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Chapter 03 – Whenever pride comes

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“Finally, it’s quiet.”

Aura sighed. She kicked her heels away and fell 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 through the chambers. Two doors connected the room 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 of her 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, from when they were younger, her desk was empty. Four girls smiling without a care in the world. Above the desk, twin swords decorated the walls like a trophy that 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.

Twenty years ago, the vicious ash-pest had ravaged through the capital. Over ten thousand citizens died – including First Lady Ariel Adler. Aura had survived her infection but in exchange, the pest left a parting gift and disfigured her ears.

“You liar.” Ragna chuckled.

“But it’s nice to see you again. How long has it been? Almost a year, right?” Aura straightened up und leaned towards Ragna, as if to embrace her. She blew a warm breeze into Ragna’s neck, causing her to startle and the princess to giggle.

“I’m still responsible for you.” Ragna grabbed the champagne bottle and shook it slightly. 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 bad blood … Makes you wish to just annihilate the other side. The truth is, the only reason no one has started a war yet, is because they want to be labeled as 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 just make the other side the bad guys. 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.”

Ragna stretched out her legs, making sure that she would not disturb Aura, 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 with arguing.”

“If it’s you, Lindi, I don’t care what we do.” Aura smiled. Without moving an inch, her arm reached towards the platter. 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 the unnecessary suffering and pain.”

Ragna too begun to smile, as she looked upon 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 told her to stay and not do anything stupid and wander around. Ragna – being five years old – obviously did that. During her little expedition, she 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. I’ve reserved a table. Maybe Elsa and Altera can come too.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

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

“What is?”  Ragna asked.

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

Ragna jumped up in front of the princess.

“An explosion?”

Ready to draw her saber within the next moment, she knocked on the door and asked what was going on, but the guards who were supposed to stay near the chambers didn’t answer. Ragna tapped with her fist against the ivory door.

“Please answer.”

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 this castle? Risk running into a trap or sitting here like sitting ducks? Cursing her indecisiveness, Ragna knocked again. The alarm bells rang 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 faded away into nothingness, as quickly as they had appeared.

Ragna ran, distancing herself from the door. The entrance burst open and forced her to halt. With her arm, she covered Aura from the splinters and drew her sword. Through the gaping hole came forth a hooded figure. A face covered by a black bird-like domino mask, a long sword dragging behind them and a smile that revealed how much they enjoyed what was about to happen. Yet the figure stopped and looked around. They moved to the work desk. Was she interested in victim’s lives?

Ragna didn’t care. While the assailant was studying the photo, she ran away with the princess to the door.

“Ragna, wait”, shouted Aurelia, but Ragna didn’t listen. It was the remnant from a time when humans had lived in caves. Or even further down the line. A voice inside her – stronger than an instinct – let her know she could not defeat this opponent. This wasn’t a movie. Here, the underdog dies. She had no chance of winning. If she fought, the enemy would strike them down. To survive they had to run. If only she had her gravity manipulator with her.

The hood smashed the photo against the desk. They faced their victims 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 the bottle. Shards and liquid splattered through the entire room and the silver platter flew at the assassin. They cut that too. The two halves plumbed on the ground and the assassin advanced further.

Ragna kicked the second door open, but the moment she tried to step out, the hood jumped.

They dashed on the walls and landed right before them. Not waiting for a reaction, they slammed their elbow into Ragna’s rips and catapulted her through the room.

She coughed 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.

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The hood glanced towards Ragna. No matter how hard she would try, Ragna would never reach the princess. It was kinda sad. That girl had received a role way beyond her. Right now, was she praying to Twice to save the princess? It had to be hopeless for her if she retorted to a prayer for 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 held by invisible arms. Anyone, who would watch the scene, would realize, there was nothing she could do. Princess Aurelia’s life was forsaken.

The hood gave the princess one last glance and raised their sword until its point was straight up and high in the air. No hesitation, no haste. Slowly and dramatic, 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 struck.

“VALHALLA.”

The assailant turned their back. A glowing light hurtled towards them. Within seconds the light grew bigger and louder. The sphere’s glow brightened to the point that it blinded. The sound increased in speed like an alarm and the sphere went off, taking all color from their 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 offered her hand.

“Thank you”, said Aura and accepted.

Ragna looked around. The explosion had destroyed the chambers. The walls and windows had turned into patterns of holes and solid construction. And one hole – massive enough to fit an entire bus – led into the castle’s depths. The assailant was gone. Either blown to smithereens or fallen to their death.

“Are you two okay?”

Ragna looked up and saw Sven’s figure standing 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.

“Vaix is attacking the president.” Sven escaped Ragna’s embrace and clenched his fist. “There are traitors here.”

Ragna’s eyes widened. Did she hear him right? There are traitors? Why would anyone betray Veil for these demons? How could anyone have so little honor and betray the kingdom that had provided so much for them?

As much as Vaix had confirmed her suspicions, the possibility of a traitor and the danger on Aura’s life destroyed any validation she could have felt.

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

“He’s safe.” Sven held Aura on 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.”

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. It collided with the orb and detonated in a minuscule 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 at the new attacker: Vice-captain Skyfrost. Three icicles floated above his palm. So, he was a traitor all along.

And as Ragna recognized Skyfrost’s androgynous face, in the back of her mind, relief that she had not misplaced her trust in the other Valkyries, carved itself room. Only an asshole like Skyfrost would ally himself with Vaix.

“Hand over the princess.” The icicles floating around Skyfrost pointed towards 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 Ragna destroyed the icicles. Vice-captain or not. She had to protect Aura. Victory may be out of her reach, but with Sven, 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, blocking the thrusts of Ragna’s saber, as if she clashed against metal.

“You really 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 crashed down. Locked into combat, there was no time for Ragna to escape. Metallic needles shot from the wall over Ragna’s head and pierced the ice like meat.

“Valhalla.” A glowing orb sped from his body. The six-pointed cross on Skyfrost’s shirt glowed and a layer of ice enveloped the orb, halting its track. Cracks tore through the ice. Like a grenade, it splintered in all directions.

The resistance on her saber fell and with a jump, Ragna dodged the ice splinters.

When she stood up, all traces of Skyfrost had disappeared. Was he gone? She scanned the room. He was nowhere. Should they escape? Ragna’s eyes didn’t stop wandering through the ruined chambers. Something didn’t feel right.

And when she heard the beat of wings, Ragna lifted her head towards the roof, seeing a brown falcon flying 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. But then, within the next second, it transformed in mid-flight back to the body of a grown-up human and jumped at Sven.

Skyfrost widened the sickle arm. The hilt of Ragna’s sword parried it, pushing him back. The Vice-Captain’s foot trembled, as he tried to regain balance. He dashed a step backward 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, that 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.”

Two arms grew out of Skyfrost’s back, each holding a dagger.

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 was no false hope, nor a broken grin. Neither had he lost hope. An expression of sincerity. Light emitted out of Sven’s body as it started to glow. Every vein in his body shone in a bright light, driving a sickly pattern throughout his body. “Besides, there is no purpose in cursing at the dead.”

“You…”

Skyfrost rushed towards the princess in front of him, but a flying orb from Sven stopped the arm in its tracks. Sven turned away.

“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 were wide open. Fear and panic embedded in them, as he attacked the walls. Neither arms and daggers nor ice would make them bow. Skyfrost screamed, cursed and tried to reason, knowing that killing him ceased to be an option. Even beyond death, the cage would fulfill its master’s wish and imprison him.

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

“This is my last chance.”

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

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

“Sorry. This is me being selfish.” Sven sat down, his back leaning against the wall. Perhaps through the cage, their bodies could connect one final time. 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. 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. I have always loved you, Ragna.”

Sven smiled.

“Valhalla.”

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

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