"Mairah's three whole ranks ahead of me. I can't believe you did it," Ryker exclaimed as the three left the gym, "Leo's right, the new kid never wins. How did you counter her third strike?"
"Um..." Casimir scratched his head, trying to come up with an explanation. He wasn't sure how that happened, but he knew it had something to do with the Ouroboros Mark. He couldn't tell them that, though. "I'm just that good?"
That seemed to be a satisfying answer, because they laughed and moved on. "You know, I think our class needed someone like you," Leo said. "I've never seen soul projection like that."
Casimir was surprised by how easily he could carry the conversation with these two. He had just finished telling them about his fight with the first cougar rogus when the three strolled into a small building near the center of the campus. It had a large, welcoming glass storefront and a picture of a steaming coffee cup on its front door. Inside the cafe was warm and cozy, the smell of hot chocolate, coffee, and pastries filling the room and leaving a delectable scent hovering in the air. At the back of the cafe were shelves that held the hot buns, éclairs, cookies, croissants, muffins, cupcakes, and miniature cakes. The only other person inside was the girl in a brown barista-style apron over a white collared shirt, working at the cash register and making the drinks, but Ryker took a good look around anyway. Once he was sure they were alone, he perked up, announcing as he made his way to the counter, "Nicolette, you missed a great duel! Casimir here beat Mairah!"
"Our Mairah? That's amazing!" the girl gushed. Her glossy, golden locks were tied into a ponytail that fell past her waist, and her bright eyes were the color of sapphire. From her excessive hand movements and facial expressions, Casimir easily pegged her as the bubbly type. She was the kind of girl who smiled broadly through casual conversations and abused the ability to laugh, which was the kind of girl that never failed to annoy Casimir. He had dealt with people like her at his old school and had developed a distaste for their exaggerated optimism and preppy attitudes.
As they took a seat, Nicolette whipped up their three smoothies and brought them a tray of mini powdered doughnuts. "Here, these are extra, so they're on the house."
As Ryker popped one into his mouth, he turned to Casimir and, through a mouth full of sugary bread, said, "Nicolette's rank four. Not only does she make a mean apple pie, but she's also got one of the best soul skills here."
Casimir forced a smile of his own, but secretly, he was astonished to hear her rank. Nicolette definitely didn't look like much, literally. She was at least a head shorter than Casimir, and her physique was not just small, but delicately elfin. Her high cheekbones coupled with her angular nose and pallor reminded him of a fairy, not a top-notch venator. He wondered if her petite appearance was a facade meant to trick opponents into lowering their guard.
"Yeah, her skill's virtually unbeatable," Leo shuddered, as if recalling an unpleasant memory. Nicolette only let out a girlish giggle, but didn't bother to deny it.
Curious, Casimir was about to ask more, when the door swung open and two more students walked in. They had to be siblings, both with caramel hair and amber eyes that shone like marbles against their olive skin. However, beyond their appearances, their vibes struck Casimir as polar opposites. The girl wore a warm smile while the boy looked impassive with his darker stare and slight frown. Casimir recognized the girl to be Kiera, the one who took Ulrich on the school tour earlier.
"Hello!" Nicolette waved welcomingly, returning behind the counter to take their orders. Kiera asked for two hot chocolates and conversed lightheartedly with Nicolette, while Leo and Ryker both grinned and waved for the guy to come over to their table. His expression remained unchanged as he moved, not even a hint of a polite smile, but neither Ryker nor Leo were bothered by his lack of emotion.
"How was your assignment, Remigus?" Leo asked, but Casimir didn't understand why he sounded so eager to talk to him. Sure, he was a little bigger and probably more burly from what Casimir could tell under the long sleeves of his sweatshirt, but Remigus brought with him a heavier atmosphere, not grim exactly, but definitely more serious and stoic.
"Easier than expected," Remigus returned, but his amber eyes had slid from Leo to Casimir, who saw a flash of distaste in them, as if Casimir somehow didn't belong in the picture.
"Want a doughnut?" Ryker offered, holding out one of the powdery pastries to him, but Remigus tore his gaze from Casimir and shook his head.
"No, you know I hate sugar. I'm just here with Kiera."
Kiera came by, holding the two cups of hot chocolate, and chirped, "Okay, Remi, let's go. Bye guys! By the way, that was an amazing fight, Casimir." Kiera gave him a congratulating smile before following Remigus, who was already waiting by the exit.
"See ya, Remigus," Ryker said, but Remigus only nodded instead of responding, before his sister took his wrist and led him outside. As she did so, part of Remigus's forearm became exposed from under his sleeve, and at first, Casimir wasn't sure what he was looking at. Scars and discolored patches riddled his skin, and probably scaled up his other arm as well. It was only for a brief moment, before Remigus pulled down his sleeve again and disappeared out of sight with his sister.
"What's with that guy?" Casimir muttered.
"Who, Remigus?" Leo asked, like he didn't even notice anything out of the ordinary, "He usually doesn't talk much, but he's number one."
"Someone like him is at the top of the class? Doesn't seem all that special to me," Casimir grumbled. His arm was something else, but that didn't necessarily mean anything.
Ryker shook his head. "You should see him when he's fighting. He and Mairah are the best venators here when it comes to rogus hunting. Everyone knows Remigus is going to get his own special tactics team when he gets older, and a lot of us are hoping we'll be put on his team. After what he's been through, he deserves it."
"What's he been through?" Casimir repeated, unconvinced.
"Well..." Leo glanced at Nicolette, prompting her to tell the story.
She sighed. "Kiera's told me the story once before. About how he got all the burns and scars on his arms."
"What happened?" Casimir asked, wondering why Nicolette's demeanor had changed from carefree to depressed.
"We don't like to talk about it much here, so don't bring it up again," she began, "When they were younger, their village was attacked by a fire rogus. The whole village was burned down before the Sulkriem's venators could even get there. Kiera was bitten before the venators could drive it away. Eventually they did lead it away from what was left of the villagers, but the Kiera's wound was fatal. When the rogus bit her, it consumed part of her soul."
"You mean...part of her soul was eaten?" Casimir gaped. The Ouroboros Mark had compromised his soul when it was sealed, and even the memory of that day still echoed the fiery pain he endured. He couldn't even begin to imagine the agony of losing part of his soul.
Nicolette nodded grimly. "She said Remigus was terrified and desperate to save her. He cried out for help over and over, but Kiera knew she was going to die. That's when something crazy happened. A reaper came."
"A reaper..." Casimir repeated, trying to remember what Illedris had taught him about reapers. She had said that they were also soulless creatures, and they couldn't be killed. They were almost like anti-rogus in a way, but wasn't nearly as many of them. Reapers were once living humans, but were endowed with the ability to facilitate lost souls to the afterlife. Their sole priority was to make sure that mortal souls did not linger in the mortal world. They didn't interfere with other humans, neither mortal or venator, and typically stayed away from rogus. Reapers were powerful creatures, but it was their mandate to avoid earthly affairs, and it was the venator's job to stop rogus, not theirs. They just used their mystical power to salvage the souls that had trouble moving on past this life.
"Most humans can't see reapers at all, not even most venators, but Remigus and Kiera could see the reaper for some reason. According to Kiera, the reaper came to Kiera's body to release her soul, or what was left of it, assuming Remigus couldn't see her. But Remigus could see her, and begged her not to take Kiera's soul away. He told the reaper he was willing to share his soul with his younger sister if that's what it took."
"Share his soul? Is that even possible?"
"I didn't think so until I heard about it." Nicolette shrugged, then returned to her story, "The reaper considered his proposal, and asked him if he was willing to endure the most tremendous pain to save his sister, and Remigus said that he was. Then the reaper carried out his wish, out of sympathy I think, and summoned her scythe. She did it, she split his soul in two."
Casimir stared at her, bewildered. "No way..." Split the soul? Not once did Illedris consider it possible, and neither did Casimir. How could anyone survive without a complete soul?
"It worked! You saw them just now, Kiera lived and so did he." Nicolette finished, somewhat more cheerful than when she began the story. "What was left of Kiera's soul merged with the part Remigus gave her, so ever since you could say they've pretty much shared a soul."
"But the story isn't all happy endings." Leo sighed, "When Remigus soul split, so did his personality. It was one of the consequences. But he chose to give the more positive part of his soul to Kiera, so his sister could be happy, while he kept the part with the more negative characteristics of himself."
"Even after all that, he still manages as our class leader," Ryker said. With the story over, Leo stood up to go use the cafe's bathroom, and Ryker decided to go wash the powder from the doughnuts off his fingers. Casimir remained seated, sipping his smoothie and thinking about Kiera's story and trying to decide how he felt about it, while the door opened and another student entered The Elixir.
"One hazelnut latte, please, Nicki, to go," he called, messing with his spiked black hair. As soon as he walked in, Casimir could tell he was from a city in the east from the way he dressed. The T-shirt under his gray, military-style jacket printed characters that Casimir couldn't begin to decipher, but he had seen characters like them on signs of oriental restaurants.
"Coming right up, Hakuro!" Nicolette beamed as she pulled out a plastic cup.
Meanwhile, Casimir noticed that Hakuro was staring at him in confusion. After a moment, his gaze become rather uncomfortable, but he continued to stare, so Casimir waved his hand in front of Hakuro's face, saying, "Hey, you okay? What's the matter?"
Hakuro blinked, then shook his head and narrowed his eyes at Casimir once more, his muttering barely audible. "Your soul...it's tainted..."
"W-what?" Casimir asked, alarmed. Hakuro was about to say something more, when Leo and Ryker returned from the restrooms. Nicolette finished his drink and held it out to him.
"Thanks, Nicki..." Hakuro said, turning away from Casimir reluctantly to take his drink and head out the door, but not before throwing another perplexed look his way.
"What was that all about?" Casimir frowned once he was gone.
"What was what about?" Ryker inquired.
"That one guy...Hakuro, he was just staring at me for some reason."
"Oh, him," Leo explained, "He's rank three. He can see souls, and he's our best tracker."
"See souls?" Casimir asked with apprehension.
"It's actually a very handy skill. A rogus can disguise itself as a human, but Hakuro can see souls, so he would know it wasn't human."
"Oh. So, on a completely different matter," Casimir said quickly, "What does it mean when a soul is tainted?"
Ryker thought for a moment. "Well, a tainted soul is any soul that's not pure, I guess. I read somewhere that it's used to describe any soul that has a corruption. Like a black soul, or a soul that's been influenced by evil. Why?"
"Just curious," Casimir lied again. Inside his head, he was having a panic attack. Hakuro had seen his soul! He saw the black splotch that Illedris had given him with the Ouroboros Mark. Did he know what that meant? Would he tell somebody? Casimir never imagined that his secret would be in jeopardy so soon.
If his cover was blown, well, Illedris made it very clear what would happen.