Chapter 16 – Reflections are ephemeral

The waves were swaying in their eternal rhythm. Rising and falling, they moved against the ship’s hull. Altera looked at them. When mankind was a single cell, the waves were even back then, playing their game. And when humanity would fall, they would do the same and welcome the next lifeform to inhabit this planet.  

Altera sighed. She leaned over the rails, her eyes trying to penetrate the water in front of her. There was a time when the people of Midgard believed the sea that surrounded the continent was the entire world. Even once nautical travel was possible, sailors and pirates would not let go of their superstitions. They treated the sea with the same reverence people used to worship Twice. 

Altera took out her phone and looked at its screen. This time, she had managed fifteen minutes without checking the clock. She was improving. Her last attempt had lasted ten minutes and forty-six seconds. Next time, she could crack twenty. Altera grumbled that this was her only way to kill time. 

Why did it take the ship an entire day to arrive at the Archipelago? It had to move at a snail’s pace to be this slow. No, this was a cruiseferry. It accommodated the luxury standards of the guests. For them, the journey was the destination. One wouldn’t blame a monkey for its inability to fly. As much as one wouldn’t judge a dove for how fast it could run across the street. Everything in this world had its unique purpose, and one should not misuse it. 

She had no one to blame but herself. She could have chosen a vaster vessel, but this was a stupid attempt to increase her patience by forcing her into a situation where she was forced to wait. The atmosphere on the ship would encourage her to wind down and relax. She would eat shrimps, drink non-alcoholic cocktails, and take a sunbath. Maybe she could get even a tan. At least, that’s what her naive mind had assumed. That didn’t work out at all. Though she had to admit that there were other reasons as well for her choice. It was the perfect opportunity to teach Ragna and Eric how to use runes, and it delayed their arrival in Utgard. It was a good plan, but she had underestimated how excruciating the trip would be. 

Altera summoned an icicle shaped like a prism. She aimed at the wave and threw it like a shuriken. The icicle shot through multiple waves until the water swallowed it. 

This sucks. 

She had already worked out at the ferry’s gym. If she spread her wings and dashed across the sea, she would arrive at the Archipelago in about six hours. With her runes, it shouldn’t be a problem to reach her maximum speed. And the remaining time, she could spend exploring Eren. Altera threw another icicle. 

No, this was a stupid idea. She would run out of Mana once she had managed three-quarters of her trip, and then she would collapse and fall into the ocean. She also would have to leave Ragna and Eric behind. That wasn’t great either. They were her responsibility, and their lives were above hers. 

Just what should she do? So far, her Bragi had turned out to be a disaster. There were so many missteps she had made, and she had involved others. How could she ensure their survival? It wasn’t like they were weak. For a first-year cadet, Ragna’s talent and skills were extraordinary. The staff had decided to make the academy’s best student her supervisor, specifically, because they saw the potential in her to become a Valkyrie. Eric’s an adventurer which wasn’t the safest profession in the world. But this Bragi was on another level and the runes would only carry them to a certain point. If they didn’t show a drastic increase in their abilities, they will end up dead. 

The best option would be if they discovered their Flyga, but that wasn’t a guarantee. Some people never do, and the process was different for each individual. She had found hers through studying and rigid training. For her, that was a fitting trigger, but it was doubtful that it would help Ragna or Eric. 

“Why the grim face?” 

Altera turned around. Next to her stood a man. A ruff white beard grew on his face and wrinkles through it. If she had to guess his age, she would say he was around sixty-five years old. The man wore a rugged ultra-marine uniform, and a captain’s hat rested on his head – revealing the man’s identity. He had a big smile on his face; the captain grinned, as every sailor tended to do. 

“I don’t like the sea much, that’s all,” said Altera. 

The captain leaned over the ferry, giving the sea a longing look. On its surface, the sun’s reflection had paved a path of gold that extended until the horizon. The thought to walk on it and reach a mystical mainland, removed from the worries of this world, seemed like a logical next step. 

He took off his captain’s head and scratched his greying head. 

“Such a shame,” he said. “In my opinion…the sea, there is no greater beauty in all of Aes. Except for my wife, of course.” The captain stopped. He glanced sideways and waited a few seconds. 

Was he expecting his wife to appear behind him and accuse him of infidelity with the water? 

“But like my wife, the sea can have a bad temper. So, I understand why not everyone can handle her. But seeing beyond that is how you never lose sight of her beauty.” 

“I guess you are right.” Altera smiled. 

How did her relationship with Ragna change over the last three days? It was strange to see these new sides of her. Ragna was ignorant of the outside world, but she had her convictions and wanted to fight for what she believed was right. And more than anything, she learned and adapted. For a moment, the thought that they could eventually become friends crossed in her mind. 

Ragna was wavering and had reached a point where the branches of her path are splitting. Even if they didn’t become friends, she was still her mentor. It was her duty to guide Ragna so that she can make the right choice, whatever that would be. Altera could only hope that this would be all she had to do. Then again, this journey had shaken her world too. 

“Have you ever seen something that defies explanation?” she asked. 

The captain stroked his beard. “When you venture into the world, eventually, you will see things that you cannot understand. Perhaps, because the supernatural exists. Alternatively, it is a scientific phenomenon beyond our understanding. I once looked at a snake swallowing a house in Obelisk and a fiddler breaking the law of physics with his play. I once saw even an elf. I tell you they hunt your dreams and you will never wake up again.”   

Altera raised her brow. “Okay, the last one was a lie.” 

No matter where and when, all seafarers were the same. It was embarrassing to remember how easily she used to swallow up these grand make-believe tales of her father. Especially the story that every morning fairies would paint the sky blue, orange when it was evening, and black at night. It kept her from staying up too late or sleeping for too long so that the fairies wouldn’t be offended and paint the world gray. 

“Perhaps or perhaps not. I see it as my sailor’s pride to never let people know when I tell the truth or lie. Especially here, there is so much that our eyes and minds cannot grasp. Who knows what slumbers 20.000 leagues under the sea? What wanders in the sheer cold of Minanaught? Who is hiding in the Rising Forest? And don’t get me started on the Lost City. But doesn’t that make the world worthwhile? That there is so much we still have to explore?” 

“Really?” Altera’s voice trembled and her eyes gazed into the abyss of the ocean. “Doesn’t it scare you?” 

The captain let out a laugh. “Of course, it does. But this fear reminds me that I’m alive. At my age, it’s easy to forget that one is still among the living. Our fears are allowing us to progress. To step forward despite being afraid, is the essence of courage. Whenever I venture out, I embrace the possibility that every day can be my last. For Valkyries, it is the same, Ms. Xion.” 

Altera raised her eyes. “How…” 

The captain laughed again. “I’m not much into television these days, but even an old sailor as I watched the peace ceremony. Just between us, you were the topic of everyone’s discussions. Even Vaix was radiated by your appearance. We don’t often see an individual who can rival Princess Aurelia’s beauty.” 

Altera averted her eyes and frowned. “I would rather be known for my actions than for something I was born with. I do not deserve this praise. Not yet.” 

The captain nodded – not in agreement, but in understanding. 

In his opinion, there was nothing wrong with using the resources one was born with. It didn’t make one spoiled, but smart. Would one fault the eagle for flying with its wings? But as an old man, he had no right to lecture a young woman about her merits. 

“Going by your behavior, you already had encountered something extraordinary, I assume?” the Captain asked. 

“Fear is a luxury. Valkyries cannot be afraid. We have to stand up, so others don’t have to. If we are afraid, then those we vowed to protect will lose all hope and despair. Aes is frightening, and the more we learn the worse it becomes. But for the sake of everyone else, we must maintain the illusion of beauty. Even… Sorry, I already said too much. I would rather not involve civilians in this.” 

“Don’t worry. I was just interested in a tale. A sailor lives and dies by the stories he encounters. It’s a pity, but a Bragi is something personal. I can understand if you wish to keep it to yourself. I am travelling to Auster after this. Is there something I should tell the people over there?” 

“You know that I’m from Auster?” 

“I know your parents and even met your brother. But the last time I was there was about twenty years ago. So, anything I shall tell?” 

Altera shook her head. “But can my companions and I have the dance hall on the ground deck for a few hours to ourselves? We may need it to train.” 

“That shouldn’t be a problem. The contest doesn’t start until tomorrow. Well, if you excuse me. I am going to check on the other guests. These trips can be rather boring, but the stories make it worthwhile. I wish you a nice voyage and success with your Bragi.” 

“Thank you.” 

The Captain left her alone. 

He could have told her his opinion, give her advice, but that wouldn’t be good. It’s better if she found the answer for herself. If the young generation merely absorbed the views the old gave to them, then the world would not progress. The ideals of the past would tarnish the emancipation of the future. The world would stagnate, and the old might as well live on forever. It was a common misconception that adults should guide their children into the future, into the right path, or whatever. In truth, the young should find the way themselves and guide each other. The task of the old ones was to help them up when they stumble so that they can continue. 

֎ 

Eventually, the water changed to the red-orange reflection of the sinking sun, and the alarm of Altera’s phone rang. She looked at the clock, and her shoulders dropped in relief. Finally, the wait was over. It was time to see Eric and Ragna. 

Back at her cabin, Ragna and Eric were lying on the ground. Their arms splayed out as if they were trying to create snow valkyries. Sheets of paper were scattered everywhere, and the two stared at the roof. The room was in such chaos that one would think a tornado had raged inside. Ragna and Eric were sweating profusely, and their breath was heavy. Some of the runes flickered in black light. 

“It looks like you succeeded.” 

Ragna and Eric turned their heads. Only now had they realized her presence. Ragna jumped up and grabbed the nearest paper that was flickering. 

“Look,” she said with a big grin and gave Altera the papers, like an elementary student who got her first ‘A’. The runes were Hagal, Iwaz, and Ura. 

“We got both ‘hail’.” A sense of pride overcame Altera. Even though it was trivial, it was a feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie. 

“Really?” Ragna jumped. For a moment the two were like schoolgirls who had bought matching accessories. 

“How can you be so energetic?” Eric groaned and rose up. Lacking Ragna’s vitality, he had the élan and speed of a Draugr who had risen from the dead but lacked its instincts to do anything but to walk slowly in search for brains. 

“I’m full of life, old man.” Ragna snapped her fingers and pointed them as guns at Eric. 

Eric raised his eyebrow. “Old man? I’m 26.” 

“Really?” Ragna whistled. “I thought you were like over thirty…not that I have a problem with that. I like silver foxes.” 

“Then I will ask you out once I’m thirty,” said Eric. “Hopefully, by then, you’ll look like an adult.” 

Ragna dropped her shoulders. “Yeah. I deserved that.” 

To Altera’s surprise, Ragna let go of that slight against her figure. She had pondered if she should intervene in the discussion. Wisely, she had decided to remain silent, as she couldn’t think of any comment to contribute. 

Eric showed her his runes, and Altera spoke. “With the three at my disposal, we have all of the eight runes and Hagal twice. Anyway, if you want to use them in combat, you draw the rune on any kind of surface, and the effect will then happen. But it’s best if you can touch the rune or the object with the rune.” Altera paused for a moment. “Just to make it quick, these are the effects: Hagal allows you to summon ice. Fehu is telekinesis and acceleration.” She summoned a dagger made of ice on her hand. The weapon levitated and sped through the room. It crashed against the wall and splintered into shards. 

Ragna clapped her hands. “So, that’s how you tore through the train roof and the cell bars. Though that dagger didn’t have much of a punch.” 

“It’s simple physics,” Altera explained. “Force equals mass times acceleration. So, the bigger and faster it is, the more powerful it becomes.” 

“Wait…so, you can only make the ice move because of the Fehu rune?” 

Altera nodded. “Hagal summons ice. We can mold it to our likening and make it grow, but that’s it. It cannot leave its initial position since ice cannot move on its own. As for the other runes, Teiwaz is augmentation. It gives your body a temporary boost.” 

“What kind of boost?” Ragna asked. 

“Speed, strength, resilience, moral, health – these are some of the aspects that you can boost. It is an augmentation of all that is admirable in a noble warrior.” 

“So, basically, your stats get a short-time bonus.” 

Altera looked at Ragna in confusion. 

“Like in a video game,” said Eric. 

Altera still didn’t understand, but it was better if she didn’t bother with that topic any further. “Anyway, Ura manipulates water or creates it. Unlike with Hagal, you don’t need Fehu for that, but you also cannot change its aggregate state. It also disappears shortly afterwards, so don’t try to solve world problems.” 

“Dying children in Obelisk,” said Eric. “Not that high on Twice’s priority list.” 

“Naudiz allows you to teleport to a place that you have marked with a rune. The range is not that great, though. So, using it for quick travel is useless. Iwaz creates poison. Burisaz…” Altera pointed to the ground. Out of it, a thin spear-like structure rose. “…can summon thorns and stakes on any surface you can see, and Iwaz makes things colder. Both physically and mentally. It can create a feeling of apathy. It also slows down the movement of objects.” 

Ragna stared at Altera. “Eh…so, Hagal is creating ice, and Naudiz is…” 

“You don’t have to learn them all right now,” said Eric. “It’s enough that you know what you can do.” 

“Okay,” said Ragna. “And now what?” 

“Touch the paper. Visualize what you want to summon and materialize it.” An ice sphere constructed itself above her hand. Layer by layer filled the ice its form until the sphere was whole. “The rune is brush and color in one and the world, your canvas.” 

Ragna and Eric did as Altera instructed them. They touched the papers, and their faces hardened. Displaying utmost concentration, they sat still. Their minds focused, and time passed. It may have been minutes – and it probably was – but for them, it felt like hours. Eventually, the ground froze. 

“Huh.” Eric swiped over the slippery surface of the ice. “Altera’s mumbo jumbo was actually useful.” 

Altera grinned from ear to ear. 

“Not really,” said Ragna, and Altera’s smile vanished. “That art talk didn’t do a thing. Then I remembered how she had used the rune against Skyfrost. I thought, why didn’t she do this instead. Like, why didn’t she make him slip and fall off the train.” 

“It’s not my fault.” Altera puffed and crossed her arms. Her companions gave her a weird look. “It really is not my fault. When I said that the runes are based on your self, I meant it. It’s not that I didn’t think about it. I couldn’t. It’s not my personality. The runes – like the Flyga – manifest your soul as abilities. You’ll only use abilities that suit you. But as people change, so do your abilities. I’ll learn new ones and forget what once used to be second nature. There will be many moments where you will ask, ‘Why didn’t you do that?’. I simply couldn’t.” 

“I don’t buy that,” said Eric. “If you write them down somewhere, you can always look them up.” 

Altera shook her head. “You’ll forget that you’ve written it down. Let me give you an example. Ragna, what was the name of your third SO?” 

“My third…mhm…there was John…no…he’s my sixth. Paul…no…George…ah, I remember. It was Ringo. I was 13, and he was a nice guy. Never got to second base, though. He was always the quiet one in class.” 

“You probably had a nice time together. But how often did you think about him after you broke up?” 

“At first, a lot, but it has been years.” 

“Exactly. Had I not asked, you wouldn’t have thought about him at all. And unless it turns out you have some lingering feelings left, you’ll forget him again. It’s the same with these techniques. They are an extension of your self. They can’t be what you are not. And also, because they are an extension of yourself, runes can never hurt you.” 

֎ 

Under Altera’s instruction, Eric and Ragna trained for several hours in an empty hall on the lower deck. As they soon learned, all three had different thought processes to activate the power of the runes. For Altera, it was art. She imagined what she wanted to create. If she wanted to create an ice stake, she saw the object before her eyes. Ragna saw the effect she wanted to achieve. If she wanted to summon an ice stake, she had to think she wanted to impale an enemy. And Eric had to think of commands like “I want you to do this”.  

“How can you use them in combat? To hold on to that piece of paper doesn’t seem to be a good idea.” Ragna said once they had gotten back to their cabin, and it had become night. 

“You have to create a connection between rune and body.” Altera sat down on her lodge and crossed her legs. Eric and Ragna stared at her in confusion. 

“It’s much easier than you think.” She said. “You can draw the runes on you or your clothes and weapons. But with the pens we have, they would soon fade away, so we can’t use that. Another option is…” 

Altera rolled up her sleeve and revealed a black six-pointed cross overlaid on top of the scheme of a flower – three petals up, three petals down. 

“Using tattoos or burn marks creates the strongest connection. It furthermore makes it harder to separate the rune from you. Well, for now, just stick the papers you drew the runes on to your clothes. It’s not the best, but for the moment, it should suffice.” 

Ragna chuckled. “I didn’t expect the prude Altera Xion to have tattoos. Guess you are more of a rebel than I had thought.” 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Altera stared at Ragna but then stopped her inquiry. “Any other questions?” 

Eric raised his hand. “What can the other runes do? The ones Veil cannot use.” 

Altera shrugged. “I have no idea. While their origins are different, the usage of runes is virtually indistinguishable from a Flyga. I was sadly never in a situation where I could have differed between the two.” 

“I’m just wondering…” Ragna had a wide grin on her face. Her eyes gleamed in the light of a predator who had caught the smell of blood. “You can use three runes, right? That means you’ve three tattoos.” 

Altera nodded. 

“I didn’t see any tattoos when you were working out. I didn’t have a good view of your shoulder then, but you still only wore sports underwear. So, just where are you hiding the other two?” 

Altera averted her eyes. “That’s none of your concern.” 

“Oh, come on. I’m not asking you to show them.” 

“Cut it out,” said Eric. “It’s clear that she’s embarrass- “ 

Sirens howled, drowning Eric’s word under their noises, and a red light flashed in rapid succession. The cabin shook, and a shrieking noise like knives screeching against glass pierced through their ears. 

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