Chapter 04 – The curtain rises, the griffin falls

Chapter 04 – The curtain rises, the griffin falls

When Ragna woke up, the first thing her eyes saw was a white wall.

What had happened?

She pressed her hand against her forehead. It felt like someone had stomped their boot into her skull. Not just her head, her whole body felt like a jackhammer had galvanized it. Her memory was foggy.

Aura was…Skyfrost had betrayed them. And Sven…No…

She shook her head. 

She never saw him die. He could be still alive, and she could find him. But first, she had to find out where she was.

She was lying in a surprisingly soft bed tucked into a corner. In the center of the room was – between two chairs – a black metal table. Through the window, sunrays gave her warmth. It seemed to be midday. So, at least half a day had passed. Outside was a grey field.

Wherever she was, it wasn’t a place she had been before.

Inspecting the wall in front of her revealed a creak that ran through its middle.

So, it’s a double slide door.

Ragna stood up. She walked towards the door, and nothing happened.

She sighed. It would be too easy if this was an automatic door. She pushed against it with her hand, and when that didn’t work, rammed it with her shoulders. The door wouldn’t budge, and a shockwave ran through her skull. Ragna winced. She grinded her teeth and pressed the ball of her hand against her forehead.

Fuck. Okay, lesson learned. Using force when having a concussion, wasn’t the best idea.

Once the pain subsided, she knocked on the wall, asking to let her out. Even pressing her fingers into the creak would not force the two sides of the door open.

Dammit.

Was she in a prison cell? Had the enemy captured her?

Her eyes wandered through the room and stopped at the chairs. While the table was too big for her, she could grab the chair.

Let’s see how sturdy that door is.

Before she could turn her plan into motion, Ragna heard a click. The wall opened like a slide door, and three people walked inside. The first was an older woman with a raven-black perm, wearing a brown fur coat. Furrows, folds, and creases drew through her square face like tree rings. Her sharp and weary grey eyes felt like the excerpts of a history book. Still, it couldn’t hide the beauty that age had been unable to snatch away.

The second person had a slender face. Perhaps her head and eyes were blurry from the impact of the explosion, but when Ragna looked at them, she had trouble discerning whether they were a man or a woman. One second, she was certain to see a masculine face, but in the next, a young woman glimmered in the light.

The person had long, blond eyelashes, hair every woman would kill for, and aquamarine eyes that completed the image of a delicate beauty. Yet, their black suit expressed professionalism and strength. From a visual perspective, they were another personification of the Valkyrie’s ideals. Despite the situation she was in, Ragna felt a modicum of admiration and envy rise inside her.

The last person wore a black suit as well. His hair was wild, spikey, and reddish-brown. With his trapeze-like face, he looked like a Rockstar or rugby player. Yet, this man exerted an aura reminded her of a squirrel.

“I’m glad you are fine,” said the androgynous visitor in a deep voice that made it clear, he was a man. It was a sweet, sweet voice that vibrated in her brain. Were it not for her current predicament, she would have trusted him immediately.

“Please take a seat.” He pointed towards a chair. Ragna followed his orders, and the female visitor took the seat opposite of her.

“Where am I?” she asked. “Am I in Vaix?”

“What the Hel are you talking about?” The eyes of the woman narrowed. Ragna could feel the mixture of bewilderment and disgust she had, piercing through her heart with the precision of needles. “You are in Veil.”

Hearing her words, the mist of fatigue and numbness vanished. As if a bird had defogged her brain, the faces in front of Ragna gained familiarity. Instead of a random amalgamation of attributes, her mind recognized the familiar patterns of expressions and linked them to the matching figures in her memory.

How could she have not recognized the captains of her kingdom? How hard did that explosion hit her head? But wait If they were captains and she was in Veil, then why was she in a prison cell? 

“What is going on?”

She had to remain cool. There had to be an explanation. Perhaps the hospital was too full because of the number of injured, and they had brought her to the nearest medical station. Yeah, that made sense. And Captain Fran and Graswald just wanted her recollection of the assault. Together with…

Ragna stared at the third person. He leaned against a wall and observed his fingernails, seemingly not caring about the events in front of him. Whoever that was, it wasn’t someone she had met before. That face didn’t match anyone she knew.

“You are in jail for treason,” said Captain Graswald.

His tone lacked any discernible emotions. Compared to the disgust of Captain Fran or the lack of interest of the squirrel man, Ragna could not read his expression. Instead of accusing, Captain Graswald gave a status update without bias or judgment. His soft face at least gave the illusion of comfort.

“Together with other collaborators, you allied yourself with the kingdom of Vaix and allowed them entry into Gimli. Then during the afterparty, you led them to the princess’ chambers, poisoned Princess Aurelia Adler in the chaos, and tried to kidnap her.”

Ragna’s eyes widened.

Treason? Was that a joke? No, the atmosphere was too tense for him to be making jokes. This was serious.

“I tried to protect the princess.” Ragna slammed her hands against the table and leaned forward.

“The report of Vice-Captain Skyfrost says something different.”

Again, her eyes widened. “How can that be? I thought he was dead.”

“So, you confess,” Captain Fran said.

Ragna gulped.

She had dug her own grave. Why had she worded it like that? How stupid could she be? Now they would never believe her.

“Skyfrost saw you and Cadet Erikson kidnapping the princess,” said Graswald. “And then, you set off an explosion. If it wasn’t for his Lügenschmied, Skyfrost would be dead.”

“He tried to kill us.”

“Well, obviously he did. You tried to kidnap the princess.” Captain Fran stood up and looked down on Ragna, towering over her.

“We? Skyfrost tried to kidnap Aura. He is the traitor. You have to believe me. We tried to bring her to safety. Ask Aurelia, Sven, or my father.”

Of course. Ragna’s eyes grew brighter. Her father would clear everything up. They just had to call him, and she would be out.

“We were under orders from the head of security, Drake Griffin.”

“Funny that you mention them,” Captain Fran said.

The cold gaze of hers made it clear that she didn’t believe a word, wasn’t even trying to. In her mind, Ragna was guilty, and nothing could change that.

“The princess is in no state of answering right now. She was injected with a lethal drug,” said Graswald. “It is a miracle that she had survived. Vice-captain Griffin is missing since the assault. We found several documents in his apartment that prove his allegiance with Vaix.”

Gasping, Ragna covered her mouth.

Was this for real? Her father too? No, that couldn’t be. She shook her head. No, no. There had to be a logical explanation for everything.

“You have to believe me. That is all Skyfrost’s plot. We were set up.”

“While the possibility exists, so far, the evidence points towards you three being traitors.” Graswald shook his head. He walked behind Ragna and placed his hand on her shoulder.

Did he feel betrayed, or did he pity her? She could not tell.

“As such, Drake Griffin is branded a traitor. Until everything clears up, or we find his whereabouts, you are to be treated as a suspect, as a prisoner, and as leverage to lure him out.” With his other hand, he took out his mobile phone, swiped through the screen, and showed it to Ragna. “This is one of the documents found in your apartment.”

This was undeniable – plans to capture Aura to use her for ransom to gain economic independence from Veil. Her legs were shaking, and she sank into her chair.

This couldn’t be possible. There was no way her father would ever align with the titans who had taken her mother’s life. That didn’t make sense. Drake Griffin was a hero who had fought and killed countless of them.

This had to be a conspiracy against her. Skyfrost had failed to kidnap Aura because of Sven, father, and her. And now, he had set them up as scapegoats to save his skin. Those documents had to be fake. Every self-proclaimed hacker could forge digital papers. But how could she prove that?

Aura could give a testimony eventually. But Skyfrost might have ensured that her words won’t help her. He’s a shapeshifter and devious. The options he had at his disposal were endless. She couldn’t rely on Aura, and there was more important stuff, she had to know.

“Can I please talk to Sven?” Ragna asked. “Or see him. Even a video is fine. Please, I want to know if he is okay.”

“Cadet Erikson?” Captain Fran asked. “Shouldn’t it be clear? He blew himself up. There should still be pieces of his body littered in the princess’ chambers. I pity the cleaning crew.”

Whatever words Ragna had wanted to say, she lost the ability to voice them. She fell from her chair and remained frozen on the ground. Not a single thought would cross her mind. The hope, she had clung to was gone in an instant.

“Daphne.” Captain Graswald looked at his colleague with fierce eyes. “That’s enough.”

His gaze switched back to Ragna. “I’m sorry, but Sven Erikson has passed away.” His lips and hand trembled, and his voice was devoid of joy. “We will leave you alone.”

The three left the room and closed her cell. She was all alone. Tears ran down her face and watered the ground. There were no words, no thoughts, no other movements, just tears flowing.

֎

As the hours passed and the tears had dried out, thoughts would come to the forefront and fill the void inside her.

First, it was sadness at the loss of the man she had loved. The future and joy, they would have shared snatched away. Then questions appeared. Why did this tragedy have to befall her? Why had her father disappeared? In a moment of weakness, the thought her family was guilty, crept into her mind, and that they deserved this punishment; this was justice for a crime she was too stupid to understand.

No. This was not her fault. She was a victim, and she would not suffer because of these sorry excuses for human scum. No, not even that. They were the dirt beneath that. Just thinking about the fact that they could freely enjoy their lives, made her want to vomit. They would regret their crimes. These assholes had ruined her life. They had forced Sven to take his own life and exile himself from the heavens. And they dared to harm Aura. She would ensure that they would pay.

And not just that. She would restore her honor, clear her family’s name, bring Rory Skyfrost to justice, and more than anything, she would reclaim the happiness they had snatched from her. Even if only a few coins from her treasure remained, she would regain what she had lost.

But how would she do that? She had to think and plan. There were three objectives. First, she had to get out of this damned jail. Second, she had to find evidence for Skyfrost’s crimes, and third, she had to find her father.

֎

Ragna sighed.

As far as she could tell, there was no way out of her cell. They had taken her weapons, and if she wanted to go to the toilet, a Valkyrie would accompany her. Walls surrounded her, and while she couldn’t see it, it would be stupid to think that somewhere nearby, a camera wasn’t monitoring her.

Ragna heard a noise outside her cell and jumped off from her bed.

Footsteps? Was someone coming?

The white wall lost its saturation and transformed into a window. On the other side of the wall stood a man, waving at her.

Who was that weirdo? Wait, she remembered that face. It was the person from earlier, the one who had lurked in the background. Now that she had a better view of his looks, she could see that man had the face of a fox. It wasn’t trapeze-like as she initially had assumed. Why was he here?

“Tryin’ to break out?” the man asked in a shrill voice.

Was the fox-guy stating his observations, mocking her, or both? It was better if she kept her guard up.

She remained silent, and the man grinned.

Truly a fox.

“You think of me as some fox guy, right?”

Ragna narrowed her eyes.

Can he read minds?

“I can’t read minds,” said the man. “People often get that impression of me, so I’m used to it.”

Ragna crossed her arms. “Actually initially, I thought you were a squirrel.”

The man laughed.

Again, like a fox.

“Good observation. I am a squirrel guy and even keep a few as pets. Regardless of that, I’m here to discuss with you the current state of affairs.” The man stopped and bowed before Ragna. “But where are my manners? My name is Adam Saber.”

Ragna widened her eyes. “The ambassador?”

The man nodded and straightened his back. “The one and only. Though it seems, my face didn’t clue you about my identity. Guess I’ve to step up my InstaNorse game. Anyway, the whole incident caused an international crisis. Relations between the kingdoms are going down the drain, and the world wants vengeance for Princess Aurelia. If this blows up, it might be worse than the Baghdad crisis.”

Was he serious? How could the assassination attempt on a princess trigger a war?

“There was no way I could stay uninvolved,” the ambassador continued. “Believe me. It is in my best interest to solve this whole mess as swiftly as possible.”

But even so, this was outside her sphere of influence. She could try to expose the culprits, but what would happen with that information, was up to the politicians and world leaders. Their finger hovered over the red button, not hers. She had no choice in that regard but to trust their competence that they make the right choice. It might sound egocentric, but she had to ignore the bigger picture and concentrate on the elements that affected her directly. Those, she could influence. 

“Still, what are you doing here, Mr. Ambassador?”

“The truth is, I think you are innocent.”

“Really?” A smile of relief flashed across Ragna’s face but disappeared immediately.

What if he was trying to bait her?

“There were a few discrepancies regarding the evidence,” said Adam. “According to the documents found in your house, the princess should have been kidnapped as leverage. Yet, during the actual assault, poison was injected into her, and on top of that, she was caught up in an explosion that could have easily killed her. It was nothing but sheer luck that the princess is still with us. The point is the traitor tried to kill the princess during that night. If you three were the traitors, then why did you immediately try to kill the hostage? There are other contradictions, but they don’t matter for you. I am sure eventually others will notice this too. But who knows how long that will take? The testimony of the princess also matches your story.”

“Wait, so Aurelia did…” Ragna stopped herself. Her hand clenched her chest. “How is she doing? Is everything okay?”

“She woke up about an hour ago. She is fine. More than fine. I don’t know how she did it, but for her, that poison was an inconvenience at best. It had basically the effect of sleeping pills.”

Ragna exhaled.

Thank Twice. Aura was well. If anything had happened to her, she could never forgive herself. She would have ended her own life. Nothing else could have made up for that shame.

Adam scratched his temple and chuckled. “The princess must’ve one Hel of a metabolism.”

“Then, can’t we just let Aurelia reveal the truth?”

Adam shook his head. “Officially, the princess is still ill. We don’t know who we can trust. There is also the problem that Aurelia never saw Skyfrost. According to her, a masked assailant attacked her. Sven Erikson either killed them or pushed them outside her chamber’s windows. She then lost consciousness and could not confirm anything regarding your confrontation with Skyfrost. There is currently no proof if Skyfrost is innocent or guilty. So, the princess will stay as bait. Don’t worry. She won’t be at risk.”

Ah, of course. That made sense. Since the traitors knew they had failed, they would try to kill Aura again. And if they did, one would catch them in the act. Though would Aura be safe? She could only hope.

“The likelihood that you have been set up is quite high. I don’t know if the culprit is Rory Skyfrost, but my gut tells me, if that is the case, the Vice-Captain is just another cog. The corruption likely goes high up. As such, I can only trust you. At the moment, you are the only person whose innocence we can be sure of, and who can act. I would love to investigate the incident myself, but I’m already more involved than I should be.”

Ragna couldn’t believe what she just had heard. A smile formed on her face.

Fate finally had turned in her favor. He was right. There were holes in the evidence. She just had to prove it.

“So, I ask again. Tryin’ to break out?”

Ragna nodded.

“Then I got you one free ‘Get-out-of-jail-card’.”

Ragna tilted her head. “What do you mean?”

Adam snapped his fingers, and within the next moment, he stood inside the cell next to Ragna.

“My Flyga ‘The Wanderer’ allows me to teleport anywhere in the world, as long as I’ve set up a marker at that place. I can teleport you to an empty cottage outside the jail. So, what exactly do you intend to do?”

Ragna sat in silence and stared at the ground. Finally, she raised her head. “I have to find my father. He probably knows something or is involved somehow. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have disappeared.”

“That is probably for the best. Vice-Captain Griffin is another key to the whole mess.” Adam smiled and gave her a large bag and a night-blue hood. “Here are your confiscated belongings. You don’t have to worry about the camera. I’ve hacked into the system. It just shows a looped video of you moping around. Despite that, I doubt that it will take more than five minutes for them to notice your escape.” The expression of his face hardened, and the smile disappeared. He looked straight at her. “Are you ready to become a wanted woman and be hunted down like a criminal?”

“What other option do I have?” she asked. “If they find me guilty, my only hope to escape the chair is the ‘future initiative’. I’m not gonna be a slave. And even if Aura can clear all my charges, then what? Go back to my empty apartment and wait for my father to return? Hope that someone will bring Skyfrost to justice? My family is gone; my career in ruins; the man who ruined my life walking free, and I can’t even see my best friend. Everything that’s important to me is gone. If I want my life back, I’ve to fight for it.”

“You could still let someone else do it. The are many who are stronger than you.”

“Valkyries protect justice and the innocent. How can I be a Valkyrie if I can’t even fight for myself?”

“I need you to say it out loud. Are you ready?”

Ragna exhaled. She looked firmly into Adam’s eyes and said with as much determination as possible. “Yes.”

Ragna put on the cloak, and Adam grabbed her shoulder. A white light engulfed the two, and the beige of the jail cell faded out. Brown widened its color into all three dimensions. Wood creaked under her boots.

“I’ve to go now,” said Adam. “Anything more than this, and the authorities would quickly realize that I have teleported you. This hut is close enough that one would believe you broke out with an unknown Flyga.”

“Thank you.” Ragna bowed her head. “I will not disappoint you.”

“I wish you the best of luck. You will need it.” Adam disappeared in a gulf of light and left Ragna alone. 

She analyzed her new environment. As he had said, not a single object was in this room. This was an empty hut. Staying here would be useless. She couldn’t turn back either. So, where should she go?

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