From what it seems, there was truth in this so-called “rumor” of Bral being the Head of House. The reaction and the blatant “Where did you hear that” from the young man himself was self-evident. Aren, being the skeptic he is, took upon himself to see the rumor’s authenticity. His source was from a pink-haired girl, though it was all he could remember. She had her back turned on him, after all. However, the girl left a golden star hair clip behind, so it was best to find a girl with such features looking for her accessory. Every student in the Academy had differing schedules, from first to eighth period. It was known each one had a lunch break starting from the fourth, so he lingered around the mess hall asking the students about the owner of the golden star hair clip.
Some assumed he was hitting on them; a couple took interest in the “mysterious transfer student” and started asking questions of their own; others straight up said they did not know. It took him until seventh period, where he got information suitable for his needs. Apparently, a student saw a pink-haired girl looking through her gym lockers before coming to the mess hall. He inquired where the girl’s gym locker rooms were and proceeded there. He waited outside the door as different girls passed by him, giving him an awkward expression. His foot tapped vigorously on the floor and, unable to wait longer, he summoned a mouse familiar. He had the spirit on his palm and gave the golden star hair clip to it.
“Find her,” he commanded.
The mouse shoved the hair clip in its mouth. It gargled the hair clip as if it were a liquid, then spat it out. It stood on its hind legs to salute before heading off to find the girl. After a minute of waiting, the mouse telepathically squeaked, confirming the pink-haired girl was inside. Aren snapped his fingers, and he used the mouse’s hearing to listen in.
“Ugh, it’s not here. It’s not anywhere!”
“Are you sure it’s here? You probably left it somewhere else.”
“No-no, I am certain. It has to be here.”
“Is it really that important?”
A moment of silence. Aren assumed the girl was giving her friend the look. “Of course it is! It’s from my father who gave this to me. Just help me find it, okay?”
“Okay-okay, sheesh. Come on, we can scour for it after lunch. I’m, like, starving.”
The pink-haired girl sighed. “Fine, let’s head to the mess hall. It better pop out when I least expect it.”
He heard shuffling noises and assumed they were coming out from the door. Lo-and-behold, the pink-haired girl came out from the locker room. Now that he had a friendly glance, it was clear she was no ordinary human girl. Fang protruded from her mouth and had cat-like purple eyes. Though her ears were hidden by her short, layered hair, he could see pointy ears coming out from the sides. Her friend was a normal human with black, long, straight hair and brown eyes. On further inspection, her features were like those who hail from the East.
“Hey, I remember you. I saw you yesterday near the fountain bench!” the pink-haired girl said.
“Oh, yeah! What are you doing here? Not here to make a confession, are you?” her friend came in, giggling.
Aren flicked his wrist, revealing the golden star hair clip. “Let’s just say some things pop out when you least expect it.”
“M-My clip! Gimme!” She went to grab it. He moved his hand back and sucked his teeth. “I mean it! Give it!”
“Ah-ah-ah! We talk first, then I give you it. I’ll treat you with extra food, yeah?”
“I… grr, f-fine…”
And so, the trio traveled to the mess hall. Aren provided them with extra meat and found a spot where they could converse without being interrupted. Some were looking in their direction, which made the pink-haired girl uncomfortable.
“We can find someplace else if you are distressed,” Aren said.
“N-No, it’s fine. As long as I have my friend here, I’ll be okay.”
“May I have your full names?”
“Are we being interrogated? Did we do something wrong?”
“No, not really. Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble.”
After a moment of silence, the pink-haired girl nodded. “My name’s Alexa Canterbridge. I’m a half elf, half feline girl, as you can tell.”
Aren touched his chin. “I thought you were a vampire with those fangs of yours.”
Alexa slammed her hands on the table. “Why does everyone assume that?! Cats can have fangs like everyone else too! I ain’t no blood-sucking…”
A part of the mess hall became quiet, their eyes gazing at the rowdy girl. Alexa sat down; her face flustered as she let out an embarrassed squeal. Her voice calmed when she spoke again. “M-My friend here is Yukiko Hanamura. She’s a normal human girl who came from the East.”
“Pleasure! My family owns a notable hot spring inn in the East. It’s called Tensei Springs! Be sure to check it out when you pass by the town Amagi!” Yukiko said.
“Hey Yukiko, I don’t think advertising your family’s business is giving us a good impression…”
“Oh, right. Sorry, it’s a habit.”
Aren waved his hand. “Let’s get back on track. You guys were talking about the ‘rumor’ surrounding Bral.”
“Yeah, what about it?” Alexa said, raising her brow.
“How far spread is this rumor?”
“Well, it’s pretty common by now. I heard about it a week ago. I didn’t believe it at first until I saw it with my own two eyes. Some mysterious hooded guy came up to him and the two talked. While I heard little, I caught the guy was part of some sort of groupie. The Conclave, was it?” Alexa turned to Yukiko, who was elegantly enjoying her food. “Who was it who spread that rumor again?”
“Some of my classmates told me it was a demon or something. Oh, oh! Others say it was a ghost as well.” Yukiko shuddered. “I tread lightly when it comes to the supernatural. Brr, scary!”
Aren touched his chin, pondering for a moment. This rumor, despite being a week old, was fairly recent. The circulation of such information was to be expected, but he couldn’t help to wonder about one thing: why would anyone want to know about the affairs of a powerful family? The Eadburts possess a high standing within the kingdom, so it would be beneficial to know about their doings, whether it was to do business with them or affiliation. As truthful as this rumor may sound, there was a detail missing in all of this: who was the one who spread the information and what was their motive in doing so? It could be anyone, and any further investigation would not prove fruitful in a short amount of time.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Alexa showed her palm, gesturing Aren to hand over her clip. “That’s all I know, okay? Can you hand over my hair clip now?”
“I confronted Bral yesterday. He was surprised when I told him about his upcoming role. This rumor was coming around everyone’s ear in a week, yet he was unaware of it?” Aren shook his head. “Was he that ignorant or people purposely withheld this information?”
Alexa placed her head on the table, groaning. “Ugh, how should I know? I was told not to tell him.”
“I dunno. Someone said so, so I didn’t.”
“Interesting. If one of his followers knew of it, they would tell. If that’s the case, then the one who spread it told the rumor to people who would not tell him. What is your stance on Bral?”
“I think he’s handsome, though a bit too cocky for my tastes,” Yukiko said. “However, it would be a major benefit for my familial business if I were to get close to him.”
Alexa shrugged. “He’s a dick for sure, flaunting around like he’s some prince or something. The other day, he tried to hit on me. If it weren’t for my group of friends hanging around me, he probably would’ve stayed for longer.”
Aren touched his chin again. “Right. I assumed you follow the instructions and not told him. Where did you get this rumor from?”
Yukiko raised her hand. “It was me! I told her, he-he! A classmate told me and they said they got it from their friend, so on and so forth!”
“Just as I suspected. Irritating as it is, it’s safe to form a conclusion, unless if new findings come to play.” Aren handed Alexa her hair clip. “Hmm, I presume the originator was someone who didn’t like Bral that much. To prevent any word from spreading to his knowing, they most likely told people who were in a bad standing with him. However, it seemed to do more good than harm. If such conclusion is true, then it’s back to square one. Damn it.”
“Square one? That’s unfortunate,” Alexa remarked. “As much as you held me hostage, thank you for returning my hair clip.”
Aren smiled. “Of course. After all, it is given by your father, yes?”
“What the… Are you a creep? Where did you—”
The toll of the school bell rang. Everyone cleaned their plates and made way to their next class. Alexa let out a sigh, getting up from her seat, and told her friend to follow. Before they left, the girl stopped for a moment and approached Aren again.
“Hey, um, you know Merlin, right? Everyone’s saying you’re his teacher.”
“Yeah, what of him?”
“The turtle thing he hangs around with is very cute. I was wondering if it’s nice to strangers.”
“It’s a stone tortoise and yeah, he is. His name is Archimedes, if you are wondering. Drop by when Merlin’s around him.”
Alexa nodded and gestured her friend to come along. After watching them leave, Aren left the mess hall. He was on top of the roofs, walking side to side, submerged in his thoughts. By the information given to him, it would seem Bral is unaware of the Eadburt’s affiliation with the Phantoms of Sargata. His older brother was seen carrying a mysterious black book according to his eyewitness report, so perhaps he could start there. Perhaps an acquaintance could help and so, he ventured off to look for Stein. He was in the main building teaching his students the anatomy of a chimera. Aren waited for the Academy bells to ring before entering the classroom. His students were eyeing him down, though left with haste.
Stein opened the windows and smoked from his pipe. He turned to see Aren standing near the doorway and greeted him with a wave. “Ah, it’s you. I was expecting some free time for myself, but eh, whatever. What’s up?”
“I wanted to know your opinion on something. It’s regarding the case your dearest clown friend assigned to me.”
“Gotcha. What’s on your mind?” Stein said. He sat on a chair, using the back of it as an armrest.
“You know Bral Eadburt, right? He said something rather peculiar as of late. Something about his brother carrying a black book having a moon symbol on it. Any ideas?”
Aren threw out his arms and leaned on Stein’s desk. “Gods, this is so infuriating. Finding a motive or any evidence of the Eadburt’s relationship with the Phantoms of Sargata is like a needle in a haystack! Especially when there’s only a single source to go off from!”
“Dickus could acquire the information rather easily. Did he come up with an excuse again?”
Aren blinked a couple of times, gazing at Stein, who was giving him the brow. “Are you saying that stupid clown is testing me?”
“Well, he does like to play around sometimes. He’s called the Arcane Trickster for a reason, you know.”
“And I assume that I’m part of that game.” Aren shook his head angrily. “All this time, I thought him to take me seriously. The Phantoms of Sargata is a serious business, after all!”
“I kid, I kid. Relax. That frustrated, huh? He’s in a lot of heat right now, so I wouldn’t blame him for handing you an impossible task.” Stein took a hit from his pipe and exhaled slowly. “He filled me in on the deets. It’ll take my free time, but we can go to the library if you want. We can find something about that mysterious book of yours.”
“Library? Is that an archival storage of some sorts?”
“Uh, yeah? That’s what—oh, right, I forgot. Come, let me show you, old timer.”
Stein gathered his belongings, and the two made way to the library. The place was filled with shelves of books and scrolls alike. There were two floors, each with an assortment of chairs and tables for guests. Students were lingering out, reading books and studying for their next exams. Of course, this was new for Aren. During his time, noble and wealthy families were the only ones who had access to such education. He wished knowledge was this free to the public back then. Stein led him up to the library’s front desk, leaning against it. Aren looked over the counter to check if anyone was supervising. There was only a fish bowl on top, but no person.
“Um, are we supposed to be meeting a person or…?”
“Yeah, we check in here. And it ain’t a person.” Stein tapped the fish bowl. “Students check in here but since we are faculty, we can just barge in. Hey, Ms. Simmons.”
Aren heard a yawn and saw a rainbow-scaled fish coming out from an underwater castle. His eye widened, seeing that the “person” they had to meet was a talking fish. And of course, he expressed his astonishment through words.
“What in the god almighty…? I’ve seen a lot of things, but I never a literal rainbow goldfish who can talk,” Aren blurted.
The fish moved side to side, expressing her disappointment. “Well, excuse me, young sir. Respect for elders, I would say!”
“Ms. Simmons is the librarian here. She has magical helpers and stuff to organize the books and clean the place.” Stein pointed at the moving broom, cleaning the carpet floor. “Her mana empowered these sentient items and helpers, of course.”
A student came up to the front desk, returning the books they’ve used. A squirrel familiar manifested itself and kept note of what books were present. It pointed at the sentient quill and it wrote the titles of the returned books. When the student left, birds came to pick up the material, placing them back in their respective places.
“See? Good stuff, right?” Stein said.
“Fascinating for sure, but I would dwell in my thoughts to why a talking fish is in charge of such place of importance,” Aren said.
“I have a name, you know! Geez, the audacity of these younglings nowadays!” A couple of bubbles came out of her mouth. Maybe it was a fish’s way of sighing. “What brings you to my lovely abode, Master Wolfenstein?”
“My friend here is looking for things about black books with moon symbols on them. Cult stuff, you know?”
“Hmm, I’m not sure about black books with moon symbols, but perhaps the latest information about cults will suffice.” Ms. Simmons let out a whistling sound. “My familiars will find such books shortly.”
Aren pointed at Ms. Simmons. “Did she just whistle? How in the—wow, um… This is unexpected development.”
“Anymore of that behavior and I will force you to leave the premise!” Ms. Simmons raged.
“Forgive my friend’s unkempt behavior. He’s… not around from these parts,” Stein said.
“Hmph, then I shall tolerate him a little while longer. Ah, looks like they’ve arrived.”
A shoebill stork made its way to them, carrying a book in its mouth. It placed the tome on top of the counter and made an aggressive clapping sound. Ms. Simmons gave her farewells and headed back to her underwater castle. Aren lounged on the second floor, sitting where he could overlook below the first. He scrolled through page by page, scanning for any text of a cult using black books with moon symbols on them. Stein took out his pipe, smoking out of habit. The shoebill stork gave him a look, but of course he didn’t care. A sentient broom came by, slamming him with its wooden end.
“Ow, okay. Sheesh, no smoking my ass.” Stein lowered his pipe and glanced over to see what Aren was reading. “So, how goes the reading?”
“I’m surprised. Iskander and Jason had wiped out the cult’s existence, yet here’s information about them. I suppose a few escaped from our grasp after all. Oh, regarding about the Phantom of Sargatas during my time, none mention anything about black books with moon symbols.”
“Hmm, theoretically, if the Phantoms did come back, would they really follow the old ways? They kinda got f***** real bad the last time. Why bother to do it again?” Stein raised his pipe to smoke, only for the shoebill stork to get closer. A drop of sweat fell from his forehead as he lowered the pipe once again. “The times today are pretty progressive; I’d say at the least. Pretty sure a cult that sacrifices their own to a chaotic goddess might not be the best advertising friendly. Even them kids dressing up in that gothic attire with weird hairdos probably won’t buy it.”
Aren massaged his temples. “That would mean someone is using the cult name, but not actually be one of them. Could we be dealing with fakers or a group who strive to bring a different purpose to a horrible organization?”
“Could be either or, who knows?” Stein raised his pipe to smoke, only for the shoebill to take it from him. “That’s my favorite pipe, you little big bitch! Come here!”
As Stein chased the stork around while being hammered down by the same sentient broom, he pondered deep into his thoughts. If there was someone trying to reform the Phantoms, what purpose would that serve? The cult’s principal purpose was to cause mayhem, though maybe this new cult aimed to do such in a unique method? Was this black book connected to them somehow? The more he thought about it, the more questions came up. The book was the only lead and his only way of verifying the Eadburt’s role in all of this. He called upon Stein, who got his pipe back, to come.
“So, hero, got what you are looking for?”
“No, not necessarily. Questions leading to more, that sort.” Aren closed the book and handed it to the shoebill. The shoebill clamped the book with its mouth, bowed, and walked away. “I will report my findings to Dickus, though I doubt it’s more than he knows already. Thanks for the trip.”
“Any time. Welp, my free time’s wasted. Gotta head to the infirmary to check upon injured peeps. See you in a bit.”
Stein waved his pipe and walked out of the library. Before leaving, Aren borrowed some books regarding the history of the Emerald Knights. It would be nice for Archimedes to provide feedback whether if what was written was true. After “nicely” asking Ms. Simmons for books regarding that topic, he made his way to his friend and spent some time with him.