The valkyrie flying her to the arena had a grip around her forearms so tight it almost cut off the circulation to her lower arms, so one would imagine how frightening the collective shrieks of the valkyries were, just a few hundred feet from the prison section, that they would divert Milva's attention.
Three valkyries flew she, Flannery, and Spirogui from their cells in the lower east block of the Citadel to the bamboo arena, a gigantic coliseum of cane, rattan, and rope, at the upper west block. As they were carried across the Citadel Milva threw a glance across the wooden complex and over its edge to the menacing aeronautical squadrons. They had not moved since their early morning arrival, but under the glare of the newly rising sun theirs was a fearsome presence, perhaps more than even the Queen herself.
A sinking feeling, not of trepidation but despair, wrenched the very pit of Milva's stomach. How could it not? Seeing them that night razed her, made her wary, left her unable to sleep; but it was only when she awoke Flannery for the spectacle and heard her many chary deliberations that Milva realized the reality of their arrival.
She failed her quest.
Everything they had endured, everything, from selling Agatha's estate for the hiring of The Octavia to its crash, the long hike through the jungles, Professor Kreug's lost leg and Tetra's untimely death, the release of souls at the rim and the pitiless climb down the basin wall, the revelations of Valpheena and The Skybearer's fate, defeating Olga and Craufanzer, allowing themselves to be captured by Johannes; all was for nothing. The only reason they laboured this long was to free the Realm from the risk of invasion, to protect its delicate balance and spare innocent lives, yet what had become of it all? The Realm Across the Scar was already in shambles thanks to the valkyries... and they failed to pre-empt the fleet. Milva spilt tears at the veracity of her woes.
Kreug lost his leg for this. Tetra died for this. Failure. An overwhelming failure bought by a wasted estate, compounded by Tetra's fate, and sealed by the fleet's presence here now.
Milva stifled a wail. She barely heard herself think over the bloodthirsty shrieks booming out of the bamboo arena. She was aware of little beyond the fleet, and her failures, until a hand slipped into hers and wove their fingers together.
Flannery smiled softly. Their arms formed a link between them. The valkyries ferrying them to the arena paid them little mind.
"Don't cry," She said. "We still have work to do."
"But the fleet could attack at any minute." Milva said.
Flannery nodded. "Which is why we must focus on surviving this. The possibility is all the more reason to live, remember?"
The "bamboo arena" was a woodwork coliseum built for the execution of any and all who displeased the Queen, usually by the Queen's own talon. Its circular cane walls delimited a flat hardwood floor. It boasted more than two thousand egg-shaped perches from which valkyric spectators observed the ensuing carnage.
A tumultuous wave of excitement shivered its way through the valkyrie perches when Milva, Flannery and Spirogui were dropped roughly into the centre of the four hundred foot wide arena. Milva glanced up at the largest of the perches. It was a wide oaken semicircle. And there sat the Valkyrie Queen, couched on a rattan throne with a small assemblage of concubines on one side and Johannes on the other. Crisp beams of light cascaded past the parasol of scalloped leaves shading her throne, and they bathed her broad figure in segmented light. The sectored mix of shade and illumination offered extra shimmer to the Queen's Rheinshard, still wedged into her hauberk of scales. The other Rheinshard sat comfortably by her seat, as did Ygg's Rood.
She raised her hand.
Suddenly the concussive bouts of valkyrie hooting and shrieking, their vocal baying for blood, came to a stop. All valkyrie heads shifted toward the Queen and her largest of perches. Silence descended over the colossal arena. One heard little more over that quiet than the slight rustle of a wing or the whine of wood under a scraping talon, outlying that, only the distant but recognizable thrum of rotors and steam-driven engines.
Milva frowned at the Queen.
Why, when a fleet of warships loomed at the gates of her queendom, did she bother with this madness? Didn't she even care enough for her people to have them evacuate while they still could? What was the point of all this foolishness?
The Queen waved her risen talon. Milva, Flannery and Spirogui watched two valkyries fly in from separate perches to their left. They landed quick to hand them their weapons before flying back. Flannery strapped her full quiver to her back and Spirogui unsheathed his regained steel, tossing the scabbard to the arena's dirty floor. Milva was not given Ygg's Rood.
"SO," Began the Queen. "SHALL YOU DIE AS ONE OR THREE?"
Flannery moved to answer until Milva broke past her...
"Have you lost your mind?!" Her voice was slight against a valkyrie nest for a sounding board, but the stillness and quiet carried it up to the Queen's lofty roost. "The Dukedoms have already come and it's only a matter of time before the bombs drop! You're in as much danger as Yggdrasil is, for Cogs sake!"
"WITH BATED BREATH, MY ARMIES AWAIT THEIR ATTACKS, DARK ELFLING. WE'VE TORN THEIR SHIPS TO SHREDS SEVERAL TIMES BEFORE, MY FLOCK WILL DO SO AGAIN."
Milva sneered. Arrogance and selfishness dripped from the Queen's every gesture and comment. Just like Agatha. Just like Olga.
Milva's fist quaked. The floor boards beneath her snapped and rose toward her hand by the imperceptible chains of the Arcane, but as she envisioned her magic transforming them into stakes to be thrown, Flannery grasped her shoulder.
"Let me do this." She said.
Though the three broken boards had already shifted into an assegai-like shape, Milva stifled her anger enough to let them go. They dropped to the bloodstained ground as wooden spears.
"Flannery sure she wants this?" Spirogui said. "Spirogui had business with Queen, also."
"Leave this to me, Spirogui. I can't tell you why, but I feel I need to."
Milva's eyes lunged toward the Queen. She was larger, smarter, and in likelihood faster than any valkyrie they had heretofore faced. Add to that the Rheinshard she was armed with and Flannery's odds were sheared even leaner. Despite all that Milva did not interfere, because she trusted Flannery, and trusting in her meant trusting in her judgement.
The redheaded one moved alone from Milva and Spirogui to the arena floor's centre. She waved her hand. Taking the signal, her two allies stepped back into the shadows of the southern-side.
"We choose 'one'," Flannery said. She pulled a sleek valkyrie-feathered arrow from her quiver. "But tell me this, Your Highness. Why did you call me the "counterfeit"...?"
Johannes squirmed visibly astride the Queen, who (quite apart from him) was amused by the question. She snarled aggressively behind her thin-lipped grin. "SHALL I SHOW YOU?"
"Be my guest."
When the Queen flapped her mighty head-wings a tremendous gust blew up a dust cloud around Johannes and the concubines. As they hacked and coughed in the muck, the Queen threw herself up into the sky. Flannery, Milva and Spirogui watched her bound swiftly through the air; zooming, spinning and turning in sharply timed arcs and gale-force loops, before landing on the arena floor to the reawakened cheers and shrieks of her surrounding subjects. They hungered for bloodshed.
The Queen clashed her talons together. "IT WAS ALWAYS MY WISH TO OFFER VALPHEENA THIS FATE, BUT, AS SHE HAS ILLUDED ME, YOU WILL SERVE AS HER SUBSTITUTE."
Flannery nocked an arrow and pulled a terse smile of anger, excitement, loathing and trepidation as she drew the back the bowstring. She shot an arrow into the Queen's chest with a thump. The valkyric being picked the arrowhead out of her barely-penetrated scales with a derisive cackle.
Flannery smirked grimly, nocking another arrow. "As I thought."
The Queen tossed away the arrow. "ANY CONTINGENCY PLANS?"
A second arrow thrust through the air and speared her right eye through that very instant.
The Queen screamed in recoil while Flannery scurried out of her way as she thrashed around viciously by her half-broken sight. A collective gasp shook through the valkyrie ranks while Milva clenched a triumphant fist. The Queen's agonized shrieks rumbled the very ground beneath their feet.
"COUNTERFEIT WHORE!" Yelled the Queen. She ripped the bloody arrowhead out of her pulped eye and snapped it like a twig between her ivory talons. "I'LL REND YOU INTO SCRAP!"
In a furious instant the Queen lunged at Flannery claw-first. The archer blinked and dove into the plywood, rolling underneath the Queen's scything talons. She arose quickly with another arrow slurping against its rest as she drew back her string hand, but the Queen rose swifter. She twisted around, waving dust and withered bones around the floor by the beat of her wings, and lunged forward again. Flannery scrambled to loosen another arrow at the Queen but it whirred past her neck with less than a slight graze to her scales. Flannery's back was to the floor when sharp, gruesome ivory rocketed at her again -- only with a sudden rightward roll did she avoid them. Flannery cycled onto her feet then, while the Queen tore her talons out of the hole they smashed into the ground and chased her.
Milva and Spirogui nervously followed the fight under the valkyrie crowd's ear-piercing heckles.
Flannery threw a glance over her shoulder as she ran from the Queen to give herself space. The valkyric monarch was not as swift on foot as she was on wing, but her powerful thighs churned out speeds few humans could match. When the Queen's shadow caught up with her, Flannery span upon her heel and shot an arrow fletching-deep into the Queen's wing.
Flannery dodged out of her way again. As she skidded back she made mental notes of all the Queen's weak points; her eyes, wings, ears and mouth, the only parts of her body unguarded by scales.
The Queen angrily extracted the arrow from her wing and threw her head to Johannes and her concubines. Milva followed her glare. Though it was nearly impossible to tell, considering how slight it was, Johannes had a little smirk to him. Whatever his game was, it was clear that he wanted rid of the Queen at any cost. The matriarch's concubines were far less enthused, and threw their queen soft smiles as encouragement.
The Queen returned to Flannery, who by now had another arrow nocked and ready to shoot."SWIFT OF FOOT... BUT FOR HOW LONG?"
Flannery released the bowstring. A speeding arrow powered across the yards between them until it was snatched out of the air by the Queen's quickly timed grasp, spun clockwise by her talons, and then thrown back at twice the incoming speed. Milva, Spirogui and the crowding valkyries shared a collective awe when the arrow sunk brutally into Flannery's left shin.
She gasped, more out of surprise than pain, and staggered backward. The Queen was already on her feet and bounding for her with an outstretched arm that clipped her shirt at the abdomen, slicing it open, narrowing missing the flesh beneath it. When Flannery reflexively dodged the Queen's follow up slash, she brutally butted her scaly dome in counter. It was such a fleshy, viscous impact that it reverberated in Milva's heart and forced a wince out of her, but she kept up with the fight, and willed her friend on.
"You can do it, Flannery," she whispered. "I trust you, I trust you..."
On her good leg the archer hobbled back and swung her bow at the Queen's skull. The lean wood simply smashed to pieces against it. A slow, crooked grin emerged on her scaly face. The Queen was very aware who the momentum of this fight had shifted to.
She struck Flannery across the face with the blunt side of her talons. Milva winced as her friend was thrown into one of the arena's musky heaps of sawdust, feathers and bones. Flannery pushed herself up on her two palms, coughed, and shook the stars out of her head. An unsightly welt now scarred her face -- but it did not bleed.
The Queen chuckled and hurled herself into the air. Everyone's necks cranked back in pursuit. She flew as high as the bamboo arena's uppermost sectors then arced around into a foot-first plummet aimed at Flannery. A mounting chime followed the Queen all the way down to the arena floor, where Flannery hobbled to get clear, of the crashing impact. Dust clouds blew across the floor. Bones, feathers and splinters were hurled into the air. The shockwaves tossed Flannery off her feet and threw her into the plywood again. Her now useless arrows spilled out of her quiver.
While the Queen picked her way out of the enormous crater her aerial dive had fashioned, Flannery's fingers tussled desperately with the strap of her quiver. The unwieldy leather strap and its iron buckle stole many precious seconds until it finally yielded, and Flannery was able to throw it off. It was when the Queen yanked her own thigh out of the hole and readying herself to move when Flannery realized her own foot was stuck. It was caught in a fissure between two planks.
"Come on! Come on...!" Flannery chided, tugging at her trapped ankle.
The Queen climbed out of the crater. The sight of Flannery wrestling with her leg like a hare caught in a foothold trap brought a creeping smile across the Queen's scale-armoured visage.
"Come on!" Flannery strained to get free. "Come on!"
The valkyrie horde hooted with excitement as their Queen lumbered toward her prey in slow, purposefully menacing steps. Milva's heart flooded with anxiety.
"Flannery must get out of there!" Yelled Spirogui.
The warrior girl grit and cursed and pulled but try as she might her ankle wouldn't loosen. The Queen's slow march forward gradually quickened into a full-blown charge.
"Cogsblast it!" Flannery said, hopelessly straining to get lose...
The Valkyrie Queen hurtled across the gap separating them with her ivory claws retracted in readiness. Their spectator's screams boomed louder as their Queen entered striking distance...
"Come on, Cogsdamnit!"
She thrust her left talon...
The punch was entirely reflexive. There was no reason for Flannery to believe in its efficacy. It simply happened. A fist she flung at such an outrageously tremendous speed that the air around it appeared to warp into"puddles" as it sailed past the Queen's defences and pounded her jaw back like a doll.
It was as if time slowed for Milva at that moment. The Queen's face gradually clenched into a painful frown while chips of her scale armour broke from her chin and droplets of blood tossed themselves into the air and splattered Flannery's face amidst her angrily desperate snarl. The valkyries shuddered out a communal gasp of shock from their perches. Spirogui leapt for joy. The Queen, mid-motion, was tossed off of her own momentum and hurled backward onto her hide quarters. Thin rivulets of blood oozed down from her broken jaw. Time returned to its true flow.
The valkyries had fallen into a stunned silence as Flannery impatiently thrust her fist through the floor and ripped up the wood planks holding her down. Her ankle slipped free, but all eyes went to her hand.
Its skin and sinew was completely blown off and its skeletal innards fully brandished, but those bones were not the work of calcium and collagen fibre, they were pure solid brass.
"My Cogs..." Milva gasped.
A haunted Flannery shot a trembling glare at her brass, skeletal hand. How was it possible that her bones could be made of...?
"You knew, didn't you?!" Flannery screamed at the Queen. "Is this what you meant by 'counterfeit'?!"
Her brass fingers quivered. Flannery gripped her wrist with her 'good' hand, but it wouldn't govern the shakes. Brass joints creaked to the compounding pop of her brass knuckles. Flannery shoved that hand into what she once thought of as her breast and collapsed to her knees. Disillusion turned her eyes, once vibrant within the throng of battle, into blank jade pools.
Milva's breath hitched while her mind choked out calculations in stuttering bursts of thought. Even without Ygg's Rood all the threads wove together. Why Flannery ate so little, how she could be so remote and fearless, why she was so strong and how she could do so many things ordinary girls could not. Her mind went to Valpheena and her revelation at Gaustenfolt's manor; that the Clockwork Valkyrie had sisters. And hadn't Valpheena once called her "Hrist"?
Flannery was a Clockwork Valkyrie.
Clearly sensing her chance, the Queen clutched her talons into a fist and punched Flannery across the arena. Milva winced horribly while the valkyrie crowds erupted in cheer at the clean blow. Flannery skidded lifelessly over the floorboards until tumbling to a stop by some old tooth-gnashed femur bone.
The Queen jumped up, flew across, then landed beside her. She grabbed Flannery by the roots of her hair, while her other hand clamped around the back of her skull. Powerful stomps then ran the archer, catatonic yet conscious, across the arena surface. The Queen smashed Flannery's face into the bamboo wall and ground her there, twisting her face into the crater, sending shockwaves up the canes to the perches above, but drawing nothing but giddy praise from her gathered children. When she pulled Flannery from the splinters, her artificial skin was torn into a mesh of welts and lacerations. The underlying brass of her cheekbones and jaw shimmered through. The Queen threw another fist into that face.
Flannery thudded the ground. The Queen pounced upon her back with a foot talon as she grabbed the girl's head again. Her demonic cackles of joy matched the rhythm of her actions as she repeatedly pounded Flannery's face into floor, shredding up her facial flesh to reveal the brasswork skull underneath it. While the congregated valkyries all whooped in cheer, a solemn Johannes observed the fight with poorly hidden disappointment.
Milva's shock gave way to blood-boiling anger. Her Arcane powers were already ripping out pieces of the flooring and sharpening them into oaken pinions when Milva turned to Spirogui and yelled, "I can't stand back and watch this any longer! Spirogui, are you ready?"
"All Milva need do is ask."
And he threw himself by dashing somersaults toward the Queen. Milva tailed him, and though it occurred to her that if they interfered in the fight other valkyries might too, but it didn't stop her from throwing her hand forward and shooting an array of oak pinions at the Queen's back.
She grunted heavily. The pinions rained against her back, neck and wings like darts. Her muscled twisted and pushed out her scale armour to bat the oaken pinions of her hide. It was in that second that Spirogui was upon her. His sleek blade slashed the Queen's scale-guarded shoulder but failed to penetrate beyond it. In a wind-rending arc the valkyrie swung her talons at him but Spirogui's little body, perhaps six times smaller than his opponent's, circled around the blow and thrust his blade at her throat. It scraped aside, unable to piece the scales, when the Queen grabbed him by in her whole hand and threw him aside.
Milva barely had a second to inspect Flannery's condition when the Queen grabbed her by the neck. A tight, powerful, choking grasp carried Milva off the floor and left her legs kicking underneath her. The Valkyrie Queen was so monstrously strong she could lift a full-grown girl off the ground with a single rigid arm.
"YOU AND YOUR ONION-SKULLED FRIEND WOULD INTERFERE IN A MATCH BETWEEN VALKYRIES?" Spoke the monarch. "OLGA WAS WEAK, DARK ELF, BUT I AM NOT."
Milva could hardly breathe. She desperately pounded the Queen's wrist in some vain hope of freedom but her tiny balled fists only bounced off its scale-mail. It only drew the Queen's chuckles. She tightened her grasp around the Dark Elf's neck. Milva wheezed, breathing through declining scratches. Lack of oxygen dazed her mind so effectively that she couldn't concentrate long enough to use the Arcane. As her copper-coloured skin began to pale, Milva cast her dizzy gaze toward Spirogui and coughed out a call for help to him, but he was unconscious.
Her sights fogged, her grip slipped; the taste of sawdust in mouth and the howling roars of the valkyries intermingled into an obscure cloud of incomprehensible phenomena.
Milva had enough of her mind to know it was fading into black, but just then, out of her eye's corner, she spotted Flannery's head as it twitched in her direction. Her face was so battered by the Queen's assaults that only scraps of her human-like flesh still clung. Flannery's face was distorted into a brass skull, cracked emerald eyes and perfect ivory teeth. Her body twitched every second or so from the shoulders upward, like some sort of odd mechanical glitch.
From what little the Dark Elf heard, Flannery's once beautiful, ashy voice had morphed into a stuttering, metallic shadow. "M-Milva" it rankled out. Her broken voice seemed to scrap out each syllable as though they were rusted and unwieldy.
"F-Flannery...?" Her name was all Milva could choke out as the Queen slowly crushed her throat. After that she could barely maintain her own grimace.
But that was all that was needed.
A judder pulsed through Flannery's body like a wave whipping through a blanket. She shambled to her feet, a puppet pulled by unseeing strings, and jerked in stance, twitches and tremors rushing down her limbs. Her fingers scuttled back and forth as though strumming a typewriter's keys while her eyes circled around in their sockets and her jaw clenched and unclenched in tiny little bites. The Clockwork Valkyrie's whole body seemed to come alive with a stammering, mindless motion, a machine whose every gear, cog, escapement, spring and valve ticked together with peculiar instance.
Flannery rattled out "Self-Defensive Protocols" and "Counter-Protective Protocol: Deactivation". "Synapse Cache: Milva" and "Synapse Cache: Spirogui". "External Defensive Procedures". "10010010010101: Milva. 10010010010: Spirogui. 10010010: Milva. 10010: Milva. 100: Spirogui. 1: Milva. Milva. Milva. Milva. Milva, Milva, Milva, Milva, Milva, Mil-"
"SILENCE, YOU MINDLESS DOLL!" Screamed the Queen, as she clapped Flannery away with the dorsal-side of her talons.
The powerful blow did not keep Flannery down long. She rose up again with another disjointed start while her mechanical limbs stuttered prototypically to her gestures. Then the stuttering suddenly ceased. There was a pause as Milva clung to consciousness by her last vestiges of breath, a pause followed by a thunderous burst of motion.
Flannery's flesh stripped hand speedily disassembled itself piece by piece until her whole arm had been shorn free of skin and reworked into a long triple-barrelled brass Gatling. Flannery's "good" arm turned the hand crank of her newly reworked one, and her arm-Gatling pelted out a beat of gunfire so rapid it shattered through the Queen's scales and blew off her arm.
A tremendous, bestial, almost earthquake-inducing scream resounded throughout the arena's din and destroyed the valkyric jeering above. The Queen howled and wailed while her arm, which still grasped Milva's throat, fell with the Dark Elf to the floor. She took off into the air to regroup but Flannery cranked her arm-Gatling's handle and meted out another rapid-fire burst of bullets in pursuit. The Queen was faster in the air than on the ground, but even that speed was not enough to protect her from Flannery's gunfire, as upon the last few rounds, a quartet of bullets clipped her wing in a burst of blood, flesh and feathers. The now heavily wounded Queen was dragged out of her flight pattern and forced into collision with the bamboo wall. Her bulky frame bounced off it and crashed into the arena's floor.
A puddle of spent rounds now pooled at Flannery's ankles. Her brass arm-Gatling returned itself to its regular bone form; humerus, radius, ulna and all. Flannery walked out of the bullet puddle and peeled the Queen's talons off of Milva's throat.
The Dark Elf gasped with relief.
"Thank Cogs," she panted. "F-Flannery, are you...?"
Instead of answering her question, the Clockwork Valkyrie clamped her fingers together. There were tiny indentations on each of her fingertips. Thin steel blades extended from them with slow and metallic slithers. Now all of a sudden Flannery had claws.
"I want..." her rusty voice, a mechanical shadow of its former self, sent chills down Milva's back. "...to protect Milva."
The Queen's charge came suddenly, but not so suddenly that Flannery couldn't react. She pushed Milva out of the way and ducked back to avoid a sharp talon thrust. With her severed stub waving blood around behind her, and guttural screams pounding out of her throat, the Queen jabbed at Flannery repeatedly, ever hoping to skewer her on those ivory tips, but Flannery wove deftly around each strike.
Milva, whilst tending to Spirogui, watched Flannery's dodges in astonishment. It was though she saw the Queen's attacks coming a mere instant before they did.
The Queen plunged her talon toward Flannery's chest and hit nothing but stale air. "I WILL DESTROY YOU, COUNTERFEIT! I WILL TEAR YOU!"
Her thrusts were relentless. Milva marvelled at her rage. What a fool the Queen was! Didn't she realize she was only draining her energy chasing an enemy she could not hit? She would have chastised the Queen further for her error, before spotting those discreet wing beats. They was soft and slight enough to mask, but Milva caught them whipping up little traces of dust from the floorboards. It came to a head with one last jab. As it missed its target the Queen strafed back with a heavy sweep of her wings. A thick cloud of dust rose up around her and Flannery like a smokescreen in the distance. It was so profuse a haze that Milva no longer saw either combatant.
Spirogui shook his inertia off. "What is... happened?"
A pounding sound, like a dollop of metal slapped to the floor, boomed from the dust cloud. Flannery whirled out of it and collided with the bamboo wall while the wing-lofted Queen whipped off in pursuit. When Flannery pulled her face out of the wall the Queen shoved it back, pulled her out, and rammed her fist into Flannery's "stomach". She smacked away Flannery's counterattacking punch and smacked her brass skull with her forehead. The blunt impact sent the Clockwork Valkyrie crashing against the wall while the Queen barrelled after her shoulder-first, forcibly smashing her through the bamboo.
The Queen flew away and landed across the arena to the reinvigorated roars of her subjects. She caught her breath. Milva held hers.
Prolonged seconds rolled by. Bony metal fingers gripped the wall crater's fractured edges, but when Flannery emerged from it she was no longer recognizable as "Flannery". What stood there amidst those dust clouds and wafting pieces of broken bamboo could no longer be mistaken for human. What stood there was a flesh-stripped brass skeleton. Its bones gleamed in the sunlight. Where Flannery's chest once was, Milva saw the same compound of rotary mechanisms that gave life to Valpheena.
Two rods shot out of its skull. Either one projected a number of smaller rods along its length and a sheet of canvas flopped down to web them. These artificial wings branched out to their full wingspan.
This was the Clockwork Valkyrie.
Milva held her hand to her heart. "Oh, Flannery..."
The Clockwork Valkyrie was heedless of Milva's worries. It rose up with a bounce and flung itself in a bone-twisting spiral toward the Queen. She swept her talons around. The Clockwork Valkyrie collapsed into a crouch to duck it then shambled up on her brass leg bones and slashed at the Queen's breast with her own razor-sharp "talons". Blood splattered out of her scale-mail.
The matriarch flapped back for distance while the Clockwork Valkyrie's scissor-fingertips rattled out a metallic jingle together. Its brass bones swayed from one side to the other as it brought itself forward on three brief footsteps into flight. The Queen, despite her wounded wing, took flight also. All eyes hurtled for the sky to follow the chase.
Though her wing (as well as her eye, her arm stump and her chest) bled profusely, she summarily flew in all the graceful arcs and loops. The Clockwork Valkyrie's flight was, by comparison, gruff and crude; yet its canvas wings gave it good elevation. Its bones swung around in the air currents like a doll's limbs. The air bound fighters flew by the valkyrie perches and whipped around the bamboo wall at a similar speed, thus the Clockwork Valkyrie could gain no ground. It soon became clear that it didn't intend to.
The Clockwork Valkyrie parted its metal jaws and a small pipe slithered out. A second apparatus (two iron rods with small nozzle heads bent at a right angle) overlapped the first. A tiny flame clicked to life between the rods of the latter, while the former shot out a plume of gas. When the two met, a scorching tongue of fire lurched out roaring. The Queen heard the blast too late, for as she turned she was already engulfed by the flames.
In seconds, the mighty ruler of the Valkyrie Queendom was transformed into a frantic black silhouette charring alive in a curl of combustion. Desperate throat-ripping screams followed her fall back into the arena. She crashed into the floorboards.
The Clockwork Valkyrie trundled down to her side on its shaky brass bones. Milva, Spirogui, and all the assembled valkyrie gaped on below a stunned air of quiet.
Though her flames were smothered she survived from one breath to the next. She couldn't even move. Heat had burned away her tough scales and razed the vulnerable grey flesh underneath them into a scorched pink mass. Puss-ridden blood oozed from her prickly cerise skin in runny globules. Wisps of smoke still clung to her body. Her wings had been burned down to the bone; all the feathers and skin and muscle were gone. This "execution" was already over.
"Flannery!" Milva yelled. "Quick! The Rheinshard!"
It was then, when the Clockwork Valkyrie reached down to snatch it from the Queen's roasted breast, that the first bomb dropped.
A whistling chime preceded a brief silence that was shattered into a tremendous explosion that rippled through the eastern wall's valkyrie perches and sent spatters of rubble and torn limbs scattering into the air. Shockwaves pulsed through the wall's very foundations to rip apart the ropes and resin that sealed them together. The elongated canes tumbled out of position and chaos reigned as that section's surviving valkyries took flight.
Very soon, after a chorus of "little whistles" the whole arena was besieged by explosions. Flaming impacts broke the bamboo bulwarks into falling towers. Dust and splinters and valkyrie feathers rained from the heavens. Milva covered up her ears so as not to be deafened by the panicked cries of her captors.
When one giant bamboo cane came crashing her way, Milva dove out of its path and rolled into a dust cloud. Somewhere between the explosions and the valkyrie flight, she'd lost sight of the others. She found herself wading through sawdust smog and scale fragments on instinct alone until the sparkle of some copper-coloured object caught her eye. Milva stumbled towards it and found the Clockwork Valkyrie unconscious. Had she been caught in one of the blasts?
Another explosion tore up the plywood behind her. Milva grit her teeth through the rain of blasted oaken debris to drag the Clockwork Valkyrie into her arms. The Rheinshard twinkled in her bony brass fingers.
"Flannery!" Milva whimpered. "Can you hear me? Flannery!"
There was no reply.
A falling shadow loomed over them. Milva glanced up and saw one of the massive bamboo canes falling her way. Seconds before their doom a little speedy blur sawed the pole into two and span into Spirogui's diminutive form. He landed beside his friends as the severed poles collapsed around them thunderously.
"Is Flannery-thing alive?!" Spirogui had to yell to be heard over the bomb blasts and cane crashes. "What happening here?!"
"It's the fleet! They've already begun bombing Yggdrasil!"
"What we do?"
Milva was already drawing Flannery's brass skeleton up into her arms, a lighter load than the form suggested. "We have to leave!"
"How?" Spirogui asked.
"I don't know, but if we stay here, our deaths are certain!"
There had to be at least a safer place than this. But first things first; Milva needed to gather up the relics. In lieu of that she snatched the Queen's Rheinshard from Flannery's grasp and pocketed it, then glanced up at what was once the Queen's perch. Johannes and the concubines were fled and her throne toppled while Ygg's Rood and the Rheinshard lay in wait for them. Was Johannes being generous?
But how to get up there?
Milva wracked her brain until she noticed one of the collapsed bamboo canes leaning less than a yard off the Queen's perch. It stretched all the way down to the arena floor. That was her best bet.
Amid the dust and falling debris, Milva placed Flannery at Spirogui's feet, telling him to "guard her with his life", then quickly navigated her way through the dusty fog to the fallen bamboo cane. It was thick as an oxen's rump. Sturdy. She was sure it could support her weight. So Milva grabbed tightly to the cane with her thighs and arms and shimmied her way up its haft. As she ascended it under Spirogui's watchful eye, her own sights expanded.
Over the south-eastern side of the crumbling arena wall, past the Citadel's segmented semi-circular plate platforms, the fleet arrested Yggdrasil. A single division had advanced from the 5th squadron of the fleet's phalanx. All the cannon fire and steam-propelled bombs came from their flanks while the rest of the fleet held itself in reserve. Almost every shell hit its mark, tiny specks of black tailed by plumes of grey zooming into the Citadel's oaken-brown bulwarks and exploding in scarlet flashes. Valkyries fled the Citadel in mixed reaction. Some launched themselves at the 5th Squadron's first division only to be gunned down by their cannons, bombs, carbines and Gatlings; others abandoned their homes entirely. No matter what they did, it was clear that the valkyries lacked a cohesive response to this attack without the Queen's edicts guiding them.
Then, finally, upon seeing this their mindless disarray with her own two eyes, Milva understood what Johannes had been driving at before.
The valkyries weren't simply ruled by the Queen. They were controlled by her; literally controlled, mind-bended even, by her edicts. Those edicts were not merely orders the Queen deemed law, they were surreptitious commands emitted from her mind by the raw magical force of the Rheinshard.
Surreptitious commands no valkyrie could resist -- except the Clockwork one.
Milva wasn't entirely sure how she knew it to be true without Ygg's Rood supporting the theorem; perhaps it was the frightened and bewildered way in which these valkyries fled the fortress -- or perhaps it was the seemingly uncharacteristic concern some valkyries appeared to have for others (for from here Milva saw valkyries rescuing each other from the rumble and the flames and the smoke) -- but some small self-sustained wisdom told her that with the fall of the Queen, the eighteen-year empire the valkyries had forged was about to collapse under its own weight. It was as if a lynchpin sealing stability into a mechanism had been removed, and piece by piece, that mechanism was crumbling into its true forgotten nature: a shambled collection of disparate cogwork.
Now Milva understood.
The valkyries weren't the Queen's "subjects". They were her slaves.
As she had once been...
Despite the thought, Milva was nearly a hundred feet in the air by the time she reached the Queen's perch. With strain she climbed atop it and went for the God relics by the Queen's overthrown seat, the Rheinshard and Ygg's Rood. She pocketed the former, gathering up intense heat between itself and its twin, then grasped the latter, and a peaceful wave of acumen phased in Milva's mind. An inundation in the waters of the Rood's latent reservoir of knowledge was a soothing phenomenon now. It was like embracing an old friend.
With the Rood's influence elevating her mind's capabilities, Milva turned to all the smoke tuffs rising up from the burned bamboo wall behind her, and mystically pooled them into a single grey cloud by her ankles. She sat upon it and the smoke cloud, as dense as stone to her touch, carried her all the way back down to Spirogui and the Clockwork Valkyrie.
"I've got them," Milva said, climbing off. "Help me get Flannery onto this cloud, Spirogui."
Though her brasswork bones did not to lend themselves to such an idea in their appearance, the Clockwork Valkyrie was very light of weight. As bamboo canes and debris toppled around them, her two friends placed her upon the floating smoke cloud, then climbed upon it themselves. With a guiding wave of the Rood, Milva commanded the cloud "up!", and it flew a discreet path out of the tumbling arena.
The smoke cloud darted through flying debris, the flaming falling stalks of cane, ignited wads of resin and the haphazard flight paths of desperate valkyries. It carried them out of the fortress's upper west block. From there rolled out the morbid panorama of the bombing.
Shellfire had set the entire fortress alight. The once intimidating home of the valkyrie Queen was now burning itself into black blankets of smoke that wafted over the entire Citadel. Cinders and embers fell like rain. Piping hot debris and foundational bark toppled from the concubine's quarters and collapsed into the lesser valkyrie homes; crushing to death any who lingered, in particular the valkyrie younglings, too immature and womb-fresh to have even hunted on their own. Too young, even, to fly. Many of these babies simply clung helplessly to their thousands upon thousands of perches, crying for their mothers and older kinship sisters, most of whom had simply abandoned their children to the human world's bombs. Their collective cries sent a heartbreaking chill down Milva's spine.
Babies. Too young to understand, too young to fly away, weeping their hearts dry before the ominous whistle of a cannonshell blew them to pieces.
Out of the far eastern side of the Citadel, as yet its only un-bombed sector, clouds of newly migrant valkyries flew from the disruption. Some valkyries flew away with babies, others with spare scraps of human meat, but most escapees left with empty talons. Without the Queen's edicts to guide them the valkyries had no sense of "kinship" or matriarchal loyalty.
By now all the valkyries at hand had given up on any sporadic attacks on the fleet -- the wall of bullets and cannon fire was too effective and coordinated for even them to pierce -- and if one could assign any collective rejoinder -- it was surely "escape".
Milva watched this all in horror, until she felt the smoke cloud begin to thin underneath her legs. Spirogui felt it too, the thinning, as the black plume wavered. The winds here were too strong for Milva to sustain it, winds whipped by the savage explosions tearing the Valkyrie Citadel apart. The Dark Elf ordered Spirogui to hold her Flannery tight, then had the Rood guide what was left of her cloud to the nearest perch.
It was a creaking blackened platform blown off the fortress and hurled into the ledge of an abandoned valkyrie hovel, carved out of Yggdrasil's bark. The smoke cloud dissolved and its three charges fell flat into the hot, charred deck. Milva coughed heavily from both the smoke plumes and the lack of oxygen at this height. The black plumes rendered her vision wet and foggy, mists of fire-tinted grey pooling in every direction, yet failing to blanket the many valkyries corpses scattered over the floor.
Everywhere Milva turned she found blackened bodies, scales torn from their flesh and littering the wood like coins, rent limbs and blasted bones. Everything carried the foul stench of meat and fire.
As she parted her dry lips to speak, Milva was silenced by more shellfire, whistling overhead and exploding into the Citadel. Its rumbles shuddered her to her very bones.
"It hopeless!" Spirogui yelled over the tumult. "We die here!"
Milva's heart quavered. What could she do or say to contradict that? She found herself clutching her Flannery, the Clockwork Valkyrie, stripped to her empirical essence, begging Ygg's Rood for a solution. What could she do? What could she do?
Then Milva's eyes brightened.
A wisp of cold white energy encircled an empty spot before them. It cycled around itself until the energy took on the shape of a fedora-headed man, the man known as Johannes. Spirogui yelled his name.
"Did you do it?!" He yelled. "Did you kill her?!"
Milva sneered at him."Yes! You have what you want! The Queen is dead! Flannery killed her! What good does it do you now!?"
"Trust me, Milva!" He extended his hand. "I can get you and your friends to a safe place now that the valkyries are scattering, but we must move quickly, before the other fifteen divisions move forward and bring down Yggdrasil! We have to leave!"
That might have been a symphonic message of escape to her, if not for the unfolding carnage. She glanced from the Clockwork Valkyrie to her friend Spirogui, her comrades in arms and the people she had grown to love over such a short time. Her mind reeled amidst the losses it took to get them this far, to the seat of the world, to the world tree, to Yggdrasil.
`It just can't end like this' Milva thought. `It just can't'.
Ygg's Rood hummed in her hand. The Dark Elf, Johannes, and Spirogui all glanced as resinous tendrils of knowledge made visible by the innate workings of the Arcane rose from it. New knowledge flowed into Milva's mind as the staff smouldered a pale white glow.
She could do it. She could save Yggdrasil. She could save everyone.
Milva stood, scrubbing the tears out of her eyes and handing the Clockwork Valkyrie's clicking, inert bones over to Johannes. She then brought her arms around Spirogui and held him close, savouring his sweet pine nut scent, before herding him to Johannes' side.
She smiled softly, then glanced at Johannes."Take them out of here. Keep my friends safe."
"What will you do?" He asked.
"What I came here to do."
She could see he did not understand. She also saw he knew he didn't need to. The valkyrie researcher gave her a calm, affirmative nod. When Spirogui moved to question Milva's meaning, Johannes restrained him by the scruff of his leafy collar and surrounded both himself and Milva's two friends with the quiet flames of his inner power. Evanescence white tongues, the same translocational magic that brought Johannes to them, took them away.
Suddenly Milva was alone and surrounded on all sides by smoke, debris, and dozens of dead valkyries.
Yet she did not fear.
Instead she walked. Away from the corpses, away from the carved out cave, across the burnt wooden surface to the outer rim.
Smoke and gunfire had transformed the skies into a black haze. Yet still Milva peered over the edge, at the vast drop to the basin floor, miles below the Citadel. Yet there was something else -- a long snaking branch shooting out of Yggdrasil's western flank -- just a few yards below. That was the perfect place.
While explosions and valkyries screams sent ripples throughout the tissue in her ears, Milva plunged herself off the edge of the platform and fell into the oaken branch beneath her. She landed with a grunt, heavy and hard, before rolling off her back onto her scraped knees. Milva picked herself up and hobbled inward along the branch's length, dodging her way through its little fires. She came as far inward as the trunk and paused there.
She shut her eyes.
"Tetra, Mother," she called out. "Give me the strength to do this."
She thrust the staff into the ground and held it tight by both hands. She summoned all the wisdoms she had gleamed from Ygg's Rood since she first laid hands upon it in Olga's Castle. She inundated her thoughts with images of vitality, of growth, of bounteous fields of sunflowers and daffodils and roses; of earth-sustaining light brimming through pillows of cloud amid a crystal blue sky; sunshine breaking across the soil and the soil's progeny drawing strength from it. Sustenance and birth, communion and harmony thereof -- the gifts of the World Tree.
The Rood thrummed in her hands.
Its shaft, three ancient roots gnarled together in braid, grew as free and lively as weeds. Like tripled tendrils they sank into the branch beneath Milva's feet, and grew around her hands in vein-like oaken streaks until her arms and shoulders were surrounded by extensions of Yggdrasil. Through them her soul dripped like dew into the very sapwood of the world tree, into its heart, its spirit. She was Yggdrasil.
And Yggdrasil was in pain.
Milva could perceive every bomb, every cannonball, every shell, every grenade; even the minute stings of bullets. They ran up and down her skin like jolts, each one forcing her cry, making her quiver, making her weep for the misguided and the foolish, those who would attack that which sustains the earth the walk on.
Milva's soul, a spirit enswathed by Arcane, teeming with the quiet fury of hidden strength and overflowing with emotions, suddenly converged with the spirit of the world tree itself. It was an experience so cosmic and unknowable, so virtually indescribable, that whatever minute speck of consciousness that powered her to such a decision felt the full weight and strength and age of the world tree flow into it, become one with it, then channel itself through it, into the workings of Will only the Earth itself would ever know.
Spyglasses were unsnapped from every ship of the reserve fleets when their lookouts spotted a curious phenomena near the bottom of the burning Valkyrie fortress. They gazed across the sky to the world tree, esteem and wonder in their hearts, as Yggdrasil itself began groan.
It was like the roar of some long slumbering giant.
It was so loud that its agony filled the Realm Across the Scar to its brim. It was heard by the citizens of Eiszweigstadt fleeing upon carts to new human settlements. It was heard by Kreug and King Pa'pirrofo and the entire populace of the City of the Onion People on the rim. It was heard by Valpheena, lying peacefully in her armchair at Gaustenfolt's Manor, just moments before her mainspring finally gave out. Every last animal in the jungles and forests peeked their little heads up to the Cry of the Earth, a cry not heard since the Doom of the Gods, since the very creation of the Realm Across the Scar.
Yggdrasil's gigantic, highway-sized branches shook to life.
Before the captains of 5th Squadron could command their airships to redirect their bludgeoning gunfire, Yggdrasil's mighty massive branches loomed out slowly, grooving across the sky like tentacles, gradually reaching through 5th Squadron's phalanx. A row of airships arranged by gunnage, those most heavily armed occupied the front four while the lesser armed the rear six. Yggdrasil's branches grasped ship after ship. Leaf-encircled fingertips, bony and soulful, grasped each one and held them fast. Midshipmen screamed below deck when gunmetal, blast after blast of it, failed to halt Yggdrasil's encroachment.
When a ship was grasped the Hands of Yggdrasil became one with it, merging deep within its armour and machinery, transforming its iron mass and canvas-cloud gasbag into beech and maple. Cannons, rifles, sabres, grenades, bullets; all transformed into wooden models of themselves. Portholes became knots. Armoured hulls became sapwood. The only ones to remain unaffected were its people. Not a single person had been transformed; they were simply people running frantically around airship-shaped hovels melded into Yggdrasil's ancient branches. Their growth came to a stop only when the entire 5th Squadron had been consumed by them.
Those soldiers assembled on the decks of the remaining squadrons all gaped off their respective balustrades in dread.
One moment they were aeronautical marvels of military engineering, the sky-conquering pride of Gelbheim, and the next, they were clumps of wood growing out of Yggdrasil's branches like warts. So they were.
Crewmembers screamed down the length of their ships, in the reserve, to call off the attack. Yggdrasil's every leaf was an ear and each cry of "retreat!" tickled those ears with glee. The Joy of Yggdrasil, steward of the world and shepherd of its lifeblood, was its poignant thanks.
The quintessence of Milva's body and soul drifted peacefully through Yggdrasil's sapwood, sated on the splendour teeming from the Roots of the Earth; neither substance not inexistence, nor even aware of herself and her mutual joy. Milva's victorious quintessence was lovingly guided by unknown and ethereal forces through all of Yggdrasil's profuse metaphysical substrata, sustained at every length and turn by the Earth's dew, bathing and feeding her spirit all at once. Such nourishment ferried her through Yggdrasil's peaceful roots to a new destination.
The World had a reward for Milva the Dark Elf.