“No!” Altera's voice echoed. “This isn't the end. We will live on.”
Either way, her words were the truth. They would fight to ensure they were alive for even one more second.
“But we will recognize our transgressions.” Altera grabbed Eric's bag and forced him to the ground. She knelt as if she was a knight in front of her king and opened Eric's bag.
The stag's skull levitated into the sky, and the hooves and noises stopped. They heard the screams of the Clockwork Coterie, but then those vanished as well. The skull turned around, facing them.
“Transgressions? How interesting.”
The fire disappeared, and so did Ragna and Eric. One minute they were behind her; in the next, they might have never existed. Not a trace of them was left. Altera’s eyes zapped through her surroundings.
What was going on? There was no sound, and everyone was gone. She was all alone in the forest. No wind, no sensation whatsoever. Could they be…? No, no, no. Anything but that. She couldn’t have failed them.
“What are these transgressions, you recognize?”
Altera’s attention turned to the forest’s center. Basking in the moonlight, the skull stag floated in the air and gazed at her. Long bronze hair sprouted out of the skull. Numbers rained down from it and formed a dark cloak that extended from the head.
“Wha…What are you?” Altera stuttered. “A…Are you…?”
Every fiber of her being trembled, screaming to her how hopelessly small she was. There was no mistake: the being in front of her was a god, and the only reason she was still alive was that this deity had yet to decide to kill her. It was difficult enough to accept that gods existed, but now was one standing here, about to pass judgment on her any moment.
“Answering a question with a question.” A deep male voice breezed from the skull like a wind into her ears. “Do you wish to create a deadlock and shut me down?”
“Where are Ragna and Eric?”
It didn’t matter what was going on. That being might kill her any moment or do worse, but she first had to know where they were and if they were well. They took priority above everything else. As long as she couldn’t ensure they were safe, she couldn’t think about anything else.
“They are alive. So, why don’t you answer my question? We both speak the unified rune language. So, there shouldn’t be any problem.”
Thank Twice. They were alive. If they had died under her, she would have killed herself. They were her responsibility, and she had to protect them. As a future Valkyrie and a human being, it was her duty. If she failed, what point was there to live?
The stag skull shook its head. “Or perhaps you contain errors and contradictions. Do you have bugs?”
The stag skull made a movement, and within an instant, Altera’s field of vision shrunk. A black curtain had coated the right corner of her environment. Warm liquid flowed down her cheek.
Like a mechanical doll, she brought her fingers towards her face – slow and halting. They felt up her skin and moved up towards her right eye socket. But where she should feel soft tissue, cold bone scratched her fingertips. It was empty.
“My…eye…My…eye…It’s gone…” Altera fell on her knees.
“Why do you worry so much?” Out of the cloak, he raised his bony finger, and above it floated a white orb. It rotated like a spinning ball until its red pupil faced her.
Her…her eye was facing her…What was going on?
The stag skull raised his thumb and held the eye between it and his other finger. “If you convince me, you get your eye back. Else, it is not your eye you have to worry about.” The stag skull paused. For ten seconds, he remained silent until he spoke again. “Perhaps I have to apologize. It has been a long time since I have encountered someone of your class. You are surprisingly sensitive regarding the attribute vision. How about this? While I inspect your eye, you can reboot.” He held her eye before his empty sockets. “I have to say, the option trees, you can see with this, are numerous. Too many variables they can calculate. And how many paths can you change? How many values transform? Perhaps I have done you a favor? What these eyes will see is horrifying indeed. If you want to, I can take the other eye and keep them with me.”
“I want it back.” Altera stood up. “And I will convince you.”
She pressed her teeth, trying to ignore the pain. He was right. She couldn’t think about the loss of her eye. It was a small price to pay if it ensured that they made it out alive. The Allfather had sacrificed his eye to see the future. Then she had to be willing to give up hers for something that had even greater value. And if what this god had said was true, then something worse might happen.
The eye disappeared from his fingers. “Well, well. Then let us begin with your trial. I am Eikthyrnir, the guardian of this garden. Who is it I am talking to?”
“I am Altera Xion, a future Valkyrie.”
“Future Valkyrie?” Eikthyrnir tilted his head. “Is that another name for…It has been a long time since I met one. I had thought they had all drowned. But no. Where are your wings? No. How can you become a Valkyrie? You cannot change your class, like a worm cannot become a bird.”
What was he talking about? Did he mistake the rank of Valkyrie for the mythological being? But did that mean he had met actual Valkyries? So, they were real? Valkyrie did exist? But then, Eikthyrnir was a god and real as well.
Altera activated her Fylgja, and wings grew out of her back. If he mistook her for a pretender, he could kill her. She couldn’t guess how a god saw the world. Hopefully, the wings convinced him.
“I see. A genuine imitation. That is the sincerest form of flattery.” Eikthyrnir said. “I can see the name even. “Brynhildr”.”
Altera’s eyes widened, realizing that the god could perceive her Fylgja.
“But that is a discussion for another time.” Eikthyrnir sat down and crossed his legs. “We are here to discuss your transgressions. The terms are simple. If you convince me that I should not punish you and your friends, I will refrain from doing so.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Else, from your point of view, you can say you die. But perhaps I will open you and analyze your code. It seems your class has changed considerably since the last time I interacted with you. I did not expect your code to be capable of such mutations.”
He wanted to analyze her genetic code? Was he like a scientist? This being was so ancient, yet he spoke of these concepts. Just what kind of past did Aes have? No, she couldn’t concentrate on that. Ragna’s and Eric’s lives were in danger. Only she could remove the noose that hung around their necks.
“I seem to confuse you. I shall change my terminology then. Anyway,” said Eikthyrnir. “As I asked before, what are your transgressions?”
Altera took a deep breath. “We enacted in blasphemous behavior by disgracing you.” She pointed at the trees. “We trespassed into your gardens. And for that, I offer my deepest apologies.”
She kneeled again.
“An apology. How much is that worth?” Eikthyrnir asked in a voice as if he was bargaining for vegetables at the farmer’s market. “A humble individual’s apology has little value. You think nothing of it. If I were in the wrong, you would still have apologized. It is the apology of the arrogant that has value. For them, it goes against their nature. To break the confines of your nature and evolve is how all beings thrive. To stay within your confines can have three reasons.” Eikthyrnir widened his arms. His left hand pointed at the sky and his right at the ground. “You reached the pinnacle of your existence. You have delusions of grandeur and believe to have achieved perfection. You are a pathetic life form without any potential to grow.”
Black wings sprouted from his back, and in the sky, the full moon ripped apart. Two crescents separated themselves from the main object, and the centerpiece vanished. The two moons wandered over the scenery until one floated above the god’s hand that pointed at the sky, and the other turned black under the palm that faced the ground.
“So, what are you?”
“I-,“ Altera tried to answer, but the moment she opened her mouth, a palisade of pure ivory rose behind the god, creating a white background upon which he and the moons cast their shadows.
“Please, do not lie to yourself,“ Eikthyrnir said. One half of his body became like light, the other transformed into a shadow, and these contrasting colors pronounced his contours like a sketch. “You cannot change your nature, and you have nothing of value to offer. All your actions are meaningless.”
“Then let me offer my life.”
“Why should I take it?” The god’s voice echoed from every direction, multiplying and dispersing like electric buzzes, dancing around her like a legion. His head did not move, but she felt the stag skull’s dark eye sockets gaze into her, penetrating her soul. “If you can’t see any value, why should I? You would be happy if I accepted. Dying while knowing that you saved something infinitely more worthwhile would give you bliss. In your demented head, the idea of performing the ultimate sacrifice is romantic. The transmutation of the worthless into the noble and achieving immortality in Valhalla. You wannabe heroes are so predictable and boring.”
This wasn’t good. If he had no interest in her life, then she had nothing to offer. No, she couldn’t think like that. She had to make him accept her deal and save Ragna and Eric. He could not have them. Absolutely not. Not them. Not anyone else. No one could die, not under her.
“There has to be something.” Altera began to shout as desperation minced every word that left her mouth. “I will tend to your garden. How about that?” She started to smile, displaying a broken expression for the god.” Yes. I will tend your garden. Even if it takes an eternity. I will help you grow it, and I will help you to plant more seeds. Or how about my other eye? You can examine me as much as you want. You can break me and cut and slice me open. I give you my body, my soul, my eternal service. Do whatever you want with me.”
Eikthyrnir shook his head. “You do not get it. A sacrifice without meaning is worthless. Why would I take something that you are so willing to give away? A sacrifice is only then a sacrifice if you want to keep it. You have to struggle and fight until the very end. Only then is it worthwhile. But your life, it is worthless.”
Altera took a step forward, and with one hand, she pointed at her chest, and with the other, she drew her partisan. “I will not offer the lives of my comrades.”
Eikthyrnir chuckled. “Now, we progress. You have something that is of value. But you are still gravely mistaken. If you do not wish to give it up, then it makes it all the more worthwhile to take it away from you. For my garden, I will use only the best fertilizer. A soul struggling to survive is a soul in full bloom. Only when it reaches complete despair can a soul achieve its full potential. But there is another point where you are mistaken. I am the protector of this forest. I do not create; I cultivate. This forest existed long before I did. I merely let it grow, and when it reached its apex, I maintained it.”
He wanted to keep the status quo? But the only way this forest could thrive forever in the modern age was if…
Altera gulped. “So, you want to eradicate the human race because we destroy our environment?”
“Do not be silly. If I wanted humanity gone, I would have done so a long time ago. Humanity is a part of my garden, as well. Like insects, you can be of use in moderation. I merely have to keep your population in check. And before you think I want to reduce the number of humans in this world, I do not. Humanity can control itself. But the same does not apply to your group.”
What did he mean by that? Did he want to exterminate them? Or was it something else?
The crescent moons moved towards each other, and when they intersected and the black and white mingled, a new line gleamed, illuminating a path towards Altera.
“I can see it,” Eikthyrnir said. “The path you will walk on, it will lead to the destruction of this garden. I cannot allow that.”
Altera’s eye widened. “Wh…But how?”
“I may not see the future, but this adventure of yours will seal the fate of this forest and everything else as well. As you can see, the reasons are numerous.”
There was it again. What was so special about them? Was it related to what the Allfather had told her? But why? This was just a journey to capture a man on the run. It was about a daughter who wanted to see her father again. It would be full of hardships, but that only affected her personal life. None of them meant anything in the grand scheme of things, and they didn’t have to. And yet, supposedly, it will lead to a great calamity? No. She would never accept that. Not as long as she was alive. The path they walked on was not like that.
“I will never accept that.” Altera’s eye became fierce. Her wings widened, and her partisan pointed at the stag skull. “I defy you, god. You are wrong.”
Pins shot from the ground, racing towards Altera. She beat her wings, flew around, and threw her partisan.
New pins rose, trying to block her weapon. They froze before they could reach the partisan that flew over them and pierced through the god. The pins disappeared, and the stag let his head down.
“Now, there is the arrogance.” Eikthyrnir chuckled. “What hubris, such blasphemy. Fine. Prove me wrong. If you can leave my garden, you can continue your journey. But if I see that you continue to endanger my garden, then I will come. It may be tomorrow; it may be in a year; it may be in twenty or two hundred. But I will come, and I will seek what you value the most in the world, and I will take it. What do you say? Do you accept?”
“We will succeed."
“Ah, I see you begin to understand.” His voice crackled through the forest. The scenery distorted and cracked, and everything was how it was before. Altera kneeled, and behind her were Ragna and Eric.
“Then so be it.”