“Was it really the right idea?” On the branches of the ash tree crouched Sven, his knees bobbing above the water surface.
There was no movement on the water. The sea was still and had no reason to move. It was already equal to the world as the primordial sea. Here, life started, and death ended. And the ash tree grew on it, its roots buried under the surface. Ragna could not see Sven’s eyes. Plastered on a blank paper, a weak smile was visible.
“You did something horrible,” he said. “Yet you avoided the consequences and played with the free will of your comrades.”
Ragna didn’t say a word. How could she? Black bonds wrapped around her jaw and kept her mouth shut.
“It is true. You have strayed away from the path a Valkyrie should follow,” a second voice spoke.
The sea was bubbling, and circles formed on its surface. First one, then two and three and more. Their radius increased with each circle and transformed the sea into a liquid mandala. From its center, her father emerged. His feet stomped on the water. Each step disrupted its nascent artwork of the surface with a new circle design. He walked towards her, and Ragna stood on the shore, awaiting him.
Why should she move? Why should she reject him?
He took her hand and led it towards the claw-like scar on his left shoulder. She twitched. It was like touching a ginger root. But more than that, it reminded her of the day her father had come back from a mission. He was standing on their doorstep. Looking at his eyes was like staring at a hollow darkness. His motions had become inhuman and abrupt, like a malfunctioning robot. And in his arms, he held the lifeless body of her mother, unable to realize how that would traumatize his children. When she saw them, Ragna focused on her father’s left shoulder. Perhaps she was trying to avoid seeing her corpse, Ragna didn’t know. Blood was gushing out, flesh was missing. It ran down his arms and stained their doorstep. The scar was still prominent today.
The scar on her father’s shoulder wasn’t the only change – as much as she wished it to be. From that day on, their home would never be as lively as it used to be. She and Sven learned to move on. It had been scary and there were days she wanted to tear her heart out to stop the emotions. Her mother’s passing had left a scar in their souls, but she learned to live with that. Instead of longing for an unobtainable future, she had decided to make sure that go through what she did.
She couldn’t say the same about her father. He tried to maintain a sense of normality – to be cheerful and a foundation stone. Was he trying to shoulder all the pain by himself in another attempt to protect her? Thinking about it, she hated this attribute of his the most. Seeing him trying to be cheerful, made it worse. If he was in pain, he should scream. If he was sad, he should cry. He was always there for her, so she should be there for him.
“Are you really in a position to say that?” Eric leaned against the tree’s bark. “You denied your own tears.”
“You killed a man in cold blood.” Her father continued. “This was neither a battle nor self-defence. You tricked and murdered him. It goes against what a Valkyrie stands for.”
“You claimed you love me,” said Sven. His body was hanging from one of the branches. A noose wrapped around his neck and connected it to the tree. He swung to a non-existent wind. Back and forth until millimeters separated him from his lost love. His eyes opened up. Bead black like a beast, pierced her heart.
“How long have I been gone? Two days? Yet you seduced him and offered your body. Where is your shame?”
Ragna tried to shout, to protest, but the bonds pressed themselves harder against her skin, making her throat sore.
“Perhaps then it is better, you forget your sins and continue your path as a Valkyrie.” Her father removed her hand from his shoulder. Sven agreed. Their bodies turned into white smoke, and they were gone.
“Certainly, that is a way.” Eric walked away from the tree. Circling Ragna, he flipped a coin in the air. Head. With each step, he flipped anew. Tails. Tails. Heads. Heads. Heads. Tails. “But is that what you want? To joke after assassinating the man? He was a criminal for sure. Did he deserve it? Maybe. But even when fighting evil, a Valkyrie retains her honor. Valkyries don’t lower themselves to the level of their enemies, regardless of who it is. Face the truth and abandon your way. Or live a lie and continue. Perhaps you should choose. If that is the way.”
The roots of the tree grew. Their mass multiplied and their points sharpened to stakes. Through Eric’s chest, they pierced, letting him slide further down until the wood tore him apart. Chunks of cloth and meat sunk into the depths. Before she could react, the roots rose. Like snakes, they coiled around Ragna and bound her limbs. She tried to move, but it was futile. The wood tore through her skin. Blood rivered from the exposed flesh, drenching the roots in red. She tried to scream for help, but her bindings didn’t allow her to let a word out.
“Your struggle is useless.”
The tree split its bark and created an oval opening. A Valkyrie exited the hole and walked on the root until she stood in front of her. Ragna tried to say Altera’s name, but under her bindings, her words had turned to muffles. She had forgotten that she lacked the ability to speak like a human. Altera’s armor transformed into obsidian. Black ooze latched onto Altera’s beautiful white wings, drenching every single feather in pitch until they resembled the leathery wings of a bat. And her laurels turned into horns made of ivory, like elephant’s tusks. Her angelic beauty perverted into this form. Yet neither horror nor disgust filled Ragna’s broken heart. Altera looked into her eyes.
“How can you scream when you have no words? How can you become free when you don’t leave your prison? You are crippled, yet desire to walk.”
She stretched out her arm. Her crystal-clad fingers caressed Ragna’s cheek with their cold touch. She moved up to her hair, grabbed it and pulled. Altera pulled and pulled her hair. Pain hammered against Ragna’s head. She could feel Altera ripping out her roots. Ragna couldn’t scream. No matter how hard she tried, no matter what Altera demanded. She couldn’t fulfil that wish.
Finally, when cracks vibrated within Ragna’s skull, Altera stopped. A smirk filled with joy – ecstasy in its purest form – twisted the lips of the corrupted Valkyrie.
“You denied your sins and pain. But here, they cannot be denied. You will face them tenfold. In your world, they may stroll along. Here? You will suffer the consequences. What are your sins? Do you even know if your actions qualify Or is it only you who thinks of them as such?”
She drew her partisan and stroked Ragna’s arms. The cold steel caressed along the skin from one end of her body to another. Ragna shivered to each sensation; tears ran down her cheeks. Of pain, fear and…and another feeling, she couldn’t and didn’t want to recognize. Altera continued until she found a spot she liked. A part of Ragna she would love to tease and poke, to gnat and tear. She pressed the metal tip against it. A puddle of blood escaped the wound and tarnished the weapon’s gravure. Altera applied more pressure, and as it dug in it, her partisan got a taste of Ragna’s flesh. Again, Ragna tried to scream and like before, didn’t succeed.
Seeing the paltriness in Ragna’s eyes, in her failure to give word to her instincts and thoughts, to her wishes and feelings, Altera chuckled. Her eyes lustered and looked down on her.
“Sorry, but as you are, you have no right to speak. What do you want to say? What do you think or desire? Where do you want to go? What do you hate? What do you believe? What is your sin? What is not? You are here because you believe you have sinned. But as long as you cannot even recognize your own vice, I will punish you for all. The things you did right. The things you did not. Everything.”
The roots lowered Ragna and Altera climbed on top of her. Sitting on her abdomen, she leaned forward, breezed in her ear and opened her mouth. Razor-sharp teeth tore through Ragna’s throat. Ice pierced her joints. Ragna had already given up on screaming. She just endured it. There was no point.
Could she do anything? What should she think? What should she believe? Couldn’t she just follow the teachings of others? Wasn’t that what they were there for? Why did she have to believe that her mission was the wrong way? Was it even wrong? Or was everyone else? How could she even know that? She was nothing but a stupid girl. Was she shallow? Or easy? A disgrace to her parents? She had murdered. Blinded by words that were not hers, she had become obsessed with a vengeance beyond her understanding and a desire to obtain a treasure she couldn’t carry. Was she too reckless? Or was she a coward? Had any of this truth to it? But how would she know if these were lies to begin with? Was anything right or wrong? It was impossible. Right now, she couldn’t know. She had to learn more and see for herself. What she could choose and what she should choose. And most importantly, what she should not.
“If that is your answer, then I will yield.”
Altera was gone. All traces of her, all the wounds and pain she had inflicted had vanished. On the water surface appeared a shadow. Ragna looked up. If she had wanted to know what could cast the shadow, it would be futile. A creature – assuming one could define it as such – flew through the sky. Black mist covered its body and concealed the true form of its existence. From the size of the mist and the shadow, she could assume that this being was colossal. But that was a mere hypothesis. An assumption based on the facts laying in front of her. When one heard howling, one should think of wolves, not jackals. In this world, such logic was misplaced. And that assumed it existed here at all or was that another artificial construct she had clung too.
The creature landed in front of her. Not that she could recognize anything more of its nature. The mist enveloped the roots of the ash tree and the being began to gnaw. At least she assumed, hearing the sounds emerging from the mist. The weight and pressure on her limbs loosened. Ragna straightened up. The bindings fell from her and sunk into the depths of the sea. She was free.
Should she thank it? That seemed logical. But this was a world void of logic. Did its assistance have conditions? Could it be a bane hiding as a blessing?
“For now, walk this path.” A deep voice – too androgynous to capture and confine it with labels such as male or female – boomed inside the mist. “But know this path will end. And there has to be penance. A sanctuary, denial is no more. You will walk, you will walk, you will hurt and cry.”
When Ragna woke up, the soft texture of a pillow was massaging her head. A blanket wrapped her in a warmth and coziness that strengthened her desire to lay. She could feel that under her body was either a bed or a couch. It didn’t compare to her bed back in Veil, but she wasn’t in any position to complain.
“Ragna?” a female voice spoke.
She opened her eyes, and saw Altera, sitting on her chair next to her.
“Thank Twice, you’re awake,” Altera sat, as tears started to build in the corner of her eyes.
“You really scared us.” Further behind in the room was Eric. He was sitting at a table, eating scrambled eggs. He put his plate aside and left the table, walking towards them.
“Huh?” Ragna looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“You’ve been sleeping for a whole day,” Eric said. “We were worried you would never wake up.”
“A whole day?” Ragna’s face became pale and the dizziness was gone. Ragna couldn’t believe it. She really had slept for an entire day. That wasn’t good. If this continued, she would end up like her father who once was asleep for an entire week.
“I can’t believe it either,” said Eric. “You slept for almost thirty hours. And she…” With the knuckle of his middle finger, he knocked against Altera’s head, causing her to pout. “She’s on an endless caffein-flash. She didn’t want to leave your side even once. If I didn’t force her, she would have forgotten to eat. And when I convinced her to leave your side and get some rest, what did she do? She decided to train. Like seriously, who wants to work out at three am?
“Eric’s right. That isn’t healthy,” Ragna said. “But thank you.”
“I’m a future Valkyrie,” Altera answered. “That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Was this true? Were Valkyries really these altruistic beings who should never care or think of themselves? It’s heroic but was that healthy? Could anyone really live like that? But then, what was a Valkyrie? Altera was different from her father or her mother or any of the Captains. Yet, they were all Valkyries. And what about her?
Ragna stood up. Pain shot through her chest and shoulder and Ragna winced. Her fingers went under her shirt and felt up the location where she had felt the pain come from. Instead of her naked skin, she felt bandages. At that moment, her brain recalled the events of the past days. Ah right. Skyfrost and Clockwork had wounded her. Altera had to tend the wounds with ice. Surprisingly, the temple lacked – despite its technological advancement – in the medical department and had nothing to help them. But now she or Eric had the time and equipment to properly treat her. She could only hope that the scars wouldn’t be too bad.
A glance revealed, Ragna had been resting on a couch. If she had to describe the room with words, middle-class bachelor would fit. Regarding the bigger furniture, she saw nothing that was out of the ordinary. The room was a two’er that combined the living room and kitchen. It resembled her boyfriend’s apartments from the third year, who had left the dorms to live in their own place. So, this was Eric’s apartment.
Ragna’s stomach grumbled.
“And that’s our cue to eat.“ Eric stared at Altera. “And you will eat too.”
“I will make some coffee,” said Ragna. “That’s the least I can do.”
Eric pointed at the corner of the kitchen, and Ragna strolled towards the coffee maker. Preparing the coffee, she opened the window and stared outside. A pleasant warmth spread across her face, and she leaned outside to bathe in the sunshine. Ragna smiled. Eric’s apartment was near the harbor. She could see the water and the ships on the horizon. Seawater was filling the atmosphere. Ragna took a deep breath. She inhaled the scent and gifted her lips and nose the sensation of salt and nostalgia.
It had been ages since she last had been to the sea and the coast. How old was she? Nine or ten? Back then, trips to Hlessy and the archipelagos used to be an annual event.
The cries of seagulls were everywhere. Distant and near, a perpetual ambient sound that engulfed the background. One would think that the sound could get annoying, but for her, it was the opposite. It gave a sense of security and normality. Something that was expected and supposed to be here, and when one searched for it, it was there. The world was how it was supposed to be. Sadly, she wasn’t as fond of the actual birds.
Not ten feet away from Eric’s apartment, a flock of them fought to devour a crab. Each bird shouted that the appetizer was theirs. Even if the food was out of their reach, the birds would continue. In their desire to obtain, they wouldn’t realize the objects of their needs were unobtainable. These animals were greed incarnated into a white avian body. But if one redirected their instincts – instead of fighting to obtain – their greed could compel them to fight to protect.
“I think I like seagulls after all.” Ragna closed the window and walked with the coffee mugs to the table.
As Altera had found out, Eric had figured out the majority of their story by himself. Not that this surprised her. Clockwork hadn’t made any attempt to keep the story behind Ragna’s criminal record a secret. Taking the news about the assassination attempt of the princess into account, the puzzle pieces put themselves together, and Eric lacked only a few details to fill in the remaining gaps, which Altera had provided reluctantly. She had also explained what their plan to was. They would board a ferry to the Eren Archipelago. From there they would board a second ferry to northwest coast of the continent of Glast, and travel from there by foot to Utgard where Drake Griffin was supposedly hiding.
“I don’t care if you are innocent or not,” said Eric and pulled his hat up. “Without you, I would be rotting in that cell. I owe you.” He took a sip from his mug and smiled. “Though, I’m glad that you aren’t crazy killers. Traveling with those is never fun.”
“You don’t own us anything.” Altera saluted her fist before her breast. “It’s a Valkyrie’s duty to fight injustice.”
“Hey, hey, hey.” Ragna slammed her mug against the table. The coffee inside stirred up along the edges before it sunk again into the mug, preventing a spill. “Perhaps we could use his help.” Her blue eyes glimmered traces of greed – like a fox seconds away from prey that had fallen into its trap. “If he says he is indebted to us, then it is our duty as honest humans to collect that debt.”
“B…But that’s not how Valkyries operate,” cried Altera. “We don’t demand debts for doing our jobs and we don’t take them for profit.”
The spark in Ragna’s eyes vanished and they grew dull. She murmured words Altera could not understand and averted her gaze, earning a look of confusion from the future Valkyrie.
“That doesn’t mean it has to be a bad way.” Eric chuckled, redirecting her attention to the topic at large. “Seriously. I insist. You also saved me from the forest god and allowed me to escape the barrier. That’s three times. You aren’t even actual Valkyries. That shouldn’t be taken for granted. You’re doing amazing work. We civilians have to pay you our proper respect. It wouldn’t be great if I couldn’t repay such a huge debt.”
“Still.” Altera frowned. To involve a civilian on a mission that they may not live through contradicted everything a Valkyrie stood for.
What could she do to dissuade him from his intentions?
“We don’t know what kind of dangers we’ll face. This Bragi involves international matters. In the worst-case scenario, we could nullify the peace treaty and cause the next world war. Are you up for that?”
Eric cracked his neck. “Don’t forget, I used to be a cadet. I have completed several regiments and participated in a few missions myself. So, don’t worry. I can take care of myself. Not to mention, this gives me the perfect opportunity to explore the ruins in Glast. It will be fine.”
Eric had a point. There was no logical reason to turn him down. He was offering his assistance and by all accounts was experienced enough that he shouldn’t be a burden. One was expected to make allies and use assistance during a Bragi. It allowed one to build a network of contacts, which was something all Valkyries should have. On top of that, Eric was indebted towards them. Letting a debt remain was dishonorable and an insult. But this wasn’t a regular Bragi. It dealt with international affairs and could easily lead to a fight against Paladins. She couldn’t in good consciousness involve a civilian. She also didn’t like how easily Eric was willing to embark on a new journey and let his life behind.
Altera’s eyes wandered through Eric’s apartment. She inspected any object that could be of help in her current predicament. The glimmer of a small grey object that laid on a shelf – crammed with books about archaeology, history and ancient anthropology –, caught her attention.
“What rank did you have?” she asked.
“I quit during my second year.”
Altera smiled and stood up. “She walked past them towards the bookshelf and grabbed the object, her eyes had focused on.
“Then can you tell me what this is?” In her hand rested a gun, whose metal casing reflected the sun rays from the window.
“What the Hel?” Ragna stared at Eric as if he had confessed to smuggling drugs or worse, been a rapist. “Why do you have a gun?”
Now she had a solution. Even Ragna with her lax interpretation of rules for the sake of pragmatism wouldn’t be okay with guns. The majority of Aes’s population hated armed weapons. Not that one could blame them. These things were disgusting, and the law forbade civilians to possess them. Even Valkyries could not legally purchase ammunition.
Eric shrugged with his shoulders. “In my profession, there are many people who want to kill me.” His eyes narrowed, and the muscles in his face tensed up. “I haven’t found my Flyga yet, and I don’t possess some of that fancy-ass magic like you do. If I have to break the law or kill to protect myself, then yes, I will do it without hesitation.”
Ragna frowned, and Altera’s finger ran over the gun’s muzzle. “That’s a slippery slope.”
“Only if you dance on the edge like an idiot,” argued Eric. “I’m not going on a killing spree like one of those demented motherfuckers did. And I’m not gonna shoot anyone who looks funny like the cops used to. That’s why we forbade them in the first place. But against people like the Clockwork Coterie it’s different.”
Ragna held her hand, her fingers caressing the bandages. Her frown didn’t disappear, but she didn’t say a word either.
“Against those, we have to kill if we want to protect ourselves.” Eric continued. “And whether we do it with a knife or a gun, the result will be the same. I don’t disagree with Colombine, but we aren’t just civilians. Normal rules can’t apply to us like they do to normal people. All I’m saying is, there are layers.”
Altera bit into her fingernail. He wasn’t exactly wrong, and he had both the resources and the knowledge to get his hands on a gun on the black market.
“I’m taking a shower,” said Ragna. Her cheeks had become red. Her hands brushed the bridge of her nose.
“Over there.” Eric gesticulated with his head towards the door to Ragna’s left. “Medical supply is in the top drawer.”
Ragna nodded and hurried towards the door, Eric had pointed at.
“Will she be okay?” asked Eric.
“She will have to, if she wants to continue.”
At the moment, there was nothing she could do about her. But she had to figure out something. If she didn’t, it would only get worse the longer they travel. And from here on, the journey would only get more difficult, especially once they arrived in Utgard.
“It seems there is no use in further arguing,” said Altera. “I may or may not agree with you, but possessing this weapon goes against the Colombine Agreement. As a Valkyrie, I have to confiscate your gun. Being involved in the weapon’s trade is a life sentence. As such, you will accompany us on our journey and pay your life debt to society that way.”
“Sure, be my guest.” Eric chuckled. “Without bullets, that thing is useless anyway. But just as you will have my back, I expect you to make up for the firepower.”
“That goes without saying.”
Eric was right. There was no point in delaying it any further, if they wanted to survive, she had to do that.
And with these words, Eric Mort had joined the party.