This Kim…No, wait. People in Utgard tended to introduce themselves with their last name first. So, it should be Jeong-hui. Unless it was rude not to start with the surname. In that case, it would be better if she stuck with the full name.
“Quite the dictatorial name, don’t you think?” Altera’s face remained expressionless.
She had to remain calm, show no emotions, and elicit as much information from him as possible. It wasn’t her style, but using sarcasm like Eric and Ragna tended to do seemed to be the best strategy in this situation.
“I think my name’s pretty artistic. But it doesn’t matter. It clashes with my vibe to drag out the prologue. We’re here for the main story. So, let’s not waste any time and start right away. If you don’t have any further questions, I will explain now the rules.”
“Didn’t you spend some time to get ready?”
Kim Jeong-hui smiled. He shrugged his shoulders and widened his arms like a scale. “I may not like to drag it out, but the prologue’s still part of the show and deserves drama as much as the rest. Everything has to be artistic. Besides…” He cracked his neck. “It wasn’t like I chose to appear in this outfit.” He bent down on his knees and picked up the metal mask. “I do like this, though. Doesn’t it look cool?”
Putting on the mask, Kim Jeong-hui raised his arm and circled the brush above his head a second time. The inkblots fell on his shirt and jeans. His clothes transformed into an outfit resembling the Veixian military uniform’s imperial design if someone from Utgard had created it.
“Can you hear me?” he asked, his voice distorting to a metallic sound. “If it’s okay with you, I would like to explain the rules.”
Altera nodded in silence.
“Great.” Kim Jeong-hui clapped in his hands. “As I mentioned before, I’m your overseer, Kim Jeong-hui. You can call me Kim. That’s fine with me.” An opening materialized within the white that showed the tower’s second floor. “Your task is to leave this area. You have to say that you want to continue and leave through the door.”
“I want to continue.” Altera took a step forward.
Kim laughed. “It ain’t that easy. You have to wait some time until you can decide. My job’s to dissuade you from that in the meantime. Any further questions?”
Yeah, that was Geißel’s idea. He wanted her to stay. How annoying. Love may have motivated him, but she was an adult. He had no right to decide for her.
“No. I’m good.”
“Then, let the main act begin.” Kim swung his brush, and the ink splattered against the air. The liquid ran down and formed into runes standing in a row: Ura, Ansuz, Laguz, Kaunan, Isan, Raido, Jenan, and Ansuz.
“Valkyrie.” Altera drew her finger above the runes. She felt no sensation. Despite touching air, the ink glued to it like on a wall.
Lines extended from the letters. They conglomerated, and the runes began to move into new positions. Together, they created a new picture.
“Oh, it’s much more than calligraphy.”
Before Altera could ask what Kim meant, the weight on her back increased. She turned her head. Wings had grown from her back.
Did her Fylgja activate? No, the wings were different. Her Fylgja didn’t weigh on her, and it looked different. These wings were slimmer, longer, and resembled bird wings. She wore the feathers of a swan.
It had to be Kim’s doing. He wrote the runes for 'Valkyrie’, and now, she had become a mythological Valkyrie. It made sense, as well. Runes had power, and if one were to combine them, one could enable new abilities. As most people could utilize at max three runes, using words was impossible.
As a citizen of Utgard, Kim shouldn't have any access to runes. But he could use ink to change reality. If he wrote runes with his ability, he could mimic their effects even if he didn't know the cause.
Kim clapped his hands. “It seems you have figured out my “Trahison de images”. I’m surprised that your clothes didn’t transform too. But I guess your armor's obscene enough.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Altera grabbed her partisan. “My wardrobe’s the proper attire for a Valkyrie.”
“Then why…” Kim pointed at her armor. “…are you dressed like you wanna spank naughty boys?”
“I don’t see any issues. Care to elaborate?”
Was he trying to aggravate her, or did he pursue another agenda? In the first place, why did he reveal the winning condition for the level? Was there a trick to it? Either way, she should keep her emotions in check and her cards close to her chest. The more he talked, the more he would reveal.
“Just look at you. You’re wearing pure Orichalcum, but your armor couldn’t be more impractical. It’s a waste of resources, and no self-respecting would ever wear your outfit.”
“My armor protects enough. I can wear whatever I want.”
Was he trying to slut-shame her? Was it another attempt to aggravate her, or was he one of those guys? She didn’t have to justify herself either way. Besides, she wore clothes underneath her armor. So, what the Hel did he know?
Kim shook his finger and clicked his tongue. “You chose shit. I know how your armor works. The wrist bands and the collar use your Mana to create a protection unit that resonates with your soul. You desired to become a Valkyrie, and the Orichalcum responded to your wish. It transformed into something that fit your idea of a Valkyrie.”
“So, what? You want to tell me I see Valkyries in a negative way?”
“Oh, no. It’s not your fault. Someone else pre-conditioned you.”
“And who might that be?” Altera narrowed her eyes and tightened her grip.
“Society,” Kim said.
“Really? You’re blaming society? How original.”
“Why not? Do you think we live in some perfect world? You, of all people, should be aware of how bad people can treat outsiders. Sometimes, bad stuff happens to you, and it’s not your fault.”
“Our actions are our own. There’s always a choice. We decide our fate and no one else. Society made the gun easier to find – and that has to change – but it's up to you to pull the trigger. Evil exists in our world, and we have to be strong enough to rise above it. If we fail, that’s on us.”
Altera stood firm as the fight against the Twisted played in her head.
Had she been strong enough to defeat the Twisted and had convinced the passengers to remain on the Verne, they might still be alive. She had failed to eliminate the evil before her eyes, and their deaths were on her.
“But if someone has seen only gunfire in their life, can you expect them to do anything but to fire?” Kim formed his fingers to a gun. He aimed at Altera’s head and imitated pulling the trigger. “And what about the weak? Those who can’t rise above, do you condemn to be evil for their weakness? What shall those do who were born weak, and those weakened by their environment?”
“That’s why we protect the weak. Valkyries exist for that reason alone.”
“So, the weak have no other choices but to let the strong decide. Is that what you’re saying? There’s no free will, only power. Those born weak and those, their environment and circumstances disable, have no choice but to follow the strong.”
Altera shook her head. “I won’t condemn the weak. But everyone can become strong. We’re all born with our own baggage. It’s up to us. Will we succeed despite the roadblocks, or will we use them as excuses to stop walking?”
Kim chuckled. “You’re speaking from experience. A weak girl from some backwater dump becomes Midgard’s new shooting star. Truly a wondrous story. And you just can’t wrap your head around it. Why doesn’t anyone else become like you? What an arrogant bitch you are.”
“That’s…” Altera tried to speak, but Kim cut her off.
“I’ll level with you. These ‘from rags to the riches’-stories? They exist, but…” Kim kneeled and drew a star on the ground. “Let’s ignore the rift between poor and rich the poor can’t just overcome. For each story of success, there are millions of failures. Our capitalist system would crumble otherwise. The world’s design is that most dreamers will fail. And not gently, but after they’ve spent their blood and sweat. Society’s cruel that way. And it tends to crush those with potential because you have to think differently from others to have potential. Society doesn’t like that. People will label you and bully you. If they don’t exile you.”
Altera sighed a second time. “I fail to see what this has to do with my armor.”
“Because we live in a society where people see Valkyries like that.”
“What do you think is the public's image of Valkyries?”
He was trying to goad her for sure. But even so, she had to show him her pride in the Valkyries.
“They’re noble warriors who walk on a path to righteousness, fight for the weak and the innocent. Strong, fierce in battle, and allowing many to remain ignorant of the horrors of the world.”
“That’s all correct. But the world sees Valkyries as one other thing: as objects of lust.”
“Come again?” Altera assumed a battle stance.
“Throughout history and mythology, humanity saw them as Twice’s warriors. Valkyries fought for them, protected Yggdrasil and, and of course, they take warriors of noble heart who fell in war to the heavens, to Valhalla.” Kim splashed ink on the ground. The liquid reformed and rose from the ground, resembling shadow figures. It started to move and transformed Kim’s word into a play.
Valkyries flew through the sky, protecting the tree Yggdrasil from volleys of arrows, enemy warriors, machines, and dragons. Then, they scavenged over the battlefield, picking up fallen warriors and bringing them to the heavens.
“In Valhalla, they would drink and train until the day comes where they have to fight for Twice and protect Yggdrasil to avert the end of the world. But this has changed. Most people don’t see Twice as divine, but merely as a human being with unlimited power.”
The shadow play showed warriors partying and fighting against each other. The earth trembled, and fissure drew through it while the warriors defended the tree from numerous entities. After that, the ink formed a human being with a halo. A dog jumped and snatched the halo away with his teeth. Too slow to catch the canine, the human being sat on the ground, sulking.
“Are you trying to impress me with your blasphemy? Then tell me something I don’t know.”
Kim narrowed his eyes. “That was rude. You should never rush a person while they do their craft. An artist is never late, nor will they ever be too early. They take exactly as much time as they need to. But besides that, your brother always said you were the prim and proper kind. Did the chieftain lie to me?”
Again, the ink interpreted Kim’s words, displaying an artist in a wizard's robe and a young Altera.
Altera didn't respond, and Kim continued.
“As humanity rejected the existence of a god, Valkyries lost the divine aspects of their myths as well. That was the first nail in the proverbial coffin. The second and not unrelated one was the Great War. That was pretty much the end of the world. Our big-brain-ancestors a thousand years ago burned down Aes. And where were the warriors from Valhalla? What remained was the Valkyries' status as fierce warriors. Since the last open war was a thousand years ago, most people have forgotten that Valkyries can fight.”
“You know very well that this isn’t true. We train day and night.”
Kim shook his head. “Sweety, this ain’t about you. It's about society.”
Altera rolled her eyes.
“The public has forgotten what a Valkyrie truly is. But one aspect has remained strong. Humans desire Valkyries. There are countless stories of men wishing to marry them, rescuing Valkyries, as if they were some damsel in distress, or getting them as a reward for their heroism. And sometimes, they resort to plain old rape. These stories existed parallel to the description of Valkyries as warriors. But now, they are all that remains. Valkyries are objects of desire. You have become a meme.”
“I don’t follow,” said Altera, her eyes reflecting the ink play. The figures became a puddle, and Kim drew the runes for “Meme” on the wall.
What did he mean by that? He would have to elaborate further until she could find a point to pick apart and build her case.
“I’m not talking about funny cat pictures. The idea and definition of a Valkyrie have changed within the public mind. Over the years, it gradually shifted from one to the other until it had morphed completely and possessed few in common with the original, like evolution or passing on DNA. Even if it may not be the truth, it has become a new truth. And you Valkyries have accepted this as well. Look at you.”
Kim wrote “Truth” on the wall and pointed at Altera. “So, tell me, why are you dressed like that? Why would a woman wear something like this to the battlefield?”
“A Valkyrie has to be beautiful as much as she is strong.”
“There it is,” said Kim. “Why do Valkyries have to look beautiful on the battlefield? It’s a battlefield. Being beautiful doesn’t change anything. Yet, there is this strong emphasis on beauty. I will tell you the reason. Because it is not for the battlefield but to appease the masses. You Valkyries have become propaganda tools. You’re less warriors and more idols. And in response, the public began to desire you.”
“That’s not too true, I-“
Altera tried to talk, but Kim cut her off. “You never had to think about it, but becoming a Valkyrie is unfair. Would you still be a Valkyrie if you were born ugly? How many crushed dreams exist because someone wasn’t beautiful enough to become one? And even those that become Valkyries, when they see you, they become aware of their faults. In general, it produces an unhealthy mindset. How many Valkyries did Midgard lose because of drug abuse or suicide? And surely, you must have noticed how people look at you.”
Altera dropped her shoulders and withdrew her weapon.
She knew it all too well. People either admired her or hated her. They despised her for her achievements, for her skills, or her looks. Of course, they couldn’t do anything about it and never had voiced their opinions – at least, not in front of her. But their gazes pierced. Malice, envy, wrath – they wished for her to fail, to see her humiliated or even dead. Why did they do this? They didn’t know her. All they did was to watch her from far away and formed their opinions without much evidence. Why didn’t they talk to her? Maybe they would realize their error? Or she would validate their beliefs. But at least, then, they had a reason, and she would know why. But what could she do about all these people lurking and hating her behind her back?
But worse than the malice was the lust. These gazes: perverted eyes that stripped her with every step she took. Those people didn’t see her as a woman or even a human being. For them, she was an object, a trophy, and the things they wished they would do to her…The videos and drawings they created when she was in high school in Midgard. They drew her or edited her face and voice…How realistic it looked.
“You don’t have any friends, do you?” Kim asked.
“Of course I ha–“ Altera tried to protest, but then, she stopped. She looked at the ground and grabbed her arm.
Were Ragna and Eric her friends? And what about Grendel and Puck? Those two got along with Ragna and Eric. But how much had they talked with her? Much less. Why was it easy for Ragna to get along with other people? Ragna barely had to put effort into it, while she had to go out of her comfort zone every time, and she still failed to make anything more than acquaintances. Didn’t they realize how hard that is for her? Of course, they didn't. They only saw the result and couldn’t read her mind. That was assuming they tried to get closer to her in the first place. What was she in Ragna’s and Eric’s eyes? Was she a colleague, a friend, or did they see her as an object? Did they admire her, or did they secretly hate her? Ragna used to, but did that change? Or did they lust after her?
When the journey was over, would they part ways or remain? What would the reasons be? And what about Aura? Why did she approach her? Did she act on a whim, or did she see a promising cadet and wanted to make connections to bolster her future political career? Did she consider her a friend? Then, why had she never seen her other side?
“You’re a smart girl, Altera.” Kim wrote more words on the wall – loneliness, malice, hatred, lust, anxiety. “You realize being a Valkyrie comes with a horrible cost. They’re not the noble warriors you believe them to be, either. So, why do you wish to continue that path?”
Ah, so that’s what he was trying to do. He was still his brother’s lap dog. If her brother wanted her to discontinue her journey, Kim would try his best to fulfill his master’s wishes.
“Because it’s the right thing,” Altera said. “Yes, there’s a dark side, but that doesn’t invalidate the Valkyrie’s ideals. I will continue to fight to protect those that cannot fight for themselves; to pave the path towards a better world; to help those that are lost.”
“And what will you do about the “dark side”, as you called it?”
Without hesitation, Altera continued to talk. Her eyes and voiced brimmed with determination. Behind her, light shone upon the wall and coated its white with a red filter that destroyed the world’s monotony. While still white, it differed from the rest. Kim pointed his brush at it and wrote the next word: determination.
“I'll pay the cost and continue to walk on my path. Even if I become lonely, I will not stop. I may never experience friendship, and the world will never see me as a human being. There may not even be an ounce of happiness in my future. I may suffer and live in misery. Then, so be it. I will accept it all and walk a path with no happy end.”