“Was it really the right idea?” On the branches of the ash tree crouched Sven, his knees bobbing above the water surface.
There was no movement on the water. The sea was still and had no reason to move. It was already equal to the world as the primordial sea. Here, life started, and death ended. And the ash tree grew on it, its roots buried under the surface. Ragna could not see Sven’s eyes. On a blank paper, a weak smile was visible.
“You did something horrible,” he said. “Yet you avoided the consequences and played with the free will of your comrades.”
Ragna didn’t say a word. How could she? Black bonds wrapped around her jaw and kept her mouth shut.
“It's true. You've strayed away from the path a Valkyrie should follow,” a second voice spoke.
The sea was bubbling, and circles formed on its surface. First one, then two and three and more. Their radius increased with each ring and transformed the sea into a liquid mandala. From its center, her father emerged. His feet stomped on the water. Each step disrupted its nascent artwork of the surface with a new circle design. He walked towards her, and Ragna stood on the shore, awaiting him.
Why should she move? Why should she reject him?
He took her hand and led it towards the claw-like scar on his left shoulder. She twitched. It was like touching a ginger root. But more than that, it reminded her of the day her father had come back from a mission. He was standing on their doorstep. Looking at his eyes was like staring at hollow darkness. His motions had become inhuman and abrupt, like a malfunctioning robot. And in his arms, he held the lifeless body of her mother, unable to realize how that would traumatize his children. When she saw them, Ragna focused on her father’s left shoulder. Perhaps she was trying to avoid seeing her corpse, Ragna didn’t know. Blood was gushing out, flesh was missing. It ran down his arms and stained their doorstep. The scar was still prominent today.
The scar on her father’s shoulder wasn’t the only change – as much as she wished it to be. From that day on, their home would never be as lively as it used to be. She and Sven learned to move on. It had been scary, and there were days she wanted to tear her heart out to stop the emotions. Her mother’s passing had left a scar in their souls, but she learned to live with that. Instead of longing for an unobtainable future, she had decided to make sure that no one would have to go through what she did.
She couldn’t say the same about her father. He tried to maintain a sense of normality – to be cheerful and a foundation stone. Was he trying to shoulder all the pain by himself in another attempt to protect her? Thinking about it, she hated this attribute of his the most. Seeing him trying to be cheerful made it worse. If he was in pain, he should scream. If he was sad, he should cry. He was always there for her, so she should be there for him.
“Are you really in a position to say that?” Eric leaned against the tree’s bark. “You denied your own tears.”
“You killed a man in cold blood.” Her father continued. “This was neither a battle nor self-defense. You tricked and murdered him. It goes against what a Valkyrie stands for.”
“You claimed you love me,” said Sven. His body was hanging from one of the branches. A noose wrapped around his neck and connected it to the tree. He swung to a non-existent wind. Back and forth until millimeters separated him from his lost love. His eyes opened up. Bead black like a beast, they pierced her heart.
“How long have I been gone? Two days? Yet you seduced him and offered your body. Where is your shame?”
Ragna tried to protest, but the bonds pressed themselves against her skin, soring her throat.
“Perhaps, then it's better. You forget your sins and continue your path as a Valkyrie.” Her father removed her hand from his shoulder.
Their bodies turned into white smoke, and they were gone.
“Certainly, that's a way.” Eric walked away from the tree. Circling Ragna, he flipped a coin in the air. Head. With each step, he flipped anew. Tails. Tails. Heads. Heads. Heads. Tails. “But is that what you want? To joke after assassinating the man? He was a criminal for sure. Did he deserve it? Maybe. But even when fighting evil, a Valkyrie retains her honor. Valkyries don’t lower themselves to the level of their enemies, regardless of who it is. Face the truth and abandon your way. Or live a lie and continue. Perhaps you should choose. If that's the way.”
The roots of the tree grew. Their mass multiplied, and their points sharpened to stakes. Through Eric’s chest, they pierced. His body slid further down until the wood tore him apart, and chunks of cloth and meat sunk into the depths.
Before she could react, the roots rose. Like snakes, they coiled around Ragna and bound her limbs. She tried to move, but it was futile. The wood tore through her skin. Blood rivered from the exposed flesh, drenching the roots in red. She tried to scream for help, but her bindings didn’t allow her to let a word out.
“Your struggle is useless.”
The tree split its bark and created an oval opening. A Valkyrie exited the hole and walked on the root until she stood in front of her.
Ragna tried to say Altera’s name, but under her bindings, her words turned to muffles.
Altera’s armor transformed into obsidian. Black ooze latched onto her wings, drenching every single feather in pitch until they resembled the leathery wings of a bat. And her laurels turned into horns made of ivory, like elephant tusks - her angelic beauty perverted into this form. Yet neither horror nor disgust filled Ragna’s heart. Altera looked into her eyes.
“How can you scream when you have no words? How can you become free when you don’t leave your prison?”
She stretched out her arm. Her crystal-clad fingers caressed Ragna’s cheek with their cold touch. She moved up to her hair, grabbed it, and pulled.
Altera pulled and pulled her hair. Pain hammered against Ragna’s head. She could feel Altera ripping out her roots.
Ragna couldn’t scream. No matter how hard she tried, no matter what Altera demanded. She couldn’t fulfill that wish.
Finally, when cracks vibrated within Ragna’s skull, Altera stopped. A smirk filled with joy – ecstasy in its purest form – twisted the lips of the corrupted Valkyrie.
“You denied your sins and pain. But here, they cannot be denied. You will face them tenfold. In your world, they may stroll along. Here? You will suffer the consequences. What are your sins? Do you even know if your actions qualify Or, is it only you who thinks of them as such?”
She drew her partisan and stroked Ragna’s arms. The cold steel caressed along the skin from one end of her body to another. Ragna shivered to each sensation; tears ran down her cheeks. Of pain, fear, and…and another feeling, she couldn’t and didn’t want to recognize.
Altera continued until she found a spot she liked. A part of Ragna she would love to tease and poke, to gnat and tear. She pressed the metal tip against it. A puddle of blood escaped the wound and tarnished the weapon’s gravure. Altera applied more pressure, and as it dug in it, her partisan got a taste of Ragna’s flesh. Again, Ragna tried to scream without success.
Seeing the paltriness in Ragna’s eyes, in her failure to voice her instincts and thoughts, her wishes and feelings, Altera chuckled. Her eyes lustered and looked down on her.
“Sorry, but as you are, you have no right to speak. What do you want to say? What do you think or desire? Where do you want to go? What do you hate? What do you believe? What is your sin? What is not? You are here because you believe you have sinned. But as long as you cannot even recognize your own vice, I will punish you for all. The things you did right. The things you did not. Everything.”
The roots lowered Ragna and Altera climbed on top of her. Sitting on her abdomen, she leaned forward, breezed in her ear, and opened her mouth. Razor-sharp teeth tore through Ragna’s throat. Ice pierced her joints. Ragna had already given up on screaming. She just endured it. There was no point.
Could she do anything? What should she think? What should she believe? Couldn’t she just follow the teachings of others? Wasn’t that why they existed? Why was her mission the wrong way? Was it even wrong? Or was everyone else? How could she even know that? She was nothing but a stupid girl. Was she shallow? Or easy? A disgrace to her parents? She had murdered. Blinded by words that were not hers, she had become obsessed with a vengeance beyond her understanding and a desire to obtain a treasure she couldn’t carry. Was she too reckless? Or was she a coward? Had any of this truth to it? But how would she know if these were lies, to begin with? Was anything right or wrong? It was impossible. Right now, she couldn’t know. She had to learn more and see for herself. What she could choose and what she should choose. And most importantly, what she should not.
“If that is your answer, then I will yield.”
Altera was gone. All traces of her, all the wounds and pain vanished.
On the water surface appeared a shadow. Ragna looked up. If she had wanted to know what could cast the shadow, it would be futile. A creature – assuming one could define it as such – flew through the sky. Black mist covered its body and concealed its existence.
From the mist's and the shadow's size, this being was colossal. But that was a mere hypothesis. When one heard howling, one should think of wolves, not jackals. In this world, such logic was useless. And that assumed it existed here at all.
The creature landed in front of her. Not that she could recognize anything more of its nature. The mist enveloped the roots of the ash tree, and the being began to gnaw.
At least she assumed, hearing the sounds emerging from the mist.
The weight and pressure on her limbs loosened. Ragna straightened up. The bindings fell from her and sunk into the depths of the sea. She was free.
Should she thank it? That seemed logical. But this was a world void of logic. Did its assistance have conditions? Could it be a bane hiding as a blessing?
“For now, walk this path.” A deep voice – too androgynous to capture and confine it with labels such as male or female – boomed inside the mist. “But know this path will end. And there has to be penance. A sanctuary, denial is no more. You will walk, you will walk, you will hurt and cry.”