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Ragna glanced at Eric. He nodded in silence.

Wasn’t Ymir that god the people from the temple mentioned? The one her ancestors used to worship before Twice? How did the priest know the name?

“Ymir? What’s that about?” Eric asked.

Nephthys shrugged. “No idea. But he calls it the word of Ymir.”

“Oh,” Ragna said. “Then, what with the shadows? Altera said this was the Mana Realm. What’s that?”

“That, I can explain,” said Nephthys. “But you gotta understand a bit about Utgard’s history first. As you know, Utgard used to be part of Avalon. Or rather, Avalon claimed Utgard as part of the kingdom because of their “One Avalon principle”. But Utgard had none of that. They were an independent nation.”

“Avalon didn’t want to lose access to the Orichalcum deposits, if I remember correctly, right?” Eric added.

“That and they wanted to control all of Glast. But yeah, the mines here were a pretty nifty reason. It’s also the reason why a single city like Utgard’s a world power. Our Orichalcum resources are like an endless well. You probably saw the skyscrapers. All pure Orichalcum.”

“You’re fucking with us, right?” Had Ragna a drink, she would have spat it out.

Mixed variants were more common, but Orichalcum in its purest and most potent form was Aes’ rarest metal. Having enough to make a full armor like Altera's cost a lifetime’s worth of money. Even Aura would have second thoughts. To have enough to cover the city was insane, how much would that devalue the metal’s price? If Utgard wasn’t an isolationist kingdom, everyone would be walking with it. The ramifications for Aes would be impossible to tell.

“Despite all the Orichalcum, Utgard only rose to a superpower after the Great War. Before that, the other kingdoms would attack relentlessly to get its natural resources. Besides Avalon, they had never succeeded, but at the same time, they prevented Utgard from progressing, cause it always had to lick its wounds. That changed during the Great War. Avalon was distracted, Utgard rebelled and gained its independence. But more than that was another discovery. We found a way to generate Mana.”

“How?” Ragna asked.

Mana was the power of the soul. It existed because the soul generated it. So, it only existed within one’s soul. It wasn’t a substance that one could use for anything but Fylgja or runes. Mana couldn’t leave one’s body. Yet, that this Mana Realm existed either meant Ragna didn’t know what Mana was or that this Mana Realm might be the world beyond. They called Utgard the outer kingdom. What if the meaning was outside life? Had they entered the Void or the afterlife?

“I’m not a scientist, so I don’t really know,” said Nephthys. “But I know that there’s a connection between Orichalcum and Mana. Alta’s accessories, for example. They convert her Orichalcum to Mana and store it in her wristbands and choker. Was a gift of the chieftain for graduating from the academy. You chose the design yourself, right?”

Altera didn’t answer, her attention hopping around the skyscrapers.

“Anyway. In the last years of the Great War, Tomoyuki Oppenheimer found out the secret and origins of Mana. It revolutionized Utgard and allowed us to recreate it. Of course, it also led to many bad things.”

“The Mana Bomb.”

Nephthys nodded, and Eric and Ragna’s faces became somber. For a moment, no one talked, their thoughts lamenting the lost lives. Every child with a decent education learned about Oppenheimer’s creation in history class. No one knew how he had managed to create it, or what had happened when the bomb fell on what afterwards became the Lost City. The world only saw a fracture of the results. Oppenheimer vanished from the planet in the following days, taking his knowledge and notes with him. And once the war had ended, the remaining superpowers executed Oppenheimer’s team as war criminals. Whether it was a genuine desire for justice or paranoia to prevent the creation of more Mana bombs, that was for the history books to interpret. Whatever it was, Mana Theory as a science field died that day and would remain dead.

“Well, one thing we know was that Oppenheimer found out that Mana was connected to a different realm. In a way, it is a portal. Mana is the power to change reality, and using large quantities allowed Utgard to shift into this Mana Realm. From what I understand, there are multiple realms. I don’t know how many, but Aes and the Mana Realm are two we know about. Usually, these two realms don’t interact. But Mana's energy from the Mana Realm that spills out into Aes. Though no idea what’s up with the Mana, our souls generate. Anyhow, using this energy, one can carve a scar into our reality and enter a different one. After all, Mana's the energy that can change reality. In the Mana Realm, we cannot interact with Aes and vise-versa.”

“So, you're completely protected.” Eric rubbed his chin.

“Yes. And as long as one doesn’t know how to utilize Mana outside one’s body, then, it's impossible to leave either realm. Of course, bureaucracy has dealt with that problem. We aren’t trapped.”

“Are you allowed to reveal that?” Eric asked.

Nephthys stopped. Her eyes grew wide, and her face became blue. “Fuck. I'm not. Oh no. Geißel’s going to punish me. And not in a good way.”

“Seriously, you ne-“ Altera stumbled as a drunkard ran into her. At the last second, she grabbed and managed to prevent her fall. She turned to the drunk to give him a tirade, only to see that he was already gone.

“Why do you have to celebrate so much? Today’s nothing special. It’s so stupid.”

“Here at Rice Road, you don’t need a reason. You just party.”

“Bu…Bu”

And as he vehemently defends the last vestiges of his falsity it upon us to lead the truth to triumph. So, let me hear the sounds and music. Let me hear the party, and let for another night the last man know the senselessness of the world. You don’t need reason to be here. You don’t need reason to enjoy. Here at Rice Road, you just do.”

Altera couldn’t finish her word. Nephthys turned around, her face growing serious. Like a priest squirting holy water, Nephthys pointed at Altera. “No. You just do. The power of Rice compels you.”

For the power of Rice compels you. That is the truth. The power of Rice compels you. The power of Rice compels you.”

Altera tried to voice her opinion again, but her words drowned under the shouts and screams of the masses. Dancing and drinking, they pumped their fist into the air and chanted the words of Nephthys and the priest. “The power of Rice compels you. The power of Rice compels you. The power of Rice compels you.”

And so, let us kick the night into full gear. Party more. Drink more. Smoke more. Laugh more. Fool more. Fornicate more. And let us welcome our two guests. They have come from far to witness and celebrate the spectacle of our nightly mass. So, we all let them bring this awesome event to its newest climate. Brothers and sisters, it is time.”

The priest’s platform descended, and the music changed as a DJ came from the platform to the forefront. The song intensified, the crowd’s cheering and movements followed suit. The DJ shouted to the sky, further hyping the crowd. A second platform rose next to the DJ’s. And a second man appeared. Compared to the DJ’s casual style, he wore smart casual. He activated his mike, and from the surrounding buildings, they heard his rap synchronizing to the DJ’s music.

Ragna froze. Holy…isn’t that? No, that can’t be.

Ragna squinted her eyes, and her jaw dropped. Holy fuck. It’s him.

She elbowed Eric. “Eric. OMT. Look up. That’s fucking Ablye East.”

Ragna’s voice became high-pitched, and she laughed as she pulled out her phone and filmed him. That'll make for an amazing story once everything's over.

“As if.” But as the screens focused on the rapper’s face, he raised his eyes open. “Fuck me. That’s him.”

He grinned and laughed, pulling out his phone. “That’s so coming on my Insta.”

“Can we please go?” Altera asked.

“You crazy? We’re not going to miss Ablye East. Even Aura could never get him.”

“What’s so special about him?”

“You’re really living under a rock, do you?” Eric said. He steadied the camera on his phone, and Nephthys started to dance.

“Screw you.” Altera turned around. She stomped towards a free chair and fell on its seat, crossing arms and legs.

“Maybe we should go?” Eric asked. “Altera seems pissed.”

“Once he’s finished. Just give me this, please.”

Ragna started to swing her body to music. Perhaps their argument after the fight with the Paladins still lingered, but pissing Altera off felt good. No, she didn’t want to think about her, about them. Just for this brief dance. Ragna let the music embrace her. Her mind shut off, her body reacted to sounds through instinct and stimulation alone. The sounds and voices, the ecstasy in the sky, every sensation made her body move. Right now, nothing mattered. Nihilistic and hedonistic, the party washed away her thoughts. Even if reality would drag her back to the nightmares of this world, Ragna savored every moment of the transient escapism.

Music and joy filled her blank mind, the emptiness inside her, but eventually, Ablye East’s performance came to an end. He descended into the building he was singing on, Amakusa Shiro spoke again, and Ragna’s group left Rice Road behind. Nephthys led them to a car and drove through the city until they arrived at the chieftain’s residence.

Now, they would find out who Altera’s brother was.

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YAK Edge

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