Chapter 17: A Stone-Cold Case

A few minutes after leaving her office, Byleth returned to the Black Eagles’ classroom to see her students talking among themselves. “All right, everyone, listen up!” she ordered, prompting all of them to scramble to their seats as she walked to the center of the room. “You all fought well at Gronder Field, and I’m proud of how far you’ve all come in the past six months. Your next mission will be a little less action-oriented than the last one, but I still expect you all to be in top form.”

“What do you mean by that, Professor?” asked Ferdinand.

“We’ve been asked to assist with the investigation of the origin of the demonic beasts that attacked the town last month.”

“That’s it? Sounds pretty boring if you ask me,” said Caspar.

“The knights found some unusual stones scattered around the pack leader that we defeated. There may still be more out there.”

“More wolves, or more stones?”

“Hopefully only the latter. Your mission for this month is to gather information from any witnesses to the attack. Feel free to share your findings amongst yourselves, but if you do find any strange stones lying about, be very careful around them,” said Byleth, waving her finger around to emphasize her seriousness.

“May I suggest that we get started on this as soon as possible to ensure we can still find any evidence?” asked Edelgard.

“That sounds like a good idea. You can use the weekends and your free time after class to investigate. We’ll continue with the daily lessons and chores as normal, starting tomorrow. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Professor,” said the students.

“To make things more convenient, you’ll be split off into groups of three. Edelgard, since you’re our house leader, you’ll be in charge of one of the teams and get first pick on who goes with you.”

Edelgard got up from her desk and stood next to Byleth, only taking a few seconds to examine everyone before pointing to her two selected teammates. “Hubert and Dorothea,” she said. The other students were bewildered by how quickly she made her decision. “I’ll be counting on you to help us solve this mystery quickly.”

“You can count on me, Edie,” said Dorothea.

“A wise decision, as usual, Lady Edelgard,” said Hubert. “I, of course, have a few theories about our culprit, but it would be foolish of me to divulge that information without examining any of the evidence.”

“Do I have any other volunteers?” asked Byleth.

Ferdinand stood up next after Edelgard returned to her seat. “Allow me to lead one of the groups, Professor,” he said.

Hubert scoffed and scowled at Ferdinand. “How predictable of you.”

“I am not sure what you mean, Hubert.”

“Did you think I wouldn’t notice how quickly you offered yourself to be one of the leaders? Feign innocence all you want, Ferdinand, but your futile attempt to position yourself as Lady Edelgard’s superior is as plain as day.”

“Give it a rest, you two,” said Caspar, groaning loud enough for the whole classroom to hear. “Don’t you guys get tired of arguing like this?”

“There is no argument here, Caspar,” Hubert replied. “I am merely trying to caution Ferdinand not to jeopardize our mission by wasting his time on petty one-sided feuds.”

Byleth interrupted to try to stop the conflict from escalating. “Okay… Um, who would like to lead our last team?”

The remaining students sat in silence for several seconds until Monica raised her hand. “I would, Professor,” she said as calmly and confidently as possible. Once again, everyone remained quiet, save for Hubert, who muttered “Interesting” to himself before looking up at the rest of his classmates.

“Very well, Monica. You can lead the third team. Does anyone else have any objections?”

More silence.

“Good. Both of you can go ahead and pick your two teammates now.”

When the teams were fully distributed, Ferdinand had chosen Petra and Caspar, while Monica teamed up with Linhardt and Bernadetta. Monica was relieved that there were no protests from either side regarding any of the captains’ picks.

“Now that we have our three teams, does anyone have any other questions?”

“I have a question, Professor,” said Bernadetta. “What are you going to be doing while we’re out searching? Surely, you’re not going to leave me – I mean, us – alone to explore the town ourselves, are you?”

Byleth turned to Bernadetta, who had started to curl up into a ball behind her desk. “Not at all. I’ll be investigating as well, but I won’t hover over all of you all the time. All I ask is that you share any new information with me when we see each other. Does that clear things up a little for you?”

“Yeah… I think I get it…”

“With that in mind, this session is now over. I wish you all the best of luck.”

The three teams split up to discuss their mission plans after Byleth left the room. Monica didn’t have to go far to meet with Linhardt and Bernadetta as she was still sitting between them in the back row.

“That was quite nice of you to offer to lead one of the teams, Monica,” said Linhardt. “Thank you.”

Monica turned to her left when she heard Linhardt yawn. “What the-?! Did you really sleep through all that?!”

“It’s best not to think about it,” said Bernadetta, “and better still not to disturb him when he’s sleeping.”

“I’m impressed that Linhardt’s still able to hear everything around him like that. When I go to sleep, I try to tune out everything. It doesn’t always work, but I do try.”

Monica turned to a blank page in one of her notebooks, which had partially been filled up with notes from earlier lectures. The tip on her pen was mostly worn down, but it still worked well enough to write without leaking ink everywhere. She pulled out her chair and pushed it all the way to the back wall to allow herself to see Linhardt and Bernadetta better without repeatedly turning her head back and forth. “Let’s review what we know so far,” she said. “It’ll help us cut down on aimless wandering when we start our investigation. We should probably start with the beasts themselves.”

“I remember Hubert saying something about the leader of the wolf pack having possibly been exposed to a Crest Stone,” said Linhardt. “I don’t know how accurate of a guess that is, but we can’t rule out the possibility. Wild animals don’t grow that large without magic to aid them.”

“Have you guys seen monsters like that before?”

“Not personally,” said Bernadetta, “but a couple of months ago, there was an incident where someone transformed into a demonic beast. They say there was a Crest Stone involved with that one, too.”

Monica wrote down Hubert, Linhardt, and Bernadetta’s statements and tried to use them to draw a conclusion with a few stories she heard recently. According to Leonie and Dimitri, a mission to defeat a band of thieves who had stolen a Hero’s Relic ended in a battle against a demonic beast, with no indication that there were any monsters among the thieves’ party. It became clear to Monica that one of them had transformed into the creature, making it even more necessary to quickly kill him for the safety of the surrounding towns and villages. “Was the Crest Stone itself the cause of the transformation…or do you think there’s something else involved?” she wondered.

Linhardt perked up a little when he saw that Monica was talking about something that interested him. “Professor Hanneman says that Crests are passed down through bloodlines, and that most Hero’s Relics can only be used by members of that bloodline. If someone without a Crest attempts to use a Relic, it can bring about, shall we say…’unpredictable consequences’.”

“Like turning into a giant monster?” asked Bernadetta, shivering and rubbing her arms vigorously.

“Again, it can’t be ruled out,” Linhardt added. “If Crest incompatibility is capable of mutating humans, then it would be easier for the same thing to occur in animals that naturally wouldn’t be related to the Ten Elites. We would have to witness a transformation for ourselves to verify it.”

“What do you think we should focus on first?” asked Monica. “Should we try to search for more of these Crest Stones? Ask the villagers if they know anything? Try to figure out where these monsters are coming from?”

“We’ll have a much easier time solving this mystery if we weren’t all doing the same thing at once. It wouldn’t make sense for all of us to go door-to-door interviewing people, would it? I say we focus on finding more Crest Stones to ensure they don’t fall into the wrong hands.”

“Who exactly would the right hands be, Linhardt?” asked Bernadetta. “If they’re really as dangerous as the Professor says they are, there’s a chance we could get mutated, too!”

“Then we’ll just have to handle them with caution. We should bring any stones we find to Professor Hanneman for analysis.”

Bernadetta looked up and noticed that Edelgard and Ferdinand’s teams had left the classroom building. “Now that I think about it, I’d rather have one of the other teams do the interviewing… I don’t think I’d be able to get much information out of anyone.”

“I wouldn’t mind doing the talking for our group,” said Monica, “but I agree with you guys. Searching for these Crest Stones is definitely the way to go. We’ll need to get some supplies – three pairs of gloves and some bags for carrying any stones we find.”

“I can handle the bags, no problem,” said Bernadetta, smiling for what Monica thought was the first time all day.

“And I’ll secure us some gloves,” said Linhardt. “Let’s meet outside your room after class on Monday, Bernadetta.”

“Why do we have to start from my room? Couldn’t we use yours, Monica?”

“I’d like to offer mine,” said Monica, “but your room is the closest to town. I’d like to do as little walking as possible if we can help it.”

“In that case, I guess I could let you guys come over…but you have to stay outside, and you have to knock so that I know it’s you. Okay?”

Monica, noticing Bernadetta tensing up again, quietly nodded toward her. “Okay! Bernadetta, Linhardt… I’ll see you both after class.” She laughed to herself on her way out, wondering if Byleth had ever used that line on anyone.

Later that afternoon, Monica decided to look for Edelgard and Ferdinand to figure out how they planned to help complete their mission. On her way back to her room, she saw Anna rounding the corner from behind the dorm building. Monica didn’t notice anything weird about that area when she took her last tour, but Anna suddenly appearing from there made her curious. She waited for Anna to finish counting the coins in her pouch before calling out to her.

“Hey there, Monica!” said Anna. “What are you up to at this hour?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” Monica replied. She glanced off to the side to survey the gap between the dormitory wall and the stairs to the sauna, still failing to detect anything unusual. “Anyway, have you seen Edelgard at all today?”

“Sorry… Can’t say that I have. I’ve been really busy over the last few weeks. Buying, selling, searching for new customers, searching for new and rare goods… The life of a merchant is never easy.”

Monica looked at the sword and dagger on Anna’s waist and wondered how often she had to use them to protect herself from robbers. She thought her caravan driver could also have used one to help fight back against Raine’s gang.

“What do you need from Edelgard this time?” asked Anna.

“We’re working together on this big cleanup project,” said Monica. “We think there may still be some stray Crest Stones in town after that big monster attack, and we’re trying to figure out where they came from.”

“Sounds like a big deal, especially if they’ve got you guys on the case.”

“We want to try to get as many of those things off the street as we can. The last thing we need is for someone to pick it up and get hurt, or worse.”

Anna raised her right index finger to her lips and looked to the sky. “It doesn’t sound like they’d be very valuable to anyone…” Suddenly, she had an idea. “Tell you what…since you helped me get my stuff back, I’ll keep an eye out for any of those weird stones for you. What do they look like, anyway?”

“They could be any size, shape or color, really,” said Monica. “I think the ones I saw on the biggest beast were some dark shade of red or purple.”

“Got it. If I find any, I’ll try to keep them safe for you.”

Anna hummed to herself on her way back to her stall in the market, adjusting her sheaths so that her sword and dagger didn’t drop. Monica decided to catch up with Anna later, as her top priority of the moment was coordinating her plans with the other team leaders. She was happy that she could wander the campus without getting confused or disapproving looks from the other students.

She spotted Ferdinand in the common area, staring at Hilda as she swayed back and forth with her hands behind her back. Monica couldn’t see if Hilda was carrying anything behind her back because she was on one of the lower stair levels.

“Come on, Ferdinand!” Hilda pleaded. “Can’t you just close your eyes for a few seconds? I promise I won’t do anything funny.”

“I am not sure if I should,” said Ferdinand, trying to keep his head still. “I need to stay vigilant at all times. Even the slightest lapse of concentration could leave me susceptible to surprise attacks and practical jokes.”

“It’s not a joke. Trust me!”

“I cannot be so sure when you have your hands behind your back like that, Hilda.”

Hilda dropped her smile and the lilt in her voice and placed something in his hands, maintaining eye contact the whole time. “Why don’t you look down and see for yourself?”

Ferdinand was less weary of listening to Hilda when he was able to see what she wanted from him. He looked down at his hands and saw that she had given him a beaded bracelet containing a plate with his name painted on it. “This is very impressive!” he said after inspecting it and checking his hands for wet paint. “You have an excellent eye for craftsmanship. Did you make this yourself?”

“Not all by myself,” said Hilda. “The design is all mine, but Marianne helped me pick out the right beads. That one’s all yours.”

Ferdinand slipped the bracelet onto his left wrist, surprised by how easily it fit without any adjustments. “Thank you very much!”

“I’m glad you like it. I made one for everyone in the Golden Deer, and I wanted to get some feedback from others to see if they’d like some, too.”

Monica waited for Hilda and Ferdinand to notice her before approaching, hoping to avoid a repeat of her first day back on campus.

“Is this a new friend of yours, Ferdinand?” asked Hilda.

“Yes, she is,” said Ferdinand. “Monica, have you met Hilda yet?”

“Not until now,” said Monica, holding her hand out for Hilda to shake, “but it’s always nice to meet someone new.”

Hilda hesitated for a second before lightly gripping Monica’s hand. “Monica…Monica… I think I remember hearing your name from Claude. You were here last year, weren’t you?”

Without offering any details, Monica answered, “Yeah. It wasn’t the best of experiences, that’s for sure.”

“Oh… Well, at least you’ll have a chance to make things better for your last few months, right? Word of advice, though: try not to sneak up on people like that. If Ferdinand hadn’t introduced me to you, I’d have mistaken you for some kind of spy! You can’t be too careful about spies these days.”

“Sorry… I’ll try to be more careful from now on.”

Monica admitted that the circumstances of her return raised more questions than answers. She wanted to try to finish the school year without any issues despite everything she’d been through, but fighting monsters and bandits weren’t making things easy. Hilda’s suggestion of someone in Garreg Mach being a spy didn’t sound too crazy, given how easy it was for the demonic beasts to find and attack the town. That information was sure to come up in the Black Eagles’ investigation of the incident, but it would be up to Edelgard or Ferdinand to figure it out.

“I should probably get going,” said Hilda. “I wanted to relax a little more, but I’m due over in the training arena. I don’t understand why Professor Hanneman wants us to get all worked up now. We’ve got until the end of the month to complete our house’s mission…”

“What’s your house working on this month, Hilda?”

“Lady Rhea wants us to take a ‘pilgrimage’, as she calls it, to the Eastern Church. I have a few friends who live around that area, and I hope I get to see them while we’re over there. I’ve never been to that church myself, but it can’t be nearly as chaotic as what’s going on with the Western Church…”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Monica warned. “If Claude or Professor Hanneman is making you train extra hard for this, then they’re probably expecting something bad to happen along the way.”

“That’s just what I’m afraid of…”

Hilda casually strolled past Monica, taking quiet breaths to conserve her energy on her way to the arena. Monica waited for Hilda to walk past the garden before turning to Ferdinand. “Wow! That’s a nice-looking bracelet you have there,” she said. “Hilda must really like you if you were one of the first people outside of the Golden Deer to get one.”

“Do you think so?” asked Ferdinand. “She said she was looking for feedback on her designs, so I think more people might get some later.”

Monica wanted to see one of Hilda’s bracelets but considered it inappropriate to ask for one when they’d only known each other for a few minutes. She also worried whether Constance would get jealous of her accepting gifts from others.

“Anyway,” said Monica, lowering her voice slightly, “I wanted to ask you – and Edelgard, wherever she is – about your plans for our big mission. I’m going with Linhardt and Bernadetta to look around for Crest Stones, assuming the knights didn’t already collect them all. It’s possible that the big beast we killed may not be the only one that has them.”

“That makes sense,” said Ferdinand. “While you are doing that, I will take Caspar and Petra to follow the tracks of these monsters.”

“Are you sure you’ll be okay just leading a team of three?”

“I understand your concern, Monica, but all I wish to do right now is search for their habitat. Once we have assessed the potential danger, we can more accurately determine how much manpower we will need to face this threat.”

“I guess that leaves Edelgard’s team to interview the witnesses…”

Ferdinand turned away from Monica, making a noise that sounded somewhere between a hum and a cough.

“What? Are you afraid that Edelgard won’t do a good job?” she asked, frowning at him.

She is not who I am most worried about,” said Ferdinand.

“Really? Then who?”

“Hubert is…let us just say ‘difficult’ when dealing with people other than Edelgard. I fear he may go overboard with his questioning, especially if he thinks her safety is on the line.”

“I’m sure she has her reasons for keeping him around that aren’t just based on personal loyalty. It would be nice to get the information we need by having someone like Edelgard or Dorothea sweet-talk everyone. Of course, there are people who wouldn’t be so easily swayed by such talk. You know…people like Hubert.”

Ferdinand laughed along with Monica and then looked around to make sure Hubert or anyone working for him wasn’t eavesdropping. “Regardless, I believe it is important that we all put forth our best efforts this month,” he continued, “not only for the Professor’s sake, but also to put the minds of the townspeople at ease.”

“Yeah. If we can figure out where those monsters are coming from and why they attacked us, then I think they’ll be happy. I just hope we don’t have to fight another one of the big ones again for a while…”

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