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“The ceremony will start with a speech of Princess Aurelia,” said Ragna's father. “After that is the initiation ritual of Cadet Xion. I wonder what she'll have to do to become a Valkyrie.”

"I hope Altera fails.” Ragna munched on a slice of her pizza, and with her other hand, shielded her eyes from the sun. It was the middle of July, and temperatures were at an all-time high. As such, they had decided to eat outside the pizzeria 'Slice and the City'.

"Look," her father said. "I know you don't like her, but wishing that she fails goes too far. Her entire career is at stake. If she fails, she might as well become a prostitute."

"Don't insult prostitutes." Ragna glared at her father. "There's nothing wrong with being one." She sighed. "But fine. I hope she succeeds, but that it'll be difficult."

Her father was right. Altera was still an agent of Midgard, and if she succeeded, she would dedicate her life to fight for Midgard and the good people of the world. She couldn't deny her that. To wish to rob humanity of another protector and hero was selfish. Even she had to support Altera’s heroic journey, her Bragi. And it wasn’t like becoming one was easy. Only those who distinguished themselves enough through personality, abilities, and deeds could hope to become a Valkyrie. A Captain would voice their interest for such an individual to join their team of Valkyries. Such Valkyrie candidates had to accomplish a heroic task, the Bragi, that the commander of the military had given them. Of course, entering the special Valkyrie Program during the military academy and rising through the ranks of the Einherjar helped.

Just like her, Altera wished to become a Valkyrie. Valkyries weren’t just celebrities and influencers, or high-ranking super soldiers within the Einherjar. Inspired by the same beings from myths and legends, they were heroes of justice, protector of the weak. With their special, magic abilities the Fylgja, they dedicated their lives, eliminating all threats towards Midgard and contributing to a better world.

"You don't have to wish for that," said her father. "If she wants to be a Valkyrie, she'll have to earn that rank. I had to travel around Aes for six months until I became one."

Ragna didn't say a word and looked around. Tourists and citizens strolled through the shopping street, enjoyed their sweets, and listened to jazz players who tried to earn a living. The parade had moved on to the city outskirts, and in the center, it was business as usual. The universities and the military academy were about to finish the semester, so students spent their time outside.

It was a beautiful day; she enjoyed lunch with her loved ones and had a great future ahead of her. If it weren't for Altera, her life would be perfect. But a wise man once said that "Not perfect is good.". So, she could deal with some trouble. Once Altera graduated, she wouldn't have to see her face again anyway.

“Be happy for her,” said Sven. “It rarely happens that someone becomes a Valkyrie, and never before they graduate from the academy. She's skipping all the military ranks, basically.”

“That’s true,” her father agreed. “She is one of a kind."

"Thank Twice for that," said Ragna and poked Sven's arm. "But what about you? It's your big day too."

"I'll start after the ceremony's over. I'm not a big fan of the limelight, but yeah. Tonight, I guess I'll start my journey to become a Valkyrie."

"Anyway, Ragna, you're part of Princess Aurelia’s guard,” said her father. “I had to pull some favors and needed Aurelia’s approval, but after her speech is over, you will accompany her everywhere. It'll give your career a boost, as long as you don’t mess up. So, don't do anything stupid, and listen to the other guards. They all outrank you.”

“Awesome.”

Being Aura’s bodyguard for the peace ceremony would spice up her resumé. Once they went out to party, the name Ragna Griffin would be trending in no time. Career, family, and fame – her life could only go up. Of course, protecting Aura was more important than her career.

Ragna bit into another slice and grinned like a child in front of their Yule presents. “I can't wait to see her again.”

“Take this seriously. A cadet would never be allowed near the princess. If you screw this up, we will be in deep shit.” Her father sighed and pressed his hand against his face. Straightening his posture, he looked at Sven, reaching out for a pizza slice, only to find out Ragna had eaten his share. “You're outside her chambers with the other guards. Consider this your first test. The princess's your priority, but keep an eye on Ragna too.”

“I can protect myself,” said Ragna. “I’m not a child anymore.”

Her father smiled. His eyes shone like gold.

As a child, Ragna had wished she had inherited her father's beautiful eyes. But when her mother had died, she began to appreciate her electric blue eyes. They were an eternal memento that existed as long as she kept walking, and perhaps beyond. Though there were a few moments where she wished she had at least one eye from each of her parents, those were fleeting and disappeared as quickly as they came to her mind.

“I know,” said her father. “No matter how strong you are, you will always be my precious daughter. Aurelia may be the princess of Midgard, but for me, there's only one princess.”

Covering her smile, Ragna stared at the plate in front of her.

Her father scratched his temple and continued. “To be honest, my biggest wish is to see you two share a beautiful future. And perhaps to be called grandpa one day.”

“Seriously, you’re gonna give me diabetes.” Ragna groaned, still concealing her grin, whereas Sven began to resemble a strawberry. Her father stroked his three O’clock and laughed at the shyness and innocence of the modern man.

“Anyway, since this is a big event, I think we need new clothes. I mean, what would others think?”

Her father’s laughter and joy faded. But his smile remained. “Sure. I mean, your military uniform should be fine.” His golden eyes narrowed and pierced right into Ragna’s soul, ignoring all defenses. “But if you wanna spend money on unnecessary clothes, be my guest. How much money should I lend to you? The interest rate would be…”

“I think I'm fine,” said Ragna. Her face turned as blue as the vision of a man who had taken too many wood-enhancer-pills.

She should have expected that. Asking for money from her father was a bad idea. When she was twelve, she and Sven had learned this lesson the hard way. When it came to his possessions, her father stopped being human. Her father's companions used to call their house the 'dragon hoard'.

Some suitors would call her dragon princess – or damsel. But those who desired her only for her beauty or her father's money got to meet Sven's fist. Not that she had needed him, but it was convenient not to deal with every suitor herself. Most of them were annoying, but some were nice, and most importantly, they weren’t entitled – and had enough self-awareness to know that dating, sex, and marrying were different concepts. If she felt there was chemistry, she went out with them. Sadly, it didn’t give Sven the push or the backbone to confess to her.

֎

"Help, thief!" a voice screamed.

All three turned their heads around. A black-clad figure raced down the street. Ragna jumped from her chair, activated the gravity manipulator, and chased after the mugger.

“Shouldn’t we run after her?” Sven asked.

“She can take care of herself.” Drake waved his hand, and the waitress appeared at their table. "One glass mead, please. König Bils."

The waitress wrote the order on her tablet. Sven declined with a gesture of his hand before she could ask if he wanted a drink and left.

“Yet you still don’t allow any boyfriends in the house,” said Sven.

“That’s different.” Drake hammered with his fist on the table. Sven jerked up, and all the plates and glasses jumped several centimeters up. Luckily, none of them broke when they touched the table again.

It was probably for the best if he didn’t tell Drake about Ragna’s past boyfriends, then.

“Are you going to be okay?” Drake asked. His face had gotten somber.

Sven swiped his hands over his face. “I will.”

“Tonight will change everything. You really don’t have to do this. You can stay at home, and I can handle everything.”

Sven shook his head. “I have to do this. It's my fight since the moment you have taken me in.”

“And what are you fighting for?”

Sven looked past Drake. His eyes stared at the street Ragna took to chase the mugger. Neither he nor Drake spoke a word. Several seconds passed until Sven’s focus switched back to Drake. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you and Ragna. I want us all to be happy. And I know she will probably hate me for this.”

“Eventually, she will understand.”

Sven’s eyes looked away from him. Staring at his plate, he folded his hands. “I don’t think she should be a Valkyrie.”

“Oh, she will definitely hate you for this.” Drake laughed.

Sven ignored his comment and spoke further. “Do you know what I like about Ragna?”

“Just to let you know, if the answer isn’t “everything”, I will disown you.”

“She is sometimes mean; she likes to tease you or play pranks, but then you see how much Ragna wants to protect other people, or create a better world, and how much she hates it when others are hurt. And she never gives up. It’s like she’s the love child of a titan and a Valkyrie. Hel and Valhalla in one. I don't know how she does it."

"Does what?"

"Fighting for these big things. I could never do that. They're too abstract for me. I want to focus on the small things."

The waitress served the mug from the table, and Drake took a sip of his mead. Sven looked up for a moment. “She still believes in good and evil and wants to fight for truth and justice. But she doesn’t know how cruel the world can be. She won’t make it as a Valkyrie.”

“And so, you want to fight?” Drake took another sip. “So, that she doesn’t have to?”

The two sat in silence; neither said a word. Only the occasional sip from Drake’s mead disturbed the quiet.

“By the way,” said Drake after a while and raised his eyebrow. “Which of her parents was the titan?”

Sven’s face became deadpan. “The one who let me experience the concept of being a corporate slave.”

“Well, I think you learned a valuable lesson about taking credits and paying back your debts.”

“We were twelve," Sven cried. “We used the money for games and clothes.”

֎

The guests had gathered at the ivory banquet hall of Castle Gimli, the presidential residence. While they ate from the buffet and drank the finest champagne, the socialites, celebrities, moguls, politicians, and influencers began to chit-chat: business, celebrities, philosophy, news, scandals, and other topics convenient for profound or shallow discussions. Some preferred to remain in their familiar circles, while others sought out the opportunity to meet new faces and make new connections. Cameras rolled, catching and broadcasting every passing second of the event.

Starting with the kingdom's founders – the three Trutner siblings – statues of past heroes stood on the hall's two sides. Next to the statue of Willow Trutner, Ragna checked her outfit.

Even though she was a mere guard, she killed this outfit: dark boots and a black and white military uniform – skirt, shirt, garter belt, and jacket. She was also sure that the photographer of ‘Viking Brilliance’ had shot her.

If they featured her next to the effigy of Willow Trutner, that would be amazing and open a few doors into stardom. At least a modeling gig should be possible. After all, Valkyries weren't just warriors. They were idols and superstars. But just being famous wasn't enough. Fame for fame itself wasted all the effort one had put into becoming famous. It was important what one would do with all the fame. She wouldn't sit idly by. Once she became a Valkyrie, she would use all she had to create a better world without Vaix. She would fight so that other people wouldn't have to live and suffer because what was dear to them was gone.

Ragna glanced at the statue.

If Willow Trutner were here, she would be proud that another young woman will fulfill her dreams. She was the greatest woman in history, and in her opinion, the inspiration behind the Valkyrie's myths and ideals. Bravery. Honor. Beauty. Compassion. Rules of conduct in combat. Selflessness. To name a few qualities.

Ragna’s face focused on the raised platform with the podium, where Aura would hold her speech. Behind the podium were seven chairs. Most Valkyries did not come. It was a shame, but Midgard's protectors couldn't rest. Even those that attended were on duty to protect President Reillius Adler, who occupied the first seat. Though some Captains and Vice-captains could also attend.

While Valkyrie was seen as the highest rank within the Migardian Military, that wasn’t exactly true. Among the Valkyries, the seven strongest had obtained the title of Captain. Besides commanding their own team of Valkyries – including one Vice-captain they had appointed –, they all had important roles within Midgard’s society from head of the military academy or the police, took on the most dangerous or important missions, and if Midgard were ever under attack, they were the last line of defence to protect the President as well as Godking Twice.

Since one could only become a Captain if one died or retired, most were content to become a Valkyrie. Plus, it would be rude to declare that would want to become a Captain.

Ragna could see that three Captains and three Vice-captains sat alongside the President. That amounted to six Valkyries – including her father and Rory Skyfrost.

Ragna grumbled.

Why did they allow Skyfrost to attend? Was this a PR stunt? Did Midgard want to show how accepting and open-minded it was? Allowing aliens inside the President's residence and letting one sit right behind Aura went too far. It would be one thing if Skyfrost were a credit to his people. But he was scum.

The side doors opened. All activity ended, and the guests focused on the ethereal woman who walked towards the podium.

A tea-green cocktail dress wrapped her figure. Platinum hair reached her back and followed her every step like a curtain. Not one strand of her elaborately styled braids was out of place, and a necklace worth a village hung from her neck.

She projected the amalgamation of a modern, yet both regal and tribal young woman. With her slim body, her elvish face, and sharp silver eyes, it was easy to see why President Adler’s daughter had captivated the hearts of an entire kingdom. Despite President Adler’s long and successful presidency, it was the princess everyone would follow until the depths of Hel. Standing before the masses for the entire world to hear, her melodic voice began to speak.

“Good evening. Before I start, I would like to thank everyone for attending this event – both those present before my eyes and all the viewers online. You have all sacrificed your time to listen to my speech. I cannot express just how much that means to me. So, please accept this humble gesture. Thank you, everyone.”

The princess paused to curtsy, and the guests applauded.

“Today, a thousand years have passed since mankind has risen from the ashes of the Great War. And that is a cause to celebrate because in our eons-long history, has there ever been peace? The old sages from the past said if we stop humanity's progress, war and violence will stop. Some might say this peace is thanks to them.

"But that is not true. Take away the bombs and drones, and we use guns. Without guns, men grab swords. Destroy our swords, and we use sticks and stones. If they disappear, then we resort to our fists. Amputate us, and we will use our words and thoughts. And if you take those away, then what is left?

"It is in our nature as humans to cause violence. We were cursed since the very beginning when we were nothing but infants in our cradle. Yet this very humanity has accomplished the seemingly impossible: to achieve a thousand-year-long peace. We had dreamed of exploring the seas, and thus we sailed across the planet. We had dreamed of the sky, the very domain of the birds and gods. And now look at us, we conquered it.

"Because that is also the nature of mankind, to grasp the impossible. As long as we progress and improve, we will continue to achieve what is impossible. All of us – all the people and all the nations: let us together become a world that will thrive forever.

"But this is not a mission I force upon you. Today is a day of celebration. As such, I am announcing my engagement to Captain Marcus Graswald. I want to thank everyone for listening, and please enjoy the rest of the night.”

At first, the guest stood in silence and gasped. Midgard's most desired bachelor had stopped being single. But the numbness of surprise and broken hearts waned under the sounds of thundering applause. Captain Graswald stood up, the princess curtsied, and Graswald left. Altera came to the forefront. Aura led her to the Captains and disappeared from everyone’s sight.

Ragna stood like a frozen statue, perfectly mimicking Willow Trutner next to her. It took a few moments until her brain had processed the news of Aura’s announcement.

Just when had she and Captain Graswald gotten close? Not that they couldn’t work. Aura was a princess, and Captain Graswald a Valkyrie. But what the Hel had happened in the one year she had spent at the academy?

With the end of the speech, Ragna’s task begun. She nodded towards Sven – who stood next to her – and looked out for Aura.

Where could she be? One would think spotting her would be easy. No mortal could outshine her – except maybe Altera. But Aura had always been a master at hide-and-seek. If she wanted to be alone, no one would find her.

"Huh?"

The room had turned black, and a warm pressure obscured her eyes. Ragna turned her head left and right.

What was happening? Should she attack?

“Are you hungry?” a female voice asked.

Ragna’s body relaxed. “Where did you come from? You just left.”

Aura removed her hands from Ragna’s face, giving her her eyesight back. She chuckled and wrapped her arms around Ragna. “Royalty's supposed to have secrets. But now, let’s go.”

Ragna smiled, inflating her voice. “Of course, your majesty. Your wish is my command.”

“After Altera’s initiation, nothing interesting will happen.” Aura released Ragna from her embrace and pointed towards the banquet.

“Let’s get something to eat, and then we go to my chambers, okay?”

Ragna hesitated.

“Don’t worry. No one will pay attention to us.”

The princess winked.

------------------

Yule – A holiday to celebrate the winter solstice and honor the gods. It is tradition to give presents to the rest of the family and spend the time with them. A festive dinner, singing songs, drinking mead and eating special vanilla raisin cookies are all part of the tradition. Though some people are complaining that the tradition has become too commercialized

Gimli – A golden castle that serves as the main residence of the presidential family. It was built a few decades after the foundation of Asgard. Despite its size, it is believed to have been constructed within a single year.

The Trutner siblings – Three siblings who had wandered through Aes eons ago. In the year 2000 BR or 0 AM, each one of them founded a kingdom. Willow Trutner founded Avalon – formerly known as Camelot. Saint Trutner founded Kemet Raa, then called Babel, and Odin Trutner founded Midgard. They introduced the runic language system of Godking Twice to mankind and made huge efforts to improve society.

Viking Brilliance – An InstaNorse account putting photogenic members of the military into the spotlight. Several depicted soldiers were able to enter the influencer or model world through the publicity. It is an essential medium for the career of most Valkyries

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