Chapter 16 – Reflection

The waves were swaying in their eternal rhythm. Rising and falling, they moved against the ship’s metal. Altera looked at them. When mankind was a single cell, the waves were playing their game. And when humanity would fall, would they do the same?

Altera sighed. She leaned over the rails, her eyes trying to penetrate the water in front of her.

The sea was a constant in the lives of men. There was a time when the people of Midgard believed the sea that surrounded the continent was the entire world. Even once nautical travel was possible, sailors and pirates would not let go of their superstitions. They treated the sea with the same reverence people used to worship Twice. Seeing as how it gifted water to humans but the next moment could crush civilizations with its waves, the designation of god may not be far from the truth. Being able to decide over life and death was a divine quality as well. And the sea was one of mankind’s oldest gods. It was a prisoner and owner at the same time. And more than anything, it was a witch that sickened one with melancholy and desire. Altera took out her phone and looked at its screen.

This time, she had managed fifteen minutes without checking the clock. She was improving. Her last attempt had lasted ten minutes and forty-six seconds. Next time, she could crack twenty…Was this her only way to kill time?

Altera grumbled.

Why did it take the ship an entire day to arrive at the Archipelago? It had to move at a snail’s pace to be this slow. No, this was a cruiseferry. It accommodated the luxury standards of the guests. For them, the journey was the destination. One wouldn’t blame a monkey for its inability to fly. As much as one wouldn’t judge a dove for how fast it could run across the street. Everything in this world had its unique purpose, and one should not misuse it.

She had no one to blame but herself. This was a stupid attempt to increase her patience by forcing her into a situation where she was forced to wait. The atmosphere on the ship would encourage her to wind down and relax. She would eat shrimps, drink non-alcoholic cocktails, and take a sunbath. Maybe she could get even a tan.

That didn’t work out at all. Though she had to admit that there were other reasons as well for her choice. It was the perfect opportunity to teach Ragna and Eric how to use runes, and it delayed their arrival in Utgard. It was a good plan, but she had underestimated how excruciating the long trip would be.       

Altera summoned an icicle shaped like a prism. She aimed at the wave and threw it like a shuriken. The icicle shot trough multiple waves until the water swallowed it.

This sucks.

She had already worked out at the ferry’s gym. If she spread her wings and dashed across the sea, she would arrive at the Archipelago in about six hours. With her runes, it shouldn’t be a problem to reach her maximum speed. And the remaining time, she could spend exploring Eren.

Altera threw another icicle.

No, this was a stupid idea. She would run out of Mana once she had managed three-quarters of her trip, and then, she would collapse and fall into the ocean. She also would have to leave Ragna and Eric behind. That wasn’t great either. They were her responsibility, and their lives were above hers.

Just what should she do? So far, her Bragi had turned out to be a disaster. There were so many missteps she had made. Without a few miracles or Ragna’s and Eric’s help, she wouldn’t have come this far. She had expected that countless complications would appear. But no matter what trouble would arise, she had always assumed for her Bragi to stay a solo mission. She would prevail for sure, but what about her companions? It wasn’t even three days, and she had involved others. How could she ensure their survival? She did what she could, but that wasn’t enough.

It was not like they were weak. For a first-year cadet, Ragna’s talent and skills were extraordinary. The staff had decided to make the academy’s best student her supervisor, specifically, because they saw the potential in her to become a Valkyrie. That didn’t work out too well due to various factors. But that lied in the past. Currently, Ragna felt like a little sister. It wasn’t an unpleasant thought. Was it because she herself was a little sister and for once she wanted to be the older one? 

She couldn’t gauge Eric’s abilities that much, but for a second-year dropout, he did well. Being an adventurer wasn’t the safest profession in the world. But this Bragi was on another level. The runes would help them prevail, but those would only carry them to a certain point. If they didn’t show a drastic increase in their abilities, they will end up dead.

The best option would be if they discovered their Flyga, but that wasn’t a guarantee. Some people never discovered theirs, and the process was different for each individual. Unlike runes, it couldn’t be taught. She had found hers through studying and rigid training. For her, that was a fitting trigger, but it was doubtful that it would help Ragna or Eric.

“Why the grim face?”

Altera turned around. Next to her stood a man. A ruff white beard grew on his face and wrinkles through it. If she had to guess his age, she would say he was around sixty-five years old. He seemed to be in her father’s age group. The man wore a rugged ultra-marine uniform, and a captain’s hat rested on his head – revealing the man’s identity. He had a big smile on his face; the captain grinned as every sailor tended to do.

“I don’t like the sea much, that’s all”, said Altera.

The captain leaned over the ferry, giving the sea a longing look as if he was reminiscing. On its surface, the sun’s reflection had paved a path of gold that extended until the horizon. The thought to walk on it and reach a mystical mainland, removed from the worries of this world, seemed like a logical next step.

He took off his captain’s head and scratched his greying head.

“Such a shame.” He said. “In my opinion…the sea, there is no greater beauty in all of Aes. Except for my wife, of course.” The captain stopped. He glanced sideways and waited a few seconds.

Was he expecting his wife to appear behind him and accuse him of infidelity with the water?

“But like my wife, the sea can have a bad temper. So, I understand why not everyone can handle her. But seeing beyond that is how you never lose sight of her beauty.”

“I guess you are right.” Altera smiled.

How did her relationship with Ragna change over the last three days? It was strange to see these new sides of her. She used to think Ragna was just another spoiled rich girl, resting on her parents’ laurels. It’s true. Ragna was ignorant of the outside world. But that didn’t mean she was a bad person. She had her convictions and wanted to fight for what she believed was right. And more than anything, she was willing to learn and adapt to the new world she encountered. Their disputes back at the academy seemed so silly now. If they had managed to see past their superficial differences, would they have become friends? Perhaps, then she could have fully understood her.

Ragna was wavering and had reached a forking. It was her duty to guide Ragna in the right direction and enlighten her world enough so that she can make the right choice, whatever that will be. Altera could only hope that this would be all she had to do. Then again, this journey had shaken her world too. Her knowledge began to reach its limits.

“Have you ever seen something that defies explanation?”

The captain stroked his beard. “When you venture into the world, eventually, you will see things that you cannot understand. Perhaps, because the supernatural exists. Alternatively, it is a physical phenomenon beyond our understanding. I once looked at a snake swallowing a house in Obelisk and a fiddler breaking the law of physics with his play. I once saw even an elf. I tell you they hunt your dreams so that you will never wake up.”  

Altera raised her brow. “Okay, the last one was a lie.”

No matter where and when, all seafarers were the same. It was embarrassing to remember how easily she used to swallow up these grand make-believe tales. Especially the story that every morning fairies would paint the sky blue, orange when it was evening, and black at night. It kept her from staying up too late or sleeping for too long so that the fairies wouldn’t be offended and paint the world gray.

“Perhaps or perhaps not. I see it as my sailor’s pride to never let people know when I fully tell the truth or fully lie. Especially here, there is so much that our eyes and minds cannot grasp. Who knows what slumbers 20.000 leagues under the sea? What wanders in the sheer cold of Minanaught? Who is hiding in the Rising Forest? And don’t get me started on the Lost City. But doesn’t that make the world worthwhile? That there is so much we still have to explore?”

“Really?” Altera’s voice trembled and her eyes gazed into the abyss of the ocean. “Doesn’t it scare you?”

The captain let out a laugh. “Of course, it does. But this fear reminds me that I’m alive. At my age, it’s easy to forget that one is still among the living. Our fears are allowing us to progress. To step forward despite being afraid, is the essence of courage. Whenever I venture out, I embrace the possibility that every day can be my last. For Valkyries, it is the same, Ms. Xion.”

Altera raised her eyes. “How…”

The captain laughed again. “I’m not much into television these days, but even an old sailor as I watched the peace ceremony. Just between us, you were the topic of everyone’s discussions. Even Vaix was radiated by your appearance. We don’t often see an individual who can rival Princess Aurelia’s beauty.”

Altera averted her eyes and frowned. “I would rather be known for my actions than for something I was born with. I do not deserve this praise. Not yet.”

The captain nodded – not in agreement, but in understanding.

In his opinion, there was nothing wrong with using the resources one was born with. It didn’t make one spoiled, but smart. Would one fault the eagle for flying with its wings? But as an old man, he had no right to lecture a young woman about her merits.

“Going by your behavior, you already had encountered something extraordinary, I assume?”

“Fear is a luxury. Valkyries cannot be afraid. We have to stand up, so others don’t have to. If we are afraid, then those, we vowed to protect will lose all hope and despair. Aes is frightening, and the more we learn, the worse it becomes. But for the sake of everyone else, we must maintain the illusion of beauty. Even… Sorry, I already said too much. I would rather not involve civilians in this.”

“Don’t worry. I was just interested in a tale. A sailor lives and dies by the stories he encounters. It’s a pity, but a Bragi is something personal. I can understand if you wish to keep it to yourself. I am travelling to Auster after this. Is there something I should tell the people over there?”

“You know that I’m from Auster?”

“I know your parents and even met your brother. But the last time I was there was about twenty years ago. So, anything I shall tell?”

Altera shook her head. “But my companions and I have the dance on the ground deck for a few hours to ourselves? We could need it to train.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem. The contest doesn’t start until tomorrow. Well, if you excuse me. I am going to check on the other guests. These trips can be rather boring, but the stories make it worthwhile. I wish you a nice voyage and success with your Bragi.”

“Thank you.”

The Captain left her alone.

He could have told her his opinion, give her advice. But that wouldn’t be good. It’s better if she found the answer for herself. If the young generation merely absorbed the views the old gave to them, then the world would not progress. The ideals of the past would tarnish the emancipation of the future. The world would stagnate, and the old might as well live on forever. It was a common misconception that adults should guide their children into the future, into the right path, or whatever. In truth, the young should find the way themselves and guide each other. The task of the old ones was to help them up when they stumble so that they can continue.

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Eventually, the water changed to the red-orange reflection of the sinking sun, and the alarm of her phone rang. She looked at the clock, and her shoulders dropped in relief.

Finally, the wait was over. It was time to see Eric and Ragna. Depending on their luck, they could have bonded with three runes by now.

Back at her cabin, Ragna and Eric were lying on the ground. The had widened their arms as if they were going to create snow valkyries. Sheets of paper were scattered everywhere, and the two stared at the roof. The room was in chaos.

Had a tornado raged inside it?

They were sweating profusely, and their breath was heavy. Some of the runes flickered in black light.

“It looks like you succeeded.” Altera smiled.

Ragna and Eric turned their heads. Only now had they realized her presence. As if revitalized, Ragna jumped up and grabbed the nearest paper that was flickering.

“Look.” She said with a big grin and gave Altera the papers, like an elementary student who got her first A. The runes were Hagal, Iwaz, and Ura.

“We got both ‘hail’.” Altera smiled again. A sense of pride overcame her. Even though it was trivial, it was a feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie.

“Really?” Ragna jumped.

For a moment, they were schoolgirls who had bought matching accessories.

“How can you be so energetic?” Eric groaned and rose up. Lacking Ragna’s vitality, he had the élan and speed of a Draugr without instincts.

“I’m full of life, old man.” Ragna snapped her fingers and pointed them as guns at Eric.

Eric raised his eyebrow. “Old man? I’m 26.”

“Really?” Ragna whistled. “I thought you were like over thirty…Not that I have a problem with that. I like silver foxes.”

“Then I will ask you out once I’m thirty”, said Eric. “Hopefully, by then, you’re legal.”

Ragna dropped her shoulders. “Yeah. I deserved that.”

To Altera’s surprise, Ragna let go of that slight against her figure. She had pondered if she should intervene in the discussion. Wisely, she had decided to remain silent, as she couldn’t think of any comment to contribute.

Eric showed her his runes, and Altera spoke. “With the three at my disposal, we have all of the eight runes and Hagal twice. Now I will explain how to use them in combat. You draw the rune on any kind of surface, and the effect will then happen. If you are physically connected to the rune, then you can use the runes however you like.”

“What do you mean with physical connection?” Ragna asked.

“You must touch it. It is either drawn on you or an object you touch. Just to make it quick. Hagal allows you to summon ice. Fehu is telekinesis and acceleration.” She summoned a dagger made of ice on her hand. The weapon levitated and sped through the room. It crashed against the wall and splintered into shards.

Ragna clapped her hands. “So, that’s how tore through the train roof and the cell bars. Though that dagger didn’t have much of a punch.”

“It’s simple physics. Force equals mass times acceleration. So, the bigger and faster it is, the more powerful it becomes.”

“Wait…So, your icicle crash move is only possible because of the Fehu rune?”

“Icicle crash? I have no idea what that means, but if you are talking about my cryokinetic abilities, then yes. Hagal summons ice. We can mold it to our likening and make it grow, but that’s it. It cannot leave its initial position since ice cannot move on its own. So, yes, I have to use the Fehu rune.”

“That sucks.” Dejected, Ragna let her head down. “The icicle crash was the most awesome part.”

Altera still didn’t understand what she meant, but that her techniques had impressed Ragna, filled her with pride and vindication. Her face continued to glow as she rattled the effects of the remaining runes.

“Teiwaz is augmentation. It gives your body a temporary boost.”

“What kind of boost?” Ragna asked.

“Speed, strength, resilience, moral, health – these are some of the aspects that you can boost. It is an augmentation of all that is admirable in a noble warrior.”

“So, basically, your stats get a short-time bonus.”

Altera tilted her head and looked at Ragna in confusion.

“Like in a video game”, said Eric.

Better not to bother any further.

“Anyway, Ura manipulates water or creates it. Unlike with Hagal, you don’t need Fehu for that, but you also cannot change its aggregate state.”

Eric and Ragna looked at each other. A big grin appeared on their faces. One could see the lightbulb popping up in their heads. It was obvious what idea had crept into their brains.

“The water disappears shortly afterwards, so don’t even think about trying to use it to solve world problems. Or…” Altera looked at Ragna. “Making a profit.”

Both sighed.

It would be foolish to think that it would be this easy or that other minds hadn’t thought of this idea before.

“Dying children in Obelisk”, said Eric. “Not high on Twice’s priority list.”

“Let’s continue. Naudiz allows you to teleport to a place that you have marked with a rune. The range is not that great, though. So, using it for quick travel is useless. Iwaz creates poison. I don’t know what kind of poison it is. It may vary from user to user. Burisaz…” Altera pointed to the ground. Out of it, a thin stake-like structure rose. “…can summon thorns and stakes on any surface you can see, and Iwaz makes things colder. Both physically and mentally. It can create a feeling of apathy. It also slows down the movement of objects.”

Ragna stared at Altera. “Eh…So, Hagal is creating ice, and Naudiz is…”

“You don’t have to learn them all right now”, said Eric. “It’s enough that you know what you can do. When you fight an enemy, they won’t tell what runes they have. You will see what they can do when they use the rune. Rather than knowing your opponent has the Hagal rune, you should know that they can manipulate ice.”

“Okay”, said Ragna. “And now what?”

“Touch the paper. Visualize what you want to summon and materialize it.” An ice sphere constructed itself above her hand. Layer by layer filled the ice its form until the sphere was whole. “The rune is brush and color in one. And the world your canvas.”

Ragna and Eric did as Altera instructed them. They touched the papers, and their faces hardened. Displaying utmost concentration, they sat still. Their minds focused, and time passed. It may have been minutes – and it probably was – but for them, it felt like hours. Eventually, the ground froze.

“Huh.” Eric swiped over the slippery surface of the ice. “Altera’s mumbo jumbo was actually useful.”

Altera smiled.

“Not really”, said Ragna. “That art talk didn’t do a thing. Then I remembered how she had used the rune against Skyfrost. I thought, why didn’t she do this instead. Like, why didn’t she make him slip and fall off the train.”

“It’s not my fault.” Altera puffed and crossed her arms. Her companions gave her a weird look. “It really is not my fault. When I said that the runes are based on your self, I meant it. You define their possibilities and limits. You said you thought I should have used my rune in another way. It’s not that I didn’t think about it. I couldn’t. It’s not my personality. The runes – like the Flyga – manifest your soul as abilities. As such, you will only use abilities that suit you. Someone who is hot-headed will use the same ability differently from someone who is reserved. Simply because of the way they think is different. But as people change, so do your abilities.”

Altera spread her wings.

“The Flyga you activate at the beginning is merely the first step. It is the basis upon which the rest is built. Currently, my ‘Brynhildr’ lets me grow wings. But as I grow older and experience new things, I will change, and so will ‘Brynhildr’. Perhaps my wings will turn into fire or light. I could grow more sets. Or turn into an eagle.”

“Maybe you could shoot your feathers like flechettes”, said Ragna.

“See, I would have never thought about that. Perhaps one day I will, but it will come at the cost of me forgetting other techniques. My new self won’t be compatible anymore, and I won’t be able to use what was once second nature to me. There will be many moments where you will ask, ‘Why didn’t you do that?’. I simply couldn’t.”

“That’s hard to imagine”, said Eric. “How can you just forget things? If you write them down somewhere, you can always look them up.”

Altera shook her head. “That isn’t the case. You will forget it soon afterwards. If you write it down and bother to remember it, then there will be an external reason. Or your self has changed enough that you bothered to remember again. Let me give you an example. Ragna, what was the name of your third partner?”

“My third…Mhm…There was John…No…he was my sixth. Paul…No…George…Ah, I remember. It was Ringo. I was 13, and he was a nice guy. Never got to second base, though. He was always the quiet one in class.”

“You probably had a nice time together. But how often did you think about him?”

“At first, a lot, but it has been years.”

“Exactly. Had I not asked, you wouldn’t have thought about him at all. And unless it turns out you have some lingering feelings left, you will forget him again. It’s the same with these techniques. They are an extension of your self. They can’t be what you are not. But there is another thing. Can you two please stand on the ice.”

Eric and Ragna did as Altera had asked them to.

“Now, please move on it. Do whatever you like.”

And so they did. They started to dance on the ice, and soon enough, Eric slipped up and fell on his bottom.

“What was the point of this? Eric grumbled and massaged the hurting body part.

“Look at Ragna.”

Eric did. Her movements had gotten more elegant and complex.

“She’s a surprisingly smooth dancer. What else?”

“She doesn’t slip on the ice. No matter what she does, the ice doesn’t affect her. That’s because she had summoned it. The ice is an extension of her, and it cannot hurt Ragna.”

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Under Altera’s instruction, Eric and Ragna trained for several hours in an empty hall on the lower deck. As they soon learned, all three had different thought processes to activate the power of the runes. For Altera, it was art. She imagined what she wanted to create. If she wanted to create an ice stake, she saw the object before her eyes. Ragna saw the effect she wanted to achieve. If she wanted to summon an ice stake, she had to think she wanted to impale an enemy. And Eric had to think of commands. Perhaps it was because his set of runes was suitable for a supporting role in combat. But he had to think in terms of “I want you to do this”. 

“How can you use them in combat? To hold on to that piece of paper doesn’t seem to be a good idea.” Ragna said once they had gotten back to their cabin, and it had become night.

“You have to create a connection between rune and body.” Altera sat down on her lodge and crossed her legs. Eric and Ragna stared at her in confusion.

“It’s much easier than you think.” She said. “You can draw the runes on you or your clothes and weapons. But with the pens we have, they would soon fade away, so we can’t use that. Another option is…”

Altera rolled up her sleeve and revealed a black six-pointed cross overlaid on top of the scheme of a flower – three petals up, three petals down.   

“Using tattoos or burn marks creates the strongest connection. It furthermore makes it harder to separate the rune from you. Though…” Remembering the discussions she had in the past, she sulked. “For some reason, it is not a popular choice. Well, for now, just stick the papers, you drew the runes on, to your clothes. It’s not the best, but for the moment, it should suffice.”

Ragna chuckled. “I didn’t expect the prude Altera Xion to have tattoos. Guess you are more of a rebel than I had thought.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Altera stared at Ragna but then stopped her inquiry. “Any other questions?”

Eric raised his hand. “What can the other runes do? The ones Veil cannot use.”

Altera shrugged. “I have no idea. While their origins are different, the usage of runes is virtually indistinguishable from a Flyga. I was sadly never in a situation where I could have differed between the two.”

“I’m just wondering…” Ragna had a wide grin on her face. Her eyes gleamed in the light of a predator who had caught the smell of blood. “You can use three runes, right? So, just where are you hiding the other two?”

Altera averted her eyes. “That’s none of your concern.”

“Oh, come on. I’m not asking you to show them.”

“Cut it out”, said Eric. “It’s clear that she’s embarrass- “

Sirens howled, drowning Eric’s word under their noises, and a red light flashed in rapid succession. The cabin shook as if the ship had rammed against an iceberg, and a shrieking noise – like knives screeching against glass – pierced through their ears.

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