Chapter 17: The Calling (5/5)

The calling, combined with his intense curiosity, brought Elric to a stop right in front of the portrait. It was only upon closer evaluation that Elric realized just how talented the painter was. As inept as he was in art, he was still confident in his evaluation that the painter had to be an established one. Every brush stroke in this painting did wonders in expressing the vividness of the person when he was of flesh and blood. 

But the mana that flowed forth from this painting was what Elric was most interested in.

He had always heard that a true masterwork of art had life breathed into it, though he had never once put stock in such a metaphor. Art made with the soul was meant to be words of praise to expound upon the deeper and spiritual meaning behind it.

So it came to Elric as a huge shock to see an inanimate object with a soul imbued into it. The shock of such an existence was so great that Elric stumbled backward over a nearby cushion, sending him backward onto the ground.

In his panic, Elric thought to what Charle taught him once before and cradled the back of his head with his left hand and brought his other arm behind him to soften the fall. He fully expected himself to hit the ground when a sudden gust of wind pushed against him and a pair of firm arms grabbed hold of his back, stopping Elric from falling. 

He looked up. Moonlight obscured parts of his savior’s silhouette, but Elric knew without a doubt that his savior was none other than the thrice-cursed foe of his, Duke Hughesin.

And what a compromising position he was in! The parchment from Flania already filled in the gaps Elric had about Hughesin, so he knew now just what kind of man he was. Though he didn’t take Hughesin to be as dangerous as the princess ascribed him to be, Elric desperately wanted to avoid any situation where the two of them were alone.

Being alone with the one said to be the number one hedonist in Karth? The one known throughout the empire as the Goldsilver Wolf, a man dangerous to enemies and all women alike? Elric didn’t like that, not one bit. Especially since he had more-or-less accepted his role as pretending to be a woman.

Like a frightened rabbit, Elric wrestled himself away from Hughesin’s arms and scurried to the nearest corner to stare down the other man.

Hughesin looked crestfallen. He felt like a bird of prey, eyeing down the helpless lady in the corner as though ready to strike. Were Fantasia near a window, Hughesin was confident the former would’ve made a second escape attempt through the window again. Having only just repaired the first window, Hughesin was not yet ready to do so again.

“Lady Fantasia, calm yourself, my dear. I perchance heard your departure from your chamber and thought you might need my assistance with something.”

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“I…I found myself with some leisure time earlier. By your will, I will excuse myself back to my room.” Answered Elric in return, hopeful that he’d be able to return without further incident.

His hopes would be dashed by Hughesin’s next words, however.

“Dearest lady Fantasia,” Smiled Hughesin, “there’s no need to evade me so. If you are looking to entertain yourself, then come sit with me. We can chat over a cup of coffee.”

When he didn’t get a reply back, Hughesin redoubled his efforts. “Take heed the agreement, my dear. For as long as you reside within this estate for the next few days, you are to agree to such invitations. If by chance, you no longer wish to abide by the agreement, then I of course, will not mind being bound by the agreement any longer.”

That froze Elric in his tracks. He could think of no excuse that’d help him escape from this situation. And thus, he was forced to sit back down obediently.

Rather than take advantage of the situation and agreement, Hughesin chose this moment to be a gentleman and drew himself back. A silver bell was pulled out from his robes and rang it twice. Immediately, the hall lit up with light and servants came striding into the room with a cart of food in hand.

Hughesin had everything prepared from the beverages and snacks to even a few servants ready on hand to do what the two of them asked. There was no contesting this. Elric could only give one last glance to the still-calling portrait in front of him.

That, of course, caught Hughesin’s attention. “A work of mine, admirable, is it not?”

Elric was surprised. He knew of Hughesin’s talent with art after looking through his collection in his room the other day, but this portrait here was of a different level entirely. Most of the pieces in Hughesin’s collection were expertly drawn; some would put a master artist to shame even. But not even the more recent pieces of his collection exhibited the vivaciousness of the same degree as this portrait in front of them. Indeed, the comparison was so far apart that Elric nearly doubted that they were both painted by the same person.

“Is this a self-portrait? It doesn’t seem so.”

It was meant as an innocuous question. One made out of equal parts curiosity and politeness. But the moment he asked it, every servant within the hall immediately vacated the place, leaving only Elric and Hughesin in silence.

Hughesin hesitated, unsure how to best answer. “Many assume it to be one,” he muttered. “Except it is not. This is a portrait of my ancestor, one whose name has been forgotten by history. Does the name ‘Tekrom’ sound familiar to you?”

When Elric didn’t answer, Hughesin took this as a signal to keep talking, “I would wager not. Once spoken by the masses with reverence and respect, but no longer. Every year, the empire celebrates the Day of Triumph with a banquet to celebrate the achievements of our heroes. They revere my ancestor, the Magihunter, but none know his name. He is the sole hero with no name.”

“Why is that?” Asked Elric, captivated by his curiosity.

“A damnable curse. No doubt you’ve heard the legend of the Hero Sloan, founder of our great empire. His story of vanquishing the Magic Emperor is known to all. What many fail to realize is that the true vanquisher wasn’t him, but my ancestor. With his dying breath, the Magic Emperor laid a curse upon my ancestor and subsequently the rest of his blood.”

“What manner of curse is it?”

“A curse one might describe as a poetic tragedy. ‘Forbidden grace thou shalt fall for, favored grace thou shalt fall from. Thine name given nevermore, mine curse remains evermore’.” Quoted Hughesin, his eyes staring deeply at the young person in front of him. 

Then with a softer, more slower voice, he repeated: “Forbidden grace thou shalt fall for, mine curse remains evermore.”

The target of such a stare, Elric, felt deeply uncomfortable. So, a damned curse was the reason behind his involvement in such a terrible joke? His luck was downright terrible if he of all people had to be caught up in some ancient curse like this. Quickly, he began to think of a new topic to switch to.

“Perhaps the curse has been lifted? I am of the opinion that your house is quite blessed. The Duchess seems pleased with her marriage.” Elric wanted a topic change, but he was also quite honest in his evaluation of the ducal house.

“Oh? Is that how you view it? I, too, would hope this curse lifted, for it would mean I would be the first of my blood to be blessed. My mother’s situation…you will come to realize soon.”

Elric bite back his laughter. Blessed? This duke was the exact opposite of blessed. He doubted if the man wanted the curse to be lifted at all, to be frank, but there was no way he was going to voice such an opinion. Time to think of another topic to switch to again.

He thought back to what he once heard the old wolf said to him and the others back in the forest. How Tekrom was the finest archer the wolf had ever seen. But how did the Magic Emperor, the highest authority in a land where magical ability ruled all, lose to an archer? Elric wasn’t sure how a magus with all their advantages would lose against an archer.

“So your ancestor was an archer? How was he able to defeat such a powerful magus then?”

Slowly, Hughesin stepped forward the portrait. Both hands of his clasped onto the edges of the painting and gently lifted it down to reveal a long and narrow bow embedded in the wall behind it.

Elric didn’t even see the bow itself yet when tendrils of mana came flowing out. The raw feeling of power radiating from it made him realize at once that it had been this calling to him! A bow used by a hero to vanquish the terrifying Magic Emperor and put a stop to his magical reign once in for all!

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