Within the next nanosecond, walls surrounded them. In front of them, the stairs went up, and behind them, a door led to the entrance hall.
Ragna looked down on the Naudiz rune Eric had drawn in blood on the floor. “Good. Step one complete.”
Eric nodded. “It’s quite amazing how well my runes work with my Fylgja.” He summoned a crimson tentacle and stroked it as if he were petting a cat.
While Ragna was distracting the receptionist, his blood crept to the emergency exit and painted the symbol. Once the rune activated, they could teleport behind the door. While taking the elevator would shorten the distance they had to cover by foot, someone would notice if the lift started to move. And if they ended up in the middle of the floor, the soldiers would see them within seconds and riddle them with bullets.
Gaining access to his Fylgja had become a game-changer since now he could draw his runes everywhere and abuse the Hel out of them.
“Running up the stairs will be useless,” said Eric. “If Altera's intel's right, then there’ll be way too many cameras. Even if we destroy one or two, someone will notice and sent the soldiers, and they’re patrolling parts of the staircase, anyway.”
“Then, let’s do the same as before.” Ragna stomped on the drawing below her feet. She pulled out her phone and looked at the blueprints Altera had sent them. “There's only one camera on the landing. If we teleport under it, it can't see us.
“The cameras would notice if some red snake slithered up the stairs.”
“And if we dilute it with my runes? If I use enough water, the red should fade and become more colorless.”
“Maybe. I never tried it, but if I had to guess, my blood’s power would decrease. Not that it would matter. Though, doesn’t your water disappear within a few minutes?”
“It does. So, just this once, it’s okay if you finish fast.”
Ragna winked, and Eric snickered.
“Now, you’re making me all nervous. I hope I can get it up.”
Eric summoned his blood and Ragna her water. The two liquids mixed, the red lost its color, and Eric formed it into a snake. Along the stairs’ stringer, the construct climbed up the treads. Using the connection to his Fylgja, Eric started to perceive what his blood touched. Whenever it hit an obstacle, he would know. And if the snake slid over a flat area, he would know as well. Eric navigated his construct through the complex until it hit a dead end and couldn’t ascend any further.
His blood had reached the landing. Eric winded the snake over the level. It encountered no resistance besides the obstacle that prevented it from continuing.
Eric smiled. “Good. Seems like all the soldiers are behind the door or whatever leads to the hallway.”
His blood drew the Naudiz rune on the floor under the surveillance camera.
After a few minutes had passed, it activated and teleported Ragna and Eric towards the top floor. Behind the complex’s glass structure, the full moon observed them like a god. Its body shone upon them, casting their shadows on the ground, and occupied most of the sky. In return, the building reflected its purple neon light at it.
Eric looked around.
As he had assumed, the only object on the staircase’s landing was the door that led to the hall. On the other side, boots stomped. Grunts and sentence fragments rang from the mercenaries’ mouths.
“And now, we only have to deal with all these soldiers. Easy-peasy.” Eric lowered his voice and pointed at the door behind which enough soldiers patrolled that storming through the door would equal suicide.
“I have an idea.”
Between Ragna’s hands appeared a mirror made of ice, and Eric winced as the memories from Altera’s rampage resurfaced in his brain. His skin started to shiver, the hair on his arms stood up, and his breathing slowed down. He had survived, but the ice dome might still have trapped his body and mind.
“Eric, everything okay?”
He shook his head and sat down. “Altera nearly killed me. Hadn’t I broken out in time, I might’ve frozen to death or suffocated. Don’t worry. I can handle it. I’m just not a big fan of ice right now.”
“I chose Altera’s life over yours.” The mirror disappeared. Ragna looked down, and she clenched her fist. “When you were inside that dome, and Altera was drowning, I didn’t even had to think about it.” A chuckle escaped her mouth. "At that moment, Altera’s life was more important. I immediately jumped after her and accepted that you could die. Nothing I could say could make that okay, and I’m not going to apologize. It would be empty phrases, anyway. Because if I had to make that decision again, I would.”
Eric covered his eyes. He couldn’t look at Ragna.
Rationally, it made sense. Ragna and Altera knew each other longer. Why would they cherish him more? He should have expected that. It was the same as with parents. It wasn’t like they didn’t love all their children, but everyone had their favorite. Yet, after hearing these words, his heart might have sunk to his stomach.
“Eric, please say something.”
Eric chuckled. In a reflex, he removed his hand and looked at Ragna. “What do you want me to say? That I’m hurt? Cause I am. That I want to punch you? Cause I want.” His lips trembled, and while he kept his voice low, it still became a hiss. “I can’t just brush off what you’ve told me. To you, my life’s less worth than Altera’s. Tell me, what do you wanna hear?”
“Thank Twice.” Ragna exhaled. Her body relaxed, and her lips formed a smile.
“Huh?” Eric’s eyes widened.
What was wrong with her? Why did she become happy?
“Honestly, I was worried that you would say something like, “You knew Altera longer than me. Of course, she would be more important” and then brush it off. I hurt you. You should be in pain. You should be angry and hate me for it.”
“I…I…” Eric froze. He couldn’t put his thoughts into speech. No word would leave his mouth.
She…Ragna was right. He should have reacted as she had described him. Yet, he didn’t. Why had he changed?
“Please, don’t end up like Altera. I couldn’t endure that.” Ragna kneeled and embraced him in her arms. “Be selfish and never give your life for me or anyone. Fight for yourself.”
“I…I…” Eric put his arms around Ragna, and tears ran down his cheek. “Thank you.”
Ragna let go of him and sat next to him. “I don’t know how much it means to you, but I want to let you know. I care about you. Even we don’t know each other that long, I really, really care about you.”
“But you care more about Altera.”
Ragna nodded. “I hope one day you’ll find someone who would sacrifice me for you. And you would sacrifice me for them.”
Eric snickered. “That got to be a contender for the strangest pep-talk ever.”
“I’m serious. You, me, Altera. Grendel and Puck, too. I want us all to be happy. When this is over, I want us to stay together. I promise we all will achieve our happy end. You, too.”
Eric looked at Ragna. Her eyes were brimming with light.
How could she find her optimism after succumbing to despair so many times? But was Ragna right? Could he have his happy end too? Was there a bright future ahead for him?
“So, now what?” Ragna asked. “We still have the task.”
Eric nodded. “It still hurts, but I’ll be fine. We’re gonna be fine. It’ll be just a bit until things go back to normal.” He stood up. “But until then, there’s a CEO’s ass we gotta kick. So, what was your plan again?”
Ragna stood up as well. The mirror reappeared between her hands, Eric tried to control his reaction, and a blob of water floated above her.
“When I open the door, you send your blood as fast you can towards the other side of the floor. You got that?”
“Sure, but how will that help?”
“Just trust me on this one.”
As Ragna had told him, Eric stood before the door. She flung the door open, and Eric sent his blood through the opening. The blob of water flew alongside, mixing with the construct’s peak and spread out like wings. It froze and formed into blades of ice. Sticking out from both sides of the blood, they covered the area and slashed through the soldier’s throats.
Screams echoed, and blood splattered in all directions. Ragna adjusted her mirror’s angle. Together with the blade’s reflection, they created a viewpoint of the floor.
“Tilt the blood by around ten degrees and lower its altitude by one-and-a-half centimeters.”
Eric followed her orders, and the blood cut through more soldiers. His mind tuned out all noises but Ragna's orders. Ragna adjusted her mirror. And Eric his blood until it reached the end of the floor and all noise subsided.
“Let’s go.” Ragna walked past the door. In her voice was no emotion: neither remorse nor acknowledgment that the deaths of many lives stuck on her.
Eric gulped and followed her. He looked around, his eyes lingering on the enemies he helped kill. The soldiers lay on the ground. Some leaned against the floor, and some struggled on the ground, trying to close a wound that would never heal. His blood circled him, searching for any soldiers willing to deal a final blow in their desperation.
Should he kill them and end their suffering or give them a chance to survive?
In the end, Eric did nothing and spoke to Ragna. “That was brutal.”
“It was necessary.” Ragna didn’t waver. Her steps didn’t slow down. She didn’t stop to turn around, didn’t gift the dead one last glance. Her emotions offered no clue to her feelings, whether her actions burdened her or not. “If we didn’t do it, they would have killed us. If you could have come up with a better solution, please tell me.”
Eric didn’t answer.
“Besides, they aren’t real. You don’t cry about killing random enemies in video games, do you? There are no consequences for us, and no one suffers.”
Eric’s eyes wandered through the hall and stopped at a soldier trying to delay their death. They pressed their hands against their throat as grunts and blood escaped their mouth.
If Ragna didn’t believe they were real, then why didn’t she start with that argument? Instead, she tried to argue and justify her actions.
“Well, doesn’t matter now. Let’s finish this level.” Ragna gesticulated with her head at the door next to them. They had arrived at the office of Astro Elvex.
“What do you suggest?”
“He’s a CEO. I doubt he got the time to train enough to match us. Why else would he hire those goons? Let’s storm his office and kill him in one hit.”
"Sounds good to me."
Ragna kicked the door open. Ice spread into the room, a barrage of water and blood they sent inside, and with their weapons and runes ready, they barged in.
In the middle of the room sat the CEO behind a desk. His fingers tapped against it, clinking whenever the metal came in contact with the wood.
Eric and Ragna stopped. Their eyes widened; the grip over their weapons tightened.
Puddles formed on the floor, and air escaped the room through the open door, crisping Ragna’s skin when it swooshed past her.
“W...What are you?” Eric took a step back and placed his hand on his gun.
“First things first. It’s ‘who’, not ‘what’. Saying that is just rude.” The CEO raised his head.
Through the glass dome, light shone from outside into the office. It reflected on his face and hued the silver in its color. On his face were no eyes, no mouth, or nose: An eggshell stared at them. “And to answer your question, I’m the interreality void exploration unit, as well as the CEO of the HAL Curiosity Zaibatsu. I’m Astro, boy.”