The harbor town Hlessy was proof to the world that every rule had its exceptions. Despite being one of the kingdom’s cities that was removed the furthest from the capital, Hlessy prospered. The city of commerce – as the citizens of Veil dubbed it – was an economic hub that in certain aspects eclipsed even the city of Veil in importance. All thanks to its harbor that connected the city to the sea and allowed trade between the Eren Archipelago, the kingdom of Avalon and the land of Utgard. Even though the usage of matter teleporters had increased steadily over the years and one day will become the main method for commerce, Hlessy remained the most vital element for Veil’s export and import.
And not just goods. Humans too appreciated the access to the Titanic Sea. Those who wanted to disappear or had objects that should not fall into unpleasant hands would employ sailors of less than reputable fame to escape the confinements of the Veilian society and law. This constant exchange of humans and goods led to another problem: pirates.
Like seagulls to a sliver of food, they flocked to the city and its water routes to attain what profits they could lay their hands on. All these factors earned Hlessy a second nickname it would prefer to lose: the city of criminals. Of course, not everyone society had dubbed a criminal was guilty. One such criminal walked through the harbor, doing what she did best – arguing with Altera.
“For the last time, “smarttitude” is not a word.” Altera clenched her fist, her eyes narrowed, and her brows raised to a scowl.
“Of course, it is.” Ragna pointed at herself and raised her other arm to the sky. Inflating her voice to the poshest Veilian tone, her tongue could imitate, she gesticulated the flair a failing drama actor, talking big about their next breakthrough and the talent in their pinky alone, would possess. “I am surprised that such a diligent individual as yourself never heard of this word. Perhaps that is proof that your studies were not as thorough as you thought they would be.”
Altera took a deep breath, and, in her thoughts, she counted to ten. “Fine. Then use a sentence with that word in it.”
Ragna grinned like Master Ryne when he had proposed to build Castle Gimli within a year for the hand of President Norvigae’s daughter if he succeeded.
“I have smarttitude.” She said.
Altera was about to scream at Ragna when she stopped herself and swallowed whatever words, she wanted to shout and stomped off into the direction of the ferry.
Watching her movements, Ragna chuckled.
“You really enjoy this”, said Eric. Unlike Ragna, his face wore an expression of worry, like that of an onlooker, who wondered if an aggressive dog should be without its leash. “Will she be fine?”
“It’s just a little tease.”
“This is what the police will eventually call a motive.”
“Don’t worry. She should be used to it.”
“That’s what worries me.”
“I can’t help it.” Ragna pouted like a child who tried to steal all the cookies from the jar on the shelf but became upset when she was caught redhanded.
But quickly she raised her chin and pressed her hands against her hips. “Altera has always this cool air of perfection around her. It was one of the reasons she was the school’s idol. But I thought, wouldn’t an expression of defeat suit her more? Instead of composure, being all weak and on the verge of tears, she would look sooo much cuter, right?”
“I wouldn’t know”, said Eric. His face was deadpan, and he tapped against his temple. “My screws are still around.”
Not paying attention to Eric’s comments, Ragna licked her lips and hugged herself as if shivering in cold. For a second Eric could see the black hearts manifest in her eyes and words. “And as I imagined this beautiful expression, I just couldn’t help but to want it even more. To poke her and tease her and break her façade. It took me some time, but I think I slowly understand how to get under her skin. There is just something about her that makes it sooo enjoyable. Sometimes it makes my heart race.”
“Say, when you were young”, said Eric. “Were you the kind of child who would build mazes where ants would wander endlessly because you sealed the exits?”
Ragna tilted her head. “Why would I play with insects? I had Sven.”
Showing him a smile, Eric could have only described as ‘angelic’, Ragna skipped from one tile on the ground to the next. Like a sweet imp, she performed a pirouette.
Wasn’t this Sven her boyfriend or something like that? She hadn’t given many details but he remembered her dropping that name. The way her voice had inflated gave away that she was deeply in love. And apparently he was her chew toy. Eric had heard of boys pulling the hair of girls they liked but this was one paygrade above.
“Perhaps I should make a call. Is seems there is a macadamia missing from the nuthouse.”
Just what kind of bargain had he accepted? Eric chuckled. He was in for a world of headaches. If this girl would rise to the top, she might destroy the world as well or become a tyrant. She would not even realize the terror she inflicts. And for sure, she would one day become the death of him. Pity the fool who would one day fall for her. They would have to be the suicidal type.
“Sill.” Ragna’s expression changed to a somber mask. She turned around and faced Eric. “We were never really friends. I’m not sure if I would call us friends right now. But I respect her. It took me a while to see it, but she deserves to become a Valkyrie.”
Eric rubbed his chin.
The way she just had talked seemed to imply that by contrast, she didn’t believe to deserve to become a Valkyrie. Or was he imagining things?
Walking alongside the harbor street, the daily market was in full swing. Having caught the first batch of fresh food, the merchants were shouting their prices and offerings. Were it not for the cars, the occasional pieces of technology and the modern clothes of the passersby, the scenery wouldn’t be out of place 2000 years ago. Ragna looked at the food with avaricious eyes. Hlessy was famous for its seafood. It was the best in all of Veil. Perhaps the southern corner was better, due to its closer proximity to Minanaught. But that was a point of contention for the entire continent and wouldn’t diminish the taste of Hlessian seafood.
Luckily, she had borrowed Aura’s credit card from Altera. Even if it were expensive, she wouldn’t have to worry. That deposit was like an endless well. Not that she would spend it like an idiot who had won the lottery. One had to ensure to refill their treasure faster than one would spend it. And if that was not possible, to stretch the spending out until one could save up again. Even so, some luxury once in a while doesn’t hurt. She should buy food for Eric and Altera too. Perhaps she had aggravated Altera too much. That could cheer her up. Eric was used to the food here, but he already helped them out. It would be rude if this journey forced him to exhaust his savings. Buying him food was the least they could do. Aura wouldn’t mind. Though what did the two like? All she knew was that Altera ate a lot.
She walked to a stand next to a souvenir shop selling figurines of the Lorelei and bought three boxes of fried lion prawns and angel squid rings and three crabby patties. She inhaled the scent of her food and the cocktail sauce, salivating from her mouth. She had made the right choice. A flock of seagulls thought so too, as the smell of delicious food had attracted them. But blinded by desire they did not see the sail the owner had hoisted and flew straight into it. Despite their beaks still stuck in the sail, they would not think to free themselves and preferred to scream ‘it’ was theirs.
“What silly birds.” Ragna hummed a song and went to Eric and Altera, who had returned and managed to calm down without going into an immediate rant.
But Ragna’s joy was not for long. As they stood in line to board the ferry, they noticed agents of the IBV rummaging through the harbor. They inspected any place that could function as a hiding place for humans or loot, and halted passerby at random, forcing them to identify themselves with their IDs. Next to the entrance to each ship or board stood an agent carding every boarder.
“Crap.” Ragna gulped. Behind them was an extensive line of travelers. If they left now, they would raise suspicion. But if they did nothing, the agent would identify her for sure. Trying to enter the board would be next to impossible. Ragna put on the hoodie of her jacket and drew it enough that the agents wouldn’t be able to identify her just by a glance.
“What shall we do?”
“Just be normal and hope that they don’t card us”, said Altera, biting her lip.
“But why are they here in the first place?” Ragna asked. “They shouldn’t be able to know that we would go to Hlessy.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure”, said Altera. “If you wanted to escape and regroup with Vaix or just lay low, then Hlessy would be a likely destination.” The nails on her left hand began to grow. Their points sharpened and the form became thin like needles. One flicker and her new weapons would penetrate the throat of any human unfortunate enough to be on the opposite side of the nail like extensions.
“Using hidden weapons, that isn’t like you”, said Ragna. In her voice was neither approval nor disdain. She just stated her objective view of the situation.
“As if I would ever use such villainous tricks. A Valkyrie is a paragon. If one ever stooped to such low methods, it would mean, they are not ready to be a Valkyrie.” Altera’s voice darkened and she spoke with every ounce of pride her body could muster up. To accuse her of fighting dishonorably was a grave insult. Ragna might have as well asked if she would offer her body for favors and money.
“This is in case a fight breaks out. I can’t swing my weapon around without hitting any bystanders. My other abilities would be too risky as well. Even if our lives are on the line, the safety of the civilians always takes priority.”
Ragna didn’t answer back. She never had understood the disdain Veilian soldiers had towards sneaky techniques and weapons. She didn’t question it either and simply accepted this aspect of her society as self-evident. Concealed within her garter belt’s stockings, was a seax. But that wasn’t meant for combat. The weapon was to defend against molesters and worse scum, who thought a small girl wandering through the city in the middle of the night, was an easy target. Others had pepper spray and whistles. She had her seax. There was the issue of drugged drinks, but Griffins were born with a high tolerance – presumably thanks to their Flyga. Even though she didn’t know the Flyga of her father and was far from discovering her own, Ragna was no exception to the rule. As such, she had sworn to use her seax only in self-defense against molesters. Though lately that oath didn’t feel as binding as it used to be and breaking it sounded logical.
“I don’t think they are here because of us”, said Eric. “There is still the incident with the pirates a few days ago. I think they are looking for clues or potential members of that crew.”
“Perhaps.” Altera looked at her fingernails. “We should still stay on guard and be prepared for the worst. Still.” She pulled at her hoodie. “Why do I have to conceal myself too? I look like a drug dealer.”
“You saw the video”, said Ragna. “We are trending.”
Trending. Like every girl, Ragna once had the dream to become an influencer; to make a career out of her persona and be in the people’s minds just through her existence alone. But once she was old enough to understand the circumstance behind her mother’s death, she had readjusted her dreams. It wasn’t enough to be famous. She wanted to actively ensure that the world becomes better. Then why did her childish dream come true in the cruelest way possible?
When the IBV tried to arrest them in the Bifrost, the passengers didn’t just sit idly by. They became an audience and put out their phones. The entire world saw their fight and thanks to her wanted poster on the dark web and the recent assassination attempt, put two and two together. A statement from the President managed to save Altera’s reputation and explain the conflict as an interservice rivalry gone wrong. But Ragna’s involvement in the whole mess became public.
“Unlike you, I’m in the clear. There’s no need.”
“You don’t get it”, said Ragna. “You attract people.”
Altera furrowed her brow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, please. Don’t tell me you never noticed.”
Ragna paused and counted to five. “You are mesmerizing. I hate to admit it but there are only few people in all of Aes that can compare to you.”
“So, what if I’m beautiful? Plenty of people are. So, why do I have to stay hidden.”
“You don’t get it. You are not just beautiful. It is unnatural. Humans are not supposed to be this beautiful. And as you walk through the streets, people will notice you. That alone is bad. But your face is now famous. The peace celebration and the video revealed your identity to the entire world. People will pay attention to you. And once they do, they will notice us and if they notice me, I’m fucked. And you are too because they will notice that you are with me.”
“Fine.” Altera nodded. “You are right. People believe I had tried to lure you into false security. Only Skyfrost knows the truth. And she is dead. At least, I cannot imagine her surviving that fall.”
Ragna exhaled. With everything that happened at the Rising Forest, she had no time to process that her personal enemy was dead.
It was a paradoxical feeling. On the one hand, she was glad that Skyfrost had paid for his crimes, but on the other hand, it was disappointing. She had expected him to serve as the main antagonist of her heroic journey. Instead – despite how much pain and agony he had caused her – he amounted to nothing more than a nuisance within the initial stages of the journey. He was like those early superhero villains. A random mugger who had murdered the parents of the hero in some back alley. The villain triggered the transformation of the hero but had no impact beyond the first fifteen minutes. The pain was there but the hero concentrated on the more colorful and complex villains and members of their rouge gallery.
“Your ID please.” Ragna looked up. They had reached the end of the line and stood before the jetty leading to the ferry. A short man in a black suit blocked the way. In his hand was a mobile device. Altera went ahead and showed her card. The agent put it on his phone. A red light came out and changed to green.
“Everything’s clear”, said the man and nodded. He looked at the information on his phone and stared at the young Valkyrie. “Oh, it is you, Ms. Xion.”
The man made big eyes. “I’m really sorry about the incident yesterday. In the name of the entire IBV, I want to apologize.”
That was interesting. At least the rank and file of the IBV had not heard the truth. Either the President and Aura made sure of that or someone wants to keep the whole affair within the higher echelons of the government.
“It’s fine.” Altera smiled. “There will always be obstacles in your way.”
“Again. I’m really sorry about that. Sometimes I think that our directors are secretly from the Mad Scientist’s Guild. But that you are here means that you have a lead, right? Any specific idea wher-”
“I’ve heard that Griffin is in Glast right now.”
“We also heard that”, said the man. He scratched his head and ignored the shouts of the people further behind in the line telling him to hurry up. “Truth be told, Glast is outside our jurisdiction. The Archipelago we could manage. But beyond that is forbidden. Once Griffin reaches the continent, you will be on your own.”
Altera smiled. “That is true, but it wouldn’t be a Bragi if it was easy. But if I may ask, what is the reason for all of this?” With her normal arm, Altera waved around the pier. “It sounds excessive for one person, who may already have left the kingdom. Do you have any clues by chance?”
“Oh, no-no. We still struggle to find out how that bounty was leaked. This here is because of those damn pirates. Twice knows what had gotten into their heads. But it would be funny if we accidentally caught Griffin while searching for pirates.”
The man laughed, ignoring again shouts of increasing profanity that he should hurry up. Ragna gulped, praying to a god she didn’t believe in, that she didn’t end like Francois Toutête, whose criminal career had met a sudden end because of a carton of spoiled milk.
“Sadly. Life is seldom so generous. For every miracle, there are a million duds.”
“Yeah, that is true.” The man exhaled and parted away from the brief bout of romanticism and faced reality again. “Well, I wish you good luck. If I’m honest, my daughter is rooting for you. The number of female Valkyries has decreased lately, so I am glad that there are still role models, young girls can look up too. She says she is happy to see a young woman applying for the rank.”
“Thank you.” Altera’s glowed like a light bulb and she showed the happiest expression, Ragna had ever seen on her face. “Please tell your daughter that I am grateful for her support. It really means a lot. What is her name?”
Altera pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen from her bag. She wrote a few sentences on it, drew a sketch and signed the paper.
“For your daughter”, said Altera and gave the signature to the man.
“Thank you.” The man grinned and went past Altera towards Ragna and Eric when Altera pulled his arm.
“My apologies.” She said. “Those two are mercenaries. I hired them to help with my Bragi. They know Glast better than me, but they are the kind of people who prefer to socialize in more incognito circles.”
Altera winked and the man understood. “That’s not proper form, but I think for your Bragi we can make an exception and Kim is going to enjoy that drawing.”
“Thank you a lot, Mr. …”
“I’m Agent Possible.” The man stepped aside and let Altera pass. Ragna relaxed. Altera had managed to let them pass.
Ragna turned her head.
Crap. What was now?
“I won’t card you. But would you please remove your hood. The current climate makes everyone suspicious. It would make the staff more at ease if you didn’t walk around like a criminal on the run.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck. She was busted. They definitely had an image of her. She was done for. What should she do? She squinted towards Altera, who had raised her thorn-like nails. Should she draw her weapon? Altera said they shouldn’t but her saber was small enough that it shouldn’t be a problem. And it wasn’t like they would kill him. But with all the people around, they would need something to scare them away and create enough space to escape.
“Would you please remove your hood?”
Ragna gulped. No choice then. Her hand reached towards her saber when a loud voice boomed behind her.
“There you are, Fried.”
From behind, two arms wrapped around Ragna, lifted her from the ground and squeezed her as a child would their first pet. Ragna, in turn, squished like a chew toy from his force.
What was now?
Too bamboozled to act, Ragna’s eyes wandered towards Eric and Altera. They looked as confused as she did and were ready to draw their weapons.
“Is something?” Agent Possible asked.
Whoever had decided to hug Ragna let put her back on the ground and stepped forward, allowing Ragna to see the person’s face.
Who was that guy and why did he act like they were friends? He had never seen him before.
The man’s tight black armor clinked under its weight. He grinned and patted Ragna’s shoulder with his metal claws, so hard that she would have lost her footing, had she not found balance in the last second.
“That’s Fried Völsung. He is a friend of ours. He reserved a luxury suite for us a few hours ago.”
“You forgot already? The young man’s violet eyes of the young man pierced into Agent Possible. “You checked him like thrice and accepted him and us four.”
“Ah, yes…I checked him like thrice…I accepted him…and you four…”He repeated and let all five – Altera, Ragna, Eric, the man and his companion – pass without any further questions.
Though it annoyed her that the agent believed she was a man. Hopefully, this was either because of her hood or the doing of that armored man and not because of her chest. Whatever it was he did. As much as she wanted to know, it would be too risky to inquire about him with all the agents around.
Ragna shook her head and looked up. They were able to pass the IBV and could enter the ferry. When she caught a proper look of the sea vessel, Ragna let out a whistle.
With a length of 250 meters, the MS Verne was one of Aes’ largest ships and allowed up to 3500 passengers a ride. A luxurious cruiseferry for the rich and affluent. Its crew of former navy officers allowed for the ferry to undertake trips across the entire World Blue. Looking at its navy-blue metal coating one could believe this was both a ship to please the rich and to survive the ocean. The Tywaz, Fehu and Hagal runes decorated the coating. The sequence of the three runes would repeat until it had covered the entire ship.
Was that usual? She had never been on a luxury cruiser before. Her father believed they were a waste of money and her mother agreed with him – one of the few times she did.
Why had Altera chosen this ferry? Was it pragmatism and she simply took the cruiser that would leave port next? Or did she want for once to live in luxury? It was atypical of her. But then again, what did she know about Altera? Her bias had blinded and prevented her from seeing Altera’s true personality?
“I’m really sorry about before. That wasn’t very cash money of me to just grab you. But that was the only way to make it convincing”, said the man, once they were on board and folded his fingers to a prayer. “Please don’t sue me for sexual harassment.”
“Yeah, that wasn’t very cash money of you”, said Ragna. “But you helped us out. So I guess, thank you.”
“Don’t thank him.” Altera walked between Ragna and the man. “He did that to get a free ride.”
The man laughed. “Don’t be like that. I really wanted to help you. I’m Grendel, by the way. Who are you, guys?”
Now that she had an unobstructed view on him, Ragna had to admit, despite his gray hair, the man was pleasant on the eyes. His ponytail gave him a dandy look.
“I’m Altera”, said the Valkyrie, refusing to relax her stance. “And, as already stated, my companions are incognito.”
“Fine, fine.” Grendel raised his arms in capitulation. “I won’t ask anymore. I wish you good luck with your Bragi then. You have my sympathies. I also have to catch someone.” While failing to gain Altera’s sympathy, Grendel’s gesture provided a better view of his body armor. At first, it seemed like a uniform piece of metal, but occasionally singular cells would glitter. When it came to its design, the armor created the impression that its blacksmith had constructed it out of innumerable ebony knives.
“Someone?” Ragna asked.
The smile on Grendel’s face disappeared. “A monster actually. Me and … “ Grendel looked around only to see that his companion was already gone. “Ah sorry. He doesn’t like to mingle with people. I will leave you alone now. Bon voyage.”
Grendel waved his hand and before Altera could ask how he had made the agent let them pass – whether it was hypnotism or a more sinister ability -, left for his cabin.
The cabin the three got, was nothing special: a grey room with three lodges – one single and one bunk – and one circular window, displaying the movement of the sea.
“There is actually something I wanted to ask you for some time”, said Eric, relaxing on his lodge. “Back in the temple, how did you do that with the ice?”
Altera pondered for a moment as if the answer to Eric’s questions was a highly sought-after secret.
“I will be honest.” She said. “I’m committing a federal crime here, so nothing I am about to tell you will leave this room.”
Altera paused. She waited and observed their reactions. Once it became clear to her that she could trust her companions, she continued and told the secret. “I used runes.”
“Runes?” Ragna and Eric stared in disbelief as if Altera had made a joke.
She had used the Futhark? How could this be true? The secret to power lied in the language every child used daily?
But there wasn’t an ounce of levity in Altera’s expression. She treated the topic in the same manner traitors would discuss their plans to dispose of the president. She was dead serious.
“Yes”, said Altera. “And I am going to teach you, how to use them.”