Ragna’s arms sank to the ground. Her sword slipped out of her hand and chinked against the wood of the ship’s port side. At the moon, she stared, thanking her for the peace they now had. The screams of the monster seemed like memory, and its arms like an illusion, a bad dream. They were alone.
The sea was quiet, soothing back and forth against the remnants of the MS Verne. Few ripples remained from the impact. The currents caressed the ship like a mother cradling her child to sleep. On the water surface, the moon's reflection lustered in its full beauty. Not one movement disrupted the mirror image.
Blood, water, ink, and ooze drenched Ragna’s clothes and clung to her clothes. Cuts were everywhere, and she didn't want to know how deep the wounds on her back were.
And the stench of oil coated every centimeter of the deck and burned through their noses, serving as a reminder for the horror they had encountered.
Ah, there she is.
Atop a pile of wood and metal, Altera was standing, her wings dematerialized. The armor she wore glittered in the moonlight. Her entire body seemed to shine. Had the moon decided to fall upon her?
Ragna picked up her saber, straightened herself, and walked towards Altera. As the Valkyrie was descending, Ragna offered her hand.
Altera smiled and accepted. Her face was paler than her hair, and her body was shaking and trembling. Yet she stood firm.
Whatever words Ragna was going to say would remain within her thoughts. A voice inside her told her to be silent and that she had no right to say anything.
“We have to help the wounded.” Altera grabbed her arm, and the shaking stopped. "Let's go.”
Some passengers leaned against the debris, their arms holding their knees, murmuring that it was over. Others cried in shock, either because their minds had started to process what that thing they had witnessed was or because they lay over the bodies of their loved ones. Others pressed their hands against the breasts of the dead, refusing to accept reality and loss.
They pressed and pressed, but the bodies didn’t react, and in their desperation, they increased their efforts. In their minds, it was logical. If they tried hard enough, they would move again. Not long ago, they were full of life, energy, and joy. Why should that suddenly change?
Ragna moved on to the next survivor.
A woman begged a small body to wake up. But as soon as she saw her pained face, Ragna clenched her fist and stopped. She turned back and searched for those she could save.
Telling a parent her child was dead was too cruel. It was something that should never happen. Children seeing their parents die would be horrible enough. Parents burying their children…That shouldn’t happen. It went against how things were supposed to be.
How things were supposed to be...
Ragna chuckled a sad laugh without any effort, similar to the last squeak of a drowned.
That thing wasn’t supposed to exist either. Yet here, it had caused so much destruction and pain. And not just this thing: Back at the temple too. When had the world become so cruel? Perhaps her indecision was false mercy and a form of escapism. She didn’t want to face the reality of her failure as a soldier. She knew she had given her best, but this was the real world.
The real world didn’t give you an 'A' for effort. It was fly or die.
A man asked if she had seen someone she didn’t know. Ragna shook her head and went on. Another man asked her why it was so dark and why his face hurt. She couldn't tell him that one of the hooks had destroyed his eyes.
And another person who lost something was before her. This time, a woman was crawling on the grounds. When she looked at her, in her eyes were no signs of human sentience. Her mind had regressed to that of an animal.
Had the monster devoured her intelligence? What kind of life could she still have? Should she let her continue to live like this, or should she draw her saber and put her out of her misery? Life, pain, and hope or death, mercy, and finality: What should she choose? She couldn't ask her.
In the end, Ragna made her decision and moved on. She couldn't afford to think. Every second wasted was a life she could have saved.
A hand reached out to Ragna. She heard more cries and groans. A woman was trying to crawl out of the debris that had trapped her. Fragments of the funnel lay over her torso. Together with the Captain, Ragna lifted the wreck from her body. The woman crawled out and pushed herself towards the monster's frozen and dissected arm where she could rest. The woman would never walk again, but at least there were no life-threatening injuries.
“The ship won’t last much longer.” The captain groaned and grabbed his heart. “I’ve already contacted the coast patrol of Eren.” He leaned against the remains of the funnel mast and collapsed on his feet. Ragna rushed to him and helped him to stand.
"Thank you, my dear." Furrows drew through his bronzed skin. He looked like he had aged 20 years during the night, and beads of sweat formed on his forehead and palms.
“I’ve grown old," he said with a hoarse voice, forming a smile. "Back in my days, I could have used my 'Nautilus' to control the sea for an hour and fire ten of these beams. But now, one second, one stream, and one short flight, and it’s a miracle that my heart won't give out.”
He looked through the wreckage that was once the MS Verne. It was sinking further and further. The process was slow, but the ship would fall into the depths of the ocean before sunrise. Those still breathing were all safe for the time being. Enough medical supply had survived the monster's onslaught that they could treat the wounded. As long as coast patrol arrived, they would live to see the sunrise. As for anything else, only the Allfather could know.
As for the dead, once the survivors were in the clear, they collected every corpse they could find and created a makeshift pyre. In a safe distance away from the rest of the ship, the flames blazed in the night sky. In any other situation, one could admire the color play. The only silver lining was that they had to burn fewer passengers than they had expected.
Naively one could assume that they were in luck, and the casualties were low. But it was just the number of bodies they could salvage. How many boarded this ship, anticipating a vacation? 10000 or was it more, or was it less? At such dimensions, did it matter? Whether it was 5000, 10000, or 30000 passengers, only a fraction of that number would see the next morning. In less than an hour, so many lives had ended.
Water had flooded the lower deck. The captain's grin disappeared, and he stroked his beard. “This isn't good. If the rescue doesn’t arrive soon, we won’t make it. There are too many in dire need of medical attention.”
He stood up, and Ragna looked at him. “Where are you going?”
“I’ve to keep ‘em calm. Morale's low, and they're scared. Panic's the last thing we need.”
Grabbing her legs, Ragna stared at the ground.
“How can you be so calm?” she asked.
The captain grinned. “How often do you think I have danced with death? Eventually, you get used to it. The sea is dangerous, for sure. Though I must say, not many dangers were this tentacle-ly. Anyway, now, I've to be calm. I'm the captain of this ship. Be it mentally or physically, my people's safety and security are a top priority.”
He adjusted his hat and turned to the sea, depriving Ragna of the opportunity to see his face. “I already failed to protect them. The least I should do is to prevent things from getting worse.”
The captain left, and Ragna was alone. In her mind, she repeated his words.
Was it the same for Altera? How did she feel? Was she scared? Altera had more experience than she did, but this thing was beyond anything she could have ever seen. Nothing could prepare her for that. For the passengers, she had to pretend. She didn't have the luxury to think about herself. All the pain, she would swallow to project an illusion.
A piece of dark chocolate appeared before her. Its sweet smell floated directly into her nose. For a moment, it washed away the worries in Ragna’s mind.
“Huh?” Ragna looked up. Eric stood next to her, holding the chocolate in front of her face. Grendel and Puck – Grendel's hooded friend – accompanied him.
“Thanks.” She grabbed the chocolate and broke it in half. One half, she ate. The other, she wrapped inside the paper.
Ragna looked around. She couldn’t find Altera.
Perhaps, she was patrolling in the sky?
She sighed and put the chocolate inside her bag. Eric had grabbed their belongings while they were fighting the monster. Otherwise, the water would have submerged them.
“How are you doing?”
Grendel winked with a grin. Puck didn’t give any reaction. Not that she could see any facial expression under his hood.
“Could be worse.” Eric shrugged.
“I can’t believe this monster trumped my abilities. Serves as a reminder that they aren’t absolute.” The grin on Grendel’s face disappeared. “It pisses me off that others had to suffer for my failure. I broke my promise to them.”
“Sorry for dragging you into this entire mess,” said Ragna. “If I knew we would face such a thing...I would have never…Au.”
A light bob on her head silenced Ragna, and she massaged the small bump.
“I already told you," Eric said. I’m traveling with you because I want to. You didn't persuade me or force me. Whatever happens to me, that's the risk I'm willing to take. I’m not so naïve as to expect that this journey wouldn’t be without horrors.”
“You’re right. I was the naïve one.” Droplets formed at the corners of Ragna's eyes.
She was nothing but a stupid naïve brat. She knew nothing. Nothing about Eric. Nothing about this world. Nothing about Altera or her father, or Sven, or herself. She was supposed to have learned from her encounter with Clockwork, yet here she was.
Eric bobbed Ragna a second time.
“I’m not going to reprimand you for that,” said Eric. “Was it naïve? Yes. But now, it’s too late to turn back. We can only move forwards. Learn from this and be better prepared for the next obstacle. That’s how we humans develop, okay?”
Ragna nodded while Grendel applauded Eric, causing him to grin and laugh in embarrassment. Ragna stood up.
“What do you want to do?” Eric asked.
“The one thing I can do.”
“I wonder if you can. Her head’s thicker than yours.”
Eric nodded, and the two departed.
She had to stop with her self-pity. That was reality. How many days had passed since she started her journey? And how often had she wallowed in misery? It wasn’t that she hadn’t any right for that. But before that, she had to do her job. Even if she officially wasn’t a Valkyrie. She had to help and support everyone, and not just the civilians. But also her companions. Their pain was equal to hers, and if they spent all the time helping her, who would help them? This time, she was lucky. Next time, she either won, or she died. They all died. There was no more trying. It was too early for her, but that didn’t matter anymore.
Ragna's eyes wandered through the wreckage, trying to spot her. The flapping of wings caught her attention.
Altera had landed, probably finished another patrol.
Ragna called her name, and the Valkyrie turned around.
Anyone who looked at her face could tell she was exhausted. The color of her skin was non-existent. Her eyes had gotten dull and sunken deep into her skull, showing large shadows under them. They focused on anything but the present. Her pony had become a mess, and strands dangled everywhere.
“No signs of that thing so far. How are things here?” Altera asked.
“So far, we manage.”
“Good.” Altera smiled. It didn’t take an expert to tell how forced and fake it was. “If that’s all, then I will take anot- “
Altera became silent. Ragna's body pushed against Altera's back, her arms wrapped around her abdomen, warming her. Altera's hand moved towards Ragna, but as the embrace tightened, she let it fall and sat down.
“Please…” Ragna’s words muffled as her face touched Altera’s shoulder blade. “Just take a rest.”
Altera began to cry. Her expression didn’t change; She showed no additional pain or sorrow. Tears simply flowed down her cheeks. Perhaps, even now, she wanted to maintain a mask, or she couldn’t show anything else.
“I know you're strong, probably stronger than Eric and me together. But you don’t have to do this alone. We're in this together. If you struggle, we help. And if you don’t, we still help. Please, don’t push yourself so hard.”
Had she any right to say these words when she was so reliant on others and ignorant herself? It didn’t matter – she let her heart speak. To see Altera like this was too painful. Perhaps it was a coping mechanism to avoid another reminder of past trauma or because it felt so familiar. It didn’t matter. It felt right – the words felt right.
From her bag, she pulled out Eric’s chocolate and gave it to Altera.
“Thank you.” Altera took a bite.
If Ragna were tall and strong, she could express an aura of security and embrace her properly. But that didn’t matter. Right now, there wasn’t any place she would rather be and nothing she would rather do than sit next to Altera until the ship arrived.