Chapter 19: Handle with Care

After her short pep talk with Mercedes, Monica searched the first-floor dorms for the door with Bernadetta’s nameplate on it. It took a few moments for Bernadetta to answer the door after Monica knocked on it. Monica heard the sound of a desk drawer opening and closing, but because the bedroom door was firmly locked, she had to use her imagination regarding what was happening on the other side.

“Who’s out there?” asked Bernadetta.

Monica calmly identified herself, wondering why Bernadetta still sounded so jumpy even from the safety of her own room.

Slowly, the door opened, with Monica just able to make out one of Bernadetta’s eyes and a tuft of unkempt purple hair in the gap. “Is Linhardt out there with you?”

Monica looked around and saw several students wandering around the field, none of whom looked like they could fall asleep at a moment’s notice. “Not yet,” she said.

“Good.”

“‘Good’? But the three of us agreed to get together to do the Crest Stone clean-up.”

“I know, but I’m busy working on something, and I don’t want him to see it until it’s done.” Bernadetta murmured something to herself in the unlikely event of anyone other than Monica listening in on her. Curious, Monica leaned in and waited for Bernadetta to repeat what she just said.

“Linhardt’s birthday’s coming up in a few days, you know.”

“Oh, really?” Monica turned away from the door, hoping Bernadetta wouldn’t see her smirking. It sounded like Bernadetta was making or planning to buy something extra-special for Linhardt’s birthday and wanted to keep it a secret from everyone, including her. “Where’d you hear this?” she asked, making a mental note to learn the rest of her housemates’ birthdays.

“I overheard Caspar talking about it,” said Bernadetta.

“Maybe I’ll make him something, too. Do you know what kind of food he likes?”

“There’s never a bad time to eat ice cream, I say.”

The answer came not from Bernadetta, but from Linhardt, who walked behind Monica to hand her two pairs of white rubber gloves. Monica didn’t want to ask how much of her conversation he’d heard. She figured it was his own fault if he wanted to spoil himself over Bernadetta’s surprise for him. When Bernadetta heard Linhardt’s voice, she ducked back into her room for a moment to retrieve three small red pouches to show to her group.

“These are pretty cute, Bernadetta,” said Monica as she handed over one of her sets of gloves in exchange for one of Bernadetta’s pouches. “The little black eagle patch is a nice touch. Did you make these yourself?”

“Yeah! Do you like them? I spent all day yesterday working on them.”

When Bernadetta saw Monica and Linhardt’s carefully styled hairdos, she dashed to her mirror to brush her hair with her hands to undo some of the scruffiness.

“Your hair’s just fine,” said Linhardt.

Bernadetta kept brushing until she got most of the hair out of her eyes, only coming back out when she had both her hair and her uniform in place. “A-are you sure?”

“Yes. Let’s get started on this project while there’s still enough light for us to see where we’re going.”

Monica readied her gloves and waited for Bernadetta and Linhardt to do the same before walking to the front gate. There was little time for her to join Ignatz and Flayn in the dining hall, so she bought a banana and a few chocolate bars from the food market so that she would at least have something to eat while she was out. Linhardt and Bernadetta bought a couple of small snacks to carry in their bags, planning on taking them out when they started collecting stones to avoid possible food contamination.

“Uh, Monica…why do you have your sword with you?” asked Bernadetta.

“Well, we are stepping outside the monastery,” Monica explained, “and the Professor isn’t going to be there to help us all the time. I’m not very good with magic, so I’ll feel safer with this by my side even if it is a little conspicuous…”

“Should I go back to my room and get my bow?”

“Bows and arrows might be a bit much for what we’re doing. I think you’ll be okay with just a lance or a club.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable holding a weapon in my hands,” said Linhardt. “I’ll defend myself if I must, but only with magic that causes as little bleeding as possible.”

Bernadetta didn’t want to be left defenseless in the event of a surprise attack, so she bought a simple lance from the armory. Even if they didn’t run into any enemies on their journey, she thought it would still make a decent walking stick.

They set off toward the west side of town, where most of the smaller wolves were first sighted. Shattered windows and dented doors were commonplace, and claw marks were haphazardly drawn across the dirt where most gardens used to be. Only a few people felt safe enough to open their doors, and most were only doing so to repair what they lost in the attack.

Monica and her friends searched the area for any unusually shaped or colored stones. There wasn’t much for them to put in their bags, as they believed that the Knights of Seiros would have picked up anything that was lying in the open during their first and second patrols. They thought some stray stones may have disappeared into the grass, but they wouldn’t be allowed to search without permission from the owners.

Monica walked toward the door of a house with its outer walls painted white. Aside from a few gaps in the wooden fencing, it looked like it was still in good shape.

“What do you want?” a voice asked after Monica knocked on the door.

“Hi! Um…may we speak with the owner of this house, please?” she asked back.

There was a short pause, followed by the same voice calling from the left side window. It sounded like a teenage girl, but it was hard to see who was addressing them with the curtain in the way. “Who wants to know?”

“We’re from the Officers Academy, and we’re helping with the investigation into the monster attack from a few weeks ago.”

“Wait right there.”

A moment later, a brown-haired man in loose-fitting slacks and a plaid, paint-stained shirt answered the door. “So, the archbishop is sending kids to do her work for her, huh?” he said. “What, are the knights taking a vacation or something?”

The man looked at the student trio with disapproval. The young girl who answered the door – his daughter, from the look of it – looked out the side window again, this time revealing her face and also looking at them with suspicion.

Looks like we’re already off to a bad start, Monica thought. Maybe we should have started with a different house.

She took a deep breath and tried to ignore the man’s insult so she could get some information out of him. “Sir,” she said, “we’d like to solve this incident as quickly as possible so that we can stop attacks like that from happening in the future. If you can provide any information for us, such as whether you saw where the monsters were coming from, or if they left anything weird behind – rocks, stones, crystals, or whatever – it would be greatly appreciated.”

“You’re going rock hunting?!” the man said with a laugh. “I was hoping that you academy nobles had better things to do than to dig around in the dirt, but I guess I was wrong.”

“We may not be dealing with any ordinary monsters here,” said Linhardt. “A large wolf with unusual crystals protruding from its body was spotted on the edge of town, and we think that the other monsters accompanying it may have been powered by a similar source.”

“What makes you think you’ll find anything here? I sure wasn’t going out there with all the screaming and howling. If you want to go scrounging around here for weird rocks and wolf carcasses, then be my guest. Just don’t touch anything on my lawn.”

The man’s daughter left the window and approached the door again, with him holding his left arm against the door frame to block her from stepping outside. “Dad… Wasn’t there some other kid wandering around here earlier, looking for the same thing?” she asked.

“Yeah. A little guy, maybe a few inches shorter than you. He was with a pair of monks, I think. Judging by how eager he was to pick the trash up and how closely they were following him, it looks like they think he might have something to do with it.”

“Do you know which way they went?” asked Bernadetta.

“To the south side,” said the daughter. “One of the monks said that’s where most of the action was. If you want to catch them, you’d better move quickly.”

“We’ll get right on it,” said Monica. “Thank you for your time.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said the father with a dismissive wave of his hand.

Monica and her friends looked at each other, feeling disappointed as the man shut the door behind him. “Maybe we should just move on,” she said.

“It’s probably for the best,” said Bernadetta.

The trio headed southward, filling their bags little by little with any possible Crest Stones but staying away from the grass to avoid upsetting any more townspeople.

“Linhardt…” Monica called as they stopped at a fountain marking an intersection to eat some of their snacks. “Are you sure Professor Hanneman can find evidence of Crests in non-organic objects? I thought his machine only worked on people.”

Before she helped foil the monster attack, the last time Monica thought seriously about Crests was a few days after her initiation, when Hanneman called her into his office to determine whether or not she had a Crest in her blood. It didn’t surprise her when she tested negative – neither of her parents talked about Crests very often, so she assumed they didn’t find them as important as most other noble families did.

“It has to be possible,” said Linhardt. “Considering how much of his time he says he’s spent researching Crests, I’d be surprised if his machine didn’t have a setting for it.”

Although they were unable to get permission from one of the townspeople to search around his house, it turned out that the team’s visit wasn’t a total waste. Over in a grassy field near the southwest corner of town, they noticed a dark-skinned teenage boy picking through the grass with gloved fingers. A short-haired, white-robed monk stood a few feet away from the boy and watched him closely, while a slightly shorter monk with curly black hair watched the other townspeople go about their business. “Are you the students from the Black Eagle house here to help with the investigation?” she asked.

“Yes, we are,” said Monica. “I’m Monica, and this is Linhardt and Bernadetta.”

“If it’s Crest Stones you’re after, then we already have this area covered,” said the first monk.

“Good, because we’d like to know if—”

The boy stood up and turned around to greet the new arrivals. “It’s okay,” he said. “I can take care of it.”

“Wait a minute…you’re making him do all of the clean-up work between you?”

“They’re not making me,” he insisted. “I asked to help. I’m used to doing stuff like this.”

“Cyril here wants to help Lady Rhea as much as he can,” said the second monk. “We tried to warn him of the potential dangers of these stones. We eventually agreed to let him help as long as he wore proper protective equipment.”

Monica still didn’t agree with the monks putting someone as young as Cyril at risk, but she admired his determination. “Um… Hi, Cyril… May we take a look at that stone you just picked up?” she asked.

“Only for a moment,” said Cyril. “I gotta take these over to Lady Rhea as soon as possible.”

Cyril opened his bag to show them the stones he picked up, holding onto it tightly to prevent it from being stolen. Hidden underneath a pile of ordinary rocks and pebbles, Monica saw a fractured, purple-tinted, pointy-edged rock that was twice as big as the others. It reminded her of one of the stones she saw on the giant wolf, but she didn’t know for sure because it didn’t have the same glow. She, Linhardt, and Bernadetta were unable to find a stone that big in their own bags. A few of their stones had the same tint or similar rough shape and texture, but not both.

“Whoa! Where did you find that one?” asked Bernadetta.

“It was sitting a few feet away from the main gate,” said Cyril.

“That’s where we fought that big, creepy wolf thing!”

“It must have been sitting out there for a while because I don’t think the knights spotted it when they were dealing with the monster corpse. I think this piece I found might have fallen off while you guys were fighting it.”

“Then that means we’ve lost a good deal of research material,” Linhardt lamented. “We’ll just have to work with what we’ve gathered.”

“Do you think we have enough?” asked Monica, looking at her stash a second time.

Bernadetta looked inside her stone-filled bag, and then at the sky. “Even if we don’t, I don’t think we need to be out here much longer. It’s getting late, and I need to get back to my room to, uh…study!”

“Is that all you’ll be doing, Bernie?”

“Okay, maybe not just to study,” said Bernadetta as she took a bite out of one of her chocolate bars. “A girl’s gotta take time to relax, too, you know!”

Cyril and the two monks talked to each other for a few moments, with one of them pointing out how the sun was setting.

“I should probably get going myself,” Cyril said to the three students. “There’s still lots of work to be done. Maybe we’ll run into each other again sometime.”

“See you later, Cyril,” said Monica. “Try not to tire yourself out, okay?”

Cyril’s group took the quickest route possible back to the cathedral, and Monica’s group waited for a moment to survey the area for any enemies that might have snuck in while they were talking. A sudden cold, southerly wind made the girls reach for their weapons. The bushes dotting the field didn’t make any unusual movements. Still, they didn’t want to be responsible for allowing any intruders to find their way into town where the patrols were lighter.

On their way back to the market square, they asked a few of the knights to double-check the area where they met Cyril. Linhardt, who had willed himself awake with the promise of finding Crest Stones, looked ready to fall asleep by the time they reached the gate dividing the town and the monastery. “I don’t know about you ladies,” he said, “but all that walking has tired me out. I think I’m going to turn in for the evening.”

Monica couldn’t resist yawning herself – she had spent most of the day on her feet and wanted to rest as much as Linhardt did. As much as she wanted to get her job done quickly, her desire to get a fresh start the next day was stronger. “That’s actually a pretty good idea,” she said. “Do you think we’ll have enough time to give these to Professor Hanneman before class tomorrow morning?”

“I’m not what you would call an ‘early bird’,” said Linhardt, “but I’ll make an exception this time, if only to help speed our investigation along.”

“Bernadetta? What do you want to do?”

“I might as well come along with you guys,” said Bernadetta. “I don’t understand Crests as well as Linhardt or Professor Hanneman – other than having one myself – and I’d really rather be in my room, but I don’t want to be left in the dark about this.”

“Great! Let’s meet up by the bridge to the cathedral. We should definitely keep our bags locked up until we’re ready to hand them over. I know most of these are probably ordinary rocks, but I don’t want to take the chance on any of them getting stolen.”

Bernadetta patted her uniform to make sure she still had her room key safely tucked away in her pocket. “That shouldn’t be a problem for me. I always keep my room securely locked.”

“All right, then. Good night, everyone! Thanks for your help!”

After the team split up to put their bags away, Monica went to her room and stashed hers underneath her bed where she could easily reach it. She took a few moments to study her notes from class, grateful that Byleth hadn’t given her any homework. She also wanted to write a letter to her father explaining how well her first month back at school was going, but drowsiness took over and she wound up stopping halfway.

When Monica fell asleep, she tried to remember the last time she felt so tired. Her body was at rest, but in her mind, she was still running – running because her life depended on it.

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