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When Ragna woke up, the soft texture of a pillow was massaging her head. A blanket wrapped her in warmth and coziness, strengthening her desire to lay. Under her body was either a bed or a couch. It didn’t compare to her bed back in Midgard, but she wasn’t in any position to complain.

“Ragna?” a female voice spoke.

She opened her eyes and saw Altera sitting on a chair next to her.

“Thank Twice. You’re awake,” Altera said as tears started to build in the corner of her eyes.

“You really scared us.” Further behind in the room sat Eric at a table, eating scrambled eggs. He put his plate aside and left the table, walking towards them.

“Huh?” Ragna looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve been sleeping for a whole day,” Eric said. “We were worried you would never wake up.”

“A whole day?” Ragna’s face became pale, and the dizziness was gone. How was that possible? She had slept for an entire day. That wasn’t good. If this continued, she would end up like her father, who once was asleep for a week.

“I can’t believe it either,” said Eric. “You slept for almost thirty hours. And she…” With the knuckle of his middle finger, he knocked against Altera’s head, causing her to pout. “She’s on an endless caffein-flash. She didn’t want to leave your side even once. If I didn’t force her, she would have forgotten to eat. And when I convinced her to get some rest, what did she do? She decided to train. Like seriously, who wants to work out at three am?

“Eric’s right. That isn’t healthy,” Ragna said. “But thank you.”

“I’m a future Valkyrie,” Altera answered. “That’s what I’m supposed to do.”

Was this true? Were Valkyries these altruistic beings who should never care or think of themselves? It’s heroic. But was that healthy? Could anyone live like that? But then, what was a Valkyrie? Altera was different from her father, her mother, or any of the Captains. Yet, they were all Valkyries. And what about her?

Ragna stood up. Pain shot through her chest and shoulder, and Ragna winced. Her fingers went under her shirt and felt up her body. Instead of her naked skin, she touched bandages. At that moment, her brain recalled the events of the past days.

Ah right. Skyfrost and Clockwork had wounded her. Altera had to tend the wounds with ice. Surprisingly, the temple lacked – despite its technological advancement – in the medical department and had nothing to help them. But now, she or Eric had the time and equipment to treat her properly. She could only hope that the scars wouldn’t be too bad.

A glance revealed Ragna had been resting on a couch.

If she had to describe the room with words, 'middle-class bachelor' would fit. Regarding the furniture, nothing was out of the ordinary. The room was a two’er that combined the living room and kitchen. So, this was Eric’s apartment.

Ragna’s stomach grumbled.

“And that’s our cue to eat.“ Eric stared at Altera. “And you will eat too.”

“I will make some coffee,” said Ragna. “That’s the least I can do.”

Eric pointed at the corner of the kitchen, and Ragna strolled towards the coffee maker. Preparing the coffee, she opened the window and stared outside. A pleasant warmth spread across her face, and she leaned over the ledge to bathe in the sunshine.

Ragna smiled. Eric’s apartment was near the harbor. She could see the water and the ships on the horizon. Seawater was filling the atmosphere. Ragna took a deep breath. She inhaled the scent and gifted her lips and nose the sensation of salt and nostalgia.

It had been ages since she last had been to the sea and the coast. How old was she? Nine or ten? Back then, trips to Hlessy and the archipelagos used to be an annual event.

The cries of seagulls were everywhere. Distant and near, a perpetual ambient sound that engulfed the background.

One would think that the sound could get annoying, but for her, it was the opposite. It gave a sense of security and normality. Something that was expected and supposed to be here, and when one searched for it, it was there. The world was how it was supposed to be. Sadly, she wasn’t as fond of the actual birds.

Not ten feet away from Eric’s apartment, a flock of them fought to devour a crab. Each bird shouted that the appetizer was theirs. Even with the food out of their reach, the birds would continue. In their desire to obtain, they wouldn’t realize the objects of their needs were unobtainable. These animals were greed incarnated into a white avian body. But if one redirected their instincts – instead of fighting to obtain – their avarice could compel them to fight to protect.

“I think I like seagulls after all.” Ragna closed the window and walked with the coffee mugs to the table.

֎

As Altera had found out, Eric had figured out the majority of their story by himself. Not that this surprised her. Clockwork hadn’t made any attempt to keep the story behind Ragna’s criminal record a secret. Taking the news about Aura's assassination attempt into account, he put the puzzle together himself. Eric lacked only a few details to fill in the remaining gaps, which Altera had provided reluctantly. She had also explained what their plan was. They would board a ferry to the Eren Archipelago. From there, they would board a second ferry to the northwest coast of the continent of Glast and travel by foot to Utgard, where Drake Griffin was supposedly hiding.

“I don’t care if you are innocent or not,” said Eric and pulled his hat up. “Without you, I would be rotting in that cell. I owe you.” He took a sip from his mug and smiled. “Though, I’m glad that you aren’t crazy killers. Traveling with those is never fun.”

“You don’t owe us anything.” Altera saluted her fist before her breast. “It’s a Valkyrie’s duty to fight injustice.”

“Hey, hey, hey.” Ragna slammed her mug against the table. The coffee inside stirred up along the edges before it sunk again, preventing a spill. “Perhaps we could use his help.” Her blue eyes glimmered traces of greed – like a fox seconds away from prey that had fallen into its trap. “If he says he's indebted to us, then it's our duty as honest humans to collect that debt.”

“B…But that’s not how Valkyries operate,” cried Altera. “We don’t demand debts for doing our jobs, and we don’t take them for profit.”

The spark in Ragna’s eyes vanished, and they grew dull. She murmured words Altera could not understand and averted her gaze, earning a look of confusion from the future Valkyrie.

“That doesn’t mean it has to be a bad way.” Eric chuckled, redirecting her attention to the topic at large. “Seriously. I insist. You also saved me from the forest god and allowed me to escape the barrier. That’s three times. You aren’t even actual Valkyries. What you did shouldn’t be taken for granted. You’re doing amazing work, and we civilians have to pay you our proper respect. It wouldn’t be great if I couldn’t repay such a huge debt.”

“Still.” Altera frowned. To involve a civilian on a mission that they may not live through contradicted everything a Valkyrie stood for.

What could she do to dissuade him from his intentions?

“We don’t know what kind of dangers we’ll face. This Bragi involves international matters. In the worst-case scenario, we could nullify the peace treaty and cause the next world war. Are you up for that?”

Eric cracked his neck. “Don’t forget, I used to be a cadet. I have completed several regiments and participated in a few missions myself. So, don’t worry. I can take care of myself. Not to mention, this gives me the perfect opportunity to explore the ruins in Glast. It will be fine.”

Altera sighed.

Eric had a point. There was no logical reason to turn him down. He was offering his assistance and, by all accounts, was experienced enough that he shouldn’t be a burden. One was supposed to make allies and use help during a Bragi. It allowed one to build a network of contacts, which was something all Valkyries should have. Plus, letting Eric's debt towards them remain was dishonorable and an insult. But this wasn’t a regular Bragi. It dealt with international affairs and could lead to a fight against Paladins. She couldn’t involve a civilian. And why was Eric willing to embark on a new journey and leave his life behind?

Altera’s eyes wandered through Eric’s apartment. She inspected any object that could be of help in her current predicament.

Huh, what's that?

Between archaeology, history, and ancient anthropology books, a grey item glimmered on a shelf.

“What rank did you have?” she asked.

“I quit during my second year.”

Altera smiled and stood up. “She walked past them towards the bookshelf and grabbed the object.

“Then can you tell me what this is?” In her hand rested a gun, whose metal casing reflected the sun rays from the window.

“What the Hel?” Ragna stared at Eric as if he had confessed to smuggling drugs. “Why do you have a gun?”

Now she had a solution. Even Ragna wouldn’t be okay with guns. The majority of Aes’s population hated armed weapons. Not that one could blame them. These things were disgusting, and the law forbade civilians to possess them. Even Valkyries couldn't legally purchase ammunition.

Eric shrugged with his shoulders. “In my profession, there are many people who want to kill me.” His eyes narrowed, and the muscles in his face tensed up. “I haven’t found my Fylgja yet, and I don’t possess some of that fancy-ass magic like you do. If I have to break the law or kill to protect myself, then yes, I will do it without hesitation.”

Ragna frowned, and Altera’s finger ran over the gun’s muzzle. “That’s a slippery slope.”

“Only if you're dancing on the edge like an idiot,” said Eric. “I’m not going on a killing spree like one of those demented motherfuckers did. And I’m not gonna shoot anyone who looks funny like the cops used to. That’s why we forbade them in the first place. But against people like the Clockwork Coterie, it’s different.”

Ragna held her hand, her fingers caressing the bandages. Her frown didn’t disappear, but she didn’t say a word either.

“Against those, we have to kill if we want to protect ourselves.” Eric continued. “And whether we do it with a knife or a gun, the result will be the same. I agree with Colombine, but we aren’t just civilians. Normal rules can’t apply to us as they do to normal people. All I’m saying is, there are layers.”

Altera bit into her fingernail. He wasn’t wrong, and he had both the resources and the knowledge to get his hands on a gun on the black market.

“I’m taking a shower,” said Ragna. Her cheeks had become red. Her hands brushed the bridge of her nose.

“Over there.” Eric gesticulated with his head towards the door to Ragna’s left. “Medical supply's in the top drawer.”

Ragna nodded and hurried towards the door Eric had pointed at.

“Will she be okay?” asked Eric.

“She will have to if she wants to continue.”

At the moment, there was nothing she could do about Ragna. But she had to figure out something. If she didn’t, it would worsen the longer they travel. And from here on, the journey would harden, especially once they arrived in Utgard.

“It seems there is no use in further arguing,” said Altera. “I may or may not agree with you, but possessing this weapon goes against the Colombine Agreement. As a Valkyrie, I have to confiscate your gun. Being involved in the weapon’s trade is a life sentence. As such, you'll accompany us on our journey and pay your life debt to society that way.”

“Sure, be my guest.” Eric chuckled. “Without bullets, that thing's useless anyway. But just as you'll have my back, I expect you to make up for the firepower.”

“That goes without saying.”

Eric was right. There was no point in delaying it any further. If they wanted to survive, she had to do that.

And with these words, Eric Mort had joined the party.

----------------------

The Columbine Agreement – Proposed in 743 AR by President Bernie Columbine. Cause for the agreement was the Red Year where for an entire year, every day somewhere in Midgard a mass shooting took place. After the 365th shooting in a row – and bans on video games, movies, tv shows, music, internet, gummy bears, and free health care system proved ineffective –, the government started to wonder if there was a correlation between the shootings and the liberal gun access in the kingdom. After a year-long debate if society should have more access to fire weapons or less – and 365 more shootings –, the newly elected President Columbine proposed an agreement to the other kingdoms that restricted the use of guns and similar weapons to military personal only. Production, development, and distribution of armed weapons and bullets have been heavily regulated since then. Even Valkyries – due to their status as public figures – are not allowed to purchase munition. Though with the right connections, one can still get the occasional gun from the black market.

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