Ragna opened her eyes. The first thing she saw were aquamarine bars. Then, she felt how metal rattled against her wrist and weighted her arms down. A chain connected her handcuffs to a wall. There was no mistake. She was in jail. Again. Not even 24 hours had passed, and her enemies had captured her. Ragna groaned. Everything hurt. She felt cuts and bruises all over her skin.
“You’re awake. That’s good.”
Ragna turned her head. Against a green wall of unknown material leaned Altera, her hands tied to the wall as well.
“What happened?” Ragna asked. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine “, said Altera. “The poison didn’t do much. Guess it was weak enough that my body was resistant towards it. Maybe Skyfrost wanted to enjoy our suffering?”
Right. The memories came back to her. Skyfrost had poisoned Altera; she lost her wings; then they fell; and then…nothing. Ragna massaged the bridge of her nose. Trying to remember past their fall wielded no result, and the more she tried, the more her brain throbbed against her skull like a barrier that forbade her to walk further. But it begged the question, how the Hel they were alive. They’d fallen hundreds of meters. Even accounting for the increased durability, their ana provided, they shouldn’t be alive, let alone without injuries.
Ragna’s hand went through her body again.
As far as she could tell, she wasn’t suffering from any major injuries – besides the wound that Skyfrost had inflicted – but Altera’s ice had still closed and cauterized it. She should be lucky if there won’t be an infection. But that was out of her hands. For now, trying to find out why they were alive was fruitless, and it wouldn’t change anything about their current situation.
“Where are we anyway?” Ragna asked as trying to figure out what was going on seemed to be more important.
“You are in a temple.”
The two looked to the end of the room from where the voice had come. Sitting in the corner was a man; his eyes buried in a black adventurer hat. Dressed in a brown jacket, he looked like an archeologist from a blockbuster movie.
“Who are you?” the girls asked in unison. Cracking his neck, the man lifted his head.
“I’m Eric.” He said, revealing a pointy face covered in dirt. “And you are?”
“I’m Altera, and this…” Altera gestured with her head towards Ragna. “Is my…” She paused for a second until she continued the introduction. “Associate, Ragna.”
Associate? That’s…Well, she wasn’t wrong. Calling her a friend, didn’t feel right. At least, not yet. But she didn’t like the sound of the word. There had to be a better way to describe…Why was she thinking about this? There was a time and a place for these things, and it for sure wasn’t now.
Eric smiled. “Nice to meet you. Wish this place was cozier.”
Ragna looked around. The room that contained them was made of aquamarine stone. At least she thought it was stone. Only the bars that separated the room from the corridor in front of them were iron. She pushed her legs against the bars, and the metal vibrated. Ragna let her head drop.
Breaking the metal would be too easy, and the chains would still bind them. But if this was a temple, then it would explain the lack of technology. This building had to predate the Great War.
Ragna squinted her eyes and tried to discern anything beyond her jail. She saw nothing. It was too dark. There were no windows, and the only sources of light were selected spots on the walls – just enough to let them be aware that their jail was an isle in a sea of darkness. It was unlikely that the IBV held them.
“What kind of temple is this?” Altera asked.
“The temple of Eikthyrnir,” said Eric.
“Say that again?” Ragna replied.
“Eikthyrnir – one of the old golds. Long before the Trutner siblings had received Twice’s blessings and founded the three kingdoms, gods were the big thing. Everyone and their grandmother worshipped them. The people of old Aes had built entire civilizations around their deities. But chauvinism and cleansings have erased almost all traces of their existences. The cultures and gods are mostly gone.”
“Yeah…,” said Ragna. “I think that matches what I learned in history class.”
“If I had to speculate, I would say it was the patron deity of the forest.”
“Forest?” Altera repeated. “Don’t tell me we are in the Rising Forest?”
Eric nodded. “Right in its heart.”
“Then, we didn’t make it far.” Altera’s back touched the jail’s cold and yet smooth surface. It was unlike any other material they had encountered. If they had to compare it to something, she would have chosen Orichalcum. The material could be a resource lost in time, or it was the result of a creative technique that had died alongside its people. Either way, it served as a reminder that they didn’t know much about Aes’ before the foundation of the kingdoms.
“I’m not too versed in the customs of old civilizations,” Altera said. “Is it normal to have jails in places meant for worship?
Eric chuckled. “Well, you somehow have to keep the offerings from escaping.”
“W…W…Wait a minute. Offerings?” Ragna’s face became paler than frozen light. She tried to run to Eric. The chain held her back and pushed her against the ground. As her body scraped on the stone floor, Ragna grimaced in pain.
“Don’t be silly,” said Altera. “The age of gods is long gone. You either think of Twice as a god or don’t believe in them at all. Even in the most remote places of this continent, pagan worship has been exterminated.”
“Ah, right.” Ragna recovered from her brief shock. She had forgotten that she wouldn’t fit the criteria for a human sacrifice anyway. That train had passed when she was twelve.
“Well, I’ve heard they believe in a sun deity in Obelisk. But we are in Midgard, and my gut tells me that these aren’t the activities of a heretic cult.” Altera turned to Eric again. “Why are you here? Do you know who captured us?”
“Just a bunch of criminals and low-lives, I imagine.” The expression on his face became serious, and a cold light glimmered in his grey eyes. “I’m an explorer and archaeologist. It’s my job to uncover the past. I recently had learned about a temple deep in the Rising Forest. Of course, I decided to uncover its secrets. But as it turns out, criminals used it as their hideout.” His hand slid across the floor as if her caressed his infant child. “Just imagining the damage, they could’ve done to this place, makes me want to puke. Well, as I explored the temple, I got careless, and these assholes ambushed me.”
“What are they going to do with us?” Ragna asked.
“Dunno. But earlier, I heard a bunch of them trying to contact buyers.”
“What?” Ragna shouted. “Human traffic?”
“That’s valuable information,” said Altera. “Now, we know that money is their main objective.”
“You don’t seriously consider negotiating with human traffickers?”
“Of course not. But knowing the objective of the enemy can help us to manipulate the situation into our favor.”
“Human traffic…What kind of monster are they?”
Light flooded the corridor and washed away the darkness. Sound blasted outside their jail. The tact increased exponentially, the noise grew closer and louder, and as the distance decreased, Ragna began to recognize what she heard. Her mouth was agape.
Wait a minute. Wasn’t that…?
With the intensity of an explosion, burst the music. Five men and a small girl entered the corridor, all playing a different instrument – saxophone, flute, violin, trumpets, drums, and one singer – and dancing to the symphony. A tidal of chaotic sounds – wild and untamed – formed into an orchestra. Controlled, yet filled with a cacophony of emotions, drowned they the room with their melody.
The bars disappeared, and where once was a corridor, a stage emerged. Red curtains fell, revealing an organ that engulfed the horizon with its size. Morbid sounds thudded, and ominous pipes thundered through the artificial scenery. Grey automata entered the stage – mechanical women saturated with gears and wheels; spinning and clinking; dancing and singing in unity. Forming an ethereal choir, their song thrilled in a language not meant for human ears. Theatrical power piped at its utmost volume. Streams of fire jetted across the stage, enlarged their shadows, and the automata’s metal surfaces reflected the flames.
Together, they created a holistic background, and a young man in his late twenties, wearing a long white coat, came forward. Black metal gears decorated his arms and elbows. As the prisoners stood frozen, in complete disbelief regarding the events that played in front of their eyes, he let his voice sing through the music.
“My dearest guests,
For ‘venging flames we are,
As you’ve entered our nests,
Please fall insane
Like clockwork again and again
Till your minds spring broke,
And you scream and croak.
Melodic compassion, human desire,
Burning brighter than the morning star
Engulfing all Veil in its pyre
Till you see us all
Those cast in the dirt
Your world is the toll
For the fire sirens eternal alert
Following the rules of nature
We lie, cheat, steal, survive
Your eternal joy we sacrifice
And our music sounds!”
The scenery crumbled, and the instruments faded away. Taking off his black top hat, the singer bowed with such vigor that it veered into the realms of mockery. “Welcome to my humble château. I’m Cyrus Clockwork.” He straightened himself, and his hazel eyes wandered over the prisoners in the jail. His eyelashes, and excessive amount of eyeliner, he had used to paint knives under his eyes, sharpening his gaze. “I hope you liked our little song. We are the Clockwork Coterie. The number one criminal orchestra in all of Aes.”
Still blue with shock, Ragna couldn’t utter a word. She couldn’t decide what was crazier: Their existence, the overly narrow superlative, or the possibility that other gangs like them existed, and that those were inferior.
Clockwork smiled and pulled a lighter out of his pocket. “Don’t give me that look, kitty. I would neeever kill you.” Walking past the jail, he clattered it against the prison bars. “You know, I may be a ginger, but I still have a soul.”
“You are trying to sell us into slavery,” said Altera.
The criminal shrugged his shoulders; his wry smile didn’t disappear. “Slavery is many things. Despicable? Maybe. Morally questionable? Perhaps. But consider this.” He raised his finger like a student in a classroom. “It is also profitable. Demand for good-looking women is at an all-time high, and the Wert keeps coming. I mean, if you want to have a nice house at the beach, you gotta have money. Living is more than surviving, and that new GM7 won’t pay for itself.”
“Because of a game console?” Ragna rushed towards Clockwork, only for her shackles to pull her back. Forced on her knees, she growled.
“It’s great that you already practice. Your new master will be pleased.” Clockwork pulled his lighter back into his jacket pocket and clapped his hands. “If it were up to me, I would just steal a GM7. Sadly, I’ve no idea how to get around their lock mechanism.”
“Cool motive.” Eric sneered. “Still an asshole.”
Ragna jumped from the ground, pushing her body and the shackles that kept her at bay, to their limits. She growled and glared daggers at him, her blue eyes saturated with hatred and wrath. Clockwork leaned forward and pressed his face against the bars. “Ohhh, if only looks could kill. Perhaps you could hurt me.”
Ragna’s gleam intensified. She spat on Clockwork’s face. He groaned, and with the backside of his glove, swiped the salvia from his cheek.
“You will pay for your crimes.” Ragna forgot all self-restraint. All the pent up-emotions inside her heart were released. The hatred, wrath, and pain, her subconscious could not hold back anymore. She pushed forward, tugging against her wrists until her skin tore and bled. But Ragna didn’t even notice. She pushed her body forward, ranting, and lashing out at the monster in front of her eyes.
“You disgusting pigs pretending to be human. Justice. Will. Prevail. You will pay. Veil will hunt you down.” Using strength, she could not possess, her feet moved forward. With her arms stretched out to their utmost limit, Ragna ignored the pain and pushed forward until her shackles broke. “They will hunt you and punish you. There will never be happiness in your lives, and when you die, you will regret that monster like you were ever born.”
Clockwork took a step back, and his underlings observed the scene, unable to comprehend how a girl like Ragna could have destroyed her shackles.
“You are starting to annoy me.” He said and snapped his fingers. His glove gleamed in aquamarine light. With one swipe, the bars opened like an automatic door. “But I am a compassionate man. Come at me. Strike me with all your hatred. And if you beat me, I may even let your friends go.”
Clockwork pulled a knife out his belt and threw it in front of Ragna’s feet. She didn’t have to hear that twice. Ragna grabbed the weapon and stormed out of the jail, ignoring Altera’s attempts to stop her. The door shut close, and she attacked him. Clockwork evaded the knife slashes. With the elegance of a performer, he danced around her movements.
“Just as I thought. All barks and no bite.” Seeing an opening, Clockwork slammed his elbow into her spine. Ragna groaned and fell on her knees.
She would get him.
Tightening her grip, Ragna pulled herself up and attacked anew. But no matter what she did, Clockwork remained unfazed. Her shouts and grunts became more frequent, and her slashes lost their technique. Like a common thug, she attacked him. Seeing Clockwork’s movements, everyone understood. For him, this wasn’t a fight. It’s a comedy, a show for entertainment.
Even his goons paid little attention to the fight and preferred to talk about the current geopolitical climate. She tried to stab and slash. Clockwork merely danced. And each failed attempt he met with a cackle that increased in tone and mockery.
“Let me guess. You’re a cadet, fresh from the academy, thinking ‘bout being a hero and changin’ the world. You’re making me laugh, and it’s not even funny. Your arrogance’s revolting. So, let me teach you a lesson.”
He took a swing and punched her in the stomach. Salvia flew from Ragna’s mouth, and she cawed, falling to her knees. Ragna dropped her weapon, and her arms wrapped around her stomach. Clockwork widened his arms. His smile had faded into a frown, and the elegance, he had cast away. Not bothering to pretend, he showed her his true face. His eyes burned with disgust and loathing.
“You know nothing about this world.” Clockwork slammed his boot into Ragna’s rips. “Living in your pampered bubble, you never encountered true horror.” He walked forward. A second kick. “Starving in the slums. Fighting for daily survival. Crawling through the ground, wondering if you live tomorrow.” Again, he dished out a kick. And a fourth and another, turning them into punctuations for his sentences. “Have you ever taken a step outside your safe city before? Of course not. Spoiled child living in your high houses. Look around. This is the real world. The real world’s cruel and ugly. It doesn’t care about you. Your dreams and hopes mean nothing. And if you want to live, play by its ugly rules. Murder your enemies. Rob the blind. Betray the strong. Trample over the weak. For idiots like you will just die.”
Seeing Ragna’s body arching in front of the jail bars, Clockwork stopped. He picked up the knife Ragna had dropped. Swinging it like a pendulum, he kneeled and grabbed her by the hair. “I will make it easy. For thirty seconds, I won’t attack. I won’t protect myself. Hel, I won’t even move. It’ll be just like losing your virginity. So, if you want to kill me, then just do it.”
His goons tried to intervene, but with a hand movement, he ordered them to halt. He let go, dropped the knife and walked five steps backwards.
Ragna lifted her head.
Did she hear him right? He let her kill him? That sounded too good to be true. It had to be a trick. Or was he that arrogant? Whatever it was, if there’s the slightest opening she’d use it.
She removed her arms from her stomach and took the knife. Forcing herself to stand, she pointed her weapon at Clockwork.
It was a simple maneuver. One she had followed countless times. Every cadet knew how to strike an opponent with a knife. Then why did she stop? She just had to ram it inside him. He was a monster, and their lives were at stake. Who knew how many more lives he would ruin?
Inside her head flashed a thousand reasons and justifications to kill him. Yet, her body didn’t move. Her arms and legs trembled, and the knife quivered from the tremors.
Move you damn body. Why was it so hard? It’s just one movement. One movement, and the world would be better.
“Pathetic.” Clockwork snatched the weapon from her, and within the same breath, before Ragna could react, he rammed the blade into the back of her hand. Ragna screamed. Blood gushed out of her wound. She pressed her hand against it, trying to suppress the bleeding and the pain.
“You just parrot words whose meaning you don’t understand.” He pulled the knife out and swiped off the stains. The droplets fell to the ground. “You want to be a soldier? A Valkyrie? What a joke. You can’t even kill me. And I’m as bad as they come.”
The bars opened. Clockwork grabbed Ragna’s throat and lifted her. Ragna groaned, trying to formulate syllables, her mind was unable to decide on what she would focus on: The blood running from her wound, his fingers crushing her windpipe, or his eyes looking down on her. Brimming with revolt, he might as well have been staring at a cockroach rummaging through garbage.
“What will you do in a war where you can’t separate the good from the bad? Wake up and face reality. You’re not fit for this world.”
The jail opened, and Clockwork threw her inside.
“Ragna!” Altera shouted. She tried to run to Altera, forgetting her shackles that brought her movements to an abrupt end. Ragna’s body crashed on the floor and rolled over to Altera. She caressed Ragna by the shoulder, and the bars closed.
“I’m doing you a favor here. You can spend your remaining days as a dog,” Clockwork said. “You don’t have to speak. You don’t even have to think. Just bark and follow the orders of your master, and you’ll live in moronic and ignorant bliss.”
He was about to turn when he stopped. “Wait. Did you just say Ragna? As in, Ragna Griffin?” Clockwork narrowed his eyes and came closer to the cell, inspecting Ragna’s face. His gaze shifted to her body. She was bending and crooking in Altera’s arms, whimpering in pain. “You certainly resemble the girl pictured in the darknet.”
Clockwork’s frown turned into a grin. Walking backwards, he performed a pirouette and lifted his female minion in the air. Smiling like a little child, he shouted from his lungs, performing another revolution. “We hit the jackpot, Eris.”
His minions stared at him in confusion. Clockwork put the girl with the neon-rainbow unicorn hair on the ground. She staggered and stumbled, overwhelmed by the centrifugal force, before finding stable ground.
“There is a change in plans,” Clockwork said. “But first, let me thank you.” He focused on the prisoners and bowed before them. “Perhaps I underestimated you. Attacking the princess, collaborating with Vaix, and escaping custody. That’s quite the rap sheet you got there. A big bounty too. Not just money, but also a high rank, and being pardoned of every committed crime.”
“That’s impossible,” said Altera.
“Face it, angel. Officially the government has kept everything tight, but on the dark web, it’s open season. I don’t know why, but they don’t care who finds you as long as they do. Not that I complain. No more hiding in forests. Fame, power, and riches. It will be all ours.”
“That must be a lie.”
“Don’t be like that.” Clockwork rubbed his hands. “Be happy at this twist of fate. No slavery for your friend. Anyway, for now, this is farewell. Gotta secure a connection.“ He bowed again and turned to his men. “Keep an eye on them.”