“My dear guests.” On the stage, Eric took the microphone.
Ragna went up from her couch and walked to the stage. She wouldn’t let him continue. This cycle had to break, or she would fail.
Eric turned to her and stopped his speech. “Looks like we have a special guest tonight. Freya’s very own hero of justice. How can we help you?”
Hero of justice? Ragna cringed.
Could she call herself that title after how often she had screwed up and what she planned to do?
She walked to Eric and whispered into his ear.
“Hmmm.” Eric tapped against the microphone’s head and shut it off. “I would love to. But what about her?”
Ragna winked. “Don’t worry. Leave it to me.”
“Sounds good.” He smiled, and Ragna left for the exit.
Eric turned his attention to the guests and turned on the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen. There will be a slight change in our schedule.”
The guests started to whisper amongst each other, and some began to stand up.
“Now, now.” Eric continued. “You don’t have to worry about the main spectacle. The debauchery will continue for another night. Therefore, it's my immense pleasure to announce that tonight, I'll allow you to listen to a duet. Freya’s beautiful song in perfect unison to my voice.”
Behind the stage, away from the audience's eyes, stood Altera, waiting for her debut. Ragna snuck behind her and covered her eyes.
“Guess who?” she said before Altera could shriek.
“Ragna?” Altera relaxed. “What are you doing here?”
“Can’t I see my dearest friend?” Ragna removed her hands and leaned on Altera’s shoulder, hugging her from behind.
“Friend?” Altera perked up.
Musk and lavender fragrances entered her nose, and Ragna blushed.
Did Altera always smell like this, or did the tower design her perfume for the level?
Ragna pressed her body against Altera and savored the scent as much as possible. Scenes from her last fight replayed in her mind. How Altera let her emotions loose, and how she oozed ecstasy and energy. The real Altera would never behave in such a way. In front of her stood a fake. She hugged an imitation. She didn’t need to find excuses because she wouldn’t do anything to the real Altera, to her actual friend.
“I missed you,” Ragna said.
Altera nodded. “I missed you too, but I’ve to perform now. Can we talk afterwards?”
“We can’t. I can’t wait anymore.” Ragna’s words breezed into Altera’s ear, her breath warming her. “Even another second without you hurts…”
“B...but the show.”
“Don’t worry. Eric’s got that covered. Come. Let’s go somewhere private.”
Ragna smiled. Before Altera could retort back, she took her hand and led her away to Aura’s chambers.
Sitting on the edge of Aura’s bed, Ragna played with the tips of her pigtails and straightened her back like on a roll call.
That she had to misuse Aura’s chamber like that, but the princess shouldn’t have any objections on account of this saving her life, and her not being real. Then, why did it feel like a stick stuck inside her?
“What do you want to talk about?”
In a reflex, Ragna corrected the bangs on her forehead and turned to Altera. Her friend was rocking on her mattress. Altera pressed her fingers against an ice spinner on her palms, and it started rotating.
“I missed you." Ragna leaned forward and hugged Altera.
“Me too.” Altera enveloped the spinner in her palm, and it disappeared. “But, you said that earlier.”
“Cause I really missed you.” Ragna let go of her. “Life sucks without friends.”
Right, they were friends. The days when she hated her seemed like a dream. She couldn’t imagine having Altera outside her life. Even if they had arguments and fights, Altera remained her friend.
Ragna leaned her head on Altera’s shoulder, startling her.
“How are you keeping up?” Ragna asked. “Couldn't have been easy for you.”
“When I first learned what the princess had done, I was shocked. I didn’t want to believe it. When I confronted her, she admitted everything. I hated her, didn’t want to see her ever again, but then, I thought about the situation. I mean, I won’t mend my relationship with the princess. That’s gone. I’ve lost all respect for her.”
“You're still callin' her ‘princess’.”
Just what did this fake Aura do? Everyone talked about this shameful and horrible act she had done, but no one gave any details. As much as she wanted to ask Altera, it would ruin her current plan.
“She’s still one, even after her disgrace. That’s her birthright. But as I said, while my respect's gone, my duty as a Valkyrie continues. I will guide the princess on her path and make sure she doesn't lose her way."
Yeah, that sounded more like Altera. Instead of that nonsense from earlier, she could hear Altera saying that. Always thinking as a Valkyrie, she embodied those ideals like no one else.
“Sometimes, I think you were born to be a Valkyrie,” said Ragna.
“No one was born like that. We all have to work and fight to achieve our dreams. That’s what makes them worthwhile. If one could just be born as a Valkyrie, then being one wouldn’t be that great in the first place.”
“I wish you were right. But that ain't true. Most folks aren't cut out for this, but you are.”
Ragna lifted her head from Altera’s shoulder.
“So, you think you aren’t?”
Ragna shook her head. “I don’t think I am.”
Fuck. It wasn’t supposed to go like this. She was supposed to be all cool and smooth. Why was she such a disaster?
“So, you want to give up?” Altera’s mimic changed to a frown. She didn’t bother to hide her disappointment.
Why shouldn’t she? What was she supposed to tell Altera? That she had given her best? Just what did Altera want to hear from her? That wasn’t fair. When she looked at her like that, what could she do?
“I…don't know. What am I supposed to do? I can’t turn back and return to my old life. My father's missing, and who knows what's going on with him. Sven's dead. If I go back to Midgard, all I'll have is an empty apartment. And everyone I know will either think I’m guilty or pity me. And that’s if Midgard doesn’t throw me in prison. Tell me what I am supposed to do? I can’t go forward, and I can’t go back.”
“You must answer that for yourself.”
Altera was about to stand up when Ragna grabbed her arms and forced her back. The abruptness pushed Altera to lay on Aura’s bed. Her face softened, and her gaze became loose as she stared at Ragna, sitting on top of her.
“Do you know how cruel you are?” Ragna’s voice turned into a mess. Half shouted she her words, half swallowed she them. Tears started to run down Ragna’s cheeks and wetted Altera’s skin.
“I…I…,” Altera tried to say.
“Do you know how I feel when I see you? I see what I will never be. I can only move forward, but the path's closed. You remind me of that every second. How can I even compete with you? I have nowhere to go. A broken home is behind me, and in front of me are broken dreams.”
Ragna giggled, her hand obscuring her crying eyes. “You know what’s funny? I was tryin’ to seduce you to save Aura. I'm so stupid. Why would someone like you ever fall for me?”
She couldn’t see what Altera was doing. Altera didn’t leave, and Ragna didn’t open her eyes. Seeing Altera’s face again would be too much for her.
“You’re tall, gorgeous, and your body’s flawless in every way. I’m short. My eyes are too big; my breasts too small. I want a slimmer face and fuller lips. I’m 21, but you wouldn’t know if you looked at me. My arms are uneven, and my legs too long for my body. I’m afraid to look in the mirror. My body’s a mess full of scars. And it’ll get worse once I grow old.”
“Then, don’t care. You…”
“Will you please stop?”
The tears increased. Ragna tried to speak, but amidst her blubbering and sobbing, her words had turned into a cawing.
Why didn’t Altera realize? It hurt so much when she spoke. Of course, Altera wouldn’t care. She was better than that. Altera wasn’t shallow. She would care and think about the important stuff.
“You’re smart and brilliant and so powerful.” Ragna regained the ability to speak. With each tear, she shed, each word she uttered, her mind emptied further. Without a thought to spare, she laid her emotions bare, unable for her ego to keep them at bay.
“I’m weak and stupid. My entire life, I've lived in a bubble. I know jack about this world, and I can't do anything right. Skyfrost and Clockwork kicked my ass. I was about to throw in the towel when that forest god had caught us. And I did jack against the Twisted. Against that Paladin, I suicide-bombed myself. What idiot fights like that? Valkyries wouldn't fight like that - you never would. You’re smart, adult, and caring. I’m none of that.”
“Ragna, please. You know that’s not true.”
Altera’s finger caressed her cheek, washing a tear away.
Ragna brushed her hand away and giggled a second time. “Of course, you say that. You want everyone to be great. You think you're sympathizing, but all you do is look down on us. It hurts; it hurts. You hurt me so much, but I can’t hate you. You’re everything I'll never be. And it’s not like you don’t have issues, but you still do your best. You’re better than me. So much, much better than me.”
Before Altera could react, Ragna had kissed her. Their lips connected; Altera’s saliva mixed with her own, her tongue coiling around Altera’s. Ragna’s eyes were closed.
What expression did Altera make? How did she feel at this moment? Should she know? No, it was better that way.
Seconds passed, and ice escaped Ragna’s mouth.
When she opened her eyes, Altera’s body lay motionless on the bed. All warmth was gone. Ice had crept from Ragna’s lips into Altera’s mouth and frozen everything it came in contact with until it reached her lungs and deprived her of oxygen.
Ragna removed her lips from Altera and closed her friend’s eyes.
“You’re better than me, but I’m meaner.”
Ragna’s hand went over her left shoulder. She rolled up her sleeve, and her fingers felt the reddened skin that surrounded the Hagal rune. Its points sharpened and elongated to resemble a star or a compass.
“And I play foul. I can’t be a Valkyrie anymore. But what else can I be? You would hate what I could become, wouldn’t you? I think I would too.”