Ragna exited the princess’ chambers, going to the nearest bathroom. She leaned over the sink and stared at the mirror. After her breakdown, her tears had smeared the mascara and rouge all over her face. Ragna opened the tap and splashed the water into her face. She exhaled as the streams cooled her body and rejuvenated her mind.
She needed this.
How did her conversation with Altera go so wrong? The plan had been simple. She would use Altera’s loneliness and seduce her, and through a kiss, she would create a physical connection her runes could use to freeze Altera’s organs without her noticing. Had she not asked Quin to tattoo her last night, she wouldn’t have been able to pull the assassination off. She needed every advantage she could get, and a direct connection to her runes would help her climb the tower. But why did the assassination turn into a train wreck?
Ragna removed the makeup with a towel and went downstairs to the banquet hall. There was no point in applying a new one.
The duet between Eric and Aura had long finished. Ragna sat next to Eric. She grabbed a bottle and poured the liquor into a glass.
With Altera gone, it was up to the next assassin to try their luck. Aura was sitting on top of the piano. The spotlight searched over the banquet hall until it stopped and shone over one of the guests.
Eric jumped on the couch. Rocking with his feet over the velvet, he spoke into the microphone and let his free hand circle the hall. “Looks like we have a winner. Please step forward. Dive deeper into the night and let the depravity consume you.”
Forward came a man wearing a suit. With an opera mask concealing his face, he uttered no word. Nothing could discern his identity.
Aura descended from the piano. She stared at his mask and opened her mouth. But the man put his finger on her lips and shook his head. Aura nodded.
Eric started to laugh. His mouth contorted to a grin, his eyes to squints, turning him into a mockery of her companion. “Bravo. Bravo. You must know our little dummy had not missed even a single night. Every night, he appeared here, begging for Freya.” Eric clapped into his hands. “O, how have the tables turned? Tonight’s the night for her to beg, and he becomes her king. Rejoice, boy. Your wish will finally come true.”
The guests raised their fists and screamed in jubilation. Aura and the man looked at each other. Neither said a word. Agreeing to a contract of silence, sin, and submission, Aura and the man left the banquet hall.
“And now, for you.” Eric performed a backflip and landed on the piano’s wings. The spotlight scattered. The lights buzzed and frenzied through the hall until they merged over Eric’s figure. He raised his arm to hold a sermon and spoke through the microphone. “All you pathetic losers left behind in Freya’s dust. I hope you burned her effigy into your mind. Cause that will be all that you will get tonight. So, indulge in your demented dreams in euphoria. Do not feel shame. There is no need for honor and values, for such logic is deconstructed. Show the ugliness that composes the self; be the vermin that infests society.”
Ragna stood up from her couch.
Staying in the banquet hall and watching the creeps would be a waste of time.
She took one drink and left for the exit Aura had used. Their steps echoed through the staircase, going further up.
That man likely pretended to be a John to assassinate her. If she followed them, she should catch him with his pants down. Hopefully not literally.
Ragna sneaked up the stairs into the west floor.
When Ragna met the princesses for the first time, she was sneaking through the castle as well. Ragna walked these stairs, and on the next floor, she found a girl. The princess was about to cry, and every word, she had to think over thrice before she could speak. Unable to process how to handle a stranger, she stuttered.
Ragna still approached her, shared with the princess her father’s “best dish” – gummy bears from the candy store – and played video games with her. And their friendship started to blossom.
Once she reached the last step, Ragna ducked. From her vantage point, she could see Aura and the man. He stood under the portrait of the late Ariel Adler, and Aura paced across the floor. The sole of her heels stomped over the carpet’s fabric. A click sounded, and the area Aura had stepped on slid open, revealing a square hole.
What the Hel’s that?
The man jumped back and looked at the hole. He shook his head, looked again, and switched to Aura.
“A secret passage built by Master Rhyne,” said the princess. “We used it to sneak out of the castle when we were little. I doubt anyone else knows about this.”
Aura took off her shoes and jumped down the hole. The man titled his head.
“Don’t be shy.” From the hole came Aura’s voice. “It’s not that deep.”
The man pressed his hand against his mask and jumped.
The opening closed. Ragna walked towards it. She stomped on the area Aura stepped on. It clicked, and the floor slid open.
Did the passage always exist? Or did the tower add it to the castle for the simulation?
Ragna jumped down and landed on a stone floor. In front of her expanded a corridor until the light from the upper floor faded, and darkness enveloped it.
A dark dungeon under the castle, what could possibly go wrong?
Ragna took out her phone. The opening closed, and the specs of lights that shone into the corridor disappeared.
Ragna activated the searchlight function of her phone. She set it to its lowest level and a wisp levitated in front of her. Its light flickered and became pale.
Ragna started to walk.
Water dripped from the ceiling and echoed across the stone like a heartbeat that accompanied every step her boots took. Her heart started to match the droplet's rhythm: plop and plop and plopping in her ears. With her hands, Ragna navigated through the walls. Moss tickled her palms whenever they pressed against it. Pins made of mush picked on her skin; rotten air and the stench of mud invaded her nose. Ragna grimaced and put on her mouth mask.
The further she walked, the more the odor of air and earth mixed with another scent. Something foul and revolting. Even with her mouth mask on, her stomach turned and tumbled. She suppressed her gag reflex, but the stench of decay and death grew more powerful and increased the urge to vomit.
Just what is this place?
Following the echoes of Aura’s banter, Ragna passed through the passages until she reached a door. Wind blew through a creak wide enough to peek through it.
Why would Aura go to some kind of messed-up serial killer lair?
Ragna crept towards the door.
She didn’t like to peep at her best friend, but this was for Aura’s sake.
Her eye peeked through the opening.
The man’s hand reached towards his mask. He removed it and revealed his face.
Ragna dropped to her knees and turned away. She pressed her hand against her mouth to prevent any noise from leaking out.
No, no, no, no. This couldn’t be. No. Was this a fucking joke? No. This was messed up. That fucking tower was fucked up. It was a fucked-up simulation of this fucking tower. This couldn’t be real. It had to be fake. Anything else…no...
From beyond the door atop a sarcophagus, leaked Aura’s moans. Screams of ecstasy and words of humiliation and auto-sadism Aura would never let out wormed into Ragna’s ears. Ragna tried to cover them with her hands but couldn’t cancel out the noise.
Why was she doing this with him? No, no, no. This tower didn’t have to make sense. It wanted to screw with her. The real Aura would never do this; this was just a simulation. Just a simulation. Just a simulation.
A gun fired. And before Ragna could react, a second one.
The scenery faded away, and Ragna stood in a white void room. Words flashed before her eyes. “Mission failed. Do you wish to continue? Yes. No.”
Ragna roared into the void. Ice grew around her feet, and she pummeled her fists against it. She punched and punched. Cracks build on the ice, and the mass broke into fragments. No matter how often she slammed her fist against it, it didn’t hurt. She wouldn’t feel pain, for her runes couldn’t harm her.
Ragna roared again, her face contorted in rage and malice to an animalistic visage; a dragon about to poison the lands with its toxic breath.
Eventually, her lungs gave out. Ragna’s screams ended, and she chose ‘Yes’.
The room transformed into the banquet hall of Castle Gimli.
Ignoring Eric’s speech, Ragna’s eyes scanned the room. Remembering where the spotlight had fallen, she walked towards the couch and brightened the hall with her phone. The masked man was facing the stage. He didn’t react to the light, his gaze focusing on the platform on which the princess would perform.
She had to calm down, or she would kill him and not get her answer.
Ragna counted to ten. She nudged the man with her elbow, and he turned towards her.
“Hello, Mister President,” said Ragna. “We need to talk.”