Inside each of us is an Origin Core, a second heart, an engine that allows us to perform magic. Origin Cores send magical energy through our body in the same way that our hearts pump blood through our veins. They store and create runa, the sole resource we consume when practicing the arcane.
But cores can only create and store a limited amount of runa each day. Lowborn magi have such limited runa supplies that they can only perform a few spells every day, a dozen if you’re good. Magi like myself who were lucky enough to be born into ancient bloodlines, enjoy the benefit of producing fifty times more.
If a lowborn magus’ Origin Core is a household generator, then mine can be compared to a hydroelectric dam. People born into one of the three imperial houses have cores that are capable of producing even greater amounts of magical energy.
A few years ago, someone invented a tool that shortened the power gap between the lowborn and the high.
“This is one weird-looking art core.” Nikita frowns, holding up the knife, its blade pointed at the mini-chandelier above the room. “I mean, most cores are the size of flash drives but this— wait, is this even legal?”
Artificial Origin Cores, or art cores for short, are compact devices designed to store a few units of runa.
Like batteries. But for people.
“I assure you it’s perfectly legal.” Yui says curtly.
Nikita raises an eyebrow. “Right. Because a knife the size of a small sword designed to drain a person’s life essence is totally a humane weapon. I don’t even know what to say if you’re planning to use this against the Divinus. If you’re planning to wage a war, a good array of spears and guns should be more than enough. Getting stabbed by a blade like this,” she touches tip with her finger, shaking her head. “would be agonizing beyond belief.”
“We’re not planning to use it on other magi. That’s a weapon meant for the Reapers themselves.”
We stare at her, flabbergasted.
“Shit. You were serious? You’re really planning to use this on a Reaper?”
Wow, Nikita must really be surprised. I’ve known her for five years and this is only the second time I’ve ever heard her swear.
“My sister Risa created those knives based on extensive research about the Reapers’ physiology.”
“Do you people have a Reaper chained in a dungeon or something? Because if that’s the case then I’m in.” I say with a nod. “Nikita and I have been pooling all our resources to get anything on the Reapers, but we only have religious texts and books written by self-proclaimed scholars to base our research on.
“There is literally no concrete evidence on what the Reapers are capable of. All we know is that they’re breathing, walking factories of magical energy. The myths that the Divinus base their faith on give us clues on the personalities of the Reapers, along with hints on how they fight. But trying to get intel on the Reapers is like trying to get intel on Little Red Riding Hood. Over the years, stories are muddled, facts are turned inside out, lies become truths. The Reapers, as far as I know, are a fairy tale, and fairy tales can’t die.”
The Reapers were always shrouded in mystery. Sure they claim to be gods, but nothing about them makes sense. Before the attack, the Reapers occasionally made appearances around the world. They’d appear anywhere from religious gatherings, to festivals, to some royal kid’s birthday party.
While the Reapers interact with magi during these appearances, whatever interactions they share with the people are usually limited to nods, smiles, and occasional words of courtesy. Their actual nature, from the extent of their powers to their backgrounds and origins, is completely unknown.
Come to think of it, the Reapers are essentially party crashing weirdos.
White Prophetters, the leaders of their faith, should know more about them than anyone else, but getting into their order requires ten years of study in isolation.
The Prophetters are incorruptible. They’re impossible to bribe, impossible to threaten. Only young boys are accepted into their order. If I wanted ears inside the Divinus, I’d have to recruit a ten-year-old to do my spying for me. And last time I checked, that’s way against my principles.
“We have magi on the inside.” Yui says. “But they still have a few years to go before they earn their robes.”
Well that confirms it.
Genevede is a kingdom without principles.
“For the sake of brevity, I admit that we have sources elsewhere. We have information about the Reapers that no one else has access to.”
“This is literally the most illegal conversation I’ve ever been a part of.” Nikita lowers her shoulders and sighs. “But what interests me is your confidence, Your Grace. You seem so sure about this knife.”
Her cool green eyes narrow, staring straight into Yui’s blue pools.
“I want to know why.”
Yui grins wide, like a wolf showing its fangs.
“Genevede has never lost a war. We’ve won wars through attrition, through conquest, but most often of all, by emptying thrones. A war against self-proclaimed gods is no different than a war against another kingdom. To win, you just need the right weapon and the right target to use it on.”
As boisterous as that sounds, she’s right. Genevede is the greatest independent kingdom in the world. For a thousand years it stands isolated, untouched by the three empires. The few kingdoms that dared challenge Genevede didn’t just lose.
They were exterminated.
Are they planning on doing the same thing to the Reapers?
“Aside from our track record, I also have quite a bit of confidence in my sister.” Inoue puffs her chest proudly. “She’s the smartest person I know. On her worse day, she’s smarter than the three of us combined on our best. Our armies are the greatest in the world, our soldiers the bravest, and our queen has all the qualities of a true hero.”
I like how she doesn’t mention Ardrian at all.
“I came here because my king knows about your thirst for vengeance… yeah, I’m not even sure if that’s the appropriate word. But the truth is there, your kingdom is idle. Your rulers hide behind ignorance and blind faith. Your king lives a life ignorant of the Reapers’ threat.” she leans back and spreads her arms. “But you both know the truth, don’t you?
We share no words but silence.
Nikita gets up and walks to the window, placing her hand on the thick glass. Outside, the sky is as blue always, as the city of Kria is bathed in warm sunlight.
“The past two years have been hard on us.” I slide the knife across the table toward Yui. “She’s moved on. She no longer blames herself for what happened that day. If the Reapers come, then we’ll gladly fight to protect the people of Kria. But an open declaration of war is out of the question.”
Yui Isvell Inoue stares at the knife, looking hard with consideration. With a soft nudge she pushes it back.
“Keep it.” she stands swiftly. “I can at least see that your courage hasn’t left you.”
The two girls meet each other’s eyes and bow gracefully. Yui heads for the door in long sure strides, her sword swinging on her hip.
I stand beside Nikita and press a button on the window, opening the binds and letting the cold wind in. Nikita’s auburn hair dances as a gale enters the room. High above, innumerable clouds sail across an endless blue canvass, occasionally cut apart by the peaks of skyscrapers.
“I probably shouldn’t have sent Sonis to submit my thesis.” Nikita says, leaning out the window. “Ahhh, I bet she’s getting scolded on my behalf right now. I should treat her to lunch after this.”
“Why? Is Rivers as strict as people say he is?”
“He isn’t that strict, but he has the tendency of making a big deal out of formatting mistakes. I don’t know, I just feel like I made a mistake with margins or something stupid like that.”
“It’s funny how you’re not actually concerned about your content.”
Nikita scoffs proudly, her nostrils wide. “Hah, please! That thesis is a Nobel in the making.”
“So you’re that confident.”
“Hah, and you’re not?” she grins at me and I smile back.
Nikita breaks the gaze, her smile fading. She faces outside, craning her head to watch the sky.
“Her offer was very… tempting.” she says, her voice filled with a tinge of regret.
“If you want to reconsider her offer, just tell me.”
“What do you think we should do?”
I shrug and lean on the windowsill.
“War is a terrible thing, Niki. In a war between two kingdoms, each side will try their best to justify their actions. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that you never want to be the one who fires the first shot. The Reapers attacked first. By all means, we have every right to retaliate. But the Reapers don’t have a castle we can siege or a city we can conquer. We can’t hit them until they attack again. And that’s what I’m worried about.”
“That girl is our best bet.” Nikita concludes. “Her confidence suggests that she knows a lot about the Reapers. We have to get in on that.”
I lower my head and sigh.
“Alright.” I say. “I’ll see if I can get in contact with Ardrian tomorrow. I haven’t seen him in years, and I don’t really feel like talking to him, but it looks like I’ll have to.”
“You sound like you don’t like him too much.”
“It’s not that I don’t like him, it’s just that he’s kinda a jerk. Loves rubbing it in my face how much better he is than me.”
“Awww, that’s just mean.” Nikita laughs, tilting her head.
“He’s always been straightforward with his words. He never sugarcoats what he says. I guess that’s a result of being born into an Imperial Family.”
Clouds are gathering in the sky. Cumulus formations converge and combine, forming together like cotton balls kilometers in size. The sky dims and darkens, masking the city in a deep grey hue.
“Looks like rain.” Nikita says.
“It sure does. Hey, do you want to get something to eat?”
“By the gods, Chaos. We literally just ate breakfast. Are you telling me you’re still hungry—”
Three blasts of thunder echo across the sky. One after another, the next one louder than the last.
Nikita stares at me wide-eyed, looking like a startled cat. She pushes up next to me on the windowsill, her shoulder rubbing against mine. We stare at the sky, watching the clouds combine into thick dark strands that stretch from horizon to horizon.
Thunder beats across the atmosphere like war drums. Like shadows on a ceiling, blackness spreads across the cloud cover, bathing the city in grey melancholy.
Nikita and I watch in wordless trepidation as our world changes before our eyes.
A final boom, a hundred times louder than the rest, sends a shock wave across the heavens.
Tentacles of dark energy stretch out for a microsecond, sending ripples across the cloudscape, for a moment revealing to us the blue sky above. But then the clouds converge a moment later, condensing into a trunk-like pillar of darkness.
Like a spear of black wood, the pillar crashes into the heart of the city— into Castle Clarent.
A thousand layers of magical barriers flicker for a second only to shatter in the next.
The ancient castle of stone, steel, and concrete is destroyed immediately, crushed by the weight of the skies.
A shock wave explodes from the castle, rippling through the city in a torrent of air and fire. Windows shatter and rivers of fire flood through streets and highways alike, consuming anything in their path.
A hundred souls— a thousand— extinguished in a heartbeat.
Nikita’s guards barge in the room, shouting for us to stay away from the windows.
“Your Graces!” they yell. “You’re not safe here!”
The air turns cold.
A chill pervades across the city.
A Reaper is coming.
A god. Immortal. Endless. A force of nature in human form.
This city will burn. Only ash will remain.
A memory plays out in my mind’s eye.
A snow-filled forest.
A blood-stained ground.
For half a year, images of that encounter ravaged our sleep, stealing away our rest and energy.
Nightmares of the Reaper’s presence, of our friends burning, crying, and dying, came like storms in the night.
The horrors only stopped when we were together, asleep on the same bed.
We can’t go out there.
We’ll die like our friends.
We’ll die like the king and queen.
We’ll die like every other magus who dared raise a hand against these gods.
“Your Grace,” old man Pascal takes Nikita’s hand, pulling her away. “We have to leave now. My men have prepared a convoy for your leave.”
Nikita lowers her head, leaving me by the window.
But then she stops mid-step.
Pascal, despite being a good foot taller than her, almost trips from her sudden halt. He struggles to pull her away.
Nikita is a stone statue anchored to the ground.
Pascal tries again. He puts all of his strength into tugging at Nikita’s hand. She doesn’t even budge an inch.
“Evacuate on your own, Pascal. Take the men and get as far away from the city as possible.”
The old man opens his mouth to protest but Nikita silences him with a glare.
Visibly taken aback, he releases her.
In one swift motion, she grabs Inoue’s black knife on the table and throws it at me. I catch it by the blade as our eyes meet.
A switch triggers inside her. Nikita’s disposition changes in an instant. As the castle burns in the distance, as the city falls to madness, Nikita Takahashi in all her beauty and grace reverts to a soldier’s instinct.
She walks past me, facing the city and the castle beyond.
“Let’s go.” there is nothing but confidence in her voice.
Her emerald eyes are green with fury, burning with conviction.
Today we fight back.
The tragedy of that day will not repeat itself.