“But how is that possible?” Ragna asked.
It wasn’t that she didn’t believe Altera. But to accept it as a fact seemed to go against all logic. Not even once had she felt anything special about the Futhark. She wasn’t a scholar but if there was power in runes, it would be impossible that the general population wouldn’t have figured out the secret at some point.
“Do you know how we developed our language, to begin with?”
Ragna creased her brow. “Of course. Who doesn’t?”
It was a story every child knew. One might as well ask why fish died on dry land. Ten thousand years ago, a monster, only known by the name of Nidhogg, ravaged through Aes. No one knew where it came from or what it was. Some said it was born out of the void. Others believe it was a byproduct of the force Twice had used to keep the planet from falling apart. And a few saw in it the manifestation of the collective evil of mankind. Seeing the death and destruction it laid wake, one wouldn’t blame them. It was like the personification of all the evil in the world. A swirling vortex of malice bent on destroying the world and killing Twice. For it was the destiny of gods to face their twilight that will cover Aes in a curtain of everlasting darkness.Or so, it was said.
As Twice had to remain connected to the world tree and the planet’s core, they could not fight Nidhogg, lest Aes fell apart. In their stead, three siblings took it upon themselves to destroy Nidhogg and protect their people. Odin, Willow and Saint Trutner. They fought for nine days and nine nights. And as a new dawn was rising, Odin pierced Nidhogg with his spear Gungnir. Nidhogg was dead. In his last breath, Nidhogg laughed, cursing at Odin that as long as this world remains, there shall never be peace. The Trutner siblings became the heroes of Aes. For their deeds, Twice gifted each of them eight runes. They asked the siblings to use them and flourish the world, so Aes could grow to live without them. And the Trutner siblings followed. They each built the foundation for a new kingdom. But they feared the difference of the kingdoms would lead to strife. So, they decided to share their runes. One language, one god and one world. From that day forth, all humans would speak in the same tongue, so if another great evil were to rise, mankind could unite and prevail.
It was one of Ragna’s favorite stories, not the least because it served as the origin of her name. The irony of a united humanity was not lost on her. While the world greatly benefitted from Twice’s gift, it would not prevent humans to fight each other and if such a great evil would arrive, they would continue to bicker.
Eric facepalmed and sighed. “Please don’t tell me …”
Ragna glanced over to her companion. He looked like someone who had to accept the Juman existed after all. What did he mean by that? Was there a piece of the story that flew over her head?
“Besides those Kaiser Conspiracy lunatics, most experts believe that the existence of this Nidhogg is fabricated”, said Altera. “But they believe that Twice really gifted us their language.”
“And god’s words are magical.”
Eric rolled his eyes and Altera smiled. “Indeed, they are.”
Ragna looked at them in confusion. What connected the story to the power of the runes? Why was she always the one in the dark? It was frustrating. As if she was a child sitting at the adult’s table.
“Nowadays, it is agreed that Twice was not a god, but merely an extraordinary human being. But …” Altera raised her finger and her smile disappeared. “That thinking is redundant. It does not matter. What is the difference between a god and a human, so powerful they are seen as one? Declaring Twice human was an attempt to weaken them and makes us humans stronger. Twice had the power to shape reality itself to their will. It doesn’t matter that they are human. For all intents and purposes, Twice is a god. Whether we worship them or not, will not diminish their power. And as such, there is power in their gifts.”
Ragna took a deep breath and raised her hand as if to indicate that Altera should give them a moment to comprehend the information.
“I think, I got the gist.” She said. “But why doesn’t everyone know about this?”
“There are two reasons for that.” Altera raised her index finger. “One, utilizing the power in a rune is an incredibly convoluted process that is unlikely to be achieved, unless one knows what to do. And two.” She raised another finger. “I don’t know how it is in the other kingdoms, but I assume they handle it in the same way. The military, who had inherited the knowledge from Odin Trutner, concealed the truth to prevent abuse. Unlike Flyga, every idiot can learn how to use runes with enough patience. Just imagine what would happen if every citizen could easily access their power.” Twisting her lips, Altera shook her head. She shuddered in horror as her eyes glimpsed into a future full of anarchy and chaos. Where youth would not help grandmothers across the streets, where all rules of bureaucracy and proper grammar would be ignored and worst of all, pizza with durian on it, would not be considered the affront against humanity that it was. Her vision disappeared and Altera hawked. “As such, only soldiers 3rd class or higher are taught how to use it. Since I am a Valkyrie in-training, I was also learned how to use them. But you have to understand, revealing the secret is punishable with the death penalty.”
“Then why are you telling us?” Eric asked.
“Considering the hardships, we might face in Utgard – not mention what could lie beyond – if you don’t learn how to use runes, you will likely die. And if keeping you alive means that I will be executed, then I will gladly accept my fate.”
Eric and Ragna were speechless.
Even considering the values of a Valkyrie Altera embodied, this dedication went too far. She didn’t hesitate or put any weight into her decision. Altera might as well have decided if she wanted a blackberry or a night blue purse to her dress. In all likelihood, she would have spent more time with that choice. As grateful they were that Altera was willing to risk her life for their sakes, this selflessness went too far. There was no way this could be healthy. But they couldn’t say anything either.
“It takes about a day until we reach the archipelago.” Altera continued. “So, the situation is the perfect opportunity to teach you how the runes work.”
Altera opened her bag and brought out two pens and a paper stack she had bought earlier from a store near the pier. She dropped the papers on the ground. It landed with a loud thud and reached the lower half of Altera’s shins.
“While humanity shares the same language, Twice still only gave eight runes to each Trutner sibling and, they only knew how to teach the power of their own runes. And as they had founded one kingdom each, it means that each kingdom has access to eight runes. Since we are from Veil, we can only harness the power of the eight runes, Odin Trutner had received from Twice. The other 16 belong to Avalon and Kemet-Raa.”
Altera picked up the topmost paper sheet. With her pen, she scribbled eight symbols on it and showed it to her companions. “These are the eight runes we can utilize. Fehu, Hagal, Teiwaz, Ura, Naudiz, Isan, Burisaz, and Iwaz. Don’t even bother to try and learn the other 16. Tests have already proven that humans born in Veil can only learn these eight. And out of these eight, every person can only use a maximum of three. Which three differs from individual to individual, but usually it is related to your personality. A few exceptions can use more. But those are highly talented individuals. Furthermore, it taxes your soul.”
“And how does this allow you to use magic?” Ragna asked. She held the sheet of paper high up and covered the cyclopean window with it. Her mind formed various ways to extract the secret out of the runes. From threatening to burn the paper to sacrificing goats during a full moon, she indulged in every possibility, not caring for how silly it would be.
“It’s not magic.” Altera puffed her cheeks and pressed her hands against her hip. “It’s the use of language to manipulate the elements of this world and affect reality.”
“So, it is magic.”
“IT’S. NOT. MAGIC.” Altera increased the volume of her voice by multiple degrees. Ragna and Eric backed a step away from her, and five awkward seconds of silence passed. Altera hawked and blushed. “A…Anyway. I will demonstrate how you activate the power within the runes. Ragna, please lend me your hand.”
“Sure”, said Ragna and offered her non-bandaged hand. Altera pulled out her partisan, and with a quick strike, the tip grazed Ragna’s palms. Blood formed on Ragna’s palm.
“Please let the blood drop on each of the runes. One rune, one drop.”
Ragna nodded. So, it was one of these rituals. Given the history of their kingdom, this wasn’t too surprising. At least it didn’t need a horse like the President’s inauguration. The last thing they needed was a repeat of the triple-horse-disaster. Then again, they were at the open sea. The law had no power here.
She put the paper in front of her and let the blood run fall on the runes. The liquid expanded over the figure, following the engravings until their blue became a crimson red.
Ragna tilted her head. “What the…I’ll be honest. That’s mildly creepy.”
Altera wrote the same runes on another sheet and repeated the ritual with Eric.
“What now?” Ragna clenched her fists repeatedly as if she expected that her body had changed.
A devious smirk formed on Altera’s face. “Now, you write the runes on the papers.”
“The more often you write down the runes, the higher your affinity for them becomes. Until you can harness their power. And once you do, it is like any other ability in your arsenal. In the beginning, it may be small.“
Altera extended her hand towards her friends. She spread her fingers, and on the tip of her index finger, a layer of ice formed. “But the more you train the abilities you possess, the better your skills become. You become more powerful, and so do your techniques.” The layer of ice on Altera’s fingertip extended outwards. It shot into the sky, drew curves, and twisted, forming to a lithe body. Wings grew, and ice modeled itself to a head until on Altera’s finger the figure of a bird, ready to take off, rested. “Your understanding and connection to the runes grow and grow, until one day it will rival the power of a Flyga.”
“And how many times do we have to write these runes till we activate the abilities?”
Altera tilted her head, wiggled it back and forth. “Not sure. About ten thousand times per rune, perhaps?”
“What?” Simultaneously, Ragna and Eric dropped their jaws.
“Technically, you only have to do it with three, but since you don’t know which runes you connect to, you have to do it by trial and error. The trip is long, so there is plenty of time to write them down.”
Altera crushed the ice sculpture with her fist and walked to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“Outside.” Altera smiled. “There is no way I’m going to stay in this cabin. I’m on a cruiser, after all. Good luck.”
Altera threw the pens at her companions and left.
“She can’t be serious?” Ragna growled and looked at Eric. “Is this revenge for the “smarttitude”-thing?”
“Guess there is no other way around.” Eric let his head down. The two sighed, took each a stack of paper, and began to draw the first rune.
“Say, what do you think about this?” Ragna asked.
“That there is this hidden power in something we use every day.” On her sheet, Ragna wrote the Burisaz rune. “It makes me wonder what else is out there in the world. Be it power or horrors.”
“Quite exciting, isn’t it?” Eric wrote down the Iwaz rune.
Everything she knew about this world turned out to be wrong or was in danger of breaking apart. Clockwork was right. She had never known true horror, how it could be hiding behind every shadow, and how it could be hiding behind every shadow. Given the depth of the Titanic Sea, some monster was probably lurking right under them, and she had no idea.
Just a few days ago, she had thought she had figured the world out. What a fool she was. Her entire life, she had listened to the song of a mechanical nightingale, and in her ignorance, she had believed to know the sound of nature.
Or perhaps she wasn’t even that. She was the mechanical bird. A fake life that sang in a cage, unaware of its prison, and how fake it was. Neither sentience nor intelligence. Singing and singing the same dreck. And everyone else acted as if the world was like always. As if nothing had changed. But why wouldn’t they? She was the ignorant one. As much as she wished, this wasn’t a world gone mad. The emperor had thrown out the fake nightingale, and now she had to live without knowing what she was and the world outside that tiny cage was.
This was on her, and she couldn’t blame this on her young age. Altera was 23 and only two years older. Not only had she figured out the world, but she also wasn’t afraid. When that monster had caught them, she was at her wit’s end and collapsed. Altera meanwhile had faced the monster. She had spoken to it and defied its attempt to kill them. If it weren’t for Altera, they would have died that night. She had a solution to their problems. Altera had pacified that monster. It was her who had broken them out of the cell. Without her, they couldn’t have left the temple. They would be trapped forever.
Altera had all the solutions, even before the Clockwork Gang had imprisoned them. She was the one who could enter her apartment and bring her her father’s message. She knew the best path to Utgard. She would have wandered across Midgard, with no aim, until the authorities had caught her. Perhaps the police would have caught when she had tried to go to her apartment. Or the IBV would have overwhelmed her, had Altera not found a way out of the train. And after that, Skyfrost would have killed her, had she not protected her.
She was on the hero’s journey across a mysterious and magical world and way over her head. Every child dreamed of becoming a hero. How many of these children would realize the truth? Why anyone would do such a thing. It was something they had to do and often had no choice in that matter. And not everyone could go forward. Only heroes could. Altera could go forward. She had plans, ideas, and determination. Never had she lost hope and instead thought of ways out. It was her Bragi, her heroic journey, and she was the damsel in distress, Altera has to help out. And as for her, she could only hope to reclaim her broken world.
“I don’t have an answer for that. Can’t force you to be excited.” Eric said. “Though I would still recommend making the best out of it. You may still die. But better to die doing your best than to die during an existential crisis.”
“You think I would chicken out? Don’t worry about that. My life is all I have to lose, so I might as well put that on the line.”
Eric was right. She would see her journey to its end, even if it would shatter her. The bigger question was how she would continue. And for now, learning the runes and becoming stronger was the way to go. It wasn’t like she had much choice. In that regard, she might be like a hero.
“You know”, said Eric. “This is why I’m happy that I left military school.”
His pen fell from his hand and rolled next to the stack of papers he had finished. He had written Iwaz on it, over and over again. So far, he felt no affinity or change. His gut told him Iwaz was not a rune he would be able to use. He could write it more often. For all he knew, it could activate with the next attempt. But it didn’t feel right. Trying a new rune sounded better to him.
“I was wondering about this. Why did you leave?” Ragna asked.
“I thought I had already told you my backstory?”
“I was dozing off. So, I didn’t get most of it. Something about sandwiches, right.”
“No.” Eric frowned. “Altera just mentioned Instructor Smorgas.”
Ragna laughed. “Ah, Instructor Smorgas. He was awesome and always gave great advice. My favorite quote was: “The battlefield is like chess, but without dices”.
“Though I’m not sure what that is supposed to mean.”
“I don’t think it has any meaning.”
“Anyway, mind telling me your story. We have a lot of time to kill.”
Eric shrugged. ”Oh well, maybe it will make the task easier…By the way, you are making a mistake.”
Ragna looked at her paper sheet. Her face became blue with shock when she saw that she had filled the paper with the Wunjo rune. From the top of her lungs screamed Ragna, cursing the system that oppressed the little man.