Milva did not need the Arcane's additional senses to see how angrily Flannery stared at her, even as she admired the fabric of Johannes' magic. It was a bubble. It rippled when her fingertips touched it, not as water would but rather something gelatinous. The quavering substance's rubbery texture felt smooth in Milva's palm. Judging by what Milva had seen so far, Johannes' powers did not derive from any particular element, as Olga's had, but were similar to her own in that they manipulated the elements around them at any particular time. This floating bubble was birthed from the waters of an Eiszweigstadt well, but Johannes' Arcane manipulations transformed it into a spherical vessel with which they could traverse the basin.
The bubble soared hundreds of feet over the forest canopy. From here they saw the basin walls and the waterfalls tipping over them from the rim, the swamplands of the south, the mountains of the north (including the menacing Mt. Volghum, former cradle of the Rheingold) as their current destination, Yggdrasil.
Yggdrasil was to the forest what a lighthouse was to a shore. It blanketed the western heart of the basin in thick shadow as the sun rose in the east. The very seat of the valkyrie queendom lay somewhere in that colossal oak tree.
Johannes' hands shimmered with silvery light, the bright afterglow of his Arcane works, as he sustained the bubble and transported it through the sky toward Yggdrasil. "Olga's fog did a tremendous job of concealing Eiszweigstadt. If the Dukedoms learn that spell's particular algorithm, it might serve for some interesting anti-valkyrie devises."
"Would your mistresses care to hear that?" Flannery jabbed.
Johannes smirked. "There are no real valkyries here. I can speak freely."
Milva meant to ask him what he meant by 'real' valkyries but ended up questioning his intentions, if, as he said, he felt the need to speak freely.
"The brunt of my adult life was purchased on the study of valkyries," Johannes said. "Their life cycles, their reproductive capabilities, their habitation patterns. They are a fascinating breed. So when the Duke of Grauheim selected me to head the exploratory campaign, to divine the origin of the valkyrie attacks, I was hardly in a position to say no. If it meant more funding for my research, I would have done anything for a breakthrough."
Milva frowned. "You already did. You sent those three photogrammers out for the`proof' and The Skybearer was destroyed for the delay. Thanks to that, even Valpheena..."
"...Valpheena, you say..." At last Johannes' cold smile declined into a frown. "You know about her mainspring?"
"...Yes. Do you?"
Flannery and Spirogui glanced at each other with confusion. Milva noticed this and broke her attentions from Johannes for a moment to wonder why, and then she remembered; she was the only one amongst their party who knew of the Clockwork Valkyrie and her broken mainspring. Neither Flannery nor Spirogui knew Valpheena was dying.
But how was it that Johannes knew?
"The valkyries attempted her capture for months," Johannes explained. "and every attempt was unsuccessful. The Queen has a particular dislike of her sort. She calls them the `counterfeits' and she'll meet a ruthless fate to Valpheena should she ever be caught."
"And you didn't think to help her?"
Johannes paused then glanced away."The Queen is not foolish. Unlike her subjects she is an intelligent, fully sentient being. Even if I had the means and will to restore Valpheena's mainspring, I never would have escaped the Queen's clutches long enough to help her. The Queen will not tolerate Abel's children."
"Abel?" Flannery's eyes flashed. "As in 2nd Mate Abel?"
When she glared at Milva for some answers, Milva shied away from her piercing green orbs. It was one of the few things she kept secret from Flannery since their journey began, but that was for Valpheena's benefit, not her own. Yet when Flannery took Milva by the forearm and spun the Dark Elf around to face her, she regretted keeping it a secret for so long.
"What aren't you telling me?" Flannery declared.
"Please, not now," Milva said. She returned to Johannes. "What did the valkyries hope to gain by keeping you alive this long?"
Johannes dusted off the rim of his fedora, a particular habit of his. He left behind the Arcane's sparkling white, fingertip-shaped resonance, if only for a few seconds. "Can't the Rood tell you that?"
"Ygg's Rood bears the collective wisdom of its few honoured wielders, and none of those were valkyries."
"I see. It was simple enough, I suppose. I used the Arcane to survive The Skybearer's wreckage and I awoke astride a mortally wounded valkyrie. I was willing to let her pass on, as capturing and dissecting a valkyrie had been goal of mine, but some palpable wisp of wisdom warned me to spare her life. It served me well. Perhaps less than an hour later I was found by the Queen's personal sentries. When they recognized my suturing they carried me off with them to Yggdrasil, where I met the Queen herself."
Johannes cleared his throat before continuing;
"She explained to me that her sentries were confused as to why a human would save the life of a valkyrie when he had been victim to their attacks. She said they thought me a "saint amongst humans", one of the less dangerous of our kind. And that's the most delicious irony in all of this. The valkyries are as frightened of us as we are of them. With its human populations declining, and the elves, sprites and dragons receding into its furthest nooks, the valkyries have all but conquered the Realm Across the Scar. The attacks on the Dukedoms were mere warning shots. The Queen seeks war, make no mistake. All she now needs is to obtain her destiny."
"You said that before. What does that mean?" Milva asked.
Johannes snorted."That's a topic better discussed by the Queen."
The Rood hummed in Milva's hand. It was a vibration growing more intense when less than an hour later the bubble flew into Yggdrasil's overwhelming presence.
The bubble skimmed the forest canopy's surface at such a low height that it was impossible to see the world tree in its entirety when they finally reached its roots. Each root grew talon-like out of the earth. They were broad and extensive enough to support their own tiny villages; minute hamlets of battered plywood, loose rope and thatch. As the bubble passed over these "root villages" she noticed their distinct populace.
Hundreds of them, all fully transmogrified into hobbling husks of scales and claws. Their bloodshot eyes followed the bubble's path, while some among them carefully flayed a human carcass over a flame. Johannes explained that the einherjar, half-human and half-valkyrie, lived at the lowest rung of the valkyrie queendom's complicated hierarchy. These were mainly worshippers of the queen who retained enough of their human intellect to build small homes for themselves along Yggdrasil's roots. They scavenged the basin for human meat, unlike the valkyries proper, who did most of their hunting on the rim.
High above the root villages of the einherjar, at the base of Yggdrasil's tremendous trunk, protruded gigantic bulbous fungi formed in the shape of mushrooms and toadstools. They bore the colours of red, white and brown and each one was as large as a cricket pitch. They clung to the trunk's base in a dense honeycombed cluster.
While the bubble navigated its way through the toadstool-like growths in a slow ascent, Spirogui stayed relatively silent. Milva noticed this and moved to ask him why, when she noticed that many of these mushrooms were hollowed out. One could tell by the circular"windows" and arch "doors". It dawned on Milva then that this was where the forest sprites once lived, before the valkyries came and occupied Yggdrasil.
These mushroom houses once contained King Pa'pirrofo's populace. As Milva witnessed the sheer size of the toadstool city, with all its homes along the lower ring of the trunk, she also realized the true extent of the forest sprites' losses. That small forest sprite community hiding underground on the rim numbered less than a few hundred. This mushroom city however could contain thousands.
Milva cuddled Spirogui's shoulder. He said nothing.
Johannes navigated his bubble vessel throughout the rotting network of rope bridges interlocking the various mushrooms. Almost all their planks were either broken, stripped, or decaying into mulch. Apparently the einherjar used that wood for their uglier homes in the roots below.
The former mushroom city was largely abandoned aside from a smaller community at its peak-shrooms. It was a race of creatures only Spirogui and Johannes had heretofore seen.
They were called the"half-wings", according to Johannes, and they were the bastard offspring of valkyries and einherjar males. He explained that though the valkyries possessed a physical resemblance to humanoid females (with their breasts, genitals, height, figure and vocal chords) they were, physiologically, asexual. Internally, the valkyries carried both testes and ovaries, and the former fertilized the latter once every solstice. That was their natural pattern of reproduction.
There were however cases of sexual contact between einherjar males and valkyries, usually non-consensual, and half-wings were the offspring that these"unions" produced. Sexual contact between einherjar and valkyrie was taboo within the queendom (and strictly forbidden) thus half-wings were shunned from "true" valkyrie society, considered only superfluous labour at best.
Milva gazed at one of the half-wings as it passed by the bubble. They were smaller than an average valkyrie, and their skin was not only less scaled, but it retained the natural colours of human flesh, from white, to yellow, to red, to brown and to black.
In many ways the half-wings' appearance was more human than that of the einherjar, if one ignored their tiny rows of teeth (common to all valkyries), their claw-like fingers and feet, and of course their wings, far shorter than a valkyrie's wing, but developed enough to glide upon in short bursts.
The bubble sailed higher above until the almost vacant mushroom city was a spec of white clipped to brown in a sea of green. They climbed so high up the trunk Milva could see the rim's surface, and the spread of jungle terrain delimiting its position to the Scar.
Hours later, when the bubble was at least half the way up Yggdrasil's enormous trunk, Milva's breath was laboured. The same went for Spirogui and (to a lesser extent) Johannes, though Flannery seemed strangely unaffected.
"What's... happening?" Milva said, hoarsely.
Johannes cleared his throat."Air thins at higher altitudes. You will grow accustomed to it."
He said this as they finally came to the centre of the queendom and the nexus of the valkyrie plague; the Citadel. It was a fortress constructed by of a complex series of woodwork perches, gangplanks, rope ladders, posts and bridges fixed into the southeast side of the trunk, half a mile shy of Yggdrasil's looming crown. Because they were so close to the crown, the Citadel was constantly bathed in darkness. Light was provided by jar-sealed fireflies and torches. Valkyries flew in and out of the wall-side Citadel carrying water, meat, wood. Others stood by and watched these happenings from their rungs and roosts. They were watchers and guards to the Citadel, two to every windowless entryway.
Johannes, who was clearly very eager to share all he had learned of the valkyries and their culture, explained the Citadel to them as the bubble climbed up astride it. He said that the Citadel, constructed largely by the half-wings, was divided into three major sections.
The lowest section, built under the shadow of the second, and closer in location to the trunk, contained the least socially elevated ranks of the pure-bloodied valkyries. It was a shanty of sorts for low-class valkyries dispossessed by their particular kinship groups for cowardice in battle, sexual contact with an einherjar or half-wing, an unpaid tithe of human meat to one's kinship group, or some such indiscretion. They carried out the most menial tasks around the Citadel.
The central section, which from above and below resembled a kind of segmented wooden semi-circle that protruded at greater length from the trunk (in some places a third of a mile out) contained the bulk of the 20,000-strong valkyrie populace. These were the common valkyries from whom were drawn army ranks and scavenger parties. Divided into small kinship groups of about fifty each, the middle-class valkyries lived their lives outside of servitude until edicts were distributed from the Queen.
The upper section, an arching woodwork scaffold built over the Citadel's main bulk, was the Queen's stronghold. Johannes informed them that only the Queen, her personal guard, servants, concubines and he himself, lived in the central stronghold. It was off limits to absolutely anyone in the queendom without the proper edict; with severed limbs and entrails of those whom had defied that law hanging from the sharpened pikes and posts of the stronghold's outer walls as a further warning.
The Queen's stronghold was their current destination.
The bubble moved through the wide arches of its many oaken walls, past dozens of valkyrie guards, who, unlike the other valkyries and some of the einherjar, wore sparse bits of clothing; battered and rusty pads of iron strapped to their shoulders, knees and breasts, shredded one-legged robes draped from their waists. To Milva's eyes the vestments seemed more ornamental, more an indication of `station', than they did protective.
The guards, though they sneered at him and the others, let Johannes by without any fuss. There was no doubt in anyone's mind he had been living in the queendom these few months. There wasn't a single person with more knowledge of (or contact with) the valkyries than Johannes.
The journey through the arch walls took them to a central courtyard, complete with evermore planks and rope. Johannes floated the bubble up the length of the tower in its centre, around the numerous perches and posts, which reeked of urine and faeces, to a wide, flat surface at its peak. This was a large and barren square, roughly the size of a shipyard, and it was here that Johannes finally dissolved the bubble.
Milva, Flannery and Spirogui fell onto dusty floorboards riddled with feathers, bones and droppings. Johannes' moccasins hovered just an inch above it.
"What are you going to do with us?" Flannery questioned.
There were three posts nearby. Each one had some rope wrapped around it. Johannes walked up to the third and tapped its head."You will be detained here until the Queen returns from the afternoon hunt."
"We're supposed to stand here alone in a den full of cannibals?"
Johannes smirked."I have much to teach you. It is forbidden for anyone other than the Queen to eat in her stronghold -- unless she delivers an edict stating otherwise. No one will harm you. Not now, anyway."
He tied them up after that. None of them, not even Spirogui, resisted it. Johannes bound them securely to each of the posts, then retrieved their weapons, including Ygg's Rood.
"Johannes," Milva said. "How do we know we can trust you?"
He adjusted his fedora again."As I told you after my smoke spell gave us solitude enough to speak; these creatures fascinate me, but with the Queen's ambition... I see her leading the queendom on a path to ruin. I help you now and you will soon see why, but you know the price for my aid."
"You want us to kill the queen." Flannery said.
Johannes nodded."It is up to you three to decide how this all ends, and by the day's climax, you'll understand why I want the valkyries to be spared."
The Queen did not return for them after her hunt. Milva, Flannery and Spirogui spent half of that afternoon roped to their posts along that wide open deck with only each other (and the squawks and shrieks of the valkyrie populace) to keep them company. They were bothered little. One or two guards would flap up to them every fifteen minutes or so to inspect their bonds, but little else beyond that. Milva did not fear them, for even without Ygg's Rood she had the Arcane's power at her fingertips, and with it she could easily protect Flannery and Spirogui. Fortunately she was not put in a position where she would need her powers -- as it did not escape her notice that they stood upon a powder keg of valkyrie forces. One wrong move and they would have thousands of them to contend with.
So the three stayed tethered where they were, whispering between themselves, begrudging their refusal to eat breakfast before Johannes took them away. It was only when the sun fell that a few valkyrie concubines, smaller and leaner than their sisters, came with water goblets. One of them tugged open Milva's jaw, thrust the goblet between her lips, yanked her neck back by the hair, and force fed Milva the water. She struggled not to choke by the forceful treatment. Flannery refused the water while Spirogui sipped calmly -- though the sheer venomous hatred in his eyes was utterly unmistakable.
The sky transformed itself an orange. When the concubines left it was less than an hour later when other valkyries flew up to the deck. They arrive in threes every five seconds or so and huddled together in crowds around the centre. None approached the three but most of them spared a few hateful glances. The flow of valkyries flying in to sit down continued until hundreds of them were assembled on deck. Their bone-chilling shrieks and cackles, once a dissonant mantra in the backdrop, was now a loud and furious chorus thundering all around them. Some carried hundreds of firewood logs between their talons, assembled them all into a prism-shaped pile and lit it with flint, erecting a bonfire.
As the sky turned black, a syrup-thick nocturne broken only by dotted starlight, the fire cast an orange glow over the valkyrie assemblage and provided a flicker of warmth to an angrily cold deck. Pikes were soon fixed into the fire as well, more than sixty of them by Milva's count, and skewered over each one was a human corpse. She stifled the urge to regurgitate when she identified one of them as Elsa.
When their faces were roasted black into edible lumps, the valkyrie Queen herself landed to the inharmonious cheers of her people.
The Queen was the largest of valkyries, no doubt about it. At 10ft of height and 30ft of wingspan she loomed over the others as a giant would a man. Her scale armour was thicker, her teeth longer, her eyes larger, and she sported four talons where her underlings wielded only three.
Johannes had mist-moved to their side shortly before her arrival, but they were so stunned by the sight of the Queen they did not notice him. The Queen screamed a bestial shriek that was followed by the similar but weaker shrieks of the hundreds gathered around her. A row of valkyries, who Johannes pointed out as the Queen's concubines, assembled in a ring around the fire and began what he called a "war dance".
They moved as a ring, stamping their talons flat, swaying their arms back and forth into a spin, then turned and reversed, stomped, sway back and flap, stomp, sway back and stomp, sway forward and stomp. Reverse.
A small gathering of valkyries at the bonfire screeched melodically, a very specific pattern of sounds that Milva grudgingly acknowledged as a song. The concubines danced to it in synchronized rhythm. It demonstrated, once again, the orderly behaviour these beings could adopt when they wished it.
"Why do they dance?" Flannery asked Johannes.
He took off his fedora. "They know that the humans plan to invade the Realm. These valkyries gathered around the fire are "captains" of the Queen's armies so the concubines dance as a kind of blessing for their future campaign."
Other valkyries came flying in with cauldrons of frothing malt which they brought down the crowds. Three by three the valkyrie captains came and drank from them while the concubines danced, songs were sung, and freshly charred flesh was whittled off the bones of their gathered kills.
The black smoke, cooked human flesh, liquor, burping and flatulence all combined into a powerful stench that sickened Milva to the pit of her empty stomach. Yet the feast went on for hours until the Queen, sated on meat and beer, rose up howled a tremendous cry.
The festivities lulled into watchful silence.
It was then, when all was quiet and the fires fully illuminated her, that Milva saw a very specific item grafted beneath the scale-plates of the Queen's sternum. It sparkled there.
"The Rheinshard?" She gasped.
Johannes nodded. "The other Rheinshard."
"Come now. The Rood must have told you about the Valkyrie Genesis. This is the legacy of Olga and Madeen."
Milva glared. "You know my mother?"
"I knew of her."
The Queen howled once more, drawing everyone's attention to her, before she proclaimed, "Children! Hear me! Eighteen years ago we arose. Eighteen years later the human scum wish to destroy us. Because they fear us! Do they not know that Yggdrasil is ours? Do they not know the Realm Across the Scar is our queendom? Fear not my children, for they shall soon know..."
If Milva needed a shred more evidence that the Rheinshard the Queen had fused into her scales was not the one Professor Kreug had, it was given to her when the valkyrie matriarch opened her talons and brandished the other half before her people.
"I will undergo the Trials of Volghum at the sourcefire of the Rheingold," She proclaimed. "You have a queen now, soon you will have a Goddess. I will succeed where the mirror witch failed. I will ascend! And then... let the humans come! We shall devour their flesh and grind their bones into powder, we shall smear the world in their blood and assert ourselves as the true rulers of both sides of the Scar! And so..."
The Queen pointed one of her massive ivory claws at Milva, Flannery, and Spirogui. They froze when an army of valkyrie captains turned eyes to them.
"See these traitors! The counterfeit, the Dark Elf, and the Onion-skull! Tomorrow at dawn in the bamboo arena, I will execute them personally to celebrate my impending ascent!"
Flannery swung to Johannes."What did she say?!"
"Calm yourself...!" Johannes whispered, fiercely. "This is nothing I did not anticipate! If you kill her then you end this!"
"TOMORROW AT DAWN!" The Queen yelled. "BE PREPARED!"
It took less than an hour for Milva to realize how easily she and Flannery might have escaped their box-sized confinement chamber. Four feet high, wide and long; one ramshackle door and a square window barred by bamboo. The door had no hinges but cord, and no lock but three thick oaken planks sealing it up from outside. Flannery was strong enough to break it down. A couple of kicks and it would have given way. Despite that, they both knew it was pointless to run.
Yggdrasil was immensely gigantic. Falling from it would be a slow but certain death. And they stood upon an entire nest of valkyries. Even if they had the means to flee, say, Milva casting a floating spell similar to Johannes', the valkyries were mistresses of the air. It would take even less than a smidgeon of effort for a flock to pursue and kill them.
Milva sat slumped by the wall and watched clouds of her breath waft with her every exhalation. At these altitudes it was viciously cold, much like Olga's castle. She rubbed her arms up and down to keep warm. It did little of that. Then a stronger arm curled around her shoulders. Flannery's arm. Milva drew closer to her, let Flannery wrap her arms around her, enjoyed whatever bodily warmth she was willing to provide.
Flannery sighed. "Do you think Spirogui is alright?"
The valkyries separated male prisoners from female. Milva found it an odd custom for an asexual race, but Johannes explained to them that this was an edict of the Queen, who was fully versed in the ways of humans and non-valkyries alike.
"He will be fine," Milva spoke through breath clouds. "If what Johannes said about the Queen's edict is true then the valkyries won't hurt him."
"Can we even trust that man?"
"Johannes has his own agenda in all of this, I know that. I don't trust him much either, but at least we now know where the other Rheinshard is. If we defeat the Queen and seize it..."
"...Yes? Then what?" Flannery asked. "We fight back an entire nation of valkyries for butchering their queen?"
"What are you snickering about?"
"I remember a time when you were so certain of everything, and I was the one constantly questioning you."
Flannery tugged a small smile. "Much has happened."
There was silence between them then. It was not awkward, not like so many of the awful silences shared with Agatha over a dinner table, it was that comfortable silence one settled into with someone she trusted. And she did trust Flannery. She trusted Flannery enough to tell her the truth.
"My mother Madeen," She began. "was the Dark Elf that Olga attacked at the Blauheim school."
The redhead blinked. "...What? Why are you telling me-"
"Ssh, please." Milva set a fingertip to Flannery's pursed lips. "Just listen, I have much to say. Madeen and Olga were... rivals, of sorts. They both excelled in the Arcane arts, but across the semesters my mother began to surpass Olga and, being the kind of woman she was, Olga could not stand to see a more powerful sorceress than herself. So she summoned that monster Craufanzer, and used it to attack her, but my mother survived and the Dean of the Blauheim school cursed Olga by draining away her very youth, transforming her into that haggard old wraith."
"Hence Youth Drinker?" Flannery surmised.
"Yes. Olga was excluded soon after that but she could not unclench the grasp of hatred. That was when she buried herself in research. She learned of the relics, of the Rheingold and Ygg's Rood, and sort to consolidate her power by seizing both... and so she did."
"She had the Rheingold?"
Milva confirmed that with a nod. "She seized it from its original point of burial, Mt. Volghum, and traced Ygg's Rood back to Gaustenfolt. Once she had those she returned to the Dukedoms and destroyed the Blauheim school. My mother barely survived combat with her. Unfortunately..."
Flannery nudged her on. "Unfortunately what?"
"...After the devastation at Blauheim, Olga believed herself... peerless. She had defeated my mother, and the Dean, and no one in the Dukedoms possessed the kind of power she did, at the time. She considered herself more than mortal, and sought recognition of the fact."
"She wanted to become a God." Milva said, simply. "Olga wanted to be a God, Flannery. She was drunk on her own power."
"In her mind, she already had the power, all that remained was what lay in the past. Asgard, the abode of the Gods. So she made a bargain with the former Duke of Schwartzheim; if he would erect a tower that would help her channel the power of the Rheingold into a gateway between our world and Asgard, she would give him power enough to conquer the Dukedoms. He agreed to those terms and helped her build it, but... they did not reckon on my mother. Defying all logic, she somehow, some way, managed to defeat Olga, even though she had the Rheingold and Ygg's Rood powering her. Olga was stunned. That was why she did what she did."
Flannery blinked. "What did she do?"
"She split the Rheingold in two," Milva said. "When my mother defeated her, Olga used the last of her energy to shatter the Rheingold, hoping that the counter-resonance of Ygg's Rood would destroy the tower and take Madeen with it. She only broke the Rheingold in half, but... that was more than enough."
"More than enough for-"
Milva's stare was soft. "You don't honestly need me to say the word, do you? I can hardly stomach the thought."
"...I'm not sure if I-" Then it dawned on her. "...Valkyries?"
"Yes. They weren't unleashed by the Rheingold, they came from it."
Valpheena had been right. As Flannery looked away to weigh up all she had heard, Milva watched her think. It did not faze the Dark Elf to know it was Olga who unleashed the valkyries. That woman paid for her crimes at the end of it all. It struck her more that Madeen, her mother, was present when it happened.
The Rood didn't seem to know Madeen's fate, nor how it was that Milva herself came into the care of an orphanage, but on her own Milva began to surmise that Madeen was the one who gave the Rheinshard to the Duke of Grauheim.
So much had happened. Milva still knew so little of her culture, her roots. Yet, knowing that her mother once had the Rheinshard in her possession and that she was effecting the work Madeen began eighteen years ago in undoing Olga's taint; that notion held a special place inside Milva's heart.
"Flannery," Milva's fingertips drew Flannery's chin toward her. "You and I, and Spirogui, we will survive this."
"Do you honestly believe that?"
"How can you?" Asked Flannery.
"Because I believe in you."
She saw Flannery's eyes widen. Fathomless emerald pools enlarged with startled esteem, caring, rising cheer... and something else Milva could just barely put her finger on.
It was some unutterable emotion that had always been in Flannery's eyes, ever since their first meeting at Kreug's flat in Grauheim. It was there when Flannery mused with Milva about fauldrukops that distant night on The Octavia, there when Flannery gunned down her own best friend to protect her, there when rescuing Milva from the misunderstanding with Valpheena, there when she plunged a broken oar through Olga's shoulder, and there now; that sparkling mix of emotions swelling into singularity.
A singularity Milva was finally began to understand when the hungry space between her lips and Flannery's began to shrink. Every ounce of chill in the air faded into backdrop when their lips softly met.
A sigh, then a longing whimper.
The kiss was so unexpected, so sudden, but as tender as the press of sink, smooth wet lusciousness amid a whistling cold wind. Milva's little hands, sandwiched between her breasts and Flannery's, balled loosely. Something powerful and recluse stirred inside the elf's heart. She felt it pounding her chest and ears, caressing all of her bodily senses and feelings toward Flannery's tenderness. The sum of everything that could be called "Milva" blended beautifully with everything that could be called "Flannery", heart, body and soul, even if unexpectedly; even if unknowingly.
They parted very slowly upon a mutual gasp, still tantalizingly close, arms wrapped around one and other, trembling together.
Milva caught herself stunned and breathless. She loosened her collar, exhaled, searched Flannery's eyes, searched herself. It took tenuous moments for her to find any words.
"I-I thought you hated me." Milva admitted.
Flannery tucked her orbs away for a split second to summon up the will to express herself, then she found Milva's eyes again. "I wanted to. I tried to, I genuinely did, but... ever since I saw you at the professor's flat, I..."
So it wasn't just Milva's imagination. Flannery had felt this way all along. In the context of everything that had gone on between them, especially with regards to Tetra, there was something immensely painful about that.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"...You kissed Tetra," Said the archer, bringing Milva pause. "You had feelings for her. You still do. What would I have said?"
Milva looked away.
Flannery grasped Milva's forearms to bring them close again, as though the distance itself stung. "I don't expect anything from you now. I won't ask you for the world, I only... just let me be close to you."
"What if I can't give you what you need...?"
The archer's answer was to lean forward and bath Milva's lips in her breath as she crooned; "Possibility's all the more reason to live..."
"Dark Elf, awaken."
It wasn't the chunky fingers carefully tapping her face that woke her, it was that low rumbling in the background, loud, distinct yet indefinable. Yet when Milva's eyes fluttered open she saw Johannes looming over her and a naked, slumbering Flannery.
"Are you out of your mind?" Milva scowled, drawing her clothes over her breasts. "What are you doing here?"
"The game has shifted." He said.
"What does that mean?"
Johannes branched his arm to the barred window, telling her to see for herself. So Milva climbed into her clothes again, a mite irritably, and went to the window's bamboo bars. Suddenly that distinct background 'rumbling' made more sense.
Sixteen perfectly organized squadrons of aeronautical warships floated in a menacing phalanx of steam, hulls, cannons and slats less than mile off of Yggdrasil.
"Cogs, no..." Milva said. "It's the fleet!"
"Seems the Dukes either bypassed the referendum or minimized the fleet total," He mused. "Either way, they've scrambled before anyone expected them to. Even the sentries on the rim failed to detect their approach."
"I can't believe this. I always knew we were running against time, but..."
"It's too late to stop this process now," Said Johannes. "I only came to warn you. Finish off the Queen."
Milva turned to him. "You say that now with the fleet at Yggdrasil's door? What's your game here, Johannes?"
"If you don't stop her I'll ensure that the fleet does, even if they blow Yggdrasil to pieces in the process."
* I love the Valkyrie society. I think it's one of those things about this story, like The Octavia journey, that I should've gone into greater detail with.