Like most Onion Persons, Spirogui had an innate navigational affinity with the forest, so with him at the helm it became far easier for Milva and Flannery to make their way through it.
The party of three left the City of the Onion People two days ago. In that time Spirogui led them back to the winding river from the Graefalz Chateau's embankment. Much as Flannery suggested the easiest way to descend the forest was to follow the river, however, Spirogui explained that there were no human settlements immediately downriver. With his almost boundless font of knowledge he explained how the human populations of the Realm Across the Scar had been "scattered" by the constant valkyrie attacks since their grizzly first appearance eighteen years ago. Milva understood why. If the Eleven Dukedoms, with all their technological advancements and military prowess, were having difficulty facing this abnormal threat, one failed to see how the Realm's humans might have fared better.
It was a day later, when the river had widened to such a width that the left bank was a simple speck of green and wood in the watery distance, that they found a old valkyrie-ravaged village... or what remained of it.
What lingered were the rotting planks and moss-ridden flagstones of an old riverside mill town; the wheel wedged between two boulders in the river. It creaked eternally under the battering force of the rapids.
Judging by what remained, Flannery guessed that the old mill town had about eighty people living and working in it before the valkyrie's attack. A saddened Spirogui looked on. "Humans of this Realm... very good people. But, too weak to fight valkyries."
Milva pictured Tetra's shining smile in her mind.
Out of respect for the dead she cast a chant. From what she learned of the texts in Grauheim, the Dark Elves of olde made sure to pass their dead on with blessings and benedictions. It was one of only a few details she knew about her people. Why her memory of the benediction escaped her upon Tetra's death she could not say, but Milva certainly had her in mind when she began.
Upon a series of smooth hand gestures and signs, a shimmering blue light surrounded Milva's body. Her eyes were closed. She did not see the glow, nor saw she the enquiring eyes of Flannery and Spirogui, but she felt them all in her skin as her mind vanished into a space of calm.
She pictured eternity; the metaphysical space before life and beyond death, where the pains of time ended and the joy of silence began. Milva pictured freedom for the spirits interred here. She pictured them slipping free of the shackles that gyved them to this ravaged locale and dispersing their essence into the nothingness.
She opened her eyes.
Milva, Flannery and Spirogui stood marvelling as clusters of light rose from the flagstones, the planks, the wheel, the rotting furniture. Perfect dewdrop-shaped balls of spiritual essence flocked to the sky where they shattered like glass and dissolved into sparkles. With every earthly release there was a mournful wail, but every dissolution was a happy one. One could feel it in the energy of the moment. The joy of freedom. Milva knew that joy. The last passing spirit left a child's chuckle throbbing in her ears, reminding her of it once again.
The river was as wide as the Hochenflosse when Milva, Flannery and Spirogui finally reached its mouth. What lay beyond was an absolute joy to behold.
In a frothing white blanket the forest river toppled over the edge of a 900 foot drop in a gigantic waterfall pooling at the foot of an enormous basin that Spirogui called the heart of the Realm Across the Scar. The`heart' was a wide and colossal valley of forest, woodland, jungle and swamp stretching well over a hundred miles in every direction. To east lay the Scar, from whence they came. Spirogui pointed to the west wall.
"That where most swampland be." he said.
The knight then pointed out the north wall, where what little waterfalls and greenery simply gave way to a jagged mountain range. One of those mountains stood out a tad more than the rest, a stooping and dusky mound levelling off at the summit. Spirogui called it Mt. Volghum. The world's oldest surviving dragon was said to live within it.
But it was what occupied the very centre of the basin, not its walls or surrounding lands, that held the brunt of Flannery's attention.
Milva and Spirogui came to admire it with her. It was a gargantuan oak tree with long branches that protruded hundreds upon hundreds of yards out from its three mile high trunk. Its bushy foliage cast a tremendous veil of darkness over the jungles and woodlands surrounding its mighty roots. It was too far away to see any trace of the valkyries but Milva did not forget that Yggdrasil was their domain now.
There was something terribly profound in seeing it. Yggdrasil. It was the world tree. The roots buried underneath it stretched to every corner of the world and offered it its natural vitality. It was one of few monoliths to survive the Doom of the Gods in all its grandeur. The idea that a race of creatures, the valkyries, so vile and destructive, would occupy that sacred place as their own was a travesty.
"That Spirogui's true home," Spirogui whispered. "Such beautiful place..."
Flannery crossed her arms."And that's where the valkyrie abide?"
"Yes," he said with a nod. "They come eighteen years ago... ruled by Valkyrie Queen, who speaks like we speak. They ate many of Spirogui's people and so Spirogui and his people must flee of them."
Milva reached into her pocket and squeezed the Rheinshard. As always it felt warm and safe in her hand."It won't be like that forever, Spirogui. We will stop them."
"Of course there's always the question of how," Flannery nodded to that steep drop to the basin's foot. "Gaustenfolt's manor lies in the lands near the bottom of the waterfall, right? Well just how do we get down there?"
Spirogui pointed a leafy finger to their left."I show you way."
Like the Scar, the enormous gorge separating the human world from the Realm Across the Scar, the Heart gained its unusual geomorphic structure during the Doom of the Gods.
If the legends were true then the Scar was created by the mighty hammer of the God of Thunder, striking a blow against a serpent of the sea whom had risen to flood the world in water. The basin (expanding outwardly from Yggdrasil) was a"jar" the God of Thunder carved from the land to contain the beast until the conflict's end. When the Thunder God fell in battle and did not return to claim his trophy, the sea serpent drank up all the basin's water and died.
Spirogui told Milva these things to calm her nerves as she climb down the 900ft basin wall. She tried to wean herself off her fear by pondering the likelihood of the story. What details could she analyze to convince herself of it? She ended up thinking of the shape of the basin, appraising the time and effort it would likely take for even the strongest god to dig up such a void in the earth. Then she was foolish enough to actually look.
Milva gazed over her shoulder at the jungles, forests, swamps, rivers, lakes, waterfalls and mountains, at the many rainbows and tricks of light dancing in the mist of the water's stream. For one long moment she was so in awe of the sights that her boot slipped the next foothold. The shock broke her grip. Milva fell screaming from the cliff face, the resounds of the waterfall thundering in her ears, until a firm hand grappled her wrist, keeping her from a certain death.
Through gritted teeth she asked,"Are you all right, Milva?!"
The Dark Elf gazed at the foreboding 900ft drop to the basin floor, then cast her eyes up at the one who saved her. Spirogui held his position just above them, startled."I-I-I'm all right..."
"Grab a foothold...!" She yelled.
Milva swallowed the lump in her throat and swung to one just a yard away. She clasped it desperately, willing herself not to look down again, and hugged herself as tight as a spider to the rocks.
Spirogui, an excellent climber, scuttled down to her side."What had... happened...?"
A nervous smile."...I was not paying attention."
"Spirogui is sorry, Milva," he said. "This best way from top because is only way from top. You endure, yes?"
"I shall try." She said in quivering manner, and she restarted the slow and difficult process of climbing down deep into the Realm's warren heart.
Professor Kreug, before sending them off to find Gaustenfolt, told Milva that starting with the basics was the best way to harness and control her powers. She was beginning to see how right he was. For all she wanted was to perform a simple trick; to move some water from the plunge pool to the empty pot by their campfire... that way Flannery could boil it and they could all have a drink. And she tried. Milva paused, closed her eyes and willed for sixteen pints of it to rise out of the pool and follow her command toward the pot. Only a quart of the requested amount came up from the shore. Regardless, Milva thought of a shape the water might maintain, a sphere, to render it an easier ferry. It was a struggle just to get the water to stay still. When the water finally did form a slushy, haphazard ball, it floated at a snail's pace toward the campsite pot before
a snapped twig broke Milva's concentration. The ball of water burst open and spat its aquatic contents over grass.
Milva's shoulders sagged.
It was so odd. How could she perform such amazing feats as defeating the valkyrie at West Square, restoring Captain Quy's crocus on The Octavia and freeing the spirits of a lost village one moment; and then completely botch even the simplest magical tasks the next?
The Dark Elf flopped back on her blanket as Flannery emerged from the bush with splinters in her boots. Milva didn't need to guess who her twig-snapper was. It was not all bad news though, as Flannery returned with a bushel of fish dangling from a snapped fishing line. That put a smile back on her face. Food was easier to come by in the Heart of the Realm, according to Spirogui, because valkyries preferred to hunt at higher altitudes. If the valkyries had seen the Onion People as mere prey they would have let them live here. Instead the valkyries saw them as a threat to their existence and drove them out of the Heart.
Flannery sat herself by the campfire and unfurled a knife from her pack. She cut the throat of one fish and then whittled away its gills to prepare it for supper.
"You're getting better," she said abruptly.
Milva blinked and said "Excuse me?" in a dazzled fashion. She wasn't yet used to Flannery initiating conversation with her.
With the roar of the waterfall's plunge pool in the background, less than thirty yards from camp, Flannery simply assumed that Milva did not hear her and spoke louder. "I said you're getting better. With the water? That was closer to camp than before."
In the past such a compliment might've drawn Milva blush but not today. There was no mistaking the haphazard nature of her powers. She could clearly use the Arcane for tremendous things but her basic mastery of it was lacking. She recalled 2nd Mate Abel's reflections upon that and now realized how right he was. The Arcane was completely useless to her unless she mastered it.
Milva gazed at her palm, as if her power was contained it in. "I haven't even made the first steps in my journey. Whatever power I have comes from my Dark Elf blood... but there's little talent to draw it out. If only I had someone to teach me."
"I see." Flannery glanced around the camp. "Where is Spirogui?"
"He says he went out scouting for Gaustenfolt's Manor but I think he's just uncomfortable around the campfire. I hope he will be all right out there on his own."
The archer waved that concern off. "He was born here. He knows this area better than we do. If anything he's probably more worried about us than we are about him."
"Indeed," replied Milva, shrugging a smile.
"So... what will you do after we banish the valkyries?"
Flannery was busy gutting the fish from its cut throat to its anal orifice when Milva asked her than. She paused and turned to her. "You want to know what I would do?"
"Hm," Flannery pulled a bitter smile. "Truly, I have no idea. Not since the valkyries took my parents."
"Adoptive parents, mind you." Said Flannery. "The Octavia was my only home. Now all that's left of it is the few pots and blankets we have here."
Golden eyes trembled shut. "...I'm sorry."
"Stop apologizing, Milva! It... that wasn't your fault. The truth is... The Octavia's fate was shared with many other ships recently, especially those operating near the Scar. Captain Quy knew the risks involved. We all did. But we had all been hurt by the valkyries in some way or other, and us embarking upon a mission that would see their doom, well... it was too much to pass up. We were greedy and we did what we wished to."
Milva hugged herself, but she wasn't sad anymore. "I still feel responsible for what happened. My money made the voyage possible."
"Tetra wouldn't want you to think that way."
Her name still made Milva's heart swoon. "...Tetra. I still can't believe she's gone."
"It's too late to regret anything now," Flannery said. "Kreug made me see that. If he can still hope on a little bit of gold after losing his leg... what would it make us to think ourselves short-changed, eh? Selfish. I can make a new life after we rid the world of the valkyries."
Milva sighed. "I hope I can, too."
She glanced up at the soaring basin wall, the circling partition of rock, moss, waterfalls and rainbows; that they all climbed down this morning. High above that the black cloak of night, sprinkled with beautiful stars and starlight. What would life be like without the valkyries? What would she do with herself once they were gone? Milva spent little time thinking about it before, but she saw that her situation was not unlike Flannery's. She had no home to go to, she sold that simply to get this far. What did the future hold for her beyond the valkyries?
Milva gave herself no answer as Spirogui emerged from the bushes. The little knight sheathed his blade and addressed them, though wary of the campfire. "Spirogui has 'news'."
Flannery was already gutting her third fish when he came. "What is it?"
"Spirogui has found... place called Gaustenfolt's Manor."
They didn't set out straight away for the manor. Flannery shared the fish stew she made with Milva, while Spirogui fed himself on some nuts, roots and berries he foraged for in the forest. They slept away the rest of the night then packed up camp the next morning and set out under Spirogui's lead.
Under the deep shadow of the basin wall, Spirogui, Milva and Flannery hiked through the forest's thick vegetation. It did not rain as frequently here as it did up on the rim, and there was no river to guide their steps, and as always the thick fog clung to the ground like smoke cloud wafting around a lit pipe. Despite the many obstacles Spirogui led them to a path of little resistance, darting around fog blankets and bramble fields that Milva and Flannery might otherwise have walked into.
They had been on their feet for about three hours when they verged into a clearing. The manor stood there quietly in a mild state of disrepair.
It crumbled in places. Certain windows were broken and their sills dislodged. The grounds were marred by broken marble statuettes and hedges that had withered a sickly brown. Moss soured the perimeter wall and vines adhered themselves to the gate's bars like stubborn snakes. With all the crackled cobbles, broken roof tiles and rusting pipes, Milva could have tricked herself into thinking no one lived here anymore. She abstained from that thought when Flannery pointed out something lining the pikes of the perimeter wall.
Severed valkyrie heads.
Some were fresh, with moulted feathers laying in piles far below the decaying, vulture-pecked flesh; while others were clearly much older, bleached white skulls with tiny nodes where their wing bones once extended. The valkyries didn't hunt in the heart for food. It was too low. That meant they came here for Gaustenfolt, did it not? And what kind of fighter was he, that he was able to kill these creatures and flaunt his trophies so proudly from parapets of his 'castle'?
Spirogui crossed his reed-like arms. "This is the place."
"How do we get inside?" Milva asked.
With a single kick to the vine-ridden bars, Flannery snapped its rusted iron lock and the gates swung open. "That's how we get inside" she said. Rude as it was to simply barge in, the three of them had little time to waste. Milva, Flannery and Spirogui entered the manor grounds and traversed the decomposing hedge garden to the cracked front steps.
Milva rapped the lion-head knocker.
But there was no reply.
So she knocked it again.
"No one's coming to the door." Milva said.
Spirogui glanced up in the sky. You could still see the basin wall in the distance, looming over the forest. "It is morning. He must be awake."
Flannery crackled her knuckles. "Oh, stand back, the pair of you."
She thrust her boot at the doors. They didn't budge. "What?" Flannery whispered, and kicked at them again, but again they didn't budge. They only rattled noisily in the paint-stripped door frame.
"He must have bolted the door from inside." She said.
If valkyries truly had laid siege to his manor then that wasn't a surprising move on Gaustenfolt's part. Milva sighed. "Do we have any other ideas?"
Spirogui doubled-back down the steps to point out one of the shattered rectangular windows they spotted earlier. He was small enough to fit through it by the looks of things.
Flannery nodded. "Okay. If you can go through that window, you can come downstairs and unbolt the door for us."
"Be careful." Milva said.
Spirogui bobbed his onion-shaped head to them both and sunk his thorny nails into the brick wall. With his slight frame and excellent climbing skills Spirogui scampered up to the window ledge with hardly any effort. Then he broke the rest of the glass out the window frame with the butt of his sword and climbed inside.
Flannery and Milva waited for him outside. They stood, spoke a while, and nibbled on the last of the grapes that the Onion People packed for them before they left the city. Minutes rolled on by. Then, about half an hour later, Spirogui hadn't returned to unlock the door. Flannery put her ear to it but heard nothing beyond. It was either soundproof or the vestibule was completely silent, either way, she could not hear any sign of Spirogui.
"He should have been back by now." Flannery said.
Milva held back the quiver in her throat. "...I wonder if something has happened. Do you think Gaustenfolt might have mistaken him for a thief and...?"
"I'm not sure."
"Well we can't just stand here," Milva said. "If he is in trouble we have to get inside."
Flannery paused to think, rubbing her fist in her hand, then said, "Lets take to the back. There might be another way in."
So they followed the gravel tracks around the west wing's cracked walls to the rearmost wall. There was little there aside from some buckets and an old wheelbarrow. The garden doors, once made of glass, were entirely boarded up. Only the windows too small for valkyries to fit through were left unlatched.
Milva scanned the wall for some slight nook or cranny big enough for the pair of them. Then she heard a knock. She and Flannery glanced up and saw a loose window three windows down from the roof banging against its frame. They also noticed the rusty pipe running up from the soil to the grating at the corner of the uppermost floor. It was less than a yard away from the open window.
Flannery pointed it out. "I have an idea. If we go up that pipe and lean across we can slip in through that open window."
"But that pipe is rusted. Is it stable enough to support our weight?"
The archer went up and shook it. It rattled a bit, but not much. "It seems stable enough, and it's cold, which means the underground boiler isn't running. This is probably our best wager on getting inside."
If it was then there was no point in hesitating, not with Spirogui in there already, possible in trouble. Milva gave Flannery her consent with a nod. The redheaded girl came to her, pulled the revolver out of her belt, and tucked its barrel into Milva's. She could tell from its extra weight that it was loaded.
"You go first. If Gaustenfolt takes a pop at you before I come in, shoot him in the leg. Understand me?"
"I do." Milva said.
"Good. Get going."
The Dark Elf shucked off her backpack then walked up to the pipe and slivered her way up it. Though the height was disorienting after a few floors, Milva wasn't too troubled by the clime, after all, its was only yesterday that she almost fell to her death descending something thousands of times taller. Compared to the basin wall this was a childish dalliance. At the top of the pipe Milva reached her arm over to the ledge and grabbed it tight. With all her strength she hauled herself up and shoved herself through the windows.
Milva fell on top of a dusty bed of a white painted spare room. There was nothing else in it aside from an equally dusty chest of drawers and an old wardrobe. A blanket of cobwebs fouled up the ceiling. The door was shut.
Milva overheard Flannery yelling "are you all right?" from outside. She poked her head out the window and told her to come up. While Flannery did that Milva pulled the revolver out of her belt. She had no intention of shooting anyone unless it was absolutely necessary but she didn't want to look helpless in front of Flannery anymore. She was the only one of their group who could not survive alone in the Realm Across the Scar, thus far she had been living off their survival, camping, and hunting skills. She just had to do some things for herself.
Flannery came in some two minutes later. Once they were together again they opened the door and peered out into the bleak corridor. As most of the windows had been boarded and the indoor gaslamps were unlit, there was only partial light to illuminate it. But even in the darkness Milva saw for herself Gaustenfolt's trade.
The corridor was crowded with antiques. Marble shieldmaiden statues from Grauheim, stuffed eagles from the mountains of Gelbheim, finely woven tapestries from the embroidery guild of Schwartzheim, and so on. Even the floorboards underneath their feet had been carved with runic symbols native to the people of Blauheim. Professor Kreug said he that he was a collector of relics. If this corridor alone was anything to go by, he was a master of it.
Milva and Flannery carefully made their way from the hall to a stairwell that they descended to the fifth floor. They followed the process three more times until they came out on the balustrades of the second floor, hung around the dual staircase stretching into the main hall, which itself informed the vestibule. From the balcony they saw the boarded-up door, but there was still no sign of Spirogui.
Aside from the snaps of a roaring fireplace, which cast an intimate orange glow over the room and its furniture, the hall was deathly quiet.
"He isn't here." Milva said.
Flannery eyed the steps. "Lets take a closer look."
They went down the stairs together. The wooden steps groaned with age underneath their feet. Flannery went over to the armchairs and table assembled around the fireplace. Her nose wiggled at a half-drunk glass of whiskey and a smothered cigar tipped in a crystal ashtray. Clearly he was here when she kicked the door.
Milva sighed, unaware of the shadow rising behind her. "Do think he knows we're-"
A thumb-tucked hand waved around and clobbered her head so hard it dazed her. Milva cried a startled gasp as hands expertly grappled her from behind, one knocking the revolver out of her grasp and the other locking her wrists together. The revolver fell into her attacker's grasp while a throttling knee rammed into Milva's back. She dropped face-first into the floor's varnish; groaning, trapped and delirious.
Flannery had barely nocked her arrow when Milva's assailant shoved the revolver's barrel at the Dark Elf's skull.
"Let her go!" Flannery yelled, taking aim.
The attacker's voice was a questioning whisper when she came face to face with her arrows... or rather the face behind them. "H-Hrist...?"
Flannery paused in a blink, slackening her grip as if stunned, then shook off the feeling and re-tightened her aim."My name is Flannery, and know that if you kill that girl, I'll kill you next. Let her go."
Milva ignored the blood running down her face and glanced over her shoulder at her attacker. In the fireplace's glow she saw her, a woman. Her dishevelled silver hair tumbled over broad shoulders and a bared, swan-like neck. Why did she look so familiar?
There was a haunted look in her eyes as she gazed over at Flannery, who looked back at her with contempt.
"Did you hear me?!" Boomed Flannery, angrily. "Let her go!"
The silver-haired woman shook off her own inertia and climbed off of Milva's back, allowing her to stand. Flannery gestured for Milva to come behind her while she kept her thin slip of steel trained on the attacker. With Milva safely behind her, Flannery focused on the woman.
"Put the revolver down." She ordered.
The woman eyed Flannery for a long moment, then did as she was told, setting the firearm by the whiskey glass. Now that she was unarmed Flannery asked;"Where is our friend?"
The woman blinked."What friend?"
"The forest sprite that came in here, where is he?"
"He's... upstairs. I bound him in rope. He was intruding."
Flannery spat at her naked feet."Well we aren't the only ones, are we? So where is Gaustenfolt?"
"You're here for Gaustenfolt?" She asked.
"This is his manor, isn't it?"
The woman exhaled."Indeed it is, but..."
"...Gaustenfolt died eighteen years ago."
Dead? Gaustenfolt was dead? Milva choked on the notion. How could that be? After everything they went through to get here he was dead before she was even born? The Rheinshard almost burned a hole through her pocket as the gravity of their quest suddenly became clear, and for a tense few moments hope seemed utterly lost. But Flannery's mind was fixed in the moment, so much so that when the silvery-haired woman moved to brush a fallen tress from her brow, the archer tightened the grip at her bowstring.
"Don't you move!" Shouted Flannery. "Who are you?"
The woman smiled sadly."You'd only be hastening an inevitability, my child. We do not have similar prospects for life."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Perhaps I should start at the beginning." She said. "My name is Valpheena."
Milva and Flannery glanced at each other. Valpheena? As in Valpheena the war heroine?
Though Milva admitted it with some guilt, Valpheena looked less beautiful now than she did in the papers all those months ago when the Johannes expedition first launched. In the Grauheim Chronicle she was a strident and majestic warrior woman of flowing blonde and courageous height, who staunchly decried fears of valkyrie strength in her own editorial. That was the"Valpheena" Milva knew in Grauheim.
With a blush Milva recalled a dream she had wherein Valpheena, freshly back from some nameless war, romantically whisked her away from Agatha's clutches. To her and to so many other girls back in Grauheim, she was this iconic figure of fantasies and daydreams; a soldier with all the sensuality of a seraph.
This withered husk sitting across from Milva now was just a shadow of that woman.
She was definitely the same person, that was never in doubt. Valpheena had the same high cheekbones, the same buxom lips, the same mane of hair, but every feature was blanched and worn out. Her cheeks had caved in and her lips had dried and cracked. Her hair was completely grey now. The proud lustre in her eyes had long worn off.
So yes, there was no doubt she was the same person. Her speed and skill in disarming Milva earlier, along with her butchering and beheading of all those valkyries outside, attested to her identity. But she had aged before her time. It was heartbreaking to see.
Valpheena sat peacefully in Gaustenfolt's old recliner with a glass of whiskey and a sad smile, as she told them all her story. Milva and Flannery sat across from her with two cups of cocoa and a fractured plate of biscuits between them. Spirogui, who had since been untied, joined them as Valpheena recounted her experiences, although he kept some loving space between himself and the fireplace.
"We were passing over the basin in our airship, The Skybearer, at the time." Valpheena said. "The previous morning our expedition leader, Johannes, spotted a valkyrie flock headed in Yggdrasil's direction and had asked the captain to ferry our ship there. In my heart of hearts I knew it was a clumsy and foolhardy thing. I aught to have been more forceful from the beginning. But I was so drunk on the goal, I buried my instincts and let him proceed without query. We were less than three miles away from Yggdrasil when we were attacked."
"Is that how The Skybearer was destroyed?" Flannery asked.
Valpheena shook her head."It was a small scouting flock, no more than six or seven. We saw them off and lost no men in the process. But we knew it was only a matter of time before the survivors informed the Valkyrie Queen of our presence and sent a full-fledged flock to chop us down. After hours of debate, with some of us wanting to go no further and others, including Johannes, wanting to press on, we decided to return home..."
Valpheena swallowed back her whiskey and poured herself another glass before continuing.
"...so were moored ourselves for the day to repair damage done to the hull and gasbag, with the intention of turning back the next morning. Little did I know that Johannes, being the selfish bastard he was, sent three men out on their own with a photogrammer behind our backs."
"Why did he do that?" Milva asked.
"For conclusive proof that the valkyries had taken over Yggdrasil. We came to the Realm Across the Scar with the intention of confirming that it was where the valkyrie attacks on the Eleven Dukedoms originated. If we went home without proof, the Duke of Grauheim never would've backed further exploration. Johannes knew this and he sent out those men in secret to substantiate his thesis."
And they did get it. Milva remembered the photogram that the Duke of Grauheim displayed before the 284th session of the allied continental dukedom. That single photogram set the entire war effort in motion.
Valpheena continued."Once we realized what Johannes had done we could not leave, not until we found them. When they failed to return the following morning we were forced to wait another day before settling on a search party... but that was one more day we didn't have. When the second dusk broke we were attacked by an entire flock of valkyries. Even with a military aerovessel we didn't last more than an hour against that many. They just kept coming, one swarm after the other, tearing and gnashing at my men. I was below deck manning a gun when they ate through our gasbag. The few of us close enough to get to the aeroyawls all abandoned ship, but there wasn't enough time to get everyone down. We were too close to the ground. The Skybearer crashed and took almost all of our crew with it."
Just like The Octavia. Plucked out of the sky in an instant. Milva put her cup aside and kneeled by Valpheena's armchair, warmly squeezing her knee. It was a spontaneous thing, she was barely aware of doing it, or even of Flannery's slight bristling toward it, but when Valpheena smiled back at her, Milva knew she did the right thing.
Valpheena grasped Milva's hand and squeezed it back. Her long thumb stroked back and forth over Milva's pale brown skin.
"I can go on," she whispered to the Dark Elf. "When I came to, all those around me were dead. Our aeroyawls were caught in the impact clouds and blown off course. I was... wounded, and with my last bit of strength I hobbled away. I wanted to stay with the wreckage and wait for a second ship to investigate what happened, but since valkyrie attacks had grown so intelligent in recent weeks, I suspected they might use the wreckage for an ambush. I could not risk staying there. So I fled, ambling my way through the forest, until I found this place. I've been living here ever since... fighting off whatever valkyries strayed here by chance."
Milva bit her lip."I am so sorry... a second team was sent... a fortnight later... but it only found Johannes' notes and the men sent to collect the photogram of Yggdrasil. We all thought... those of us in Grauheim, I mean... we thought you had been killed."
"I see," Valpheena's sigh was earthy and ashen. "It's to be expected, I suppose. But how did you children get here? Did the Duke send a third expedition?"
"That's... a longer story."
Milva recounted it. She explained everything about Kreug, his plans, and the Rheinshard; The Octavia and Tetra; even Spirogui, King Pa'pirrofo and the Onion People. When Milva had unburdened herself of all she needed to Valpheena had seen the bottom of three more whiskey glasses, and another was on its way.
"So that's why you're here," Valpheena finally put the glass down. "This man named Kreug thought that Gaustenfolt still had the relic... or that he might know where to find it."
Flannery leaned forward."Did he?"
The leather armchair creaked as Valpheena heaved herself up. Tired steps took her to a sideboard by the other side of the room. She unlocked one of its drawers and withdrew a thick ledger with velour covering. The war heroine gave it to Milva and sat back down.
"What is this?" Asked the girl.
"Open it to the `eared page."
Milva flicked through its many pages, scribbled through in messy but detailed notes, until she came to the earmarked page. It had the last batch of notes (which Milva realized were Gaustenfolt's) as she unconsciously read them out;
"'Tis the morn before what might have been my biggest sale," Milva read. "but I fear I shall never make it to market. In my life I have known many curiosities, but in have known nothing so curious as the events that unfolded yesterday. Dear journal, as I sat in my study estimating the coin my goods would fetch, a knock came to my door. But this is the Realm! One does not expect visitors! But what monster, what dragon, what serpent, would come to your door to eat you? Like a fool I left my pistol by the wayside on that notion, and opened my doors to a haggard old woman..."
Milva turned the page. Encrusted spots of dried blood stained the page from place to place.
"...and what a vile and wretched old bitch she was, too! She spoke to me of the relic I procured, an item left to the world by the Gods, my prized possession, the one relic I would not sell. She offered me 10,000 pieces. I showed her the door. Then, with a rickety smile, she opened her jaws and, if I am to believe my memory and my wounds, a javelin of ice lunged out of her throat and into my stomach! I toppled. The old woman merely trod over me and tore through my storage with all the respect one owes a pennywhore, and stole away with my relic. The witch has stolen my relic! And if I my wounds are telling, I'll not last long enough to get it back. So I write this, dear journal, that my fate is known, and that some dear relic collector of a future generation, come to my door for my cache, will seek out the old sorceress and sate my memory with a gallon of her blood! A pox on you, woman! A pox on you and all your-"
Where the"r" of "your" ended there was a long line of ink that scratched off the page and onto the next. He must have died at that point. With fresh new revelations and complications buzzing in her mind, Milva shut the ledger.
Valpheena brushed her forelock aside."I found bones huddled over the desk in his study. Writing in such anger probably sped up his blood loss."
"So. Eighteen years ago," Flannery said, as if to map the circumstances in her mind, "An old woman killed Gaustenfolt, took the Rheinshard, and vanished? Cogs, this is hopeless. We just go from one setback to another."
"I don't mean to be rude, but... how could the three of put yourselves in this kind danger over such a flimsy possibility? Didn't you wonder?"
"It's not hopeless," Milva said, more to herself than anyone else. "It can't be as simple as this. We've come too far to give up now. What if we went out and found this woman? What if we asked her for the relic?"
Valpheena poured another whiskey."I've had time to think about these things, these past few months. The timing of the theft, eighteen years ago, matches that of the Blauheim School of Magics' destruction. Do any of you know that story?"
A gaslamp flicked on in Milva's head. "...Wait, yes, of course! Eighteen years ago a sorceress attacked the Blauheim School of Magics, destroyed it even, as repayment to the Dean, who once stripped the woman of her youth and banished her as punishment for attacking another student at her school. She was a Dark Elf, like me."
"Indeed," answered the older woman. "I can't help but think that there is a connection. And perhaps if those were the only two puzzle pieces to go by, I wouldn't trust my hunch, but they aren't. Do you remember what else appeared eighteen years ago?"
It hit her. The gasp hitched in Milva's throat. "The valkyries..."
The mood became curious and dark between the four of them as a more thoughtful Valpheena leaned forward and explained her theories to them all."These three events; the emergence of the valkyries, the theft of a relic your professor claims may have summoned them, and the Blauheim School's destruction, all occurring at a similar time? It seems more preposterous to claim that there was no connection."
"So you think... this witch might have... summoned the valkyries? And used them to destroy the Blauheim school?"
Valpheena paused a moment."...Something tells me it wasn't quite as simple as that, but... those are my suspicions. It does you little good to speculate so, in any case. Whoever that woman was, the damage is done, and the Rheinshard is with her."
That was when Spirogui, who had remained largely silent throughout their conversation, came forward. With his dewdrop eyes still warily eying the hearth, he laid his little leaf-enfolded hand on the table and drew their attention.
"What is it, Spirogui?" Asked Milva.
His sharp finger carved a name into the wood --"Olga" -- and looked up at them to gauge their reactions. "Cannot... `say'... her name well. But she sound like one who you all talk about."
"Olga?" Flannery repeated the name. "Who is Olga?"
"You say, in book," he pointed to the ledger in Milva's hands. "that old woman spit ice from mouth, yes? Old woman with powers of ice, yes? Such woman live in Heart. Her name be word spelled "O-L-G-A" and she very... dangerous. Forest Sprites have `treaty' with her. King Pa'pirrofo not want anger her."
"So what does that leave us with?"
"King Pa'pirrofo not want anger mirror witch and mirror witch likely not want give up Rheinshard. Mirror witch have big revenge if Spirogui and Spirogui's friends take Rheinshard. So. If Spirogui's friends want take Rheinshard from mirror witch..." He unsheathed his blade with a heavy, metallic slurp. "Spirogui must kill mirror witch."
Milva wasn't sure what woke her up that night.
Perhaps slumbering thoughts of their situation and how fast everything was moving were so troublesome they shucked her out of her sleep. Or maybe the impending confrontation with Olga weighed on her. Perhaps it was the pungent stench of liquor and tobacco in the air around the lounge. She didn't know what it was. But Milva's eyes fluttered open and she found herself dozing in one of Gaustenfolt's armchairs, all curled up like a kitten. A blanket had been draped over her body and shoulders. Across the room sat Valpheena. She blew a puff of smoke into the air and chased it down with another whiskey.
Milva had never seen someone drink that heavily.
Yet she wasn't drunk. Was she really so stout a woman that alcohol had no effect on her? But then she remembered how valiantly beautiful she once was and compared that Valpheena to the one sitting across from her. Maybe the drink had gotten to her. Eventually.
Valpheena realized she was awake."I thought you were sleeping."
"W-where is everyone?"
"Your friends are upstairs, doing what you just were. I offered to carry you up to bed, but the redheaded one said otherwise." The older woman smiled softly at the rim of her glass. "She seems very considerate. A tad taciturn, maybe, but considerate."
"Yes. I think that sums her up."
Valpheena's smile fell. "...What do you know about her?"
"...Flannery?" Though Milva found it a little odd that Valpheena would ask her about Flannery, of all people, she wasn't about to argue or lie to a war heroine. "I do not know much... we haven't known each other that long, really. She tells me her adoptive family was killed by valkyries and that the crew of The Octavia took her in. I don't know more than that. Why do you ask...?"
"Oh. Never mind," she replied. "It's just... she impressed me, when she defended you before. She made all the right moves, asked the correct questions. She will make for a good ally against Olga."
"As will you."
Valpheena shrugged another sad smile."I'm flattered you would say that, but... I cannot come with you, Milva. I'm afraid I'd be little use to you and your friends."
"...Really? The... throbbing in my head says different..."
They both laughed a little at that one, and Valpheena apologized for hitting Milva they way she had, but it did little to loosen the palpable air of sadness emanating from the soldier. She poured another whiskey from the decanter on the table and stared at the crackling fire with a sigh.
"I've wasted so much time. Now all I have are these... memories. And they fade a little, everyday, so few of them happy. Where does the time go? When you can look into a mirror and see a stranger? It's so sad. So sad."
She threw back more drink in tense silence.
"Milva," Valpheena turned to her. "Do you care about... Flannery?"
She put her hands in her lap."...I'm not entirely sure that... she has forgiven me for what happened to our friend, Tetra, and... I do not know if our paths will remain the same after we stop the valkyries, but... I consider her a friend. I do care for her."
Valpheena put her glass down."Come with me. I want to show you something."
Milva wasn't about to argue. No matter how dishevelled and lost the war heroine seemed, she was still the war heroine. There remained a slight but palpable aura of celebrity around her, one still felt an esteem to be in her presence. So Milva followed Valpheena as she lumbered onto her naked feet, her black evening dress swaying about her slim ankles, and marched into a side hall of the vestibule-lounge. It was a corridor leading to the east wing, but Valpheena turned through a door to a stairwell branching up in a spiral. Valpheena and Milva walked that spiral to another door of glass and latticework. Beyond that was a balcony.
The balcony overlooked the eastern portion of the manor grounds; the hedge maze, the water fountains, the old statues, and the enclosing iron fence infested with vines. Beyond that was the forest. To their left was the great basin wall, looming over the valley and disappearing into the horizon. Even here one saw pillow white waterfalls tipping over the rim.
"Milva," Valpheena glared over the balustrade when she called her name. "I wish to show you something deeply personal. But you must promise not to be shocked."
"Know that I show you this not because I feel any... guilt, but because I need you to believe this. I need you to see it so you'll be better prepared when you know the truth."
Milva frowned."What are you saying to me?"
Valpheena did not answer her. She turned her back to Milva and came as close to the railing as she could without climbing it. The cool night wind blew at her hair and dress. Then, much to Milva's utter astonishment, two three-sectioned brass rods burst from both sides of her skull. Milva heaved a gasp. They were like the clicking, skeletal legs of a spider, each `bone' a yard long aside from their pincer tips.
Milva jumped in fright when nine more brass`legs' shot out of both larger ones, three to each rod, each one smaller than the last. Finally a sheet of canvas flopped out of either leg like a sail, stretching all the way to the tips of the nineteen legs, transforming what once was an oddity into something chillingly lucid. Wings. Brass bones webbed with canvas into a whipping pair of wings.
There were wings obtruding from Valpheena's head.
Milva was too stunned to find the words, when Valpheena turned and faced her."They call me a Clockwork Valkyrie."
The former marine bent down at the knees. She hooked one of her arms underneath the bend of the girl's legs while the other held her by the rib, saying, "Hold tight to me now. I wouldn't want you to fall."
Milva was breathless."What are you doing?"
"Showing you what I am, not telling you."
Then, like a condor, she burst up from her perch with a single powerful beat of her artificial wings. Milva tightened up and hung on for dear life as Valpheena flew with tremendous speeds over the balcony and into the cold whipping air above them. The ground grew smaller and smaller as Valpheena took her higher and higher, and eventually Gaustenfolt's manor became a tiny island of grey in a sea of green. Below the stars and the sky, the valley was revealed in another sweeping entirety, just like it had at the rim of basin wall. Milva marvelled at the rocky heights of Mt. Volghum to the north, the menacing swamplands to the west, and deep in the centre of the Heart, the world tree itself, Yggdrasil.
With Milva in her arms Valpheena flapped through the skies as free as any bird, bathing the two of them in the tumultuous fingers of the wind. Past all her fear, past all her surprise, a new feeling pulsed throughout Milva's heart. Joy.
There was something so beautiful about the Realm Across the Scar when seen from a height. It was as captivating as any portrait, as intoxicating as any wine.
When Valpheena flew back to the balcony of Gaustenfolt's manor, and set Milva back down to stable ground, the Dark Elf was well and truly breathless, as if kissed by her sweetheart. What a sensation it was to fly!
"Are you all right?" Valpheena asked, tenderly caressing her cheek.
Milva sighed, her arms still draped around Valpheena's shoulders. "Yes, I'm... more than fine. That was... that was wonderful! But who... what... exactly are you...?"
"As I said, a Clockwork Valkyrie," she replied. "The flesh you see, the hair I have; though they grow and age as any normal woman's would, they are synthetic."
Valpheena peeled Milva's arms from her neck and pinched a bit of skin at her neck. She tugged at that skin until it tore, then pulled the tear down to the cleft of her breasts to show Milva what lay beneath; a vast and complicated system of cogs, escapement, springs, and gears, all grinding together in harmonic synchronization amid the thrum of torque. It was a dazzling sight. Yet, as Milva spied into the beautiful clockwork living below Valpheena's skin, her senses told her that something wasn't right. There was a hitch, a stutter, in her chest. It was as if, for a moment, the mechanical cosmos powering her body paused abruptly, then coughed itself back into motion. It happened again and again and again. It was as consistent as the clockwork that made her.
Milva pressed her hand into Valpheena's breast. A quiet pulsation tickled her palm. But every few seconds she felt that stutter. It frightened her.
"What's happening to you?"
"That's the churn of my mainspring," Valpheena said. "It was broken when I fought the valkyries on The Skybearer. The energy stored within it is quickly ebbing away, draining me."
The Dark Elf blinked."But what does that mean?"
"It means I'm dying, Milva. And there is no way to fix it."
"B-but that can't be true! Surely you could-"
"My sisters and I," Valpheena interrupted. "There were three of us, you see; we were not built to last. It's my very great belief that the Dukedoms would rather forget about us. We were constructed a decade ago, when valkyrie attacks became too serious to ignore. A survivor from the Blauheim school came before the Duke of Gelbheim with a thesis. It was his belief that a mechanism could be powered by the Arcane. He made a bargain with the Duke; if he funded the research he would build for him weapons that could challenge the valkyries in a way no regular man could. My two sisters and I... were those weapons."
She smiled that sad smile again, so unlike the one from Milva's girlish dreams. "There was a flaw in his work. What that flaw is, I cannot say, but the Arcane would not bend to our clockwork. Thus to function, my sisters and I were given special mainsprings that store our energy. They are all unique, one of a kind. They cannot be replaced. As I said, my sisters and I, we were not built to last."
Milva looked away."Why? Why do people do such cruel things...?"
"I could not tell you, my child. What I do know is that... with what little life I have left... I'm too selfish to waste it in combat. I've spent too many years soldiering, Milva. In these past few months it finally dawned on me why I did. I've always, in someway, wished to be seen as a human, as more than a construct, more than some extravagant wind-up toy. But I'm tired of pretending to be something I am not. I only have a few days left, Milva, and I want to spend them away from people. I want to enjoy the world, not the people in it. I don't wish to die as Gaustenfolt did, bitter and angry. So do you see it now? I cannot help you fight Olga."
"So that is all? You'll simply give up? You make me like you and then..." Milva sobbed bitterly. "...You're right. You are selfish..."
Valpheena chuckled lightly at that. She wiped a tear from Milva's golden eye. "I hope that, someday, you'll come to understand me. But I reveal all this to you, Milva, because I love my sisters. I can't tell you how I know it, but... you're going to meet one of them very soon, and you have to be there for her. You have to tell her that I love her, and that I'm sorry I couldn't protect her. Can you do that for me, Milva?"
How could she deny this woman anything, given what she just said? With a heavy heart she flung her arms around the Clockwork Valkyrie and wept,"Of course I will..."
Milva felt little sadness in leaving Valpheena to certain death. At one point she wondered why that was. Why was it, that when Flannery was in the scullery packing supplies and Spirogui was sharpening his small broadsword with a file, she saw fit to dress herself before a vanity mirror in new clothes? Why wasn't she running to her friends and telling that what Valpheena told her last night, why wasn't she getting them to dissuade the war heroine from this 'quiet death' she longed to have? In the end Milva did not need thought to answer those questions. The answer was simple. It was Valpheena's choice.
Flannery and Spirogui might resent her for it later when they found out but Milva would not let that sway her. Indeed, it was grim to leave such an icon behind when she had done so much to defend the lives and freedoms of the people of Grauheim, but in some way, she felt like she knew Valpheena's reasoning in a way the others couldn't. She knew what it was like to long for humanity, to wish her ears weren't this odd shape, to be haunted by how different you were from those around you. If Milva were to die now, she wished to die as Valpheena would, being who and what she was with regard to no man.
But it wasn't Milva's turn to die yet.
As she rolled up one of two silk leggings up her thighs, Milva thrust her hand into her pleated skirt's hidden pocket. The relic of the Gods, the Rheinshard, one half of the Rheingold, hung thick and warm in it. Her fingers cradled the wish mineral. It was always warm to the touch but its heat had been growing these past few days, as she and the others probed deeper into the Realm Across the Scar. Did it sense them approaching its twin?
The Rheinshard knew what it wanted, to be reunited with its other half. Milva needed to bring that about to stop the valkyries and protect all the people of the world; human, elf or otherwise. Whatever Valpheena could not do, Milva would.
When they said goodbye to her that cold morning later, she didn't want to cry or spare the war heroine an embrace. It must have looked odd to Flannery and Spirogui but Milva knew something they didn't -- that this might be the last time they ever saw Valpheena alive.
"Cogspeed," the Clockwork Valkyrie told them. "You'll need all your wits and wiles if this Olga is as dangerous as I think she is. Trust in each other, but trust in yourselves as well. I believe in you all."
Flannery's arms were crossed, her foot teetering off the front step. "Are you sure you can't come with us?"
Valpheena paused for a moment, at Flannery and her question, before shaking out a smile. She tucked a grey lock of her wintry hair behind her ear."I am sorry... Flannery. It's not my place now, and to be frank, I'm in no fit condition for a scrap."
"Go on now," she waved them away. "Shoo. Go get that old wraith and save the world, eh? Go on now."
Flannery heaved her pack onto her back, as did Spirogui, and gave her a parting doff before leaving for the gate. Yet as they crunched their way down the gravel track, Milva didn't follow. She stood with Valpheena at the now unbolted door of Gaustenfolt's manor. The concern was likely inscribed into the contours of her face, because as soon as Milva turned to her, Valpheena drew the Dark Elf into a pleasant hug. Milva returned the embrace, melting. Nothing about this woman said `automaton'.
"Why do you hesitate?" Valpheena asked.
Milva chuckled sadly."I grew up watching you from afar, hearing your exploits on the radio, in the papers. Now you're dying in my arms."
"I've made peace with it, Milva. This is what I wish."
Over by the gates Flannery had stopped. She yelled over at them,"Milva! It's time to go now!"
So it is, thought Milva. She choked out something between a sob and a chuckle, barely aware of the tear in her eye, before Valpheena's knuckle caressed it away, just as she had done last night upon the balcony.
Valpheena took the Dark Elf by the cheeks and sent her on her way with a soft kiss to the forehead."Away with you now. And remember what I said, Milva. I have faith in you."
* In hindsight I don't think I did enough to foreshadow Valpheena (aside from mentioning her a couple times in Chapter One). I've considered doing an extended prologue for the Clockwork Valkyrie once I've finished putting out all the chapters, and if I ever decide to do it, I think Valpheena would be a character I'd like to explore in more detail (I'd also like to flesh out more of Milva and Agatha's years together).