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The city of commerce – as the citizens of Midgard dubbed the harbor town Hlessy – was an economic hub, and in certain aspects, eclipsed the city of Midgard in importance. Thanks to a harbor that connected Hlessy to the Titanic Sea, Midgard could trade with the Eren Archipelago, the kingdom of Avalon, and the land of Utgard.

Humans appreciated access to the sea. If one wished to disappear or possessed objects that should not fall into unpleasant hands, one would employ disreputable sailors to escape the confinements of the Midgardian society and law. This constant exchange of humans and goods led to another problem: pirates.

Like seagulls to a sliver of food, they flocked to the city and its water routes to attain profits. All these factors earned Hlessy a second nickname it would prefer to lose: the city of criminals. Of course, not everyone society had dubbed a criminal was guilty. One such criminal walked through the harbor, doing what she did best – arguing with Altera.

“For the last time, “smartitude” is not a word.” Altera clenched her fist, her eyes narrowed, and her brows raised to a scowl.

“Of course, it is.” Ragna pointed at herself and raised her other arm to the sky. Inflating her voice to the poshest Midgardian tone her tongue could imitate, she gesticulated like a musical actor. “I am surprised that such a diligent individual as yourself has never heard of this word. Perhaps that is proof that your studies were not as thorough as you thought they were.”

Altera took a deep breath. “Fine. Then use it in a sentence.”

“I have smartitude,” she said.

Altera was about to scream at Ragna when she stopped herself, swallowed whatever words she wanted to shout, and stomped off into the direction of the ferry. Watching her movements, Ragna chuckled.

“You really enjoy this,” said Eric, his face wearing an expression of worry like an onlooker who wondered if an aggressive dog should be without its leash. “Will she be fine?”

“It’s just a little teasing.”

“This is what the police will eventually call a motive.”

“Don’t worry. She should be used to it.”

“That’s what worries me.”

“I can’t help it.” Ragna pouted like a child caught red-handed trying to steal the cookies from the jar on the shelf. But quickly, she raised her chin and pressed her hands against her hips. “Altera has this cool air of perfection around her. It's one of the reasons she was the school’s idol. But I thought, wouldn’t an expression of defeat suit her more? Instead of composure, being all flustered and out of control, she would look sooo much cuter, right?”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Eric – his face deadpan – and tapped against his temple. “My screws are still around.”

Not paying attention to Eric’s comments, Ragna licked her lips and hugged herself. For a second, it was as if she had black hearts in her eyes. “And as I imagined this beautiful expression, I just couldn’t help but to want it even more. To poke her and tease her and break her façade. It took me some time, but I think I slowly understand how to get under her skin. There’s just something about her that makes it sooo enjoyable. Sometimes it makes my heart race.”

“Say, when you were young,” Eric asked. “Were you the kind of child who built mazes? And then let ants endlessly wander because you sealed the exits?”

Ragna tilted her head. “Why would I play with insects? I had Sven.”

Showing him a smile, Eric could have only described as ‘angelic’, Ragna skipped from one tile on the ground to the next. Like a sweet imp, she performed a pirouette.

Wasn't this Sven her boyfriend or something like that? Eric wondered. Ragna hadn't given many details, but she had dropped that name. The way her voice had inflated gave away that she was deeply in love. And apparently, he was her chew toy. Some boys pulled the hair of girls they liked, but this was one pay grade above.

"Perhaps I should make a call. It seems there’s a macadamia missing from the nuthouse."

Just what kind of bargain had he accepted?

Eric chuckled.

He was in for a world of headaches. If this girl would rise to the top, she might destroy the world or become a tyrant. She would not even realize the terror she inflicted. And one day, she would become the death of him. Pity the fool who would one day fall for her. They would have to be the suicidal type.

Ragna’s expression changed to a somber mask. She turned around and faced Eric. “Altera and I were never really friends. I’m not sure if I would call us friends right now. But I respect her, and it’s cool being around her. It took me a while to see it, but she deserves to become a Valkyrie.”

Eric rubbed his chin.

The way she just had talked, didn’t that seem to imply that by contrast, Ragna didn't deserve to become a Valkyrie. Or was he imagining things?

֎

On the harbor street, the daily market was in full swing. Having caught the first batch of fresh food, the merchants were shouting their prices and offerings. Were it not for the cars, the occasional pieces of technology, and the modern clothes of the passers. The scenery wouldn’t have been out of place 2000 years ago.

Ragna looked at the food with avaricious eyes. Hlessy was famous for its seafood. It was the best in all of Midgard.

She should buy food for Eric and Altera too. Perhaps she had aggravated Altera too much. Sven always cheered up when she made him food. Though what did the two prefer? Altera either didn’t eat at all and when she did, a lot at once. Oh, she also hated Durian.

She walked to a stand next to a souvenir shop selling figurines of the siren 'Lorelei' and bought three boxes of fried lion prawns, angel squid rings, and three crabby patties. She inhaled the scent of her food and the cocktail sauce, drooling from her mouth.

She had made the right choice.

֎

But Ragna’s joy was not for long. As they stood in line to board the ferry, agents of the IBM rummaged through the harbor. They inspected any place that could function as a hiding place for humans or loot and halted passerby at random, forcing them to identify with their IDs.

Next to the entrance to each ship or board stood an agent carding every boarder.

“Crap.” Ragna gulped. Behind them stretched a line of travelers for a kilometer.

Leaving would raise suspicion. But if they did nothing, the agent would identify her. Trying to enter the board would be next to impossible.

Ragna pulled her jacket's hoodie close to her face. “What now?”

“Just be normal and hope they won’t card us,” said Altera, biting her lip.

“But why are they here in the first place?” Ragna asked. “They shouldn’t be able to know that we would go to Hlessy.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” said Altera. “If you wanted to escape and regroup with Vaix or lay low, then Hlessy would be a likely destination.” The nails on her left hand began to grow. Their points sharpened, and the form became thin like needles. One flicker and her new weapons would penetrate the throat of any human unfortunate enough to be on the opposite side of the nail like extensions.

“Using hidden weapons, that isn’t like you,” said Ragna. In her voice was neither approval nor disdain. She just stated her objective view of the situation.

“As if I would ever use such villainous tricks. A Valkyrie is a paragon. If one ever stooped to such low methods, it would mean they're not ready to be a Valkyrie.” Altera’s voice darkened, and she spoke with every ounce of pride her body could muster up. “This is in case a fight breaks out. I can’t swing my weapon around without hitting any bystanders. My other abilities would be too risky, as well. Even if our lives are on the line, the safety of the civilians always takes priority. Besides, I got the idea from a movie poster on our way.”

Ragna didn’t answer back.

Most Midgardian soldiers possessed a disdain towards sneaky techniques and weapons. No point in questioning it but as a self-evident aspect of society.

Within her garter belt's stockings, she concealed a seax. But that wasn’t meant for combat. The weapon was to defend against molesters and scum who thought a small girl wandering through the city in the middle of the night was an easy target. Others had pepper spray and whistles. She had her seax. And spiked drinks never had worked on her. As such, she had sworn to use her seax only in self-defense. Though, lately, that oath didn’t feel as binding as it used to be. Breaking it sounded logical.

“I don’t think they’re here because of us," said Eric. "There's still the incident with the pirates a few days ago. I think they are looking for clues or potential members of that crew.”

“Perhaps.” Altera looked at her fingernails. “We should still stay on guard and be prepared for the worst. Still.” She pulled at her hoodie. “Why do I have to conceal myself too? I look like a drug dealer.”

“You saw the video,” said Ragna. “We're trending.”

Trending. Like every girl, Ragna once dreamt of becoming an influencer, making a career out of her persona, and being in the people’s minds through her existence alone. But once she was old enough to understand the circumstance behind her mother’s death, she had readjusted her dreams. It wasn’t enough to be famous. She wanted to ensure that the world becomes better. Then why did her childish dream come true in the cruelest way possible?

When the IBM tried to arrest them in the Bifrost, the passengers put out their phones. The entire world saw their fight, and her wanted poster on the dark web revealed her "crimes". A statement from the president saved Altera’s reputation and explained the conflict as an interservice rivalry. But Ragna's involvement became public.

“Unlike you, I’m in the clear. There’s no need.”

“You don’t get it,” said Ragna. “You attract people.”

Altera furrowed her brow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, please. Don’t tell me you never noticed.”

“Noticed what?”

Ragna paused and counted to five. “You’re mesmerizing. I hate to admit it, but there are only a few people in all of Aes that can compare to you.”

“So, what if I’m beautiful? Plenty of people are. So, why do I have to stay hidden?”

“You don’t get it. You aren’t just beautiful. It's unnatural. Humans aren’t supposed to be this perfect. People will notice you, and your face's famous. People will pay attention to you. And once they do, they will notice us, and if they notice me, I’m fucked. And you’re too because they will notice that you’re with me.”

“Fine.” Altera nodded.

“Your ID, please.”

Ragna looked up. They had reached the end of the line and stood before the jetty leading to the ferry. A short man in a black suit blocked the way. In his hand was a mobile device. Altera went ahead and showed her card. The agent put it on his phone, a red light came out and changed to green.

“Everything's clear.” The man nodded. He looked at the information on his phone and stared at Altera. “Oh, it is you, Ms. Xion.”

The man made big eyes. “I’m sorry about the incident yesterday. In the name of the entire IBM, I want to apologize.”

That was interesting. At least the rank and file of the IBM had not heard the truth. Either the President and Aura made sure of that, or someone wanted to keep the affair within the government's higher echelons.

“It’s fine.” Altera smiled. “There’ll always be obstacles in your way.”

“Again. I’m sorry about that. Sometimes, I think that our directors are secretly from the Mad Scientist’s Guild. But that you're here means you have a lead, right? Any specific idea wher-”

“I’ve heard that Griffin's in Glast right now.”

“We also heard that,” said the man. He scratched his head and ignored the people's shouts further behind in the line telling him to hurry up. “But Glast's outside our jurisdiction. The Archipelago we could manage. But beyond that is forbidden. Once Griffin reaches the continent, you'll be on your own.”

Altera smiled. “That's true, but it wouldn’t be a Bragi if it were easy. But if I may ask, what's the reason for all of this?” With her unmodified arm, Altera waved around the pier. “It sounds excessive for one person who may already have left the kingdom. Do you have any clues by chance?”

“Oh, no-no. We still struggle to find out how that bounty got leaked. This here is because of those damn pirates. Twice knows what had gotten into their heads. But it would be funny if we accidentally caught Griffin while searching for pirates.”

The man laughed, ignoring again shouts of increasing profanity that he should hurry up.

Ragna gulped, praying to a god she didn’t believe in, that she didn’t end like mafia boss Francois Toutête whose criminal career had met a sudden end because of a carton of spoiled milk.

“Sadly. Life is seldom so generous. For every miracle, there are a million duds.”

“Yeah, that's true.” The man exhaled and parted away from the brief bout of romanticism and faced reality again. “Well, I wish you good luck. If I’m honest, my daughter is rooting for you. The number of female Valkyries has decreased lately, so I am glad that there are still role models young girls can look up to. She says she’s happy to see a young woman applying for the rank.”

“Thank you.” Altera’s glowed like a light bulb and showed the happiest expression Ragna had ever seen on her face. “Please tell your daughter that I'm grateful for her support. It really means a lot. What’s her name?”

“Kim.”

Altera pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen from her bag. She wrote a few sentences on it, drew a sketch, and signed it.

If Ragna could, she would gasp. Altera had quite the skills.

“For your daughter.” Altera gave the signature to the man.

“Thank you.” The man grinned and went past Altera towards Ragna and Eric when Altera pulled his arm.

“My apologies,” she said. “Those two are mercenaries. I hired them to help with my Bragi. They know Glast better than me, but they are the kind of people who prefer to socialize in more incognito circles.”

Altera winked, and the man understood. “That’s not proper form, but I think for your Bragi, we can make an exception, and Kim's going to enjoy that drawing.”

“Thank you, a lot, Mr. …”

“I’m Agent Possible.” The man stepped aside and let Altera pass. Ragna relaxed.

“Excuse me,” Agent Possible said.

Ragna turned her head. Crap. What now?

“I won’t card you. But would you please remove your hood? The current climate makes everyone suspicious, and the staff would be more at ease if you don't walk around like a criminal on the run.”

Fuck, fuck, fuck. She was busted. They definitely had an image of her. What should she do?

She squinted towards Altera, who had raised her thorn-like nails.

Should she draw her weapon? Altera said they shouldn't, but her saber was small enough that it shouldn't be a problem. And it wasn't like they would kill him. But with all the people around, they would need something to scare them away and create enough space to escape.

“Would you please remove your hood?”

Ragna gulped. No choice, then. Her hand reached towards her saber when a loud voice boomed behind her.

“There you are.”

"Huh?

A hand touched her shoulder. Ragna’s body jerked up. She moved her arms, the sound of a crash followed, and in front of Ragna’s feet lay a man in dark armor, looking up at her. The eyes of the people around them all focused on her, as well as those of the agents.

Shit. Ragna gulped. Did she overreact? This wasn’t good. She had drawn everyone’s attention.

“Is everything okay?” Agent Possible asked, his hand hovering over the taser in his holster.

The man who lay on the ground stood up. His tight obsidian armor clinked under its weight as he dusted it off. He grinned and patted Ragna’s shoulder with his metal claws with enough force that she would have lost her footing had she not found balance in the last second.

“That’s Sigurd Fried, a friend of ours.” He performed a pirouette, as his eyes scanned all the people that looked at them. “Everything’s fine. I just forgot how easily I could scare Sigurd. It’s all fine. There’s nothing to worry about.” He turned towards Agent Possible again. “Sigurd reserved a luxury suite for us a few hours ago.”

Who was that guy, and why did he act like they were friends? She had never seen him before. And what was he doing right now?

“He is?” Agent Possible raised his brow.

Yeah, he didn’t buy that.

“You forgot already? The young man's violet eyes of the young man pierced into Agent Possible. "You checked him like thrice and accepted him and us four.”

“Ah, yes…I checked him like thrice…I accepted him…and you four…” He repeated and let all five – Altera, Ragna, Eric, the man, and his companion – pass without further questions.

Ragna relaxed, but immediately she heightened her senses and observed every move of the man.

Whatever it was he did, he had allowed them to escape the IBM’s hold. With all the agents around, inquiring about him would be too risky.

Ragna shook her head and looked up. They were able to pass the IBM and could enter the ferry. And when she caught a look at the sea vessel, Ragna let out a whistle.

With a length of 250 meters, the MS Verne was one of Aes’ largest ships and allowed up to 3500 passengers a ride. A luxurious cruise-ferry for the rich and affluent. Its crew of former navy officers allowed for the ferry to undertake trips across the entire World Blue. Looking at its navy-blue metal coating, one could believe this was both a ship to please the rich and to survive the ocean. The Tywaz, Fehu, and Hagal runes decorated the coating. The sequence of the three runes would repeat until it had covered the entire ship.

Was that usual? She had never been on a luxury cruiser before. Her father believed they were a waste of money, and her mother agreed with him – one of the few times she did.

Why had Altera chosen this ferry? Was it pragmatism, and she took the cruiser that would leave port next? Or did she want for once to live in luxury? It was atypical of her. But then again, what did she know about Altera?

֎

"Wow, you really did me good,” said the man once they were on board and cracked his neck. “You’re much stronger than you look.”

“You shouldn’t sneak up on people and touch them,” Ragna answered.

“I'm sorry about that. I didn’t want to touch you without your permission. But that was the only way to make it convincing." He folded his fingers to a prayer. "Please don't sue me for sexual harassment."

"Yeah, that wasn't very cash money of you," said Ragna. “But you helped us out. So, I guess, thank you.”

“Don’t thank him.” Altera walked between Ragna and the man. “He did that to get a free ride.”

The man laughed. “Don’t be like that. I really wanted to help you guys. I’m Grendel, by the way. Who are you, guys?”

Ragna scanned the man with his eyes.

Now that she had an unobstructed view of him, yeah, despite his gray hair, the man was pleasant on the eyes. His side plait gave him a dandy look.

“I’m Altera,” said the future Valkyrie, refusing to relax her stance. “And, as already stated, my companions are incognito.”

“Fine, fine.” Grendel raised his arms in capitulation. “I won’t ask anymore. I wish you good luck with your Bragi then. You have my sympathies. I also have to catch someone.”

While failing to gain Altera’s sympathy, Grendel's gesture provided a better view of his body armor. At first, it seemed like a uniform piece of metal, but singular cells glittered. When it came to its design, the armor created the impression that its blacksmith had constructed it out of innumerable onyx knives.

“Someone?” Ragna asked.

The smile on Grendel’s face disappeared. “A monster, actually. Me and…“ Grendel looked around.

“Ah, sorry. Puck doesn’t like to mingle with people. I will leave you alone now. Bon voyage.” Grendel waved his hand, and before Altera could ask how he had made the agent let them pass – whether it was hypnotism or a more sinister ability –, left for his cabin.

֎

The cabin the three got was nothing special: a grey room with three lodges – one single and one bunk – and one circular window, displaying the movement of the sea.

"There's actually something I wanted to ask you for some time," said Eric, relaxing in his lodge. “Back in the temple, how did you do that with the ice?”

Altera pondered for a moment.

“I will be honest,” she said. “I’m committing a federal crime here, so nothing I am about to tell you will leave this room.” Altera paused. She waited and observed their reactions. Once it became clear to her that she could trust her companions, she continued and told the secret. “I used runes.”

“Runes?” Ragna and Eric stared in disbelief.

She used the Futhark? How could this be true? The secret to power lay in the language every child used daily?

“Yes,” said Altera. “And I'm going to teach you how to use them.”

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

Matter Teleporters – Devices that allow instantaneous long-distance travel, and one of the hallmarks in the field of Void Theory. Each kingdom possesses one teleporter that is connected to the others via online transmission. By transforming a body into mana particles, one sends it online to another teleporter and transforms the body back into the original state. Their main purpose is to allow trade between the faraway kingdoms. While maintenance costs have limited their use, it is evident that they will become the primary option for trade. First success with human travel has also been confirmed. Science only has to solve the pesky problem of the human not arriving alive at the other end of the teleporter.

The Titanic Sea – A sea that separates the continent of Midgard from the Eren Archipelago. Its name comes from the myth that titans will travel across the sea at the end of the world to attack Twice.

Lorelei – A rock formation near the Hlessian Coast. In the past, many ships crashed against them and sunk. Legends say that on the rocks rests a siren named Lorelei. It is said that she used to be a woman who endured hardships to bring her lover out of poverty – who immediately abandoned her for another woman, justifying it with the words “I like big butts and I cannot lie”. Lorelei threw herself into the sea, transforming into a siren. Since that day, she remains on that very spot, luring sailors with her songs to fill the emptiness in her heart. While eventually dynamite was used to destroy the rocks, the legend remained popular. Hlessy has built a statue in its honor which has become a famous tourist spot. Though many say that seeing the statue is a disappointment, and not worth enduring the masses of onlookers. Buying a smaller figurine seems to be a better alternative.

Durian – A fruit that grows in Utgard and its national fruit. It has a strong odor and a unique taste. Due to the qualities of its juice and flesh, Utgardians have made it a competition to use the fruit in as many creative ways as possible. From ice cream to pizza, there's not a culinary dish an Utgardian didn't try to combine with Durian. While most Utgardians consider the fruit a delicatessy, foreingners often can't stomach its taste or flesh.

Lion prawns – Prawns known for their size, taste, and name-giving mane. Scientists discovered that these prawns indeed seem to be related to lions. While they question how that is possible, certain parts of the internet seem to be certain of the answer.

Angel squid – Squids whose head and tentacles make it look like wings grow out of them. After several tests, scientists are certain that they are not related to humans.

Crabby patties – A burger made of crab meat. Producers and sellers are in no way responsible, if after eating too many, they go right into your thighs, and you blow up.

Francois Toutête – A Midgardian Gangster and head of the organized crime in the years after the Great War. He used a dairy shop as a forefront. But after a buyer sued him for a carton of spoiled milk, it gave the IBV the opportunity to investigate his backdoor businesses and arrest him.

The World Blue – An ocean patch without any land that reaches across the entire planet, forming a blue ring. Its depths are largely unexplored.

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