Ragna pulled her seax out of the man, and with a swing, she wiped the blood off her weapon. She raised her skirt and hid the seax in the slot sewn into her garter. Her gaze wandered to the lifeless body. Blood gushed out of the pierced flesh. His eyes were closed as if he were sleeping. Ragna didn’t say a word, and not a single thought seemed to cross her mind. She stood still and observed the man's corpse that lay at her feet.
What went through Ragna's head? Altera could not know. Was she mourning the man she had assassinated or cursing him? Perhaps, she was mocking him for his foolishness? As expressive as Ragna usually was, at that moment, she had become an enigma. There were a thousand questions she – and Eric as well – wanted to ask her. Altera tried to approach her and touched her shoulder. At first, Ragna didn’t react. Then she turned around. She was smiling with frivolous joy.
“Sorry, I must have worried you.” She giggled and looked at her thigh where she was hiding her weapon. “Ah, you probably wonder what else I've hidden there? Am I right?”
Altera and Eric stared at her, trying to understand what was going on. Had Ragna's behavior changed as a coping mechanism to deal with her first murder? It was like someone had possessed her. Was that a Fylgja? She had never encountered one with such an ability before. Or was it something else?
“Well…It is a woman’s secret.” Ragna circled Altera, and from behind the Valkyrie, she enveloped her in her embrace. “You should know about such things. Or…Should I educate you?”
Altera gulped. Feeling Ragna’s pulsating body, her mind could not focus. She looked at Eric, whose face had the same look, her own emitted: disturbance, confusion, and something…something else. Another feeling she could not or did not want to describe. Ragna let go, and in a swift movement, she rotated Altera. The two women saw face-to-face. And for one second, she granted Altera the capability to speak.
“Ragna is everything…? You just…”
More, Ragna did not let her say. She put her finger on Altera’s lips, smeared them in blood, and whispered in her ear. “I think we shouldn’t talk about these ugly things. It would make me saad. Do you want that?’”
Making Ragna sad…Why would she want that? If she talked about these ugly things, it would make Ragna sad. Why would she want that?
“You want to be a Vaal-kyy-rie. So, youuu have to protect me. Vaalkyries protect. Please protect me from aaall evil that maakes me saaad. Don’t you want to be a Vaaalkyrie? Don’t youuu waaant to protect me?”
Of course, she wanted to be a Valkyrie. It was her dream, her mission, her life. There was nothing else for her but to be one. Valkyries protect the innocent. If she wanted to protect Ragna’s innocence, she couldn’t make her sad. If she made her sad, she couldn’t protect Ragna. If she couldn’t protect Ragna, she couldn’t become a Valkyrie. If she couldn’t become a Valkyrie, her life was forsaken. For the sake of her dreams, of her own life, she had to protect Ragna. At all costs. If Ragna was with her, she could protect her. If Ragna became hers, she would be a Valkyrie. If she made Ragna her possession, made her happy, then her own life would have value. Yes. Yes, Ragna was her treasure.
She faced both Altera and Eric. “Please, forget your confusion over my actions.” Her lips formed a smile. Sweet and delicious as belladonna. It was a smile worth protecting, worth fighting for, and worthy to vanquish lives. “You can remember what had happened, but think of it as nothing unusual, like brushing your teeth.”
Her hand reached out for Altera’s face. Ragna touched and caressed her cheeks. And even if she didn’t see it, she felt envy. But it wasn't her own. It was Eric’s. His heart hurt and wished to inflict the same pain she had brought on him. He wanted that she paid for the crime of taking this treasure from him, this chance to have a fulfilling life, to vanquish the emptiness inside him. Altera smiled. She didn’t care about him. Ragna’s affection was for her alone.
“Just this little incident. Don’t bring it up unless I will it. Would you be so kindly?”
“Yes,” they said in unison. One, in the hopes of attaining what was not his. The other, in the determination to keep what she had granted her.
“Then let me give you this little gift,” said Ragna. “To show youuu just how graaateful I aaam.”
Ragna leaned forward. Altera's crimson eyes reflected Ragna's pink lips. The strength in her body faded away. Her arms slumped, and scents invaded her nose. She smelled an amalgamation of odors – from lavender and pumpkin to vanilla and forest. She couldn't think; A fog had dazed her. She could feel Ragna. Her lips. Sweet, sweet, deliciously sweet. An exchange of fluids and words. Connected through tongues and lips. At this moment, in front of Altera stood not a bratty girl. No, this was the voice of a serpent: A fabled dragon, seducing and enticing her thoughts with her domineering words.
Words so pretty. Like swords. At her, she struck. Drug. A drug. Like a drug, her commands ate through her brain. At this moment, she lost all power, all worth as a human being. All drive, but one remained: Please Ragna. Follow her will. Serve her forever. Ragna was everything. Her will, a sword. Her words, reality. Her dreams, the future. Her grace, her existence.
She ceased to be human and transformed into a vessel for Ragna’s eminence. Only two thoughts she could save: She had to kill everyone who desired Ragna, and how much she wanted this beautiful onyx sclera and these slitted electric blue pupils. An inferno raged inside her, wishing to transform this land into a black paradise of scorched earth, to incinerate all enemies. Those who dared to take away her dearest possession. Her rightful belongings. If she had to burn Ragna to keep her from other people's hands, then so be it. And then, she would throw herself wholeheartedly in that very fire.
Dying together in a pyre, lush like flaming roses. How pretty.
Altera smirked. Excitement contorted her lips as her crimson eyes saw that future ahead. No one would protest that there had been too little killing.
Her thoughts began to burn Ragna’s presence away. And as Ragna gave Eric the same "gift" she had received, Altera regained her consciousness and destroyed these thoughts alongside all traces of Ragna’s command.
Altera shook her head.
Why did she feel so dizzy? No, not just dizzy. Mana was flowing inside her. More than she had ever possessed. Did anything happen? No. Ragna killed the guard. That was all.
She looked at her companions. Their faces exhibited confusion and dizziness as well. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism of the temple’s worshippers to keep intruders away or at least inconvenience them. It could be a Fylgja as well. Clockwork might have one. No. That wouldn’t explain the Mana surge. Another possibility was that it was an area effect, the tower emitted, and the dizziness was because of her body being unused to these amounts of Mana.
We have to find our belongings,” said Eric. “If I had to guess, they've stored them at the temple's top floor."
"Why there?" Ragna asked.
"It's the storage room.”
“He’s correct,” Altera added. “I can feel my Sigdrifa. It’s somewhere high.”
“Your what?” Eric asked.
“Her weapon,” Ragna answered.
Eric took the lead, and they started to run. “We have to be fast. The other guys probably heard the noise you made. They will be here soon, and I doubt they will be happy.”
Shortly afterwards, he turned left into a large open area. A staircase emerged from the darkness down below. It spiraled upwards until it would reach the area's summit, which their eyes could not make out.
"The storage's at the end of the staircase," said Eric and climbed the stairs.
“Just how big is this temple?” Ragna asked after they had passed the sixth floor, and the distance to the staircase's end didn't seem to decrease.
“Around 600 meters,” Eric said.
"You're joking? What god needs this much space?"
“We should be on the 13th floor now. That means seven more floors."
“Seven?” Ragna groaned. “Couldn’t they have built a shrine? Or something convenient? I mean, it’s just a god. If there was a treasure or something, I could understand.”
Eric laughed. “They would burn you alive for that blasphemous comment. Gods used to be a big deal a long time ago. But over time, faith decreased within the population. First, it was many gods. Then just one. Now, outside of Obelisk, faith has become a lifestyle choice. I’m not even sure if the church believes in Twice’s divinity.”
“How is all of this even possible?” Altera’s eyes wandered around the spiraling staircase and the floors. Her eyes sparkled at the architectural achievement. The entire building looked as if its founders had carved it out of a single aquamarine block. “This kind of technology shouldn’t have existed that long ago. And not even that. I have never seen material like this.” Altera tapped against the staircase, and a clink echoed.
"What kind of people used to wander Aes," Altera wondered. "When the kingdoms had yet to exist? And if they used to be this advanced, how much knowledge and progress had chauvinism and ignorance purged?"
“Marvel later,” Ragna said. The sound of boots running on the stairs came from the lower tiers of the temple. Clockwork's men had already mobilized and began to chase them. Altera apologized, and they continued to run while Eric laughed.
“It’s because of questions like these that I decided to explore ruins," he said. "Both future and past are unknown to us. Only the Allfather can see where we will go. So, at least, let me discover the past. But Ragna’s right. We should continue this discussion once we’re safe. I have a lot of theories. I’m eager to hear your opinion about them.”
“Fine.” Begrudgingly Altera agreed, and three remained silent for the rest of the climb.
Eventually, the three reached the final floor and the summit of the temple.
"Finally." Ragna paused to catch her breath. "What the fuck’s wrong with these people? Building a six hundred-meter-long temple. Was this Eithin-whatever the god of cardio and six-packs?"
Eric sat down, breathing heavily. "It didn't affect your ability to talk for sure."
"I guess we could afford a short break." Altera looked downstairs. Unlike her two companions, her body didn't display any signs of fatigue or exhaustion. One would think Altera had merely walked a morning promenade.
Eric and Ragna stared at Altera in disbelief. "You're not human," they said at the same time.
But Altera was right. They could afford a break. The sound of Clockwork's minions had subsided for some time. The climb might have been excruciating for them, but they were trained cadets and an adventurer archaeologist, respectively. Their condition was leagues above the average population. It was doubtful that these bandits had done anything similar to the training regiments of cadets. No matter how exhausting it was for them, for the Clockwork Coterie, it was worse.
Like every other floor, they had crossed so far, two slender corridors extended from the central plateau. It created a bridge that connected the two opposing sides of the temple. Light was visible from the left corridor's end, while the one to the right led to a shut door.
“I guess we should try the one with the light,” said Ragna once she felt that she had rested enough.
Eric nodded. The noise of their pursuers had gained volume. Their pursuers had decided to continue as well. Their stomps and grunts grew more discernible.
The three began to walk, but then Eric halted.
“Why are you stopping?” Ragna increased her pace and ran towards the light.
“Wait.” Eric tried to grab her arm, but when Ragna took another step, an electric sound emerged from the tile her boot had touched. Yellow circuit-like patterns flashed over the bridge, and a red light illuminated the corridor.
“What’s happening?” Ragna looked at Eric. Her companion gulped and buried his head in his hat.
From an unknown source, a female voice rang through their heads. “Intruder alert. Warning, unauthorized access into the central system. Five seconds until automated weapon response…Four.”
“What?” The voice counted down – “Three.” – Ragna tried to think of something to – “Two.” – saves their lives – “One. Starting elimination of all intruder units.”
Tiles disappeared from every side of the corridor and left behind holes. Inside them, they could see the muzzle of a gun firing.
Huh? Was death this painless? Shouldn't she feel at least the brief impact of a bullet making contact with her body? But she hadn't heard any sound, let alone felt anything piercing her.
Ragna opened her eyes and inspected her body. There were no new wounds, and everything was fine. Did the trap malfunction? A glance at the holes revealed it had functioned as well as it was supposed to. Multiple layers of ices covered the holes. The bullets had no chance of penetrating those.
“You’re welcome.” Altera smiled and walked in front of her. “Don’t slip.”
Now that Ragna saw it, ice had covered the floor. She gulped and rubbed her arms. Had Altera always been this powerful? She knew Altera had to be skilled as a potential Valkyrie. Compared to her usual cryokinetic techniques, what she just had done was on a different level. She had never been able to summon this much ice before. She could even see her breath. And it didn't look like this move had depleted or dented Altera's Mana resources.
“Next time, please wait.” Eric patted her on the shoulder and brought her back to reality.
“Sorry,” said Ragna, letting her head down.
“Don’t be. You aren’t a true adventurer if you don’t activate at least one hidden trap. See it as a rite of passage. Anyway.” He patted her on the shoulder and continued in a quieter tone. “You should thank Altera. I think it would make her happy."
Ragna nodded. Altera had saved their lives. Once they were outside, she would thank her. Ragna walked out of the frozen corridor and entered a cylindrical area. Electric noises – like the workings of a processor or a computer that rebooted – echoed from every direction. A warm breeze blew through Ragna’s hair, and the sounds of nature became louder. Mixed with the temple's synthetic noises, they created a new melody. Atop the temple, there was no ceiling. The room was open, and in the night sky, they saw the source of the light. The full moon itself watched over them, seemingly just one grasp away. In the room's center, the temple's creators had erected an aquamarine table. On it was a stag's skull. If she had to guess, the table functioned as an altar the pagans used to offer their gods tributes. Behind the table was a stone wall as wide as the table. At least she assumed it was stone. Someone had projected drawings onto the stone walls.
These people even had a projector. But how? Did they make everything of bamboo technology?
The drawings depicted charcoal figures that were either dancing or fleeing from someone or something. A larger individual towered over them. It was a creature with a humanoid shape. Its eyes were a swirling vortex, and it had its arms spread like wings. More figures were depicted next to it in weird positions. Were they praying, obeying, fearing, or revering? Next to the small figures, the drawing showed a stag and several other beings. Some seemed to be animals. Others were human-like, and some were neither. Next to the table, the Clockwork Coterie had stored their belongings. A quick check revealed they had not even opened the bags.
“Ah, there it is.” Grinning, Eric took the skull of a stag from the table and held it in his hand.
“What's that?” Ragna asked.
“The reason I explored the temple. An ancient artifact. Probably used for rituals on this altar.”
Altera looked at Eric, scanning him. He inspected the skull further when they heard noises from the end of the corridor.
“Looks like we’ll be getting plenty of company soon.” He put the skull inside his bag and took out a knife.
“Don’t worry.” Altera widened her arms like a conductor. From the room's rim, ice materialized and spiraled down to the ground, creating a staircase in the process. "Take my hand." She reached out with her arm. "Unlike you, I can run on ice."
Without questioning her, Eric and Ragna did as she told them. They ran down the stairs, and with every step they took, the ice behind them dissolved.
“Altera, you're awesome,” said Ragna once they had reached the ground.
“Indeed, she is,” Clockwork said as he awaited them. Alongside him were his female minion and five of his men.
Ragna, Eric, and Altera drew their weapons.
“I had my suspicions that you would manage to escape,” he said and flipped the butterfly knife in his hand. The moonshine glimmered on its reflection, and Clockwork pointed the curved blade – long enough to be a short sword – into their chests. “So, tell me. What happened to Pete?”
When he saw their faces, his smile vanished, and his eyes followed. Filled with fury, Clockwork chuckled. He let his head sink, having grown tired of keeping it up all the time, and bared his teeth. “I see. I see. What pay will I get from thee? How ‘bout some ultraviolence? It's time to end the silence, right, right, right?” Ignoring the pleas of his men, he widened his arms. “So, drown in madness. Ope-“
Clockwork stopped in the middle of his sentence, and his arms dropped. A cold sensation overcame, and light gleamed out of Eric’s bag. From inside the temple, a roar boomed through the forest like the impact of an explosion.