Disclaimer: This is an original work. Any resemblance to previous or current works is purely coincidental. Please do not plagiarize.
A few hours later, he and Lucre sat on the second floor of the coffee shop, watching bleary-eyed college students move down the sidewalk below. It was Saturday, so very few people were actually out and about. The school wouldn't get truly populated until the afternoon, although the library would start getting busy once students realized there were final exams in less than two weeks. He was hard pressed to think about finals right now, though. Caleb idly traced circles on the table in front of him, waiting for Aaron to show up. Once in a while, he would pause to look up at the girl in front of him. She was watching him, a cautious look on her face. He knew that he was making her walk on pins and needles, and he wished he could find some way to correct that. It was unfair to her.
"...Are you alright?" he finally asked.
"What?" asked Lucre, blinking at him. "I'm...fine."
"No you're not," said Caleb, frowning at her. He sighed. "Please don't worry about me."
She gave him a sheepish smile, shrugging her shoulders. "It's my job..." she said.
His response was to give her a flat look. "What part of bodyguard don't you understand?"
"No one asked you to protect me," said Lucre. She looked down at the table in front of her, quietly tearing her napkin to shreds. "...I could have taken care of myself. Yes—," she said, preemptively interrupting him as he opened his mouth. "Yes, it would have been hard, and I might not have had an easy time of it, but you were never bound to me. You're not even a Vault. You had no obligation to do all this...and now, because of me, they've taken part of your magic. And I know how much that means to you, and I—."
He stopped her, reaching across the table and covering her hand with his. Lucre froze, her hands stilled in the process of tearing up the napkin. Caleb looked up at her, and although his expression was solemn, the look in his gray eyes was nothing if not sincere. She blinked, feeling her throat suddenly go dry.
"...Isn't this enough?" he asked, rubbing his thumb lightly over her brother's ring. He took a deep breath, slowly pulling his hand away, although his fingers dragged slightly over her skin. Her hand was cold. He wondered if she had been sitting there the whole time, worrying about him. "Do I need a better reason?"
She said nothing, instead staring at him with wide eyes, her face flushed. Caleb moved his hand, quickly gathering up the torn shreds of tissue paper. "...I'd give up my other Links if it meant seeing you safe," he said, not looking directly at her. "...I...I consider my Fire Link lost to a good cause, in this case. I don't do this because anyone asked me to, or because of your position as the heiress to the Vault Clan. I'm doing this because I don't think I would be able to forgive myself if something happened to you."
He raised his head, looking her squarely in the eye. "...So don't say things like that again."
"Caleb..." began Lucre, her eyes widening in surprise.
The sound of someone clearing his throat stopped her, and the two of them looked up. Aaron walked over to them, looking slightly harried. He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt today, and his cuffs were ink-stained. Caleb wondered if he had been up all last night drawing.
"Sorry I'm late," he said. "I seem to have misplaced some of my spell cards. I spent half the morning looking for them."
Caleb felt rather than saw Lucre tense. He looked up at her, but she had a practiced neutral expression on her face. He felt his own suspicion rise. He knew that expression. "Spell cards?" he asked.
"They're spell circles I write on little cards to use in a hurry," said Aaron. "I'm thinking the maid might have accidentally thrown them away."
"Yes..." said Caleb slowly, eyeing Lucre from over the rim of his cup. "...Yes, that's probably what happened."
Lucre shot him an apologetic smile, picking up her own cup and taking a sip.
"...So," said Aaron, his expression growing serious. "I heard about the fire."
"I'm sure the entire city's heard about the fire," said Caleb. His own mother had heard about the fire, and she was states away. Although more likely than not, the paramedic had called her, or something like that. Sylvia Gains had always had a sixth sense for when her children were in trouble—or causing trouble, so it seemed.
"What did you find?"
"Something to report back home at least," said Caleb. "The bookstore appeared to be a front for some sort of magic trade."
"Black magic?" asked Aaron.
"It's a possibility," said Caleb with a shrug. "They're not licensed to sell magical goods. I should know, I know almost all of the legal magical bookstores in a hundred mile radius."
"Hmm..." Aaron frowned thoughtfully, glancing down at his hands. "Illegal artifact trade is something, but it doesn't explain the odd signatures or the collection to Thomas Vault. I'll call it in anyway." A thought struck him, and he looked up at Caleb and Lucre. "Does the Treaty know you're here?"
"Tangentially," said Caleb.
Caleb shrugged one shoulder, glancing next to him at Lucre. She nodded once. "Treatymen Silvan and Treton. The rest are on a strictly need-to-know basis. They know the Lady Vault is in hiding somewhere in the US. They don't know where."
"Worried about a leak?" asked Aaron with a frown. He took a sip of coffee. "Within the Treaty Council? Don't you think that's a little paranoid."
He shrugged again. "It's happened before," he said, his expression grim.
Aaron met his eyes, nodding once. "Granted," he said. "Fine. I'll keep your names and clan affiliation out of it. I had to do the same thing with Zeke anyway."
"Much obliged," said Caleb.
"Now." Aaron leaned forward, clasping his hands together. "You were saying about the fire?"
"It was a shade," said Caleb. "Fully developed. I'd give it a threat classification of B myself."
Aaron's eyes widened. "A shade?" he asked. "Are you sure?"
Caleb cringed. Aaron probably didn't mean it, but the question cut deep. He wanted to ask Aaron if he would be sure, had his magic been stolen, but decided against it. He didn't want to reveal his missing Link just yet. "Yes," he said. "It's possible that that shade was the source of your misplaced Vault magic. It probably siphoned the magic off from a powerful mage...or was sent here by one."
"So you're telling me we have a shade walking around with a nobility-class Sealbound?"
"It would probably be a copy of a Sealbound," said Caleb helpfully. "Shades aren't intelligent enough to capture the real thing. It would destroy them and go on a rampage almost instantly."
"Well, depending on the Sealbound," said Lucre, frowning as she rearranged the plates in front of her. "My brother's Cipher would probably just sit around and brood."
"Yes, and recite terrible poetry," said Caleb, waving his hand in the air dismissively. "Which would be a crime in and of itself. But I doubt we're talking about something as supposedly intelligent as Cipher."
Lucre shrugged. "You said it was probably nobility-class," she said, turning towards Aaron. "Assuming you're right, we're dealing with something that has enough intelligence to have its own motivations, and is very self-aware. A shade would not be able to contain it. And there's only a handful of possibilities. It's not my Ruin. Those shadelings we fought yesterday didn't have any idea how to deal with her. We can rule Cipher out as well. Cataclysm would have returned to the Midnight Realm after my father's death. That leaves Discord, Cacophony, and Transience that we know of."
"Noted," said Aaron. He frowned, pulling out his notebook and beginning to flip through it. Caleb gave the pages an idle glance as they flipped past him. They were written in some sort of code. "I would put money on Discord and Transience myself. Cacophony's vessel was last seen leaving the country."
"Alan?" asked Lucre. "Why? He's Thomas's right hand man."
"Or so we thought," said Aaron with a shrug. "Recruiting maybe. Does the Vault Clan have branch families elsewhere?"
"Europe," said Lucre. "Who doesn't? Asia, but that's my mother's side of the family. Thomas has no connection to them. They're not even Vaults."
"And they'd probably run him through if he dared to show up on their doorstep," added Caleb, watching as Aaron began to write. He wrote in code as well. "Smart idea, considering someone might be after your book," he commented.
"Thanks," said Aaron. "It's my own code. I developed it the first time I had information stolen from me. It was embarrassing enough that I did my best not to replicate it again." He looked up at them. "So besides the mysterious Vault, do you think the shade stole magic from anyone else?"
"I sensed magic from several different signatures," said Lucre. "Although that might be due to the nature of the store. I didn't sense any one particular blip, but I wouldn't rule it out as a possibility."
"There's another possibility we might have to consider," said Caleb, taking another sip of coffee.
"What?" asked Aaron, looking up at him.
"There are two shades."
Aaron's pen stilled. He frowned at Caleb. "What gives you that idea?"
"Yesterday, when I fought the shade, it didn't attempt to transform. Not even when Lucre did. If it had a Sealbound, even a copy of one, wouldn't it have reacted to her brand of magic?"
"Maybe it didn't want to reveal the identity of its master," said Aaron. "Maybe it knew that as soon as you transformed, you would know."
"Maybe," said Caleb. "But that brings up another point. Thomas Vault is many things, but he is not a summoner. There has to be someone else with the power to spare who's working with him on this—someone pulling the shade's strings."
"I came to that conclusion myself," said Aaron. "They would have to be nearby, so that they could see what the shade was doing. And they would have to be strong."
"They would be under constant wear, depending on how long the shade's been manifested in this world. After a prolonged period of time...well, aching, chills, fever, cold sweats, you know the drill."
"Mm, and they'd probably look a little crazed," said Aaron, scribbling frantically. "Odd habits, strange tics. It would take longer to manifest depending on the strength of the mage, though. And they wouldn't have the shade summoned all the time."
"They might," said Caleb. "Considering the time, effort and risk involved in the summoning ritual, it might turn out being more energy efficient in the long run to keep the shade in this realm for as long as it's needed."
"True enough," said Aaron. "But the risk involved with keeping a shade in this world for too long..."
Caleb almost laughed. "We're dealing with people who have no problem blowing up a bookstore, and are blatantly going against the will of the Treaty. I highly doubt the risk to the rest of the world is something they overly concern themselves with."
"There's one other thing," said Aaron, setting down his notepad and pen. "Summoning a shade is serious black magic. It's not the sort of thing you can learn off the streets. They would need somewhere to conduct the summoning, and materials to learn the ritual from. Illegal materials."
"Where better than a black market bookstore?" asked Caleb.
"My thoughts exactly," said Aaron with a nod. He looked up at the both of them. "So it all comes back to the bookstore. How did you find out that the place was selling illegal books."
"A man came in," replied Caleb. "He smelled of magic. He dropped off a package with the woman at the counter and left. She took it into the back room, and I took the opportunity to use my Earth Link to do some poking around. I found a secret chamber underneath the floor of the bookstore, about the same size as the bookstore itself."
"Sure it couldn't have just been an ordinary basement?" asked Aaron.
"Given the fact that my finding it triggered the shade attack?" asked Caleb. "Not likely. As a science student, I feel obligated to point out that we would actually need to go investigate to be sure."
"True," said Aaron. "And we'd need to hurry. Once the Treaty gets their hands on that place, we won't be allowed anywhere near it." He thumbed idly through his notes, a pensive frown on his face. Aaron suddenly looked up, his eyes widening. "Wait...woman?"
"The woman at the counter," said Caleb. "She was working the store when Lucre and I walked in."
"The person working that night was a man."
Caleb's frown deepened. "No, I'm quite sure it was a woman," he said. "Elderly woman. In her late fifties, early sixties? Grandmother-ish look?"
"It was a man in his early thirties," said Aaron. "Dark-haired, somewhat skinny. He was interviewed on the news saying that he stepped out for a moment when the fire broke out. He'd gone out to get some dinner. He was saying how thankful he was that no other staff members were in the store when the fire broke out."
"...The back room," said Lucre quietly from beside Caleb.
Caleb nodded once. "The woman probably triggered the shade attack. I'm willing to bet that that back room is completely unharmed. Are the police investigating the fire."
Aaron shook his head. "They said it was accidental. A combination of faulty wiring, old paper, and a heating system. But the building itself is closed indefinitely."
"How do we get in?" asked Caleb.
"Don't worry," said Aaron, smiling. He twirled his pen around in his hand. "I'll write us a way."
Caleb frowned, watching the pen spin. He took a sip of coffee, inclining his head in Aaron's direction. "By the way," he said. "Hurt yourself?"
Aaron blinked, glancing down at his hand. Two of the fingers of his right hand were bandaged. "Oh that?" he asked. "Cut myself this morning. I mixed up the glyphs for cut and repair. I kind of forgot about it. At any rate, do you know how the shade managed to start a fire?"
Caleb frowned, lowering his eyes to the table. He clasped his hands tightly, holding onto one hand with the other. "I do," he said. "It stole a Fire Link. From me."
Aaron looked surprised for a moment, but he recovered quickly, shaking his head."So it's walking around with a potential Sealbound and a Gainling Fire Link? Lovely. How many Links do you have left? You mentioned Earth."
"Two. Earth and Water."
"Three Links," said Aaron. He smiled, shaking his head. "I'd heard you were a prodigy. I guess that just proves it. I'm sorry for your loss. Should we get going?"
"Please," said Caleb. He watched as Aaron got to his feet, his eyes fixing on the other man's bandaged hand as he slowly got up as well.