*Credits for the artwork go to Halycon450*
Ragna pulled her seax out of the man, and with a swing, she wiped the blood off her weapon. She raised her skirt and hid the seax in the slot sewn into her garter.
Ragna’s gaze wandered to the lifeless body. Blood gushed out of the pierced flesh. His eyes were closed as if he was sleeping. Ragna didn’t say a word, and not a single thought seemed to cross her mind. She stood still and observed the man’s corpse that laid at her feet.
What went through Ragna’s head? Altera could not know. Was she mourning the man she had assassinated? Or cursing him? Perhaps, she was mocking him for his foolishness?
As expressive as Ragna usually was, at that moment, she had become an enigma. There were a thousand questions she – and Eric as well – wanted to ask her.
Altera tried to approach her and touched her shoulder. At first, Ragna didn’t react. Then she turned around. She was smiling with frivolous joy.
“Sorry, I must have worried you.” She giggled and looked at her thigh, where she was hiding her weapon. “Ah, you probably wonder what else I’ve hidden there? Or why I only used it now? Am I right?”
Altera and Eric stared at her as if she had spoken in another language.
What was going on? Why had her behavior changed? Was this a coping mechanism to deal with her first murder?
“Well…It is a woman’s secret.” Ragna circled Altera, and from behind the Valkyrie, she enveloped her in her embrace. “You should know about such things. Or…should I educate you?”
Altera gulped. Feeling Ragna’s pulsating body, her mind could not focus. She looked at Eric, whose face had the same look, her own emitted: disturbance, confusion, and something…something else. Another feeling she could not or did not want to describe.
Ragna let go, and in a swift movement, she rotated Altera as if she were a ballet dancer. The two women saw face-to-face. And for one second, she granted Altera the capability to speak.
“Ragna is everything…? You just…”
More, Ragna did not let her say. She put her finger on Altera’s lips, smeared them in blood, and whispered in her ear. “I think we shouldn’t talk about these ugly things.”
She faced both Altera and Eric. “Please, forget your confusion over my actions.” Her lips formed a smile. Sweet and delicious as belladonna. It was a smile worth protecting, worth fighting for, and worthy to vanquish lives.
“You can remember what had happened, but think of it as nothing unusual, like brushing your teeth.”
Her hand reached out for Altera’s face. Ragna touched and caressed her cheeks. And even if she didn’t see it, she felt envy. But it wasn’t her own. It was Eric’s. His heart hurt and desired to inflict the same pain she had brought on him. He wished that she would pay for the crime of taking this treasure from him.
Altera smiled. She didn’t care about him. Ragna’s affection was for her alone.
“Just this little incident. Don’t bring it up unless I will it. Would you be so kindly?”
“Yes”, they said in unison. One, in the hopes of attaining what was not his. The other, in the determination to keep what she had granted her.
“Then let me give you this little gift”, said Ragna. “To show you, just how grateful I am.”
Ragna leaned forward. Altera’s crimson eyes reflected Ragna’s pink lips. The strength in her body faded away. Her arms slumped, and scents invaded her nose. She smelled an amalgamation of odors – from lavender and pumpkin to vanilla and forest. She couldn’t think. A fog had dazed her. She could feel Ragna. Her lips. Sweet, sweet, deliciously sweet. An exchange of fluids and words. Connected through tongues and lips.
At this moment, in front of Altera, stood not a bratty girl. No, this was the voice of a serpent. A fabled dragon. Seducing and enticing her thoughts with her domineering words.
Words so pretty. Like swords. At her, she struck. Drug. A drug. Like a drug, her commands ate through her brain. At this moment, she lost all power, all worth as a human being. All drive, but one remained: Please Ragna. Follow her will. Serve her forever. Ragna was everything. Her will, a sword. Her words, reality. Her dreams, the future. Her grace, her existence.
She ceased to be human and transformed into a vessel for Ragna’s eminence. Only two thoughts, she could save: She had to kill everyone who desired Ragna and how much she desired this beautiful black sclera and these slitted blue pupils.
She felt a raging inferno that wished to transform this land into a black paradise of scorched earth and to incinerate all enemies. Those that dared to take away her dearest possession. Her rightful belongings. If she had to burn Ragna to keep her from other people’s hands, then so be it. And then, she would throw herself wholeheartedly in that very fire.
Dying together in a pyre, lush like flaming roses. How pretty.
Her thoughts began to burn Ragna’s presence away. And as Ragna gave Eric the same gift she had received, Altera regained her self and destroyed these thoughts alongside all traces of Ragna’s command.
Altera shook her head.
Why did she feel so dizzy? No, not just dizzy. Mana was flowing inside her. More than she had ever possessed. Did anything happen? No. Ragna killed the guard. That’s it.
She looked at her companions. Their faces exhibited confusion and dizziness as well.
Perhaps it was the temple? Like a defense mechanism of its worshippers to keep intruders away? Or at least inconvenience them. Maybe it was a Flyga? Clockwork might have one. No. That wouldn’t explain the mana surge. Maybe it was an area effect, the tower emitted and the dizziness was a result of her body being unused to these amounts of mana.
“We have to find our belongings”, said Eric. “If I had to guess, they’ve stored them at the temple’s top floor.”
“Why there?” Ragna asked.
“It’s the storage room. We have to be fast. The other guys probably heard the noise you made. They will be here soon, and I doubt they will be happy.”
Eric took the lead, and they started to run. Shortly afterwards, he turned left into a large open area. A staircase emerged from the darkness down below. It spiraled upwards until it would reach the area’s summit, which their eyes could not make out.
“The storage is at the end of the staircase”, said Eric and climbed the stairs.
“Just how big is this temple?” Ragna asked after they had passed the sixth floor, and the distance to the staircase’s end didn’t seem to decrease.
“Around 600 meters”. Eric said.
“You’re joking? What god needs this much space?”
“If my memories serve me correctly, then we should be on the 13th floor now. That means seven more floors until we reach the top floor.”
“Seven?” Ragna groaned. “Couldn’t they have built a shrine? Or something convenient? I mean, it’s just a god. If there was a treasure or something, I could understand.”
Eric laughed. “They would burn you alive for that blasphemous comment. Gods used to be a big deal a long time ago. But over time, faith decreased within the population. First, it was many gods. Then just one. Now, outside of Obelisk, faith has become a lifestyle choice. I’m not even sure if the church believes in Twice’s divinity.”
“How is all of this even possible?” Altera’s eyes wandered around the spiraling staircase and the floors. Her eyes sparkled at the architectural achievement. The entire building looked as if its founders had carved it out of a single aquamarine block. “That kind of technology shouldn’t have existed that long ago. And not even that. I have never seen material like this.”
Altera tapped against the staircase, and a clink echoed as if Altera had flicked metal.
“What kind of people used to wander Aes?” Altera asked herself. “When the kingdoms had yet to exist? And if they used to be this advanced, how much knowledge and progress had chauvinism and ignorance purged?”
“Marvel later.” Ragna said. The sound of boots running on the stairs came from the lower tiers of the temple. Clockwork’s men had already mobilized and began to chase them.
Altera apologized, and they continued to run while Eric laughed.
“It’s because of questions like these that I decided to explore ruins.” He said. “Both future and past are unknown to us and full of mysteries and uncertainties. Only the Allfather can see where we will go. So, at least, let me discover the past. But Ragna is right. We should continue this discussion once we are safe. I have a lot of theories I’m eager to hear your opinion about them.”
“Fine.” Begrudgingly Altera agreed, and three remained silent for the rest of the climb.
Eventually, the three reached the final floor and the summit of the temple.
“Finally.” Ragna paused to catch her breath. “What the fuck was wrong with these people? Building a six hundred-meter long temple. Was this Eithin-whatever the god of cardio and six-packs?”
Eric sat down, breathing heavily. “It didn’t affect your ability to talk for sure.”
“I guess we could afford a short break.” Altera looked downstairs. Unlike her two companions, her body didn’t display any signs of fatigue or exhaustion. One would think, Altera had merely walked a morning promenade.
Eric and Ragna stared at Altera in disbelief. “You are not human.” They said at the same time.
But Altera was right. They could afford a break. The sound of Clockwork’s minions had subsided for some time. The climb might have been excruciating for them, but they were trained cadets and an adventurer archeologist, respectively. Their condition was leagues above the average population. It was doubtful that these bandits had done anything similar to the training regiments of cadets. No matter how exhausting it was for them, for the Clockwork Gang, it was worse.
Like every other floor, they had crossed so far, two slender corridors extended from the central plateau. It created a bridge that connected the two opposing sides of the temple. Light was visible from the end of the corridor to their left, while the one to the right led to a shut door.
“I guess we should try the one with the light”, said Ragna once she felt that she had rested enough.
Eric nodded. The noise of their pursuers had gained volume. The Clockwork Gang had decided to continue as well. Their stomps and grunts grew more discernable.
The three began to walk, but then Eric halted.
“Why are you stopping?” Ragna increased her pace and ran towards the light.
“Wait.” Eric tried to grab her arm, but when Ragna took another step, an electric sound emerged from the tile, Ragna’s boot had stepped on. Yellow circuit-like patterns flashed over the bridge, and a red light illuminated the corridor.
“What’s happening?” Ragna looked at Eric. Her companion gulped and buried his head in his hat.
From an unknown source, a female voice rang through their heads. “Intruder alert. Warning, unauthorized access into the central system. Five seconds till automated weapon response…Four.”
“WHAT?” The voice counted down – “Three.” – Ragna tried to think of something to – “Two.” – saves their lives – “One. Starting elimination of all intruder units.”
Ragna’s eyes widened. Tiles disappeared from every side of the corridor and left behind holes. And inside them, they could see the muzzle of a gun.
Fuck. There was no way they could escape from that.
Ragna closed her eyes.
Huh? Was death this painless? Shouldn’t she feel at least the brief impact of a bullet making contact with her body? But she hadn’t heard any sound, let alone felt anything piercing her.
Ragna opened her eyes and inspected her body. There were no new wounds, and everything was fine. Did the trap malfunction? A glance at the holes revealed it had functioned as well as it was supposed to. Multiple layers of ices covered the holes. The bullets had no chance of penetrating those.
“You’re welcome.” Altera smiled and walked in front of her. “Don’t slip.”
Now that Ragna saw it, ice had covered the floor. It looked as if she had entered a cold storage. She gulped and rubbed her arms.
Had Altera always been this powerful? She knew Altera had to be skilled as a potential Valkyrie. Compared to her usual cytokinetic techniques, what she just had done was on a different level. She had never been able to summon this much ice before. She could even see her breath. And it didn’t look like this move had depleted or dented Altera’s mana resources.
“Next time, please wait.” Eric patted her on the shoulder and brought her back to reality.
“Sorry”, said Ragna, letting her head down.
Eric chuckled. “Don’t be. You aren’t a true adventurer if you don’t activate at least one hidden trap. See it as a rite of passage.”
He face-palmed as probably remembered the first time he fell for a trap.
“Anyway.” He said in a quieter tone. “You should thank Altera. I think it would make her happy. That’s just my impression, but she seems to be the type who tries to act cool but is secretly dying for praise.”
She had saved their lives. Once they were outside, she would thank her.
She walked out of the frozen corridor and entered a cylindrical area. Electric noises – like the workings of a processor or a computer that rebooted – echoed from every direction.
A warm breeze blew through Ragna’s hair, and the sounds of nature became louder. Mixed with the temple’s synthetic noises, they created a new melody. Atop the temple, there was no ceiling. The room was open, and in the night sky, they saw the source of the light. The full moon itself was watching over them, seemingly just one grasp away.
In the room’s center, the temple’s creators had erected an aquamarine table. On it was a stag’s skull. If she had to guess, the table functioned as an altar, the pagans used to offer tributes to their god.
Behind the table was stone wall as wide as the table. At least she assumed it was stone. Seeing the interior design, she would rather believe this was a construction made of silicon.
Someone had projected drawings onto the stone walls as if they were cave paintings.
These people even had a projector. But how? Did they make everything of bamboo technology?
The drawings depicted black figures that were either dancing or fleeing from someone or something. A larger individual towered over them. It was a creature with a humanoid shape. Its eyes were a swirling vortex, and it had its arms spread like wings. More figures were depicted next to it in weird positions. Were they praying, obeying, fearing, or revering? Next to the small figures, the drawing showed a stag and several other beings. Some seemed to be animals. Others were human-like, and some were neither.
Next to the table, the Clockwork Gang had stored their belongings. A quick check revealed the Clockwork Gang had not even opened the bags.
“Ah, there it is.” Grinning, Eric took the skull of a stag from the table and held it in his hand.
“What is that?” Ragna asked.
“The reason I explored the temple. An ancient artifact. Probably used for rituals on this altar.”
Altera looked at Eric, scanning him. Eric returned the gesture as if to ask if there was a problem. Altera didn’t say a word and focused her attention on the altar room.
Eric inspected the skull further when they heard noises from the end of the corridor.
“Looks like we will be getting plenty of company soon.” He put the skull inside his bag.
“Don’t worry.” Altera widened her arms like a conductor. From the rim of the room, ice materialized and spiraled down to the ground, creating a staircase in the process. “Let’s go.”
They ran down the stairs, and with every step they took, the ice behind them dissolved.
“Altera, you are awesome”, said Ragna once they had reached the ground.
““Indeed, she is.”
As if on cue, Clockwork awaited them. Alongside him were his female minion and the five remaining musicians.
Ragna, Altera, and Eric – who had a knife – drew their weapons.
“I had my suspicions that you would manage to escape.” He said and flipped the butterfly knife in his hand. The moonshine glimmered on its reflection, and Clockwork pointed the curved blade, long enough to be a short sword, into their direction. “So, tell me. What happened to Pete?”
When he saw their faces, his smile widened, and his eyes followed. Filled with fury, Clockwork chuckled. He let his head sink as if he had become tired of keeping it up all the time and bared his teeth. “I see. I see. What pay will I get from thee? How ‘bout some ultraviolence? It’s time to end the silence, right, right, right?” Ignoring the pleas of his men, he widened his arms. “So, drown in madness. Op-“
Clockwork stopped in the middle of his sentence, and his arms dropped. A cold sensation overcame their bodies as if something had stolen all warmth from their bodies, and light gleamed out of Eric’s bag. From inside the temple, a roar boomed through the forest like the impact of an explosion.
Mana surged from the temple’s altar room into the sky like a black geyser. The moon disappeared, and darkness basked the forest. The temple’s red flicker was all that remained.
Abandoning their enmity, they started to run and had one desire: to get away from the temple as far as possible.
None of them knew what had appeared inside the temple, and they weren’t eager to find out, because instinctively they understood that the source of the roar wasn’t an entity that should exist. Ragna’s heart screamed to her that being was powerful beyond compare.
The wind that breezed through the leaves increased its intensity and cut into her skin. Like knives, they tore her flesh and cloth. Thunder drummed, and raindrops fell from the sky. And following their trail was the sound of hooves. Louder than nature itself, they stomped on the ground and crushed through stones. Like a boulder that would galvanize their bodies, the sound approached them.
The winds transformed into sickles and scythes, increasing the cuts on her skin. At first, the pain was unnoticeable, but as the wounds accumulated, and the blood gushed out, the pain added up. With each new cut, it added to the sensation until her brain was unable to ignore it.
Rain poured in masses. It soaked the ground, and the soil dampened to mud. Thunder roared, and lightning struck the barks, lightening them up.
Despite the rain, fire spread with the winds. It burned across the mud and cut off the way back. They had no choice but to run forward.
Thick smoke and nebulous gases forced their way into Ragna’s nose. She coughed, and the sickening drench disturbed her brain like toxins. The flaming images around her contorted into enigmatic shapes. Monsters that reached for her with their claws and fangs. Over the puddles, she stomped, through the branches, she swam. Ragna couldn’t care about the abnormalities.
She had no time to spare for such thoughts. Not when it was so near. The galloping had closed the distance. She could hear the hooves behind her. Those who were not quick enough the galloping and howls engulfed, and their screams were all that would remain. And at the end was a wall of trees. They had reached their destination. All paths concluded at this blockade.
That’s it. It was over.
The hooves were there. Blood gushed from every part of her body. Her clothes were heavy, and water plopped onto her scorched skin, cuts, and skull like bombs. It itched and hurt as if thousands of mosquitos buzzed inside her and stung her. How much she wished to claw her brain out so that she would not feel it anymore? Mud covered her lips with a sour mushy stench and filled her head with nausea. Everything was twisting and turning. Where up and down were, she couldn’t tell. Her eyes could see that Altera and Eric made it. She smiled and dropped to her knees.
At least, she wouldn’t be alone.
Clockwork, that girl, and three of his men had made it.
Strange, how it was reassuring that even scum like them made it here.
She looked up to the sky. It had transformed into an ocean of dark clouds, with neither stars nor moon. The dances of fire and lightning were the only source of light.
At least, they would see their end coming. Was this how it ends? She didn’t want to die, but what could she do?
“NO.” Altera’s voice echoed. “This is not the end. We will live on.”
Either way, her words were the truth. They would fight to ensure they were alive for even one more second.
“But we will recognize our transgressions.”
Altera grabbed Eric’s bag and forced him on the ground. She kneeled as if she was a knight in front of her king and opened Eric’s bag.
The stag’s skull levitated into the sky, and the hooves and noises stopped. They heard the screams of the Clockwork Gang, but then those vanished as well. The skull turned around, facing them.
Perhaps it was because her brain was on the verge of collapse, but when she glimpsed at the stag’s skull, she saw the outlines of a humanoid being connecting to it.
“So be it.”
She heard those words drumming in her head, and the skull vanished.
Ragna wasn’t sure how long it took for her to become aware of herself. It might have been minutes, or might have been hours. The rain was gone, and the fire extinguished. A full moon shined with all its might. Cuts, bruises, burns wetness, and dirt – all had disappeared. It was as if the night had never happened in the first place.
That was not exactly true.
Three white pins raged into the sky. They were sharp as needles and white like ivory. Small rivers of blood spiraled down from the bodies of the Clockwork Gang the pins had impaled.
Ragna stood up. A warm breeze messed up her hair, and she looked up at the sky. “Just what was that?”
“If I had to guess, Eikthyrnir”, said Eric, as he stretched his body.
“That can’t be.”
“Have you any better explanation for the crap that just happened?”
Ragna remained silent.
Eric was right. There was nothing, she could explain with logic. She walked towards Altera and offered her a hand.
“Thanks.” Altera took it.
“How did you know this would work?”
Altera shrugged. “The idea just came into my mind. Sorry, I can’t explain it.”
A warm smile formed on Ragna’s face. “Whatever it was, it saved us. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Altera averted her gaze. If it were day, one could see the red glimmer that drew across her face.
All three sighed in relief and, once their minds had rested enough, decided to leave the forest.
But their steps came to a sudden halt. As if a barrier or a force field blocked them, they could not move further. No matter which direction they tried, an invisible wall forbid them to leave the perimeter of the temple. They were trapped.