The smell of fresh ink, the sound of Phobos’ steady breathing as she ground the inkstone against the slab, the slight ache in my arm from holding the ink laden brush steady over the parchment, it all blended into a mass of sensations in my mind as I still pondered over the events of the morning.
Father was going to join the army and mother would follow in his footsteps.
As for me, I had yet to decide my future course of action. As a Hominum, I was exempt from the mandatory military conscription, but, if I so chose, I could follow father there.
Or, I could prepare to take over the position of Clan Head by staying back in the clan.
There was another course I could take. I could imitate the travelling Bards like Tamriel Hawthorne and travel the lands, subduing Ferals and reuniting them with their families.
But, more than my uncertain future, I was concerned about the safety of my parents at the border battlefield. Things were peaceful now, but the tensions were running high between us and the Shogunate. No one could predict when war would erupt.
The setting sun cast a ruddy tint on the piece of parchment in front of me. A drop of ink which had gathered at the tip of my brush wobbled and fell on the sheet, dripping down due to the slight slant of the table upon which it was placed.
Under the sanguine sunlight, it brought to mind the image of clotted blood.
Inspiration flashed and I touched brush to parchment, the words flowing out onto the thick sheet in elegant lettering.
Phobos scattered some adsorbent sand upon the freshly gleaming letters and with a swirl of wind mana, I blew it off, revealing the completed work.
It would be my entry to the Calligraphy and Painting competition.
I set down my brush and relaxed my posture as I carefully rolled up the parchment and tied it with a string, sealing it shut with my wax seal.
Phobos squeezed my shoulder comfortingly. “Don’t worry, Husband. Father-in-law will be just fine. The war has yet to begin and my parents at the border fort write to me regularly of their boredom.”
I placed my hand over hers and gave her a reassuring smile. Gently tracing the contract marking on the back of her hand with a finger, my mood took a turn for the better. What would happen, would happen. As long I had her and Deimos by my side, it would be nothing I couldn’t overcome.
A knock at the door interrupted the romantic mood and I frowned slightly before getting up to open it while Phobos tidied up my writing implements.
Gerard burst into the room as soon as I had unlatched the door with Fiona in tow.
“Steven’s missing!” he exclaimed before I could get a word in.
I studied their faces. They looked quite worried and stressed from the situation. it seemed that the matter was quite serious.
I stood aside from the doorway, inviting them to enter. Speaking calmly, as I had seen my father do while he addressed distraught subordinates, I inquired the details of the situation.
Steadied by my calm façade and attentive questions, they narrated their experience when they had gone to visit Steven in his sickbed.
When they had asked to meet him, the hospital staff had informed them that Steven had sneaked out in the middle of the night one day ago and never returned.
They had tried to communicate with father but due to his recuperation, post-duel, they hadn’t been able to get in touch.
I shared a glance with Phobos who had finished with the tidying up and had come over to listen to their story.
“Come on. I’ll come with you to the hospital to investigate. Father and Mother are busy now and I don’t want to disturb them. Since he sneaked out on his own, the chances of it being an abduction are pretty low. With Deimos’ shadow affinity, she’ll be able to track his mana signature if it’s less than a day old. If we don’t find any clues by the end of tonight, I’ll pass the news to father.”
Gerard nodded and the four of us made our way to the hospital. Once there, Gerard brought us to the night watchman who had seen Steven last.
The guard was quite enthusiastic in his tale.
“Ah’ve seen that lad alright. Pastiest pair of buttocks Ah’ve ever seen. There Ah was, bored out of mah mind, keepin’ mah eyes peeled for suspicious stuff and he goes streakin’ across the alley, his hospital gown flapping all ‘round. Burnt mah eyes is what he did.
“One second Ah saw him, the next, he was gone. Thought Ah’d dreamt it all up. Then the higher ups be askin’ around for a lad like him the next day, so I realized ah wasn’t just seeing things.”
The corners of my lips twitched. If it wasn’t for the seriousness of the situation, I’d feel like laughing my head off.
We went to the entrance of the alley that the guard had indicated and Phobos cast her senses around. According to the guard’s description, he had suddenly disappeared at the edge of the alley, probably a result of Shadow Stealth. So, if we wanted to track his mana signature, the best place to start would be there.
It was already dusk by this time and officials were going about lighting the streetlamps by the side of the road.
After a few minutes, Phobos started walking towards a direction along the left fork of the alley, keeping to the shadows cast by the streetlamps.
She would walk a few steps, pause, sense and walk again as she tracked his residual mana from using Shadow Stealth. I admired her sensitivity to the element.
Despite my own affinity to the shadows, I couldn’t even sense a trail more than a few hours old, let alone one that had aged for more than a day.
She suddenly stopped in her tracks at the junction between two alleys and said, “The trail goes cold here. It just abruptly ends.”
I walked over to where she was standing and looked around, searching for any mundane clues that could solve the mystery.
Suddenly, Gerard who had been silent all along in order not to disturb Phobos, spoke up. Pointing at a rooftop, he said, “I can feel that the fire mana density in that direction is a bit higher.”
I leapt up on the roof and cast around with my own senses, coming up empty. Phobos, Fiona and Gerard joined me and Phobos’ eyes brightened up as she caught the trail again.
“He used Shadow Walk to get here. No wonder his trail ended abruptly,” she said.
Fiona scrunched her brows. “Using cross-tier magic while injured… What is that idiot thinking!?”
Gerard stepped forward with a serious look on his face. “Wait! I think there is something strange about this shadow element. It seems to be inextricably tied with the fire mana in the area. I’ve never seen anything like this. Even for those fire mages who have married a shadow mage, the mana is separate and they can use one or the other… not both together. Not like this.”
A term suddenly flashed in my mind from my extensive reading and I blurted it out, “Hellfire.”
Noticing them turning to me in confusion, I explained the concept of mutated elements and the secondary element formed of the fusion of fire and shadow. Being familiar with Bruno’s ice element, which was a mix of water and fire, it didn’t take them long to get onboard with my explanation.
Phobos turned to Fiona, asking, “Do you know of anyone with such a special element?”
Fiona as the socialite in our band of four, massaged her forehead as she parsed through the list of her acquaintances. “No one,” she finally replied, “No one has such a characteristic element among our peers, or else, I’d have heard. Why, Bruno’s name has spread all over the society due to the novelty of his element.”
I shrugged. “Ok. Forget it. Let’s see where the trail leads. Since he came out on his own, we needn’t fear an abduction. Maybe he met a new friend here?”
Gerard looked sceptical. “A new friend? Meeting him in the middle of the night and getting so engaged that he misses the clan head’s battle?”
I shrugged again. “Why don’t we just find out?”
Phobos began to track again and this time, it was more difficult to follow as the mysterious person was apparently carrying Steven and hopping from roof to roof.
When we finally arrived at the end of the trail, we were surprised to note that we had arrived at Steven’s assigned room in the Felidae apartment complex.
Leaping from the tree outside his window and through the open shutters, we ended up in his room and took a look around. What we saw made all four of us turn silent.
Finally, Fiona opened her mouth with great difficulty, “The bastard.”
Gerard smiled wryly, “I knew his father was regulating his life too strictly… but this.” He sighed and shook his head.
Phobos calmly analysed the situation. “If he is smart enough, he’ll be back within two years. That way, he’ll be able to meet the decree for military conscription at twenty years of age. Or, if he manages to get whoever this mysterious woman is pregnant, he can take on an administrative post due to his noble lineage.”
“If he doesn’t,” she shrugged helplessly, “his noble status is forfeit and he’ll have to apply for it again with a lot of caveats involved.”
The corners of my eyes twitched. “How are you people so calm, considering that he has just eloped with an unknown woman!?” I exclaimed as I waved my hand at the large writing on the wall over the dishevelled sheets of the bed which clearly indicated intercourse.
It read, “Yo, pops… found my one true love. I’m going far away. Don’t search for me. I’ll be back.” With my experienced vision, I was quite positive that it was Steven’s handwriting… which made me feel quite helpless.
The irresponsible bastard had ditched his clan right before the finals even when he had secured a seat there.
Gerard just shook his head at my question while Fiona answered in a resigned manner. “It’s just like something he would do… you won’t understand. Specially you.”
Phobos chimed in. “Husband, he was from my lineage… I’ve some idea of his personality. This… this is something he would likely do so, I don’t think there is any complication involved except why he had to elope instead of just asking for her hand in marriage, whoever she was.”
Fiona said, “Oh, it was probably due to her commoner status. Since it wasn’t a noble, she was probably someone who wasn’t likely to awaken. You know, they’d just be able to live together without a proper marriage. His father would never agree.”
I shook my head. “I’ll have you know that anyone with a hybrid element is at least talented enough to awaken. I don’t think that’s the reason.”
Suddenly Phobos cried out in alarm and we all turned towards her in battle postures, only relaxing when we found nothing there.
“What is it?” I asked as I reined in my thumping heart.
Shock was evident in her voice as she spoke, “The mana density. I always felt something was off about the mana so I analysed it deeper. The girl, no woman, with the gift of Hellfire is at the peak of Tier 2!”
“What!?” we all exclaimed together.
Fiona covered her mouth. “An older woman? A divorcee?”
Gerard was quite agitated, “I hope the bloody fool isn’t doing something illegal.”
I sighed as I knead my aching forehead. “It looks like I’ll have to talk to father about setting out a search warrant for him and apologize to the competition board for his absence. I just hope it isn’t something serious. The clan can’t withstand another political storm so soon after the last one.”