Chapter 24: Trouble Afoot

After spending most of the day in the library looking for ways to improve her spellcasting and widen her repertoire, Monica took a trip to the blacksmith’s booth to have her sword sharpened in preparation for the next phase of the Black Eagles’ mission. Over to her left, she saw Anna packing up her shop for the evening and pulling a scroll out of a large bag. “What do you have there, Anna?” she asked.

“Just reviewing my profit/loss report for the last month,” said Anna. “I’m not exactly making a killing, but business has definitely improved after that roadblock earlier. The guild will be happy about this.”

“What does that mean for you?”

“It means that as long as there’s enough demand for my goods, I don’t have to pack up and go elsewhere. This place seems to offer plenty of opportunities for adventure, so there’s rarely a shortage of potential customers.”

Anna rolled her scroll up and put it back into her bag, which was so stuffed with merchandise that she struggled to stand up straight when she put it on her back.

“That looks pretty heavy,” said Monica. “What do you have in there?”

“Books, rings, bracelets…that sort of thing,” said Anna.

“Any weapons?”

Anna shook her head, and her bag swayed back and forth along with her. “Nothing here but my sword and dagger. Sure, they’re easy to carry around, but they’re hardly ideal for a bag like this.”

“What about those stones I was looking for? Did you find any?”

Anna led Monica to the other side of the gate and walked several feet away from the guards on duty. As her shop was officially closed, she didn’t want anyone else to see her reaching in her bag and pulling out a small, dirty white pouch. “I found these in the nearby forest after work yesterday,” she said in a low voice.

Monica looked inside the pouch and saw a pair of dull, pointy, dark purple stones covered in dirt. She didn’t know whether or not they were similar to the Crest Stone fragments she found, but she still didn’t want to touch them with her bare hands for the sake of testing their authenticity. “Is this all you found?”

“That’s it. I didn’t even see these ones at first. When I was walking around looking for the stones you wanted, I felt something jab me in the foot. Then I turned around and saw something dark and pointy sticking out of the ground. Ashe noticed it too, and he helped me dig it out.”

“Ashe? He’s from the Blue Lions, right?” asked Monica. “I don’t think I’ve met him yet.”

“Oh, you can’t miss him. Grey hair, green eyes, kinda has that ‘kid brother’ look to him…”

“I’ll make sure to thank him for his help when I see him. I have to wonder, though… How did he know you were looking for Crest Stones?”

As far as Monica knew, most missions were exclusive to the house to which they were assigned. There were very few instances of students helping out other houses, except in cases where a mission took place on or around the campus. She thought Ashe would have been too busy preparing for his trip to the Valley of Torment to help deal with the Crest Stone problem.

“I didn’t tell him about them right away,” said Anna. “It was only when he saw me packing up and heading toward the forest that he asked about it. I didn’t know you guys were doing two different things. Of course, I wasn’t going to turn down an offer for help, especially when it comes to venturing outside of the monastery.”

“Did anyone else see you two?” asked Monica.

“I don’t think so. As soon as I found these stones, I got out of there because I still had work to do. Can’t keep the customers waiting too long, you know?”

When Anna tried to hand her pouch to Monica, Monica quickly tried to pass it back. “I don’t think those would be very safe with me,” she warned. “Maybe you should give them to Professor Hanneman or Lady Rhea. They’ll know what to do.”

“No problem,” said Anna. “I’ll take care of that tomorrow morning.”

“All right. Thanks again for your help, Anna.”

Monica helped Anna carry her large bag to an encampment site near the front gate, reserved for her and the other traveling merchants in the market. Of the three tents pitched in the grass, Anna’s was the farthest away from the gate, as well as the one with the most bags inside. “Are you sure you’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep in here? It looks…uncomfortable,” said Monica.

“It’s no big deal,” said Anna as she shoved one of the bags to the side to make room for her merchandise. When Monica spotted something white and lumpy near Anna’s sleeping bag, she couldn’t tell whether it was just a pillow, or more loot. “It’ll be a lot less uncomfortable once I get some of this stuff to storage. I just wish the bank was closer to the monastery, you know?”

Anna slid into her sleeping bag and tried to straighten out as best she could. “There we go.”

“I’m going to head back inside now. I’ve got a busy day ahead of me tomorrow.”

“Watch yourself out there, Monica,” said Anna.

“You do the same.”

Anna grunted as she slowly got up from what she thought was the perfect sleeping position to close her tent up and secure her goods. She kept the Crest Stone fragment pouch near her pillow as a reminder to take it to Rhea when she woke up.

Back in the safety of her room, Monica checked her closet to make sure her Priest robe and her alternate uniform were both in good shape. She wasn’t looking forward to going back out into the wilderness again, but she thought she had a good enough idea of what to expect. She changed out of her uniform and into her pajamas and offered a long prayer of protection – for her Black Eagles classmates, the Blue Lions traveling to the Valley of Torment, the Golden Deer traveling to the Eastern Church, the Knights of Seiros protecting the monastery while all of the houses were away, her parents in Drachen Village tirelessly working on rebuilding their territory, Anna and the traveling merchants, and Constance, who lived close to the edge of town and was in the most danger of getting attacked again.

The next morning after waking up, Monica received a written notice from Byleth to bring her battle gear with her to class. She briefly thought about wearing her robe to the cathedral for another prayer session, but she didn’t know how much time she’d have before she would be called over to the classroom.

On her way there, she thought she noticed more knights patrolling the area than usual in the Golden Deer’s absence. Catherine stood outside the gate to the training arena with Thunderbrand at her hip, giving instructions to three such knights. “Make sure that there’s at least one guard standing watch at every gate,” she said, looking at each of them as they stood at attention. “With the Golden Deer on an away mission and the other two houses soon to follow, it’s up to us to protect the monastery and Lady Rhea.”

“Yes, Captain!” they replied.

The knights walked toward the cathedral to guard the rear entrances, where it would be harder to notice anyone entering or exiting the complex. Catherine walked up to Monica as she approached, wondering why she was dressed for combat. “And where are you headed off to this morning?” she asked.

“This is going to sound weird,” said Monica, “but Miss Eisner asked me—er, us to be ready for action as soon as possible.”

“Did she now?”

Monica adjusted the sheath on her belt to hide it under her robe until she needed to draw her sword. “Yeah. I don’t know what kind of action she’s talking about, but I’m as ready as I can be.”

“There are only so many scenarios you can prepare for when you’re sitting behind a desk. Fortunately for you, your professor is doing a good job, both as a teacher and a commander. Don’t tell her I said this, but I still don’t understand why Lady Rhea hired her when she and Jeralt both admitted she had no previous teaching experience.”

Catherine grunted and folded her hands in frustration. A small pebble rolled by her left foot that, when kicked, flew just short of the walkway to Monica’s room. “Sometimes I wish Lady Rhea would let me in on some of the decisions she makes,” she continued, “but she must have a good reason for this one.”

Monica stopped staring at the pebble that almost hit her door and remembered that she needed to get moving. “Sorry, Captain Catherine… I’d like to stay and talk some more, but I don’t want to keep Miss Eisner waiting too long.”

“I gotcha. Take care now, okay?”

“Yes, Captain.” Monica nodded – a simple gesture of appreciation that wouldn’t end in her tripping or smacking herself in the face – and left to join her classmates.

Almost all of the Black Eagles had assembled in the classroom when Monica arrived. The only two to arrive after her were Ferdinand, who had gone to the stables to check on his horse, and Caspar, who had gone to the dining hall to eat some waffles and had to wipe some maple syrup from his face before sitting down. Byleth did a quick headcount to make sure everyone was accounted for and adequately equipped before starting the session. “Before we head out,” she said, “I’d like each of the team leaders to share their discoveries with the rest of the class. Edelgard, let’s start with your team.”

“Thank you, Professor,” said Edelgard. “While we were unable to determine the identity or motive of the attackers, we have a pretty good idea of what methods they were using. The demonic beast we fought was given power by one or more Crest Stones. When we fought it, we thought it was summoning more beasts to its side when it howled.”

“First appearances can be deceiving,” Hubert added. “There is another, simpler explanation – namely that there was someone else out there who wanted it to look like the demonic beast was summoning them.”

“So, you’re saying it’s like a stage magician’s trick or something?” asked Caspar.

“Perhaps not in the most literal sense, but the comparison would be correct. With the number of wolves and winged creatures we fought that day, there must have been more than one person out there summoning these monsters from afar to prevent us from discovering them.”

“Our foes may have tried to hide from us,” said Edelgard, “but the monsters they sent after the town were nowhere near as careful. Monica…”

Monica, who had taken her seat in the back of the classroom and listened to Edelgard and Hubert’s report intently, was surprised to be called on so quickly. “Yes?”

“Why don’t you tell us what you and your group discovered?”

Monica stood up from her chair, drawing most of the eyes in the room to her. It was the most attention she had received since her first day back at the academy, and it made her nervous all over again. She wished she’d spent more time preparing a presentation. Lady Edelgard makes it look and sound so easy, she thought.

After taking a deep breath, she began her report. “Okay, so when we saw the big Crest Stones sticking out of that…thing we fought, I wondered if there might have been more that we may not have noticed while we were fighting the smaller ones. So Linhardt, Bernadetta, and I swept the town for stones and had them analyzed to see if they were real, and…they were.”

Monica kept silent about the stones testing positive for Linhardt and Flayn’s Crests, for she still didn’t understand what it all meant. She was still waiting to hear from Hanneman about the larger Crest Stone piece Cyril turned over to Rhea. If that one bore the same Crest as the smaller fragments, then she would have a better understanding of what they could do.

“There was another piece lying by the outer gate,” she continued. “I think it might have come off the big demonic beast when the Professor struck it with her sword.”

The other Black Eagles talked among themselves for a few moments as they tried to process this new information against the other rumors they heard about Crest Stones. Edelgard took another moment to ponder before asking a follow-up question. “Did you venture outside the town to find any of these stones? If there are any more beyond the monastery, then I fear the damage may not be limited to the town.”

“We didn’t, but Anna did…”

“Anna? How did she find out about them?”

“I asked for her help,” said Monica. “I wanted to go further outside than we did, but I knew there was only so much ground we could cover by ourselves.”

Ferdinand raised his hand. “Pardon me, Monica, but…where exactly did Anna conduct her search?”

“In the forest. Anna showed me a couple of fragments she found by, uh…’accident’.”

“My group followed the trail of monster footprints into that forest. If the stones Anna picked up are similar to the ones your group discovered, then there is no doubt that this is where they came from.”

“Then it’s settled,” said Edelgard. “We should venture into the forest right away and strike before the enemy has a chance to mount a larger-scale attack.”

“For once, you and I are in agreement, Edelgard,” said Ferdinand. “We must act decisively to prevent any further loss of life. I am concerned about the hooded men we encountered in the forest that night. They refused to answer any questions we were going to ask about the attack.”

Monica squeezed on the handle of her shield, quietly anxious with the idea that the mysterious figures she escaped from had somehow found their way toward the monastery. “Something tells me these folks aren’t just going to give that information to us,” she said. “I just hope we can get what we need without having to kill too many of them.”

“Anyone dumb enough to try to pick a fight with us or our professor won’t live long enough to regret that mistake,” said Caspar. Byleth smiled briefly and then cleared her throat to avoid looking like she was basking too much in his praise of her fighting prowess.

“Is everyone ready?” asked the professor after taking another look around the room.

No one else had anything to say.

“Then let’s get moving.”

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