We found her in the entrance hall, standing still amidst countless fleeing magi.
“Is there anything I can help you with, Your Graces?” Yui Inoue asked, tilting her head.
= ] | [ =
A flash of radiant light takes us high into the sky.
We emerge above the cloudscape, thrown into a world of absolute blue. Beneath us are the cotton-like softness of clouds, peaked by dark thunderheads and illuminated occasionally by veins of blue lightning.
Nikita and I fall together.
The wind rushes against my body and across my face, making it hard to see.
We tuck in our arms and legs to accelerate our descent. Our bodies fall like arrows. We cut through the clouds at three-hundred kilometers an hour. The cloudscape draws nearer, the sound of thunder growing louder.
My second heart roars in my chest. An engine of magic ignites, sending magical energy shivering through my body. Mana courses through my veins like hot fuel.
I throw my legs under myself, maneuvering into a slow spin.
Beside me, Nikita does the same.
Spell circles appear around us, flaring into gold and white spheres.
From these circles appear gauntlets and greaves, full plate and pauldrons, all wreathed in gold. The steel wraps around my body as perfectly as a second layer of skin. Mechanisms whir and gears tighten, locking joints and corners together, leaving no space for open air.
To my right, Nikita maneuvers herself into a head-first dive, her own armor joining with her.
Her armor is slenderer, curving at her hips and breasts. But no skin is left revealed. Every inch is covered save for her face and neck. Completing her armor is a half cape of deep red, materializing in fantastic swirls upon her right shoulder.
She glances at me, smiling as my own blue cape manifests itself.
With that smile, she looks no different from how she did just moments ago. She looks so innocent, so idealistic. But the armor covering her body, and the scale-and-scholar sigil burning bright red on her chest, tells me that she might as well be a different person.
I can imagine it now, the entire city gazing into the sky, watching as two insignificant red and blue dots fall from the sky.
An explosion rocks the castle and the surrounding streets, sending a plume of smoke rising upwards. Nikita and I fall into the choking blackness, lost in the smell of death.
Nikita speeds up her descent and falls ahead of me. She throws out her hand.
“I invoke the seventh seal of sorcery— ATTONBITUS!!”
Lightning surges from her open palm, slithering across the sky in a snake of white light. It crashes at the heart of the darkness, knocking away the smoke and fire in a deafening boom.
We land a distance away from where we saw her last standing.
The seared-black concrete meets with the soles of our boots in an explosive impact, sending tremors cracking in every direction. Dust and debris geyser from the cracks, as the smell of death invades our nostrils.
The Reaper is nowhere in sight.
The smoke is hiding her.
But I can feel her presence. I can sense her standing there, amidst the fallen bodies of the king and queen, gazing at us with her midnight eyes.
I charge forward without missing a beat. The force of my acceleration crushes the marble beneath, sending a gust of air exploding in every direction, knocking away the smoke.
Magical energy surges through my hands.
“I invoke the first seal of sorcery— Materialize— Kronos Everser!”
A spell circle appears between my fingers.
The outline of the rapier is the first to form. Magical energy swirls, condensing into a pillar of golden light. Raw energy turns solid, molding itself into the shape of a weapon of war.
The Kronos Everser’s blade is black gold. The sword lacks the intricacy of other weapons forged by the powers of nobility. Its design is a simple matte-black finish, its grip is rugged, its blade is scarred and burnt. The sword lacks flair and beauty. It is simply a tool for killing.
Grabbing the sword by its hilt, I charge into the flames.
A mass of unspeakable power waits at the center of this darkness.
This is a terrible idea.
I feel like that one knight from folklore, Ser Arthur Winddraw. A brave knight he was, but not all that smart. He charged heedless, courageously, with an army at his back. Yet despite his courage and honor, Ser Arthur lost. But he never died, no in fact he was merely arrested.
Because Ser Arthur wasn’t charging against an army. He was charging against a windmill.
It’s a weird story, why am I recalling this now.
Despite the flames burning at every corner, the air is cold and wet.
Despite my armor and my sword, I feel naked and unarmed.
The burnt ruins of Castle Clarent surround me. Walls crack and tapestries are set afire.
A silhouette of a woman appears in the darkness, standing tall in perfect posture.
I launch at the Reaper’s heart without hesitation.
I expected the crunch of steel against flesh.
But my thrust ends abruptly. I nearly lose my footing as I skid forward in a sudden halt, feeling like I just stabbed a concrete wall.
The dust curls away. The Reaper stands in her place, her slender fingers gripping the tip of my sword.
Four rings, burning with divine light, hang above her head.
But for a moment, three of the four rings flicker.
= ] | [ =
Far away, across the world, a certain white hall is filled with song.
A hundred magi gather on the floor and balconies, arms locked together, and eyes closed in deep prayer. A single White Prophetter stands on a dais, leading the procession.
Soren Rademaker stands in the farthest back of the hall, arms crossed and leaning against a marble pillar.
“The Fourth Reaper has revealed herself in the Kingdom of Kria!” the White Prophetter proclaims. “With her wrath she will reduce the city to rubble! With her wrath, the world will see the power of our gods!”
The hall erupts in a chorus of agreement.
Soren watches silently.
“Two years ago, the twelfth revealed herself in all her crimson glory, smiting down those she deemed impious and corrupt! With fire and blade she purged this world of a thousand sinful souls!” the Prophetter raises his hands into the air.
The crowd listens to his every word, nodding and whispering in agreement.
The man on the dais dresses himself in long white robes, ornate with the patterns of white-gold rings. A mask wraps tightly around his face, and before it floats a glowing white ring, suspended by the efforts of magic.
When a man resigns himself to the Divinus, he loses his name, his identity.
Soren looks around at the crowd of praying magi.
They’re the same, all of them.
“My friends, my followers,” the Prophetters says. “When Kria falls, let us offer a song to the souls of their people. With their sacrifice, the world gains an understanding on the lessons of humility. With their sacrifice, we are saved.”
“To Kria! To Kria!”
A chorus of emotions fills the hall, loud enough to drum Soren’s ears.
Lunatics. Why am I even working for these people?
Soren pushes himself off the pillar and heads for the exit. An itch appears in his throat, causing him to cough and convulse. He covers his mouth as his breath leaves him. No one pays any attention to him, even as he pulls away his handkerchief to reveal a wet stain of blood.
“Leaving so soon?” a man says. “Ah forgive me, I mistook you as someone who shared our faith.”
A robed man blocks his way. The man is dressed like the Prophetter on the dais, except his robes are a melancholic grey.
The same mask and the same floating ring cover his features, but his are cracked and the colors are worn out. An aura of power surrounds the man. He towers over Soren, seemingly carrying himself with a king’s presence.
“Here, have some water, Rademaker.” but his intimidating presence disappears the moment he offers Soren a bottle of mineral water.
The sky outside is as gloomy as the man’s long robes. They walk together under the soft pitter-patter of rain, through the lush gardens surrounding the White Tower. Loitering devotees bow and smile at the robed man, but few pay any attention to Soren himself.
“They call me the Grey Prophetter.” the man’s voice sounds hollow and faraway because of his mask.
“I can’t imagine why.”
“It’s because I can see the future.” he replies without missing a beat.
“And because you’re wearing grey instead of white.”
“But why do you think I’m wearing this color?”
Soren shrugs. “Beats me.”
“It’s because I can see the future.”
What a surprise. I’m having a conversation with another lunatic.
They walk up a winding staircase, past trees and tall walls of wood and stone. They arrive at a small terrace high above the gardens. Before them is a green field that seems to stretch on for forever. Gathering on the field are countless soldiers in white armor, standing in perfect formation and posture. White statues soaked in rain.
“Tell me, Rademaker, what do you see?”
“An army of green boys who are all going to die.” Soren says, gulping down his water. “Tech and numbers mean nothing against more experienced armies. The last Prophetter I spoke to told me that your order intends to wage war against its enemies. I told him that you’re all crazy sods. The Divinus are wealthy, yes. The Divinus are powerful, of course. But your people lack the infrastructure and experience to wage a war on even the smallest scale.”
Soren can’t tell if the man is frowning behind his mask, but the Grey Prophetter nonetheless gives him a glance.
“We are well aware of that. But wars are not won through battles alone.”
Soren examines the man, noting his posture and stance. The Prophetter is in his prime, that much is certain. Under his robes is a slender but sinewy body, shoulders like sheer cliffs, and hands that seem to move with perfect precision.
He can’t tell if the man is a warlock, sorcerer, or alchemist. He hides his magical energy just as well as he hides his face.
Should I really be working for someone so shady?
“I mentioned before that I earned these grey robes because I could see into the future. Do you want to know what I really meant by that?”
“I’m not interested in your history.” Soren turns away from the army of gathered Divinus, crossing his arms. “I’ve been loitering in this tower for an entire month now, waiting on a mission that your elders seem to have no intention of giving. If you need something from me, then get to the point. My contract expires in five more months. Until then I’m stuck here, trapped in an orchestra of prayers and scheming old men.”
“The Divinus is paying you a generous amount.”
“Yes, but for what? To stand here, guarding this White Tower against vandals and edgy atheists? I’m a soldier, Prophetter. My skills are turning blunt.”
Soren looks into the featureless eyes of his companion, waiting for an answer. The Prophetter tilts his head to the right, as the ring floating before his face tilts in the opposite direction.
“Tomorrow I’m giving you command of an elite unite of Infiltrators, along with two-hundred White Knights.” the man says, his voice a hollow boom. “And on the day after that, you will set sail to Kria.”
A smile makes its way on Soren lips.
“What are we doing in Kria?” he asks, fainting disinterest.
The Prophetter looks down on Soren, his robes sodden from the rain. The ring floating before his face disassembles and cracks. Points jut out from the ring’s edges like sharp rays of sunlight. Soren watches in mild amusement as the grey, broken ring transforms to gold, suddenly shining with the brilliance of daylight.
The Prophetter’s reply is simple.
= ] | [ =
“We’ve anticipated an attack on your kingdom. It was only a matter of time before the Reaper returned, thinking that the job needed to be finished. As a precaution, we planted a series of bombs and curses in your royal castle, amongst other locations.”
“That doesn’t sound like the most reasonable thing to do. But thanks, I guess? I assume you planted these things at the places that were most likely to be attacked.”
“Correct, Takahashi. Military bases, air ports, minor and major castles, you name it.”
“Whose ridiculous idea was it to plant bombs and curses in our city? If you were discovered, you could have single-handedly destroyed the relationship between our kingdoms.”
“The curses are harmless. They were specifically configured to only target a specific type of magus— the Reapers. The bombs are also mostly harmless. They’re just gas bombs, carrying a substance called Ferus Sylpher.”
“Niki, please enlighten me.”
“It’s a chemical used to drain magical energy in the air. Illegal in 26 kingdoms, even though like Inoue said, it’s pretty harmless. The chemical causes no physical injuries, and in fact getting hit by it feels just like getting sprayed with water.”
“And you know that because…?”
“Shush. What I’m saying, is that all it does is temporarily dampen a person’s magical affinity. Even though it’s illegal, nobody uses it as a weapon because of how ineffective it is. The best application of Sylpher is in silencing loads of troops, but nowadays modern spells do a better job of achieving the same effect. It still finds use in pharmaceutical situations though.”
“But if that’s the case, then why—”
“—the amount we used should be enough to weaken the Reaper for an attack.”
Inoue spoke with a cold, detached calmness.
“Even so, the attack is still too early. The original plan was for me and a score of others to strike while the Sylpher was making its way into the Reaper’s system. But it was supposed to be a joint operation. The circumstances today make a coordinated attack impossible.”
“So what, you’re just willing to abandon your plan— and our kingdom, to try again when the situation is more to your liking?” my eyes burned a nightly green.
And Inoue’s were an icy blue. “Yes.”