When Altera heard the Captain’s words, wings grew out of her back. She was about to take off when ice grew over her feet and froze them to the ship's board.
“What...?” Altera turned around. As her eyes caught the ice extending from Ragna's, they lost their luster. The betrayal of the person she trusted the most in the world had burned away the light. Her lips twisted to grimace, and she fletched her teeth.
“Let. Me. Go. Now!” Altera's body rattled. She flapped her wings. Gusts of winds blew beneath them under their force, stirring the ocean's waves.
“Where?” Eric asked. “The ship’s long gone. You can barely stand, let alone fly.”
“I’ve to find them. So, let me go.”
“You would kill yourself.” Ragna reached out for Altera, but the future Valkyrie snapped her hand away.
“I don’t care.”
“It’s too late. They’re already dead.” Grendel looked Altera in the eyes. “What do you wanna do? Go to Hel and face Helena Luisenbarn? The passenger’s souls already belong to the goddess of death herself.”
“I swore to protect their lives.”
Altera's face morphed to a mask full of despair. Tears fell and transformed to ice. A broken smile leaked out of her lips and Mana out of her body.
She wouldn’t accept that they were lost. She would search until her body gave out; until she fell into the water and arrived in Hel. And if she had to fight the goddess of death itself, then so be it. She would wander through the frozen realms of Hel until she had found every life. Even if it took a million years; even if she had to cross the void – she would try.
Altera's Mana froze around her into a ring. It had run out, her wings disappeared, and Altera dropped on her knees, sobbing.
Though the night sky flew a flock of albatross, their screams mixing with Altera’s cries. Clouds obscured the moon and stars, and darkness veiled the birds. Perhaps one albatross soared for every soul lost at sea. They sailed into the waters to accompany the departed souls on their final journey.
One albatross separated itself from the flock and flew towards Altera. On the ship’s border, it landed. In its light's glimmer, the bird's white feathers gleamed like pearls, like evening dew.
The ship started to sail away from the Verne's remains back to Eren, and the albatross stayed with them. It didn’t move or make any noise, like a statue if its yellow-black eyes didn't reflect Altera's body.
“I’m sorry.” Ragna put her hand on Altera's shoulder. "Going after them would be suicide. We have to give up.”
Altera didn't make a noise. Even after the ice had disappeared, she remained frozen in her circle, in her world.
“Can you please explain what had happened?”
“Of course, of course. Just listen to my voice.”
Ragna picked up snippets from the conversation between Grendel and the coast guard discussing the attack.
Thanks to his abilities, they should refrain from inquiring about their identities.
But who cared? Right now, the entire world could go fuck itself. Only her friends' wellbeing mattered.
Ragna's mind drifted away as her eyes gazed upon the sea of darkness that surrounded them. Occasionally, she would glimpse at Altera.
Altera needed help, but how?
Without any further complication, they arrived at the coast of Ioa – one of the five main islands that made up the Eren Archipelago. Through Grendel, the coast guard brought them to a motel where they wouldn’t need to identify themselves.
Within a short time, the group fell asleep. Their trauma and burden would have to wait until morning to affect them any further.
No one possessed the strength to think or talk. Even Altera’s insomnia couldn’t keep her awake and allow her concocting plans.
The albatross spun its wings. The moment the party had left the ship and entered the mainland, the albatross had started to move. Like a white star, it glided through the night. Its eyes, it cast on the humans.
Outside the motel, the albatross nested on the crown of a palm tree. It swallowed a fish it had caught earlier, and through the motel windows, it observed the party.
Water was dripping, dripping, and dripping into a sea. In it floated Ragna. The water dropped on her droplet by droplet, plopping on her forehead.
She tried to move her head, but it kept staring at the water falling from the sky. Every second, one drop would splash on her face. She tried to move her arm. But no matter how much she struggled, her limbs didn’t move. She was drifting in the sea, submissive to the whims of the currents. The drops pounded on her forehead.
It itched. It itched so much. But Ragna's hands were bound, and the water continued to drop on her face. Each droplet weighed heavier than the previous one. They hit her face and molded into insects scratching with their claws and burrowing their bodies and eggs inside her skin and flesh. The eggs waggled around, more and more intense until they hatched. Larvae crawled in her skin. They multiplied and spread through her body.
Maggots infested her flesh, eating through muscles and nerves, drilling through her bones. They devoured and crawled and dug, gorged themselves at her. Ragna became a banquet for the vermin to abuse.
Stop. Please, stop. Ragna tried to move, but she couldn’t. Her limbs were bound forever. She wanted to scream, but she had no mouth.
Droplets: pounding and pounding.
Make it stop. Please.
Dripping. Dripping. Dripping.
No rest, no sleep. No silence. Drip and drip. No time for thoughts, no permission. Dripping were the droplets.
There was no escape.
The water brought reality back. Infinite drops poured on Ragna.
Please. Whatever you want. Just make it stop.
Ragna was running. She was running and running.
No rest before it was here. No time to look back. Ragna had to run.
Not fast enough.
Hooves galloped through the water. Pins, white as ivory, rose from the water’s abyss. Everything they touched, they pierced and penetrated until no traces of the victim remained.
She had to run.
It came nearer. Faster the stakes emerged. The hooves became louder like thunder strikes, an avalanche burying everything in its opulent mass. Ragna had to run faster. She couldn't risk the monster catching her. That would be her end, and she would wish for a sweet death.
Please, move faster.
Ragna stumbled. Waves of laughter and screams filled the ocean, and she fell into the water.
Tentacles. In front of Ragna and behind. From every direction, they latched onto her. A forest of arms wrapped around her limbs. On her arms, on her legs, on her neck. Squeezing and squishing against her soft body. Ragna's bones they ripped apart like the dough of a cake.
Ragna screamed, but even those screams suffocated when the tentacles tore through her windpipe. A clean cut from its hook, and then, it tightened its grip. No blood was gushing out. Too tight was the arm's hold. All the blood leaked inside her.
Water and blood rushed into her lungs. Ragna rasped and coughed. Even opening her mouth reduced her willpower. All her words deteriorated to screeches.
She needed air. The world around her swirled and twisted, and white noises dribbled in her brain. Mere moments it took for a cracking sound to emerge, like a glass globe crushing against a stone floor.
Ragna croaked. The blood leaked out of her flesh's shreds. Her limbs fell into the seafloor, tainting the water with a carmine color. Tears ran down her eyes. But no sound came out. And then, the arms dragged her into the darkness, into the circle of teeth and beyond.
“You're quite pathetic.” Lifting her chin, Sven smiled, full of life, full of joy. It was the Sven she loved, the Sven who was her destiny, her future. “But that's okay.”
Sven had saved her. Ragna tried to smile like Sven, but whenever she tried to raise the corners of her mouth, a wave of pain shot through her brain.
Then, a sharp sensation on her cheek and a clapping sound forced her eyes open. Her cheek was warm, and her skin expanded on that warm spot.
Sven leaned over her body. With his fingers, he drew lines over her stumps. As the pressure on her increased, she squinted her eyes anew. Pain ran through her body.
Pain and…and something…something else.
His fingers moved to the small scarlet hole in her throat.
“Take my limbs. After all, I died for you.” Still smiling, Sven's face distorted.
Burn marks raced through it, turning his face into a disfigured war zone. Like a toy puppet, his body fell apart, splattering into the water. The limbs crawled through the water surface to her body. Robotic appendages connected themselves through wires, forcing them on her.
Please. Stay away.
If Ragna could, she would scream. Her arms moved. Ragna tried to make them stop, but she had no control. One hand moved to her throat. With its fingers, it pinched through the hole and widened it. The fingers inserted themselves through the new opening. The windpipe they grabbed and removed. With its other hand, the arm took the remains of Sven’s throat. They shoved it into the gaping hole, and once done, they forced it close, pulling it together.
A girl stepped forward.
“What will you do for me?” Her feet walked over the water, and she showed Ragna her face: an opera mask white as an eggshell. “Why won’t you fight for my suffering? I died for your luxury. They all did. My people and the people you failed as well.”
She had never seen that girl in her life, yet she recognized her immediately.
“Sorry?” Alfrun tilted her face. “What good is that? Will that bring us back? Will it make up for your failure?”
She removed her mask, revealing the nothingness behind it. There was no face, no muscles, and no skull. Only emptiness like a broken doll. Mannequins appeared and encircled Ragna – all of them broken. Some missed arms, others had cracks running through their bodies. A few had open chests while others lacked face like Alfrun. The mannequins started to dance. Hundreds and thousands of dolls, each a life Ragna had failed to save. The fire spread across the sea, burning through the puppets.
Clockwork and Skyfrost sang in the center, laughing and mocking Ragna, as corpses littered the sea.
Ragna was running. The void came nearer, swallowing everything. What once was, was just nothing. Not even space. Just nothing. In front of her was a forest of tentacles, reaching out to her, forcing her to stop. She turned around.
“Hello.” Sven smiled. His body illuminated in dim light, and in silence, it exploded.
In another direction, she ran.
In front of Ragna was her father. He stood there, his face contorted. It grew to a monstrous form. Scales emerged from it, replacing his skin piece by piece with pitch-black darkness. The arms and legs ate the armor as well. What once was human body parts turned into the claws of an animal. Spikes rose out of his spine, and new limbs grew out of him.
“You know the real me.” Her father’s voice inflated and turned into a roar only a beast could make. “This is who I am. What you will become.”
Ragna ran away. It didn’t matter where. Just away. Away from all of this. The ferry to the underworld was expecting her.
No. Please, no.
Stakes emerged from the ocean and chased her like shadows. The hooves closed the distance to her. Water dropped. And voices echoed from every direction, telling her to stop, to go to them.
They thundered in her brain.
“Please. Just stop.” Ragna cried. Her tears merged with the water. She didn’t run. It was useless. They were everywhere. Wherever she would run, they were already there. Sven. Her father. The Ship. The gods. The criminals. Her sins. Skyfrost. Her kingdom. The monsters. The world itself. Just everything. It was useless. So useless.
A sharp light fell from the sky, robbing Ragna of her sight. When she could see again, everything that reminded her of her failure was gone.
Instead, an angel descended from the sky. She beat her beautiful wings. Her hair as pure as her wings. Her eyes, the essence of life. An angel. A goddess. A savior.
Just in front of Ragna, the wings came to a halt, letting her float. Even if the angel did not say a word, Ragna kneeled. The slender fingers of the angel, wrapped in armor, they caressed her cheek, washing away her tears.
“Thank…you.” Ragna went on all fours.
In any other situation, Ragna would have resisted such a humiliation. But not this. She had to follow the angel. She was her master. The angel knew what was best. She was warm and made them go away.
She had to show the angel she was loyal, that she was under her as her subject. The naked feet of the angel Ragna held in the palms of her hands.
So soft. It was alabaster.
Ragna's lips moved closer to her feet until they connected. Coral lips on alabaster skin. It was a simple gesture of her submission. Proof that she was her follower. A little price to pay for the Valkyrie's accomplishments, for her warmth, the sweetness of security.
But was that the right choice? Was that what she wanted? To listen and follow those better than her? Like a dog? Wouldn’t she then remain ignorant? What would be the point of all she had gone through? Would she ever be able to protect those dear to her? Because of her free will? Or would she turn into a weapon? Was that what she wanted to fight for? For the orders of her master? No. She had to carve her own path. She had to reach her goals with the choices she made. Be they good or bad. She wanted to be in the company of those that surpass her, that embody the ideals of a Valkyrie. But not like this. She wanted to be their equal.
The angel dispersed, and from the world's core, a voice emerged. “But can you do this? Are you strong enough to achieve your goals?”
She had heard the voice before. It was the voice of the shadow.
“Then I’ll become strong enough to grasp what’s dear to me.”
“And if you stay weak?”
Ragna closed her eyes. She took a deep breath and opened her eyes again. With her raised chin, she stared the world in the eyes. “Then I will become as strong as I can, and if that is not enough, then I will take everything I have to reach my goals. What is dear to me, I will not let slip away from my hands.”
In her eyes flashed images.
She had lost so much. Thousands and thousands of treasures she couldn’t save. But it wasn’t all lost. There were still treasures she could save, protect, and hold dear. She wasn’t alone anymore, and they entrusted their lives and hopes to her as much she entrusted hers to them. Aura, Eric, Grendel, and Puck as well. Altera. For them, she had to fight.
“So be it.”
Ragna couldn't see it, but she knew the owner of the voice was smiling. It was neither a gesture of condensation nor depravity. It was the genuine smile of a parent watching her child grow up.
“Is this path right or wrong? Will it end in your victory or your demise? It does not matter. You alone decide how you will walk. Only you can write the final chapter of your journey.”
In front of her, the ash tree appeared. Its bark opened, revealing a hole in its middle. It was too dark to see what was inside.
“Enter. Make new decisions, create new paths, and achieve the power you want. But know there is no turning back. You can only progress.”