“We have located Vaixian soldiers at Twilight Bridge. According to our intel, they’ve employed a new weapon. Eliminate all enemy units and disable the weapon.”
Ragna shut the communicator off and stared into the night sky. The moon radiated over the city of Veil, gracing it like a halo. And in the distance, the sound of sirens and artillery fire echoed. Ragna took a deep breath and coughed.
Okay, that wasn’t a great idea. But they have come a long way. The stench of fire and smoke was real.
Ragna covered the lower half of her face with a mouth-mask. She might look like an assassin now, but together with her fire-proof uniform, she should be safe from the flames.
“Let’s go.” Ragna said to herself and started to move. In front of her raged an inferno across the highway. Wrecked cars and destroyed tanks decorated the asphalt, serving as food for the wildfire. It embraced the highway and painted the night sky in embers. A red carpet that pointed at the skyscraper-saturated skyline of Veil. It welcomed her and announced to the city that this would be her moment.
Washing away the sweat pearls from her forehead, Ragna complimented the scorching heat. Her skin felt dry. But that wouldn’t stop her. It was time for the hero to arrive at the scene.
Ragna hid behind a wrecked car that miraculously was not on fire and peeked around the corner. Three men patrolled the streets. All armed with an automatic rifle, wearing the same uniform. A long double-breasted trench coat, a black belt, white trousers, and black trench boots gave the uniform an imperial design that a white-beaked hat completed. And of course, the cross star plastered on their coats. An infant could tell these were villains – the soldiers of Vaix. Even though they were seemingly patrolling the streets, their attitude seemed lax. They paid no attention to their surroundings. They walked the streets up and down, performing a mechanical routine like enemies in a video game.
Were those supposed to be the soldiers of Vaix, who valued heartless efficiency and discipline above all? Someone had gotten lazy.
Still, she couldn’t attack them. Even these kumquat heads would notice if one of their comrades would die. It was better to keep a low profile. Was there anything that could help her?
Ragna’s eyes stopped at the fence that divided the highway into two. It only reached her kneecaps. But that was tall enough. The soldiers shouldn’t notice her if she crawled under the fence. They all patrolled the right of the street and ignored – for reasons Ragna could only chalk up to idiocy – the left side. For her plan to work, she had to jump over the fence. From her position, she would need five seconds to make it to the other side. The time frame was wide enough that they could spot her, while she was running.
She peaked again. All soldiers were facing her direction. She needed a distraction.
And as if Twice had decided to bless Ragna, an explosion detonated on the horizon, catching the attention of the soldiers.
This was her chance.
Ragna dashed towards the fence and jumped over. A second explosion detonated in the distance. In a reflex, Ragna’s head turned around, and her knees collided with the asphalt. Ragna ground her teeth and squinted her eyes. She rolled on the street and pressed her hands against her kneecaps.
Fuck. That hurt.
Once the pain had decreased to a tolerable amount, Ragna crouched and crawled alongside the fence. Choosing to ignore her previous blunder, she smirked.
That was easy. But one shouldn’t expect anything less from a future Valkyrie.
A Light descended from the sky. Cutting through the smoke, they painted circles on the asphalt. Ragna looked up. A mechanical beast loomed in the night sky. Only its silhouette was visible, as it hovered in front of the glimmering moon. A black shark on the verge of an assault, searching for prey.
Choppers? Was that a bad joke?
She prayed they wouldn’t find her. But as she crawled, the helicopter’s searchlight shone upon her.
Fuck. Looks like there’s no other choice.
It was time for her trump card. Ragna pushed the button on the back of her fingerless glove.
Hopefully, this wouldn’t bite her in the ass at a later point.
A blue circle light sprang from the glove and covered her like a second skin. Yellow sparks flew around the helicopter, and it opened fire. Ragna jumped forward and ran. The bullets grazed the tips of her jet-black pigtails. But then they slowed down and dropped to the ground.
Hopefully, the bullets run out faster than the timer does. Or else … Don’t think about this. Just move.
Ragna ran through the highway and ignored heat and smoke. The bullet fire continued to follow her. Only when it had subsided, and the sound of a crash followed, did Ragna stop. Catching her breath, she turned around. The helicopter had burst into pieces and fell like a rain shower. If she had to guess, it had focused too much on her and hadn’t noticed an anti-air rocket or something similar. Not that it mattered for her. One more enemy was gone. Ragna blew a raspberry to the fragments and continued to run.
A new line of enemies appeared at the rims of her field of vision. Ragna slowed down. She looked at her left glove and tapped it once. A blue hologram appeared above the back of her hand and displayed the number ‘1:50’ – counting down by the second.
Less than two minutes.
Should she play it safe and ambush them or save time and attack them like a berserker? Given the information at her disposal, both options were reasonable and offered different advantages. That wasn’t the problem. It was what she didn’t know. The factors outside her sphere of perception could turn a sound conclusion into a false assumption. On the battlefield, victory was all that mattered. Be it because of reason or insanity. And if one failed, the world wouldn’t care about the excuses.
A scream for help disrupted her thoughts. Ragna stopped and concentrated her eyes on the enemies. Luckily, they had turned their back towards her. If she were an assassin, she could stab one of them from behind, and they wouldn’t notice.
Six men stood in front of her. There was enough space between them that Ragna could peek and spot a girl. She was around five years old and the source of the scream. The soldiers had formed a half-circle. They cornered her against a barricade of cars, and the girl had nowhere to run. The soldier on the outer left broke the circle. He crept towards her. His boots echoed like war drums, and he drove the girl further against the metallic dead end. From her angle, Ragna could see his face through the space between them. He opened his mouth. The words the man had spoken drowned in the girl’s cries. But the devious smile painted on his visage destroyed any shred of ambiguity.
Disgusting. She grimaced. To abuse warfare for a demented pretense of control. Monsters hiding as humans. Yeah, they had revoked their right to live.
“A hero it is.”
The gravitation that bound Ragna to the earth decreased. With her saber in her hand, she jumped over the soldiers’ heads. Her feet were above the deviant that tried to prey upon the girl.
The gravity that surrounded Ragna increased tenfold and forced her down as if she were an anchor. The soldier was too distracted to notice the black sole that crushed his skull to the ground. It echoed a sickening crunch, and under her boot, blood, bones, and visceral mass had spilled out.
Ragna slashed the next soldier across the chest with her sword. He fell to the ground, and the third soldier reached or his gun. Before he could pull the trigger, Ragna had grabbed his weapon. She rammed her elbow into his stomach and sent the soldier flying. Ragna performed a flip and propelled herself against him, using his body as a springboard. The soldier crashed into the asphalt, and Ragna rotated her body in the sky. Facing downwards, she aimed her pistol at the fourth soldier and shot three times. The soldier sunk to the ground. The next one aimed at her. Like a dart, Ragna threw her sword. It penetrated his skull, and the soldier plumbed on his knees. Ragna landed on the ground.
“It wasn’t a three-point landing, but I gave you quite a show. Didn’t I?” Ragna winked at the sixth and last soldier.
For most people, these acrobatics bordered on superhuman feats. But with gravity on her side – and once she had gotten used to adjusting the gravitational forces on the fly – it became child’s play. Not to mention, using the device was fun.
The soldier didn’t realize the futility of his actions and emptied his rifle. The bullets lost their speed. A few centimeters away from her face, they had slowed down enough that one could think their movements had stopped. Ragna slapped them away. Despite being out of ammo, the soldier continued to shoot. Only hollow clicking came out of the weapon, yet the soldier did not stop. He did not run. Spoke no word. The soldier stood in front of Ragna and fired an empty rifle. Over and over again, as if his brain computed one action that he had to repeat until his body would give out.
“Is he malfunctioning?” Ragna removed her saber from his fallen comrade’s head and flicked the blood away.
“You know, this is starting to get sad.” She aimed her gun. “I think it’s better if we end this.”
She pulled the trigger, and the last soldier fell.
“That was some shoddy work.” Ragna tried to rub off the mess that had gotten under her heels. A rusty red had sullied the black of her boots. “Well, doesn’t matter. Where’s the girl?”
Ragna looked around. Her eyes caught the girl running into the woods.
“Hey, wait.” Ragna rushed into the forest and followed her trail.
The flames twisted through the trees and bushes. Transforming the soils into ashes, they extended their blazing arms and cast the dancing shadows of dying vegetation as emaciated demons. Toxic smoke erupted from their carcasses, turning the scene into a painting of vibrant orange and smoldering black. Through this canvas, the girl’s silhouette spurted. The fire enlarged it to a black titan, and the black-clad Ragna followed her. The heat scorched her skin and took away the moisture.
Ragna pressed on. Neither of them lost speed. Despite being younger than her and untrained, the girl had maintained her head start. Eventually, Ragna saw an opening, and the orange and black subsided for the gray of asphalt.
She was on the highway again. Ragna took a moment to catch her breath and paused. Now that she had left the forest, the accumulated pain, damage, and heat struck her at once. She had no mirror, but she could imagine that people would mistake her for a victim of the Ash Pest. Her skin felt crisp.
Where was the girl? No one was here. No trace of her was left. What the hel was she? Come to think of, why would she be in this warzone anyway?
The soldiers had not entered the city itself. They were on a highway. It was the middle of the night, and no civilians – dead or alive – were there. If the girl had intended to run, why did she stay until the very end? There were multiple openings during her fight with the soldiers. It didn’t make sense.
The ground began to shake. In small intervals, the highway tremored, and the echoes of stomps drummed. Whatever was coming, it was massive.
“It can’t be…?”
Ragna tried to maintain her footing. She looked to her left. Out of the inferno, a mechanical monstrosity came forth. One after another, it moved its six pillar-like legs. The ground trembled with each step anew. This cyclopean bastard of a spider and a tiger towered over the street as if it was guarding the gates of Hel. It was tall enough to reach the forest leaves. Without mistake, in front of her stood the weapon she has to eliminate.
“What a lucky coincidence.” Ragna sneered. “Going off the rails, and following the girl just had to lead to the end boss. Still, how can this guy get even uglier than the last one?”
The weapon didn’t say a word. Why should it? The only response this abomination had was to raise its sickly green tiger head. Monsters did not need words. They were existences who had neither conscious nor sentience, and their purpose was to die. Humans kill them and attain the designation of hero. They died for the hero’s glory – her glory.
Its single eye gleamed in red light. Ragna looked at the counter above her glove. A fat zero flashed before her eyes. She smirked and pressed the button
Time for some action.
The tiger roared, and out of its mouth, it fired a rocket. Ragna swung her sword. Sparks buzzed, and the sound of two metals grating against each other clinked in her ears. Neither of them was going to yield and let the other win.
It was like that story about Mjölnir and the world snake. An unstoppable force met an immovable object. Ragna had no idea how the story had ended, nor did she care. In myths, such paradoxes could exist, but in the real world, one side would emerge victoriously. And unlike that weapon, she could become more powerful.
Ragna increased the pressure, her sword exercised. Creating a noise resembling nails scratching against a chalkboard, she cut the rocket through its center and divided it like Baha the Christian Sea. The halves flew past her and exploded in the distance.
“Well, at least you are better than your predecessor.”
Ragna ran towards the machine. It beeped and roared. Lights gleamed and, missiles launched out of it. Identifying Ragna as her target, they changed their trajectory. Ragna forced herself to halt and squatted.
She had never calculated the exact numbers, but from her assessment, these missiles could break through the gravitation field. The rocket had been a testament to that. There were too many for her sword to cut through all of them.
If she moved, they would recalibrate and bombard her with their numbers. She had to wait. Ragna took a deep breath.
Don’t panic. Don’t listen to your reflexes…Now.
Ragna jumped. She skipped over the missiles and landed atop the tiger’s head. The projectiles hit the street and transformed the highway into a mosaic of craters and asphalt. Debris spewed around, and flames began to spread from the impact.
So, that thing can create fire.
The machine had registered the weight on its head. It shook its body like a wild bull, trying to get rid of Ragna. But against the gravitational pull of her glove, it was an insect against a dragon. Ragna jumped from its head to its lower back and landed behind the missile launcher. She swung her saber. Increasing the gravitational pull on her blade, she sliced through the device. The missile launcher crackled electric sparks, and its fragments crashed to the ground.
She pointed her weapon at the machine’s back. It’s time to put an end to this revolting lawnmower.
She heard a clicking sound, and the machine’s back opened, revealing a circular hatch.
Ragna sighed. So, the machine had enemies inside. Of course, it couldn’t have been too easy.
From the hatch emerged a platform, on which a young woman stood. Metallic night-blue laurels decorated her long teal-white hair, and her eyes resembled a thin and sharp layer of frost on the petals of a rose. One glance at the woman’s face sufficed to realize this was the beauty of a higher being.
“Huh?” Ragna widened her eyes. “Why are you here?”
The woman didn’t answer. White feathery wings grew out of her back, increasing the divinity of her appearance. Even her armor evoked the image of metallic, disjointed stockings, opera gloves, and a corset. As if she had chosen it to accommodate her black miniskirt. Fire and moonlight gleamed on its silver reflection.
At first, it seemed she had chosen style over functionality. But the truth was, that woman had dressed for both the battlefield and the gala. Charming the flashlights, animating the masses to fight, and defeating the enemies. Beauty and strength. She was the embodiment of a Valkyrie – both the idea and the mythological being.
“Are you mocking me?”
This woman had allowed a human being to gaze at perfection to show them her superiority. She was nothing but an arrogant deity that looked down on mortals and saw them as her private playthings.
Ragna looked at the blue ring above her glove. A number was glowing in its center, counting down from ‘5:00’.
Already? How long did her fight against the machine last?
Five minutes until she could use the gravity manipulator again. Nothing she could do about it. She would defeat her without it and beat her to a bloody pulp.
Grinding her teeth, Ragna swung her sword. Her opponent beat her wings and flew into the sky. Just far enough that one could mistake the distance as reachable, try to overcome it, and fail.
But not for Ragna. In her fury, she didn’t consider the possibility.
She would reach and defeat her.
Ragna attacked with her saber. The woman danced around her and performed moves one might mistake for the act of a ballet dancer. And whenever Ragna missed, the Valkyrie would fly close to her and boop Ragna’s head.
If this fight had an audience, one would forgive them for mistaking the unfolding scene as part of a slapstick cartoon. Ragna shouted in frustration and tried to punch the woman in the face. Again, she missed.
The woman flew further into the sky. Had she grown bored of the little play, or had she noticed that the timer was running out?
Around the Valkyrie’s hand, a mass of ice began to manifest and take the form of a javelin. Without a second of hesitation, she threw the weapon. Before Ragna could react, it had pierced through her heart.
Ragna gasped for air, tried to form words. Blood escaped her mouth and sternum and dripped on the machine. Cold spread through her body. Her blood and nerves – every cell of her body stopped its function and froze.
She fell, and the words “Mission failed” appeared. Her surroundings, the woman, and the machine dispersed in blue light. A white void room remained.