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Ragna sank inside her seat.

No, that couldn’t be. They couldn’t terminate their jour

Ragna sank inside her seat.

No, that couldn’t be. They couldn’t terminate their journey. All the horrors they had to suffer through just so Altera’s brother could tell them “No”? She wouldn’t accept that. There was no way she would let others decide her fate. She fought to reclaim her happiness and to clear her name. This was her fight. It was her responsibility and not that of someone else. Even if Altera’s brother tried to bind her, she would break free and find another way.

“You can’t do that. I’m on a Bragi and an official mission from Midgard,” said Altera. “That would be a break of international conduct.”

“I don’t give a shit about that.” Geißel narrowed his eyes. “I am Utgard’s chieftain. If Midgard wants to complain, then it may face a serious Orichalcum shortage soon. I could even start a trade war and cripple Midgard’s economy.”

“Clearly, the behavior of someone who should be in power.” Eric took a sip from his beer.

“I think we haven’t met yet.” Geißel looked at Eric, his eyes narrowing to slants. “I’m the man who doesn’t care about some no name’s opinion.”

“Hey!” Ragna shouted.

“Let me make this clear. You’re only here because I permit it. One word from me and your journey’s over. The minute you entered my kingdom was the moment you all became powerless. No one knows you are here. No one will help you, and as long as I will it, you stay here forever.”

“You can’t do that,” said Altera.

Geißel shook his head. “Don’t you get it? I’m doing this for you. There won’t be any happiness if you continue. Misery and death will be all that awaits you.”

“Then, I will face both and accept my fate.” Altera looked her brother firm into the eyes, her left hand stationed in front of her heart.

“Said like a true child. It is easy to speak of horrors when one hasn’t encountered them. When I look at you, all I see are children pretending to be soldiers.”

“Do you even know what they saw?” Eric adjusted his hat. Every word he spoke oozed the insult he must have felt for her and Altera. “I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re right or not. You weren’t there and have no right to judge them.”

Dammit. Ragna bit her fingernail.

Eric had to jump to their defense. Their journey was in danger of stopping, and she couldn’t bring up one argument. Even though she had to listen for an entire year to the same word Geißel threw at Altera, she couldn’t defend her friend. No wonder Altera didn’t want to face her brother if she had to listen to this belittlement her entire life. It didn't’ matter how much she would achieve. He saw the little sister, not the Valkyrie. But what could she say to help Altera and dissuade her brother? That they barely survived the Twisted, the Paladins, or the stag god? That the IBM almost caught them, or that Clockwork had? She would give him more ammunition to fire. If her father sat in front of them, could she defend herself, or would she fail as well?

Geißel didn’t bother to look at Eric and took another puff. “And you've no idea what my sister is like. To remain high functioning when every misstep will lead to death, the stress and fear will suffocate you. You know you can’t.”

“I can,” Altera screamed.

“You won’t continue.” Geißel ground the cigarette against the ashtray. “The discussion’s over.”

“What about the Tower?” Quin asked.

Geißel petrified as if he had heard a Banshee’s scream. He dropped his glass, and it shattered on the ground, spilling the liquid inside.

Everyone’s attention turned to him.

“Seems there’s a way,” Eric said. “And big brother’s not happy.”

“Oh, dear. To break like that.” Quin grinned. “How unbecoming of our dear chieftain. You may have Utgardian ancestry, but your Midgardian blood and upbringing are showing.”

“What tower?” Ragna asked.

Quin faced the party. “I’m talking about Ymir’s tower.”

Ymir. Again, that name. First, the priest, now this. Could it be that Utgard didn’t believe in Twice? No, that didn’t matter. She had to concentrate on their next steps. Whatever that Tower turned out to be, it provided them the chance to continue their journey. No matter how small, she had to grab it.

“If you can climb to the highest level, you should be ready for whatever hardships you will encounter in the future.”

“They will not climb the tower,” Geißel said with all the authority he could muster up as he composed himself. “They might as well kill themselves.”

“Then, we’ll climb the tower, “said Altera. “And we’ll survive. It’s quite simple.”

“As the chieftain and your big brother, I forbid it.”

“And as the chieftess, I grant them access and allow them to continue. In the end, it’s their call to make.”

“I won’t give up now. Everything would’ve been for nothing. We’ll climb the tower even if it kills us.” Ragna stared at Geißel, her gaze unwavering.

“You’ve no idea what you’re up against.”

“We never did,” said Eric. “But we still fought and came out alive.”

“You’ll be the bane of my sister.” Geißel gazed back at Ragna. Every word he spat like mercury.

“If you refuse, I will publish a post that proves we are hiding Ragna Griffin.”

“That could lead to war.” Geißel observed Quin. When she did not give a reaction and continued her silence, he opened his mouth again. “Fine. If they can finish all eight stages, I will allow them to continue, and I will tell them where Drake Griffin is.”

Ragna’s group and Nephthys cheered, and Geißel stood up. “I think that’s enough for one night. Please get some rest. Tomorrow will be a nightmare for you.”

Everyone else stood up as well. Geißel grabbed Altera’s shoulder and smiled. “Alta, would you please stay. I would like to catch up.”

Altera nodded in silence.

֎

Ragna lay in the guest room of the chieftain’s residence, her mind drifting into a sea of emotions, images, ideas, and sensors. Outside the real world's clutches, that sea granted Ragna one last resort to retreat from the pains of reality. Yet, in that same world, a female voice reached with its words. Familiar like a mother’s lullaby, warm like the first sunray on one’s skin, and sharp like the fangs of a dragon.

Ragna rolled around in her sheets.

“Lindi.” The siren’s song called to her. “Lindi, wake up.” It echoed in her mind, the same strings repeating and vibrating their repetition until Ragna opened her eyes.

Ragna lay in the guest room of the chieftain’s residence, her mind drifting into a sea of emotions, images, ideas, and sensors. Outside the real world's clutches, that sea granted Ragna one last resort to retreat from the pains of reality. Yet, in that same world, a female voice reached with its words. Familiar like a mother’s lullaby, warm like the first sunray on one’s skin, and sharp like the fangs of a dragon.

Ragna rolled around in her sheets.

“Lindi.” The siren’s song called to her. “Lindi, wake up.” It echoed in her mind, the same strings repeating and vibrating their repetition until Ragna opened her eyes.

What’s going on? A humanoid shape blurred in front of her.

“Lindi.”

Ragna’s brain tried to match the voice with the patterns it had saved in her memories without success, yet the voice sounded familiar.

Ragna rubbed her eyes, wiping away the tiredness. The blurriness disappeared and the vague array of colors began to gain contrast and definite lines. Her eyes reflected a woman's image.

She was sitting on her legs as if riding a bull. Long white hair tickled Ragna’s skin under the sheets, white horns grew out of her head, and crimson eyes observed every twitch Ragna’s body could make, displaying nothing but primordial greed in their slitted pupils. Obsidian covered her body like a corset.

Before Ragna could ring alarm or activate her runes, the woman leaned towards her and pressed her finger against Ragna’s lips. Millimeters separated the two women, and as she lay over Ragna, their pulses seemed to merge. It throbbed and heated her body. Their gazes met, blue on red synthesizing into violet avarice.

“You can’t use your runes.” The woman whispered into her ear. “You’re not physically connected to them.” Every word breezed warmth and found its way into her brain, massaging and stimulating her mind with electric impulses. “But don’t worry. I’m here to help you with your ordeals tomorrow.”

Should she move? Should she say something? What should she do? Was she her ally? Something about her rang familiar. She recognized that voice somewhere. But couldn’t that be a trick? No, what would she have to gain from that? If that woman wanted to kill her, she would have done so already.

The woman removed her finger, and Ragna remained silent. A distant noise rang in her ears. Waves crashed against the coast, submerging rocks in the water.

The woman smiled and leaned back. “And here I thought you would appreciate a long-legged beauty sitting on your lap.”

Ragna’s eyes wandered across the woman's figure, skimming her bare legs. Darkness surrounded them, yet she could make out the woman clear as day. She shone like an effigy, and her legs baited her like a beacon of light.

These long beautiful naked legs.

Her eyes rested once they reached the woman’s feet, and images flashed through Ragna’s mind. Drool formed inside her mouth.

“Don’t be shy,” the woman said. “Listen to your carnal desires. Let them guide you, motivate you to fight and covet, harvest and hoard.”

Ragna pulled out her tongue. Saliva dropped on the sheets, her eyes turned to slits, and Ragna might as well have turned into a snake in a human hide, a beast dominated by desires and wishes.

“What fascinating creatures you humans are.” The woman chuckled. “One trigger word and you have become a thirsty mess. But such is the result of mankind’s conditioning. Force the response to a trigger often enough, and humans will do what you wish them to do and believe it was their own free will. It’s the foundation of society. To keep it functioning, and the sheep to follow. I didn’t even have to use my spell on you.”

“Spell?” Ragna narrowed her eyes. Whatever goodwill she had, she abandoned in an instant, her desires gone. Memories from the past resurfaced. Golden pupils preyed on her. Words she couldn't disobey snuck in her ears.

“Don’t worry. I’m not your uncle. I would never put you under a spell.”

“Who are you?” Ragna asked. “Have we met before?”

“Multiple times in the Dreamlands.”

Ragna raised her upper body, her undone hair falling down. “You’re the voice from my dreams.”

“Correct.”

“Am I still dreaming?”

“Dream or reality.” Rocks formed within the darkness, and water flooded the ground, turning the room into a water cave. “You will learn the deeper you go in this realm, the less it matters. And perhaps, the moment will come when both will be the same. Such is the nature of this fictional cosmos.”

“Yeah…you’re the voice from the dreams.” Ragna rubbed her eyes. “I’ve no clue what you’re blabbering about.”

“The border between the Mana World and the Dreamlands is weak. Thus, here your dreams can manifest as reality using Mana as a medium.”

“Why are you here anyway, and why do you look like that? I thought you had no gender.”

“This?” She pointed at herself. “This is one of my personas. It’s not exactly my favorite, but you respond to it.

“Respond?”

“There are aspects of this appearance that elicit positive stimuli from you. Besides, this persona grants me a minor influence on the direction your dreams might take.”

“So, you chose a wet dream?”

The smile on the woman’s face disappeared. “Given your past experiences, you don’t want to have your regular dreams. Let’s just so say your recent dreams have not been...pleasant. So, instead of nightmares, I will grant you pleasure.”

“That’s what this is all about?” Ragna asked. “You want to fuck me?”

“Fear and lust are connected, so it's a bridge I could create. And I saw the look in your eyes. There’s a lot you don’t know about yourself. Both positive and negative. If you want to progress, you have to face them. It may not be today or tomorrow. But the day will come, and the longer you delay it, the more the inevitable confrontation will hurt you. But for tonight, I will prepare you for tomorrow’s ordeal. Believe me. You’ll need it.” The woman widened her arms. “So, look around. We’re here in your cave. And now, we’ve to fill it with treasure.”

Treasure? Did she mean it literally? Like with coins and gold? No, that seemed unlikely. Whatever situation she had gotten into, literal thinking seemed to be out of place. In that case…

“So, everything I value. What's important to me?”

“Exactly.” Black bat wings sprouted out of the woman’s back. “To continue on your path, you must know what you wish to protect and what you wish to achieve. What is the treasure you wish to guard with all your life? What do you desire to preserve the most in the world? The which you are willing to shed blood for. And conversely, what is not.”

“What is not…” Ragna repeated.

“Why have you been drinking?” Downstairs, Geißel’s voice rang.

“Why not? I’m an adult.”

Huh? Altera and Geißel were still downstairs?

“Looks like we will continue another time,” the woman said, and the darkness disappeared.

“Huh? Why?”

“Don’t worry.” She pressed her finger against Ragna’s lips and smiled. “Listen to that conversation your friend has with her brother. It will serve well.”

And the woman was gone. All traces of her had disappeared within a second.

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YAK Edge

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