Clockwork’s men began to play a session of rock-paper-scissor games. They played several rounds until they had determined a definite loser. The minion in question – Pete, a thuggish looking giant as wide as a ship’s mast – grumbled. His comrades laughed, patted him on the shoulder and left him alone.
Pete let his head down and leaned cross-legged against the wall across the cell. He took out the newest issue of the Hygge Weekly and browsed through it. Occasionally, he lifted his eyes to catch a glimpse of the prisoners. Outside of that Ragna girl’s whimpering, the prisoners didn’t make a noise.
Cyrus had done a number on her. Didn’t he have the rule to never damage any goods? Unless the customer demanded that, of course. That girl must have hit a sore spot that Cyrus broke his own rules.
It wasn’t that Pete didn’t feel sorry for her. Or for any other humans, they had found and sold. But sympathy was a luxury that cost dearly. In this world, there was no sympathy to spare. They were all animals killing in the name of survival. If the prisoners broke out, would they spare a single thought for anything but their escape and survival?
No. No matter how nice one would treat them, the moment they could get any chance to grasp for freedom, they would take it. They would kill him and the other droogs and abandon all previous sympathy without a second thought. The idea of a prisoner liking you was romantic. You treat them nicely. She accepts your kindness and slowly you two fall in love. You two decide to escape and leave behind this life of crime. You find a steady job – perhaps at a construction site or the harbor. They don’t look too closely at your criminal records. Build a little house and have a family. A son and a daughter. It’s not a grand life but you can make do. Even if you do not become a respected member of society, they will accept you. And most importantly, you have each other. Through thick and thin. An irreparable bond, fire had forged.
Yeah, that was a dream. So nice, so beautiful. So foolish. Could make for a nice movie – though, in those – for the sake drama – the past would catch up eventually. Reality wasn’t even that kind. Prisoners will never feel sympathy for you. Why should they? You are selling them. If they notice any weakness, they will exploit it and you will end up dead.
Then again, the Clockwork Gang was aiming for the top. Was that any more realistic? Cyrus didn’t care. He had never been one to settle for mediocrity. Always had these big visions. Back then, when survival had been their biggest concern, they kept the gang going. But now? Well, perhaps a twist of fate was what they had needed. That Ragna Griffin landed in front of their hideout was like winning in the lottery. If this went well, they could start living a decent life.
Still, this girl had betrayed Veil and hurt the princess? If that was true, handing her to the kingdoms wasn’t so bad, right? Even scum like them respected Princess Aurelia. Assuming this Ragna was the culprit in the first place and not just a convenient scapegoat. No matter how you would look at it, this girl didn’t look like a traitor. She was too weak.
Pete flipped a page and looked up from his magazine.
The girl was still whimpering on the floor. Cowing and pressing against the wound Cyrus had inflicted on her. Perhaps it wasn’t the wound that kept her on the ground but the verbal beatdown that had broken her spirit? Disinterested, his eyes shifted back to his magazine. An article explained how the perfect arrangement of a few candles can give the coziness and warmth of a heater.
“Ragna”, said Altera again. “Dammit, Ragna. Now’s not the time.”
Altera sighed. She closed her eyes and a shriek chimed. The guard looked up. Seeing nothing noteworthy, his concentration went back to his magazine.
“What the…” Ragna jumped from her position. Her eyes gazed on the layer of ice that had eaten into her skin. The cold spread into her flesh and blood like a fire. Ragna pressed her teeth. This felt worse than the knife wound.
“I stopped the bleeding”, said Altera. “It’s not exactly first aid but for now it has to suffice.”
“You could have warned me.”
“I tried to. But since I have your attention …”
The corners of Ragna’s mouth turned upside down and she averted her eyes, staring at the ground. Altera sighed again.
“Look … I know what this Clockwork guy said was …” Altera paused. Trying to think of the right words, she hesitated to speak further and started again. “I will be blunt. I’m not going to say something like ‘Don’t listen to him’ or ‘He just wanted to mess with your head’. Because he had a point.”
Ragna clenched her fist. Even Altera agreed with him. She was worthless. Trying to be a hero? What a joke? She was an ant trying to fly, not realizing it would only succeed in the beak of a bird.
“But that’s not the end of the world.” Altera continued. “I’m not agreeing with his view of the world and neither should you give up.”
Ragna looked up. Altera’s crimson eyes brimmed with certainty and determination. This wasn’t the Altera, who sat on her high horse. Or the Altera currently locked up. Had Ragna to choose a word to describe her companion, only ‘angel’ would come to her mind.
“There is nothing wrong with naivety. You are just a first-year cadet. That is perfectly normal. And yes, you are highly flawed. But so is everyone. We both are still at the beginning of our careers. Look at me.” Altera closed her eyes and exhaled. “I know, I can be too bossy. I … I’m not good with people, so I often don’t know how to interact with them, and I guess … I may come across as stuck up and I guess … We all are far from perfect. The question is simply, what are you going to do about it? Are you using it as a crutch, as an excuse to abandon your values? Will you stop right here and there? If yes, then I will end your life this second. You can die naïve and innocent.”
Ragna’s and Eric’s eyes widened. Before they could say another word, Altera spoke further. “Or are you going to improve? If you want to be a hero, then work for it. Overcome your flaws. Face the horrors of this world and become the person you want to be. But for that, you have to survive. You … We have to get out and continue our journey.”
Ragna didn’t say a word. Her face showed neither smile nor frown. She gulped and nodded.
“Not to disrupt your moment”, said Eric in a muffled voice and the girls turned towards him. “I think we should discuss how to get out.”
“Do not worry about that.” Altera smiled. Stakes shot down from the ceiling. They grew and within a single movement, pierced through her cuffs, halving them. Before her cellmates could utter a reaction, Altera put a finger on her lips, ordering them to be quiet. She massaged her sore wrists. Two seconds later, the stakes had broken through Eric’s cuffs.
“How did you do that?”
“Valkyrie trade secret”, she said and winked. “It took me some time, but I think I have recovered enough now.”
She looked at each of them. “I need you to be ready. What I am about to do will deplete most of my reserves. After this, I will be useless. So, if anything goes wrong, you two have to fight. Understood?”
“Good.” Altera stood up and narrowed her eyes. “Please stand back. This might get cold.”
Eric and Ragna did as told and pressed themselves against the walls. Altera summoned a sphere made of ice in midair and rotated it. Every second, a new layer latched itself onto the round form and increased its volume until the ice occupied half the room. And with each layer, the speed of its rotation increased.
By the time it had gained a volume that was to Altera’s likening, one would mistake it for a horizontal avalanche. Altera stretched her arms out like wings and the sphere started to move. It crashed through the iron bars, tearing them apart like bowling pins and continued further into the guardsman’s direction.
When he heard the noise and looked up from his magazine, he could only express horror. The sphere slammed into his body and the guardsman experienced a close encounter of the cold kind, as the impact torpedoed him against the iron bars of the prison cell on the opposite end of the corridor. The sphere began to crack. It burst asunder and buried the man under chunks of ice.
Sweat was dripping from Altera’s forehead. Her red eyes shone in the light of a fire that desired to burn all obstacles to ashes. Her breath was heavy, and her arms trembled.
“Let’s go”, said Altera and walked out of the hole, bringing them back to reality, as they couldn’t avert their eyes at the sheer volume of Altera’s action and the field of ice that kept the man at bay.
“Just what was that?” Eric asked as they reached the end of the corridor and the radiance of a light source intensified. “And please don’t tell me, that’s another Valkyrie secret.” Before Ragna could answer that it was probably another Valkyrie secret, Altera had turned back. She jumped towards them and brought the two down, as the sound of a bullet grazed them.
Ragna looked up. The guardsman had risen from the ice. Breathing heavily and shivering from the cold, he held a gun. His face was flattened from the impact and blood and ice ran from his swollen and crooked nose.
Pete had no idea, how that was possible. His eyes didn’t deceive him. Somehow, that Altera girl had known that he would fire his gun and somehow, she was able to calculate the trajectory of the bullet. And she still managed to dodge in time. First, she somehow broke out of her cuffs, then she controlled ice and now this. Even taking an overpowered Flyga into account, the number of unrelated abilities was too high.
He pulled the trigger and fired again. It didn’t matter. Now was not the time to overthink the situation.
The bullet flew, but in the middle of its flight, a layer of ice covered the projectile and it stopped. Having lost its momentum, the bullet dropped like a stone. Pete looked in puzzlement at the bullet on the ground.
“Run”, said Altera. “I’m out of ice.”
Ragna didn’t listen. She pressed her glove. It glowed blue, the countdown popped out and Ragna rushed towards the thug. It was stupid of her not to use the gravity manipulator against Clockwork. Rage had overcome her and she hadn’t thought everything through.
But this was different. She was their golden ticket out of this forest. Clockwork had forbidden them to kill her. And with her manipulator, the probability of losing against an untrained thug was low. She should be lucky that Clockwork hadn’t damaged the manipulator.
“Dammit.” The man grumbled and pointed his gun away from her. An action that took enough time that Ragna came close enough in range to throw a punch.
The man blocked with his arm.
What had just happened? He should be flying across the room. Ragna punched again. The man furrowed his eye and grabbed her fist with his enormous palm. Crap. Could it be that the glove was malfunctioning? No, it was working. She could feel that. Rather, could it be that it lost most of its force? But how?
Ragna rattled with her fist. She kicked him and screamed, but the thug’s grip didn’t loosen. Instead, the pressure on her bones increased. He’s going to crush her hand. She had to do something.
“Don’t worry”, a toothy grin flashed across the man’s face. “Cyrus wants you alive. But he would understand if I say I had to defend myself.”
Letting go of her hand, he pulled Ragna towards him and quickly pressed his thick arm against her throat. Ragna groaned, gasping for air. On her temple, she felt the heated metal of the gun burning a mark on her skin. She gulped as he applied more pressure and rubbed traces of its powder against her skull.
“If you two make anything funny, I will go all Gavin on her.”
His blood-shot eyes skimmed over the corridor and tried to identify other possible surprises that might escalate the situation.
“W … Wait …” Altera tried to say, but the thug cut her off.
“Your attack did me good. See how my hand is shivering? I’m really, really pissed, and I don’t want to kill her. But if your voice aggravates me any further, I might accidentally …”
Suddenly, Ragna cackled like a child.
“It’s fine”, she said and lowered her eyelids. “There is no escape for me, but maybe that is not so bad. After all, I am the daughter of two Valkyries and a Griffin. I’m smokin’ hot. Someone with DNA as amazing as mine is more than suitable for the future program.”
Her companions were shocked. Pete tilted his head and looked at her. His face displayed a mixture of confusion, suspicion and horror.
“A beautiful house, a beautiful husband, beautiful children. I will live in eternal luxury.” Ragna continued. A broken smile was plastered on her face and the luster in her eyes shone brighter than gold. “That is a beautiful life and I get to serve my fatherland forever and ever. Creating the next generation of warriors, is there a better dream for any woman? I will be responsible for the prosperity and victory of our glorious kingdom.”
“ARE YOU CRAZY?” Altera shouted.
Ragna shook her head. “What better way is there to restore the honor, I’ve lost? To pay for my sins with body and soul. To give pleasure and life to those that will crush our o so hated enemies once and for all.”
She tilted her head towards him. With the voice of an innocent child she spoke. “But Mister, can I ask you for a favor?”
“A favor?” Pete laughed in disbelieve. “Have you gone insane, or what do you think this gun shoots? Rainbow and kittens?”
“It’s not that.” Ragna shook her head again and sulked her lips. “You don’t need my friends. My bounty is high enough that you all will attain riches you couldn’t even imagine. Compared to that, whatever Wert they would bring is nothing. Only I am valuable, right?“
“R … right…”
What was she planning? Or was she telling the truth?
“So, can you let them go, please? I mean, if you deliver me, you don’t need any more money.”
“So, I can shoot them, right?”
Ragna jiggled with her body. “You could do that, buuut, why don’t you let them go? And in exchange … If I’m honest, that wasn’t the real reason. I’m actually worried.”
Pete gulped and Ragna tilted her head. Not caring about the gun pressed against her temple, she stared in his eyes.
“Yes. I want to serve my kingdom as well as possible. But I’m worried that my abilities are not good enough. I would like to get better. Can you let them go so that I can practice with you alone?”
“Practice?” Pete was confused, but when he saw how Ragna raised her skirt and opened her jacket, he understood.
It wasn’t that Pete would be stupid enough to believe that Ragna thought the future program was good. Perhaps she was the kind of person, who would sacrifice her life without a second thought for her friends. Perhaps she was lying to herself to deny the horrors. Or Cyrus had driven her insane and facing this hopeless situation, the remaining fragments of her mind had broken. Was it because he wanted to respect her selflessness? Was it because her reasoning made sense? Did he pity the girl because of the horrors that awaited her? Was he fooling himself to find an option that ended with no causalities? To finally end this charade, he had to maintain?
Was it because of the lack of entertainment during the last few weeks? The goods were for the customers only. Cyrus was strict about that. Don’t get high on your own supply, he always said. And he would never allow anyone to touch Eris. Not that it had ever crossed his mind. He respected Eris and Cyrus too much for that.
Whatever the reason, when he saw the slitted beauty lustering in her eyes, a desire overcame him. Anger and repulsiveness that he could not keep her. That he would have to give her away. This girl should stay with him. Even if it’s just one moment longer. Or they should go somewhere far away. But he had to prove that she could trust him.
In the end, he accepted.
What would have happened if they ran? Would he have hidden her from the world and protected her? That sounded like a good idea. It didn’t matter where. Just somewhere, where they could spend eternity. Even a cave was fine. She just had to trust him. Would that have been a happy ending? Pete would never find out. The moment their lips had connected, he did not just feel her. There was also warm metal, something even warmer and liquid. A strange sensation came from his throat. First pain, then strange grunts and noises – his own perhaps – and then nothing.