeding it apples--and all the while, he keeps up a quiet litany of one-sided conversation. As far as Claude can tell, it’s a stream of consciousness: observations he made along their ride, responsibilities he must see to today, lessons he’ll be taking with someone named Professor Byleth; and then--
“Ah, and we have a visitor, did you know? His name is Claude.” Dimitri runs the brush through Aramis’ mane a few final times and then comes around to stroke the horse’s nose. “He’s quite the mystery, but I must confess, he is positively enchanting.”
Claude’s eyes widen, but before he can continue eavesdropping, the manor doors open behind him and he hurriedly steps away from the stables just in time for Rodrigue to proclaim, “Ah, Claude, there you are. Ready to depart, I hope?”
“Ready and willing,” he replies with a smile, praying to whatever gods might exist that Dimitri doesn’t realize he was listening. He doesn’t get the chance to find out, because Rodrigue’s immediately inviting him to enter their carriage.
The trip takes an hour or so, during which he watches the snowy scenery pass by and grills his host about the Morris and Belnades clans and their history, what kinds of magic these sisters practice, and Dimitri’s family. The answers he receives are, for the most part, annoyingly vague. Which seems particularly odd for nobility, but Claude doesn’t bring it up. Not yet, anyway.
The Belnades estate is more modest than the Morris one, but elegant in its simplicity. Claude expects a valet or some other staff member to meet them as they disembark, but it turns out to be the sisters themselves who greet them: two petite women with long hair so pale it’s practically white and shrewd, strangely colored eyes that study him immediately.
One of them steps forward to offer her hand for shaking with a direct and professional manner. “Hello. My name is Edelgard Belnades. You must be Claude; Rodrigue sent a message ahead to explain the situation.”
“That’s me,” says Claude with a friendly smile. He shakes her hand, pleased that her grip is as no-nonsense as her attitude. “Claude von Riegan. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“I’m sure it is.” It’s not Edelgard who speaks, but her sister, whose arms are folded as she looks him over. “How do we know you’re really who you say you are?”
“I guess you don’t,” he replies, never letting his smile falter. “At least, not until I impress you with my moon magic.” He wiggles his fingers and gives her a wink; she huffs and rolls her eyes.
“Please forgive my sister,” says Edelgard, glancing back briefly. “We have not always had the best experiences with strangers claiming to be witches or alchemists or what have you. This is Lysithea.”
“Then here’s hoping we don’t remain strangers for long.” Claude extends a hand to Lysithea, but she ignores it. “We’ll see,” is all she has to say. Tough nut to crack, huh?
Edelgard gestures. “Come inside. We’ll speak further once we’re out of the cold.”
Soon, the four of them are cozied up by the fire in plush, comfortable chairs. Like the house itself, it’s smaller than the Morris sitting room but lovely, and filled with heavenly warmth. “Not to succumb too much to paranoia,” Edelgard says, sitting with perfect posture and legs crossed like a queen on a throne instead of a sorcerer in an armchair, “but it would go a long way toward earning our trust if you did have some kind of proof of your lineage.”
“I can’t say this is ironclad proof, necessarily, but I do have this.” He pulls off one glove and removes a signet ring from his finger. He passes it over to Edelgard, who inspects its insignia--the stylized crescent moon of House Riegan.
She hands it back with a nod. “It’s good enough for now. So, you’re looking for someone to train you, is that correct?”
“More or less.” Claude slips the ring back onto his finger and the glove onto his hand. ‘Let’s just say that I know of my magical potential, but nothing about it. And I’m told that the two of you are the people to see about magic around here.”
“We are,” Lysithea confirms with utter confidence. “And, more to the point, your family is an offshoot of ours, although our lineages diverged centuries ago. So if you actually have magical potential and you’re not just wasting our time, we should be able to help you.”
“Is that so?” Gears turn in Claude’s mind. His mother has a common ancestor with these sisters, but it was Rodrigue whose name was mentioned in the letter trying to persuade her to return to Romania. They do seem close, but there must be something more that connects the three clans--four, if he counts the Blaiddyds. “Fortuitous for me, then! And, hopefully, for you. I don’t intend to ask for lessons in exchange for simple gratitude, of course. I can offer you plenty of coin, or information if that’s more your style. If neither of those catches your fancy, well, I’m a resourceful guy. I can get my hands on a lot most people can’t.” It’s a bit of an exaggeration, maybe, but he doesn’t expect two practically minded people like the Belnades sisters to take advantage of an open-ended offer too egregiously.
“We can discuss compensation after we know for certain that we can do anything for you at all,” Edelgard says, validating Claude’s expectations nicely. She stands. “Come with us. We can run a few tests to determine whether you’re capable of magic, and if so, of what kind.”
“Tests, huh?” His smile doesn’t waver, but the word sets off a few mild alarms in his mind as he rises as well. “Nothing too invasive, I hope.”
Lysithea scoffs and Edelgard chuckles. “No, nothing of that sort. Though I applaud your caution. This way, please.”
Rodrigue stays behind while the three of them make their way to a much larger room than the one they left; Claude suspects that this is the largest room in the manor, and it has the look of something renovated to serve a different purpose than the original. A ballroom, maybe, he thinks. Now, he might call it a library, or a workshop--a little of both, really. Tall bookshelves line the walls and smaller ones litter one half of the room. The other half is dedicated to low, broad tables and other kinds of shelves containing stranger things. He recognizes some of them as alchemical reagents and common magical tools, but others are unfamiliar. A great ritual circle bounded with glyphs and painted in black takes up the floor of one entire corner. Claude drinks in the sights eagerly, eyes flitting from one thing to another in quick succession.
“Don’t touch anything,” Lysithea admonishes him. “For your safety and for ours.”
“I’m just looking,” he protests, although he won’t deny that he thought about pulling a book or two off the shelves as they passed.
“Uh huh.” She eyes him warily as they congregate around one of the tables and Edelgard searches the shelves nearby for a particular tome, which she sets down and opens, flipping through the pages.
“Here we are.” Edelgard stops flipping and turns the book around to show Claude. Most of it is in a language he isn’t familiar with; indecipherable symbols line the page. He spots a familiar sigil, the same one that adorns the signet ring he wears, alongside a row of others. He can make out the name Riegan near the crest, and a few other familiar names down the row. Belnades is easy to spot right beside his own with its leaf-like crest, as is Morris nearby with its shield-and-sword motif, and Blaiddyd near the end with its many-pointed star. The only other name here he recognizes is Belmont , paired with heraldry portraying stylized dragons on either side of symbology representing mountains, crown, and church.
Edelgard gives Claude a minute or two to look over them before she explains. “Each of the clans you see represented there plays some role in the protection of humanity against the forces of darkness. Several of them are thought to be extinct, although you yourself are evidence that we cannot know for certain.”
Claude hums with interest, studying the rest of them. “The Morrises are listed here, but Rodrigue and his sons don’t seem involved.”
“Not anymore. Rodrigue was, when he was younger, but having a child and losing his wife were effective deterrents. He has since retired.”
“Ahh.” Claude nods, sympathetic. “Which families other than mine are supposed to have disappeared?”
She ticks them off on her fingers. “Cichol, Cethleann, and of course the Belmonts.”
He looks up, unable to hide his surprise. “The Belmonts are gone? I thought they were supposed to be the best monster hunters in the world.”
“ Were is the operative word,” Lysithea says. “The last of them was killed in the field a few decades ago.”
“Damn. That seems like a major blow to the forces of light.” All the more reason, he thinks, to awaken this power of his.
“It is,” Edelgard agrees curtly. “Fortunately, if you are truly able to harness the lunar magic of your lineage, we will have gained another soldier in the fight.”
“Oh? What makes you think I’m into killing monsters?”
“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want to use what you learn.” Edelgard states this as though it were fact--and, to be fair, she’s right. “There are only so many ways to use magic like that. And you strike me as the sort of person who never does anything on a whim.”
She’s perceptive, Claude has to admit. He smirks. “Oh, you’ve got me all figured out already, huh? In that case, do I also strike you as the sort of person who can practice magic?”
Lysithea rolls her eyes. “Don’t be such a fool. These tests take time, and you’ll have to learn a few basics before we can be sure the results will be accurate. And since you clearly can’t even read Enochian, you’ve got a long way to go.”
“Don’t worry, I’m a quick study.” Claude’s eyes turn back to the book, as though knowing the name of the language now will suddenly make it comprehensible to him. (It doesn’t.) “And I’ve got nothing but time, so let’s crack some books, shall we?”
“Unfortunately, we don’t have the same luxury,” says Edelgard. She leaves the book open on the table and chooses another one from the nearby shelf to hand over to Claude. “My assistant, Hubert, will start with teaching you to read a few languages and runic alphabets you’ll need to know. Once you’ve mastered those, we’ll talk magic.”
A light knock on the open door precedes a smooth, quiet voice. “Lady Edelgard? I’m told we have a guest.”
“Ah, there’s Hubert now.” She beckons to a tall man in an old-fashioned suit with pale, almost sallow skin and a fringe of thick, black hair that falls over one eye. The other one is sharp and narrow, its iris such a light green that it’s almost yellow. He’s so thin that Claude might have thought him sickly, if he moved with anything other than perfectly self-assured grace. “This is Claude von Riegan.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Hubert,” says Claude, although he gets the feeling it’ll end up a lie.
“Likewise.” Hubert smiles, and Claude’s pretty sure that’s the truth, if only because it makes him feel hunted.
“Are we finished here?” Lysithea demands. “We’re late for tea and pastries.”
“Yes, for now.” Edelgard turns to Claude. “Join us for tea, won’t you? Rodrigue is welcome to stay, as well.”
“Sounds great! Lead the way.”
“Claude!” Dimitri hisses. “What are you doing?”
“Alchemy.” Claude whispers back without glancing up from his...alchemy, Dimitri supposes. It looks more like an accident waiting to happen, with the little vials of liquid and powders Claude’s juggling in his lap along with a notebook and pencil.
“...you do know there are only two of you, right?” Professor Byleth tilts their head. “Your whispering isn’t subtle.”
Dimitri ducks his head in chagrin, but Claude just gives the professor a winning smile. “Heh, sorry, Teach. Regional finance is great, my mind’s just somewhere else today.”
“On alchemy,” Byleth clarifies.
“Yeah! Look at this--” Shameless, Claude pulls his little project out of his lap and onto the desk. “So we know that phosphorus makes light, right?” Dimitri hadn’t known that, but he nods along with Byleth anyway. “Well, you’ve heard of smokeless fire--” Dimitri hasn’t-- “now I present to you... flameless fire!”
Dimitri opens his mouth to ask how on Earth something without flames can still be called fire, but Claude shows him before he gets the words out. With deft hands, he combines two of the powders and then carefully adds a few drops of some greenish liquid. Dimitri watches with wide eyes as somehow, the liquid bubbles up in a rush and seems to consume all the powder in the vial in a matter of seconds, leaving a flickering flame-colored light in its wake--without a flame to cast it, just as Claude said.
“Claude…” Dimitri breathes, hesitantly holding a hand out for the vial. “May I?”
“Of course. I’m no mere magician--I don’t mind sharing my secrets.” Claude grins and hands over the vial.
Dimitri lifts it to the gray light streaming through the window, watching as the flickering glow slowly dies down. All that’s left in the vial once it’s gone is a small lump of what looks like a black, mottled stone. “This is magnificent!” A smile splits Dimitri’s face as he holds it up for Byleth to see. “Look at that, Professor!”
“Hm,” says Byleth.
“Come on, Teach, you have to admit that was impressive.”
Claude pouts. Dimitri tries valiantly not to laugh, covering his mouth, but there’s no hiding the way his shoulders shake slightly, and Claude sighs dramatically. “Genius is never appreciated in its time,” he laments.
“Oh, Claude, I…” A few more chuckles escape. “I do not mean to belittle your accomplishment, it was extraordinary! I simply...the look on your face…”
“I think it’s time to break for the day,” says Byleth, as straight-faced as ever, although Dimitri can see their eyes crinkling at the corners.
Dimitri agrees to accompany Claude to the Belnades estate for his more esoteric studies. The overcast weather isn’t exactly balmy, but it’s crisp and cool, smelling pleasantly of pine and lichen. Winter gives way to the fringes of spring all around them; much of the snow has melted and snatches of birdsong greet them now when they wake in the mornings.
“Did you learn alchemy from the Belnades sisters?” They ride close together on the winding forest road to make themselves heard over the wind coming down from the nearby peaks. Dimitri doesn’t notice how he smiles to see Claude still wearing the thick leather gloves he loaned to the man shortly after he first arrived.
“Yes and no,” Claude says, taking a moment to inhale deeply with his eyes closed. The air, so he’s said, isn’t this clear and invigorating where he’s from. He hasn’t spoken much of his home beyond that, but Dimitri’s content to let him reveal or not at his own pace. “I’ve studied it before, but here--well, you could say that I’ve... refined my knowledge.”
It takes Dimitri a moment to process this. “Was that--?” Claude winks at him, and he can’t help it--he bursts into spirited laughter so abruptly that his horse stops in startlement.
Claude pulls his mount to a halt a moment later and chuckles, self-satisfied but clearly surprised to see such an enthusiastic response. “Wow, Dimitri, I didn’t know you had that in you. In all these months, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you laugh like that before.”
“I--whew.” Dimitri takes a few deep breaths until his mirth fades to a wide smile. “I apologize, Claude, I merely--your joke caught me unprepared.” He prods his horse forward again.
“Hey, you don’t need to apologize for feeding my ego.”
Dimitri shakes his head. “You are truly incorrigible.”
“So I’m told.” Claude’s impish grin is, perhaps, Dimitri’s favorite of the man’s expressions when it’s genuine. It lights up his eyes like dappled sunlight shining through a canopy of foliage. Beautiful , he thinks, and he doesn’t realize he’s staring until Claude waves a hand in front of his face. “Hey, Earth to Dimitri? I know I’m unbearably handsome and everything, but your horse is starting to drift.”
“O-oh. I, ah…” Dimitri hurries to turn his gaze back to the road ahead. “I am sorry, I...don’t know quite what came over me.” He can tell his face is flushed hot all the way to his ears, and he knows of no remedy for this kind of bone-deep mortification, so all he can do is keep riding and pray that Claude doesn’t think him some sort of...creep. Although...perhaps he is . He silently chastises himself for such inappropriate behavior; just as the other man said, his unbearably good looks are no excuse.
“Don’t worry about it. Just wanted to make sure you’re all right. We don’t want you passing out on horseback or anything.”
Truly, Claude is astonishing--as understanding and kind as he is brilliant and clever, although Dimitri has observed that he does his level best to emphasize the latter pair over the former in other people’s impressions of him. Why, he can’t guess, but perhaps one day he will pluck up the courage to ask.
Claude abruptly hums, tilting his head back and squinting at the sky. “Looks like we won’t beat the rain there, huh?”
Sure enough, even before Claude finishes his sentence, Dimitri feels a cold droplet on his face, and then another. He groans. “And here I was hoping to have a pleasant ride in pleasant company.”
“What, I’m suddenly un pleasant company just because it’s raining?” Claude recoils in mock distress.
“No, not at all.” Dimitri sighs. “I am simply not looking forward to the discomfort of riding for another half hour in sopping wet clothes.”
Claude shrugs. “Hey, at least it’ll give us a good excuse to bundle up in front of the fire with some nice, hot tea when we get there. We’ll look so pathetic, El will have to fulfill our every wish.”
“Ha. Well, I am not so certain that Edelgard will prove as accommodating as you imagine, but we won’t find out unless we get moving. Hya!” He nudges his horse’s flanks and picks up the pace, hoping to outrun the worst of it, at least. Claude follows suit, but it soon becomes clear that Dimitri’s hopes are in vain. They’re already soaked through by the time they reach the stretch of road sheltered somewhat under a sporadic canopy of leaves, and thunder rumbles loudly right on their heels.
The path narrows enough that they’re forced to ride single-file, and Dimitri takes the lead. Mud splashes with every step, coating their steeds’ legs, but getting dirty is far from the first concern on his mind. If the ground continues to soften, they may--
His horse rears at the deafening sound and flash of blinding light. He scrabbles at the reins; it bolts forward. “No--stop, stop!” He pulls hard, to no avail. He tries to look over his shoulder. “Claude?” It’s so hard to see beyond the lashing rain and foliage, at the speed he’s still moving… “Claude!” But if the other man replies, Dimitri can’t hear it. His ears are still ringing from the overpowering boom of the lightning strike.
A few tense minutes pass before Dimitri is able to calm his mount enough to wheel around and gallop back to the spot where they got separated. “Claude?” he calls loudly, heart pounding.
“Over here,” comes the reply, weaker than he’d have liked to hear. He dismounts in a hurry, quickly looping the reins around a branch before he runs toward the voice. All color drains from his face when he sees the felled tree.
“Goddess...are you all right?” He kneels immediately when he reaches Claude’s side, his hands hovering vaguely in the air. The man lies trapped under the thick trunk with only his head, upper torso, and one arm free--though Dimitri can see clear signs in the mud that Claude has dragged himself out as far as he can without aid.
Claude’s face looks ashen-pale, but he summons up a smile anyway. “Been better, been worse. You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
“Do not worry, Claude, you will be fine. I’ll see to it.” His voice comes out more distressed and more rushed than he intended, but he glances up and pushes wet bangs out of his eyes so he can take stock of what he has to work with. “Where is your horse?”
“Spooked and ran off. If I hadn’t jumped out of the saddle, we probably both would have gone down and I’d have been even more crushed--so, you know, small blessings.” Claude follows Dimitri’s gaze and lifts an eyebrow. “You can’t seriously be thinking you can do something about this by yourself, right?”
“Hush, Claude. I’m thinking.” The closer end of the tree is a jagged mess of splintered, singed wood, weighed down with water, mud, and clumped masses of uprooted foliage. The far end is all branches and leaves. The tree is large, but not enormous.
“Dimitri, really, it’s okay. Go bring the Belnades sisters to help. I won’t go anywhere, promise.” He winks, then tries to shift into a slightly more comfortable position and groans in pain.
“Stay still.” Dimitri stands and walks along the length of the trunk, gauging where its weight is centered. Choosing his spot carefully, he crouches and plants his shoulder low against the tree, grasping it tighty with both hands from below.
“...uh, Dimitri?” Claude’s frowning--a rare sight. “What are you do--”
With a grunt, Dimitri hoists from the legs, shouldering as much of the weight as he can and lifting the entire tree several feet off the ground. “Go. Hurry.” He thinks he could probably hold this for a few minutes at least, but the sooner he can put this down, the sooner he can get the injured man out of here.
To Claude’s credit, he only boggles for a few seconds before he takes the instructions to heart and drags himself out from under the tree, clearly favoring his left arm. Once Dimitri is certain he’s well away, he sets the trunk back down and hurries to inspect the other man’s wounds--but Claude waves away his attempt. “Don’t bother. Broke my arm, twisted my ankle, a bruised rib or two. Lysithea can take care of most of it with magic, so let’s get on that horse, shall we?”
“Right, of course.” Leave it to Claude to fully diagnose himself while he’s suffering and stuck with nothing better to do, Dimtiri supposes. “I will be as careful as I can, but do tell me if anything hurts and I’ll stop.”
“If you stop every time something hurts,” Claude grunts, “we’ll be out here forever. Just get moving, I can take it.”
Dimitri shoots him a worried look but obliges, getting Claude situated in the saddle first before swinging up behind him and wrapping one arm around his waist. “Hold on to the pommel,” he says, “and do not let go.” With the other hand he snaps the reins, urging his horse into a gallop. He can’t stand the thought of Claude in pain for longer than absolutely necessary. He won’t allow it.
“Quit being such a baby, Claude.”
“I’m not, you just have a terrible bedside manner!”
“And you whine too much. Now be quiet and let me finish so I can get back to my studies. Honestly, you’re so clumsy I wonder how you even survive.”
“A tree fell on me, Lysithea.”
“I said what I said.”
Claude tries to look offended instead of grinning, but only half-succeeds. “You wound me.”
“No, you wounded yourself .” The mage shakes her head with an exasperated sigh that Claude is pretty sure she thinks is bereft of fondness.
He hums lightly as she goes about realigning his splint and checking the rest of his injuries, most of which have faded over the last few days along with a regular regimen of healing magic. “Well, doc? What’s the diagnosis, am I cured?”
“First of all, you know full well I’m not a doctor. Second--”
“Ah, right, of course. You have to be at least this tall to get a medical license.” He holds his uninjured hand up to a height two inches above her head.
“ Ugh , you complete imbecile!” Lysithea’s eyes flash as she lifts a hand to briefly conjure a palmful of swirling darkness. “We’re done here. One more word of condescension out of you and I’ll show you a cure , all right.”
She harrumphs and tosses her pale hair as she turns and stalks away to the tune of Claude’s laughter ringing across the tall-ceilinged workshop. He hops down from his seat on the desk, flexing his fingers and sitting back down in the chair instead. He reopens the book in front of him to the page he’s marked, but before he can resume reading, a smooth voice interrupts him.
“You really shouldn’t antagonize her, you know. She’s much more powerful than she looks.”
Claude’s smile when he looks up is friendly and empty. He hates the way Edelgard’s assistant can somehow sneak up on him in plain sight. “Hubert! What a lovely surprise to see you this side of sunrise. I’m flattered that you’re so invested in my well-being--really! But Lysithea and I are friends. You’ve heard of those, right? We’re just messing around.”
Hubert’s smile in return is just as empty, and cold as the midnight wind over the mountains. “I see. Well, far be it from me to stand in the way of such friendly threats to your life.”
“Aw, you’re so considerate. Just passing through, or can I help you with something?”
Hubert paces closer to the desk, glancing curiously at the open book. “Nothing of note. I simply couldn’t help noticing that you have been unusually absorbed in the study of hunter clans other than your own since your latest arrival. Is there anything in particular I may aid you with?”
“Nope. Got everything I need, thanks.” Claude’s always suspected that Hubert has been watching him and prying into his studies, but up until now he had no reason to hide them other than to avoid taking a hit to his pride. He still doesn’t, technically--this is what he came to learn, more or less--but the dark mage must be asking for a reason, and no matter what that reason is, Claude doesn’t like it. “Tell Edelgard if she’s that interested in keeping up with my work, she’s welcome to come by herself.”
“I’m afraid Lady Edelgard is much too busy to trouble herself with the likes of you.” Hubert gives him a courteous bow. “Do take care to avoid any unfortunate... cures , Mr. Riegan.”
It doesn’t tell Claude whether El sent her assistant to spy on him or whether the man did it on his own initiative, but no matter. “Don’t worry, Hubert. If anything untoward happens to me, you’ll be the first to know.” Before I will, I bet .
Claude waits an extra minute or two after he’s pretty sure Hubert is gone before he goes back to focusing on the book. He is indeed digging further into the histories and legends behind the hunter clans, because although he doesn’t know a lot about House Blaiddyd, he does know that it isn’t known for absurd, inhuman strength. Neither is Belnades or Morris. So where on Earth did Dimitri learn to hoist entire trees off the ground with his bare hands? Or was it anywhere on Earth at all?
He only notices a few hours’ passage when the shadows grow too long and he’s forced to light candles to keep reading. He doesn’t get much further before he hears brisk, clear footsteps approaching from the hall--not Hubert back to harass him some more, then. Judging by the speed and weight of them, he’d guess--
“Dimitri! I was wondering when I would see you today.” Claude silently pats himself on the back for his deduction when a blond head peeks shyly around a bookcase. It’s hard to see in the dim light, but are his cheeks getting pink?
“Ah--my apologies, I volunteered to aid in gathering extra firewood for these last few weeks of colder weather, and then--”
Claude chuckles. “I wasn’t fishing for an apology. I’m just happy to see you.”
“Oh!” He swears the smile Dimitri gives him could light the room better than any candle. “In that case, I am quite pleased to see you, as well. Will you be joining us for dinner?”
“I will, but first…” Claude taps a thoughtful finger on the page in front of him. “Not to hound you over it, but I’ve been thinking again about you and that tree, and I’ve got a theory. Care to hear it?”
Dimitri sighs, long-suffering but fond, and pulls a chair over to sit next to Claude. “I am certain that you would share it regardless. But yes, please, go on.”
Claude sits back to rest the elbow of his uninjured arm on the back of his chair. “Let’s lay it all out. You’ve told me that you’ve been this strong for your entire life, which rules out some demonic encounter or secret magical relic being responsible. In that case, I must conclude that your strength is in your blood. But, ah! What have we here?”
Dimitri fails to suppress an amused smile at the theatrics as Claude reaches across the desk for another book. The movement jostles his splint and he hisses, wincing. “Claude, please do not overexert yourself,” Dimitri chides, gentle but stern. He retrieves the book easily with his longer arm; the movement brings them closer than they were for the few seconds it takes, close enough that Claude can feel his warmth and smell the faint scents of pine and sweat that cling to him after a day of work in the woods.
“Dimitri, I’m fine , stop fussing! I can move a few books around on my own, I’m not exactly on my deathbed here.”
“I will not stop ‘fussing,’ as you say. You do not take proper care of yourself! What sort of friend would I be, were I not to assist you in your time of need?”
Claude rolls his eyes, but he laughs lightly, holding up his good hand in surrender. “All right, all right. I suppose I can let you be my knight in shining armor one more time.”
Oh, Dimitri’s face is definitely going red now. “There is no need to be dramatic about it.”
“Look who’s talking!” Claude adopts an exaggeratedly deep and formal voice. “I must assist you in your time of need, my dearest friend! Upon my honor, I will-- ” It dissolves into bright laughter at the mortified look on Dimitri’s face.
“I-! Do not sound like that…” Dimitri huffs, but a grudging smile escapes his halfhearted attempt at offense. “At this rate, we will miss dinner by the time you finish explaining your theory.”
“Right.” Claude clears his throat and flips the book’s pages until he finds what he’s looking for: a complex diagram showing the spectra of power sources and types of magic passed down over the centuries to the various hunter clans, and how they branched off and developed or petered out in that time. Dimitri gamely gives it a glance, but between its highly technical format and its Enochian runes, Claude can forgive him his completely blank look.
“The specifics aren’t important,” Claude says, waving his hand. “What’s important is this branch here--the one that ends with House Blaiddyd. Now, you’ve said that your mother wasn’t from a hunter family, so it stands to reason that you get your strength from your birth father. But look at the path from this source of power to the Blaiddyds. It’s entirely divorced from the branch that manifests superhuman strength. There’s no way you inherited it from your father...unless your father wasn’t a Blaiddyd.”
Dimitri blinks a few times. “Not a Blaiddyd? Claude, I...don’t understand.”
“What proof do you have of your lineage, Dimitri?”
“Proof?” Dimitri’s brow furrows. “I...well, none, I suppose. It’s simply what my name has always been.”
“And you have nothing of your parents’ records? Letters, paperwork, nothing?”
“No...nothing.” His face falls, voice soft.
Claude places his hand on Dimitri’s arm. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure out the truth, one way or the other. Is there anything you can remember from your childhood, anything Rodrigue or Felix might have said or done, that suggests that your lineage may not be what you think it is?”
“May not be what they told me it is, you mean.” A faint hint of steel gleams under the words. “You are correct--I have no proof. I have only Father’s word. And…” Dimitri’s eyes dart into the shadows surrounding their island of candlelight. “Honestly, Claude, I have felt for some time now that he and Felix are hiding something from me. I don’t wish to cast them in an untrustworthy light--I trust them absolutely, without question. But…”
“But you feel like there’s a hole in your life that you don’t know how to fill?” Claude prompts quietly. “One whose edges you can only barely see, but that eats away at your dreams?”
“Yes,” Dimitri murmurs, awed. “How…?”
“You’re not the only one.” Claude smiles in sympathy. “Why do you think I had to dig through my mother’s correspondence behind her back to find enough answers to come here?”
“There’s more,” says Claude, pointing to another part of the diagram. “The Blaiddyd clan might not have anything to do with strength like yours, but there are a few that do, and only one of them still persisted by the time your birth father was born.”
Dimitri fidgets as he looks over what, to him, is an indecipherable jumble of lines and gibberish. “Tell me,” he whispers.
Claude turns to catch his gaze. “Dimitri, I think you’re a Belmont.”
Those blue eyes widen--good, at least he’s heard of the clan. “That...cannot be. The Belmonts died out--”
“A few decades ago,” Claude finishes, lifting his eyebrows meaningfully.
Dimitri pales. “Then…”
“You’re a born monster hunter.”
“But why would Father keep this from me?”
Claude shakes his head. “I don’t know, but I’d guess it was to save you from the same fate that befell your birth father. I can’t see Rodrigue having any ulterior motives.”
Wood creaks beneath Dimitri’s tightening grasp. “That should have been my choice to make!”
“Hey, I agree with you.” Claude reaches over to gently pry the man’s fingers from the arm of his chair, lest it snap off. “But we won’t know for sure until you talk to him.”
“Oh, I intend to.” A storm settles on Dimitri’s face, one that Claude hasn’t seen there before, and he stands. “We ride home first thing in the morning.”
“Whoa, don’t you think that’s a bit excessive? Rodrigue isn’t going anywhere.”
“Perhaps not.” Dimitri’s eyes drill holes into the darkness beyond the candlelight. Claude can’t begin to guess what he’s really seeing. “But I cannot abide one more day of these insidious lies.”
Claude pushes out his chair and rises to his feet to rest a firm hand on Dimitri’s shoulder. “Calm down. I’m sure they have a good reason, there’s no need to assume malicious intent. They love you. You’re family. And we don’t have all the information yet. Jumping to conclusions won’t do anyone any favors.”
Dimitri takes in a breath and exhales sharply through his nose. “...you’re right, of course, Claude. I am...fatigued from the long day of work, that is all. Come. Dinner awaits.”
That is definitely not all, but Claude smiles and drops it.