The waves were swaying in their eternal rhythm. Rising and falling, they moved against the ship's hull. Altera looked at them. When mankind was a single cell, the waves were playing their game. And when humanity would fall, they would continue and welcome the next lifeform to inhabit this planet.
Altera sighed. She leaned over the rails, her eyes trying to penetrate the water in front of her. There was a time when the people of Viking believed the sea that surrounded the continent was the entire world. Even once nautical travel was possible, sailors and pirates would not let go of their superstitions. They treated the sea with the same reverence people used to worship Twice.
Altera took out her phone and looked at its screen. This time, she had managed fifteen minutes. Before, she had lasted ten-forty-six without checking the clock. Next time, she could crack twenty.
Why did it take the ship an entire day to arrive at the Archipelago? It had to move at a snail's pace to be this slow. No, this was a cruiseferry. It accommodated the luxury standards of the guests. For them, the journey was the destination. One wouldn't blame a monkey for its inability to fly. As much as one wouldn't judge a dove for how fast it could run across the street. Everything in this world had its unique purpose, and one should not misuse it.
She had no one to blame but herself. She could have chosen a faster vessel, but this was a stupid attempt to increase her patience by forcing her into a situation where she had to wait.
The atmosphere on the ship would encourage her to wind down and relax. She would eat shrimps, drink non-alcoholic cocktails, and take a sunbath. Maybe she could get even a tan.
At least, that’s what her naive mind had assumed. That didn't work out at all. There were other reasons for her choice, though. The ship provided the opportunity to teach Ragna and Eric how to use runes, and it delayed their arrival in Utgard. It was a good plan, but Twice was this trip excruciating.
Altera summoned an icicle, aimed at the wave, and threw it like a shuriken. The icicle shot through multiple waves until the water swallowed it.
She had already worked out at the ferry's gym. If she spread her wings and dashed across the sea, she would arrive at the Archipelago in about six hours. With her runes, it shouldn't be a problem to reach her maximum speed. And the remaining time she could spend exploring Eren.
Altera threw another icicle.
No, this was a stupid idea. She would run out of Mana once she had managed three-quarters of her trip, and then she would collapse and fall into the ocean. She also would have to leave Ragna and Eric behind. That wasn't great either. They were her responsibility, and their lives were above hers.
What should she do? So far, her Bragi had turned out to be a disaster. There were so many missteps she had made, and she had involved others. How could she ensure their survival? It wasn’t like they were weak. For a first-year cadet, Ragna's talent and skills were extraordinary. The staff made the academy's best student Ragna's supervisor because they saw Ragna's potential to become a Valkyrie.
Eric was an adventurer, which wasn't the safest profession in the world. But this Bragi was on another level, and the runes would only carry them to a certain point. If they didn't show a drastic increase in their abilities, they would end up dead.
The best option would be if they discovered their Fylgja, but that wasn't a guarantee. Some people never do, and the process was different for each individual. She had found hers through studying and rigid training. But that wouldn't fit Ragna or Eric.
“Why the grim face?”
Altera turned around. Next to her stood a man. A ruff white beard grew on his bronze face and wrinkles through it.
Bronze skin? Was he from Kemet-Raa or maybe his parents?
The man wore a rugged ultra-marine uniform, and a captain's hat rested on his head – revealing the man's identity. He had a big smile on his face and grinned, as every sailor tended to do.
“I don’t like the sea much. That’s all,” said Altera.
The captain leaned over the ferry, giving the sea a longing look. On its surface, the sun’s reflection had paved a path of gold that extended until the horizon.
The thought to walk on it and reach a mystical mainland, removed from the worries of this world, seemed like a logical next step.
He took off his captain’s head and scratched his greying head.
“Such a shame,” he said. “In my opinion…the sea, there’s no greater beauty in all of Aes. Except for my wife, of course.” The captain stopped. He glanced sideways and waited a few seconds.
Was he expecting his wife to appear behind him and accuse him of infidelity with the water?
“But like my wife, the sea can have a bad temper. So, I understand why not everyone can handle her. But seeing beyond that is how you never lose sight of her beauty.”
“I guess you're right.” Altera smiled.
How did her relationship with Ragna change over the last three days? It was strange to see these new sides of her. Ragna was ignorant of the outside world, but she had her convictions and wanted to fight for what she believed was right. And more than anything, she learned and adapted. Maybe they could become friends one day.
Ragna was wavering and had reached a point where the branches of her path are splitting. Even if they didn’t become friends, she was still her mentor. It was her duty to guide Ragna so that she can make the right choice, whatever that would be. Hopefully, this would be all she had to do. Then again, this journey had shaken her world too.
“Have you ever seen something that defies explanation?” she asked.
The captain stroked his beard. “When you venture into the world, eventually, you will see things that you cannot understand. Perhaps, the supernatural exists. Alternatively, it's a scientific phenomenon beyond our understanding. I once looked at a snake swallowing a house in Obelisk and a fiddler breaking the law of physics with his play. I once saw even an elf. I tell you they haunt your dreams, and you'll never wake up again."
Altera raised her brow. “Okay, the last one's a lie.”
No matter where and when all seafarers were the same. She used to swallow up these grand make-believe tales of her father. Like how every morning, fairies would paint the sky blue, orange when it was evening, and black at night. It kept her from staying up too late or sleeping for too long so that the fairies wouldn’t be offended and paint the world gray.
“Perhaps or perhaps not. I see it as my sailor’s pride never to let people know when I tell the truth or lie. Especially here, there's so much that our eyes and minds cannot grasp. Who knows what slumbers 20.000 leagues under the sea? What wanders in the sheer cold of Minanaught, and who is hiding in the Rising Forest? And don’t get me started on the Lost City. But doesn’t that make the world worthwhile? That there's so much we still have to explore?”
“Really?” Altera’s voice trembled, and her eyes gazed into the ocean's abyss. “Doesn’t it scare you?”
The captain let out a laugh. “Of course, it does. But it reminds me that I’m alive. At my age, it’s easy to forget that one's still among the living. Our fears are allowing us to progress. To step forward, despite being afraid, is the essence of courage. Whenever I venture out, I embrace the possibility that every day can be my last. For Valkyries, it is the same, Ms. Xion."
Altera raised her eyes. “How…?”
The captain laughed again. “I’m not much into television these days, but even an old sailor as I watched the peace ceremony. Just between us, you were the topic of everyone’s discussions. Your beauty mesmerized even Vaix. We don't often see an individual who can rival Princess Aurelia's beauty.”
Altera averted her eyes and frowned. “I'd rather be known for my actions than for something I was born with. I don't deserve this praise. Not yet.”
The captain nodded. “Personally, I think there’s nothing wrong with using the resources your disposal. It doesn’t make you spoiled, but smart. Would you fault the eagle for flying with its wings? But I understand, and you don’t have to listen to me. An old man like me he has right to lecture a young woman about her merits.”
“Don’t say that. We have to give our elders the proper respect and heed their advice.”
“That’s not necessary. If the young generation merely absorbed the views the old gave to them, the world wouldn’t progress. The ideals of the past would tarnish the emancipation of the future. Our world would stagnate, and old geezers like might live on forever. It’s a common misconception that adults should guide their children into the future, into the right path, or whatever. In truth, the young should find the way themselves and support each other. The adults' task’s to help them up when they stumble so that they can continue. And going by your behavior, you already had encountered something extraordinary, I assume?”
“Fear's a luxury. Valkyries cannot be afraid. We have to stand up, so others don't have to. If we're afraid, then those we vowed to protect will lose all hope and despair. Aes is frightening, and the more we learn, the worse it becomes. But for the sake of everyone else, we must maintain the illusion of beauty. Even..." Altera stopped. "Sorry, I already said too much. I would rather not involve civilians in this.”
“Don’t worry. I was just interested in a tale. A sailor lives and dies by the stories he encounters. It's a pity, but a Bragi is something personal. I can understand if you wish to keep it to yourself. I'm traveling to Auster after this. Is there something I should tell the people over there?”
"You know I'm from Auster?"
"I know your parents and even met your brother. But the last time I was there was about twenty years ago. So, anything I shall tell?"
Altera shook her head. “But can my companions and I have the dance hall on the ground deck for a few hours to ourselves? We may need it to train.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem. The contest doesn’t start until tomorrow. Well, if you excuse me. I'm going to check on the other guests.”
“You won’t be in trouble?” Altera looked at his bronze skin.
“Don’t worry. I can handle a bunch of racists. These trips can be rather boring, but the stories make them worthwhile. I wish you a nice voyage and success with your Bragi.”
The captain left her alone.
Auster – A fishing village near Viking’s southern coast.