Chapter 03 – The end of the beginning

Chapter 03 – The end of the beginning

“Finally, it’s quiet.”

Aura sighed. She kicked her heels away and sank into a lavishly decorated bed that could comfort an entire family.

“People want to celebrate a thousand years of peace, I guess.”

Ragna sat next to the princess. She took a bite from the caviar on their silver platter and looked around. Two doors connected the chamber to the east and west halls of the floor. She didn’t know what she had expected, but the periwinkle room was the same as ever. The left side was one giant bookshelf. It would be more apt to call it a library.

How many books were there?

From her position, Ragna tried to read some of the titles. ‘The fall of Camelot’; ‘The art of Realpolitik’; ‘Persuasive Psychology’; ‘Basics of human behavioral science’; ‘Myths of Aes’; ‘History of Aes’; ‘Advanced Void Theory II’; ‘Cry On’ – at least one book she had read.

Through windows that might as well been walls, Juliet roses basked in the night light. Besides a tablet and a picture frame that displayed a picture of their younger days, her desk was empty. It showed four girls that smiled without a care in the world. Above the desk, twin swords decorated the walls like a trophy that had resigned itself to a life of dust catching.

“Still, did they have to applaud that loud? My ears are sensitive, you know?”

Aura rubbed her long dagger-like ears – a parting gift, the vicious Ash-Pest had left for her.

“You liar.” Ragna chuckled.

“But it’s nice to see you again. How long has it been? Almost a year, right?”

“Being a princess must be hard. You don’t even have time for face-time.”

Aura straightened up und leaned towards Ragna, as if to embrace her. She blew air into Ragna’s neck. Ragna startled at the warm sensation, and Aura giggled.

“I’m still responsible for you.” Ragna grabbed the champagne bottle and rocked it. The liquid swayed back and forth, signaling that half of its content was gone. “How much did you drink already?”

“Don’t worry. Nothing I can’t handle.” Aura took a glass of champagne from the silver tablet and emptied it in one breath. She snipped her fingers, and Dead11’s ‘Pendulum’ played in a low volume.

“I swear, the last days were the worst. Made me want to pull my hair out.”

With a sudden movement, the princess let herself fall into Ragna’s lab. Unable to deny her request, Ragna let her rest, and the princess continued to speak.

“Peace is fragile and complex. Even a mistletoe could break everything. Instead of holding it together, letting everything fall apart seems so appealing. Thousand years of conflict…Makes you wish to annihilate the other side. The truth is, the only reason no one has started a war yet, is because they want to have the label of the good guys. We all still have that childish dream in us, to be seen as a hero who defeats vile villains. Social media has made that more prevalent than ever. We want to be on the side of light and justice. And if we can’t be good guys, then let’s call the other side evil. We are just waiting for that one moment, that one mistake that allows us to strike with these labels.”

“Well, it helps that Vaix are the bad guys. It would be just exposing the truth. I think the world would be better without them. Then there would also be peace.”

Making sure that she didn’t disturb Aura, Ragna stretched out her legs and took another bite from the food plate. She offered the plate to Aura. The princess, being content with her empty glass, declined.

“That’s like saying killing all the poor people would solve poverty and overpopulation. Besides, we need Vaix. I’m not just talking about how Madconomics entangled us economically, but also because removing Vaix would hinder humanity itself. All the possibilities, all the brilliance, they too are part of humanity’s glamour.”

Ragna lowered her eyelids. The plate in her hand was shaking. “And they also bring pain and misery. Friends from the academy fell in missions against them. My mother and Sven’s parents would be sitting behind you today. If I had to choose between this so-called potential and their smiles…” Ragna stopped and shook her head. “Fuck. We haven’t seen each other for almost a year, and I waste this time arguing.”

“If it’s you, Lindi, I don’t care what we do.” Aura smiled. Without moving an inch, her arm reached towards the plate. She picked a fishball and held it in front of Ragna, who devoured it. “Conflict and disagreement are important. They allow us to move forward, to engage with other ideas, and gain new perspectives. No one wants a homogenous mass. Conflict is just a natural consequence of our diversity. Our job is to reduce unnecessary suffering and pain.”

Ragna smiled as well and studied the black, square overhead lights that lit up the princess’ chamber in bright blue. She didn’t understand how Aura’s words could be true, but talking to her was enough.

Memories of their first meeting flashed inside her mind. She was five, her mother currently on a far-away mission, and Sven still with his parents. Her father had a long meeting in the palace but was unable to find a nanny to look out for her. So, he had to bring her with him. Luckily, the president was sympathetic to his plights and allowed it. He knew it himself, how hard it was for a single parent to handle children. Her father had told her to stay and not do anything stupid and wander around. Being five years old, she didn’t listen and explored the castle. During her expedition, she had met the princesses who were in a similar adventure mood.

“By the way, you and Captain Graswald? How did that happen?”

“Why not, we look good together, and the people love it. The tabloids were shipping us for years. The most popular Captain and Veil’s beloved princess. Doesn’t that sound like a match made in heaven?”

Ragna shrugged her shoulders.

Better if she kept her opinions to herself. It was her choice, and in the end, people fell in love for all kinds of reasons.

“By the way”, said Aura. “In about an hour, let’s go to the Nix. During the last few years we couldn’t go together, but tonight, we’ve time. I’ve reserved a table. Maybe Elsa and Altera can come too.”

Wait, did she mention Altera?

Suddenly, Aura lifted her head and frantically looked through the room.

“Is something?” Ragna asked.

Aura tried to speak, but a booming noise disrupted her words, and the chamber rumbled. Books fell from their shelves, and fissures drew through the windows.

Ragna jumped in front of the princess. Ready to draw her saber, she knocked on the door.

No answer.

She knocked again and shouted, but the guards didn’t answer.

That wasn’t good. First, the explosion, and now the guards. What should she do? Was Sven all right? Should she open? Alternatively, should she stay or run in the other direction?

Ragna looked at the princess.

Did an assassin infiltrate the castle? Risk running into a trap or sitting here like sitting ducks?

Cursing her indecisiveness, Ragna knocked a third time. The alarm bells rang, giving her an answer, and Ragna turned around.

“We need to go.” She took Aura’s hand. Outside the room, the sound of metal slashing through flesh vibrated, interrupted by short eruptions of screams that vanished seconds afterwards.

Had someone infiltrated the castle?

Ragna ran, distancing herself from the door. She protected Aura from the splinters with her arm and drew her sword. Through the gaping hole, a hooded figure came forth. A black bird-like domino mask covered their face, and a long sword dragged behind them. A white hood concealed all but a smile that revealed the joy and ecstasy of the assailant. The figure stopped and looked around. They moved to Aura’s work desk, picked the photo up, and studied it.

Ragna didn’t care whether the assailant was interested in Aura’s life or displaying arrogance. She ran with the princess to the door.

“Ragna, wait.”

Aura shouted to her, but Ragna didn’t listen. A voice inside her – stronger than an instinct – warned her she could not defeat this opponent. Perhaps her subconsciousness had noticed the Mana that oozed from the assailant, but she felt that voice told the truth.

This wasn’t a movie. Here, the underdog died. She had no chance of winning. If she fought, the enemy would strike them down. To survive, they had to run. If she had her gravity manipulator with her, they might survive, but without it, there was no chance.

The hood turned around, smashed the photo against the desk, and walked further towards them.

Ragna grabbed the bottle of champagne from the bed and threw it at the assailant. They raised their sword and slashed through it. Shards and liquid splattered across the chamber, and a silver platter flew at the intruder. They cut that too. The two halves dropped to the ground, and the assassin advanced further.

Ragna kicked the second door open, but the moment she tried to step out, the hood jumped, dashed on the walls, and landed in front of the doorstep. Not waiting for a reaction, they slammed their elbow into Ragna’s ribs and catapulted her across the room.

She gobbed saliva and groaned. Holding her ribs, Ragna tried to crawl towards the princess. She had to protect Aura. No matter what. She had to hurry.

Hurry, hurry, you damn body.

Why didn’t she move? Was something holding her down? She had to do something.

Reach Aura. Protect her. Save her. She couldn’t die. Not her. Please Twice, let this damn body move. Please save Aura.

֎

The hood glanced at Ragna.

No matter how hard she would try, Ragna would never reach the princess. That girl had received a role way beyond her. The hooded wondered, was Ragna praying to Twice to save the princess? It had to be hopeless for her if she retorted to beg to an impotent god. Even if they could hear her prayers, why should they reward someone who only bothered when it was necessary?

A growl turned the attention of the hood away. The princess struggled on the ground as if invisible arms suppressed her. Anyone who would watch the scene would realize there was nothing she could do. Princess Aurelia’s life was over.

The hood gave the princess one last glance and raised their sword until its point was high in the air. There was neither hesitation nor haste. It was a movement to savor every moment of Aura’s demise. Seeing Aura’s reflection on the blade – her fierce and defiant eyes that refused to die – the hood smiled and let their sword fall.

“VALHALLA.”

The assailant turned their back. A spherical light hurtled towards them, growing bigger and buzzing. The sphere’s glow brightened to the point that it blinded. Its sound increased in speed like an alarm, and it went off, taking all colors from its surroundings.

֎

Ragna’s eyesight returned, and she could see again. The weight that had pressed against her was gone. She ran to the princess and took her hand.

Ragna looked around. The explosion had destroyed the chambers. The walls and windows had turned into patterns of holes and exposed construction. And one hole – massive enough to fit an entire bus – led into the castle’s depths. There was no trace of the assailant left. The explosion had either blown them to smithereens or pushed them out of the hole.

“Are you two okay?”

Ragna looked up. Sven’s figure stood before them. “Sorry for being late.”

She hugged him, and Sven froze. His arms distanced from Ragna as if he was afraid of touching her.

“Cadet Erikson, what is going on?” Aura asked.

Sven escaped Ragna’s embrace and clenched his fist. “Soldier from Vaix are attacking the president.”

So, the hood was one of Vaix’s assassins.

As much as Vaix had confirmed her suspicions, the danger on Aura’s life destroyed any validation Ragna could have felt.

Aura’s body stiffened. “W…What about fa …what about the President?”

“He’s safe.” Sven held Aura by her shoulders, like a child that was in shock. “The Captains are with him. Drake sent me. We have to go.”

“Sorry, but that won’t happen.” A voice came from the hallway.

Sven grabbed Aura and Ragna and jumped behind a pile of debris, large enough to cover the three of them. Icicles swooshed, missing them by an ant’s breath and crashed into the floor. Sven launched a white orb from his hand. Another icicle wave raced towards them, collided with it, and detonated in a blast.

“Are you okay?” Sven asked.

Ragna nodded.

“I…I think I’m…” Aura’s face was pale as the world snake, and beads of sweat formed on her palms. She reached out with her hand, and her body collapsed.

Ragna screamed her name.

Sven put his fingers on her wrist. His eyes widened. “She is alive…T…Thank god.” He exhaled and looked towards Ragna. “The hood must have poisoned her.”

“We have to bring her to a hospital.”

Ragna grimaced and peeked behind the debris, catching a glimpse of the new attacker. Vice-captain Skyfrost stepped inside the chamber. Above his palm floated three icicles.

What was he doing here, and why was he attacking us? Did that mean he had sided with Vaix? Or was he a traitor all along?

Again, Ragna couldn’t feel any validation for the fact that her suspicions about Skyfrost had been right.

“Hand over the princess.” Skyfrost pointed the icicles at them. “This is my final warning. Comply, and perhaps, just perhaps, I will give a quick end to your pathetic lives.”

“Over my dead body.” Ignoring Sven’s attempts to hold her back, Ragna rushed towards Skyfrost. She swung her saber. Skyfrost dodged, and her sword destroyed the icicles. Vice-Captain or not, she had to protect Aura. Victory might be out of her reach, but with Sven by her side, they might be strong enough to escape.

“Ahh, I love it when they say that.” Skyfrost smirked, revealing his teeth. “Lügenschmied.”

A black liquid covered Skyfrost’s right arm and morphed it into a sickle-like form. The transmuted arm blocked the thrusts of Ragna’s saber as if she clashed against metal.

“You think these weak attacks could hurt me?” The Vice-captain laughed. “I will shatter that hubris alongside your bones.”

A rune on Skyfrost’s clothes glowed. In the air, masses of ice materialized, molding itself through the invisible hand of a sculptor into a cube, double as wide as Ragna’s head. The cube dropped. Locked into combat, there was no time for Ragna to escape. Metallic needles shot above Ragna’s head from the wall and pierced the ice.

“Valhalla.”

An orb sped from Sven’s body. The six-pointed cross on Skyfrost’s shirt glowed. A layer of ice enveloped the orb. Its movement stopped. Cracks tore through the ice, and like a grenade, the frozen orb splintered.

The resistance on Ragna’s saber vanished. She jumped and dodged the ice splinters.

Ragna scanned the room. All traces of Skyfrost had disappeared.

Was he gone? Should they escape?

Ragna’s eyes didn’t stop wandering through the ruined chamber. The situation didn’t feel right.

She heard noises coming from above. Ragna lifted her head and saw a brown falcon beating its wings in the air.

Was that Skyfrost?

She jumped and attacked, but the bird flew higher. It screamed and rushed towards Sven. He shot a salve of orbs from the palm of his hands. The falcon evaded them in a graceful dance, and the orbs exploded in the air. Like a rocket lunged the falcon and transformed in mid-flight back to the body of a grown-up human.

Skyfrost widened his scythe-arm. Ragna parried his attack with her sword and pushed him back. The Vice-Captain foot trembled. He dashed a step backwards and regained his footing.

“Guess, you two are not complete beginners.” Skyfrost sneered and pointed at Sven. “I gotta admit, your Flyga – Valhalla, was its name, right? The ability to create explosions has potential. But against my Lügenschmied, it is useless. And as I will extinguish the light in your eyes, all the potential will forever be lost. But that is the way of life when enemies collide.”

Grinning like a child, he stepped forward. “Though to be honest, I’m going to enjoy that last pathetic death scream of you vermin. But do not curse your powerlessness. Wander restless through the realms of Hel. Curse that I, Rory Skyfrost, am just that good.”

“Don’t worry. There is something that already deserves my curses.”

Sven smiled too. Carved in his face, there wasn’t false hope; neither a broken grin nor had he lost hope. It was an expression of sincerity. Sven’s body as it started to glow. Every vein in his body gleamed in bright light, drawing a sickly pattern through his body.

“Besides, there is no purpose in cursing the dead.”

“You…”

Skyfrost rushed towards the princess, but a flying orb from Sven stopped him. Sven turned away.

“We can’t defeat a Vice-Captain. I will detain Skyfrost, so go to Drake. Now.“ He said to Ragna. “I’ve no idea how many traitors there are. He is the only one we can trust.”

“Hey, wait. What are…?”

Pushing Ragna away from him, Sven erected a wall of metal-like thorns between them.

“I guess this is goodbye.” Sven chuckled and scratched his head, as the thorns grew past him, concealing his face from Ragna. “I wish I could spend my future with you.”

“Stop.” Ragna screamed. She hit the thorns with her sword, but they did not waver. From the ground and the roof, walls rose and created a cage that enclosed Sven and Skyfrost. For the two of them, there was no escape.

֎

Realizing what was about to happen, Skyfrost’s eyes became wide open. Fear and panic crawled inside them as he attacked the walls. Skyfrost screamed, cursed, and tried to reason with Sven. He knew, killing him had ceased to be an option. Even beyond his death, the cage would fulfill its master’s wish and imprison him.

Sven’s ears did not hear a word, Skyfrost rambled. He erased every thought, every ounce of awareness for his surroundings. His entire mind flushed all but a single woman away.

“This is my last chance.”

Sven’s body was translucent like an evening star and his skin nothing but a membrane exposing his organs.

“Stop this, please.” Tears ran down Ragna’s cheeks. She hammered against the thorns, but to no avail.

“Sorry, this is me being selfish.” Sven sat down. His back leaned against the wall. Perhaps through the cage, their bodies could connect one last time. For one final moment, she could give him warmth.

“I know my words will only burden you. Yet I can’t help but saying them.” Tears ran down his face, freezing to blots of ice before they hit the ground and shattered. “In my life, I didn’t achieve much. Even now, I will only be able to eliminate one enemy. There were so many dreams I had. Say, will my parents be proud? Will our parents be proud of me?”

“NONONONO. PLEASE STOP”. Sobbing, Ragna fell on her knees. Sven walked towards the center of the cage. He turned his face one more time towards Ragna, knowing that she will not see him. “At least, I will fulfill one of my dreams. Sadly, I won’t hear your answer. Valhalla.”

Sven smiled. “I have always loved you, Ragna.”

Light engulfed his body. It streamed out of the cage and swallowed the scenery in white.

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