“We have received reports that Vice-Captain Skyfrost has begun to trail Ragna Griffin”, said Graswald.
“Anything else regarding the matter?” Albain Trutner asked.
The fair-haired man stroked his equally white beard. His red eye scanned the round table. He rested his hand on the handle of his throne, and the scarred white armor he wore, clinked.
Seeing him loom over the other attendants, his descent from the Trutner Siblings became apparent. A mind that shaped the present by gazing upon the future; always here, yet at the same time not.
There were four possibilities. He succeeded in ensuring the future he had seen. He failed to do that. The Allfather succeeded to avert, and lastly, he failed. All of them had unpleasant implications. The first and third options meant that the Allfather was the architect of humanity’s future. He decided on the path one should walk on. For many, this thought was reassuring.
The Allfather was an endless well of wisdom. The Presidents and Valkyries may fall from grace, – may have been corrupt from the beginning – but since the foundation of Veil, the integrity of the Allfathers – besides tinfoil hat theories that Odin Trutner possessed his descendants as hosts like a parasite – had been a constant. Even so, it meant that humanity was not free.
Humans were slaves to their genetic programming. What they considered free will and thoughts were an echo of the chemical reactions in their synapses. Theoretically, there was no difference between predicting the weather and human behavior. For the Allfather, that prediction became a certainty. The future was his will. It may be benevolent, but it still meant that humanity depended upon the Allfathers to thrive. Achieving emancipation was impossible.
The second possibility meant that the Allfather was incompetent. He saw the future and was still surprised. The other kingdoms would be delighted, and Veil on a slow fall. And the last possibility – the scariest of them all – was that the future was inevitable. Human action was insignificant. Trying to prevent the future caused it to happen. Worse, if he tried to prevent the future, it meant a dreading fate awaited everyone.
The ability to see the future was horrifying indeed. Yet, here he was in Yggdrasil. Guiding humanity, and humanity subjugating itself.
If asked, the majority of Aes’ population would answer that Yggdrasil was an architectural masterpiece. One could not blame them for the assumption. It was easy to believe that a building of such importance was nothing but immaculate. In a way, that thinking was correct. Yggdrasil was immaculate. It was sterile and pure, but it was not grand. A narthex that connected to a shut door, resting on a platform that floated 9000 meters above sea level – that was Yggdrasil. That altitude earned Yggdrasil the nickname ‘The world’s summit’ – one among many – but its design was simplistic.
The narthex was a single corridor. Blue circles saturated the walls and gave light to the hall. A substance – best described as liquid light – in the same blue color ran across the walls, divided them into blocks, and flowed through the floor. Despite serving as another light source, they were the reason that the high altitude did not affect those who met on the platform. Nine windows on each side allowed one to see the sky. All of them were sleek and metallic If a random person stumbled upon this room by chance, they would assume this was the inside of a computer. Or the waiting room of a dentist with a fable for interior design.
The only hint at its true nature was the metal table in front of the door. Currently, the Allfather and the President occupied it alongside the seven Captains. In front of the door, as if he was guarding it, the Allfather sat on his throne. To his left sat the President; then Captain Donnerschlag; Nakk; Idris; Fran; Graswald; Wylis and rounding up, sitting next to the Allfather’s right, Head Captain Barrel.
Nakk raised her hand. It couldn’t even reach the Allfather’s shoulder, and she withdrew it like a student too shy to answer the question of the teacher.
“If you have something to say, then please say it.” Graswald’s eyes gazed towards Nakk’s. The female captain looked at the table’s silver metal. “You are a Captain now and your word is equal to ours.”
“Yes, Sir…Eh, I…mean Marcus…I wanted to ask…”
Nakk gulped and raised her brown eyes. Pushing the hair strains away from her face, she straightened her back and spoke up with a louder and deeper voice.
“Is it a good idea to let Vice-Captain Skyfrost handle her escape? They are…Is it okay, if I say ‘they’?” Nakk turned towards the muscle-packed man on her left. “Gerard? Can I use ‘they’ for Rory?”
Even sitting, the difference between the two was astonishing. She wore the proper Veilian military uniform. Above the belt, Gerard wore only a golden-winged helmet and an open red long jacket that showed his body definition. Nakk was a flower standing next to a concrete wall. Her anxiety was understandable. She had never seen some of the faces here before. And some of those she had seen, might as well be blanks for her.
“Donnerschlag.” Captain Fran glanced at her comrade. Gerard did not raise his head. Immersed in the book in his hand, he flipped a page. With a look of absolute concentration, he focused on it. A few seconds later, he flipped two pages back.
Captain Idris pulled his military-green bomber-jacket, putting the muscles on his dark arms on display. The smooth surface of his head reflected the blue light into her eyes, concealing his age as well. She could discern he smiled.
“Once he decides to do something, he forgets the world around him.” Captain Idris said. “Even when he doesn’t decide to do something, he may forget everything else.”
Graswald sighed and swiped Gerard’s book away from his hand. Gerard looked around. The question forming in his longhaired blond head was visible for everyone: “Why did my book fly?”
“It is nice to see even you explore new horizons, but everything has a time and a place”, said Barrel.
His olive-colored face did not show any expression. Reading him was a fool’s errand. One could say he was intangible. A short shaggy beard and loose hair that combined with his black robes made him resemble a monk.
Unlike the other members of the old generation, he had managed to keep up with the intricacies of social media and established an online presence. However, his action figures and other merchandise were behind those of the younger generation.
Except for the Allfather, Viper Barrel was older than any individual at the table and were the captains to pose in bird-formations for the cameras – as the Paladins or the Knights did – he would be at the beak.
Because next to the Allfather, Viper Barrel was the most powerful being in Veil.
“This concerns your Vice-Captain. Pay attention.” Fran massaged her temple. “Anyway, what does it matter? We are at a crisis point, not a social justice warrior meeting. Just use whatever pronoun. No one cares.”
Fran Daphne: Another member of the old guard. Her face would be obscure, were it not for her tenacity to enforce law and order as the head of Veil’s police force. She was an immovable object against the unstoppable force of youth and social progress.
“Skyfrost cares.” Nakk turned her head towards Gerard. “T…’They’ doesn’t assume Rory’s gender…does it?”
“Uhh.” Gerard lowered his eyelids. He resembled a man standing before a valley of landmines. No matter the path he chose, the result would be problematic. “Rory’s okay with ‘they’…I think.”
“Good. Now that we don’t have to worry about misgendering our traitor, can we please deal with our traitor?”
“Rory would never betray us.” Gerard leaned forward and hammered his fist on the table. On the horizon, a thunder roared through the sky.
“Your bias may be blinding you. Skyfrost is from Vaix. The potential of betrayal has always been present.“
A man with combed-back, short brown hair crossed his arm. Wylis. His eyes were sunken deep in his face, and dark rings surrounded them.
“Even without that, Skyfrost isn’t exactly the most heroic individual out there. Your little sibling is a harbinger of lies, pain, and disorder. Has always been, and you know that.”
If one were to play a game to guess the faces of the seven captains, Wylis would be the one people most likely failed to recognize. Barrel kept up with the flow of progress; Donnerschlag and Graswald were the heroes of Veil. Their names and faces were trademarks in every corner of the world.
A month ago, Nakk used to be a Valkyrie. Not even her introverted nature could shield her from the required publicity. And like Graswald and Donnerschlag, she was young and had yet to celebrate her 30th birthday.
As commissioner, Fran was a public figure – whether she liked it or not. On message boards, people wondered if she had snagged Altera away from the other captains so that the future Valkyrie could handle the socio-technological aspects of her work. Alternatively, she saw a likeminded individual in Altera, who might be the oldest 23-year old in Veil.
Idris had his ‘Insanity Workout’ videos and instructions, and his Valkyries used their power and reach as influencers to net him subscriptions.
It might look shallow to dedicate that much attention to the captain’s public appearance. Wasn’t heroism more important than appearance? What did it matter to pretend to be heroic when it didn’t match the reality? A statement like that was true, but not applicable to the Captains. All seven were heroes and followed their sense of justice. While one may not necessarily agree with their worldviews, it was undeniable that each of them fought for what they believed was right. Some – like Nakk – for a month and some – like Barrel – for half a century.
Thus, when the captains acted like heroes, one had to focus on making the public believe that. In the modern age of social media, showing that one was the “good guy” was all the more important. Attaching labels was easy. The reality of war allowed each faction to call itself the righteous side. Besides exceptions like Kaiser Wilhelm III., they were all in the right. When all sides had equal moral standing, it was up to the public to decide. What did they see as rightful, and what not? One had to convince the public that one fought for truth, justice, and whatever nice-sounding vague labels one wanted to use. For when war would break out, the world would side with those that they deemed just.
But how did one convince the world that one was just when there was no justice in war in the first place? Being a soldier meant the Captains were supposed to perform deeds the public would deem immoral. Creating the image of Veil’s soldiers as Valkyries had bee a long, tedious process. It had started centuries if not millennia ago and involved elements from integrity to propaganda. In the modern age, one aspect was being a constant in the world – a face one could identify. Most captains had understood that. Despite their varying acceptance or knowledge of modern values or technologies, they maintained a public presence with varying degrees of success.
But Wylis had nothing. Even his Valkyries had their last public appearance twenty-five years ago – not counting Linde Sieg’s funeral. Wylis might as well not exist in the public consciousness. At least, had one asked two days ago.
“Cut the crap, Mistel.” Gerard hammered his fist for a second time. “Your Vice-Captain was the one who had betrayed us. If you insult Rory, then let’s settle that outside.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Wylis took off his hornet glasses and stared at the closed gates behind the Allfather. Only Albain Trutner and President Adler had permission to open them, and even for the President, it was a one-time affair. His inauguration twenty-five years ago was the only time he had gained permission to see the room concealed behind the gates: the throne of Godking Twice where the world tree connected them to the world’s core – and kept the plateau – and the world – from falling.
“Drake, just what are you trying to do?” Wylis’ voice had become a murmur.
“We can’t say for sure that he has rebelled”, said Barrel. “What potential reasons would he have to ally with Vaix? Perhaps we should focus on that.”
“Greed.” For Fran, the matter was clear. “They don’t call him the dragon for nothing. His love for money is widely known, and the Kaiser could pay him more than he could ever earn here.”
“What do you think, Mistel?” Barrel tented his fingers. His mahogany eyes circled the table once until they stopped on Wylis’ hanging head.
“I can’t imagine that. Drake loved money and gold. That is true. But he never cared about getting richer. He already had amassed a huge treasure anyway.”
“Of which there is no trace either.” Fran wrinkled her nose.
“For Drake, it was more important to protect what he already had.”
“Then perhaps because of what happened with Sieg?” Graswald said to himself, more than to anyone at the table.
“Why don’t we just attack Vaix?” Gerard asked. “Problem solved. They declared war on us with that attack.”
“Vaix has an alibi.” Idris stroke his chinstrap. “The entire high command has celebrated the peace ceremony in the capital. According to them, the culprits have been dishonorably discharged soldiers and radicals of the Judas group. The Judas group even released a testimony and admitted their crimes via video message. Of course, that story is about as true as Billy Five’s face, but for now, Vaix is innocent.”
Gerard looked at the table and murmured the name of the radical group.
“Those extremists with the pointy hats you recently had pummeled”, said Graswald.
“Ah.” Gerard grinned as if a light bulb had gone off inside his head. “The funny-hat-guys.”
“Yes. The funny-hat-guys.”
Graswald’s expression remained unchanged, but in his eyes was an empty and dead light. The light of someone who long ago had realized that there was no hope and accepted the despair as to how the world was.
“Is that everything?” The Allfather stood up from his throne. “Then, the crisis point is hereby dismissed. Graswald and Donnerschlag. I want you two to stay. The rest can leave.”
Nakk looked at Gerard as if to ask what trouble he had gotten himself into this time.
Gerard shrugged in confusion.
It would have been one thing if the Allfather would scold Gerard for another of his reckless and costly actions – like the one time, he had set fire to a power plant because he tried to increase the energy output. But the Captains knew, since the Allfather had called Graswald too, it had to be another matter. The five captains left the room, leaving Gerard, Graswald, the Allfather, and President Adler at the table.
And one more. Time for the grand twist.
“I swear, I didn’t do anything.” Gerard raised his hands like a man desiring not to be shot by the police. “This time.”
“Relax”, said Graswald. “We are here for other reasons.”
Her voice echoed through the narthex. The Captains turned around, and before their eyes, she revealed her figure.
“Princess…” Gerard’s eyes widened. “B…but how?”
“I see you are well”, said Graswald. “And here I thought I could enjoy my last days as a bachelor in silence.”
“And miss the opportunity to nag till your ears bleed?” Aura walked forward and sat next to the seat of her father. “Never.”
“But are you okay?” Graswald asked.
“Wait…” Gerard’s eyes switched back and forth between Aura and the spot where she had appeared. “Shouldn’t you be in a coma? We didn’t receive any reports about your recovery. If you are here, then the ‘you’ in the sickbay must be fake. And you just appeared out of thin air. No, you were here the entire time. Your Flyga can manipulate what we see. You create illusions.”
“Impressive.” Aura clapped her hands, and her face lightened up in joy as she observed the detective work Gerard had performed. “I’ve always told you, G, what others say about you, is exaggerated.”
Gerard turned towards his fellow Captain and grinned like a child. He pointed at himself, bragging that he was a genius. Graswald facepalmed.
If she had to guess, Graswald hoped that the praise would not get into his head, for, as he said, space was limited. But Graswald had to admit that with the information at his disposal, Gerard had reached a sound conclusion.
Graswald’s expression changed. His eyes lost focus.
For her, it was easy to read the questions in his mind: But was it just that? Would the princess reveal her Flyga just like that? When she kept it hidden for so long? That didn’t sound like Aurelia.
“Still, what exactly is going on?” Graswald asked. “Why did you tell us that the princess is well … No.” He shook his head. “Why do you keep it hidden from the other Captains? Do you not trust them?”
“It is as you said.” President Adler put his hand on her shoulder. “Alongside my daughter, you two, as well as Adam Saber, are the only ones we can currently trust.”
“How?” Gerard asked.
“Graswald was responsible for the organization of the peace ceremony. He put both Griffin and Skyfrost into key positions. We don’t know who the traitor is, but it cannot be both. Skyfrost clashed with Griffin’s family, and as a result, my daughter is safe. If you were a traitor, you would have made sure to fill all key positions for the event with traitors.”
Aura and Graswald nodded.
That conclusion made sense as well.
“And you, Captain Donnerschlag. When you destroyed the power plant, you also cut off their best escape route, which forced the attackers to take a detour.”
“Wait, so you managed to catch them?” Gerard scratched his head. “Then, why do you not know who the traitor is?”
“If you had listened during the meeting, you would know these were just mercenaries”, said Graswald. “Plus, the important ones still managed to slip through.”
“Regardless, had you been on their side, you wouldn’t have destroyed the plant in the first place.”
It was a blessing that they were not the traitors. Otherwise, if the public had found out, there would be chaos. For the young, Donnerschlag was an idol. No boy under 14 hated him. Anything with his face on – from schoolbags to broccoli – sold out in within a short time. His popularity among gay men over thirty was impressive as well. Graswald, by contrast, was the dream man of most girls – and some men – from twelve to forty. In the modern era, there was more to a Valkyrie than being ready for battle. The young generation had understood this.
If Gerard and Graswald were traitors, the public would feel betrayed and lose all trust in the Valkyries.
“And what about Adam Saber?”
“He would be dead. It is physically impossible for the House of Saber to side with or against any kingdom.” Graswald stared at Gerard as if he had told him he didn’t know how to bind his shoes. His gaze switched back to the President. “And what is the reason you told us about the princess’ status? Proof, you trust us?”
“Donnerschlag. We want you to follow Skyfrost. Just keep an eye on them. They should trust you, and in case it turns out- “
“I know”, said Gerard, his face firm as a stone.
“Graswald, you, on the other hand, shall investigate if the Griffin family is innocent or not. Furthermore, how they had managed to disappear.”
Graswald nodded. “Perhaps Ragna Griffin had activated her Flyga, and it granted her invisibility. Like mother like daughter, they say. Though that wouldn’t explain how her father had disappeared.”
“Do not take this lightly”, said the Allfather. “Soon, the thousand-year war will end its chrysalis. Veil or Vaix. Only one will remain, and the other drown in the blood of conflict. No matter how Ragna Griffin’s journey will end, she will become the butterfly that unleashes the storm of war. Whether that girl realizes it or not, she will spark the events leading towards the beginning of the end.”
Aura gulped. Had she not used her Flyga, one would see her tremble and catch a glimpse of the despair that had carved her face. The Allfather exited the room alongside the President, leaving the two Captains and her alone.
The three did not speak a word. Too heavy weighted the prophecy of the Allfather on them. The possibility of war had never left the minds of the people. Yet, there was always hope that mankind could prevail. A hope the words of Allfather Albain had crushed. It may be a year from now or a hundred. But the dices were cast.
“Do you want that back?” Graswald asked, trying to break free from the suffocating silence and showed Gerard the book he had taken from him. “Honestly, I’m not sure what was more surprising. That you can read or that you read.”
“You tryin’ to diss me?” Gerard grimaced and flexed the muscles of his tree-like arms.
Graswald’s eyes wandered towards the title of the book. “Beyond the dichotomy. Didn’t know you were interested in these topics. In that case, I can recommend this book. It provides a lot of insight.”
“The world is ever-changing.” Gerard raised his pointy finger and inflated his voice as if he recited a speech he once had heard or read. “What once was the norm is today a taboo. And what was once a taboo is today part of the norm. As heroes, going with the Zeitgeist and the changing ideals of humanity is our duty. How else can we save a world we do not understand? Still…” Gerard’s voice returned to normal, and he let his head down. “This book is so complicated. I understand that two gender pronouns are not enough, but 28?”
“Thirty. They have added Xix and Yer”, said Graswald. “For you, it may look ridiculous. But these pronouns help people. Imagine if the things you took as normal and granted are suddenly not applicable anymore. These people are confused about the world, about who they are, who they want to be. It may sound small and insignificant, but having at least something that helps you to identify yourself with something, in this cruel world, this small word, this small identity may be one’s only sanctuary. In the end, you read this book because you want to understand and provide support, right?”
Gerard nodded. “By the way, sorry if I ever misgendered you.”
“Just because I’m fancy and pretty doesn’t mean I’m a woman.”
Graswald didn’t change his expression.
Aura laughed and looked at Gerard. Her eyes shone in absolute brightness as if the sun had decided to illuminate her in its spotlight. “Thank you. And I meant what I said earlier about you.”
“Ehm…You are welcome.” Gerard bowed, grabbed his book, and left the room.
Graswald looked at his fiancée, his hand going through her hair. “Are you really okay?”
“Please stop asking that so often”, said Aura. “But yes. Gerard told me what I have to do. If I want to save the world, then I have to understand it better. What is going on right now? What is so important about Ragna? Who is pulling which strings behind the curtains?”
“That would be quite difficult since you have to remain hidden.”
Graswald wore his usual unreadable mask of a voice, but Aura felt a slight in his tone. Even if he understood why they did the ruse, it had to sting that she did not trust her fiancée and had tricked him too. That was not the recipe for a shining marriage.
She shook her head and smiled. There were more pressing issues. “What do you think of Ragna Griffin?”
“You want to know if I believe she is innocent, right? I do. I think someone is using her as a pawn. But I’ve no idea who.”
The smile on Aura’s face disappeared. “What was that about Linde Sieg’s death?”