Skyscrapers soared into the sky. In the full moon's glimmer, the glass façades mirrored the night sky into an infinite landscape. A midsummer night’s breeze cooled Ragna's face. Not a single soul was outside. Usually, the warm air would invite the citizens to enjoy the city's nightlife to its fullest. The streets would be full of people and drunkards. Tonight, only a few isolated cars inhabited the streets. The recent terrorist attack must have made the protection and coziness of one’s home more attractive.
Her apartment should be around the corner. If her father had left any clues, then they should be there. The police had probably searched the place, but it was unlikely they would find the various secret rooms. Her father was a hoarder, and like a true hoarder, he would do his best to keep thieves from his treasures. But for his daughter, finding the hidden places was like clearing a video game at the lowest difficulty. Still, she should be careful. Most fugitives selected their home as their first destination, and the police would monitor her house. But Midgard was a labyrinth full of hidden passages and sideways. It had taken a few hours and detours, but she had found a way to her apartment that wasn’t on any map. There was no way the police would suspect this passage even existed.
"This is a restricted area. Who is there?”
Light flashed in front of her.
The light concentrated on her face, forcing Ragna to squint her eyes. She recognized the silhouette of a woman and drew her sword.
That wasn’t good. If that woman called for backup, her journey would be over before it had started.
“Ragna, is that you?”
That voice sounded familiar.
Ragna looked at the woman. It took a second, but then she recognized her.
Altera? How did she know about the passage? What was she doing here? Was she trying to capture her as part of her Bragi? It wasn't unusual that she had to deal with a recent crisis. Even if Altera had another mission for her Bragi, she couldn't take the risk. Knocking her out was the best option.
She ran towards Altera and swung her sword.
“Please wait,” said Altera and blocked Ragna’s saber with her partisan.
Ragna had seen it in action once during a practice match against her. She had no chance, but that was in the past. Even though her glove still had to recharge because of whatever the assailant had done, she had grown stronger since then. From what she remembered, the metal shaft made it impossible to get close to her, as it was about as tall as Altera herself. But the partisan's danger unfolded once Altera flew into the sky and rammed her opponents with its spearhead – which she had customized to look like a diamond with wings.
But for some reason, she had decided to stay on the ground. Was it arrogance?
Ragna didn’t listen and increased the force of her strikes.
“I’m not here to fight." Altera's voice increased in volume. Blocking every move of Ragna’s weapon, her tone grew harsher, and her expression more frustrated. “I’m here to assist. You. On the order of..."
Altera growled like a dog, and then she screamed. "Oyy. Gie 'at bludy wax it ay yer lugs an' listen.”
Both girls stopped moving. Ragna’s mouth was wide open, and her eyes were in stasis. She stared at her as if Altera’d decided to strip and run naked.
Just what was that? She couldn’t understand a word. Wasn’t that how they spoke in the fishing villages near the coast?
“I…I….” Altera's face was red and had a pitiful look, about to cry in embarrassment. It was an expression that would make one desire to lavish in petty sadism and to poke her with pitchforks until she screamed in the sounds of submission.
Altera straightened her posture. “I’m here on the orders of Princess Aurelia Adler to assist you in your journey,” she said in her usual high-society-voice.
Ragna could have addressed any topic that would fit the current predicament. Yet, the first question her lips asked was: “Why did you switch your accent?”
Altera tilted her head and gave Ragna a look of confusion. “W…What do you mean?”
“You just spoke like-”
“I…I’ve no recollection of the events in question.” Altera cut Ragna off. Her eyes burned with murderous intent, waiting to embrace Ragna in a fiery demise, should she dare to speak further.
She had no clue what Altera's problem was, and she didn't care that the lights in Altera’s head were broken.
“Anyway.” Altera continued. “If you don’t believe that the princess sent me, this might help.”
From her navy-blue jacket, Altera drew a letter. Vine and flower-like engravings decorated the envelope, and the sender had marked it with an equally extravagant seal – the official emblem of the Adler family. Within the rune-circle, an eagle held the branch of an ash tree in one claw, a spear in the other, and in its beak, a banner with the words "In Twice we trust at the heaven's end". Ragna cut it open with her sword and read the content aloud.
“My dearest Lindi…” She stopped and sighed. “Yeah, that's the princess.”
“It’s a nickname she gave me when I was eight. I’m not very fond of it. She only addresses me like that when we’re in private…Wait, why am I telling you that?”
Ragna exhaled and placed her hand on her forehead. “Doesn’t matter. Let’s go somewhere more hidden.”
The two moved from the skyscrapers into an empty ally. They had stopped by a lamppost. Insects buzzed around them, and, in its light, Ragna read the letter anew.
My dearest Lindi,
I’ve heard of your imprisonment and the accusations of betrayal. Let me assure you that I believe you a hundred percent. I wish I could have given testimony, but I was unconscious. I am truly sorry for that. And now that there may be multiple traitors amidst our ranks, I have to be wary of whom I entrust this valuable information. Sending this digital risked that it could have ended up in the wrong hands. It’s outdated, but you can’t hack paper. I’ve sent Cadet Altera Xion because she is currently the one person I fully trust. So, please trust her too. I will try to support you as much as I can. You will face many hardships, but I’m positive you two will overcome them. I wish you nine worlds worth of luck and that we will see each other again. May Twice bless your journey. That being said…ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND? HOW STUPID CAN YOU BE? NOW PEOPLE REALLY THINK YOU ARE GUILTY! IF YOU HAD WAITED A BIT, THINGS COULD CLEAR UP, AND YOU WOULD BE FREE. BUT NOW YOU ARE WANTED. THE KINGDOM WILL SEND ITS DOGS AFTER YOU! HAVE YOU ACTUALLY THOUGHT ABOUT THE CONSEQUENCES, OR HOW OTHER PEOPLE FEEL!? I AM WORRIED TO DEATH, AND NOW ALTERA IS ALSO IN THIS MESS! STUPID, STUPID LINDI! YOU ARE AN ABSOLUTE IDIOT! A FUCKING FOOL! A TOTAL FOOL! FOOLINDI! AND DON’T YOU DARE DIE! OR BY TWICE, I WILL DRAG YOUR BODY OUT OF HEL, SO I CAN KILL YOU MYSELF! DO YOU HEAR THAT? AS THE PRINCESS OF MIDGARD, I FORBID YOU TO DIE! I ORDER YOU TO COME BACK ALIVE! IF YOU DON’T, I WILL PUNISH YOU!!!!
“P…Princess …” Altera's mouth and eyes were wide open, her face blue, and her body frozen, just like Ragna herself was minutes ago. One would believe she had seen a ghost.
Ragna gulped. “Now I’ve done it. Aura's pissed.” A smile flashed across her face. “Well, guess I have no choice but to succeed.”
“What was that?” Altera asked. Her body was still frozen. One would believe Ragna had told her aliens existed.
“Huh? Oh, that," said Ragna as an afterthought and shrugged. "Yeah, that’s how the princess is.” She took a deep breath. “That she shows you that side means she trusts you a great deal. Fine. For now, I will trust you. Anyway, how did you know about the passage?”
“I flew into the sky and took a bird-eyes view,” she said without any emotion in her voice. It seemed she still had to process Aura's tone shift. “I saw a route no officer patrolled, and it wasn’t on the maps. If I were you, I would have taken this route.”
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Ragna asked and leaned closer to Altera’s face. “Don’t tell me you wanted to hog all the glory for yourself.”
“Th…That’s…” Altera averted her gaze.
“Don’t be shy…” Standing on her toes, Ragna poked Altera’s cheek. “That sliver of selfishness looks cute on you.”
“Why did you come here anyway?”
“There could be clues about my father's whereabouts.” Ragna leaned back and stood on the ball of her feet. “Our apartment has tons of hidden spots only I can find.”
“Then give me a list of those places. I will check them.”
Ragna raised her eyebrow. “Why would they let you in?”
“Because my mission is to catch Vice-captain Griffin. I got permission from the Captains to investigate the case myself.”
Ragna’s expression didn’t change. She grabbed her saber's hilt.
“I will postpone my mission until I determine if he's guilty. To be honest, I don’t trust you either. But for the sake of the princess, I will put aside my personal feelings. You too, Ragna.” Altera raised her voice. “Don’t believe in me. Believe in Princess Aurelia. She trusts both of us.”
Ragna sighed. “That was super lame, you know?”
“What? Really?” Altera scoffed in embarrassment and cleared her throat.
“But I guess you're right.” Ragna presented her open palm. “Please give me your phone. I will type in the hidden spots I know. The apartment is on the tenth floor, by the way.”
“The entire floor.”
Twenty minutes later, Ragna had given Altera a list with all the hideouts she should inspect, plus a list of items she should bring from her room.
Wings grew out of Altera’s back. She beat them and flew into the sky until Ragna could not discern her figure anymore. Ragna pressed her hand against her forehead.
What had happened? It felt like she had thrown all common sense out of the window. That’s unacceptable. The likelihood that Altera was alerting the police was high. Then why didn’t it feel wrong? Was it because she trusted Aura, or did her instincts tell her to curb reason to the ground and believe Altera? Then again, the kingdom she had considered her home had branded her a terrorist. The man she loved had killed himself, and her father left her alone. Home, love, family – all of that was gone. Even her dream of becoming a Valkyrie seemed so childish now, so insignificant. Just one stupid day was all it took.
She picked a pebble up from the ground, threw it into the air, and kicked the stone with enough force that it flew like a disc into the distance. Ragna shook her head.
Her tears had long dried up. As her father said, like a dragon, she would not rest until she had reclaimed her stolen treasure. If she had to jump into the fire to do so, then she would do it.
After thirty minutes had passed, Altera returned with a full bag in her hands.
“I found a few data drives,” she said and handed them over to Ragna. “But why did I have to bring you so many clothes?”
“This could be a long trip. We could be wandering for months, and I prefer having a fresh change of clothes. I doubt it will help our chances to find my father if we reek like Lutfisk.”
“Sounds like a hassle.”
Altera shrugged her shoulders, and Ragna grinned. “I mean, what will you do if your clothes get damaged? Will you wander around naked? Don’t tell me you are an exhibitionist?”
"I also have spare clothes. The problem is the ridiculous amount you've brought with you. And FYI, my armor is made of a hundred percent sustainably mined Orichalcum.”
Pure Orichalcum. How many virgins did she have to sacrifice to get her hands on that? Yeah, Altera wouldn’t have to worry about clothing damage.
“Well, let’s see what father has left behind,” said Ragna. She pressed the metal casing of the drives. Both they and her phone glowed in blue light. Seconds later, the screen displayed the documents from the drive.
“These don’t say much,” said Altera after she had finished reading. “Only that he is sorry for abandoning his family. And that he is seeking hideout in Utgard.”
At least, she had a lead. She wouldn't have to wander across Midgard without aim, and she was able to reaffirm she still had her father’s love. He didn’t leave because he wanted to. But did that increase or decrease his guilt? It didn’t matter. She would see him again, uncover the truth, and this nightmare will be over.
“Utgard,“ said Altera. Ragna wasn't sure, but she heard a touch of distress and anxiety in Altera's voice. “For that, we have to cross the sea. I suggest, for now, we should get some rest. Let’s go to some motel on the outskirts of the city.”
“Shouldn’t we discuss our plans?” Ragna asked.
“You are hunted. The longer we stay out in the open, the sooner Midgard will find us. And we will need all the rest we can get. Tomorrow will be a long day. Don't worry. I will explain things on the way."
Thus, Altera Xion had joined the party, and the two began to walk.
Lutfisk – A Midgardian delicacy. It is made from aged stockfish or dried/salted whitefish and lye. It is gelatinous in texture. Despite its taste, it has a horrible smell.
Virgin Sacrifices – In the past, it was common to offer virgin maidens for blessings. Despite best efforts of human rights groups, the practice couldn’t be stopped. Until it was decided to fight the problem in a roundabout way. Through the encouragement of sexual freedom in society, practitioners in Midgard soon found a lack of suitable candidates, and the use of human sacrifices stopped. Nowadays, the idea of sexual freedom remains an anchor of Midgardian Society and the once common practice has been forgotten in all but jokes and figures of speech.