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The white faded out.

Ragna tumbled in front of the wall. A layer of ice covered her skin like a jumpsuit and reflected the corridor's light. Shreds of her clothes floated to the ground, and with her dwindling Mana reserves, a layer thin as body paint was all she could summon to replace her wardrobe.

Ragna panted. Pain raced along her spine. Her blood seeped inside the ice, painting the blue hue with crimson.

Fragments of burned plastic laid scattered around her, their stench seething into her nose.

Ragna coughed, and her eyes wandered through the porcelain corridor.

Diavolo lay against the wall. Cracks ran through the stone and extended from the Paladin’s body like angel wings. From his mouth and temple dripped blood. His head had dropped to his shoulders. Either he was unconscious or dead. It was a miracle that he was still in one piece.

Evergreen rushed to her partner. She checked his pulse, and her body relaxed. Ignoring everyone else, she lifted his body.

The fight was over. Diavolo and the soldiers were out of commission, and Evergreen had no interest in continuing. She would prioritize the lives of her comrades.

Even so, Ragna started to walk backwards. She wouldn’t give the enemy the chance to strike.

How surreal. She had fought two Paladins and won. Were their enemies holding back, or had her encounters with the god and the Twisted accelerated her strength to new levels? Who knew? Did it matter? Or that she had defeated her mother’s killer? She had played that scenario in her head a million times: Meeting the Vaixian soldier who had taken her mother from her and ending their life. Yet, it didn't matter whether Diavolo would survive or not. It shouldn't be like this. She ought to cry in joy because she could bring forth justice for her mother. Her heart felt numb.

Ragna had reached Eric. Altera, Grendel, and Puck were already on the other side.

With a marker drew Eric the Naudiz rune on her arm. “See you on the other side.”

The corridor vanished.

֎

Trees surrounded Grendel.

So, the teleportation was a success. This spot was further away from the temple or the village. If Vaix searched for them, it would take time until they arrived here.

Grendel raised his body, regaining control of his limbs. One by one, he moved them. The numbness was gone.

Had his body canceled out the toxin? Diavolo mentioned that it would kill most humans. Well, that description couldn't be further from the truth. Right now, he resembled an abnormal beast. He was a freak among freaks. But if he wanted to fight monsters, he didn't have much choice, and in this instance, it saved his life. Perhaps the poison immunity could be related to the high alcohol tolerance his family exhibited?

The sun shone on Grendel, casting his shadow on the ground. From neck to tail, he stretched his body. The scales absorbed the warmth the sun rays brought to them.

After spewing that fire and fighting for so long in this form, his body temperature had dropped. Grendel fletched his teeth in pleasure. He lay on the ground and let his body bask in the sun.

If Twice were a god, would they grant him these moments to relax and stop thinking?

Please, just a few minutes before I’ve to answer for my…

For what exactly? His actions? His appearance? His transformation? His failure? His existence?

֎

After a few minutes, Puck appeared and began to scout the area for potential threats. Even if Vaix couldn't track their location, he wouldn’t take his chances. Then Altera arrived, followed by Ragna and Eric.

“What the fuck was that?” Altera stomped towards Ragna. Her face had gotten red, and traces of tears glittered on her cheek. She raised her hand and slapped Ragna in the face. “Never do that again. I thought you were gone.”

Ragna’s cheek swelled. Her fingers brushed over the red spot where Altera had hit her. It pulsated and throbbed, and Ragna tilted her head, looking at Altera in confusion. “What’s your problem? I defeated the enemy.”

“You almost killed yourself. It’s a miracle you survived.”

“It’s not. Remember? My runes can’t hurt me.”

Altera laughed in disbelief. “Look at you.” She pointed at her frozen make-shift clothes. Blood veins stretched throughout it, painting a crimson vine pattern. “You’re bleeding. You crashed against a wall.”

“Okay. I miscalculated a bit. “Ragna shrugged. “Next time, I’ll take care of that.”

What was her problem? She saved their lives and defeated the enemy. That was all that mattered.

“Next time?" Altera's eyes increased in size. Out of her body leaked Mana. The air around froze to snow crystals and melted to water dropping on the ground. Every word she spat was a roar and a warning. "Are you stupid? You suicide-bombed yourself. What Valkyrie does that?”

“Well, sooorry.” Ragna’s voice rose. “We can't all fight like you. The Paladins would’ve wiped the floor with us. We couldn’t win. But sure. Just let that psychotic scorpion pervert kill everyone. No biggie. At least, I could be a Valkyrie.”

Ragna rolled her eyes and snorted.

“That’s messed up.” Altera gnashed.

“What’s your fucking problem? I’m weak, okay? I’ve to even things somehow…” Ragna paused. She took a deep breath and continued with a calmer voice. “Fine. You’re right. It’s fucked up. But what do you expect after everything? That I’m still this happy-go-lucky girl from the academy? I’m not. This journey’s changed me, and something’s wrong with me. But at least I admit it.”

“W…What’s that…” Altera took a step back. Her eyes paced through the environment, looking anywhere but Ragna's ice-blue gaze.

Fuck this. The last thing she needed was Altera's hypocrisy. She trained and trained and tried to survive this journey. And after everything, Altera still had the gall to berate her? Hadn't they moved on from that? Weren't they equal? Why couldn't Altera accept her? No. They weren't at the academy anymore. It was time for Altera to taste her own poison.

“Honestly, you've no right to say anything. If you were in my situation, you would’ve done the same. Hel, you wouldn’t care if you died. I tried to make sure I survived. Yes, it was stupid, but you wouldn’t even do that. No. You would’ve just died. Do you ever think about yourself? And don’t answer me. Cause that would damn sure be a lie. You have some kind of martyr complex. All you want to do is to die protecting others."

Altera opened her mouth, but Ragna cut her off before she could attempt to speak.

"Do you even care how much it would hurt others? No. You want us to be sad." She chuckled, her eyes reflecting the absurdity and the pain. "The world shall mourn you as a hero. Cause only then. And only then can your little brain rack up the thought that people like you. As long as you're alive, your brain will never allow you to be happy. Isn't that so?”

Altera didn’t answer. Her face had become redder; tears ran down her cheeks. From the ground, shot thorns and created a tent-like structure. Altera ran inside and sealed the entrance with more thorns.

Fuck. She had gone too far.

Ragna tried to move when Eric grabbed her arm and held her back. “Usually, I would say you went overboard. But I think you’re right. She needed to hear this.”

“Doesn’t make me feel less like a piece of crap.” Ragna bit her fingernail. “I didn't want to hurt her. Not like this.”

"Sometimes, you can sting." Eric crossed his arms. "But sometimes, kids gotta touch the stove."

"You think she'll be okay?"

“She doesn’t have much choice. This world ain’t for quitters. And she knows this.”

“Will she hate me?”

Grendel crawled to Ragna. He encircled the two and rubbed his head against Ragna's arm. Like a heater spread the warmth from his body.

"Thanks." Ragna smiled and petted his head.

“Who knows? You did the right thing. But that’ll be your cross to bear. “Now, turn around and let me see that wound.”

Ragna did as Eric had told her and removed the ice from her back.

“Oy. That’s gonna leave a scar.” Eric took out his first aid kit from his bag and sprayed the disinfectant on Ragna's wound.

“How bad is it?” She winced and pressed her teeth when the alcohol touched her body.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. It burns.

“Let’s just say, a few centimeters lower, and you wouldn’t be walking again.”

Ragna's eyes widened.

Crap. Altera was right. She had been too reckless.

“How did you create the explosion anyway?”

“I bought some bottles of water at the archipelago. Then, I used my runes to create dry ice inside them. The ice dissolved and expanded the water. And because the plastic wouldn’t let the water expand, it went boom. I figured that the ice would become one with the water and ignore me. I didn’t expect the indirect impact to be this bad.”

“A fucking dry-ice bomb...I swear, one day, I will find the loony bin you’ve escaped from.” Eric wrapped the bandages around her. “Where did you even learn this? No offense, you don’t look like a physics ace.”

Ragna pouted. “I will have you know that in my last high school year, I had a 2 Minus. And I learned it on NorseTube.”

“That’s better than me. But seriously? NorseTube?”

Ragna nodded. “I looked for things to do with my rune. Figured someone would be creative with ice. You can find tutorials for anything there. Last week, I saw a video on how proper waterboarding worked.”

Eric continued to bandage Ragna and took a deep breath. “Do you want to talk about my deal with Vaix?”

“Honestly. I’m too tired to care. Say what you wanna say. And everything’s fine.”

“There’s not much. Vaix hired me to get them an artifact from the temple. In return, I got access to the Vaixian Library. That could give me a better POV of Vaix. Had I known what the stag skull could do, I would’ve never accepted.”

"Why didn't you tell us from the beginning?"

"With your attitude? I really thought you would kill me."

“You deserve ta bonk on your head, but right now, all I can think about is her. I’m scared she’ll hate me.”

Eric snickered. “That means she’s important to you. Like a lot.”

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