Clockwork’s droogs began to play a session of rock-paper-scissor games. They played several rounds until they had determined a definite loser. The minion in question – Pete, a thuggish-looking giant as wide as a ship’s mast – grumbled. His comrades laughed, patted him on the shoulder, and left him alone.
Pete let his head down and leaned cross-legged against the wall across the cell. He took out the newest issue of the Hygge Weekly and browsed through it. Occasionally, he lifted his eyes to catch a glimpse of the prisoners. Outside of Ragna's whimpering, the prisoners didn't make a noise. From the breast pocket of his jacket, he took the glove that belonged to the girl. He didn’t know why, but Cy had insisted on taking her glove as well. Sometimes he wished, he could see the world as Cy did. Understand the things he did. Outside of Eris, none of them could. Still, Cy had done a number on that Ragna. Didn't the boss have the rule never to damage any goodies? Unless the customer demanded that, of course. That girl must’ve hit a sore spot.
It wasn’t that Pete didn’t feel sorry for her or anyone else they had sold. But sympathy was a luxury that cost dearly. In this world, there was no sympathy to spare. They were all animals killing in the name of survival. If the prisoners broke out, they wouldn’t spare a single thought for anything but their escape and lives. No matter how nice he would treat them, the moment they got a chance to grasp freedom, they would take it. They would kill him and the others and forget all previous sympathy without a second thought. The idea of a prisoner liking him was romantic.
You treated them nicely. She accepted your kindness, and the two of you fell in love. Then you decided to escape and leave behind this life of crime. You would find a steady job – perhaps at a construction site or the harbor. They didn’t look too closely at your criminal records. You would build a little house and have a family – a son and a daughter. It wouldn't be luxury, but you could make do. Even if you didn't become a respected member of society, they would tolerate you. And most importantly, you had each other.
Yeah, that was a dream. Reality wasn’t that kind. Prisoners would never feel sympathy for their jailers. Why should they? They were selling people. Then again, the Clockwork Coterie was aiming for the top. Was that any more realistic? Cy didn’t care. He had never been one to settle for mediocrity. Always had these big visions. Back then, when survival had been their biggest concern, they kept the gang going. But now? Well, perhaps a twist of fate was what they had needed. That Ragna Griffin landed in front of their hideout was like winning in the lottery. If this went well, they could start living a decent life.
Still, this girl had betrayed Midgard and tried to assassinate the princess? If this was true, delivering her to the kingdoms wasn’t so bad, was it? Even scum like them respected Princess Aurelia. Assuming she was the culprit and not a scapegoat. No matter how one would look at it, she seemed too weak to be a terrorist.
Pete flipped a page and looked up from his magazine.
The girl was still whimpering on the floor, cowing and pressing against the hand-wound. Perhaps it wasn't the injury that kept her on the ground but the verbal beatdown that had broken her spirit.
Disinterested, his eyes shifted back to his magazine. An article explained how the perfect arrangement of candles could give the coziness and warmth of a heater.
“Ragna,” said Altera. “Dammit, Ragna. Now’s not the time.”
Altera sighed. She closed her eyes, and a shriek chimed. The guard looked up. Seeing nothing noteworthy, he continued to read his magazine.
“What the…” Ragna jumped from her position. Her eyes gazed on the layer of ice that had eaten into her skin. Like a fire, the cold spread into her flesh and blood. Ragna pressed her teeth. That felt worse than the knife wound.
“I stopped the bleeding,” said Altera in a low voice. “It’s not exactly first aid, but for now, it has to suffice.”
“You could have warned me.”
“I tried to. But since I have your attention…”
The corners of Ragna’s mouth turned upside down, and she averted her eyes, staring at the ground.
“Look…I know what this Clockwork guy said was …” Altera paused. Trying to think of the right words, she hesitated to speak further and started again. “I'll be blunt. I’m not going to say something like 'Don’t listen to him' or 'He just wanted to mess with your head'. Because he had a point.”
How great. Altera thought that she was worthless. But why was she surprised? What reason had she given for Altera to assume anything else?
“But that's not the end of the world.” Altera continued. “I'm not going to agree with his view, and we shouldn't give up.”
Ragna looked up. Altera’s crimson eyes brimmed with certainty and determination.
“There's nothing wrong with naivety. You're just a first-year cadet. That's perfectly normal. Yeah, you’re highly flawed. But so’s everyone. We both are still at the beginning of our careers. Look at me.” Altera closed her eyes and exhaled. “I've tons of flaws. I…I’m not good with people, so I often don’t know how to interact with them. I can be stubborn, and I guess…I may come across as stuck up, and..." Altera trembled. For a moment, she averted her gaze before she could find the courage to look at Ragna again. "What I'm trying to say…We all are far from perfect. The question is, what are you going to do about it? Are you using it as a crutch, as an excuse to abandon your values? Will you stop right here and there? If yes, then I will end your life this second. You can die naïve and innocent.”
Ragna’s and Eric’s eyes widened, unable to determine if Altera meant her words or not. Before they could say another word, Altera spoke further. “Or are you going to improve? If you want to be a hero, then work for it. Overcome your flaws. Face the horrors of this world and become the person you want to be. But for that, you have to survive. You…We have to get out and continue our journey.”
Ragna's face showed neither smile nor frown. She gulped and nodded.
“Not to disrupt your moment,” said Eric in a muffled voice, and the girls turned towards him. “I think we should discuss how to get out.”
“Do not worry about that.” Altera smiled. Thorn-Stakes shot down from the ceiling. They grew, and within a single movement, pierced through her cuffs, halving them. Before her cellmates could utter a reaction, Altera put her finger on her lips. She massaged her sore wrists, and two seconds later, the stakes had broken through Eric’s cuffs.
“How did you do that?”
“Valkyrie trade secret,” she said with sad eyes. “I'm sorry that I couldn't protect you from Clockwork. But I couldn't risk him knowing my abilities, and I needed to recover enough Mana to set my plan into motion.” Altera looked at each of them and continued to speak in a low voice. “We’re screwed if the guard alarms his friends, and he’ll notice for sure if we break the bars."
"So what should we do? Kill him with your needles before we escape?" Eric asked.
Altera shook her head. "That's not necessary. I have a technique that allows me to break through the bars and knock out the guard. But it’ll deplete most of my Mana. After this, I will be useless, and if anything goes wrong, you two have to fight. Understood?”
"Are you okay?" she asked Ragna. "Can you run?"
"Don't worry." Ragna groaned and held her rips. "It hurts, but I can still fight. Wouldn't be my first beatdown."
“Good.” Altera stood up and narrowed her eyes. “Please stand back. It might get cold.”
Eric and Ragna did as told and pressed themselves against the walls. Altera summoned a sphere made of ice in midair and rotated it. Every second, a new layer latched itself onto the round form and increased its volume until the ice occupied half the room. And with each layer, the speed of its rotation increased.
By the time it had gained a volume to Altera's likening, one could mistake it for a horizontal avalanche. Altera stretched her arms out like wings, and the sphere started to move. It crashed through the iron bars, tearing them apart like bowling pins, and continued further into the guardsman's direction.
When he heard the noise and looked up from his magazine, he could only express horror. The sphere slammed into his body and torpedoed him across the corridor. It began to crack, burst asunder and buried the man under chunks of ice as the glove fell out of his pocket on the floor.
Sweat was dripping from Altera's forehead. Her carmine eyes shone in the light of a fire that desired to burn all obstacles to ashes. Her breath was heavy, and her arms trembled.
“Let's go,” said Altera and walked out of the hole, bringing them back to reality, as they couldn’t avert their eyes at the sheer volume of her action and the field of ice that kept the man at bay.
“I need to learn that,” said Ragna and picked up her glove from the ground.
“Just what was that?” Eric asked as they reached the end of the corridor, and the radiance of a light source intensified. “And please don’t tell me that’s another Valkyrie secret.”
Before Ragna could answer that it was probably another Valkyrie secret, Altera had turned back. She jumped towards them and brought the two down as the sound of a bullet grazed them.
Ragna looked up.
The guardsman had risen from the ice. Breathing and shivering, he held a gun. The impact had flattened his face, and blood and snow ran from his swollen and crooked nose.
"How did you dodge that?" The guardsman looked at Altera like he would at a ghost. "Can see the future?"
He pulled the trigger and fired again. The bullet flew, but in the middle of its flight, a layer of ice covered the projectile and stopped it. Having lost its momentum, it dropped like a stone.
“Run,” said Altera. “I’m out of ice.”
Ragna didn’t listen. She pressed her glove. It glowed blue, the countdown popped out, and Ragna charged towards the thug.
Against Clockwork, rage had overcome her, and she hadn't thought everything through. But this time would be different. She was their golden ticket, and Clockwork had forbidden them to kill her. If they continued to run, the bullets might hit Altera and Eric. With her manipulator, the probability of losing against an untrained thug was low. She should be lucky that Clockwork hadn’t damaged the manipulator.
“Dammit.” The man grumbled and pointed his gun away from her, which took enough time that Ragna came close enough in range to throw a punch. But he blocked her attack with his arm, and Ragna punched against what could have been a concrete wall.
What had just happened? He should be flying across the room. Ragna punched again. The man furrowed his eye and grabbed her fist with his enormous palm.
Could it be that the glove was malfunctioning? No, it was working. She could feel that. It felt more like it had lost most of its force, But how?
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