They hadn't spoken since Tetra's death.
A few words had been shared at the time, "help me carry the body," or "wait here" or even "don't stray too far from camp" -- and there was a particular irony about that one -- but they hadn't truly spoken since Tetra. There was only a gathering up of the items Milva took and a return to camp, where Flannery marked off a rectangle in the soil with her rifle's bayonet and left Tetra to rest next to it.
Over what remained of that night, Flannery dug at the marked earth with her bare hands. Milva dourly watched her burrow almost six feet underground with nothing but nails and willpower. Perhaps if her tears had stopped falling, or the heaviness in her heart were relieved, she would have looked at such a feat with awe. At the time though Milva could summon nothing out of herself other than misery.
When she finished the grave was paralleled; Tetra on one side, a mound of earth on the other. Flannery only called on Milva to help ferry Tetra into the makeshift grave. With some difficulty they lowered Tetra into this resting place, and after one last look at the girl who was once their friend, Milva assisted Flannery in shovelling the earth back into her grave. Milva remembered Flannery telling her back then that they needed to bury her deep unless some scavengers came and dug her up for meat. She remembered her saying that this grave in the foggy middle of nowhere was only a temporary respite, that once they made contact with the fleet they would ask them to find and exhume her so they could take her back to the human world for a proper burial. That was why (when they finished filling the grave) Flannery uncoupled the bayonet from her rifle and drew markers into nearby trees, along the river bank and so on, so they might remember where Tetra was buried.
Genevieve stood aside in the distance, unseen by Flannery, smirking at Milva's discord.
That was all Milva recalled of Tetra's burial. All the other details, minute wonderings of what she ate or how far they walked back, all were lost in Milva's bemusement. That was three days ago.
Milva's heart had healed, but only partially. And what hadn't changed was her awareness of how little she and Flannery had spoken to each other since then.
The river had fattened by twice its width three days ago and the forest around it grew denser with each hour. Fortunately for them the fog hadn't grown any worse. It still clung to the forest floor and swallowed up their boots in mist but they could at least see where they were going in day light.
Milva glanced at Flannery as they walked together along the bank.
The archer was quiet. She wasn't simply silent, her expression was blank and unoccupied. Milva didn't spare herself any comfort in lieu of that. Flannery's face masked, her heart couldn't scupper. Though it was beyond Milva's ken to know what Flannery's thoughts and feelings were, they had to be as scattered and miserable as her own.
They hadn't even discussed why they were still walking the river route when the urgent reason for them to do so, Tetra, was gone. At times Milva had yearned to ask Flannery just that, why they held this course, but right now she just didn't want to upset her anymore than she already had. This forced Milva to work the rationale out on her own. The goal now was to contact the fleet when they arrived to storm Yggdrasil and destroy the valkyrie queendom. Perhaps that was easier a feat at a human settlement?
No matter the rationale, Milva tailed Flannery's lead along the river bank.
On the forth day, just a few hours after packing up from their last camp, Flannery inquisitively noticed something across the river. When Milva saw her attention grabbed, by whatever it was, she asked Flannery to point it out.
Across the river and beyond its right bank stood a large stone dome rising above the forest foliage. The dome was cracked in some places, broken in others, and cuddled by a web of vines. Milva blinked. It belonged to a building but judging by its condition that building was in very poor shape.
"What is that?" She whispered.
Flannery threw the rifle over her shoulder staring at it. "Maybe it's worth us finding out. There could be people there."
"People? What if..."
"...they're dangerous?" She finished Milva's thought. "It's more so not to take the risk. We're running out of supplies anyway."
She was right, of course. Over the past five days they had eaten all the bread, potatoes and most of the beef strips; they had drunk all of their milk and brandy; and they had used all of their tea bags. Right now they were living off boiled water, fish, and whatever Flannery found while off hunting.
Milva had her misgivings, but... "...Should we go?"
"I think so," Flannery raised the rifle above her head. "Hold onto me."
She was just happy not to be ignored. Milva came up behind Flannery's back and took her by the waist, tipping her head away from the redhead's burlap pack. With Milva holding onto her securely Flannery took slow steps toward and into the river. As she plunged shoulder-high into the freezing cold waters Milva cried a gasp. It was too cold for words! All at once Milva had to maintain her grip around Flannery's submerged waist, keep her own head above water and finding a decent footing over the shoals and weeds beneath her boots.
Flannery, with her rifle held above her head to keep it dry, led Milva over almost thirty yards of river water. She could not move hastily for fear of being swept away by the downward current so it took much longer to cross it than it otherwise would. Eventually they reached the right bank. Flannery and Milva dragged themselves from the sweeping waters to its grassy safety.
Shivering, Milva peeled clinging strands of drenched hair off her face as followed Flannery up the slopes of the river bank to the forest. The waters had soaked her hair into a deeper shade of lilac. She was terribly cold now, soaked to the bone from the neck down, but she refused to voice it before Flannery.
There was a dirt path leading into the forest. The two of them followed it. Their boots trod in squelched steps through the pathway until it faded into the sward of a forest clearing. And there stood the building they gleaned.
What it was, was less than half the remains of an old dome-roofed fort. Its west and south walls were collapsed into a moss-ridden pile of granite. Liana had grown and blanketed all remaining battlements and parapets in itself. Fog wafted around its wet stone floors and cracked doors, the wood entirely rotted away to leave only rusted iron hinges behind. Whatever this place once was it was clearly abandoned now.
Flannery shook the water out of her hair. "Lets go."
The front entrance was an arch. As she and Flannery passed under it Milva noticed an old bronze plaque above the point which read;
The vestibule was dark. It was so quiet their every footstep announced their presence twenty yards before their arrival. Fog drifted in from the dilapidated crenulations and broken windows. The rotting rafters, gangrenous with moss, creaked above their heads. Cobwebs infested every corner. Old pots were strewn about the floor in broken pieces with scattered shards of stained glass. Rusted swords and spears, too small for human hands, lay everywhere. Milva even stubbed her toe on a tiny mace.
As they left the vestibule through a corridor it became even darker. This section of the fort was intact, which meant no light from outside. So Flannery took one of the antiquated torches mounted by the wall, unfurled her match set and struck one. When Flannery lit the torch a healthy orange glow sprung up between she and Milva. The cavernous path forward was easier to navigate now. Flannery led the way as Milva eyed the locale. There were more small rusted weapons to be found here but slightly less fog.
The Graefalz Chateau was most definitely abandoned... but not without a fight. The only question was who did the fighting and for what reason?
When they turned another moss-covered wall's corner, Milva felt a soft "crunch" beneath her feet. Flannery passed the torch's shimmering flame low, hearing it, and revealed a herd of crumbling skeletons lying prone over the corridor floor. People had died here. Milva shuddered. Then she noticed how oddly small each skeleton's teeth were, how their foreheads sloped, and then the most chilling sight; the three-sectioned wing bones protruding from their skulls. These were not the skeletons of people, they were the skeletons of...
"...Valkyries." Flannery said.
Suddenly Tetra came to mind. Milva shook off the memory of her before it hurt her heart again."Did they attack this place?"
Flannery marched on, crushing withered old valkyrie bones beneath her feet. Milva picked her way around them and caught up.
"Maybe we should turn back." She said.
"We can't do that yet, there might be something of value left."
Milva glanced over her shoulder at the valkyrie bones."How do we know we aren't in danger here?"
"They're all dead, they can't hurt you."
Flannery paused in step, growling angrily."Why must you constantly second-guess everything? For Cog's sake, haven't you a spine?!"
Milva recoiled, hurt. "...A-are you still cross with me?"
"Tetra is the only reason I didn't leave you out there to die. She would've wanted me to take care of you, and I will. But as soon as we reach the fleet, I want nothing more to do with you, Milva."
Milva went numb.
"...I thought we were friends." She whispered, sadly.
Then Flannery pressed on. "...You were wrong."
She and the cone of light that came with her marched off down the bone-strewn corridor to turn another corner without her. Without Flannery's torch the corridor sunk back to its natural darkness. Milva stood in the midst of it all, her lip quivering and her eyes damp, when Genevieve's icy grasp enfolded her.
A cold hand slid its way down her stomach. Another seized up to her neck. Milva's tears rolled off her chin and dripped into the low-hung fog as Genevieve tipped her neck back and sighed into her ear with seductive yet palpable venom -- like a whispered threat.
Genevieve uttered a cool murmur into Milva's pointed ear. "They always abandon you, Milva..."
"Let me go..." she replied. "Please, not now..."
"No, my little poppet. I cannot release you, for if I release you, who will guide you in my place? Who will shepherd the timid little Dark Elf from her whorish habits...?"
She was so cold. Milva shivered as Genevieve's cold lips kissed a spot behind her ear. The girl was too frightened to respond, too shocked by Flannery's words to protest. "Look at me" Genevieve ordered. She took Milva by the chin and made the elf gaze into her wintry blue eyes.
"Do you see the outcome?" Genevieve said. "Do you see the result when you give your heart away? What flesh is worth this pain, elfling? When will you learn that it isn't your business to be loved?"
Her cold tongue curled into Milva's ear.
Crunchy footsteps worked their way back down the corridor. While a slow beacon of light advanced on the adjacent corner window, Genevieve drew her slippery tongue from Milva's ear, "I'll be back for you, little poppet" she said, and scampered off on playful skips into the vestibule's darkness. At that point Flannery turned the corner with the torch in hand. She glanced at Milva and sceptically eyed the corridor behind her.
"Who were you talking to?" She questioned.
Milva rubbed the wet out of her eyes."N-no one."
"...Fine. Come along then. It gets lighter up ahead."
When the torch's flame swept back around the corner again Milva followed it. Flannery was right, it did get lighter up ahead. Beams of sunshine pierced the ceiling's cracks and the valkyrie bone "puddles" thinned at the next corner, as did the rusty weapons and shields, and yielded to the broken, light-enfolded main hall.
As two of its walls had been completely demolished it appeared more as a courtyard than a central chamber. Rubble to the south and east tumbled into the grassy foyer overlooked by the delimiting forest trees while the skeletons of valkyries lay in random spots over the cracked floor. Roots and sprouts grew through the gaps between broken flagstones, and the two remaining walls were draped in wet moss. Fog peppered the ground in clouds and the dome cast a thick shadow over the hall. Beyond the forest one heard the roar of the river.
Flannery doused her torch in a puddle of condensation. "This might be a good place to camp for the day."
There was a rustle.
Milva's ears twitched to the sound of grass, from the east, being shifted. The second Flannery smothered her torch, tiny figures obscured by the shadows of the rubble herded around the open air sides of the main hall.
Milva reached for Flannery's arm. "There's someone else here..."
"Are you talking about-"
A sharp spear the length of a baguette whirled toward Flannery's flank. Without thinking Milva shoved her out of the way and dove back as the weapon lunged past them and impaled the rickety ribs of another valkyrie skeleton with a "thunk!". Flannery leaned up from the arm she landed on and spotted a series of onion-shaped heads rising from the shadows of each rubble mound.
Then one of the assailants emerged into the light.
A tiny little man made of grass, reeds and bulbs with an onion-shaped head. Milva blinked, never before seeing such a creature, not even at the museum at Grauheim. While he reached no higher than a person's mid-thigh he carried himself with a polite and confident manner. Below his leafy armour a broadsword (small enough for someone his size) dangled from his vine-like fingers.
"I... is... Spirogui." He said in a broken, interpretive mimic of their language.
Milva helped Flannery stand."...Spirogui? Is that your name?"
As they moved"Spirogui's" people moved too. All of them, perhaps as many as thirty, emerged from every shadowy corner with spears, shields, swords, maces and longbows relative to their size. And they all shared the floral physiology of Spirogui. Milva unconsciously dubbed them "The Onion People" for the onion-shaped heads they shared. Yet while they appeared amiable, the Onion People had their weapons at the ready, as if suspicious of she and Flannery. Then Milva began to wonder if these little creatures had been the ones to kill those valkyries...
...and suddenly they did not seem as`little'.
Spirogui strode up to the pair and put his butcher knife-sized sword at Milva's abdomen. "You... is Spirogui's `prisoners'."
With a small party of Onion People ahead of them, Spirogui on one side and two spearmen on their other, and the rest following behind, the Onion People marched Milva and Flannery out of the Graefalz Chateau as their captives. The Onion People needed no shackles to keep the two in check. Their superior numbers did that for them. This was why Milva became nervous when Flannery glanced about them, scrutinizing their numbers and weapons. Did she think she could fight them? This many? Milva stared at her long enough to claim Flannery's attention, and then her stare became a question -- would you really fight them?
Flannery shook her head, mindful of the spearman at her thigh, as if to say -- they could kill us.
Milva shucked her eyebrows. All the more reason not to fight them.
Flannery sharpened hers. Would you rather be captured then?
The elf paused to make another face when she spied Spirogui glaring up at them from her side. The diminutive knight had sheathed his sword but his leafy hand hovered below the locket. "Why you... look each other like this?"
Though his grasp of their language was imperfect Spirogui seemed to be the only one amongst the Onion People who spoke it. They spoke their own tongue in hushed tones amongst their ranks. Milva softened the complexity of her speech so as to be better understood.
"We are worried." She said.
Though he had no lips for a mouth, only a thin opening, Spirogui pulled a soft smile and dropped his hand from his scabbard. "Do not... be worry. Spirogui will... treat you... greatest."
That was hard to swallow with an armed escort taking them away to Cog's knows where. Flannery even chuckled a little at that, and the Onion People bristled at her side. Yet Milva sensed little malice from these people. Spirogui in particular. As they strode together through a forest track veering out of Graefalz, the "captain" of this brigade kept a watchful yet curious eye on the two women, especially Flannery. It occurred to Milva that as a Dark Elf, she was less uncommon here than she was in the human world. Spirogui revealed his similar track of thought when he asked,
"What tribe... you belong?"
Confused, Milva kept her language simple. "W-what do you mean?"
"You -- Dark Elf," He said, stretching out his lichen-covered arms. "Many Dark Elf tribes. Ogunga, Wyland, Faephatii, Hyrak, Byal Bahn. Which one you?"
"I don't know."
"Why you not know?"
Milva smiled sadly."I don't know that, either."
Spirogui gave her a questioning stare, quipping,"You not know many things."
At that point Milva thought to ask him why they were being captured when they had done nothing other than carry a torch through some ruins, perhaps to challenge the Onion Person on his own sensibilities. She smothered the idea with another glance at their weaponry. If they truly killed those valkyries in Graefalz then a couple of young girls from the human world posed them little challenge -- no matter what Flannery imagined she could handle.
Instead Milva held her silence as Spirogui and his party led her and Flannery deeper into the forest. The further they travelled the weaker the river's roar became. The Onion People were taking them well off course. Milva tried construct mental markers of their way, noting gnarled roots and oddly shaped trees, but they all just vanished into the thicket. The forest here was so dense that everything began to look the same. Even more worrying a fact was the Onion People's seemingly innate knowledge of the forest. They sited no maps nor compass to thread a complicated and twisted course through the woodland.
During their brisk two hour march through the forest, the Onion People only paused once for a rest. They drank morning dew and sap, climbed oaken towers for nuts, and burrowed in the earth for grubs.
Their destination was an underground cave. Spirogui and the Onion People led them down a corridor carved into the earth and sustained by internal wooden scaffolding. It was cramped. Where Milva and Flannery hunkered down to their knees so as not to bang their heads against the ceiling beams, the Onion People trod with room to spare.
"It's dark in here," Flannery said. "Maybe we should light a twig."
Spirogui turned his head, sharply."No! No fire. We do not love fire."
Flannery silenced herself as Milva, crawling behind her and Spirogui at them, conjectured. She whispered her musings into Flannery's ear. "They are people of the wood, are they not? I doubt they care much for fire."
"So I gather."
As the cave furrowed deeper on it revealed itself as more of a tunnel. In time the Onion People heading their party came to an oak-wood ladder descending into a second tunnel. The ladder was too small for Milva and Flannery to use but the walls were tight enough for them to climb down with their arms.
Hundreds of yards later the girls were hopping onto a gangplank surfacing another tunnel dug out of the soil. At the end of this were two circular doors. Spirogui's men shoved them open and led their way out. Milva and Flannery crawled out behind them and stood up in awe of their new surrounds; an enormous subterranean village.
With a flat surface about 600 yards in diameter and a curving roof 300 yards above street level, the City of the Onion People was housed in a geometrically perfect semi-circle. Among thousands of yard-wide gravel streets and shed-sized plywood houses lived a thriving community of Onion People; congregating, trading, working, teaching, rearing the young. Large timber towers loomed over the city from every corner its expanse, interlocked by an array of ropes, gangplanks and cabins to allow access.
Almost all the buildings here were constructed with some sort of wood or thatch. There was very little metal about, astride that used for weapons. Most of the Onion People's tools were stone.
With Milva and Flannery safely delivered to the city, Spirogui dismissed his men in their native language. They scattered into the streets while ordinary passers-by stared with alarm at the two surface-borne women they brought down here.
"Me you must follow." Spirogui said.
He led the way down a gravel road. Milva and Flannery glanced at each other, reading the other's mind about all this, but they both heeded his words. On the way through the city Milva felt like a giant trundling her way through a town. Every Onion Person had a glare for them. Milva could not blame them. She and Flannery were only slightly smaller than their average house. They might have torn down any one of their homes in seconds... if they wished to.
Spirogui took them to the other end of the city where a wooden palace, half of it built into the face of the wall, protruded. Unlike the rest of the buildings in town it was tall enough to accommodate Milva and Flannery's disproportionate height. Spirogui gave a saluting gesture to the men standing on guard, four strikes of intricate hand signals, unique to his people's culture. The two pikemen on watch lowered their pole arms to allow Spirogui and his captives forward. Milva and Flannery bent their heads only slightly to enter. The palace itself (while hardly ornate) had plenty of room to stand. Whether tipped off by the wood's fresh smell or the lack of decoration she couldn't say, but Milva sensed that the City of the Onion People, and this palace, had been built only recently.
Spirogui brought them to another set of doors guarded by another pair of small and leafy pikemen. This time they did not bar the way. But before any of them advanced any further, Spirogui turned in his rose petal heels and said;
"You to meet our King. Be respectful."
Milva blinked."Your king?"
"Ssh!" Flannery put a finger to her lips. There was a more cooperative air about her at the moment. But it was clear by now that whatever this was about, these beings didn't plan on killing them.
Spirogui pushed open the doors (with relative ease considering they were three times his height) and brought them to the King's chambers. Across the room an Onion Person, larger and more pronounced than any other, reclined peacefully into a lacquered oak throne.
As rude as it was... Milva marvelled at him.
Cordate greenery plated his shoulders, chest and abdomen like armour.
Beneath a kilt of water lilies extended his legs, thick reeds descending into leafy"boots" with rose petal "spurs". Below his leaf hand his twiggy fingers clutched at his rounded chin, from which cascaded a heavy beard of lichen.
The king was very like his people. The reed-like, wooden parts of their bodies were clearly analogous to the humanoid bone structure. Their flowery foliage acted as skin, or perhaps clothing, you might say. But looking at the King, who was clearly older and more developed than his subjects, it appeared that the leaved parts of the Onion People's bodies grew ever more distinct.
Speaking in his own language, the King addressed Spirogui with a wise frown, pointing to Milva and Flannery with a thin branch finger. The swordsman had already fallen to his knee in reverence when he told Milva and Flannery,"You bow now. `Show your respect': he says."
After glancing each other briefly both women lowered themselves to a knee before the King. He nodded with a sagely smile and allowed them to stand again, through Spirogui's translation. His name was Pa'pirrofo, the supreme authority of the Onion People.
"Ask him why we were captured." Flannery told Spirogui.
He translated for the King. Spirogui then translated King Pa'pirrofo's reply. "He says: `I answer the questions of you if you answer the questions of me... first'."
"Tell the King we will do our best to answer his questions."
Spirogui transferred that into their tongue. King Pa'pirrofo honourably nodded their acceptance of his terms and offered them his first question as thanks, "He says: `Are you... children of the fat bird... who died in sky six moons ago...?'."
Milva blinked."The fat bird?"
"...I think he means The Octavia," Flannery turned to Spirogui. "Tell him yes. Tell him we came from across the Scar with the `fat bird' when the valkyries attacked us."
"Is something wrong?"
He shrugged his leaf-plate shoulders."Do not know what... `valkyries' is."
How could that be possible? Did they not see the skeletons in Graefalz Chateau? Weren't they the ones who killed them? Then Milva wondered if the Onion People had a different name for the valkyries. Perhaps that was why. Milva quickly elucidated the word, saying,
"She means the women with wings," Milva said, flapping her arms. "Who have small teeth and eat people."
Spirogui's dewdrop eyes flashed. "...You speak of Vangyangha!"
King Pa'pirrofo boomed a snarl at the word `Vangyangha' when he heard it. His leaves were literally shaking with anger when Spirogui explained Flannery's reply. The king answered. "He says: `I very sorry for death of the fat bird and her children. The Vangyangha is... mortal enemy of my people... they destroy all they see'. He also says: `Why are you only two when advisor said you would be three?'."
Milva juddered as if she stabbed. The days had done little to stop the hurt in her heart. At her side Flannery refused to meet eyes with her and told Spirogui Tetra's fate instead. Spirogui related this to the King and the King offered his reply; "He says: 'I am sorry for this loss to you'."
"Ask him if we may ask him something now." Flannery said, tersely.
Spirogui translated. "He says: 'You may'."
"Who is the advisor he spoke of and how does he know our numbers?"
"He says: 'That something... answered better... by advisor himself'. He says: 'Captain Spirogui will show you way'." And Spirogui sighed a happy sigh, glad to be done with the difficult business of translation. "Come now. I will take you to the King's new advisor."
"Wait. Tell King Pa'pirrofo thank you for us." Milva said.
A tired but dutiful Spirogui translated that message for her. In return Milva and Flannery received a proud smile from the King and a creaking
interpretation of their language; "You... are... welcome..."
Spirogui led them out of King Pa'pirrofo's chambers and into one of the lumber palace's side corridors. He stopped by the third door down and branched his hand to it.
"You... can find advisor in here." He said.
Flannery wrapped the door while Milva thanked Spirogui for all his help when a familiar voice was quick to declare, "If you can understand me, please come in. If not, I'm not teaching you well enough."
A showering surge of relief flowed through Milva when she heard him speak. The Dark Elf giddily threw open the doors and found the liberal dreamer himself, Professor Kreug, lying comfortably in the trim but barebones bed of plywood and straw. He had a blanket, clearly taken from the Octavia considering its many burnt patches, draped over his waist and legs as he sat with parchment and quill in hand. He tipped his reading glasses down to get a better look at his new guests.
"Oh, thank Cogs!" Milva climbed onto the bed and threw her arms around the academic. "Thank Cogs you're alive! I had no idea it was you! I thought... I thought you might've... you might've been..."
As she became upset the Professor tenderly brought Milva to his broad shoulder and softly kissed her forehead. "It's good to see you too, Milva. I, too, feared the worst after jumping the ship. Oh, I'm so thrilled you both managed to survive! And you, Flannery, are you well?"
The archer tugged an artificial smile. "Well enough, sir."
Milva flinched. Again.
A more bemused Flannery shut the door with a sigh. "Tetra is gone. Do you recall that bite wound she sustained on the Octavia? It transformed her into an einherjar. If I hadn't stop her, Milva would've been..."
The Professor exhaled a shocked breath as the air around the three became quiet. From what Spirogui and King Pa'pirrofo said he expected Tetra's survival. To have overcome such a horrible attack without Tetra? There was an inherent cruelty in that that no one among them could overlook.
Kreug pulled off his glasses, his mood downcast. "I am so sorry, you two. I can't imagine how hard that must have been."
"We buried her along the river. When we find a way back to the human world, we'll give her a proper memorial."
"We've lost much, you two," Kreug said. "Come. Sit here. I'll ask one of forest sprites to bring us some food and water."
Then he reached for something that Milva did not notice before. It was a crutch. Kreug took the hand grip, fixed the pad underneath his armpit, and hobbled out of his bed. Milva's skin turned an even paler shade of brown when just why he needed it...
...his left leg was missing from the knee onward.
Flannery's throat hitched. "...Professor Kreug, your..."
"...Ah. Yes," he shrugged a grim smile, as though he'd forgotten it was missing. "...I'm afraid I'm not as mobile as I once was."
Somewhere between the revelation of Kreug's amputation and the assemblage of refreshments Milva fell into a deep, miserable stupor. When she left Grauheim on board The Octavia, for the first time in her life, everything seemed to be falling into place. She was rid of Agatha and she was embarking on a journey of knowledge, a journey that would stop a war before the first carbine was fired, a journey she spent her life waiting in metaphysical stasis for.
That journey had been undone.
And now, what was the result?
Professor Kreug, the man who took her in when the valkyries attacked West Square, who gave her a home for weeks and included her in the deepest goals of his research; had lost the use of a leg. Captain Quy, 2nd Mate Abel, Elberich, Mrs. Pottscram, the cookery girls and all the other people she met on The Octavia -- dead or missing. Flannery, the girl who saved her life, seemed to hate her now.
And then there was Tetra...
Milva would have burst into tears thinking these thoughts if not for Kreug and Flannery updating each other on all that had happened since The Octavia's crash. The three of them sat together around the bed over a tray of refreshments one of the Onion People brought for them. It was a collection of fruit and nuts; grapes, berries, apples, oranges, pears and plums as well as cashews, chestnuts, almonds, and walnuts. With a wooden cup of water each they recounted their collective events.
Flannery explained (for Milva was too weary to) that she found Milva while hunting for food, and that they planned to hike downriver for a human settlement. She told him how during their journey Tetra transmogrified into an einherjar, and was "killed for her own good", calmly omitting Milva's attempt to run away with her. Flannery went on to detail how she and Milva followed the river to the Graefalz Chateau. All things Milva knew.
Despite her mood, she paid a little more attention when Kreug spoke of his own struggles.
The professor explained that after he jumped ship and lost Milva's grip during the fall through the jungle canopy, he landed on his own with a tree branch impaling his leg. Because of the terrible pain it put him in, he removed it himself, and than, when he began to feel dizzy from loss of blood, he dragged himself to a stray pile of The Octavia's debris. He took a bar of iron, and after erecting a fire to bring it to an intense heat, he attempted a makeshift cauterization of his wound.
In the short term, it worked, and while he couldn't walk on it, he could drag himself around on the broken legs of a chair he found. Kreug used that to prop himself around as he went searching for the others. It was only unfortunate then, that when ventured deeper into the jungle, he became lost. Worst still, the leg he cauterized turned gangrenous. Kreug searched as long as he could before he passed out in the jungle, unable to find anyone.
When he woke up, explained the professor, he was here in the City of the Onion People (who he more accurately referred to as 'forest sprites'). He was told that King Pa'pirrofo had sent out an investigative party led by Spirogui after his scouts reported to him the crash of a 'fat bird' at the very edge of the Scar. When Spirogui and his men came across Kreug, unconscious with a gangrenous leg, they were forced to cut it off and bring him back to the City to recover.
"I was stunned," Kreug said. "But the truth is they saved my life, even if it was only for my information. You see the forest sprites thought that The Octavia's crash was actually an attack by the human world in retaliation to the valkyrie flocks that have been crossing the Scar these past eighteen years. When I explained to King Pa'pirrofo that we were on a mission to rid the world of the valkyries, he was sceptical of my ability to do so. That was when I showed him the Rheinshard."
He took it out to show them both with one hand, and gathered some nuts in the other.
"You still have it?" Milva said.
Kreug bobbed his head, nuts crunching between his teeth, and pocketed it again. "Indeed. It was safe. If I could have put you all in my pocket I would have."
She smiled. "So they knew of it, the wish mineral?"
"...Yes, to an extent. They've heard of the Rheingold and the power it wields but there was little more they could tell me about it that I didn't already know. The good news is that King Pa'pirrofo is prepared to aid me in whatever is necessary in banishing the valkyries from the Realm Across the Scar."
Flannery skinned a pear with her bare hands while she spoke. "He did bristle when we mentioned them in his chambers. I guessed that there was some kind of history between the forest sprites and the valkyries?"
"That's right, Flannery. From what Spirogui has told me these forest sprites actually originate from Yggdrasil. They call it "the Mother Tree". When the valkyries first appeared eighteen year ago they were driven off from it, losing many of their people. They were forced to retreat into the forest but even then they were hounded. Then this terrible fog descended and inhibited their ability to spot impending valkyrie attacks. Even the desperate few ambushes the sprites have been able to stage in places like the Graefalz Chateau weren't enough to dissuade valkyrie assaults. With that in mind, King Pa'pirrofo and his people went underground and built this little city for themselves... but they long to return to the surface."
"And they wait for the valkyries to be eliminated so they might?"
"Exactly." Said Kreug.
"What about the fog?" asked Flannery. "Is that related to the valkyries because it really got in our way during the hike downriver."
The professor shrugged. "I cannot say. It seems a stretch to suggest the valkyries are behind its sudden appearance, but that is definitely King Pa'pirrofo's suspicion. One couldn't say it hasn't helped them subjugate the forest sprites."
"So... we aren't the only ones suffering valkyrie aggression," Milva said solemnly. "...Beings here, in the Realm Across the Scar, are in danger as well."
Kreug took the elfling's hand. "That's why it's up to us stop them."
It was odd.
Milva wondered how the Onion People could stand to live without fresh air. The city itself was a fresh lumber wonder but for all its simplistic, efficient beauty, it had no sky. It had no breeze. There were no rivers to admire and no trees to climb. It was a temporarily safe purgatory, a world wedged between the surface they so cherished and certain death. A social non-existence sparing their physical life for another day.
She was leaning over one of the lumber palace's simplistic oval verandas when she thought those thoughts. From here she could see most of the city and the towers above them. It was quaint and peaceful... yet if the valkyries ever found it.. they would tear it to splinters in an instant.
What kind of life was that to live...?
Milva overheard a wooden"clack!" behind her. She turned and found Kreug there, hobbling out into the veranda from his room. He came up to the banister with a smile. "...While it's rather difficult to tell with us being underground and whatnot, it's the middle of the night, Milva."
"Professor..." She frowned. "I only wanted some fresh air. Then I came out here and realized there was none."
"It's a harsh life the sprites now live."
Milva said nothing. She gazed out to the city. Then, and only then, did she speak. But her voice was a whisper, a fraction of itself."You've lost your leg, Professor. How can you be so calm? How can you be so calm... when the valkyries could destroy this place at any time? Tetra is gone and the crew of The Octavia is gone. How can you be so calm?"
Kreug nudged his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his free hand."Calm? I assure you, Milva, I am terrified that what happened to The Octavia might happen to this place and our own world. But I also know that a clear mind solves problems. A clouded one creates them."
"Would that I had your confidence..." She sighed. "Your equanimity. I just... I see everything that has unfolded since I sold the flat at West Square... so much death and misery. If I hadn't done that... if I hadn't funded this quest and put you all in so much danger, then-"
"Then... what? Tetra would still be alive? The Octavia would still be moored at 5th Port? I would still have my leg? Those things might be true. I won't lie to you and discount them. But then we would never have the best chance in a lifetime of stopping the valkyries without bloodshed."
Milva hugged herself mournfully."I just... I just don't think I can do this anymore..."
Kreug sighed, extending his free hand to the view."...You said that you see how vulnerable this place is, didn't you? Well do you think it would fare any better when the aeronautical fleets drop their bombs? Do you believe we're the only one's who stand to suffer if we fail to stop this war? This isn't just a quest to stop the valkyries and their attacks, it's a quest to protect the last lingering remains of the Olde World from our cogsdamned human blasphemies!"
Milva watched Kreug's eyes and tone sharpen.
"Our bombs, our warships, our guns, our pollution! Doesn't this world deserve to be saved from both these threats? Think of that. If Tetra and the others died helping to avert those calamities then by Cogs they died honourable deaths! And after the sacrifices they made how would it do their memories any justice to walk away? To leave the work unfinished and simply consign this beautiful world to the flames of warfare?"
"You've come too far now, Milva." He said sternly. "There's room for regret but none for turning back. If you can't do it for yourself then do it for Tetra. Don't let her death be a vain one. I know that you can stop the valkyries. I don't know why I feel that way, but I do. And I'm more than willing to trust it."
Milva glanced up at him, thrown."You... truly have that much... faith in me...?"
Instead of telling her so he took out the Rheinshard. Despite their only light being bottled fireflies mounted on every wall of the city, it displayed its natural shimmer. Kreug put the relic in Milva's palm and folded her fingers over it.
"I can't come with you," He said softly. "With this stump of a leg, I would only slow you down. It's up to you now, Milva. You must stop the valkyries... prevent this war... and save this world."
"He says: 'One little day is not enough sleeping time for... or... to 'doom' the Vangyangha'."
Milva saw Flannery smirk at that. There was a brighter air about her with a bow and quiver at her side. Kreug asked some of the Onion People's woodwork weaponsmiths to make her a new set. In her own words they suited her style of combat better than any rifle did, and it was a good thing, as they had run out of bullets days ago. Too much game hunting.
Flannery tapped the bow on her shoulder and leaned toward Spirogui, who stood patiently at her side."Tell his highness that with a full quiver I am a force to be reckoned with."
Spirogui did the work of translation and King Pa'pirrofo burst into an ecstatic laughter. With a smile of his own Spirogui explained the sprite monarch's reply.
"He says: `Then let us hope your quiver has an arrow for every Vangyangha throat'."
Kreug, standing with Milva, addressed Spirogui himself."Ask the King if he was informed of my plans."
After hearing the question in his own tongue from Spirogui he paused a moment, thought, and said his reply in a terse drawl. But instead of translating that reply to the others, Spirogui answered the king in their language. They exchanged words for a few awkward moments before Spirogui hung his onion-shaped head in defeat.
"What are you two talking about?" Milva asked. "If it's our bus-"
The small knight cut her off."King Pa'pirrofo is thinking Spirogui must help protect Rheinshard... and to be stopping the Vangyangha."
Milva turned to him."He wants you to come with us? But why?"
"It was my idea," Kreug said. He explained himself when Milva and Flannery sent him questioning glances. "Don't let his size fool you now, Spirogui is a magnificent swordsman and he has a greater understanding of the Realm Across the Scar than either of you. He will be a precious asset on this journey."
"But do you want to go?" Milva asked Spirogui.
He paused a moment, thinking, turned an eye to his king and to Kreug, then back to Milva. Spirogui drew his blade and held it before his face nobly. It gleamed in the bottled firefly light."I will do... all I can... to protect my King... his kingdom... and its people. If I am needed, I will."
Kreug glanced across the line. "What say you, Flannery? Milva tells me you wish to return with the fleet."
The redhead's eyes rolled from him, to Milva, then back again. She cast a stern glare at no particular thing as she weighed her choices in her terse, quiet nature. Then Flannery returned to them. "My best friend is dead because of those monsters. I'd relish nothing less than returning the favour. If you say the Rheingold can stop them, then... I shall persist."
"Good," Kreug hobbled the wooden floor until he could stand before all three of them; Milva, Flannery and Spirogui. "You understand what must now be done. You must away to the manor of Gaustenfolt and begin the search for the other Rheinshard with him. It will be a difficult road even from here on out. I cannot promise you success, but I am confident the three of you can find the other piece and re-forge the Rheingold. I know it sounds arrogant... but the fate of the Realm Across the Scar... is firmly in your hands."
And it was.
Milva's hand clutched the Rheinshard tight in her pocket. Its hidden glow distilled a quiet warmth into her hand. That little piece of ore had the power to end the valkyrie menace once reunited with its other. It was her job to bring about their reunion... for those butchered at West Square, for those lost with The Octavia, for the sacrifices Kreug made... and for Tetra...
The Dark Elf heaved her re-stocked burlap sack onto her shoulder. "It's time we were off then."