Ragna opened her eyes. The first thing she saw was aquamarine bars. Then, she felt how metal rattled against her wrist and weighted her arms down. A chain connected her handcuffs to a wall. There was no mistake. She was in jail. Again. Not even 24 hours had passed, and her enemies had captured her. Ragna groaned. Everything hurt. She felt cuts and bruises all over her skin.
“You’re awake. That’s good.”
Ragna turned her head. Against a turquoise wall of unknown material leaned Altera, her hands tied to the wall as well.
“What happened?” Ragna asked. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,“ said Altera. “The poison didn’t do much. Guess it was weak enough that my body was resistant towards it. Maybe Skyfrost wanted to enjoy our suffering?”
Right. The memories came back. Skyfrost's dagger had poisoned Altera; she lost her wings; then they fell, and then...
Ragna massaged the bridge of her nose. Trying to remember past their fall wielded no result, and the more she tried, the more her brain throbbed against her skull like a barrier that forbade her to walk further. But it begged the question, how the Hel they were alive. They had fallen hundreds of meters. Even accounting for the increased durability their Mana provided, they shouldn’t be breathing.
Ragna’s hand went through her body again.
As far as she could tell, she wasn’t suffering from any severe injuries – besides the wound that Skyfrost had inflicted – but Altera’s ice still closed it. Altera must have treated her while she was asleep. Hopefully, there won’t be an infection. But that was out of her hands. For now, trying to find out why they were alive was fruitless, and it wouldn’t change anything about their current situation.
“Where are we anyway?” Ragna asked.
“You're in a temple.”
The two looked to the end of the room from where the voice had come. Sitting in the corner was a man, his eyes buried in a soot black adventurer hat. Dressed in a brown jacket, he looked like an archeologist from a blockbuster movie.
“Who are you?” the girls asked in unison. Cracking his neck, the man lifted his head.
“I’m Eric,” he said, revealing a pointy face covered in dirt. “And you are?”
“I’m Altera, and this...” Altera gestured with her head towards Ragna. “Is my…” She paused for a second until she continued the introduction. “Associate, Ragna.”
Associate? That was...Well, she wasn’t wrong. Calling her a friend didn’t feel right. At least, not yet. But she didn’t like the sound of the word. There had to be a better way to describe…She should focus. There were a time and a place for these things, and it for sure wasn’t now.
Eric smiled. “Nice to meet you. Wish this place was cozier.”
Ragna looked around. They were in a room made of aquamarine stone. At least she thought it was stone. Only the bars that separated the room from the corridor in front of them were iron. She pushed her legs against the bars, and the metal vibrated. Ragna let her head drop.
It would have been too easy if it had worked, and the chains would still bind them. But if they were in a temple, then it would explain the lack of technology. This building had to predate the Great War.
Ragna squinted her eyes and tried to discern anything beyond her jail. She saw nothing. It was too dark. There were no windows, and the only sources of light were selected spots on the walls – just enough to let them be aware that their jail was an isle in a sea of darkness. It was unlikely that the IBM held them.
“What kind of temple is this?” Altera asked.
“The temple of Eikthyrnir,” said Eric.
“Say that again?” Ragna replied.
“Eikthyrnir – one of the old golds. Long before the Trutner siblings had received Twice’s blessings and founded the three kingdoms, gods were the big thing. Everyone and their grandmother worshipped them. The people of old Aes had built entire civilizations around their deities. But chauvinism and cleansings have erased almost all traces of their existences. The cultures and gods are mostly gone.”
“Yeah…,” said Ragna. “I think that matches what I learned in history class.”
“If I had to speculate, I would say it was the patron deity of the forest.”
“Forest?” Altera repeated. “Don’t tell me we are in the Rising Forest?”
Eric nodded. “Right in its heart.”
“Then, we didn’t make it far.” Altera’s back touched the wall's cold and yet smooth surface. “Is it normal to have jails in places meant for worship?
Eric chuckled. “Well, you somehow have to keep the offerings from escaping.”
“W…W…Wait a minute. Offerings?”
“Don’t be silly,” said Altera. “The age of gods is long gone. You either think of Twice as a god or don’t believe in them at all. Even in the most remote places of this continent, pagan worship's gone.”
“Ah, right.” Ragna recovered from her brief shock. She had forgotten that she wouldn’t fit the criteria for a human sacrifice anyway. That train had passed when she was twelve.
“Well, I’ve heard they believe in a sun deity in Obelisk. But we're in Midgard, and my gut tells me that these aren’t the activities of a heretic cult.” Altera turned to Eric again. “Why are you here? Do you know who captured us?”
“Just a bunch of criminals and low-lives, I imagine.” The expression on his face became serious, and a cold light glimmered in his grey eyes. “I’m an explorer and archaeologist. It’s my job to uncover the past. I recently had learned about a temple deep in the Rising Forest. Of course, I decided to uncover its secrets. But as it turns out, criminals used it as their hideout.” His hand slid across the floor as if he caressed his infant child. “Just imagining the damage they could’ve done makes me want to puke. Well, as I explored the temple, I got careless, and these assholes ambushed me.”
“What are they going to do with us?” Ragna asked.
“Dunno. But earlier, I heard a bunch of them trying to contact buyers.”
“What?” Ragna shouted. “Human traffic?"
"That's valuable information," said Altera. "Now, we know that money is their main objective."
"You don't seriously consider negotiating with human traffickers?"
"Of course not. But knowing the objective of the enemy can help us to manipulate the situation into our favor."
"Human traffic...What kind of monster are they?”
Light flooded the corridor and washed away the darkness. Sound blasted outside their jail. The tact increased exponentially, the noise grew closer and louder, and as the distance decreased, Ragna began to recognize what she heard. Her mouth was agape.
Wait a minute. Wasn’t that…?
The music burst into the corridor outside their cells. Five men and a small girl entered the hallway, all playing a different instrument – saxophone, flute, violin, trumpets, drums, and one singer – and dancing to the symphony. Tidals of chaotic sounds – wild and untamed – formed into an orchestra. Controlled, yet filled with a cacophony of emotions, they drowned the room with their melody.
The bars disappeared, and where once was a corridor, a stage emerged. Scarlet curtains fell, revealing an organ that engulfed the horizon with its size. Morbid sounds thudded, and ominous pipes thundered through the artificial scenery. Grey automata entered the stage – mechanical women saturated with gears and wheels; spinning and clinking; dancing and singing in unity. Forming an ethereal choir, their song thrilled in a language not meant for human ears. Theatrical power piped at full volume. Streams of fire jetted across the stage and enlarged their shadows, and the automata’s metal surfaces reflected the flames.
Together, they created a holistic background, and a young man in his late twenties, wearing a long chiffon coat, came forward. Black metal gears decorated his arms and elbows. As the prisoners stood frozen, in complete disbelief regarding the events that played in front of their eyes, he let his voice sing through the music.
“My dearest guests,
For ‘venging flames we are,
As you’ve entered our nests,
Please fall insane
Like clockwork again and again
Till your minds spring broke,
And you scream and croak.
Melodic compassion, human desire,
Burning brighter than the morning star
Engulfing all Midgard in its pyre
Till you see us all
Those cast in the dirt
Your world is the toll.
For the fire sirens eternal alert
Following the rules of nature
We lie, cheat, steal, survive.
Your eternal joy we sacrifice
And our music sounds!”
The scenery crumbled, and the instruments faded away. Taking off his sable black top hat, the singer bowed with such vigor that it veered into the realms of mockery. “Welcome to my humble château. I’m Cyrus Clockwork.” He straightened himself, and his hazel eyes wandered over the prisoners in the jail. His eyelashes, and the excessive amount of eyeliner, he had used to paint knives under his eyes, sharpening his gaze. “I hope you liked our little song. We are the Clockwork Coterie. The number one criminal orchestra in all of Aes.”
Still blue with shock, Ragna couldn’t utter a word. She couldn’t decide what was crazier: the overly narrow superlative or the possibility that other inferior gangs like them existed.
Clockwork smiled and pulled a lighter out of his pocket. “Don’t give me that look, kitty. I would neeever kill you.” Walking past the jail, he clattered it against the prison bars. “You know, I may be a ginger, but I still have a soul.”
“You're trying to sell us into slavery,” said Altera.
The criminal shrugged his shoulders; his wry smile didn’t disappear. “Slavery is many things. Despicable? Maybe. Morally questionable? Perhaps. But consider this.” He raised his finger like a student in a classroom. “It's also profitable. Demand for good-looking women is at an all-time high, and the Wert keeps coming. I mean, if you want to have a nice house at the beach, you gotta have money. Living is more than surviving, and that new GM7 won’t pay for itself."
“Because of a game console?” Ragna rushed towards him, but her shackles pulled back. Forced on her knees, she growled.
“It’s great that you already practice. Your new master will be pleased.” Clockwork pulled his lighter back into his jacket pocket and clapped his hands. “If it were up to me, I would just steal a GM7. Sadly, I’ve no idea how to get around their lock mechanism.”
“Cool motive.” Eric sneered. “Still an asshole.”
Ragna jumped from the ground, pushing her body and the shackles that kept her at bay to their limits. She growled and glared daggers at him, her electric blue eyes saturated with hatred and wrath. Clockwork leaned forward and pressed his face against the bars. “Ohhh, if only looks could kill. Perhaps you could hurt me.”
Ragna’s gleam intensified. She spat on Clockwork’s face. He groaned, and with the backside of his glove, swiped the salvia from his cheek.
“You'll pay for your crimes.” Ragna forgot all self-restraint. All the pent up-emotions her heart had built up were released. The hatred, wrath, and pain, her subconscious could not hold back anymore. She pushed forward, tugging against her wrists until her skin tore and bled. But Ragna didn’t even notice. She forced her body forward, ranting and lashing out at the monster in front of her eyes.
“You disgusting pigs pretending to be human. Justice. Will. Prevail. You will pay. Midgard will hunt you down.” Using strength she could not possess, her feet moved forward. With her arms stretched out to their limit, Ragna ignored the pain and pushed. All the monsters in the world would suffer. And then, the shackles broke. “They will hunt you and punish you. There will never be happiness in your lives, and when you die, you will regret that monster like you were ever born. Every last one of you.”
Clockwork took a step back, and his underlings observed the scene, unable to comprehend how a girl like Ragna could have destroyed her shackles.
“You are starting to annoy me.” He said and snapped his fingers. His glove gleamed in aquamarine light. With one swipe, the bars opened like an automatic door. “But I'm a compassionate man. Come at me. Strike me with all your hatred. And if you beat me, I may even let your friends go.”
Clockwork pulled a knife out of his belt and threw it in front of Ragna’s feet. She didn’t have to hear that twice. Ragna grabbed the weapon and stormed out of the jail, ignoring Altera’s attempts to stop her. The door shut close, and she attacked him. ------------------------
The Rising Forest – A forest in the middle of Viking. It got its name thanks to the unusual height the trees and plants reach. Because of this, the innermost parts are still unknown, and criminals tend to use it as a hideout.
The Game Master 7 – The newest generation of the Game Master console. It fully supports augmented and virtual reality. Prices can go into the four digits. To prevent fraud and piracy, the security mechanisms have been improved greatly to the point that governments are trying to crack it. The Game Master has a rival in the Microbox-7.