As her illusion continued to walk, Aura froze. She had to admit, Marcus’ speculation wasn’t unfounded. Even if she didn’t understand how other people could feel such intense emotions, she understood how the existence of certain factors could affect someone’s behavior. Pain, loss, and a lack of emotional support let Ragna lash out at the easiest target she could find. And the military academy had cultivated her xenophobia, if her mother hadn’t already made it worse.
That Ragna's views might grow more extremist, that it might taint and corrupt her, was upsetting. All the loss and trauma she had to go through, didn’t make it better. But as the Princess of Midgard, she had to ensure that genuine peace existed between the kingdoms. If the day came where Ragna became a detriment for that goal…No. She had sent Altera for that exact reason: to reign Ragna in and provide her with a moderating world view. She could only hope that this would change her. But lately, the thought crept into her mind, if sending Altera could worsen everything. Ragna and Altera were mentally fragile. Could sending the two together cause the two to drag each other into the depths of their broken psyche? This journey could destroy them, and if she failed with Ragna, was there any guarantee she could fight the xenophobia in her kingdom at large?
Aura increased her pace and hurried towards Marcus before he would notice that her fake self didn’t talk. As much as most husbands tended to not pay attention to their wives, she doubted that he wouldn’t get suspicious if she remained silent for too long.
“…but if I’m honest,” Marcus said to the fake Aura who merely nodded in varying intervals. “If you had asked me two weeks ago, I wouldn’t believe that Drake Griffin could betray Midgard.”
“Why’s that?” Aura asked.
“He wasn’t particularly loyal, but he lacked spine. He’s always in the shadow of his wife. The only exceptions were his greed and his love for his family.”
Mr. Griffin sounded like Sven. Now that she thought about it, was that the reason for Ragna’s attraction? She had read a book about that but lacked empirical data to make a theory. Well, it didn’t matter, but it increased her feeling that Sven was guilty. Not that she trusted him in the first place. In the entire world there were only six individuals she would trust with her life. Ragna and Altera were two of them. Observations had allowed her to reach the conclusion that they were incapable of betraying her or Midgard. It contradicted their personalities…No, if it were just that, then they would be in another category: people whose trust she had ascertained through numerous observations, like with Gerard, Nakk, her father, or her doctor.
With Altera and Ragna, there was more. Without Ragna everyone would still avoid her. Even if she didn’t understand it, but by observing Ragna, she was able to imitate the behavior this society and the people around her expected of her – even if Ragna had given a distorted view of how much people were interested in feet.
All these rules of the people and the societies didn’t make sense, and so often they broke and contradicted them whenever they felt like it. Yet, they implored them on her. There were times she felt contempt for every hypocritical person out there. But thanks to Altera, she saw a genuine and honest soul who tried to fight for these rules. It reminded her what she herself fought for and why she couldn’t abandon humanity. It wasn’t an understatement that without those two, the persona of Princess Aurelia Adler couldn’t exist.
And for that, they had her eternal gratitude. And how did she thank them? By using them for a social experiment that could turn them into broken dolls. Was that inhuman? She could never tell. Whenever she tried to observe moral behavior within society, she would only get insufficient data. Altera and Ragna had to suffice as templates to maintain a consistent appearance.
“I don’t think Drake Griffin has any other personality traits,” Marcus said, and Aura focused on him again. “He’s boring, empty, and unfit for her.”
She wasn’t sure, but did she just hear some slight in his voice? It was still emotionless, but when Marcus always talked like a robot – except when Gerard was around strangely – then even his monotone had variations. Perhaps it was a sign that she had grown used to him, or maybe there was more? Could there have been a secret relationship between Marcus and Ms. Griffin?'? He seemed to know more about her than most Valkyries.
“How much do you know about the Griffin family anyway?” Aura asked.
“For the last time, I’m not going talk about Linde’s death.”
Another point that grated on her. For some reason Marcus refused to talk about the events that surrounded Ms. Griffin’s death, even though he knew she knew the basic aspects of the case. A mission to eliminate a high-profile enemy went FUBAR, Ms. Griffin clashed with one of Vaix’s Paladins and died. That he refused to talk about it had two possibilities: there was more to the botched mission, or Marcus didn’t like the topic. Both possibilities begged further questions.
“I get that,” Aura said. “But what else is there to them? What do you know?”
“As I said about Drake Griffin, not much. And about Linde Sieg, I know she comes from Worms. But that’s it.”
“Isn’t that where the government facility is?”
“You know about that?” Again, there was not a single visible reaction from Graswald.
Was her previous hunch just a fluke? Did she have to analyze every single cell reaction and movement of atoms to understand him? What could she do to break this mask? Should she cast illusion after illusion so that she could have the upper hand and expose his true feelings?
“But yes. Linde Sieg’s parents had abandoned her in the wild. From what I was told, the former President had found her and given her to an orphanage in Worms that specialized in the rehabilitation of children who lost their families to conflict.”
The golden castle of Gimli housed countless secrets. Some, its architect Master Rhyne had created. Either on behalf of President Tryggvason or as spite when the President had tried to trick him. Others were machinations of the various Presidents and Allfathers, and one was another gift of Twice. Hidden in the depths of the castle was a gateway that connected to the branches of the world tree. Each of the nine branches functioned a portal as well. One led back to the castle, another to Twice’s throne, and another led to the Well. But where the rest led, who knew?
Mana surged from all directions in such an intensity that it gained form. It weighed on her shoulders and surrounded her. Every step needed more effort, and breathing stopped being the natural process of her body that it was. It was a different feeling from the throne room. Whereas there, the Mana created a rush of ecstasy in her. By contrast, being in the Well felt like being submerged in water. Neither sensation was unpleasant, though she preferred the throne room for obvious reasons.
From what her father had told her, the Well was a cylindrical room, though Aura had no way of checking that, as she could see neither beginning nor end. If one had told her the Well was the bottom of the ocean, she would have believed it. And within this ‘ocean’ floated a strange substance like worms made of quicksilver. Some shone in bright light, others were dull, and some a mixture of the two. Data and information manifested as Mana, showing them what they are allowed to know, what was forbidden, and what partially accessible. Occasionally, sparks would emit from the worms when they made contact. According to her father, that indicated if there was a connection between the information. If she touched them, the information would seep into her mind. She wasn’t sure if he understood it the same way as her, but from his words, it seemed that touching the worms was like a data transfer from one computer to another.
From the top of the Well, two ravens encircled her and Marcus. One white, the other black. Without making any sound, they made Aura second-guess if that sensation of water wasn’t just an illusion. They descended to their level and flew through the Mana.
“The ravens will guide us towards the right information cluster,” Marcus said and followed them.
“How do they know what we’re looking for?”
“Do not question the wisdom of the fabled ravens,” Marcus said in his usual unemotive voice, but when Aura didn’t bother to react to his statement, he added. “I had requested what information we’re looking for, so they had time to search.”
They walked through the Well until the Ravens stopped in front of a cluster of quicksilver worms and flew to the top, leaving them alone.
“Looks like this is it,” said Marcus.
Now that she observed them from a closer perspective, the worms resembled more fireflies with a tail – or sperm if one wanted to go into that direction. Aura stepped forward. She observed the moving pieces of information until her finger reached towards one that was glowing and touched it. Her finger felt a warm sensation, and a nanosecond later, her brain knew that one day, Siegbert Griffin had disappeared without a trace. Aura had no idea who this Siegbert was, and she couldn’t recollect any other information about this person, but for her, it was like she had always known that he went missing.
So, this was how one extracted information from the Well. Aura touched another glowing piece of information and knew Fasolt Griffin disappeared one day as well. And then, she learned how Hreidmar Griffin was found dead.
Out of curiosity, Aura touched one of the dull worms, and nothing happened. Thus, she concentrated again on the glowing ones and learned that Sigmund und Hjordis Griffin had – years apart from each other – had disappeared as well. Or that Ms. Griffin had fought in Baghdad. And as Aura learned more information, she noticed one dull worm. Unlike the others, its flight was erratic and distinct. It didn’t seem to belong to the cluster. Yet, it was there. Aura knew that touching it wouldn’t yield any results, yet curiosity overcame her, and she came in contact with it. And while she felt no sensation, a nanosecond later, she attained new knowledge.
Her eyes widened in shock and confusion.
“I’ve to admit,” Marcus said once they finished observing the information cluster. “The history of the Griffin family is quite a macabre one. Missing grandparents, then a missing father, followed by a missing brother. Then his mother dies under mysterious circumstances, and Drake Griffin starts to live on the streets. I can’t even count how often he’s been to juvie.”
“And then suddenly, he comes clean and starts a decent life,” Aura added. “He didn’t commit a single crime since.”
“Until two years after the death of Linde when he almost beat his brother to death.”
“I’ve heard about this. For some reason, Regin Griffin dropped all charges. I’ve tried to ask, but my father refused to talk about this. Ragna too.”
And as Regin Griffin was a business mogul, the ravens had deemed too much information as irrelevant towards the case. Same for Ms. Griffin’s last mission.
Stupid ravens with their bird brains.
Marcus’s phone vibrated. “The high-priestess,” he said and answered.
“I’m surprised that you’ve got a connection here,” Aura said once he had hung up. “Why did she calll?”
“She’s really angry about how we handled the Ragna case. Threatens to post on InstaNorse.” Marcus went through his hair. “I think she hates me.”
“Of course, she hates you. The church of Twice hates the Valkyries. She was also against our marriage."
"Do any of your friends agree with us?"
"On top of that, she and Ragna are good friends. It’s obvious why she wouldn’t like that you hound her like a dog. And frankly, how you handle the case is less than stellar.”
From her pocket, she put out a phone and showed Graswald a video of Ragna and Altera fighting members of the IBM on the Bifrost.
Aura raised her voice. “Whose idea was it to approve of this? I understand that Skyfrost would utilize the IBM, but attacking them in public?”
“It was a collective decision.” Marcus took a step back.
“Of course, it was.” Aura glared at him. “You hillbillies up there and the President as well …You have no idea how powerful social media is, do you? That’s why only so few of you are popular. The internet is still uncharted territory for you.”
Marcus remained silent.
“You can be happy that I managed to make the President explain this as a rivalry between the IBM and a Valkyrie to catch a suspect. And now imagine what kind of impression that gave.”
“So, I suppose Cadet Xion siding with Griffin was your idea?”
This time Aura was silent.
“You don’t have to worry. They've probably reached Glast by now. I won’t hunt them. Neither will I order it. Just tell me what is going on. Not just as a captain or your future husband. Tell me as a friend.”
“Fine.” Aura swiped on her phone and showed an image of Ragna’s issued bounty. “But first, explain this.”
“That wasn’t us.”
“We wanted to keep the involvement of the Griffins hidden. And most of the higher-ups don’t know enough about the dark web to utilize it. Whoever issued the bounty is working against the interests of Midgard.”
“You’re idiots.” Aura stomped out of the archives, and Graswald followed her.
Once Graswald had closed the portal, Aura exhaled. Great. Graswald hadn’t noticed that he was following an illusion. Why did he have such a sensitive nose? If the illusion was even a fracture of a second too fast or too slow, he would have realized that the fake had no smell and sensed her sitting behind the archives.
Aura rubbed her eyes and ground her teeth. Damn. Her head would hurt for hours. Becoming invisible and creating illusions was easy. But both at the same time? It were moments like these that she cursed the competence of her fiancée. Anything less than perfection, and he would tear apart even the slightest mistake. Well, once he left the Well, her illusion should be fast enough that he couldn’t catch up. She could inspect the Well on her own pace now, without Graswald trying to potentially sabotage what she could find out about the Griffins or him.
From the pockets of her jeans, she pulled out a flask and drank out of it. She didn’t know why that one piece of information existed in the cluster. It could have been a whim of the ravens. It couldn’t be a coincidence that the one piece that wasn’t supposed to be there connected Ms. Griffin to Graswald. Both were born in Worms as a result of the Future Initiative.
She had to investigate the truth further. First here in the Well. Then, she had to find information on Regin Griffin. Even if the incident between him, Mr. Griffin, and Ragna were unconnected, he might reveal more about Ms. Griffin’s death. And lastly, she had to find out the truth Graswald was hiding from her. Now that she thought about it, it might have been too premature to rule out that he was guilty. He might have used Skyfrost and the Griffins as pawns to achieve whatever goal he had, or all of them were traitors, playing a long-game con. Whatever the case, the conspiracy around Ragna had gotten more complicated.