Chapter 03 – The end of the beginning

Chapter 03 – The end of the beginning

“Finally, it’s quiet.” Aura sighed. She kicked her heels away and sank into a lavishly decorated bed that could comfort an entire family.

“People want to celebrate, I guess.”

Ragna sat next to the princess. She took a bite from the caviar on the silver platter, they had taken from the banquet and looked around. Two doors connected the chamber to the east and west halls of the floor. She didn’t know what she had expected, but the periwinkle room was the same as ever. The number of books on her shelf had increased since last year.

How many were there?

From her position, Ragna tried to read some of the titles. ‘The fall of Camelot’; ‘The art of Realpolitik’; ‘Persuasive Psychology’; ‘Basics of human behavioral science’; ‘Myths of Aes’; ‘History of Aes’; ‘Advanced Void Theory II’; ‘Cry On’ – at least one book she had read.

Through windows that had the size of walls, the Juliet roses in Aura’s room basked in the night light. On her desk was a tablet and a picture frame. Unless Aura had replaced the photo, it should have been the one when the four of them played in that field of lilies in the royal garden. Didn’t her mother shoot it? How long ago had that been?

Above the desk twin swords decorated the walls like a trophy that had resigned itself to a life of dust catching.

“Still, did they have to applaud that loud? My ears are sensitive, you know?” Aura rubbed her long dagger-like ears – a parting gift of a vicious illness she once had.

“You liar.” Ragna chuckled and let her fingers sider over the ears herself. A warm sensation spread through her fingertips, but Aura showed no reaction. Ragna pouted.

When they were younger, they had been Aura’s one weak point. Apparently, she had overcome that.

“But it’s nice to see you again,” said Aura. “How long has it been? Almost a year, right?”

“Being a princess must be hard. You don’t even have time for face-time.”

“I had to beg Gras…Marcus to accept your father’s proposal.” Aura straightened up and leaned towards Ragna, as if to embrace her. She blew air into Ragna’s neck. Ragna startled at the warm sensation, and Aura giggled.

“I’m still responsible for you.” Ragna grabbed the champagne bottle and rocked it. The liquid swayed back and forth, signalling that half of its content was gone. “How much did you drink already?”

“Don’t worry. Nothing I can’t handle.” Aura took a glass of champagne from the silver tablet and emptied it in one breath. She snapped her fingers, and Dead11’s ‘Pendulum’ played in a low volume.

“I swear, the last days were the worst. Made me want to pull my hair out.” With a sudden movement, the princess let herself fall into Ragna’s lab. Unable to deny her request, Ragna let her rest, and the princess continued to speak. “Peace is fragile and complex. Even a mistletoe could break everything. Instead of holding it together, letting everything fall apart seems so appealing. Thousand years of conflict…Makes you wish to annihilate the other side.”

Aura reached for the bottle and refilled her glass with champagne. She returned the bottle to the platter and emptied her drink again immediately.

Should she talk and tell her opinion? No, it was better to let Aura finish her soliloquy.

“Honestly, we haven’t started a war yet because we want to be labelled as the good guys. I mean, who doesn’t? Everyone wants to be a hero who defeats villains. And because of social media even more so. We want and have to be on the side of light and justice. But that’s difficult, so we just call the others evil and become automatic heroes. Everyone is just waiting for that one moment that allows us to strike with these labels.”

“Well, Vaix are the bad guys. It would be just exposing the truth. If they didn’t exist, wouldn’t the world be better? Wouldn’t there be peace?”

Making sure that she didn’t disturb Aura, Ragna stretched out her legs and took another bite from the food plate’s appetizers. She offered the plate to Aura. The princess, being content to peek inside her empty glass, declined.

“That’s like saying killing all the poor people would solve poverty and overpopulation. Removing Vaix would hinder humanity itself. All the possibilities, all the brilliance, they too are part of humanity’s glamour.”

Ragna lowered her eyelids. The plate in her hand was shaking. “And they also bring pain and misery. Friends from the academy fell in missions against them. My mother and Sven’s parents would be sitting behind you today.”

“Yeah, that’s true. But they also did many good things. Look at your gravity glove.”

“My mother had stolen that from an enemy. Not sure if that counts.”

“Okay. How about animal rights?”

“So, it’s okay if you do bad things as long as you do also good things? If you do bad things then you’re evil. You can’t just put that on a scale and make it equal. It wouldn’t be just. What do you want to say to all their victims? They should forget and forgive? Why is it always the victims that have to be better? If I had to choose between this “potential” and their smiles…” Ragna stopped and shook her head. “Fuck. We haven’t seen each other for almost a year, and I waste this time arguing.”

“If it’s you, I don’t care what we do.” Aura smiled. Without moving an inch, her arm reached towards the plate. She picked a fish ball and held it in front of Ragna who devoured it. “And conflict’s important. So, we move forward, engage with other ideas, and gain new perspectives. Do you want everyone to be the same?”

Ragna shook her head, and Aura continued. “If there’s conflict, then it means we are diverse. Our job is to reduce unnecessary suffering and pain.”

Ragna smiled as well and studied the black, square overhead lights that lit up the princess’ chamber in bright blue. She didn’t understand how Aura’s words could be true, but talking to her was enough.

“So, you have decided to become President?” Ragna asked.

“That’s still years from now. And I would still have to win the election.”

“I will support you, but…” Ragna sighed. “Just promise me, whatever you do, do it because you want to. Not because you think you have to.”

Aura stood up and grabbed Ragna’s hand. “I promise,” she said without looking at her.

“I just want you to be happy.”

“You can’t say that.” Aura let go. Imitating a young maiden who had found her first love, she moved her hands towards her cheeks, giggling and shaking. “I might fall for you.”

“Curses.” Ragna inflated her voice. She pulled the tips of her pigtails over her lips, transforming it into a mustache and raised her arm like a third-class drama actor. “My nefarious plans have been exposed. Now I have no choice but to take you as my wife.”

“Lindi, Lindi…To steal an engaged woman…what have you become?”

“We shall rule the world with an iron fist. The peasants will beg; the rich will fear, and all the dandies in the world will beg even more.”

Aura burst into laughter, and Ragna soon joined her.

“By the way,” said Ragna, wiping away the tears from her eyes. “You and Captain Graswald? How did that happen?”

“Why not, we look good together, and the people love it. The tabloids were shipping us for years. The most popular Captain and Veil’s beloved princess. Doesn’t that sound like a match made in heaven?”

Ragna shrugged her shoulders.

Better if she kept her opinions to herself. It was her choice, and in the end, people fell in love for all kinds of reasons.

“By the way,” said Aura. “In about an hour, let’s go to the Nix. During the last few years we couldn’t go together, but tonight, we’ve time. I’ve reserved a table. Let’s bring Elsa and Altera too. It’s her big day.”

Wait, did she mention Altera?

Suddenly, Aura lifted her head and frantically looked through the room.

“Something wrong?” Ragna asked.

Aura tried to speak, but a booming noise disrupted her words, and the chamber rumbled. Books fell from their shelves, and fissures drew through the windows.

Ragna jumped in front of the princess. Ready to draw her saber, she knocked on the door.

No answer.

She knocked again and shouted, but the guards didn’t answer.

That wasn’t good. First, the explosion, and now the guards. What should she do? Was Sven all right? Should she open? Alternatively, should she stay or run in the other direction?

Ragna looked at the princess.

Did an assassin infiltrate the castle? Should they risk running into a trap or sitting here like sitting ducks?

Cursing her indecisiveness, Ragna knocked a third time. The alarm bells rang, giving her an answer, and Ragna turned around.

“We need to go.” She took Aura’s hand. Outside the room, the sound of metal slashing through flesh vibrated, and screams erupted.

Had someone invaded the castle?

Ragna pressed her glove, but nothing happened.

Why didn’t it work? Was it malfunctioning? No, that couldn’t be the case. Then, could it be that the invader had somehow disabled her device? If they could control gravity, then it meant that she couldn’t activate her manipulator. Dammit. Without it, fighting would put Aura’s life in danger. She had to bring her to safety.

Ragna ran, distancing herself from the door, and drew her sword. Through the gaping hole, a hooded figure came forth. A black bird-like domino mask covered their face, and a long sword dragged behind them. A white hood concealed all but a smile that revealed the joy and ecstasy of the assailant. The figure stopped and looked around. They moved to Aura’s work desk, picked the photo up, and studied it.

Was the assassin interested in Aura’s life or did she display arrogance? Whatever.

She ran with the princess to the door.

“Ragna, wait.” Aura shouted to her, but Ragna didn’t listen. A voice inside her – stronger than an instinct – warned her she could not defeat this opponent. Perhaps her subconsciousness had noticed the Mana that oozed from the assailant, but she felt that voice told the truth.

This wasn’t a movie. Here, the underdog died. She had no chance of winning. If she fought, the enemy would strike them down. To survive, they had to run. If she had her gravity manipulator with her, they might survive, but without it, there was no chance.

The assassin turned around, smashed the photo against the desk, and walked further towards them.

Ragna grabbed the bottle of champagne from the bed and threw it at the assailant. They raised their sword and slashed through it. Shards and liquid splattered across the chamber, and Ragna threw the silver platter at the intruder. They cut that too. The two halves dropped to the ground, and the assassin advanced further.

Ragna kicked the second door open, but the moment she tried to step out, the assassin jumped, dashed on the walls, and landed in front of the doorstep. Not waiting for a reaction, they slammed their elbow into Ragna’s ribs and catapulted her across the room.

She gobbed saliva and groaned. Holding her ribs, Ragna tried to crawl towards the princess. She had to protect Aura. No matter what. She had to hurry.

Hurry, hurry, you damn body.

Why didn’t she move? Was something holding her down? She had to do something.

Reach Aura. Protect her. Save her. She couldn’t die. Not her. Please Twice, let this damn body move. Please save Aura.

֎

The assassin glanced at Ragna.

No matter how hard she would try, Ragna would never reach the princess. She had received a role way beyond her. The assassin pondered. Is Ragna praying to Twice to save the princess?

It had to be hopeless for her if she resorted to beg to an impotent god. Even if they could hear her prayers, why should they reward someone who only bothered when it was necessary? Not that she could blame Ragna. The false reality she called life and happiness was about to vanish. That one called it the truth, didn’t change that it remained horrible. If Ragna could go back to sleep and pretend that nothing bad had happened, would she do so? A beautiful dream or an empty reality – the assassin would understand either choice. But Ragna never had one in the first place.

A growl turned the attention of the assassin away. The princess struggled on the ground as if invisible arms suppressed her. Anyone who would watch the scene would realize there was nothing she could do. Princess Aurelia’s life was over.

The assassin gave the princess one last glance and raised their sword until its point was high in the air. There was neither hesitation nor haste. It was a movement to savor every moment of Aura’s demise. Seeing Aura’s reflection on the blade – her fierce and defiant eyes that refused to die – the assassin smiled and let their sword fall.

“VALHALLA.”

The weapon stopped in midair. A spherical light hurtled towards them growing bigger and buzzing. The sphere’s glow brightened to the point that it blinded. Its sound increased in speed like an alarm, and it went off, taking all colors from its surroundings.

֎

Ragna’s eyesight returned, and she could see again. The weight that had pressed against her was gone. She ran to the princess and took her hand.

Ragna looked around. The explosion had destroyed the chambers. The walls and windows had turned into patterns of holes and exposed construction. And one hole – massive enough to fit an entire bus – led into the castle’s depths. There was no trace of the assailant left. The explosion had either blown them to smithereens or pushed them out of the hole.

“Are you two okay?”

Ragna looked up. Sven’s figure stood before them. “Sorry for being late.”

She hugged him, and Sven froze. His arms distanced from Ragna as if he was afraid of touching her.

“Cadet Erikson, what is going on?” Aura asked.

Sven escaped Ragna’s embrace and clenched his fist. “Soldiers from Vaix are attacking the president.”

So, the assassin belonged to Vaix.

As much as Vaix had confirmed her suspicions, the danger on Aura’s life destroyed any validation Ragna could have felt.

Aura’s body stiffened. “W…What about fa …what about the President?”

“He’s safe.” Sven held Aura by her shoulders, like a child that was in shock. “The Captains are with him. Drake sent me. We have to go.”

“Sorry, but that won’t happen.” A voice came from the hallway.

Another assassin?

Sven grabbed Aura and Ragna and jumped behind a pile of debris, large enough to cover the three of them. Icicles swooshed, missing them by an ant’s breath and crashed into the floor. Sven launched a white orb from his hand. Another icicle wave raced towards them, collided with it, and detonated in a blast.

“Are you okay?” Sven asked.

Ragna nodded.

“I…I think I’m…” Aura’s face was pale, and beads of sweat formed on her palms. She reached out with her hand, and her body collapsed.

“Aura,” screamed Ragna.

Sven put his fingers on her wrist. His eyes widened. “She is alive…T…Thank god.” He exhaled and looked towards Ragna. “The hood must have poisoned her.”

“We have to bring her to a doctor.”

Ragna grimaced and peeked behind the debris, catching a glimpse of the new attacker. Vice-captain Skyfrost stepped inside the chamber. Above his palm floated three icicles.

What was he doing here, and why was he attacking us? Did that mean he had sided with Vaix? Or was he a traitor all along?

Again, Ragna couldn’t feel any validation for the fact that her suspicions about Skyfrost had been right.

“Hand over the princess.” Skyfrost pointed the icicles at them. “This is my final warning. Comply, and perhaps, just perhaps, I will give a quick end to your pathetic lives.”

“Over my dead body.” Ignoring Sven’s attempts to hold her back, Ragna rushed towards Skyfrost. The icicles flew at her, and  Ragna swung her saber. The blade hit all three constructs in one strike, crushing them to pieces.

Vice-Captain or not, she had to protect Aura. Victory might be out of her reach, but with Sven by her side, they might be strong enough to escape.

“Ahh, I love it when they say that.” Skyfrost smirked, revealing his teeth. “Lügenschmied.”

A black liquid covered Skyfrost’s right arm and morphed it into a sickle-like form. The transmuted arm blocked the thrusts of Ragna’s saber as if she clashed against metal.

“You think these weak attacks could hurt me?” The Vice-captain laughed. “I will shatter that hubris alongside your bones.”

A rune on Skyfrost’s clothes glowed. In the air, masses of ice materialized, molding itself through the invisible hand of a sculptor into a cube, double as wide as Ragna’s head. The cube dropped. Locked into combat, there was no time for Ragna to escape. Metallic needles shot above Ragna’s head from the wall and pierced the ice.

“Valhalla.”

An orb sped from Sven’s body. The six-pointed cross on Skyfrost’s shirt glowed. A layer of ice enveloped the projectile, and its movement stopped. Cracks tore through the frozen orb, and like a grenade, it splintered.

The resistance on Ragna’s saber vanished. She jumped and dodged the ice splinters.

Ragna scanned the room. All traces of Skyfrost had disappeared.

Was he gone? Should they escape?

Ragna’s eyes didn’t stop wandering through the ruined chamber. The situation didn’t feel right.

She heard noises coming from above. Ragna lifted her head and saw a brown falcon beating its wings in the air.

Was that Skyfrost?

She jumped and attacked, but the bird flew higher. It screamed and rushed towards Sven. He shot a salve of orbs from the palm of his hands.

The falcon took a sharp turn and dropped in a vertical line. The orbs missed their target and exploded in the air. Changing its trajectory, the falcon dove and transformed in mid-flight back into Skyfrost. Within seconds, the black liquid covered his widened arm and reformed it into a scythe. Ragna swung her saber. The two metals parried and the impact pushed Skyfrost back. His balance faltered, he dashed a step backwards and regained his footing.

“Guess, you two are not complete beginners.” Skyfrost sneered and pointed at Sven. “I gotta admit, your Flyga – Valhalla, was its name, right? The ability to transmute mana to create explosions has potential. But against my Lügenschmied, it is useless. And as I will extinguish the light in your eyes, all the potential will forever be lost. But that is the way of life when enemies collide.”

Grinning, he stepped forward. “Though to be honest, I’m going to enjoy that last pathetic death scream of you vermin. Wander restless through the realms of Hel but do not curse your powerlessness. Curse that I, Rory Skyfrost, am just that good.”

“Don’t worry.” Sven smiled too. “There is something that already deserves my curses.” Carved in his face, there wasn’t false hope. It was neither a broken grin nor had he lost hope, but an expression of sincerity.

“Besides, there is no purpose in cursing the dead.” Sven’s body started to glow. Every vein in his body gleamed in bright light, drawing a sickly pattern through his body.

“You…” Skyfrost rushed towards the princess, but a flying orb stopped him. Sven turned away.

“We can’t defeat a Vice-Captain. I will detain Skyfrost, so go to Drake. Now,“ he said to Ragna. “I’ve no idea how many traitors there are. He is the only one we can trust.”

“Hey, wait. What are…?” Ragna reached out to him, but he pushed her away and erected a wall of metal-like thorns between them.

“I guess this is goodbye.” Sven chuckled and scratched his head. The thorns grew past him, concealing his face from her. “I wish I could have spent my future with you.”

“Stop,” Ragna screamed. She hit the thorns with her sword, but they did not waver. From the ground and the roof, walls rose and created a cage that enclosed Sven and Skyfrost. For the two of them, there was no escape.

Realizing what was about to happen, Skyfrost’s eyes widened with panic as he attacked the walls. But it was useless, no matter how hard he hit them, the scythes didn’t even scratch the metal. Skyfrost screamed, cursed, and tried to reason with Sven. If he killed him, Sven might detonate and even if Skyfrost survived, the cage would remain and fulfil its master’s wish beyond death and imprison him for eternity.

Sven’s ears did not hear a word, Skyfrost rambled. He erased every thought, every ounce of awareness for his surroundings. His entire mind flushed all but a single woman away.

“This is my last chance.”

Sven’s body was translucent like an evening star and his skin nothing but a membrane exposing his organs.

“No, please.” Tears ran down Ragna’s cheeks. She hammered against the thorns, but to no avail.

“Sorry, this is me being selfish.” Sven sat down. His back leaned against the wall. Perhaps through the cage, their bodies could connect one last time. For one final moment, she could give him warmth. “I know my words will only burden you. Yet I can’t help but saying them.” Tears ran down his face, freezing to blots of ice before they hit the ground and shattered. “In my life, I didn’t achieve much. Even now, I will only be able to eliminate one enemy. There were so many dreams I had. Say, will my parents be proud? Will our parents be proud of me?”

“Nonononopleasepleashepleashstopstop”. Sobbing, Ragna fell on her knees. Liquid oozed out of every orifice, and drowning in her tears, her words deteriorated with every second until they had become noises, no one would understand. Sven walked towards the center of the cage. He turned his face one more time towards Ragna, knowing that she will not see him. “I wonder if I had asked you, would you say “yes”? Sadly, I won’t hear your answer.”

Sven smiled. Before his eyes, his parents spoke to him. Their words, he didn’t understand, but they looked happy. Did he make them proud? Did he save Ragna’s life? Will she have a future and be happy? Did he do good?

They nodded and embraced him in their arms.

So warm.

Sven closed his eyes. “Valhalla.”

Light engulfed his body. It streamed out of the cage and swallowed the scenery in white.

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