Chapter One: We Were Once Kings

NIKITA TAKAHASHI

Four Years Ago

Responsibility.

Reputation.

Respect.

A girl, no older than fourteen, knelt before her father’s court.

A sword unsheathed.

Her father, despite his age, wielded the sword deftly. His eyes were emeralds, his hair as pure as winter.

“My daughter Nikita,”

Dressed in his noble robes, her father has never looked so imposing. He seemed so wise and strong, a faraway image from the smiling, carefree demeanor he usually carried around the castle.

The great hall fell into silence.

The hundreds of fellow nobles and lowborn magi raised their heads in attention as their lord spoke.

“In the name of our ancestors, in the name of our founders, and by my rights as your lord father— I declare you my heir.”

He placed the blade on her shoulder, closing his eyes.

The sword glowed bright, lit alive by her father’s magical energy.

A moment passed and the sword is sheathed.

The girl rises a woman.

Her father placed a hand on her shoulder, smiling. His was a genuine, fatherly smile. She felt comfort from that and returns the gesture.

She was nervous the moment she entered the hall.

So many eyes, so many faces watched her as she marched on the carmine carpet, dressed in her noble armor. Most shared gentle smiles, others held malice behind their gaze.

She wanted to run so much, but she knew that she couldn’t.

And so she endured.

Now she stood before her father, upon a dais of gold and red, smiling proudly as a torrent of applause explodes from the gathered crowds.

“Nikita!”

Nikita!”

The crowd loved her. The crowd was proud of her.

She was the heir now.

Hers is a house that once raised kings.

She would make her father proud.

= ] | [ =

CHAOS MAXWELL

Two Years Ago

The soil was dirtied with wolf’s blood.

The grass was stained red, the mud caked with bone and fur. In my hand was a broken knife, carved from nothing but stone and leather. Before me was the largest wolf I have ever seen.

A dire wolf.

Mad eyes, razor sharp teeth.

A feral growl escaped its maw.

“Hah…”

I’ve killed its pack, slayed its brothers and sisters.

I glanced at the wolf corpse to my right. A single red gash ran across its neck, sending blood seeping into the soil.

The horse-sized dire wolf in front of me leaned forward, preparing to strike.

The wolf lusted for the warmth of my blood.

It was angry beyond compare.

The thirst for vengeance flowed through its veins. Step after step, it began to approach.

I slayed the rest of its pack easily enough.

They came as a tidal wave of fur and fangs, charging me as I prepared my noontime meal. The dire wolves knew little of stealth. Instead they charged as the wild animals that they were.

I slayed them one after another, wolf after wolf, fang after broken fang.

The alpha wolf was the first to charge, of course. But I blocked his attack easily enough, throwing him against a tree as he leaped into the air to tear off my neck. I could have killed the wolf right then and there, but its pack got in the way.

I pinned it against a tree and thrust a knife into its gut. But its pack was coming. What felt like hundreds of teeth clamped down around me, biting down on my shoulder and arms, throwing me hard into the ground.

My clothes were torn and my world was a haze, but I endured, for their fangs failed to penetrate my flesh.

From then on, it became a simple matter of breaking wolf necks and slicing throats.

A brutal affair, but necessary for my survival.

Now, the alpha wolf prepared its charge. It lowered itself to the ground, rows of sharp teeth barred at the magus who dared slay its pack.

I prepared myself, gripping the knife in my hands.

A small weapon like the knife didn’t befit me.

I prefer swords, axes, anything with better reach.

But this was all I could make given my resources at the time. My father resolved that I should not use sorcery.

“It’s a trial.” he said.

“It’s tradition.” he added.

I sighed.

My warm breath turned into mist.

Funny.

It’s not even cold.

The sun was bright above me and the air was far from humid.

The wolf bounded toward me.

I responded in kind.

I positioned myself low to the ground and met its charge.

My footfall was a sledgehammer on the earth, shaking the ground with a tremor and a boom.

I charged forth at a quarter of the speed of sound.

The giant wolf never stood a chance.

= ] | [ =

Days later I found myself in my father’s solar.

Back in our castle, everything felt different.

The leather chair I sat on was too soft.

The room was too cut off from the outside world. The air smelled and felt artificial. I found myself missing the smell of grass, the aroma of trees, and the sound of rushing water on a stream.

I raised my head and stared absentmindedly at an air conditioning vent above a bookcase. Displayed on the bookcase were dozens of thick books. The Songs of War by Shin Usu, Charging into the Fray by David Kent, Wisdom Amidst Sword and Slaughter by Heron Mie’sr— books written by veterans of countless wars.

Literature fit for knights, generals, and soldiers alike.

“How are you feeling?”

My father was gazing outside, through the large glass window of his office. All I saw was his silhouette, a dark haze embraced by the burning blare of the sun.

“This chair is too soft.”

I complained.

“The food I was served this morning was too delicious.”

“Too delicious?” he said, incredulous. “It seems that the woods have changed you. You never complained about food before.”

“I’m readjusting, that’s all. A few days ago I was living off of badly cooked rabbit leg and now I’m back to eating venison imported from half a world away. Speaking of which, why do we import venison? Most of our lands are forests. Forests with you know, an abundance of deer.”

My father glanced toward me.

“We import most of our food, or rather, most of our resources, not because we can, but because people insist. Though we are no longer kings, many lesser houses still wish to win our favor.”

“I wish some of those houses were trying to win my favor.”

“Incidentally, they are.” he returned to gazing outside. “Four houses have put forth daughters for your attention. All of them ladies of exquisite beauty. It’s still a shame how things didn’t work out with that Hayashibara girl. It would have been great if you married into royalty.”

Well, it was obvious he was still bitter about that.

“But back to the topic at hand.” he said. “Describe your experience, son.”

“You know, we’d have a better father-son dynamic if you actually pretended to care.”

“Oh but I do. I lost sleep when you were out there. For sixty-four days I waited and prayed that you make a safe return. And here you are now, safe and complaining about leather seats and delicious food. Now tell me, what did you learn from your little outing?”

“You threw me in a wolf-infested forest in the middle of nowhere. The first thing I learned is that you’re kinda a lunatic.”

“And the second thing you learned?”

I didn’t answer immediately.

Instead, I found myself staring at my open palms.

Just a few days ago, these palms were caked with wolf’s blood. A few days ago, these hands struggled to make fire from wood.

These were the hands of a survivor.

“I never bled. Not once.” my words were a whisper. “Fangs and claws came for me, but I fought off every beast that challenged me. They attacked by instinct, driven by the desire to eat, to survive, to fend me off from their territory. But it was so easy, dad. It was so easy to fight back.”

“And do you know why that was the case?” he straightened his back.

“Ehh, I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have an idea.” I cleared my throat. “Whenever I fought for my life, whenever I felt like I was on the brink of death, instinct would just— take over. I’d throw my training out the window and just swing and thrust at everything that moved. I had the resolve to live, the thirst to survive and that was what—”

“You’re wrong.”

My father’s words were absolute.

“It is because you’re highborn.”

He turned to face me.

His visage was still a shadow, but I felt the power behind his glare.

“Yours is the blood of heroes. Your flesh is steel, your mind is iron, your blood is fire. Any other magus would have died in that forest. Any lesser man would have been overwhelmed, starved, hunted, killed. But magi like us, we are different. At your peak, you will be as strong as a hundred magi.

“I sent you to that forest not to teach you of survival or instinct. I sent you there to show you the insignificance of what ordinary, lowborn magi may consider threats.”

“I hear you, father. But that’s a harsh lesson you’re trying to teach.”

I leaned back in my seat, my eyes stayed steady. My father’s glare was once enough to send me running to my room. But now I held my ground. I wanted answers.

“We were kings once.” he said. Those words were like a mantra to him. “I am telling you that you are different, that you are meant for something great. One day, you will be the tip of the spear, leading our armies against the enemies of our people. One day, you will be a hero.”

I sighed and sank into my seat.

Our talks always came down to this. Ever since I was young, my father always told me that I was destined to be something great. There was some truth in his words, of course.

I am highborn, after all.

We are born with greater strength, greater dexterity, and a better grasp of magic. We have nearly limitless resources at our disposal and opportunities that common magi can only dream of.

Our world is ruled by strength.

At the peak of this hierarchy of power are the great noble and royal houses of the world.

Long ago, the world was a darker place.

Monsters roamed the earth, dark lords and madmen played with powers beyond their comprehension, and many wars were fought. In these times of strife, heroes would rise from highborn families to defeat whatever great evil threatened the world.

But now the world was different.

There were no more evils to defeat, no more monsters left to conquer.

The world was no longer black and white.

Everything was now grey and grey.

Whenever wars or skirmishes were fought, both sides claimed to be righteous, while condemning the other as evil.

With the intricacies of politics, territorial disputes, and other ugly things, heroes have lost their prestige. While your own people may have called you a hero, your enemies might have seen you as nothing more but a monster, a murderer of fathers, brothers, and sons.

Suddenly feeling tired, I pushed myself to stand and begged my leave.

My father nodded.

“Your brother is coming home early today,” he said. “I’m sure he misses you. If you have the energy, I suggest you surprise him.”

The memory of my brother’s carefree smile made me grin.

As I left my father’s solar, I spared him a final glance.

He held his gaze outside, watching over the miles and miles of land we owned. A spectacular mountain range and an ever green forest surrounded our castle. His solar provided him with a stunning view of these sights, yet a part of me knew that his mind was elsewhere.

Let it go, father.

There were no wars left to fight.

No more monsters left to slay.

The world was different now.

How naïve I was to think such thoughts.

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