There was a fiery pain in her thin right bicep. That was the first thing she noticed when she woke up. It was slow at first, like a stirring, when her eyes fluttered open and Milva saw where she was. She glanced beneath her into the mouth of a straight twenty-yard drop.
Normally such a height would've frightened her but after what occurred on The Octavia, jumping out of a tree like this seemed more a chore than anything else. Ignoring that task for the moment, Milva inspected her surroundings. It was the jungle. Jungle. Thick vegetation grew out of the soft soil in winding vines, thorny bushes and undergrowth. Thickened trees armoured with tough aeneous bark launched out of the jungle floor and towered up into the sky, hundreds of yards above. The canopy was so terribly dense it allowed only for scattered handfuls of light to brace the ground. Yet twinkling luminous beads, like sequins or jewels, sparkled in chartreuse light across the earth. Tiny animals not unlike squirrels wove their way around the jungle floor foraging for worms and roots. Milva's ears twitched at the various sounds of the jungle; snapped wood, babbling streams, distant hoots, mewls and squawks.
Then she heard a snarl far closer to her.
It came from a hollowed out knothole in her tree. Milva was peering into it when a writhing serpent with all the bony legs of a centipede nipped out of the aperture. The branches beneath her snapped at her sudden jerk and Milva tumbled screaming into the jungle floor. She landed with a "plop!" into wet soil. Then her nose caught a whiff of its rancid stink, and she realize she hadn't landed in "wet soil" at all.
It was a mound of dung.
A now smelly and scowling Milva rolled out of the faeces into the earth and dust. She ripped large leaves off of stray underbrush and used them like flannels to clean herself of the disgusting substance. Though her smock was stained in patches of brown and her skin still stunk of it, it was good enough for now.
There was a stinging pain in her right arm again. The laceration to her bicep was still bleeding. Blood put her in mind of the horrors she saw on The Octavia.
Frightening images of the valkyrie attack and the crash flooded Milva's mind as she absently tore a piece off her worker's dress. She wrapped her wound in it and thought back over all the chaos, remembering now how she jumped off the deck with Kreug, Flannery and Tetra to escape. Her friends.
Where were they? Had they survived? Had they perished?
"Hello?" Milva yelled. "Tetra?! Professor!? Flannery?!"
But no one answered her calls. Milva yelled their names again and again and again until her throat was hoarse but to no avail. If her friends had also survived the jump then they were nowhere near this area. If Milva knew where this area was she might've taken some heart in that, but right now, she was alone. Alone in the frankest sense of the term. There was no greater fact to be cognizant of as she glanced around her at the inhospitable climate of this jungle. Everything was jungle for as far into the black as she could see.
Before she even knew why Milva was walking. She had no idea where she was going, nor what to expect, her only thoughts were of the others, and how little she wanted this solitude.
Milva told herself that not knowing what happened to her friends was better than finding their corpses, because this way, at least there was a chance they had survived. That was a hope she needed to cling to.
The Dark Elf cautiously navigated her way down what felt like a slope. Aside from the tiny flickering lights spread out across the jungle floor like a constellation of stars, and the cascading beams of sunlight piercing the canopy, there was little light here. That constellation of lights, which Milva eventually recognized as fireflies, were all she had to go by on her way down the slope. Nevertheless she stumbled over a hooked root and tumbled the rest of the way down. Milva slammed into a bush. After a giving herself second to scrub the caking mix of dirt and tears from her eyes, she clawed her way out and kept moving.
The gradient transformed into a thin trench delimited by leaner, smaller versions of the watchtower-like trees informing the canopy. With two tentative hands grasping either side of the trenches' trees, Milva put her first foot through it. There was a splash. Water... or something terribly like it. It was warm. With firefly light guiding her, Milva slowly waded through the trench. It was long.
She couldn't help but pass the time thinking.
For the first time since the attack on West Square Milva felt a tyrannical despair pooling in her heart. Here she was. Essentially lost in the jungle with no food, no shelter and no sign of her friends. Just yesterday she was beaming over her coming adventure, her chance to avert a war, to learn of herself and her people, her friends aboard The Octavia. Milva knew that kissing Tetra would be one of her most enduring memories. Now there was a chance she might be...
...no. No. She couldn't think like that, she could not think like that. They had to be safe. Maybe someone else got away, perhaps Captain Quy or 2nd Mate Abel. Maybe they had found Tetra, Kreug and Flannery and were looking for her now. Maybe...
Milva clung to that. Maybe.
It was enough.
The only alternative was to imagine that she was the only survivor, and that was a horror not worth pondering. Milva had to hope that no matter what had happened, the others could be found. If she could survive, surely they could too?
The girl continued her march down the stream. Without a watch she could not tell how long she had been ambling through this jungle since coming to, but Milva's ingrained grasp of time suggested a few hours. That was more obvious when her stomach growled. After a little while all her sadness could no longer mask how utterly hungry she was. She hadn't eaten anything since that night in the lazaret with Tetra and the Octavia's girls.
Milva paused. She crouched down into the stream, which by now had rising to a knee-deep level, and slaked her thirst on the waters. It was warm with a sort of lemon-like taste and scent. Milva didn't care. She drank her thirst dry but remained hungry. She stood up and kept on down the stream regardless, trying her best not to think of food.
The stream was far longer and far deeper than she once thought. It eventually rose as high as her waist and the currents were too strong to wade through. Milva strained, soggy as a fish, to pull herself out of the waters before they knocked her off her feet and shoved her back down the stream. She grabbed a thin termite-ridden tree trunk and used that to slink back onto one of the trenches' banks. Milva caught her breath there.
More hours gone. Still hungry. Hadn't found anyone.
When her stomach ached as well as growled, Milva pondered drinking more water, but she just didn't care for anymore of it. Instead she dusted the termites off her hands and squeezed her dress dry before dragging herself back onto sore feet to resume her march downstream, walking its left bank.
Her lack of food didn't simply tyrannize her stomach, it sapped at her energy. The further she walked the more tired Milva became, and no matter how many stops she made, no matter how long they were, she was still tired. There was a point where the only way she kept going was to hold the thinner trees like crutches and move from one to the next.
Milva kept on. The only thing propping her spirits was the uncertainty of it all. Even when her feet were so swollen that her every footstep was agonizing, she kept on, and, eventually, the warm stream she was trailing hooked and widened into something larger. A loch.
It was wide enough to for a longboat across, a circular loch of about sixty yards which had six or seven separate streams of water surging into it. An exotic sort of tree, unlike any Milva had seen heretofore, grew in bunches around its slanted edge. They were as thin as the ones by the banks, but these had a bend to them. Their bark was ridged. Most interesting of all were the fruit sprouting from them.
At this point Milva would've eaten anything.
A smile finally found its way to her face as the Dark Elf hobbled down the last stretch of the stream to the loch. The fruit trees were about two metres in height. When she used her strength to shake them those fruit would not come loose. So she did the only thing her hunger would allow her to, she hunched up her hips around the trunk and slunk her way up the fruit tree like a slug crawling up a mound -- and at that speed.
Milva's efforts came to a result at an arm's length of her prize. She freed one of her hands and swatted three or four samples from their perch to the grass below. Milva slipped herself back down the tree and ravenously sunk her teeth into its yellowy-green flesh. It had a juicy tang to it, and a distinctive flavour akin to a fruit brew of apple, banana and raspberry. It had three seeds all the size of a grown man's knuckle. Milva simply spat them out and moved on to the nameless fruit.
She was halfway through that one when she started to feel sick.
Milva paused mid-bite, her jaw, chin and lips all smeared it its juices, and heard a worryingly loud groan in her stomach. She was then beset by a painful burning sensation in her belly. A now wincing Milva doubled over and regurgitated a sickly sallow mix of river water, pulped fruit and digestive fluid.
Everything around her started to spin. The trees cycled around until they were little more than a blur of green and russet. The loch was a swirling mass of white illegible to her. Milva hunched over, gripping her stomach in burning agony, tossing into the grass and crying out in pain.
"Look who's finally getting what she deserves."
With strain Milva managed to open her eyes. Face down as she was, she had to turn as well, to see her. At the back of the loch sat Genevieve. Her black espadrilles stood in the grass next to her while her bare feet kicked and splashed its warm waters. The spray danced around her toes.
Milva blinked through her tears. "...G-Genevieve..."
"Did you miss me? I would've thought that with all that lip-fucking you did with Tetra on The Octavia, you would have forgotten all about me. Is that your standard for human lovers now? Illiterate ship rats?"
Despite being lanced on fiery pain, hearing Genevieve say Tetra's name drew her anger up. "...Don't you... dare... talk about..."
Genevieve turned her icy grin toward Milva. With swan-like grace she lifted her arched feet from water, droplets glistening under firefly-borne illumination. The raven-haired girl padded her way from the loch to the thrashing Milva, past her puddle of vomit, and sat beside her.
Sweat beads dripped down Milva's brow as the fire in her stomach spread over all her body. "Genevieve... h-help me..."
"No, I don't believe I shall," she said calmly. "...because I tire of your perverse behaviour, elfling. It was bad enough watching that dear old bitch slobber all over you in Grauheim... but to see you willingly give yourself to some dim-witted, sky-faring commoner? Oh, that's something of a travesty, isn't it? So no. I will not help you. In fact I'm going to let you suffer just a little while longer..."
Genevieve stood up while Milva wriggled mournfully about the grass. Her icy stare maintained as she marched around and stepped nimbly between Milva's legs. Through her pain and her tears Milva observed Genevieve's sleek foot slip underneath her dress and up her thighs. She felt with horror how the human girl's glistening toe hooked underneath the elastic band of her underwear, slipped them down her soggy legs, and snapped them off her wet shoes.
Then with a single kick Genevieve threw open Milva's dirty dress and cruelly broadcast her genitals to the Realm Across the Scar. Milva snapped her thighs shut reflexively.
Genevieve's icy grin twisted into a cold glare. "If you give that to anyone else ever again... I'll kill you myself."
The echo of her threat lingered in the air.
Genevieve returned to the loch, picked up her shoes, and walked off into the darkness. Milva watched her leave through the haze of her pain, straining to maintain her consciousness, until it was just too hard to stay awake.
There seemed to me more light... or at least... that was what she felt she perceived. Yet Milva was only vaguely aware of someone grabbing her by the wrists, heaving her up and loading her onto their back. Somewhere in her daze she noted how strong this person must be. Somewhere else in that daze Milva wondered where she was being taken too.
But her body was too weak to resist.
Milva's head came to rest on something resembling a shoulder before her brief burst of consciousness abandoned her.
Her stomach still endured a faint singe, even as she woke. She choked out a couple of coughs. Wherever she was she was forced to squint to see anything because of its greater supplies of light, but in time her eyes adjusted to the difference. She found a beautiful blue sky freckled with tiny white clouds and a blazing bright sun above her. No "tower trees" to speak of, only a scattered few of far shorter height rose up from the earth.
Back on the earth Milva discovered herself lying across a soft cushion of plucked glass blades and flower petals. Her nose wiggled at the welcomed scent of slow-cooking game. She leaned up and found Flannery tending to the kindling of a trench fire, over which a skinned hare was torpidly being brought to roast.
"Flannery...?" Milva's heart bounced. "My Cogs, you're...!"
The archer waved her down. "Careful," she said, coming to Milva's side and settling her back down to the grassy divan. "I had you swallow some infused bracken while you were unconscious, so you should be feeling better, but you still have to rest."
Oh, what a relief it was to see those fiery red tresses again! Milva barely heard a word Flannery said she was so relieved. "...Flannery! I'm so glad you're alright...! After what happened at the ship..."
Flannery put a finger to her lips. "Ssh. Quiet now, she's still sleeping."
That name had such a resonance in Milva's heart now. Flannery pointed across the campsite to a similar erection of uplifted grass and petals. And there lay Tetra. She slumbered tentatively upon her side with a tightly wrapped cocoon of fabric (likely coming from her leggings, which were shorn on one side) bound around her left arm and shoulder. Milva was puzzled by that until she recalled that valkyrie biting her before The Octavia's crash.
"Is she all right?"
Flannery sighed, staring at her too. "She hasn't woken since the jump. I had her in my arms when we landed, but she lost a great deal of blood."
That was when Milva noticed how Flannery was dressed. Astride from her leggings, boots and brassiere, she was unclothed. Her jacket and shirt hung from a tree above their heads, very damp and marred by the palpable pink of bloodstains.
Flannery took her shoulder. "She's alive, Milva. If anything we have to be relieved by that. Okay?"
She nodded, still shaken.
"Good. Now tell me what happened to the Professor."
Milva glanced up. "He isn't with you?"
"No, I assumed he was with you."
Oh no. How could she have forgotten about Professor Kreug? Where was he? When Milva awoke from her fall she was alone. It was so strange that had happened. Milva had a strong memory of she and Kreug jumping The Octavia's balustrade and falling through heavy winds into the canopy of trees presiding over the Scar's edge. But the second they hit that torrent of green and twigs and motion, her memory went nebulous. After that the first thing she remembered was waking up in a tree branch.
"Oh, Professor..." Milva sobbed. "Where could he be?"
Flannery said nothing. Instead she went over to an assemblage of items; roots, wood, herbs, her bow and quiver, flint, and a bushel of that odd fruit that made Milva sick. Flannery took one of them, chopped it in two with her bare hand, and presented one half to Milva.
"Here, eat. The hare will take a while to cook."
Milva waved it away. "I can't eat that again. It nearly killed me."
"The water made you sick, not the fruit," Flannery chided. "You did drink the forest waters, didn't you? Well, it has to be boiled first."
Milva watched silently as Flannery picked the seeds out of her fruit and ate it. When she didn't double over in fiery pain Milva did the same. It was still good, still had that unusual "flavour that was a mix of flavours". The campsite became quiet.
"He will be fine," Flannery's cheek rolled around with each chew and word. "The Professor, I mean. He seemed like a resourceful man."
"When can we start looking for him?"
"That's not an option." She stated, firmly.
Milva paused. "...What do you mean?"
Flannery swung her gaze from the half-eaten fruit in her hands, then to Tetra, then to Milva. "...We can't stay in one place for too long. There's too great a danger in it."
"I don't understand..."
Instead of telling her what she meant, Flannery turned and pointed to something overlooking the jungle canopies far off into the horizon. It was a plume of thick black smoke rising into the air like an amorphous tower. Without even asking Milva knew that smoke came from The Octavia's wreckage. From her estimates it had to be about a mile away.
"The valkyries shipwrecked us, Milva. If they come for us again we don't stand a chance. And they will come if they get hungry enough. Staying in one place only makes us more of a target and I can't protect the two of you on my own."
Milva felt the urge to protest that charge, that with her powers of the Arcane, she could easily defend herself -- but then she remembered how miserably her powers had failed her on The Octavia. That memory alone silenced her pride.
"So we just abandon the Professor? Is that what you're saying?"
Flannery sighed. "He plotted the route with Captain Quy. He knows this area better than any of us. If he's alive, he can find his way. Besides, you see how Tetra is. She won't last unless we find a human settlement and get her to a surgeon."
"A human settlement? If we have no idea where we are how could we-"
"The loch," explained the archer. "If we follow it downriver we might find a village or a town, some fragile sign of human life."
Milva's shoulders depressed. "That sounds so unlikely..."
"Do you have a better plan?" Flannery spat, sharply. "My priority right now is Tetra, not finding Professor Kreug. If you want to search on your own then go right ahead, but I am not putting Tetra's life at risk for you or him."
Milva curled inward. "...I'm sorry. I'm not being helpful."
"Listen. He will be fine. I didn't know him but I doubt he'd want us to put Tetra in danger finding him. We have to move."
"I'm going to the shipwreck first to see if anything useful survived the crash," Flannery said. "You should stay here with Tetra."
All her worry for Professor Kreug skewered her thinking to such an extent that Milva forgot how smelly her skin and clothes were. Before Flannery left for the shipwreck she'd mentioned finding her unconscious by the loch while hunting for game, the same game slow-roasting over the trench fire, yesterday morning. She was comatose for nearly a day.
Only when Milva adjusted Tetra's bandaging and mopped up the loose blood with her dress did she realize how dirty she herself was. The putrid stink of the dung heap still clung to her, it was amazing Flannery hadn't mentioned it. So the Dark Elf went to the tiny stream babbling nearest the campsite. It was an offshoot of the loch, according to Flannery, which was how she navigated her way through the jungle to find her.
Milva carefully stripped herself of her battered workwoman's dress and bodice. Jungle heat rendered them crispy so Milva dusted off copper coloured flakes of dirt and blood with her hand before plunging them both into the stream. There was nothing to scrub them with and no soap to speak of so she made do with a balled fist and some elbow grease.
While Milva washed her clothes silently, the narrative gutting her mind was anything but. How could things collapse so readily into mayhem in a single attack? Milva's mind was besieged by visceral recollections of the valkyries swarming over The Octavia's mass and butchering its crew. In seeing their collective fury for the first time Milva truly understood why the people of the Eleven Dukedoms were so set on war, for who would abide with such an enemy at their doorstep? But how many more would perish if war were to unfold? Who would be caught in the crossfire when such a fearsome enemy met the full-force of an aeronautical fleet?
Such thoughts brought Milva back to Kreug and the Rheinshard.
What did this mean for their plan to re-forge the Rheingold and rid the world of the valkyries before the war starts?
If, as Flannery said, the Professor was still alive and would find them eventually (should he be lucky enough) how much time would be lost in that? Would he think them dead or moving and simply travel on to Gaustenfolt's manor alone? What if he was dead? What if-
Milva stopped scrubbing when she heard something shred. She looked down and found her bodice in two pieces.
The Dark Elf heaved a sign. Cogs. Thinking about everything all at once would only frighten her. So Milva trapped her clothes in the stream with two heavy rocks and went back to check on Tetra again.
She looked so fragile. Tetra lay flat now, trapped in a slumber that was as deep as it looked tenuous. Her paling flesh highlighted a terrible rub of red running in rings around her eyes. Sweat beads gathered into droplets down the droop of her nose. Milva swabbed them up with the back of her hand and spotted more blood pooling around the wrappings of her wound.
Milva peeled back the bloodied dressings and spied the injury for the first time. It was hideous. A long row of tiny tooth-shaped punctures
as deep as the scapula bone curved up into her shoulder like a crooked smile. The skin around the bite had turned a scaly, varicose purple. Milva suppressed a sob to wash the wrappings, dry them, and bring them back around the wound before Tetra bled out anymore than she already had.
How had she managed to carry all this back?
There were two pots (a skillet and a hob pocket), a leather-sheathed five piece cutlery set, three iron flasks, a survival tool pack (complete with six fishing hooks & lines, needles, cotton balls, twine, thread, flint, and a compass), three burlap hiking packs (one of them slightly singed), three blankets, two dented mess tins, antiseptic and antipyretics, a spyglass, a half-empty pack of cigarettes, a match set, an officer's sabre, a rifle, a single-action revolver and a bullet pouch; all of which had been laid out across The Octavia's burnt ensign. There was also some food amongst haul -- unpeeled potatoes, salted beef strips, bread loaves, six tea bags, and two small casks, one of milk and the other brandy.
Best of all Flannery retrieved three separate sets of clothing, including underlinen and shoes, from the wreckage. Though they were only the ashen shirts and russet pantaloons the crewmen were wearing, they were a welcomed difference from the tatters of a dress Milva was wearing.
"How's Tetra?" Flannery asked, opening the survival pack. She couched herself on the edge of The Octavia's ensign, waving for Milva to come to her.
Tired Milva only just woke up from the nap she took while Flannery was gone. At the archer's behest she padded from her bed of grass and petals to the ensign. "I think she's all right at the moment... but she still hasn't woken."
Flannery huddled over to Milva's side and took, along with her survival tin, the bottle of antiseptic. "It's the blood loss. She will be fine once we get her to a surgeon. Soon."
She untied the ripped fabric Milva bound her bicep's laceration with. The Dark Elf blinked her confusion. "W-what are you doing...?"
"Let me patch up that cut," Flannery said. She tossed the bloody rag away then came back with a cotton ball. She dabbed it with heavily scented antiseptic and remarked, "This may hurt a little."
Milva seethed through her teeth as Flannery pressed the doused cotton ball into bleeding gash down her arm. It burned! She reflexively tried to wriggle away, but Flannery held her where she was with a little smidge of a chuckle. She only ever revealed her amusement in slivers.
"The Octavia is scrap. This is all I could extract," Flannery tenderly padded the ball up and down the cut as she spoke. "There are a few things we can trade if the humans here don't accept money."
Flannery threaded a needle, biting off one end with her teeth, and began sowing up Milva's sleek cut. "...Milva...?"
"Yes?" She answered, wincing at the needle through her skin.
"I'm... sorry I snapped at you. Earlier."
Apparently Flannery was a heavy sleeper. She wasn't awoken by Tetra's loud, slumbering wails -- but Milva was. The elf yawned. Beyond the dusky blue light of the moon it was pitch black that night. Across the campsite Tetra lay writhing and whimpering, shivering. She was so restless and yet she couldn't wake from her sleep. Why was this? Did losing so much blood really have that effect on a person? Whatever the case Milva unfurled herself from her blanket and walked a few tired steps over to Tetra's side. Her bandaging was bloody again. Before anything Milva peeled back the bandages, fresh ones that Flannery had procured from the Octavia's crashed remnants, and set them to wash in the stream.
Tetra's wound wasn't healing on its own. Far from it. The blue of her veins sprung from each tooth mark and the scaliness now spread as low as her armpit. Its stench was becoming more and more foul, a nauseating aroma of blood, rust, and puss.
Cogs, it grieved Milva to see Tetra in this state. Though they hadn't known each other very long, Tetra meant a great deal to her, not just as her first real friend, but... as someone who could have been more than that.
That was why, after cutting a new bandage strand from its roll, she put it aside for the moment and put her hands over Tetra's injury.
If something bothered Milva beyond the massacre of the Octavia's crew, it was that the Arcane failed her when she needed it most. She had not spent much time thinking about it, not with being lost in the jungle, getting sick from un-boiled water then finding Flannery and Tetra again. Now though it was a niggling thought in her mind. Why hadn't she been able to use the Arcane when she and Kreug were attacked by valkyries in the aeroyawls bay? Hadn't she done all she did at West Square? Hadn't she done exactly what she did when she restored Captain Quy's crocus?
Why did the Arcane fail her then?
Milva bombarded her own mind with images of Tetra's health, of the wound being sealed and purified, of her happy smile returned to her. It was such a lucid array she lost herself in it, if only briefly, which made the wound's persistence all the more bitter when she opened her eyes.
It was still there.
The mystic glow around Milva's hands faded; so her powers were still there if that was anything to go by. So why couldn't she heal Tetra? The Dark Elf heaved a sigh and sealed up Tetra's injury with the new bandage. Tetra's wails calmed a bit after that. After she swept the sweat from the girl's brow, Milva pulled Tetra's blanket up to her chin and tucked her in again. She kissed her goodnight.
Milva had no sleep for the rest of the night. She lied back on her blanket and witnessed the stars at the peak of their celestial light.
The Octavia's crash changed everything. Kreug was gone. Tetra was hurt. Without the Rheinshard there was no way to stop the war. The power of the Arcane was failing her and whatever goals Milva allotted herself; to learn who she was and the truth of her people, seemed trivial and selfish now.
She smothered a sob.
Everything had gone wrong.
The sun was high the following morning, the morning they were to make for the loch. When Flannery awoke she tended to a new fire, boiled some water, and left camp with the rifle and some bullets to hunt breakfast. Milva tended to Tetra while Flannery was gone. She even managed to get Tetra to swallow back some water. Tetra hadn't eaten anything since the stew Milva made for her before the valkyrie attack, but as long as she was drinking, that was all that mattered.
Flannery came back an hour later with another hare. She already skinned it, perhaps knowing how little Milva enjoyed the process. As Flannery set it to cook over the trench fire, Milva retired to the stream and bathed. Finally with the soaps Flannery obtained she was able to scrub the stink of jungle wandering off her. When she came back she was fresh enough to put on the shirt and pantaloons waiting by her blanket.
While breakfast cooked Milva and Flannery spent the rest of the morning in preparation for their hike downstream. Between them they packed up everything except the cooking utensils and the weapons. Since there was little birch around to make new arrows with, Flannery took up the rifle as her main weapon -- the only issue was bullet conservation. There were eighteen rounds for the rifle and nine rounds for the revolver in the bullet pouch. Flannery held onto the pouch and gave Milva the revolver and three rounds, telling her to use it "only in emergencies". While the thought of shooting something, Wight or wyvern, made her blanch, she accepted the weapon (although she kept it unloaded).
Flannery cut meat from the hare when it was cooked. Milva made them both some tea when the water boiled and sliced some bread to go with it. Over breakfast they discussed how long it might take to find a human settlement and what their options were if they didn't. After Tetra, their priority now was to find a way back across the Scar. Flannery explained that they would need to wait for the military fleet to get here and then find a way to make contact with them before they engaged the valkyries. Over their discussion it was soon clear that that was their only hope of extraction now.
After breakfast Milva packed the cooking utensils away and helped strap Tetra to Flannery's back with a sling and some rope. This way she could carry Tetra and keep her hands free at the same time. Flannery then took her bag (which contained her sleeping gear, strapped rifle, and all the survival tools and flasks) which she slung off her shoulder next to Tetra, and the Captain's sabre. Milva on the other hand carried the two packs with everything else in them.
They then left.
Flannery led Milva and Tetra through the sparse forest where she set up camp along the babbling stream. As they followed it the trees around them grew taller and taller, the space between them grew narrower and narrower, and eventually the sunlight declined into a scattered beams piercing through narrow gaps in the overhanging canopy. They were in the thicket of the jungle again. Milva felt an unwanted familiarity.
Flannery hacked her way through all manner of reeds, vines and bushes with Captain Quy's sabre. Milva followed her path forward, only ever pausing to sip from her water flask or to untangle her foot from the bothersome underbrush. The stream's current grew ever fierce as they followed it all the way to its centre point, the loch.
It was much the same as before. Swaying trees suspended that odd fruit for the pluck. Surging water replaced bird hoots and cicada chirps as the jungle's acoustics. Flannery cut some fruit down for them to eat then led across to the loch's source stream, the river Flannery had been talking about. It was thicker in width than the other streams and increased in size the further along it went.
Flannery and Milva walked along its left bank and began the long process of following the river downstream. It was tricky, as the bank was sloped. Milva did as she did before, grabbing the most stable of the thinner trees outlying it and swung from one to the next. Flannery sheathed the sabre underneath her belt and copied the manoeuvre, swinging along the bank. The only bother were the bird droppings and ants that they sometimes found.
As their footsteps slowly collected into hours, the stream Flannery and Milva were following enlarged into a full-fledged river. From left bank to right it was at least twelve yards wide. The tree canopy reclined again as taller ones made way for the smaller and thus the light of day returned. At this point the river banks levelled off into even, easily traversable ground. The air was enriched by the scent of spray.
What bothered them though, as they continued downriver, were the emerging clouds of fog. At first it simply seemed to be a passing mist in the tree-ridden, river-speared distance, but over time the fog was so thick it completely blanketed the ground. Milva glanced down and saw nothing below her knees. The only thing assuring her of stable ground was the feel of her boots crunching grass underfoot. In this climate Milva wondered if Tetra was cold so she jogged up to Flannery's back to check on her.
Milva's eyes pooled with fright.
Tetra's neck and shoulder twitched uncontrollably. Her face had twisted into an awful grimace. Frothing saliva drooled from her mouth to her soaked collar and the rouge around her eyes was growing more and more pronounced.
"Flannery, stop." Milva said.
The archer turned on her heels. "What's the matter?"
"It's Tetra, she doesn't look very well. I think she needs a rest."
Flannery sighed, spying her surroundings. "This fog bothers me, Milva. I'd rather not spend much time here."
"Flannery, please, you see how unwell she is. What if we set up camp here and carry on tomorrow?"
There was a tremendous indecision on Flannery's part, Milva saw that. It was understandable. The fog frightened her too and from the looks of things it wasn't about to pass on its own. Yet with Tetra's condition they had to stop. Milva watched Flannery's brow crease with thought, weigh the pros and cons, then throw a glance over her shoulder at the blonde-haired girl. Her relent melted.
"Okay," Flannery swung the pack off her shoulder. "Lets camp here."
Night had fallen.
Milva shivered underneath the blanket she wrapped herself in. It was so cogsdamned cold. Between the river and its spray and fog, none of the wood around was dry enough to start a fire. Once they unpacked the camp essentials and laid Tetra down for more rest, Flannery went out with the rifle to hunt more game. Two hours later she came back empty-handed. Without a fire they couldn't boil any water so they all had to make do with was what was left in their individual canteens.
Though Flannery was hoping to save it for trade when they came to a human settlement, she took out the sweetbread for she and Milva to eat. Flannery also made Milva drink some of the brandy. It was far too strong for her, it even made her eyes damp, but it also had a warmth to it. In time Milva found herself throwing back a few sips between shivering fits.
Without a fire to tend to, food to prepare or water to boil, Milva spent most of her time on Tetra. No matter how many blankets were wrapped around her (Flannery had generously offered to give hers up) she would not stop twitching. Milva mopped up her sweat again and applied fresh dressings and disinfectant, but nothing soothed her. Even worse, the scaliness of Tetra's skin was spreading even further -- all the way down her ribs to her abdomen and across her back in tough patches. The scales around the bite themselves had toughened to the cool thickness of a fingernail. It didn't even look like skin anymore.
"Cogs alive. It's getting worse."
Flannery sighed. "There's nothing we can do. The punctures are too wide to sow."
"I don't mean that, I'm talking about her skin. It's becoming so scaly."
Then, all of a sudden, a dark and fearful glint of realization passed through Flannery's eyes. "Did you say... scales?"
"Yes, that's what it looks-"
Flannery shoved Milva out of the way before she finished. She frantically tore open Tetra's bandages and inspected the same scaly toughness Milva noticed. Flannery saw it for herself with unmistakable horror in her expression. She went to Tetra's unresponsive eyes next and furiously spread one open with her thumb and finger.
"Her pupils are dilated..." With that, the scales, the comatose state and the redness around her eyes, it was like little pieces of a puzzle scattered around had finally been gathered into an obvious whole. Milva saw such a chain of thoughts in Flannery's expression. It was like she finally recognized some terrible horror and it quaked her. The archer sank her face into her palm, gasping for breath, cussing at the Gods.
"Cogsdamn it!" Flannery yelled, stamping her fist below the thickening fog. "Cogsdamn it all!"
"What's happening, Flannery? Is something the matter with Tetra?"
A stunned Flannery sat on her ankles. "She's... becoming an Einherjar..."
Milva prickled with eerie familiarity. Where had she heard that word before? She could not remember whereto from, but as it lingered in her mind it brought her back to the articles she used to read in the Grauheim Chronicle, articles about valkyries. More than a few reported strange `transformations' in those bitten by valkyries. Ultimately they become neither human nor valkyrie, but a feral blend of the two. Einherjar.
Flannery pulled Tetra's lower lip down. Though neither she nor Milva noticed it, Tetra's teeth were sharpening. "She isn't human anymore."
"There must be something we can do!" Milva yelled. "There must be!"
"What? What is it?" Asked the Dark Elf.
Flannery stood up with a sad resolve. "...I have to kill her."
"...What?! You... can't be serious...!?"
But Milva looked into her eyes and saw a resolve there, past the tears and the doubt. Flannery was serious. Milva, terrified, recalled with disgust the way Flannery had shot down those fauldrukops off the deck of The Octavia, how little regard she had for Professor Kreug, how she hated anything and everything that was "Valkyrie"...
Milva scrambled to Tetra's side, drawing her into a protective embrace.
"What are you doing?" Flannery said.
"I won't let you kill her!" The elf yelled angrily. "What kind of person are you?! How could you?!"
"Milva! You don't understand the Einherjar, they-"
"Stay back!" Milva screamed, as Flannery drew closer to she and the inert Tetra. The other girl froze on point. Silence. A tear dripped down Milva's cheek as she pulled Tetra closer to her, as though she were the last semblance of sanity she had left. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears.
Then Flannery took a step forward.
She took another probing step forward, regardless.
"I said STAY BACK!" Milva screamed, drawing out the revolver.
Flannery, her eyes sharpened into angry slits, smacked the unloaded gun from Milva's hands with a single strike and yanked her clean from Tetra's arms. She furiously threw Milva into the fog and grass; held her down, thrust her stern arm into the elf's neck.
"You idiot!" Flannery yelled. "You cogsblasted idiot! You think I want this? You think you care for her more than I do?! That's my greatest friend! That's the girl who took me in when no one would! That's the girl who saved my life more times than I can count! You don't even know her! Who the hell do you think you are to lecture me about Tetra, eh? Eh?! Who?!"
Milva blinked back her tears. "Please don't kill her... please..."
"What the valkyries did to your mistress, what they did to Captain Quy and the crew, what they did to MY FAMILY, that's what Tetra will do if becomes an Einherjar! She'll start eating people! Do you think that's what she'd want? To be a monster?! To be a killer?!"
Scowling, Flannery shoved Milva's neck loose. "...I'll give you the night to say goodbye to her."
Milva coughed, leaning up. "...And tomorrow...?"
She cast an eye over her shoulder at Tetra. She was laying unconscious in the fog, the scales spreading out from her wound like a crispy infection. Flannery shut her eyes, climbed off of Milva's stomach, and marched to her side of the campsite.
"I have to kill her," she whispered mournfully. "It's what she'd do for me."
The river's current was a surging one. It cut a blue line down the forest and swept through the fog downstream until it veered out of anyone's sight. There were no fish visible in it. The trees were too far apart to echo the hoot of an owl. When one camped by the river side all one heard was the river's rush.
In many ways it was a beautiful sound.
One could look into that river, soothed by its natural hum, and imagine it as a surrogate for a life's passage. Twists and turns, bends and bumps. The ever present threat of drying up or overflowing. Milva couldn't unbuckle herself from the odd sense of profundity, not with Tetra in her arms.
"You said you'd want me on your ship when you finally got one," Milva whispered, nostalgically. She slowly stroked her fingers through Tetra`s cropped blonde hair. "Why do dreams fade?"
Milva sat with the sleeping Tetra in the fog. Thankfully the twitching had ceased and, strangely enough, her wound no longer bled. Though her eyes retained their blood redness, and her lips still drooled saliva, there was an extraordinary calm about Tetra now. For the first time since Milva was reunited with her, Tetra seemed peaceful.
Then Milva recalled Flannery's word: Einherjar.
And her resolve.
That rifle by the sleeping archer's wrist, the one meant to protect them, was now an ominous reminder of what was to come. Milva sighed, tucking Tetra's head to her shoulder. She thought about how they first met, about all the time they spent together on the voyage here to the Realm Across the Scar, about their kiss.
Why does a river have to bend? Why can't it be allowed to make its own way? Milva scrubbed the tears from her eyes again, lamenting the cruelty of their circumstance.
"If only we had more time," She said.
Gold eyes took on a glimmer. They moved from Tetra's beautiful sleeping face to Flannery and her gun. They turned to the river. Watching it take its course, bending slightly at a hillock, then coming back to that course through the forest. The sight galvanized her. An obstacle didn't have to be an ending.
"I won't let this happen," said Milva, gripping Tetra tight. "I won't."
Milva's every breath and swell was hoarse and her footsteps were heavy shambles of their capabilities. She wished she had Flannery's strength, or a man's strength, but she had to make do with her own, and that minute elfling strength was the only thing keeping Tetra on her feet.
With the Tetra's good arm curled around her shoulders and the now scale-mailed arm dangling by her side, Milva dragged the blonde through the forest's thickening fog.
As the profuse clouds draped the river waters, and there was no sunlight or fireflies to guide her way, all she had to rely on was the naked roar of the river. Everything else around them was simply a foggy haze. Aside from some nearby tree branches Milva hardly saw anything. When she almost slipped into the river itself, it was the third time dodged.
In spite of the poor visibility Milva moved so fast she may as well have been sprinting. Though her feet were tired, sore and swollen, she ran on them with hers and Tetra's combined weight. Tetra's feet dug trenches through the grass. It didn't matter how tired or weak she was, she had to get Tetra out of here. Milva had to save her. The campsite was probably a good hour behind them now but that did not suggest safety.
At that point the only thing that might have stopped Milva was a monster or a miracle. She got the latter.
Tetra's voice was weak but Milva heard her name clearly. Nothing could have sounded sweeter. "Tetra? Tetra, you're awake?"
She repeated the elf's name, hoarsely, and grabbed her throat. Her vocal chords were strained somehow. Milva came to a giddy stop and brought Tetra over to the nearest tree. Once she was settled Milva uncorked her last canteen of boiled water and set it to the 3rd Mate's lips.
"Here, drink this." Milva said.
Tetra's eyes, red-swollen and glassy, observed Milva intensely as she parted her lips (if only slightly) for the elf to tip water into her mouth. She breathed a wet sigh afterward.
"M-Milva..." Was all she said.
She caressed Tetra's cheek, almost lovingly. "Don't stress yourself. You haven't eaten a thing in days... you're probably very tired."
Tetra's head reclined backward into tree bark. The blanket of fog was so high up the ground it reached her shoulders. Maybe it was time for her to eat something too. Milva immediately went into the pack and foraged around for something to eat.
Then there was a low, animalistic growl.
If Tetra hadn't said her name, "Milva", she might've believed it to be some rapacious animal native to the Realm. But she knew the intonation, the pitch. When Milva glanced up from the bag, Tetra snarled at her with a toothy grin. Her pupils had thinned into a cat-like oval and with those eyes she leered over Milva the way a predator would its prey.
She viciously swept her clawed hand around Milva's face. Milva cried out with a meaty clap, gripping her cheek. Blood oozed palpably between her trembling fingers.
Milva glanced beyond with horror into Tetra's prowling grin and gazed deep into once warm ocean blue eyes -- eyes now devoid of any ounce of compassion or intellect. Flannery's warnings about the 'einherjar' didn't sound so spurious anymore.
"T-Tetra..." Milva's words stumbled over a quivering lip. "Y-you can't possibly mean to hurt me...?"
Buttons popped off into the vapours as Tetra slashed open Milva's shirt with her claw hand. While Milva scuttled away, shaken and astonished, Tetra's feral shadow dropped on all fours and released a monstrous howl so frightening it sent chills down Milva's back.
"Oh, Tetra... no..."
Jagged teeth snapped at her ankles. Milva sprung desperately to her feet and dashed as fast as she could for the bank. The einherjar that was once Tetra scampered after her on hands and feet, her short blonde hair barely poking over the fog. Before Milva reached the water an amazingly strong hand snatched her ankle and dragged her back into the fog clouds.
Screaming, Milva dug her nails into the dirt to buoy herself, ripping up the grass in her hands, but the einherjar's strength outmatched her own. It drew her in by its grip alone, despite all Milva's pleas, to open her jaws and revealed the hideous dripping fangs between them.
When the einherjar lunged in to gnaw off her ankle, Milva reflexively thrust her boot at its rapidly deforming face. The desperate kick threw the einherjar off its balance, providing Milva with time enough to claw back up to her tired feet and run.
Yet the einherjar's saliva-soggy jowls shook off the shock and, like a crazed dog, chased Milva down the length of the river bank. With its four-legged gallops outpacing Milva's tired legs, the howling einherjar leapt above the fog and bounced off a tree, somersaulting over Milva's head and landing in front of her. On two legs it menacingly rose from the dense miasmic clouds. Milva's heart, so terribly bruised already, sank into her stomach.
The humanity had well and truly left this being.
The einherjar opened its jaws and yowled another bestial hunting cry. It hunched only for a second, then pounced up ferociously and skimmed across the fog into Milva's chest, violently tackling her to the ground. The Dark Elf's sights were swallowed up by the fog and the sight of the einherjar's tiny brutish teeth rearing over her. Milva struggled for her freedom, begging the girl to remember who she was, what they had, what they might mean to each other, but the einherjar's grip would not yield... and Milva gaped on in despair as those jagged fangs lunged in to rip out her throat...
Three brutal gunshots tore through Milva's screams, one after the other, in sequenced fury, splattering the elf's face in blood and tissue.
When Milva opened her eyes again she saw the einherjar's own glazing over. It coughed in violent spasms before lurching off of Milva into the foggy grass. It was motionless.
For a long moment Milva refused to move. Either her legs had finally given out or she was too shaken to stand or she was too stunned to think.
Whether any of those were true she couldn't know. All she knew was a monster lay dead next to her... until a hand pierced the fog over her face. Milva was heaved up to her boots again.
There stood Flannery with her rifle dangling loose in her grip. The barrel smoked its discharge. She and Milva stood glaring at each other, silently, one in resentment and the other in stunned sadness, then turned and gazed into the foggy grass. The einherjar that was once Tetra lay pooling in her own blood.
"...Tetra..." Milva sobbed. "Cogs, why...? Why...?"
Milva submerged her face in her hands and burst into terrible sobs wrenched deep from within her heart; her breaking, bleeding heart.
Never had she known hurt like this. Her friend, gone! And the meaninglessness of it! One so sweet and kind and pure... where was the justice in that? Where was the fairness?
Milva collapsed to her aching knees, finally too tired to stand, when a silent Flannery dropped the rifle and kneeled just low enough to bring the elf into her arms. Flannery had no words. There were none.
Tetra was dead. That was all either of them could fathom.
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