“Where am I?”
Altera looked around. Ragna and Eric were gone, and the sea and the sky as well. Instead, a white landscape expanded in front of her.
“Not again…” Altera pressed her hand against her face, covering her eyes, and let her head drop.
Why did she have to see this forsaken plane again? If Mimir intended to torture her, he couldn’t have chosen a better place. Well, he, in all likelihood, didn’t dictate what would happen. Her brain had created this plane herself. She had gotten careless not to consider that the light could hit her from above.
Altera raised her head and started to move.
There was no use in grumbling over the past. She had to get out of here. If the second level had an exit, this place might too.
But soon, her boots clinked against a wall. Altera pushed with her hand against it, and her fingers felt up concrete. There was no mistake: this was a wall. She turned around and walked in the opposite direction.
Altera gulped. The result was the same. She widened her wings and flew into the air, but a roof blocked her way and forced her to land.
That wasn’t good.
She turned around and walked again until she hit a wall.
What was going on?
Altera’s eyes skimmed through the room, and she stared at the wall in the distance.
Wasn't the wall much farther away?
Altera gulped again and tightened the grip on her weapon.
No. She had to keep her cool. This might be a hallucination to distract her from finding the exit.
But then, something pushed against her back, and Altera stumbled forward. Altera's eyes grew large.
That wasn't a hallucination. The room was shrinking, and if she didn't get out, it would crush her.
Altera pointed her weapon at the wall. Out of its tip, a beam flashed.
And nothing happened. Her attack didn’t leave a scratch.
No. She had to try again.
Bolts of ice discharged in all directions; rose thorns erupted from the ground. Again, the attacks had no effect. New rows of stakes emerged. Their numbers grew within seconds and turned the room into a thorn forest, trying to smash through the walls. And from above, ice splinters showered down.
The walls moved closer.
Altera zapped around. With her Fehu rune, she reached high velocity and rammed her weapon against the walls. Again and again, she threw her weapon at the concrete. She screamed and attacked with everything she had. Ice swirled around, thorns tried to puncture the roof, and Altera did not relent.
No, no, no. She wouldn't die here in such a godless place. Not like this.
The room continued to shrink until her partisan reached from one end to the other. She let it fall and rammed her body against the wall. Her metal armor clinked, her skull and bones rattled, and blood fell from her forehead.
Altera screeched. She pushed her body and her runes to their limit, and then the wall cracked. She activated her runes one more time and broke through the concrete.
Altera broke through the frozen lake, and her body torpedoed into the water.
“Altera!” Ragna glanced at Eric. A dome of ice had covered him, draining him of oxygen by the moment, and blood had colored the inner shell crimson. With his Fylgja, he hit against his prison before it could become his tomb.
Ragna panted. Her breath had become visible. Blood and sweat ran down her body, freezing to crystals. Bruises and wounds littered her skin and painted it in an amalgamation of violet, red, and white. Her face had lost all color. She held onto her right arm. She shook and shivered. Ice started to seep from the open wounds into her body.
"Eric, I'm sorry."
She had to do it.
Ragna jumped into the hole Altera had created. She could see her. Altera’s body was sinking. Her wings and armor were gone, her hand clung to her partisan. Yet, she didn't move, didn't attempt to struggle.
Had Altera lost consciousness? She had to hurry.
Ragna activated the Ura rune, and the water above her feet propelled her into the ocean's depths. She swam further down to Altera. The distance to her decreased, the masses of water started to weigh over her and pressed against her skull. Through her nostrils, water intruded her lungs. Her mouth tried to open out of instinct. Ragna ground her teeth and pressed her lips.
She had to ignore it.
Ragna activated the Ura rune again, and the water propelled her further towards Altera. She reached out with her arm.
Closer…closer…She was almost there.
Putting all her strength into her legs, Ragna closed the distance. She grabbed Altera under her shoulders, and with the Ura rune, the water pushed her body to the water surface.
With Altera in her hold, she jumped out of the ocean and landed on the ice.
Ragna rasped and gawked. She drummed against her chest and spat out the water that had gotten in her body. Immediately, her attention switched to Altera. She leaned her ear next to her mouth and nose.
Nothing. No air came out. Altera didn’t breathe.
Ragna’s eyes widened, and she pressed her fingers against Altera’s neck.
She couldn’t feel anything.
Ragna titled Altera’s head back and pinched her nose close. She took a deep breath, opened Altera’s mouth, and inhaled the air into her lungs. A second time, she breathed air into her and moved to Altera’s chest. Her hand, Ragna placed between her breasts and pressed with her other hand against it.
“One, two, three, four, five, six...” Ragna counted to thirty and moved to her mouth. She inhaled twice into Altera and pressed against her chest.
She couldn’t let her die. Not Altera. She couldn’t go through that loss again. Altera had to survive.
“One, two, three, four, five, six…” Again, she counted to thirty, but Altera didn’t breathe. And Ragna repeated the process.
The mission, the truth, the world, clearing her name – what use was it without her? Altera had to live.
She inhaled air into her and performed the chest compressions. She couldn’t even pray to Twice, for she couldn’t afford to lose the count. And each time, she checked for the pulse. Nothing happened.
She couldn’t lose her beloved friend. They needed her; she needed Altera. Altera couldn’t die.
Tears ran down Ragna’s face. Water and blood soaked her hands as her actions turned into mechanical moves. She inhaled air into her beloved friend’s mouth and pressed against her chest, counting to thirty. She repeated the same patterns without realizing it. Altera occupied all her thoughts.
Why couldn’t Twice save her? She would give them everything: her soul, the world, her servitude, her future. All of Aes could go to Hel. As long as Altera survived, nothing mattered. She couldn’t live alone in this cruel, mad world.
Please, wake up. Please, Twice, I’m begging you…
In front of the gas planet soared the albatross. Its yellow-black eyes latched on the girl on the ground, trying to bring her friend back to life. Full of greed and sacrifice. A desire to protect, to converse, to exchange for miracles.
The albatross smiled.