Crimsom crosses emerged from the sea. Some reached the sky and cast a shadow on the ocean, others the water would swallow. Their sharp heads stuck out and formed platforms and islands with their arms on which Eric, Ragna, and Altera stood. When they had entered the fourth level, they landed on three adjacent crosses of similar size.
Ragna held her hand before her forehead like a cap and looked into the distance. In the sky, a colorless gas giant loomed over them. Rings encircled it, and not a single spec of light shone from the celestial body. Yet, a clear azure greeted them in the sky. And on the horizons, a row of skyscrapers stretched, their silhouettes contorting, their edges turning to curves. Like the crosses, they seemed to rise out of the water with no land in sight.
Between the buildings, strings had intertwined into double helices, forming into a human’s nervous system. It walked through the water, and its body stretched to the sky and stopped at its neck, leaving a hollow ring where its head should be.
“What is this place?” Ragna gulped. “It’s like we’re not in Aes anymore.”
Eric shrugged. He leaned over the sea and submerged his hand in the liquid. “At least, the water's real.”
“Yeah, that’s kinda obvious.”
Eric lifted his hand, and the water dropped between his fingers like a waterfall back into the sea. “I wouldn’t be so sure. Can you smell it?”
Ragna blew her nose. “Smell what?”
“Exactly. We’re in the middle of the ocean. But it doesn’t reek of salt, and you can’t hear a sound, even though the waves clearly clash against these crosses. It’s like the water doesn’t exist. But we can see and interact with it. And I wouldn’t wanna try out if drowning works.”
“Well, if we wanna leave this place, we gotta try something.”
Eric nodded. “We won’t clear the level by staying here. What do you think our task will be?”
Altera looked around, her eyes latching on the giant in the distance. “What were your objectives? Perhaps, there’s a commonality that could hint at something?”
“I had to prevent the princess’ assassination.”
“And I had to convince my Fylgja to accept me.”
“So, no connection.” Altera drew her partisan. “But that reminds me. Since you’ve discovered your Fylgja’s ability, you should give your weapon a name. It strengthens the connection between Fylgja, weapon, and runes.”
“Why that?” Eric pulled out his gun.
“Didn’t you confiscate it?”
“She gave it back while you did your level.” Eric closed his left eye and aimed the muzzle at the giant. “Figured there’s a chance it could compliment my Fylgja and help with the trials.”
Altera nodded. “Names have power since they contain runes you have personally chosen. It increases the compatibility between the Fylgja and the runes connected to your soul. Plus, it’s a double connection with your runes. Rune plus rune equals more rune power. You should do this too, Ragna. You don’t have a Fylgja, but with your runes, it would still help you.”
“Why didn’t you tell us before?” Ragna sat on the edge of her cross and dangled her legs over the sea. Out of a whim, she pointed her finger at the water around her and created a frozen platform.
Well, if nothing else, they could use the ice to walk across the sea and wouldn’t be stuck on these crosses. Though, making sure that Eric won’t slip up the entire time could become a hassle.
Altera looked away and stared at the water. “I...I kinda forgot.”
“I had a lot on my plate, okay?” Altera grumbled and crossed her arm. Her voice became louder and faster, and she started to spit her words like bullets. “People make mistakes. Why do you have to be like that? You screw up, and I don’t say anything. But I make one mistake, and you already complain. Do you know how unfair that is?”
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry." Ragna took a step back and held up her hands. "I didn’t mean to insult you.”
“Oh…I…I…” Altera raised her eyes. All the anger disappeared in an instant, and anguish spread across Altera’s face as she looked away and down into the sea.
Ragna rubbed her eyes.
What was wrong with Altera? Since they had arrived in Utgard, her behavior had changed. Some of it might be because of her family, but that couldn’t be everything. Her emotions swung faster than usual. Did the Mana realm and the abundance of Mana affect Altera’s mood? Did something happen during her task, or was something else going on? Neither her nor Eric displayed any changes.
“Anyway, about the weapons.” Eric threw his gun into the air. It rotated in the sky, and Eric caught it in his hand. “I think I’ll name it “Suttungr.“
Ragna winced. “Please, don’t play around with a gun.”
“Don’t worry. I can’t get hurt.” Eric winked.
“That’s how idiots die.”
“No, I literally can’t get hurt. But what about your weapons?”
“I’ll name this one Balmug.” Ragna took out her saber, and with her other hand, pointed at her seax. “And this one, Gram.”
“How did you come up with these?”
Ragna shrugged. “Dunno. They felt right.”
“So, it’s the same for you.” Eric smiled. “But, by the way. Why do you fight mostly with one sword? Wouldn’t it be more effective to use two blades?”
“It would be if you’re good at it. I got the seax to get rid of molesters and rapists. I did some training, but it’s only basics.”
And it wasn’t like pretending to have only one weapon and then surprising the opponent with the seax couldn’t win her battles. But if she wanted to survive, she needed to improve her skills and grab any advantage that could give her the edge over her foes.
“So, any of you got any plans?”
“Nada. I just know I don’t wanna face that thing.” Ragna pointed at the giant on the horizon. “What d’ya think, Altera?”
Altera didn’t react.
She didn’t answer. Her face still stared at the sea, lost in thoughts.
This had to stop.
Ragna summoned a patch of water and splashed it into Altera’s face.
Altera flinched. Wiping away the droplets, she glared at Ragna. “What was that for?”
“Sorry about that.” Ragna stood up from the cross’ edge. She strengthened the grip on her saber and pointed it at Altera. “But we’ve got a mission to do, and we need you at your A-game. What do you think would happen if an enemy attacked, and you're distracted?”
“I…I…” Altera gulped.
“So, please get your act together. If something’s bothering you, then tell us, and we’ll deal with it now. If you don’t wanna, then keep it for later and focus. We need you, and we’re in this together. As friends.”
Altera’s eyes perked up. She clutched her left arm and took a deep breath. “Don’t worry. I’ll focus. You can count on me.”
Eric eyed Ragna. He frowned but didn’t say a word.
He didn’t need to. And he was right. How messed up was this? “As friends” – again these words. All she had to do was to reaffirm their friendship, and Altera would suck on this honey-coated poison like a newborn child. Her stomach turned if she had to think about it. Was that the relationship she wanted with Altera? To manipulate her friend and play with her strings like some puppet? And why did she have to reaffirm their friendship in the first place? Whatever. She could think later about it. Just like Altera, she had to focus too.
“Maybe we should go to the city on the horizon.” Altera looked at the water and froze it to an ice plate in front of her cross. “There could be hints about the mission. If we freeze the water, we could walk over it and explore this ocean.”
“We don’t know how far away the skyscrapers are,” Eric said. “It could take ages.”
“We can increase our speed if I use the Fehu rune.”
“What place is this anyway?” Ragna stomped with her boot on the ground. “And what’s up with all these crosses?”
Maybe this sea existed somewhere in the Mana Realm? It wouldn’t surprise her. Though, didn’t this place feel familiar? Like, she had been here before. But when and how?
“You’re here at the Sea of Emptiness.” A deep male voice echoed within their minds. “So, welcome to a fantasy chaos has manifest.”
Before their eyes appeared a white mask in the shape of a human face. It levitated above the water, one half frowning, the other smiling, and from its eye slits escaped darkness.
All three pointed their weapons at the mask, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
“What are you?” Ragna asked.
“Ah, you asked what I am and not who.” The mask didn’t open its mouth, and it didn’t move. Like before, its words echoed in their minds. “How apt, how apt. I am the entity once known as Mimir.”
“What does that mean?” Not lowering her weapon, Ragna stared back at the mask.
“I once was someone. Once was I the entity called Mimir, but now I am nothing but a corrupted data ghost.”
Altera lowered her eyes. “Is there a way to help you?”
“Sadly not. But I thank you for your thought.”
“You answered who you are,” said Eric. “But not what you are.”
“What I am, what I am? I am a Vanir. Those like me used to walk and eat and frolic on a plane, not unlike this. But now, they are gone.”
"I'm sorry for your loss." Eric took off his hat and placed it against his chest. “But you called this the Sea of Emptiness. What does that mean?”
“The Sea of Emptiness is the Sea of Emptiness. It is what it is.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“I...think...I understand.” Altera stabbed the water with her partisan and swirled her weapon around like a paddle. “This sea consists of qualities that are void-like. Perhaps it originates from the Void, or perhaps we are in the Void.”
“What a fascinating...hooman...was it? When you first evolved out of the Void, you were nothing but a microorganism, and I lacked the ability to foresee you becoming the dominant existence of this planet. Even within the excellence of your kind, I can see your light eclipsing the others. Perhaps calling you human would not be apt. When I look at your eyes, I see god.”
“Your god?” Altera repeated the words of the mask, whispered to herself, and closed her eyes.
Was every okay with her? What did those words even mean?
Ragna glanced at Altera before her attention returned to Mimir.
“Yes. Our god who lorded over this tower. But I have to admit I can see a resemblance to Odin as well.”
“Wait...Did you say, 'Odin'? As in Odin Trutner?”
“Ah, that name resonates with my memories. How is he doing?”
Ragna gulped. Her eyes observed the mask, and she didn’t dare to look away for a second. Her brain tried to scramble the bits of information Mimir had presented her within the past minutes.
How old was this...guy...thing? He claimed to have been there when life started to exist on Aes. Was he billions of years old? But not just that. He called Ymir their god, and he knew Odin Trutner without realizing that Midgard’s founder died eons ago. Did that mean that an ancestor race walked on Aes, and the Trutner siblings were part of that? That…She couldn’t put it into words. It was like finding out evolution theory was wrong, and life had started with lizard space aliens.
“And these skyscrapers?” Eric put his hat back on and pointed at the silhouettes on the horizon.
“Afterimages of a fallen paradise. You should pay them no mind, for they are mere illusions: a fata morgana of what once was. And now, since I believe you will question their nature, let me tell you about the crosses. They are graves.”
“You said your race is gone.” Altera’s voice became somber. She grew her wings, the water under her froze to ice, and she flew to it. “Every cross is a member of your race: A memento for everyone you knew and lost.”
The water around Eric’s and Ragna’s crosses turned to ice as well. Ragna jumped down, and Altera flew to Eric. She grabbed him before he could attempt to get down himself, set him down on the plateau, and flew back to her own.
“You are a kind, kind girl. Thus, I wish to apologize for what I will say and for what I will do. I do not desire to inflict you pain, but as the overseer of this origin coordinate, this merger of fiction and reality, I possess not much choice. These graves do not belong to my comrades. The tower created them for this new fantasy. These are graves that have yet to be filled. No, that is not correct. Some are; many are not. For you see, these are the graves you three will create.”