What was the reason people chose to fight? Duty? Justice? Lust? Or perhaps they were dead inside? All motives were legitimate. If a reason existed, then it was worth fighting for. Yet, those who chose to fight would end up either as monsters or as heroes. What were the criteria that decided this?
Ragna entered the highway. A voice spoke into her ear.
“Vaixian soldiers are invading Midgard. 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. Griffin, out.”
She shut the communicator off and stared into the night sky. The moon radiated over the city of Midgard, gracing it like a halo. And in the distance, the sound of sirens and artillery fire echoed. Ragna took a deep breath and coughed.
Okay, that wasn’t a great idea. But they had come a long way. The stench of fire and smoke was real.
Ragna covered the lower half of her face with her mouth-mask. Together with her fire-proof uniform, it should keep her safe from the flames.
“Let’s go,” Ragna said to herself and started to move.
If she succeeded with this mission, she would be one step closer to becoming a Valkyrie. She would rise to the top of both society and the military – and gain the resources to create a better world. It might take a few years and ranks even then, but every step counted.
In front of her raged an inferno across the highway. Wrecked cars and tanks covered the asphalt, serving as food for the wildfire. The blaze overtook the path in front of her and painted the night sky in embers. A red carpet pointing at the skyscrapers of Midgard's skyline welcomed her and announced to the city this would be her moment.
Washing away the sweat pearls from her forehead, Ragna smiled. Her skin felt dry. But that wouldn’t stop her. It was time for the hero to arrive at the scene.
Ragna hid behind a wrecked car that miraculously was not on fire and peeked around the corner. Three men armed with automatic rifles, wearing the same uniform, patrolled the streets. A long double-breasted trench coat, white trousers, and sable black trench boots contributed an imperial air to the uniform that a white-beaked hat completed. And the cross star plastered on their coats allowed even an infant to tell these were villains – the soldiers of Vaix. Even though they were patrolling the streets, their attitude seemed lax. They paid no attention to their surroundings – or the fire – and walked the streets up and down, performing a mechanical routine like enemies in a video game.
Were those supposed to be the soldiers of Vaix who valued heartless efficiency and discipline above all? Someone had gotten lazy. Still, she couldn’t attack them. Even these kumquat heads would notice if she killed their comrades. It was better to keep a low profile. Was there anything that could help her?
Ragna’s eyes stopped at the fence that divided the highway into two. It only reached her kneecaps, but that was tall enough. The soldiers shouldn’t notice her if she crawled under the fence. They all patrolled the right side of the street and ignored – for reasons Ragna could only chalk up to idiocy – the left side. If she could get on the other side, the soldiers shouldn't notice her.
For her plan to work, she had to jump over the fence, and from her position, she would need five seconds to make it to the other side. The time frame was wide enough that they could spot her while she was running.
She peeked again. All soldiers were facing her direction.
She needed a distraction. And as if Twice had decided to bless Ragna, an explosion detonated on the horizon, catching the soldiers' attention.
This was her chance.
Ragna dashed towards the fence and jumped over. A second explosion detonated in the distance. In a reflex, Ragna’s head turned around, and her knees collided with the asphalt. Grinding her teeth to stay silent, she rolled on the street and pressed her hands against her kneecaps.
Fuck. That hurt.
Once the pain had decreased to a tolerable amount, Ragna crouched. She crawled alongside the fence and tried not to jerk up whenever her swollen kneecaps touched the highway.
Technically, sneaking past the enemy wasn't exactly how one would fight, but what was the point of direct combat if it became a suicide mission? The world praised the virtues of sacrifice and death in war, but you gave your life away to defeat one enemy. What about the others? Each day a hero was alive, they could save more lives, defeat more enemies. If someone threw their life away, how often was it because they wanted a romantic death that forced the world to remember them as heroes? What use was a hero who couldn't save any more lives? Death without meaning was no sacrifice. It became a waste of lives.
A light descended from the firmament. Cutting through the smoke, it painted circles on the asphalt. Ragna looked up. A mechanical beast loomed in the night sky. As it hovered in front of the moon, only its silhouette was visible: a black condor on the verge of an assault, searching for prey.
Birds? Are you kidding me?
Ragna gulped. She pressed her body against the asphalt as much as she could and prayed they wouldn’t spot her. But as she crawled, the helicopter’s searchlight shone upon her.
Fuck. It's now or never.
Ragna pushed the button on the back of her fingerless glove.
Hopefully, this wouldn’t bite her in the ass at a later point.
A blue circle light sprang from the glove and covered her like a second skin. Yellow sparks flew around the helicopter, and it opened fire. Ragna jumped forward and ran. The bullets grazed the tips of her ink-black pigtails before they slowed down and dropped to the ground.
Thanks to her gravity manipulator, she could enhance or disable the gravity in her vicinity, herself, and any object around her however she wanted. But if her device's timer ran out faster than the bullets did, she would die.
Ragna hurried over the highway and ignored heat and smoke. The ordnance continued to follow her. It pierced the ground, spewing dust and debris. The gravitational forces around Ragna shifted, her speed increased, and the countdown of her timer accelerated.
In the sky, the sound of an engine combusting hissed. A blur sped through the air, too fast for Ragna to look up. The helicopter's bullet fire subsided, and the sound of a crash followed.
Ragna stopped. Catching her breath, she turned around. The helicopter had burst into pieces, and its debris fell like a rain shower.
Was that an anti-air rocket? If she had to guess, the helicopter had focused too much on her and hadn’t noticed whatever destroyed it. Not that it mattered for her. One more enemy was gone.
Ragna blew a raspberry to the fragments and continued to run.
She was unable to defeat the enemy through her own strength, but who cared about that? If one was weak, then one had to find other factors to rely on. A dragon who hoarded its treasure without ever spending a single coin wasted it. For humans, it was the same principle. Someone who didn't use everything available at their disposal wasted their potential. Only the arrogant saw that as cheap.
A new line of enemies appeared at the rims of her field of vision. Ragna slowed down. She looked at her left glove and tapped it once. A blue hologram appeared above the back of her hand and displayed the number '1:50’ – counting down by the second.
She had control over gravity for less than two minutes before her glove would shut down. Should she play it safe and ambush them or save time and attack like a berserker? Given the information at her disposal, both options were reasonable and offered different advantages. That wasn't the problem. It was what she didn't know. The factors outside her sphere of perception could turn a sound conclusion into a false assumption. On the battlefield, victory was all that mattered. Be it because of reason or insanity. And if one failed, the world wouldn’t care about the excuses.
A scream for help disrupted her thoughts. Ragna stopped and concentrated her eyes on the enemies.
Six men stood on the highway, their backs in front of her. If she were an assassin, she could stab one of them from behind, and with all the noise, they wouldn’t notice.
Ragna peeked through the space between them and spotted a girl, around five years old and screaming. The soldiers had formed a half-circle. They had cornered her against a barricade of cars, and the girl had nowhere to run.
The soldier on the outer left broke the circle. He trudged towards her, his boots echoing like war drums as he drove the girl further against the metallic dead end.
From her angle, Ragna could see his face.
He opened his mouth. The words the man had spoken drowned in the girl’s cries, but the devious smile painted on his visage destroyed any shred of ambiguity.
Disgusting. Ragna grimaced. To abuse warfare for a demented pretense of control. Monsters hiding as humans. Yeah, they had revoked their right to live.
“A hero it is.”
The gravitation that bound Ragna to the earth decreased. With her saber in her hand, she jumped over the soldiers' heads. Her feet floated above the deviant that tried to prey upon the girl. The gravity that surrounded Ragna increased tenfold and forced her down like an anchor. The soldier was too distracted to notice. The sole crushed his skull to the ground, echoing a sickening crunch, and under her leather boot, blood, bones, and other visceral matter had spilled out.
“One down; You’re next.”
Ragna slashed the next soldier across the chest with her sword. He fell to the ground, and the third soldier reached for his gun. Before he could pull the trigger, Ragna had grabbed his weapon. She rammed her elbow into his stomach and sent the soldier flying.
Ragna performed a flip and propelled herself against him, using his body as a springboard. The soldier crashed into the asphalt, and Ragna rotated her body in the sky. Facing downwards, she aimed her pistol at the fourth soldier and shot three times.
The soldier sunk to the ground, and the next one aimed his gun at her. Like a dart, Ragna threw her sword. It penetrated his skull, the soldier collapsed on his knees, and Ragna landed on the ground.
“It wasn’t a three-point landing, but I gave you quite a show. Didn’t I?” Ragna winked at the sixth and last soldier.
For most people, these acrobatics bordered on superhuman feats. But with gravity on her side – and once she had gotten used to adjusting the gravitational forces on the fly – it became child's play.
The soldier didn't realize the futility of his actions and emptied his rifle. The gravity weighted down on the bullets, and they lost their speed. A few centimeters away from her face, they had slowed down enough that one could think their movements had stopped. Ragna slapped them away. Despite being out of ammo, the soldier continued to shoot. Only hollow clicking came out of the weapon, yet the soldier did not stop. He did not run; spoke no word. The soldier stood in front of Ragna and fired an empty rifle. Over and over again. His brain computed one action that he had to repeat until his body would give out.
“Is he malfunctioning?” Ragna removed her saber from his fallen comrade’s head and flicked the blood away. “You know, this is starting to get sad.” She aimed her gun. “I think it’s better if we end this.” She pulled the trigger, and the last soldier fell.
Seeing them struggle against her, one might have felt sympathy for them. They had no chance of winning, yet they still tried. Wasn't that a classical underdog story? Those that did would waste their condolences. The moment they had chosen to hurt the girl, they had become monsters. Sparing a monster's life was an insult to everyone it had killed. Without justice or salvation, the victims' souls would wander for all eternity.
“That was some shoddy work.” Ragna tried to rub off the mess that had gotten under her heels. A rusty red had sullied the black of her boots.
It didn't matter. She had to find the girl before she got herself killed.
Ragna looked around. Her eyes caught the girl running into the woods. “Hey, wait.” Ragna rushed into the forest and followed her trail.
What was wrong with the girl? Did she want to die? If she did, then she would have to choose another day. No innocent souls would suffer, not as long as she breathed to prevent it.
The flames twisted through the trees and bushes. Transforming the soils into ashes, they extended their blazing arms and cast the dancing shadows of dying vegetation as emaciated demons. Toxic smoke erupted from their carcasses, turning the scene into a painting of vibrant orange and smoldering black. Through this canvas, the girl’s silhouette spurted. The fire enlarged the shadow to a black titan with the black-clad Ragna followed her. The heat scorched her skin, but Ragna pressed on. Neither of them lost speed. Despite being younger than her and untrained, the girl had maintained her head start.
What the fuck’s wrong with her?
Eventually, Ragna saw an opening, and the orange and black subsided for the gray of asphalt.
She was on the highway again. Ragna took a moment to catch her breath and paused. Now that she had left the forest, the accumulated pain, damage, and heat struck her at once. Her skin felt crisp.
Where was the girl? No one was here, no trace of her left. What the hell was she? Come to think of, why would she be on this battlefield anyway? The soldiers had not entered the city itself. They were on a highway. It was the middle of the night, and no civilians – dead or alive – were there. If the girl had intended to run, why did she stay until the very end? There were multiple openings during her fight with the soldiers. It didn’t make sense.
The ground began to shake. In small intervals, the highway tremored and stomps drummed in Ragna's ears. Whatever was coming, it was massive.
Trying to maintain her balance, she looked to her left. Out of the inferno, a mechanical monstrosity came forth. One after another, it moved its six pillar-like legs. The ground trembled with each step anew. This bastard of a spider’s abdomen and a tiger’s upper body towered over the street. It was tall enough to reach the trees' bough. Without mistake, in front of her stood the weapon she had to eliminate.
“What a lucky coincidence.” Ragna rolled her eyes. “Going off the rails and following the girl just had to lead to the 'end boss'. Still, how can this guy get even uglier than the last one?”
The weapon didn't say a word. Why should it? The only response this abomination had was to raise its pine green tiger head.
Monsters did not need words. They were existences who had neither conscious nor sentience, and their purpose was to die. Humans killed them and attained the designation of hero. They died for the hero’s glory – her glory. If they hurt others, then they had to pay the price.
Its eyes gleamed in red light.
Ragna looked at the number above her glove. A fat zero flashed above her hand as the cooldown period of her device ended.
She smirked and pressed the button.
Time for some action.
The tiger roared, and out of its mouth, it fired a rocket. Ragna swung her sword. Sparks buzzed as the two metals grated against each other. Neither of them was going to yield and let the other win. But unlike that weapon, she could become more powerful.
Ragna increased the pressure her sword exerted. Creating a noise resembling nails against a chalkboard, she cut the rocket through its center. The halves flew past her and exploded in the distance.
“Well, at least you are better than your predecessor.”
Ragna ran towards the machine. It beeped and roared. Lights gleamed, and missiles launched out of it. Identifying Ragna as the target, they changed their trajectory, forcing her to halt and squat.
From her assessment, these missiles could break through the gravitation field. The rocket had been a testament to that. There were too many for her sword to cut through all of them. If she moved, they would recalibrate and bombard her. She had to wait.
Ragna took a deep breath.
Don’t panic. Don’t listen to your instincts. Now.
Ragna jumped. She skipped over the missiles and landed atop the tiger’s head. The projectiles hit the street and transformed the highway into a mosaic of craters and asphalt. Debris spewed around; flames began to spread from the impact.
The machine had registered the weight on its head. It shook its body like a wild bull, trying to get rid of Ragna. But against the gravitational pull of her glove, it was an insect against a dragon.
Ragna jumped from its head to its lower back and landed behind the missile launcher. She swung her saber. Increasing the gravitational pull on her blade, it sliced through the device. The missile launcher crackled with electric sparks, and its fragments crashed to the ground.
She pointed her sword at the machine’s back. “Time to put an end to this revolting lawnmower.”
She heard a clicking sound, and the machine’s back opened, revealing a circular hatch.
Ragna sighed. “So, the machine had enemies inside. Of course, it couldn’t have been too easy.”
From the hatch emerged a platform, on which a young woman stood. Metallic night-blue laurels decorated her long teal-white hair, and her eyes resembled a thin and sharp layer of frost on the petals of a rose. One glance at the woman’s face sufficed to realize this was the beauty of a higher being.
“Huh?” Ragna widened her eyes. “Why are you here?”
The woman didn’t answer. White feathery wings grew out of her back, increasing the divinity of her appearance. Even her armor evoked the image of disjointed stockings, opera gloves, and a corset.
Fire and moonlight gleamed on its silver reflection. It was as if she had chosen it to accommodate her raven black miniskirt, to go for style over functionality.
Such thinking was a beginner's mistake. Valkyries dressed for both the battlefield and the gala. Charming the cameras, animating the masses to fight, and defeating the enemies – They were beauty and strength in one.
The woman smirked.
Was she trying to flaunt her superiority?
Ragna's body trembled. Every cell in her screamed to defeat this woman. Ragna glanced at the blue ring above her glove. A number was glowing in its center, counting down from '5:00'. She gnashed like a starved dog and barred her teeth.
Already? How did that happen? Whatever. She didn't need the manipulator. All she had to do was to beat her to a bloody pulp.
Ragna swung her sword. Her opponent beat her wings. She flew into the sky, and Ragna missed. In the same instance, Ragna rotated her body and attacked again. Her saber brushed through the tip of her wings. Feathers scattered in the air, leaving behind a trail on the back of the machine that had stopped moving.
The woman chuckled and danced around Ragna, evading another of her attacks.
Ragna's expression had contorted to a grimace. Glaring daggers at her opponent, she threw a punch with her free hand. The woman circled around her, and Ragna missed again. Flying closer to her, the woman flicked her forehead.
"Stop looking down on me." Ragna's eyes turned to slits. Forgoing all tactics, she charged at her opponent, and with her free hand, grabbed the woman's wings. Feathers tickled against the fabric of her glove, and Ragna pulled, putting all energy into her hold. But without trouble, the woman escaped the grab. She soared into the sky, far outside Ragna's reach, leaving only a bunch of feathers in Ragna's hand behind.
"Come back, you coward."
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, tried to form words, her hands reached for the spear. Blood escaped her mouth and sternum and dripped on the machine. The cold spread through her body. Her blood and nerves – every cell of her body stopped its function and froze. She fell, and the words “Mission failed” appeared. Her surroundings, the woman, and the machine dispersed in blue light.
A white void room remained.