Extra chapter 01 – Hungry empty vanity; angels with masks

Over the woman’s palm, a mass of ice began to manifest and take the form of a javelin. Without a second of hesitation, she threw the weapon. Before Ragna could react, it had pierced through her chest. She gasped for air, trying to form words, her hands reaching for the javelin. Blood escaped her mouth and sternum and dripped on the machine.

Ragna tapped her phone, and the video stopped.

If the simulation was an accurate representation of her abilities, then Altera needed three seconds to create that javelin, half a second to grab it, and another half-second until it hit her. If Altera summoned the weapon again, then she had four seconds to either evade it or to find a countermeasure. Assuming, she noticed what Altera would do before she did it. Otherwise, she had between three to three and a half seconds to avert her defeat. And even that assumed that she didn’t summon a weapon with a different mass.

Ragna sighed, and the lower half of her face submerged under the water. She crossed her legs and let them dangle over the edge of her bath tube. The water tickled against her skin like a hot breeze and created rings and waves over the surface.

Trying to adapt to the ice would be difficult to near impossible. Too many variables complicated any plan her mind could concoct. If only she knew the mechanism and rules behind Altera’s ability. The wings, she could figure out. Their variables were consistent, but the ice…in that case, wasn’t it for the best if she concentrated on the wings instead, and ensured that dealing with them wouldn’t become an issue?

It wasn’t high-risk-high-reward, but she wasn’t a gambler, and eliminating those wings would rob Altera of the high ground. If she found a way to reach her and cut them off – in a simulation of course – Altera had to fight her on the ground. And if her timer didn’t run out, she could mess with gravity. Altera would lose at that point. So, how could she reach her if Altera was up in the sky? If she had figured out how to double jump with her gravity device, then it would be easy. Perhaps, the simulation could give her inspiration?

Ragna held her smartphone above her head. She swiped over the screen, and the video rewinded again.

Ragna entered the highway. A voice spoke into her ear.

“Vaixian soldiers are invading Veil. According to our intel, they’ve employed a new weapon near Twilight Bridge. Search and destroy all enemy units and disable the weapon. Do you copy, Cadet Griffin?”

“Roger that,” said Ragna. “I will start now. Over and out.”

She raised her legs high in the air, and her eyes shifted towards the mirror. Mist obscured her view off her toes, but she could feel they had shrivelled up.

How long have I been here? Better to get out then.

With a tap of her finger, the screen of her phone went black. She stood up, the water rocked back and forth, and droplets fell from her skin into the tube. Ragna opened the drain and grabbed her bathrobe from the mini garderobe. Not bothering to close her robe above the waist, its lines fell over the outer parts of her breasts.

Ragna smirked. And everyone says I don’t have cleavage…

She left the bathroom and stopped at Sven’s room, taking a peek through the open door. He had scattered books, video games and various other possessions all over the floor, and his clothes stacked to a mountain on his desk chair. Ragna shook her head and walked past it.

When would he learn to clean up after himself? And her father was worse. She wasn’t their mother, and it wasn’t a mother’s job to do that anyway. Though if Sven started calling her mommy, that wouldn’t be too bad now, would it?

Ragna smirked. She entered her room and let herself fall on her bed. The bathrobe’s fabric tickled, and Ragna rolled around. She stretched her limbs, and with her feet, she grabbed the towel that hung over the back of her chair and pulled it over her hair.

Sven had the initiation ritual tonight. Depending on the nature of the task he had to fulfill for his Bragi, he might leave tomorrow morning. At best, they had one more day so that Sven could pack everything he needed. In the worst-case scenario, it was the last night they spent together. She would never tell him not to go. That would be cruel towards him, and the people of Veil. The more Valkyries existed, the better it was, and for Sven, it was a big dream as well.

She looked at her phone. One more hour until her father and Sven would come back, and four more until she had to attend the peace ceremony.

She had decided then: she would make their last day a memorable one, starting with Sven’s favorite food. If she remembered correctly, they had lettuce, tomato, cheese, meat, buns, her special hot sauce – yeah, that would make for some great burgers. If only she could eat them with him.

Ragna poked her stomach.

If she wanted to be a Valkyrie, she couldn’t afford any fat on her body, and tonight she would have to drink and eat anyway. But then, if she didn’t become a Valkyrie, what else was there in her life? She shouldn’t have eaten so much pizza. It took her two hours of workout to make up for it and the calories, she would gain tonight. Whatever, as long as it made Sven happy. Maybe she should wear a pink apron and nothing under it. If Sven came back and saw her, his mind would explode.

Ragna chuckled, but immediately, her smile disappeared.

Unless her father arrived at the same time…yeah, no father would want to see that. Well, some do, but the government should execute those. Sadly, most of those still roamed free like her uncle.

A white grin shone within a shadow; teeth sharp as saws; eyes like a snake; words whispered into her ears, dripping like mercury; fragrances fogged into her mind – sweet, sweet like titan’s berries and delicious like oleander honey; shadows expanded like wings, and…and…           

Beads of sweat formed on Ragna’s forehead, her body trembled, and her expression turned into a glare. She grabbed her wrist and counted to ten. She counted to fifteen, twenty, and when she had reached thirty, her body relaxed. Ragna exhaled, but within seconds her glare returned

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Ragna looked at her phone. Two more hours until she had to be at the ceremony. Sven and Drake had already left.

She should leave soon as well. A long night was ahead of her, at when it was over, she would confess. Sven was not going to, and she had waited enough. She considered herself a modern woman, but some aspects of romance should remain old-fashioned. But after tomorrow, he would be gone, and this wasn’t just about her. She would give him a night, he would not forget, and more than anything, she would let him know he had a home. No matter what hardships, he would face, Sven could always come back. They were here for him.

She took out the mascara. Her eyes looked up. She placed the wand at the base of her upper lashes, covering them in black. She repeated the process two times and then coated the roots of her lashes once. Surrounded by the black liquid, her pupils shone brighter than ever, like an ocean frozen in eternal ice. She put on her earring – a green crystal in the form of a rhombus that looked great with the three piercings on her right ear and grabbed her necklace. Multiple runes that were combined to create the new symbol that was her pendant.

Her eyes wandered through her room, and her finger slid across her desk. Not a speck of dust. Her eyes had landed on the framed document on her wall – a court order that said she had to pay the costs for a surgical reconstruction.

Ah, she remembered. She had punched a club owner in the face. He had insulted an ex-boyfriend and literally thrown him out of a club for being a transman. In hindsight, she could have done it without the gravity manipulator, but damn was it worth it.

Tonight, she made Sven happy, and tomorrow, she defeated Altera. That woman would have no choice but to accept her as a future Valkyrie. By the end of the fight, Altera would kneel and kiss her feet – which wouldn’t be the worst thing to do since she had the cutest little toes – even if none of her ex-boyfriends were into that. If she defeated her, Altera would see how great she was.

Why did it even have to come to this? What did it take to make her happy? She did everything Altera asked. And for what? Not once did Altera smile, and when she complimented her, it sounded forced. She defeated the soldiers, yet Altera criticized her. She defeated the robot, yet Altera had to sabotage the mission by inserting herself so she could avoid praising her. And at times, it felt like Altera wanted to be anywhere but with her. If supervising her was such a hassle, then why didn’t Alter quit?  Someone who liked being around her could do the job. Did Altera think she was beneath her? Why? Because she was strong? Because she was beautiful and smart? Wasn’t she any of this? Why? Why? W-

Ragna grabbed her wrist, her fingernails ate into her flesh, and the thoughts stopped.

Thinking like that wasn’t healthy. In two days, Altera would be gone from her life. She wanted to become a Valkyrie to make a better world, not to please her. Tonight, she would be there for Aura and Sven. She had to concentrate on that.

Ragna looked at her phone.

It was time to go. She had yet to check if her eyebrows framed her face as she wanted them to, but somehow, she didn’t want to look into the mirror.

Ragna exited her room and walked towards the entryway. Her eyes skimmed over her collection of shoes and stopped at two pairs of boots.

Now, the only question remained, should she take boots with high-heels or with flat soles? She could use the extra centimeters the high heels provided, but considering her task tonight, flat soles seemed more efficient.

She sighed, put on the flat-soled boots, and left the building.

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Congratulations! We’re all proud of you. Don’t worry about your mission. You can do it. They chose you to become a Valkyrie cause they trust you. You’ll do a great job. If you’re near Utgard, just give us a call. Our house’s always open. Quin would be happy to see you again. Asti misses you too.

Altera pressed the return button. The message disappeared from her screen. She scrolled down her contact list past her family members and Ragna whom she had given her number if she needed help from her supervisor.

By now, Ragna must have blocked or deleted her contact. Could one blame her? She was her supervisor and supposed to lead her to success. That Ragna hadn’t passed meant she had failed to teach her properly. When did it start to go wrong?

Inside Altera’s mind flashed a thousand moments from the past year. One thousand questions, Ragna had asked and an equal amount of actions she had taken. Which one was the catalyst that had spelled disaster? Maybe it wasn’t something simple as that. How easy would life be, if a single issue existed, and if one could fix that, everything would go smoothly? Maybe for other people, that was the case. But not for her. A combination of a thousand factors led to her failure. If she had seen all the signs, she might have averted it. But of course, she didn’t.

If she could turn back time, could she fix how she had taught Ragna? Knowing her luck, she would repeat all her mistakes. How often had she wished to travel back in time with her hindsight knowledge? Until a year ago, a small part of her wished this scenario would turn into reality. Instead, she got the ability to grow wings.

How mean. I love you, and you say these mean words to me.

“Shut up.” Altera’s voice muffled in her pillow. She tapped the one number in her contact list that was neither her family nor Ragna. Her finger hovered over the green call button.

Should she call her? She had given no message or answer today, even though she should know that today was a special day. But what if she didn’t know because of all the other obligations she had? She might be busy. If she called her, would that anger her because she had more important things to do? Or she would come across as needy. Maybe she didn’t want to talk to her because she had said something stupid or insulting, and now she was angry? A message wouldn’t help either, and it would come across as needy as well. But what could she have done or said?

Again, moments from past interactions flashed inside her mind. Altera removed her finger from the screen and threw her phone away. It slid across her bed and stopped at its edge. She let her head sink into her pillow. Her body started to shiver. If she hadn’t shaved the hair on her arms, they would stand up.

No one could see the strands, but what if they did a close inspection tonight? If they saw she had an inadequate appearance, would they make her fail automatically? Knowing her luck…what if she had already failed because Ragna didn’t pass? Could this have been a secret test to see if she were fit to be a Valkyrie? Sven had contact with some of the Captains. He could tell them of her blunder. Why wouldn’t he? She made her girlfriend – or whatever Ragna was to him – fail and then behaved like a moron. Why did she suck so much? If she had been friends with Sven, maybe that wouldn’t be an issue. They worked together so many times during the past three years. Wouldn’t they have become friends by now? Yet, he had never once asked to exchange numbers.

Altera’s hand reached for the heater installed next to her bed. When her finger touched the metal, she withdrew it. It was scalding, and the heat was at the highest possible level.

Should she lean against the metal until she was warm? Better not, it wouldn’t work much, and she would burn her skin.

Altera grabbed her two duvets and wrapped herself in them until she resembled a human burrito. Yet, her body didn’t stop shivering.

Why was it still so cold? How could she succeed in her Bragi if she was like that? Why was everything conspiring against her? Was this a ploy of Twice? Had they chosen her as a new chew toy to play around with for their amusement? They would inflict as much misery on this stupid little puppet as possible, just to see what would happen next. Of course, they were not dumb. They didn’t do it overtly, like making her slip on a banana peel every day or burning down your house. Twice’s subtle. They would pull a few strings that seemed innocent on their own, but eventually, these strings would cause their disaster. The single beat of a butterfly’s wings could lead to a hurricane on the other side of the world.

No.

Altera clung her arms to her body, hugging herself.

Twice was benevolent, and even if they weren’t, why would they notice an insignificant worm like her? It was convenient to believe there was a single cause for all your problems, that it was outside your control. It wasn’t your fault. Some sadistic cosmic entity had decided to mess with your life. You didn’t have to blame yourself. Only cowards and weaklings thought like that. If she failed, it would be because of her shortcomings. All the bad things in her life, they were on her. Great…

Altera lay in her bed burrito, and as the thoughts ceased to creep into her mind, the hours passed. Altera didn’t move or think. The heat spread across her body. Eventually, the alarm on her phone rang, telling her to go.

Why did she have to leave? Couldn’t she just stay here? The outside world was cold. They would laugh at her, make fun of her…no, today was a great day. Everyone was happy, and she was part of the celebration. She might suck at everything else, but being a Valkyrie – though she wasn’t technically one – was the one aspect of her life, she excelled.

Altera unwrapped her burrito and stood up. She walked over her floor towards the fridge, which was ten meters away from her. Her feet stepped on a blank paper – one of many that were scattered across the floor.

Should she clean her room? No. What was the point anyway? And her drawings and paintings were on her work desk, so no issue there.

Altera opened the fridge. Nothing was inside, and her stomach grumbled.

Did she eat today? Maybe she could buy something from the supermarket across the street? No, better not. It sounded like a hassle. Maybe she could eat out. No, there was no time. What about the peace ceremony? That should have a buffet. She could eat there. And if not, she could buy something tomorrow. Her hunger should be strong enough that she had to bother.

Altera closed the door, and from the desk above the mini-fridge, a small flask fell. Her eyes wandered towards the container. Pills had spilled out, and Altera gulped.

Was that the right decision? She could only hope so. But how else could she go through her Bragi? The initiation ritual to become a Valkyrie wasn’t an occurrence that allowed her any handicaps. She had to be at the top of her game.

Altera picked the container. She closed its lid and threw it in the trash can.

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From within the audience, Altera stepped forward. She climbed up the ivory staircase to the podium. The guests’ eyes followed her every move. The hype Aura had created still intoxicated them, but amongst the whispers and discussion about Princess Aurelia, she heard praise for her. The audience wondered about her white hair or ogled her appearance.

Why didn’t they concentrate on other topics, or even better, why didn’t she do her Bragi when everyone was gone, like Sven? No. If she thought like that she would never succeed as a Valkyries. They appeared on social media, movies, and television. Valkyries who couldn’t handle the publicity often met a dead-end career.

Princess Aurelia awaited her at the end of the staircase. Light radiated her, and she reached out her hand like a goddess welcoming a soul into the heavens. Altera offered her hand in return. Aurelia whispered into her ears. Altera nodded, and the princess led her to the Captains.

From this moment on, her heroic journey began. Whether it led to success and the life of a Valkyrie, or to failure and a life of shame, she alone had the power to decide that

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