“But how’s that possible?” Ragna asked.
It wasn’t that she didn’t believe Altera. But to accept it as a fact seemed to go against all logic. Not even once had she felt anything special about the Futhark. She wasn’t a scholar, but if runes had power, the public should have figured out the secret at some point.
“Do you know how we developed our language, to begin with?” asked Altera.
Ragna creased her brow. “Of course. Who doesn’t?”
It was a story every child knew. One might as well ask why fish died on dry land. Ten thousand years ago, a monster, only known by the name of Nidhogg, ravaged through Aes. No one knew where it came from or what it was. Some said it was born out of the void. Others believe it was a byproduct of the force Twice had used to keep the planet from falling apart. And a few saw in it the manifestation of the collective evil of mankind. A swirling vortex of malice bent on destroying the world and killing Twice. Or so, it was said.
Because Twice had to remain connected to the world tree and the planet’s core, they could not fight Nidhogg, lest Aes fell apart. In their stead, three siblings took it upon themselves to destroy Nidhogg and protect their people. Odin, Willow, and Saint Trutner. They fought for nine days and nine nights and finally killed the monster. The Trutner siblings became the heroes of Aes, and for their deeds, Twice gifted each of them eight runes. They asked the siblings to use them and flourish the world, so Aes could grow to live without them. And the Trutner siblings followed suit. They each built the foundation for a new kingdom. But they feared the difference of the nations would lead to strife. So, they decided to share their runes: one language, one god, and one world. From that day forth, all humans would speak in the same tongue, so if another great evil were to rise, mankind could unite and prevail.
Eric sighed. “Please, don’t tell me…”
“While they see Nidhogg’s existence as fabricated…,” said Altera. “Most experts believe that Twice really gifted us their language.”
“And god’s words are magical.” Eric rolled his eyes.
Altera smiled. “Indeed, they are. Nowadays, it’s agreed that Twice was not a god but merely an extraordinary human being. But…” Altera raised her finger, and her smile disappeared. “That thinking is redundant. It doesn’t matter. Is there a difference between a god and a human as powerful as a god? Declaring Twice human was an attempt to weaken them and makes us humans stronger. Twice had the power to shape reality itself to their will. It doesn’t matter that they’re human. For all intents and purposes, Twice is a god. Whether we worship them or not will not diminish their power. And as such, there is power in their gifts.”
Ragna took a deep breath and raised her hand. “I think I got the gist,” she said. “But why doesn’t everyone know about this?”
“There are two reasons for that.” Altera raised her index finger. “One, utilizing the power in a rune is an incredibly convoluted process one unlikely can achieve unless one knows what to do. And two.” She raised another finger. “I don’t know how it's in the other kingdoms, but I assume they handle it in the same way. The Einherjar, who had inherited the knowledge from Odin Trutner, concealed the truth to prevent abuse. Unlike Fylgja, every idiot can learn how to use runes with enough patience. Just imagine what would happen if every citizen could easily access their power.” Twisting her lips, Altera shook her head. “As such, only soldiers 3rd class or higher are taught how to use it. Since I'm a Valkyrie in-training, I was an exception. But you’ve to understand, revealing the secret is punishable with the death penalty."
“Then why are you telling us?” Eric asked.
“Considering the hardships we might face in Utgard – not to mention what could lie beyond – if you don't learn how to use runes, you'll likely die. And if keeping you alive means that Midgard'll execute me, then I'll gladly accept my fate.”
Eric and Ragna were speechless. Even considering the values of a Valkyrie Altera embodied, this dedication went too far. She didn't hesitate or put any weight into her decision. Altera might as well have decided if she wanted a blackberry or a night blue purse to her jacket. In all likelihood, she would have spent more time with that choice. As grateful as they were that Altera was willing to risk her life for their sakes, this selflessness went too far. But they couldn't say anything either. Altera was right. If they didn’t improve, they would end up dead, and even if they tried to disagree, she wouldn’t back down.
“It takes about a day until we reach the archipelago.” Altera continued. “So, this is the perfect opportunity to teach you how the runes work.”
Altera opened her bag and brought out two pens and a paper stack she had bought earlier from a store near the pier. She dropped the papers on the ground. It landed with a thud and reached the lower half of Altera’s shins.
“While humanity shares the same language, Twice still only gave eight runes to each Trutner sibling. They never intended for any of the siblings or their followers to have more than eight. The siblings had founded one kingdom each. So, each kingdom has only access to the power of eight runes. Like Twice intended them to have. They soft-locked it basically, and since we are from Midgard, we can only harness the runes Odin had received from Twice. The other 16 belong to Avalon and Kemet-Raa.”
Altera picked up the topmost paper sheet. With her pen, she scribbled eight symbols on it and showed it to her companions. “These are the eight runes we can utilize. Fehu, Hagal, Teiwaz, Ura, Naudiz, Isan, Burisaz, and Iwaz. Don’t even bother to try and learn the other 16. Tests have already proven that humans born in Midgard can only learn these eight. And out of these eight, most can only use a maximum of three. Which three differs from individual to individual, but usually it's related to your personality.”
“And how does this allow you to use magic?” Ragna asked.
She held the sheet of paper high up and covered the cyclopean window with it. Her mind formed various ways to extract the secret out of the runes. From threatening to burn the paper to sacrificing goats during a full moon, she indulged in every possibility, not caring for how silly it would be.
“It’s not magic.” Altera puffed her cheeks and pressed her hands against her hip. “It’s the use of language to manipulate the elements of this world and affect reality.”
“So, it is magic.”
“It’s. Not. Magic.” Altera increased the volume of her voice by multiple degrees. Ragna and Eric backed a step away from her, and five awkward seconds of silence passed.
Altera hawked and blushed. “A…Anyway. I'll demonstrate how you activate the power within the runes. Ragna, please lend me your hand.”
“Sure,” said Ragna and offered her non-bandaged hand. Altera pulled out her partisan, and with a quick strike, the tip grazed Ragna's palms. Blood formed on Ragna's palm.
“Please let the blood drop on each of the runes. One rune, one drop.”
So, it was one of these rituals. Given the history of their kingdom, this wasn’t too surprising. At least it didn’t need a horse like the president's inauguration used to. The last thing they needed was a repeat of the triple-horse-disaster. Then again, they were at the open sea. The law had no power here, and men could indulge in whatever depravity they desired.
She put the paper in front of her and let the blood fall on the runes. The liquid expanded over the figure, following the engravings until their blue became a crimson red.
Ragna tilted her head. “What the…I’ll be honest, that’s mildly creepy.”
Altera wrote the same runes on another sheet and repeated the ritual with Eric.
“What now?” Ragna contracted her fists repeatedly, expecting her body had changed.
A devious smirk formed on Altera’s face. “Now, you write the runes on the papers.”
"The more often you write down the runes, the higher your affinity for them becomes. Until you can harness their power, and once you do, it's like any other ability in your arsenal. In the beginning, it may be small.“
Altera extended her hand towards her friends. She spread her fingers, and on the tip of her index finger, a layer of ice formed. "But the more you train the abilities you possess, the better your skills become. You become more powerful, and so do your techniques.” The layer of ice on Altera’s fingertip extended outwards. It shot into the sky, drew curves, and twisted, forming a lithe body. Wings grew, and the ice modeled itself to a head until, on Altera’s finger, the figure of a bird rested. “Your understanding and connection to the runes grow and grow, until one day it will rival the power of a Fylgja.”
“And how many times do we have to write these runes till we activate the abilities?”
Altera tilted her head, wiggled it back and forth. “Not sure. About ten thousand times per rune, perhaps?”
“What?” Simultaneously, Ragna and Eric dropped their jaws.
“Technically, you only have to do it with three, but since you don’t know which runes you connect to, you’ve to do it by trial and error. The trip’s long, so there's plenty of time to write them down.”
Altera crushed the ice sculpture with her fist and walked to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“Outside.” Altera smiled. “There’s no way I'm going to stay in this cabin. I'm on a cruiser, after all. Good luck.” Altera threw the pens at her companions and left.
“She can’t be serious?” Ragna growled and looked at Eric. "Is this revenge for the "smartitude"-thing?"
“Guess there’s no other way around.” Eric let his head down. The two sighed, took each a stack of paper, and began to draw the first rune.
“Say, what do you think about this?” Ragna asked.
“That there’s this hidden power in something we use every day.” On her sheet, Ragna wrote the Burisaz rune. “It makes me wonder what else is out there in the world.”
“Quite exciting, isn’t it?” Eric wrote down the Iwaz rune. “It’s like even normal things are now like a ruin.”
Everything she knew about this world was turning out to be wrong or was in danger of breaking apart. Clockwork was right. She had never known true horror, how it could be hiding behind every shadow. Given the depth of the Titanic Sea, some monster might lurk right under them. And she had no idea.
Just a few days ago, she had thought she had figured the world out. How stupid she was. Her entire life, she had listened to the song of a mechanical nightingale, and in her ignorance, she had believed to know the sound of nature. Just like the chieftain in ‘The Tale of the Nightingale’.
Or perhaps she wasn’t even that. She was the mechanical bird. A fake life that sang in a cage, unaware of its prison or its artificial existence. Neither sentience nor intelligence. Singing and singing the same dreck. And everyone else pretended the world was the same. But why wouldn’t they? She was the ignorant one. As much as she wished, this wasn’t a world gone mad. The chieftain had thrown out the fake nightingale, and now she had to live without knowing what she and the world outside that tiny cage were.
This was on her, and she couldn't blame this on her young age. Altera was 23. She was only two years older. Not only had she figured out the world, but she also wasn’t afraid and had all the solutions: against the monster, in the prison cell, when the IBM tried to arrest them, and against Skyfrost. Even the plan to find her father was Altera’s.
“I can’t help you with that or force you to be excited,” Eric said. “Though I would still recommend making the best out of it. You may still die. But better to die doing your best than during an existential crisis.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t chicken out. I’ve lost everything but my life, so I might as well put that on the line.”
Eric was right. She would see her journey to its end, even if it would shatter her. The bigger question was how she would continue. And for now, learning the runes and becoming stronger was the way to go. It wasn't like she had much choice.
The president’s inauguration – A ceremony to inaugurate the president. It requires them to extract the “life essence” from a mare. After the triple-horse-disaster, Allfather Mittwoch wisely decided to abandon the practice. Though groups on the internet have banded together as the “Equine Society” to not only bring it back but make the ceremony public for the entire world to see. That Princess Aurelia Adler is expected to become the next President in ten to fifteen years is according to the Equine Society completely unrelated.
The triple-horse-disaster – Three consecutive incidents during an inauguration that led to complications for the presidency and the eventual abolishment of the practice. In chronological these were: (1) President Catherine Philippa retiring on the same night she was supposed to perform the ceremony. While many were suspicious of the circumstances, President Peanutbutter’s reign – who came into power at Catherine Philippa’s order and the abuse of a loophole in the constitution that was immediately fixed afterwards – is regarded as quite successful. He is currently ranked as the 19th most popular President of all time, much to President Adler’s – ranked 20th – chagrin. (2) President Joe Bob conceiving a child with mare Thunder. Scientists still aren’t sure how that was possible. (3) President Troy McClure being sued by mare Sugar for inappropriate behavior. Sugar won the court case, and McClure had to retire.
The Tale of the Nightingale – A short story about an Utgardian Chieftain who became fascinated by the song of a nightingale only to ignore it after seeing a mechanical and inferior imitation. But eventually, he realized that he shouldn’t have ignored the natural beauty for the mechanical. Proponents of the Progress Statis movement use the story as a propaganda piece to prove that humans are better without science and machinery. Though many literary critics believe the story was merely created by a salty incel to vent out frustration because a woman was not interested in him.