“Doesn’t something seem weird about this?” Ragna stopped and looked at the spiraling staircase. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something about its design was irritating her. There was an issue, and one had to fix it.
“I know what you mean,” said Eric. “The steps don’t align symmetrically with the plateau. It ends abruptly, and it looks kinda awkward. The designer must've screwed up.” He grumbled. “And now I want to fix it too.”
They walked past the staircase towards the third plateau. A metal door blocked the way. Ragna swiped over it with her hand, and the door opened, revealing the room behind.
As the three explored the temple, they realized, this building didn’t just serve as a temple to worship a god. It was a house. The indigenous people that had roamed the continent thousands of years ago would call this place their home. Here, they had lived, eaten, and slept. They had built families and died to pass the complex on to the next generation.
As scriptures and other relics revealed, the tower's inhabitants met their end a few decades before the Trutner siblings had founded the kingdoms. At that time, Aes had many religions and hundreds of gods. Interestingly, none worshipping Twice or Yggdrasil – though, select texts mentioned the world tree and its function. Ragna had heard of this in history class. But a series of crusades had extinguished all of them, except for one. Her ancestors emerged victoriously and would dominate the continent. Still, they were unable to destroy this temple. The people of the forest had built this fantastical building that withstood the test of time. Though, it was strange that the temple was unknown to the public eye. As unexplored the Rising Forest was – scientists all over the world wondered how it had survived the Great War –, a building that dwarfed the forest's trees should catch anyone’s attention. The Bifrost was running above it every day. And no one had ever noticed it?
The three had reached the summit again. Before, they hadn't noticed, but the entrance had a carving: May the tower be open to those to be basked in the twilight. Our Lord shall guide them.
"What does that even mean?" Ragna rested against the stone table, where their belongings had been. She stretched her arms and closed her eyes.
“Something doesn’t feel right.” Eric stroke his chin and waved his hand over the wall.
“What do you mean?” Altera asked while observing the stone carvings.
Eric shrugged. “If I only knew. It’s just…I don’t know.”
“May I ask you something?”
Altera turned around. “You deserted the Einherjar, right?”
Eric buried his face in his hat. “What makes you think that?”
“Cool motive, still an asshole. You quoted Instructor Smorgas. He's kinda famous for his phrases.”
“This could be a coincidence. If his quotes are so famous, then I might have heard about them one way or another.”
Altera narrowed her eyes and stared at his face, making it clear that she did not believe his words and would not withhold her inquisition.
Eric sighed and relented. “Fine. You got me. I used to be a cadet like you, but then I learned about our history.”
Eric nodded. “The history of the war. What started it? Why are we fighting?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Altera sat next to Eric. Over the palm of her hand, she materialized ice and formed it into a snake that bit its tail and encircled a tree. On its skin, one could read each rune of the Futhark: the symbol of Aes.
“World domination.” She reached out for the ice sculpture and crushed it under her fist. “Kaiser Wilhelm III wanted to rule over the world and create his twisted utopia. When it came to morality, it was pretty black and white. Even his Paladins rebelled against him. That’s not exactly news.”
“Yeah. But why didn’t the hostilities stop with the death of the Kaiser? And how was he able to gain the support of his kingdom?”
“Propaganda,” said Altera. “He was able to convince his kingdom of the need for living space and his master plan for the west. Whatever ideology existed before was a mere tool for the Kaiser’s megalomania. Afterwards, a weakened Vaix was desperate to protect what it still had. Eventually, they tried to restore their former glory. We got scared that they would try again and pushed back. And that scared them. Now we have this mess, where each kingdom is trying to trump the others. Using any underhanded tactic possible, as long as everything looks fine on the surface. Of course, that's oversimplifying the actual situation, but you get the gist.”
“You're thinking too rationally. I'm talking about the core conflict here. Why are Vaix and Midgard in conflict to begin with?”
Altera tilted her head.
Seeing that she couldn’t provide an answer, Eric continued. “I asked myself that question. Sure, Wilhelm III wanted to conquer the world for power. But what about his kingdom? What keeps them going for a thousand years? And not just since the war. When I studied the kingdoms' history, I learned that the hostility has always been there. It was always there.”
“So why are they enemies?”
“Because of Twice. At least that’s what I could find out. Yggdrasil is floating above Castle Gimli, which made Midgard god's kingdom. If I had to guess, Vaix believes that they should be the chosen ones. Defeating us may make Twice reconsider or something like that.”
“Perhaps that's true, but you didn’t answer my question. Why did you leave the academy? What do you hope to achieve by learning history?”
Eric smiled. “I wanted to know why we're fighting. Why are we sacrificing our lives? And when I learned how far the cause reached, I wanted to find its very root. I think that the truth holds the key to ending the conflict and achieving peace without having to annihilate the other side.“
Altera lifted herself and cranked her neck.
Perhaps there was merit in finding the original cause. But in the end, it was insignificant. Once, Twice had been the cause. But the kingdoms have evolved, and so did their goals and needs. With each Kaiser, the ideology permutated until it became a cause that had nothing in common with the basis. Just like how humans and animals had a common ancestor, it evolved. Well, she wasn’t so cruel as to tell him his dream was worthless. That wasn’t the truth either. And more importantly…
“You're hiding something,” she said.
“Of course.” Eric jumped up.
“Altera, you just gave me an idea. Let’s go to the ground floor.”
Eric ran out of the room. Altera whistled to Ragna and told her to follow. They ran downstairs to the ground floor, where Eric told Ragna to wave her hands alongside the stair's end. Next to the third stag statue emerged a clicking sound, and the floor opened, revealing that the staircase reached further down.
“How did you know?” Ragna asked.
“Something was bugging me,” said Eric. “The tower has a numerical motive. Everything's divided into three. Room for three prisoners per jail. Three sections within the tower, and so on. The one exception was the floors. There were twenty: seven, seven, and then six. It's also strange that there's no facility in case of an emergency. If the inhabitants of this temple had something important, they would hide it somewhere. So, I thought that the first section would have seven floors as well. There being a hidden cellar made the most sense."
“But how did you know it was here at this spot?”
“Remember how you complained about the staircase earlier? It didn’t end abruptly because of a mistake. The staircase goes further, and the plateau cut it off in the middle.”
“Let’s go down.” Altera drew her weapon. She and Eric put on Eric’s bandanas, while Ragna protected herself from any potential lethal gases that could have developed over the millennia with her mouth mask.
They descended the staircase. Aesthetically, the hidden area resembled the floors above. They reached the end of the stairs and saw a door. A green display etched on it had a rune carving.
As we dine under the guise of the gods, we shall flourish this garden to spring eternal. Till it basks in the twilight’s glimmer, our godsend task must be fulfilled. Or the gods forsake us, and we shall never set foot outside this paradise and perish with it.
Ragna gulped. That wasn’t reassuring at all. Hopefully, that was not an actual prophecy. She wiped over the door, and it opened, revealing a large corridor with more doors. She went to the first one and swiped it open. Ragna fell on her knees. She screamed and backed away from the room.