Seeing the Bifrost’s daisy white seats again, Ragna reminisced about the first time she had taken the train.
They were traveling to the Eren Archipelago. Her father had insisted on wearing that ugly flower shirt. He grinned like a child because he had made a cheap purchase instead of shopping in the archipelago, as they had planned, and tried to make them wear matching outfits. Her mother refused to be seen with such an insult against fashion and threatened him: either the shirt would go, or she would.
Her parents were always like that. Her father would try to spend as little money as possible, but her mother would always make sure his thriftiness didn't venture into the realm of idiocy. Though with the shirts, maybe her father wanted to express their bond as a family but couldn't communicate his intentions well. He always had needed her mother to convey his thoughts.
Ragna looked outside the window. The sky was as blue as ever, and no clouds disrupted the monotone color, while the trees under the bridge the train was speeding through resembled cabbage fields.
Thinking back, that was his worst trait. Not that her mother was a pariah of virtue. She was selfish, two-tongued, and if she was determined, more stubborn than a horde of bulls. Still, she couldn't wish for better parents.
Ragna turned her head. Altera rocked in her seat. In her hand, she had summoned an ice disk. She pressed her fingers against its center, and it spun.
It was the fifth time she had attempted a conversation. She didn't like to stay still either and had indulged Altera, but this was too much. How energetic was she? As her mentor, Altera had been the opposite.
“When you are with the princess, how is she? What kind of stuff are you doing?”
“We were usually just goofing around.” Ragna shrugged her shoulders and played with her twin tail's tips. "Just the usual talk about silly stuff. Music, diets, healthcare, shows, sweets, fashion, love. Why? Have you never talked to her?"
The pressure on Altera's spinner increased, and its rotation became faster.
"She trusts you, right?” Ragna asked.
Altera glanced at the train's display and sighed. It seemed she had tried to kill time with small talk again.
“I met her when I was her bodyguard. It was part of the Valkyrie program, and even then, just as an escort to a nearby city. I don’t know why, but afterwards, she wanted to exchange numbers. From then on, she insisted on me being her guardian for unimportant events. We usually talk about politics, science, or philosophy. I didn’t notice any difference from her public appearance. In my eyes, only the word goddess could fit her. Imagine my shock after that letter. I wonder, did I ever see her true self?”
“Yeah.” Ragna snickered. “I saw your face. It was cute.”
“Would you stop that? I’m serious.”
“Aura isn’t different”. Ragna crossed her legs. “Her personality's real. But there's more to her. She also has flaws like everyone. You can admire her. But if you want to be her friend, you have to stop that. Admiring someone and understanding them are two totally different things. And if you don’t know someone, you can’t be their friend.”
The difference between admiration and understanding...Did that contribute to her relationship with Altera? Before she had talked to her, she would have worshipped the ground Altera walked on. Couldn't she handle that Altera had flaws too?
Altera stared at Ragna.
“Do I have something on my face?” Ragna asked.
She shook her head. “No, it’s just...That was surprisingly deep.”
“I’m a woman with depths,” said Ragna. “But anyway. There’s nothing wrong with your talk. The princess and I don’t usually talk about the big topics. Not because they aren’t interesting, but because we usually end up arguing. Our interests are mostly the same, but for politics and ideals, we are not. After I had entered the academy, the differences grew. I still don’t understand how she can see any good in our enemies.”
“So, your vision is different from Aurelia’s?”
“No, we fight for the same thing.”
“And that would be?”
"For a better world. I don't want to see children grow up without parents because we're sending them to fight a battle everyone pretends doesn't exist. If we all want peace, why do they keep killing soldiers? Do their lives not count? Are we less worth less than other people?"
Altera didn't say a word.
"Why did you ask?" Ragna crossed her arms. "Are you telling me that my dream is wrong?"
Altera shook her head. "Of course not. Who could say such a thing? Your dream is noble without a doubt, and it's worth fighting. I don't want you to give up on that. But how do you expect to achieve it?"
"By eliminating Vaix. If they are gone, then we don't have to fight."
Lowering her eyebrows, Altera asked. “Have you ever fought against Vaix?”
Ragna tilted her head, but Altera continued before she could open her mouth. “I’m not talking about simulations. Actual battles. Have you ever killed someone or even met someone from Vaix?”
“Then, you are just parroting what the adults are saying."
“I have every reason to hate these assholes. They have killed many people I love.”
“And I have killed the loved ones of those in Vaix.” The light in Altera’s gaze seemed to disappear.
“But they deserve it. They're monsters.”
“Do you want to know about my first kill?” Altera asked, sunken in her seat. Ragna didn’t say a word, signaling her to continue.
Altera looked at the roof and brushed her hair with her hand. “It was a little boy. Perhaps 13 years old. We had to escort a mine owner through a forest. The boy was part of a bandit tribe that kept attacking him and his company. The fight had escalated. We were still inexperienced, so we had killed them in the heat of combat. As it turned out, the miner used slave labor in his mines. And the so-called bandits were friends and families of the slaves.”
“You brought that man to justice, right?”
A quiet laugh deprived of all strength and joy escaped Altera's lips. “That man is one of the biggest providers of Orichalcum. Without him, Midgard would – compared to the other kingdoms – be at a serious disadvantage. So, the higher-ups let him do whatever he wanted. Look, I don’t know whether the people of Vaix are good or evil. But whatever they are, we are equally like them.”
Ragna covered her mouth.
That couldn’t be true. Did she fight for the wrong side? No. Even Altera could not deny Vaix’ss crimes. They were monsters. That was for sure. However, if Midgard was equally evil, then for what did she fight? Even if she fought for justice, it would benefit the fight of two monsters. What did it matter who won? No. Her life wasn't a bunch of lies. Altera was wrong. That was cynicism that – fighting at the battlefront – had nurtured inside her. In the end, she was a proud agent of Midgard.
“Then why do you want to become a Valkyrie?” Ragna asked.
“To make the world better.” In front of her chest, Altera clenched her fist. “There is good in everyone. Nowadays, it is easy to get lost, to justify evil, even if it's for the greater good. I want to be a guiding angel who lights the path to righteousness."
"And what is this right way?"
“Everyone has their own definition. And that’s okay. Even if it's foreign to me, I will guide everyone to a path that leads to harmony.”
Altera stood up and grabbed her bag. From her choker and wristbands expanded her armor and covered her clothes and skin. Before Ragna could say a word, Altera ordered her with a hand movement to be quiet.
“Let’s move to another wagon. I have a bad feeling.”
Ragna followed suit, and her eyes wandered through the wagon. Everything seemed normal. The other passengers were involved in their little worlds.
The door to the next wagon slid open, and five agents in black suits entered. One of them pulled a golden badge in the form of an eagle out of his vest.
“Intelligence Bureau of Midgard. Ragna Griffin, you are under arrest.”
As the nearby passengers began to whisper and take out their phones, the girls turned back and greeted another badge of federal agents.
"How did they find us?" Ragna asked.
"Looks like running away isn't an option for now," said Altera. "You take these guys. I will solve the problem behind us.”
Ragna tapped her wisteria-colored glove.
“Don’t use your weapon.” Altera summoned a ball of ice, big enough to cover her torso. She moved her arm, and the sphere flew right into the agents, treating them as human-sized bowling pins.
“Yeah, yeah.” Ragna dashed forward and decked her fist into the first agent’s chin. He jolted against the metal roof and dropped to the ground.
How lucky. Ragna smiled. If they all stand so close to each other, the fight will be over in seconds.
She pushed her elbow into the next agent's face and sent him flying. The third agent evaded his comrade’s falling body, but that allowed Ragna to dive her head into her opponent's. The next one pulled an electric taser from her jacket. Before she could use it, Ragna rammed her knee into her stomach. The agent groaned and went down.
Ragna looked around. Behind the wagon’s glass door, she saw the next group of agents arriving and behind them another.
“How many are there? When did the IBM border the train?"
“Guess we've no choice,” said Altera. A palisade erupted from the ground, encircled the girls, and separated them from the rest of the wagon.
“What are you doing?” Ragna asked. Shots clank against the thorn wall.
Without answering, Altera widened her arms to a prayer. Between her palms, ice transmuted to a square. Layer by layer, it grew until it was bigger than Altera’s body. She pressed her palms against the block, and with the speed of a bullet, it shot through the roof.
Ragna took a step back, her body jerking at the loud crash.
How did she do that? Ice wasn't supposed to destroy metal.
“Let's go. We should be able to disrupt the MBV with that.”
Thorn stakes grew out of the wall. Altera climbed on them until she reached the hole and jumped through it. Ragna nodded and followed her. The moment her feet had left the opening behind, the stakes disappeared, and ice froze it shut. A second tier of thorns grew as reinforcement under the layer.
“What now?” Ragna grimaced. The wind’s whip splashes lashed at her face. She slammed her saber into the roof, tightening her grip.
The train sped on a metal bridge. Around it was the sky and a sea of trees under them. If they fell, they would end up as a mush of flesh and bones. Altera, seemingly unbothered by the prospect of a messy demise, sat down.
“They won’t be able to get on the top of the train,” she said. A set of wings grew from her back, and ice covered her feet. It connected with the train's metal roof, turning her feet and the metal into one solid mass. “We should be safe.”
Her wings began to beat. They created a headwind that kept the wind splashing against her and the ice that slowly crept over her legs at bay. “I’ve no idea where we are, but once we see buildings, we get off.”
A shrill sound swooshed through the air. Their eyes spotted a brown falcon jetting towards them. The falcon screamed again, and a second later, it was gone. Instead, a tall person in celadon-pewter armor had appeared. His face was androgynous, the short hair cobalt, and his eye red like rust.
“Skyfrost.” Ragna clenched her jaw, baring her teeth.
“We meet again. It was so obvious you would be taking the Bifrost.” Skyfrost went through his bangs and pushed them away, revealing a grease black pupil. "Gotta say, the IBM did a good job. Now, you're mine."
"So you got the IBM here?"
"Of course. And now it's time I pay you back for that humiliation I had to suffer. Hadn't I transformed into a beetle and escaped through the cage's clefts, your ginger simp might've killed me." His eyes focused on Altera, and Skyfrost grinned. He raised his arms and clapped. “Xion, what an unpleasant surprise. Weren't you- “
Forced to draw a dagger, Skyfrost blocked Ragna’s saber. “Continue talking, and I put my in your tongue.”
“That was rude, kitty-cat. Did daddy forget to teach you manners too?”
Skyfrost moved his leg. Ragna jumped into the air, and Skyfrost’s right earring glowed. He performed a backflip and increased the distance between them.
What’s he doing? No time to think about that.
Ragna’s hand hovered above her glove. Once the manipulator activated, it was over for him.
The air became hotter, and Ragna’s skin heated up. Flames manifested on the platform. They formed a circle and erupted into the sky.
Fuck. The fire was faster than the manipulator. It would burn her before she could use her device. She had to get out of range.
Ragna tried to move her body.
The flames froze before they could catch her. They transformed into pillars of ice, and the gravity manipulator activated.
Now she was safe and could go full out. She would have to thank Altera for that.
Ragna mirrored Skyfrost’s previous acrobatics and kicked the pillars with all the force she could muster up. Cracks formed on them, and lumps of ice shot at Skyfrost. His earring glowed anew. Fire manifested on the Bifrost’s roof and expanded until it was a barrier wide enough to cover Skyfrost. The lumps flew into its rhombus shape and melted.
She landed on the roof, and Altera, now that she wouldn't have to worry about Ragna's safety, charged towards their opponent.
Skyfrost's hand circled the rhombus, and the fire reshaped into a spear. He grabbed it with his bare hands, and without flinching, blocked the thrusts of Altera’s partisan. Ice began to cover the tip of the flaming spear. Skyfrost summoned new flames that devoured the ice. In response, Altera widened her wings and flew into the sky. She attacked him, Skyfrost blocked. The two weapons connected. Their elements tried to engulf the other. Flames razed through the ice, and ice covered them in return. Again, and again.
Ragna’s eyes switched back and forth between the two combatants. There was no opening that allowed her to strike Skyfrost without the gravitational shift affecting Altera. She had to wait. Hopefully, the timer wouldn’t run out.
Skyfrost chuckled. “Truly, our elements are equal. But as much as I enjoy this dance of ice and fire, do not mistake…” The fire dispersed, and Skyfrost rammed his shoulder into the future Valkyrie. Altera lost her momentum. She crashed on the roof and bounced off it.
“That doesn’t make you my equal.”