Wisps of white vapour rose from the surface of the obsidian-coloured liquid. Emerging with the smoke was an invisible temptress—the addictive fragrance borne from volatile enzymatic reactions. As the almost magical odour found its way into Eliana’s nose, her eye twitched momentarily.
Please, don’t disappoint…
She ignored the warning signals from the scent. Steeling herself, she took a sip of the inky fluid. The heat didn’t bother her; she was a wizard who held unquestionable dominion over temperature. What would burn a normal human tongue merely massaged her taste buds.
Her throat protested the liquid’s entry with a sudden retch. Uncomfortable vexation was smeared all over her countenance as she covered her mouth with a fancy handkerchief. Whatever that was travelling down was quickly expelled in a series of adorable-sounding coughs.
“Where is the manager?! This abomination is sour! How dare you call this a double-shot espresso!”
Everyone else in the cafe simultaneously turned their heads towards the direction of the pitchy complaint. The light jazz music that played from the speakers was not ready for the sudden staccato that interrupted the piano solo. It lasted only for a moment; the recording carried on as usual. The other patrons in the cafe, however, continued to track Eliana’s movements as she went on a manhunt for the manager.
Franklin, who had just ended his phone call outside, walked in to see his partner talking down to a staff member twice her size.
“Taste it,” she coldly demanded as she tiptoed over the counter.
“I’m not gonna drink this anymore. Taste it.”
The other patrons were glued onto the drama unfolding—the verbal argument was building up into a crescendo. Unfortunately, the cafe did not serve popcorn.
Franklin stood near the entrance like a deer in headlights. Should he go and support his partner? Should he return to his seat like nothing had happened? Either way, he did not want to associate with the noblewoman at that moment.
“HEY! You there! Guildsman!” the manager who just appeared from the kitchen pointed at Franklin.
“Wha—me?” he felt betrayed by the bomber jacket he was wearing.
“She’s disturbing our other customers. Do something about it!”
Fire mana was radiating out of Eliana, rapidly turning up the heat in the cafe like a microwave. The glass on the windows and the display which featured exquisite cakes was already beginning to condense due sudden spike in temperature.
“Thanks—have a nice day!” Franklin dropped a 50 dollar note on the counter, grabbed Eliana by her collar and high-tailed it out of there, completely ignoring the change.
“Unhand me!” she barked.
As they were no longer inside the cafe, Franklin released his grip as she softly landed on her feet.
“Eliana, are you trying to roast everyone in there alive? What happened?!” He questioned her in an uncomfortable semi-squatting position. This was the only way he could address the noble at her eye level.
“Hmph. Roast? That would be fitting, then, as they can’t even get my roast right! The espresso was under-extracted and the taste was acidic! Any worse and I’ll condemn this store for assassinating a noble! They make Andrew look like the 5th coming of The Creator!”
“My household’s personal barista.”
Franklin had to take a step back from hearing that. She had a personal barista? Forget baristas, his sister couldn’t even afford a maid.
Eliana was a mystery to him. What kind of 15-year-old who looked like she was 10 would preach about the acidity of a cup of coffee? Despite her prodigious talents, he felt that she was far too pampered for a noble. Franklin recalled how his doctor forced him to stop drinking coffee because it might cause osteoporosis no thanks to his worsening calcium deficiency. This midget should try his torturous diet of fresh milk every morning, maybe only then she might grow up.
“I-I’ll go get my car. Wait here,” he felt that the best way to cure his headache would be to step away from her.
Driving in Dempton could almost be considered therapeutic, even. There were barely any other vehicles. Gone were the days of sitting in Atmo’s traffic and flipping off idiots who probably bought their driving license instead of sitting for the exam. Here, it was just him, his car, and the road.
“How long more till we get there?”
Correction—just him, his car, the road, and Eliana.
“Not long. This isn’t a big town,” hoping she would stop complaining, he quickly changed topics, “I was on the phone with Dempton Central Guild office—we have another confirmed missing person, Murphy DeMatteo, one of the 12 Guildsmen who was investigating the disappearances.”
Franklin sighed. Officer DeMatteo had disappeared for over 48 hours without a trace. He was the first Guildsman who had vanished. This meant that the Dempton Disappearances didn’t just take place over the weekend, but also on Monday. There were already 33 cases so far, him being the latest. A chill went down Franklin’s spine—how many more were going unreported?
“Franklin,” Eliana addressed with a much softer tone, “You have my sympathies…”
Her words soothed him slightly. The Atmo HQ’s destruction was a tragedy that affected hundreds of Guildsmen from all departments, including their families. Now, another one went missing. It was a dangerous time to be a Guildsman.
“There’s no way this is the work of just hominid terrorists. An Anomaly had to be involved somehow.” he thought out loud.
“Also, don’t eliminate the possibility of multiple Anomalies,” Eliana added.
Franklin nodded. While there weren't any reports of Anomalies working together, Eliana’s suggestion was a likely scenario considering the scale of this operation.
A sense of comfort enveloped him. Even though he was almost triple her age and there were too many things that set them apart, he found solace in the fact that they could see eye to eye regarding the case. Beyond their quirks and differences, they were professionals first and foremost—that was the only thing that mattered in this investigation.
The car stopped at a rather empty open parking lot. There were barely any other cars parked in the area.
“Where are we headed?” Eliana asked as she got off the vehicle.
“There,” the Guildsman pointed.
The young sorceress’ eyebrow was raised. Why were they going to Raichsen High School?
“This is one of the hotspots that supposedly recruited human teens to join the Militia. There are only rumours, though. Whoever’s doing the recruitment is great at covering his or her tracks,” Franklin answered, almost as if he read her mind.
“Also, Eliana…” Franklin’s gravelly tone got harsher, “…in the off chance we bump into an actual Anomaly…”
He handed her what appeared to be a gas mask of sorts.
“You’re probably one of the strongest mages in Dempton at the moment, but not even you can survive prolonged exposure to an Anomaly who summoned their Fragment. Even the weaker ones can destabilise your mana flow, be careful.”
“I appreciate the gesture Franklin, however unlikely that possibility may be.”
With the precautions out of the way, the pair waited to be allowed entry into the premises. Once they entered the school building, there were barely any students in sight; it was already past school hours. They were brought to the staff room. Instead of the cubicles, the teacher escorting them pointed them in the direction of an isolated room.
“Unfortunately, the principal has already left. I hope you two don’t mind dealing with me. I’m Ignatius Carnegie, head of the mage department,” the bespectacled teacher introduced himself, “To what do I owe the pleasure of a visit from both the Guild and the Puremage Association?”
“Since you already know who we are, I’m gonna skip the introductions,” Franklin replied, “Is there a…terrorist problem in this institution?”
Mr. Carnegie laughed at the insinuation, “With all due respect officer, one does not visit another’s home and accuse said home of being infested with rats.”
“With all due respect to YOU, sir,” Franklin responded, “Surely you’ve heard of the rumours that your school is recruiting terrorists?”
“This is a private school, Mr. Doherty, not a magazine publisher. We don’t deal with gossip.”
Seeing that the conversation was going nowhere, Eliana cut in, “Since this institution clearly does not have any problems with terrorism, I’m sure you won’t mind if the two of us have a little sightseeing to appreciate the beauty of this school, don’t you agree?”
“Actually…” Mr. Carnegie pondered a bit before continuing, “…we don’t have a terrorist problem, but we do have an assassin problem.”
The two special task force members were intrigued. An assassin problem was an unusual problem indeed—especially since this was a school.
“One of the students who enrolled last Friday is a noble like yourself, Ms. Etoile. He transferred from Atmo to elude assassins. He’s probably in the sports auditorium training with the combat team as we speak…”