Ragna stretched her arms and yawned. Picking up her phone from the nightstand next to her bed, she looked at her screen.
Five in the morning? So early? It didn't feel like it, but everyone else still slept – even Altera.
Well, after everything that had occurred, it wasn’t a surprise that Altera had burned out. Not that she could fault her. Last night was…They didn't just fail to be heroes and protect civilians. This catastrophe was outside their control. Saying next time they would do better wouldn’t cut it, but what else could they do?
No. She couldn't dwell on that. All she could do was moving on and continuing with her life and mission. And she had to focus on her friends. Yes, she had to concentrate on their bonds and help them cope.
First was Altera. It had affected her the most. As her friend, she had to be there for Altera. Yes, that's what she had to do.
Once everyone had woken up, they planned their next moves. Except for Altera, everyone concentrated on how to arrive on Glast's continent and get to Utgard. She, on the other hand, lay under her bed covers, her mind drifting off into worlds unknown.
The ferry to Glast would leave in five hours, giving them time to resupply at Ioa’s main shopping street. And for Ragna to help Altera. Grendel and Puck revealed they were traveling to Heorot and would accompany them to the Utgardian border. Thus, Grendel and Puck had joined the party.
Of course, they also had weighed up whether it was a good idea to board another ship, but it was also the only way to Glast as the Erenien government had canceled all plane flights for the coming days. Once they had showered, dressed, and booked the tickets, they left the motel to go shopping. On Ragna’s suggestion, the party would split up. Altera would accompany her – as Ragna had insisted – and the boys would have fun on their own.
“So, you three are going to Utgard?” Grendel took a seat. He leaned his head against his arm and crossed his legs, watching Eric and Puck search through the boutique’s selection. With one ear, he listened to the techno music whose subliminal messages increased the desire to try on clothes, and with the other to Eric.
“Yeah. Though, no idea what it's like. Have you ever been there?” Eric asked.
“Nah, but colleagues did. I've heard that border control is pretty tight, but usually, they let you in just fine.”
“Relations with Avalon are kinda iffy.” Grendel pulled out his phone, browsing through his InstaNorse feed. “Quite the bloody history between us. And the current chieftain made it worse. Married bout fifteen years ago into the royal family…Or was it ten? He never showed his face. Only his flunkies.”
“Makes me really wish to go there. Fan-fucking-tastic. Hope Altera and Ragna know what awaits them.”
“Was it really a good idea to leave the two alone?” Grendel frowned as his eyes glanced at the news everyone on the social web was talking about and put his phone away. “I’m worried about their mental state.”
“Don't take it personally, but you would've made his worse.” Eric put on a black cowboy hat and inspected himself in the mirror. He shook his head, put it back to the shelf, and rummaged through the new summer collection of adventurer fashion. “So instead, just tell me what you think.”
Grendel didn’t respond and raised his brow as he gave a thumbs down for Eric’s next choice of wardrobe.
"What's the worst that could happen?"
“Ragna and Altera still have hope. And you would destroy that complete.”
Grendel pouted. “I still have hope, y'know?.”
Grendel gave a thumbs down for Puck. He had decided to switch his brown cloak for a pink one that added five kilograms to his hips. “I still have hope, you know?”
“Can't a man finish his shopping?" Eric raised his voice but then stopped himself and groaned. "Fine. I'll be straight. You got a goal but no hope or future. Once you reach it, your life’s finished. There’s nothing else left. And now that we've talked, please focus.”
“So, going by your logic.” Grendel clicked his tongue. “There’s no hope from you to steal. You’re like me then.”
Eric scoffed and turned away. "Worst shopping partner ever."
“How do I look?” Ragna performed a pirouette and presented to Altera the newly bought beige trench coat that covered her from neck to thighs. She could be naked under it, and no one would ever know.
“It…looks good.” Altera averted her face. Grabbing her own arm, Altera spoke with a subdued voice devoid of all energy subdued.
Perhaps she should have stripped and flashed Altera. At least then, she could get a reaction out of her.
“Maybe I should buy a book? There’s a new one I’ve heard good things about. A psycho-thriller called ‘Happily ever after’. The story’s about a world where fairy tale characters are alive. They fight against each other ‘cause only one can get a happy ending. Though, do I even have space?” She opened her bag and counted the bottles of sparkling water she had crammed inside: twelve in total. If she took out half of them, it should still be effective without her having to sacrifice speed or mobility. “By the way, what books do you like?”
Altera didn’t respond, and Ragna sighed. The indirect approach was a bust and distracting her with shopping too.
"Mayday. Here's Captain Jules Nemo."
From the tv-screen that hung on the boutique's walls, Captain Dhakkar's voice buzzed. The attention of the shoppers shifted towards the news program. They whispered among themselves. Some checked their social media feeds and gasped in shock or started to cry.
Altera's eyes widened as her body froze, and Ragna's body tensed up as well.
"The MS Verne is under attack. We need air support."
"These were the last words of Captain Jules Nemo before all contact got interrupted," the news anchor said. "Mere hours later, the Verne sank in the Titanic Sea. As of yet, most details are unknown, including the exact number of casualties or who was responsible for this horrifying attack. We try to get hold of more information during the show. In the meantime, we will get in touch with our correspondent in Pangea, Tom Hildebrandt, who has been in contact with the Erenian security service. Tom. What exactly happened?"
"Good morning, Jennifer. We don't know all the details. The attack happened in the middle of the night, at 01:24 am. Captain Jules Nemo had contacted both the Erenian Coast Guard and the Midgardian military for support, but by the time the Coast Guard arrived, the Verne had already sunk. And while Midgard had sent its military planes, none of them arrived at their destination."
"Can you give more details about possible reasons for how such a tragedy could occur?"
"The Erienian secret service, as well as Allfather Albain Trutner, are speculating like the rest of the world. What we currently know is that this was not an accident. As Captain Nemo's distress signal indicated, the Verne was under attack. The salvage team confirmed that the ferry suffered complete destruction and that most of the 3265 passengers are still missing. We don't know who attacked, but first investigations suggest that those responsible had used a bioorganic superweapon. There are suspects like the Kaiser Nal Linde, Phararo Ramses Jet, or the Judas Group, but those are just speculations. Voodoo Queen Lisa Mawu is currently investigating the incident alongside Midgard’s Captain Daphne Fran.”
“Thank you, Tom. "I'm completely in shock seeing this horrible tragedy. This isn't just a crime against Midgard. It's a crime against humanity. My condolences to all citizens of Eren and Midgard. Vaix will stand alongside Midgard and make sure that those behind this cowardly act will face justice." In an official InstaNorse post, the Kaiser denied any connection to the attack and showed solidarity. Similar support did the other head of states show. But in light of the recent assassination attempt on Princess Aurelia Adler, as well as pre-existing tensions, Vaix is the prime suspect. But whoever it was, in light of the severity of this terror attack, a war against those responsible seems unavoidable. We go live to Castle Gimli where President Adler is holding a press conference...”
The moment Ragna came to her senses, she grabbed Altera's hand.
There were many things Ragna could have done. She could have wondered why the reporter called Captain Dhakkar by the name of Nemo. She could have paid attention to the other shoppers. She could have wondered if Vaix was genuinely involved, as her guts told her they weren’t. She could have wondered if the attack could cause a war. She could have lamented how many people could die over an assumption that even Vaix didn’t deserve. She could have started to wonder if she had stumbled upon some conspiracy that was grander than the kingdoms themselves. But she did none of that. She had to focus on Altera.
Before Altera could say anything, Ragna had dragged her out of the boutique. They hastened down the shopping street until Ragna sat with her on a bench.
The morning sun resided high in the sky in all its might like the eye of a god. Palm trees surrounded and blessed them with shade and protection from the heat. The sounds of saxophones played in the distant background as the only sign that Ragna and Altera weren’t the last two humans left in the world.
A dodo noticed the two and approached them without a care in the world. The bird extended its neck and looked at the two, its eyes begging for food. And seconds later, the palm tree rustled. An albatross had landed on it. It sat on the crown like a statue, its yellow-black eyes observing the two girls.
“We need to talk about last night,” Ragna said.
At first, Altera didn’t respond. She clenched her jaw and played with her fingers until she answered.
“What’s there to talk about?” she asked in a voice that might as well have pleaded that Ragna left her alone. “That I’m a screw-up? That I failed? That I’m a worthless wannabe hero who couldn’t save a single person?”
“That’s not true.” Ragna petted the dodo and ruffled its feathers. “You saved us. Eric, Grendel, Puck, and me. Without you, we would be dead.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” A laugh escaped Altera, weak and short. “Because of me, those people died. I should have saved them, protected them from the monster, prevented them from boarding the ship. But I didn’t. Their blood’s on my hands.”
“That’s not true. You did everything you could. It's not your fault."
The dodo decided he had enough of the foodless people and walked away. Leaving prints in the sand, it disappeared in the shadows the thousand-years old Wall of MAD cast on the horizon. As Ragna waited for Altera's reaction, she gazed at the construct that connected the five islands of the archipelago like a bridge. Like an iron curtain, it divided the east and the west of Aes with its weapon system.
“These last few days, I’ve seen so many ugly things," Ragna said once it became clear that Altera wouldn't answer. "There's so much wrong with this world, and I've barely scratched the surface.” She looked straight into Altera’s eyes. “But there’s also beauty. You just have to look for it. Without you and Eric, I think I would have given up already. And for that, I’ll be forever grateful.” Ragna leaned closer. Millimeters separated her from the future Valkyrie, her eyes reflected Altera’s alabaster cheeks, and Ragna kissed her, painting the white with indigo lipstick.
Altera put her hand on the spot Ragna’s lips had touched, her fingers brushing over the kiss mark. “What was that for?”
“Doesn’t the hero always get the girl?” Ragna smiled. Her eyes glittered like she was waking up from a dream. “I can’t say that for everyone else, but you’re my hero. You saved me so many times. But don't expect this every time.”
“You’re just saying that to cheer me up.” Altera lowered her eyelids.
“I don’t.” Ragna deepened the tone of her voice. “Honestly, you take this "selfless hero"-shtick way too far. You need to chill. But lately, I’ve been wondering what a hero is. I still got zero clues, but seeing you go against these impossible things...you’re a hero. Please, never forget that. And please, don’t give up. If you fall, then rise again. You have these beautiful wings, so use them to fly.”
“I don’t think I can. I’m scared and tired and cold.” Altera’s voice trembled. Her cheeks reddened, and she pressed her hands against her forehead, going through her hair. “I just want to go to bed and sleep. Why can't the world go away? I hate it. I hate it all.”
“Then fuck everything. Just sleep here. You don’t have to be a hero every minute. Just be Altera. There's nothing wrong with that.”
“Is that okay?”
“Ragna nodded. “You always support us. Today, I’ll be here for you.”
"You won't leave me behind?"
Why would she think that? But Altera didn't look like she was joking. If her paranoia created these crazy thoughts, then she would ease her mind.
“I like books about girls becoming Valkyries.” Altera put her legs on the bench and rested her head on Ragna’s lap. “Earlier, you asked me what books I read. I like it when women use magic and intelligence to achieve their goals. And it doesn’t matter what others try, how much society or men want to push them down. Their friends will be there for them, and they prevail.”
“Ah. When everything’s over, let’s read one. Together.”
With a smile, Altera closed her eyes. Ragna started to brush her white hair and sang a lullaby her mother used to sing to her. “I dreamt a dream last night of silk and fine fur. I dreamt a dream last night of silk and expensive cloth. I dreamt a dream last night of justice and fair play. I dreamt a dream last night of equality and honest measure.”
Was she meant to be a Valkyrie? What would she be then instead? Was there any right path? Ragna couldn't tell. All she knew was that even if she couldn't become a Valkyrie, Altera could. She had to. Not for the sake of this mad world. But for Altera's happiness. Whether she would clear her name, find her father, or bring justice, she would ensure that Altera would become a Valkyrie and achieve her dreams. Yes, Altera deserved to be happy.
From the palm tree’s crown, the albatross beat its wings. Spanning them, it flew into the sky and chose Utgard as its next destination. It had observed enough for now.