Chapter 08 – Maestro’s first lecture
Ragna opened her eyes. The first thing she saw was aquamarine bars. Then she felt how her arms suspended towards the ceiling and how metal rattled against her wrist. There was no mistake. She was in jail. Again. Not even 24 hours had passed, and her enemies had captured her. Ragna groaned. Everything hurt. She felt cuts and bruises all over her skin.
“You’re awake. That’s good.”
Ragna turned her head. Against a green wall of unknown material leaned Altera, her hands tied to the ceiling as well.
“What happened?” Ragna asked. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine “, said Altera. “The poison didn’t do much. Guess it was weak enough that my body built a resistance towards it. Maybe Skyfrost wanted to enjoy our suffering?”
Right. Skyfrost had poisoned Altera. She lost her wings. Then we fell. And then…Nothing. How the hel are we alive?
“Where are we anyway?”
“You are in a temple.”
The two looked to the end of the room from where the voice had come. Sitting in the corner was a man, his eyes buried in a black adventurer hat. Dressed in a brown jacket, he looked like an archeologist from a blockbuster movie.
“Who are you?” The girls asked in unison. Cracking his neck, the man lifted his head.
“I’m Eric.” He said, revealing a pointy face covered in dirt. “And you are?”
“I’m Altera, and this…” Altera gestured with her head towards Ragna. “Is my associate, Ragna.”
Eric smiled. “Nice to meet you. Wish this place was cozier.”
Ragna looked around. The room that contained them was made of aquamarine stone. At least she thought it was stone. Only the bars that separated the room from the corridor in front of them were iron. She pushed her legs against the bars, and the metal vibrated.
Ragna let head down.
Breaking the metal would be too easy, and we would still be bound to the ceiling. It would explain the lack of modern technology if that is a temple.
Ragna squinted her eyes and tried to discern anything beyond her jail. She saw nothing. It was too dark. There were no windows, and the only sources of light were selected spots on the walls – just enough to let them be aware that their jail was an isle in a sea of darkness. It was unlikely that the IBV held them.
“What kind of temple is this?” Altera asked.
“The temple of Eikthyrnir”, said Eric.
“Say that again?” Ragna replied.
“Eikthyrnir – one of the old golds. Long before the Trutner siblings had received Twice’s blessings and founded the three kingdoms, gods. But chauvinism and cleansings have erased most traces of their existence. If I had to speculate, I would say it was the patron deity of the forest.”
“Forest?” Altera repeated. “Don’t tell me we are in the Rising Forest?”
Eric nodded. “Right in its heart.”
“Then, we didn’t make it far.”
Altera sighed. Her back touched the jail’s cold and yet smooth surface. It was unlike any other material she had ever encountered. If she had to compare it to something, she would have chosen Orichalcum.
Perhaps it was a resource lost in time. Or maybe a creative technique that had died with its people. Just how much of Aes’ history was still unknown?
“I’m not too versed in the customs of old civilizations. Is it normal to have jails in places meant for worship?
Eric chuckled. “Well, you somehow have to keep the offerings from escaping.”
“W…W…Wait a minute. Offerings?” Ragna’s face became paler than frozen light. She tried to run to Eric. The weight of her bindings held her back and pushed her against the wall. Ragna grimaced in pain.
“Don’t be silly”, said Altera, unable to contain a smirk at Ragna’s display of recklessness. “The age of gods is long gone. You either think of Twice as a god or don’t believe in them at all. Even in the most remote places of this continent, pagan worship has been exterminated.”
“Ah, right.” Ragna recovered from her brief shock of pain. She had forgotten that she wouldn’t fit the criteria for a human sacrifice anyway.
“Well, I’ve heard that they believe in a sun deity in Obelisk. But we are in Midgard, and my gut tells me that these aren’t the activities of a heretic cult.” Altera turned to Eric again. “Why are you here? Do you know who captured us?”
“Just a bunch of criminals and low-lives, I imagine.” The expression on his face became serious, and a cold light glimmered in his grey eyes. “I’m an explorer and archeologist. It’s my job to uncover the past. I recently had learned about a temple deep in the Rising Forest. Of course, I decided to uncover its secrets. But as it turns out, criminals used it as their hideout. Just imagining the damage, they could’ve done to this place, makes me want to puke. Well, as I explored the temple, I got careless, and these assholes ambushed me.”
“What are they going to do with us?” Ragna asked.
“Dunno. But earlier, I heard a bunch of them trying to contact buyers.”
“WHAT?” Ragna screamed. “Human traffic?”
“That’s valuable information”, said Altera. “Now, we know that money is their main objective.”
“You don’t seriously consider negotiating with human traffickers?”
“Of course not. But knowing the objective of the enemy can help us to manipulate the situation into our favor.”
“Human traffic…What kind of monster are they?”
Light flooded the corridor and washed away the darkness. Loud noises blasted outside their jail. The tact increased exponentially, the noise grew closer and louder, and as the distance decreased, Ragna began to recognize the sound. Her mouth was agape. She narrowed her eyes and furrowed her brows.
Wait a minute. Wasn’t that…?
With the intensity of an explosion burst the music. Seven men and a small girl entered the corridor, all playing a different instrument – saxophone, flute, violin, trumpets, drums, and one singer – and dancing to the symphony. A tidal of chaotic sounds – wild and untamed – formed into an orchestra. Controlled, yet filled with a cacophony of emotions, drowned they the room with their melody.
The bars disappeared, and where once was a corridor, a stage emerged. Red curtains fell, revealing an organ that engulfed the horizon with its size. Deep sounds thundered, and ominous pipes sounded through the artificial scenery. Grey automata entered the stage – mechanical humans saturated with gears and wheels; spinning and clinking; dancing and singing in female unity. Theatrical power piped at its utmost volume; ethereal choirs sang in a language not meant for human ears. Streams of fire enlarged their shadows, their embers reflected on the metal surfaces.
Together, they created a holistic background, and a pretty young man in his late twenties, wearing a long white coat, came forward. Black metal gears decorated his arms and elbows. As the prisoners stood frozen, in complete disbelief regarding the events that played in front of their eyes, he let his voice sing through the music. “My dearest guests,
For ‘venging flames we are,
As you’ve entered our nests,
Please fall insane
Like clockwork again and again
Till your minds spring broke,
And you scream and croak.
Melodic compassion, human desire,
Burning brighter than the morning star
Engulfing all Veil in its pyre
Till you see us all
Those cast in the dirt
Your world is the toll
For the fire sirens eternal alert
Following the rules of nature
We lie, cheat, steal, survive
Your eternal joy we sacrifice
And our music sounds!”
The scenery crumbled, and the instruments faded away. Taking off his black top hat, the singer bowed with such vigor that it veered into the realms of mockery. “Welcome to my humble château. I’m Cyrus Clockwork.”
He straightened himself, and his hazel eyes wandered over the prisoners in the jail. The excessive amount of eyeliner he had used, sharpened his gaze. “I hope you liked our little song. We are the Clockwork Gang. The number one criminal orchestra in all of Aes.”
Still blue with shock, Ragna couldn’t utter a word. She couldn’t decide what was crazier: Their existence, the overly narrow superlative, or the possibility that other inferior gangs existed.
Clockwork smiled and pulled a lighter out of his pocket. Walking past the jail, he clattered it against the prison bars. “Don’t give me that look, kitty. I would neeever kill you. You know, I may be a ginger, but I still have a soul.”
“You are trying to sell us into slavery”, said Altera.
The criminal shrugged his shoulders, and his wry smile didn’t disappear. “Slavery is many things. Despicable? Maybe. Morally questionable? Perhaps. But consider this.” He raised his finger like a student in a classroom. “It is also profitable. Demand for good-looking women is at an all-time high, and the Wert keeps coming. I mean, if you want to have a nice house at the beach, you gotta have money. Living is more than surviving, and that new GM7 won’t pay for itself.”
“Because of a game console?” Ragna rushed towards Clockwork, only for her shackles to pull her back. Forced on her knees, she growled.
Clockwork pulled his lighter back into his jacket pocket and clapped his hands. “It’s great that you already practice. Your new master will be pleased. If it were up to me, I would just steal a GM7. Sadly, I’ve no idea how to get around their lock mechanism.”
“Cool motive.” Eric sneered. “Still an asshole.”
Ragna jumped from the ground, pushing her body and the shackles that kept her at bay, to their limits. She growled and glared daggers at him, her blue eyes saturated with hatred and wrath. Clockwork leaned forward and pressed his face against the bars. “Ohhh, if only looks could kill. Perhaps you could hurt me.”
Ragna’s gleam intensified. She spat on Clockwork’s face. He groaned, and with the backside of his glove, swiped the salvia from his cheek.
“You will pay for your crimes.” Ragna forgot all self-restraint. All the pent up-emotions inside her heart were released. The hatred, wrath, and pain, her subconscious could not hold back. She pushed forward, tugging against her wrists until her skin tore and bled. Ragna didn’t care. She pushed her body forward, ranting, and lashing out at the monster in front of her eyes.
“You disgusting pigs pretending to be human. Justice. Will. Prevail. You will pay. Veil will hunt you down. They will hunt you and punish you. There will never be happiness in your lives, and when you die, you will regret that monster like you were ever born.”
Using strength she could not possess, her feet moved forward. With her arms stretched out to their utmost limit, Ragna ignored the pain and pushed forward until her shackles broke.
Clockwork took a step back, and his underlings widened their eyes.
“You are starting to annoy me.” He snapped his fingers. His glove gleamed in aquamarine light. With one swipe, the bars opened as if the jail was an automatic door. “But I am a compassionate man. Come at me. Strike me with all your hatred. And if you beat me, I may even let your friends go.”
Clockwork pulled a knife out his belt and threw it in front of Ragna’s feet. She didn’t have to hear that twice. Ragna grabbed the weapon and stormed out of the jail, ignoring Altera’s attempts to stop her. The door shut close, and Ragna attacked him.
Clockwork evaded the knife slashes. With the elegance of a performer, he danced around her movements.
“Just as I thought. All barks and no bite.” Seeing an opening, Clockwork slammed his elbow into her spine. Ragna groaned and fell on her knees.
She would get him.
Tightening her grip, Ragna pulled herself up and attacked anew.
But no matter what she did, Clockwork remained unfazed. For him, this was not a fight. It was a comedy, a show for entertainment.
Even his goons paid little attention to the fight and preferred to talk about the current geopolitical climate. She tried to stab and slash. Clockwork merely danced. And each failed attempt he met with a cackle that increased in tone and mockery.
“Let me guess. You are a cadet, fresh from the academy, thinking about being a hero and changing the world. You’re making me laugh, and it’s not even funny. Your arrogance is revolting. So, let me teach you a lesson.”
He took a swing and punched her in the stomach. Salvia escaped Ragna’s mouth, and she cawed, falling to her knees again. Ragna dropped her weapon, and her arms wrapped around her stomach.
Clockwork widened his arms. His smile had faded into a frown, and the elegance, he had cast away. Not bothering to pretend, he showed his true face. His eyes burned with disgust and loathing.
“You know nothing about this world.” Clockwork slammed his shoot into Ragna’s rips. “Living in your pampered bubble, you never encountered true horror.” He walked forward. A second kick. “Starving in the slums. Fighting for daily survival. Crawling through the ground, wondering if you live tomorrow.” Again, he dished out a kick. And a fourth and another as if they were punctuations for his sentences. “Have you ever taken a step outside your safe city before? Of course not. Spoiled child living in your high houses. Look around. This is the real world. The real world is cruel and ugly. It doesn’t care about you. Your dreams and hopes mean nothing. And if you want to live, play by its ugly rules. Murder your enemies. Rob the blind. Betray the strong. Trample over the weak. For idiots like you will just die.”
Seeing Ragna’s body arching in front of the jail bars, Clockwork stopped. He picked up the knife Ragna had dropped. Swinging it like a pendulum, he kneeled. “I will make it easy. For thirty seconds I will not attack. I will not protect myself. If you want to kill me, then just do it.”
His goons tried to intervene, but with a hand movement, he ordered them to halt. Ragna lifted her head.
Did she hear him correctly? He let her kill him? That sounded too good to be true. It had to be a trick. Or was he that arrogant? Whatever it was, if there was the slightest opening, she had to use it. She removed her arms from her stomach and took the knife. Forcing herself to stand, she pointed her weapon at Clockwork.
It was a simple maneuver. One she had followed countless times. Every cadet knew how to strike an opponent with a knife. Then why did she stop? She just had to ram it inside him. He was a monster, and their lives were at stake. Who knew how many more lives he would ruin?
Inside her head flashed a thousand reasons and justifications to kill him. Yet, her body didn’t move. Her arms and legs trembled, and the knife quivered from the tremors.
Move you damn body. Why was it so hard? It was just one movement. One movement and the world would be better.
“Pathetic.” Clockwork snatched the weapon from her, and within the same breath, before Ragna could react, he rammed the blade into the back of her hand. Ragna screamed. Blood gushed out of her wound. She pressed her hand against it, trying to suppress the bleeding and the pain.
“You just parrot words whose meaning you don’t understand.” He pulled the knife out and swiped off the stains. The droplets fell to the ground. “You want to be a soldier? A Valkyrie? What a joke. You can’t even kill me. And I am as bad as they come.”
The bars opened. Clockwork grabbed Ragna’s throat and lifted her. Ragna groaned, trying to formulate syllables, her mind was unable to decide on what she would focus on: The blood running from her wound, his fingers crushing her windpipe, or his eyes looking down on her. Brimming with revolt, he might as well stare at a cockroach rummaging through garbage.
“What will you do in a war where you can’t separate the good from the bad? Wake up and face reality. You are not fit for this world.”
The jail opened, and Clockwork threw Ragna inside. Altera shouted her name.
The bars closed.
“I’m doing you a favor here. You can spend your remaining days as a dog. You don’t have to speak. You don’t even have to think. Just bark and follow the orders of your master, and you will live in moronic and ignorant bliss.”
He was about to turn when he stopped. “Wait. Did you just say Ragna? As in, Ragna Griffin?” Clockwork narrowed his eyes and came closer to the cell, inspecting Ragna’s face. His gaze shifted to her body. She was bending and crooking on the floor, whimpering in pain. “You certainly resemble the girl pictured in the darknet.”
His frown turned into a grin. Walking backwards, he performed a pirouette and lifted his female minion in the air. Smiling like a little child, he shouted from his lungs, performing another revolution. “We hit the jackpot, Eris.”
His minions stared at him in confusion. Clockwork put the rosé-haired girl on the ground. She staggered and stumbled, overwhelmed by the centrifugal force, before finding stable feet.
“There is a change in plans.” Clockwork focused on the prisoners and bowed before them. “But first, let me thank you.” He said. “Perhaps I underestimated you. Attacking the princess, collaborating with Vaix, and escaping custody. That’s quite the rap sheet you got there. A big bounty too. Not just money, but also a high rank, and being pardoned of every committed crime.”
“That’s impossible”, said Altera.
“Face it, angel. Officially the government has kept everything tight, but on the dark web, it’s open season. I don’t know why, but they don’t care who finds you as long as they do. Not that I complain. No more hiding in forests. Fame, power, and riches. It will be all ours.”
“That must be a lie.”
“Don’t be like that”, said Clockwork, rubbing his hands. “Be happy at this twist of fate. No slavery for your friend. Anyway, for now, this is farewell. Gotta secure a connection.“
He bowed again and turned to his men. “Keep an eye on them.”