They were bound beneath the castle in a small stone chamber within the motte, in a state of suspended death, trapped inside the ice cocoons that Olga summoned. Spirogui moved to pick them all open with his sword but Milva warned him to stand aside, then had Ygg's Rood ignite a flame that bathed the entire gaol in hot orange light. Over the long moments the ice cocoons became puddles soaking their feet. The maidens were very cold, hugging themselves and sobbing through chattering teeth, but Milva's flame soon reared them away from any adverse effects to the thawing.
When all the girls were warmed enough to walk; Milva, Flannery and Spirogui led them back out to the bailey, and from there the gatehouse, where they left Olga's castle and descended to the islet's shore. At once they saw the difference.
The supernatural fog that had infested the Realm Across the Scar as far as the rim, had vanished. It was all gone. The cyclone of mist that once circled the lake was no more. So too were the great sheets of ice mounted over the castle's walls, and the islet's snow, and the overwhelming chill in the air. Without the malevolent fog, the sun's rays shined brighter than before.
Some of the girls were shocked by these changes and Milva mused on that. It was understandable in its own way. These girls spent most of their lives living in Olga's glacial shadow. Seeing the countryside anew like this was enough to take anyone's breath away. An instinct, or perhaps a whisper from Ygg's Rood, told her that she ought not to expect elated reactions in Eiszweigstadt... and Milva was believe to think that.
With Ygg's Rood guiding her strength and control, Milva spread out her arms and raised up a huge rectangular column of lake water, freezing it solid. Flannery and Spirogui helped the maidens cross this mystical bridge, from the islet to the lakeshore, and followed the hillock around to the village obscured in its shadow.
They had barely entered Eiszweigstadt when the panic it had been thrown into became clear. Without its enclosing cape of fog the town lost its eerie edge. It now brimmed with the frantic scurrying of a frightened mob. Less than three hours since Olga's death and men were already boarding up their windows and doors. Women jogged to the stalls and costermonger carts for last minute items before running away. Those children too young to understand were simply dragged back and forth by their elders, to the well from home, to home from the market, from the market to the town limits. In the town square, Eiszweigstadt's bells rung incessantly. Alarm spread quickly.
All eyes, all frantic eyes, were on them as they emerged from the lake. A Dark Elf, an out-of-world human and a forest sprite leading a procession of maidens in soggy, shorn bridal gowns. Some of the townspeople eyed them with utter disdain. Some mothers, standing by, noticed a daughter or two in the group and jogged up to embrace them.
They were halfway down the market square when a horde of men came down the highway from the north, headed by the innkeeper and Hilde; who had been beaten into lumpy shades of blue and purple. Her blood coursed down a split nostril as the innkeeper dragged his battered child down the road. The mob of "fathers" behind the two were armed to the teeth with pitchforks, sledgehammers and lanterns.
When Milva stopped, Flannery, Spirogui and the maidens stopped with her. Ordinary citizens stood by and watched from the pavements and shop windows as one group reared up to the other with antagonism dripping from their every look and snarl.
"You little bastards..." Sneered the innkeeper, throwing his daughter to the cobblestones. "It was you, wasn't it? Do you have any idea what you've done? You've single-handedly doomed this entire village to valkyrie hunger! Eiszweigstadt won't survive a day without the fog!"
Milva crouched to Hilde's side, ignoring her father for a moment. She had been beaten severely. One eye could not open while the other only opened halfway in a ring of plum-coloured bruising. Milva saw the blood in her teeth when Hilde attempted to say her name. She gave up, her throat unable to find enough breath. Weeping, Milva brought Hilde to her shoulder, while an angered eye found its way to her father. How on earth could any man do this to his own child? How could he and the others have willingly sacrificed their children to the Youth Drinker?
With Hilde in her arms Milva rose to her feet. The innate wisdom of Ygg's Rood told her to prepare for the inevitability of valkyrie attack, that there was precious little time to waste, but conscious anger wouldn't allow her to walk away from this. Milva passed Hilde over to Flannery, then strode up angrily to the innkeeper.
"What is it?" He said. "You think we enjoyed having to-"
The hot-swift clap of Milva's palm broke his sentence.
Grasping his reddened cheek, the innkeeper stumbled back and the men behind him leered forward in counter, but he stayed their collective hand with a gesture. "No," he said. "I can manage this."
"You're a pig," Milva said, oozing a venomous hatred otherwise unknown to her. "You're neither a father nor a man, you are refuse. Anyone who would sacrifice their children to save themselves, and then beat them for a simple wish to live, forfeits their right to sanctuary. You revolt me."
The innkeeper lumbered up to her again. "And pray tell, elfling, what do you propose we do when the valkyries come, eh? If even the humans across the Scar fear them, with all their guns and engines and airships, what chance do we have, eh? Eh? Just tell me, what chance would we have? Who will save us?"
Milva had no answer for that.
"Indeed!" He yelled. "Your interferences sign the death warrants of every single citizen of Eiszweigstadt! Not merely the girls, but our babies and our elderly! So tell me now why we shouldn't shatter you all on the spot?"
"...Because we done wrong, boy."
A thin woman, one of those whom had come and embraced her daughter amongst the maidens, stepped forward saying that. She smoothed out her apron and obstructively strode between Milva and the innkeeper.
One of the innkeeper's eyebrows arched. "Elsa? You?"
"For years we all held our tongues, even me, and by thunder I wish I hadn't. You know I hate them valkyries. They took my beautiful boy when he was little more than a pup. I ain't never gonna forgive them for that. But all that hate, all the safety, it weren't never worth the life of my little daughter. Nor yours! Now, we let that harlot sap our younglings dry. If the valkyries come for us now, it's no less than we deserve. So we'll do what the other villages did. We'll leave. We'll pack up our things and find another place to live. But there'll be no more killing of our own. No more. And if that's what you want... if that's all you want, some blood on your weapons... you'll have to take mine too."
The innkeeper, snarling, glanced back at his men. In the face of Elsa, they were less willing to proceed, Milva saw that in their eyes. With the other "fathers" unwilling to support him the innkeeper turned on his heels and led them away, muttering curses. They marched away back up the highway.
"Humph!" Else snorted. "Showing their backs already? Humph. They're running off with their tails between their legs. Who would've thunk?"
Milva smiled. "Thank you. That was very brave."
"Brave...? No. Not at all, young one. A brave woman would've said those things years ago." Elsa said. "Besides. Helping you is the least I could do after you saved my daughter. I don't even know your name."
"Milva," she said. "These are my friends, Flannery and Spirogui."
Flannery came up and nodded to her. "A pleasure."
"Good meeting you." Spirogui said.
Elsa bobbed to them. "I can't thank you all enough. Especially you, Milva. My daughter told me how you stood for her and the other girls. I want you all to stay with me tonight; I'll make you supper and you can recover your strength. Now how does that sound?"
Elsa's vegetable soup was lovely. If she'd been feeling cold since the fight with Olga, the sensation submerged itself well for her, but Milva didn't deny how good it felt to finally have something hot in her stomach. She snapped a stick of bread and swirled that in the broth, plucked it out and bit some. It was day old, and across the dining table Elsa mentioned how she purchased it before the fog vanished.
Flannery was at Milva's side, smiling limply, a thousand queries in her eyes. It seemed like every moment the archer glanced her way as if in need of her, or at least to talk to her, before someone else around the table, perhaps Spirogui, Elsa, or her daughter, Matilda; wanted Milva's attention.
Over dinner they did not discuss much about Olga. Matilda was still too shaken and disturbed, and perhaps a mite worried that her father would return to exact a similar punishment to Hilde's. When Milva saw that in her expression she took Matilda's tender hand underneath the table, squeezed it, and whispered to her that "everything would be fine". The former maiden squeezed back.
Instead they all spoke of Milva's mission to re-forge the Rheinshards into the Rheingold, and then use that to banish the valkyries forever. Though Elsa and her family were citizens of the Realm, descendants of the many human peoples who crossed the Scar during the Migration of Spirits, they knew little of its Arcane workings. The dragons, elves, dwarvenfolk and nymphs had scattered since the valkyrie ascendance.
Elsa wished them luck, in any case.
Hours later, when he sun was beginning to recline and everyone had eaten their fill, Elsa took away the plates and told the others to retire. A good nap sounded sweet at the time, as Milva was still so terribly drained from the conflict with Olga, but she and her friends had business to discuss -- and that came before rest. After she bowed her thanks to Elsa, gave Matilda an encouraging hug, and checked on Hilde (who had slept since they came back from the town square) upstairs; Milva, Flannery and Spirogui went to the room Elsa offered them for their troubles. They sat down to confer.
"So what do we do about the Rheinshard?" Flannery asked.
Milva told them all this morning that Ygg's Rood was the God relic Olga stole from Gaustenfolt eighteen years ago, not the Rheinshard. It had not occurred to Milva at the time, but that single revelation threw their entire quest into doubt. The Gaustenfolt lead was the only clue they had to go by in locating the missing Rheinshard. With that turning sour, what was their next move?
"I haven't a clue," Milva said. "Ygg's Rood cannot tell me where the other half is."
A bothersome clamour came through the open window; of horse hooves and wagon wheels trampling a beat down Eiszweigstadt's streets. Some people were already fleeing the town. Spirogui climbed off the bed and shut the window.
"Spirogui friends give up on Rheinshard?"
Milva shook her head. "No. We can't do that. If we capitulate here then everything that's been sacrificed up to now was meaningless. I owe it to Tetra to keep going."
"I understand that," Flannery began. "But if we've nothing to go on then we're just running around for the sake of it and the fleet will attack Yggdrasil anyway."
Milva sighed. "It has to be somewhere in the Realm."
"And if it isn't?"
No one wished to answer that. When silence descended on them, Milva felt an anxiousness in her heart that she couldn't compare to any other emotion hitherto. Though there was still a quiet fire in her gut, a blunt willingness to keep going, perhaps even more so now with Ygg's Rood at her side, the Dark Elf saw with clarity the situation they were in.
Without any clues or direction, to continue now would be pointless. Yet the alternative was just as troubling; allow the fleet to ravage the Realm and the cradle of the world, Yggdrasil. The two choices were equally unacceptable but they had to pick one. The question was which? Milva grasped the Ygg's Rood's braided shaft but even that shrewd artefact provided little insight into this dilemma.
Flannery yawned, tipping her head back. "It seems we have only two choices. We either keep going, search blindly, and put ourselves at more risk or we cut our losses and end our campaign. So which do we choose?"
"We vote," Spirogui said despondently. "But not this moon. We too tired to make good vote. Let Spirogui and Spirogui friends sleep, let sun rise, then we vote. Yes?"
Milva and Flannery accepted those terms with quiet nods. There was little more they could do. They all then said goodnight to one and other and made for the pillow and blanket beds that Elsa set out for them.
With the others prepared for bed, Milva peeled out of her bridal gown, damp and torn, balled it up and threw it aside, then climbed into one of the nightgowns she acquired back at the manor. Flannery's bed was across from hers.
"Are you alright?" She asked.
"I'm fine." Milva replied.
But she wasn't fine.
Her heart was mindful of Captain Quy, Elberich, Abel, Mrs. Pottscram, the cookery girls and all the other crewmembers who died on The Octavia. She pondered Professor Kreug and the leg he lost just to get them this far. She was cognizant of King Pa'pirrofo and the Forest Sprites who yearned for the sun again. She thought of Valpheena and crew of The Skybearer, both lost in their own ways by the fears of the Dukedoms. What did it mean for so many people to suffer to get them this far... only for them to turn back when it mattered most?
Milva slipped into her blankets under Flannery's eye, weighing options and evaluating how she would vote. When Flannery blew out the oil lamp and the room fell into darkness, Milva's hand reached out to Ygg's Rood. Her fingertips lightly caressed its haft and she thought longingly of Tetra.
Her tears welled.
Over the nightly hours the scurrying of Eiszweigstadt's populace grew so loud that a closed window could not block it. Milva awoke, scrubbed the light tear tracks out of her golden eyes, and sprung to her bare feet. Out of the window she saw dozens of people loading clothes, food and water barrels, light furniture (such as chairs and table made from wicker and teak), blankets, medicinal goods and melee weapons onto wagons and saddle pouches. Women held up torches while their men loaded their lives away. Nothing would again be the same for these people.
Eiszweigstadt would become another ghost town, much like the ones Milva and the other passed by on the rim, quiet and lifeless. She then wondered if she ought to feel more responsible, after all, her actions at Olga's castle brought all this about. She truly wondered. Yet, in some odd way, Milva felt no guilt. In fact the apprehension that Eiszweigstadt's people currently suffered, and the flight they collectively undertook, felt like the natural state of things.
It seemed to Milva that, after dwelling in a nervous bubble for so many years, the citizens of Eiszweigstadt were finally living, not just existing, but living. Losing their homes was an awful reality but at least they had agency, a purpose beyond mere life, a goal to strive for rather than a fate to fear.
When the wagons and horses were loaded up and rode away, Milva went back to her blankets, but she could not sleep. When she was done tossing and turning she took up the Rood and left the room, carefully shutting the door behind her (so as not to awaken Flannery or Spirogui).
Everyone was asleep. Elsa, Matilda, Hilde; they were all out like logs. Somehow, Milva heard their slumbering breaths beyond those closed doors so she tip-toed down the hallway. Some minutes later she found herself sitting peacefully on Elsa's roof.
Since coming to the Realm, Milva had constantly witnessed the most fantastical sights from elevations; the Scar from The Octavia's deck, the basin from the rim's edge and Valpheena's wings. Milva liked high places now. There was something soothing about them. While Elsa's roof was a far cry from the rim or an airship's view, to sit quietly on its ridge and watch this entire town face its problems with dignity was a calm compromise.
Yet this was the one time Milva wanted to be bothered.
Smirking, the Dark Elf tapped Ygg's Rood against the thatch twice, once for the "coordinates" and twice for the summoning. Genevieve appeared beside her with a misted flash. The air grew chill but Milva did not shiver or cower. She in fact smiled, because, for the first time in her life, Milva saw Genevieve in a state that was best called `startled vexation'.
Genevieve blinked. "H-how did you?"
"You haven't visited me in a while, Genevieve..." Milva grinned. "but I know it had been a long road to this... self-government of mine, or better yet, my power. It's explicable. It's only now that I understand things."
She stood upright, sneering. "You think you're safer from me now you have that old stick in your hand? Do you think me so feeble, Milva? More fool you!"
Milva looked at her quietly, honestly. "...You're so beautiful, Genevieve."
The other girl froze.
"You're so heartbreakingly attractive, it makes me ache. Initially I thought of you as the sort of girl I always wished would love me. You were more than my girlish fantasies of Valpheena and more than that little spark of arousal Agatha smothered me with. I suppose I was confused."
Genevieve's eyes sharpened. "What are you trying to say?"
"I never wanted you," Milva explained. "I wanted to be you. I wanted to be that sumptuous human girl who could have anyone she desired, who was free to go where she pleased, who simply did not care what others thought of her. I was in love with the notion of being you... without ever knowing it."
Milva stood upright, and continued;
"Then I thought of your hatred for the Dark Elves, how you consider us as a devious race. I questioned myself: how could you possibly chase me into the Realm Across the Scar when I did not see you once upon The Octavia? I wondered why no one ever seems to be aware of you, even when you stand very next to them. And then it struck me."
"Be careful, Milva..." Genevieve snarled.
The Rood's new bearer shrugged. "You do not exist."
"Bite your tongue!"
"But you don't, Genevieve," Milva said. "The puzzle pieces were always there, it only took the Rood's insights for me to put them together. You are the illusion of my consciousness, or perhaps more precisely, my self-hatred, given verve by the Arcane. The power was repressed so tersely it suffered overflow, and you were the result. A seepage, some ghoulish manifestation I tortured myself with. You were the voice of everything I saw in myself and hated. You spoke the things I dared not say, but always wanted to. And now..."
Milva branched out her arms. "And now I no longer need you."
There was another snarl. Yet when Genevieve angrily lunged at her, an ethereally placid Milva mist-moved around the apparition, and shoved her by the shoulders. Genevieve fell face-first into the thatch.
"I don't know how to get rid of you yet," Milva said. "but with the Rood I am certain I'll find a way."
Genevieve leered up, disdainfully. "Fool! You won't ever be rid of me, you dirty little harlot! Who are you to sit there pontificating to me about my existence while you wallow in doubt, while you pine after some dead ship rat? I'm glad she is dead! I hope it tortures you! I hope it burns you!"
Milva chuckled. "...You're pathetic, Genevieve."
Genevieve furiously arose to attack Milva again but a single wave of Ygg's Rood and she was gone. She vanished into a shadowy cage inside Milva's mind where she had always been, only this time, Milva deigned the terms of her release.
"So pathetic," A sighing Milva repeated, sitting back down. "as was I."
Nary a quarter of an hour later someone opened Elsa's front door. Milva peered over the roof and saw Flannery emerge. She glared down both ends of the street. Milva hadn't seen her friend this riled since Tetra was bitten on The Octavia.
"Milva?" She called out. "Milva?"
She yelled down to her. "You called?"
"Huh?" Flannery span around and glanced up. "What are you doing up there?"
"What are you doing out there?"
"Looking for you," Flannery said. "You weren't in bed."
Milva heaved a sigh. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to worry you. I just needed the fresh air."
Instead of replying outright Flannery went around the wall into the alley then clamoured up the same oaken ladder Milva used. She came up the roof's peak and couched herself between Milva and the chimney.
"Is something the matter?" Flannery asked, settling down.
"No, not really. It's just that... there is so very much to think about at this point. Such a great deal on my mind, so many new things to ponder." She exhaled. "Perhaps I'm a little overwhelmed."
"You don't suppose you feel this way because of that," Flannery eyed the Rood. "...do you?"
"Ygg's Rood? ...Yes. It has given me some... insights."
"Insights? You haven't let it out of your sight since you touched it."
Milva shut her eyes. "You would not understand."
"Perhaps you're right about that. I don't think I do."
"I've a hurricane in me, Flannery," Milva said, sternly. "I went to Olga's castle today, fully prepared to parley. Then I saw how she treated the girls... how she would kill them without a second thought if it meant getting her way... and something fractured inside me. I feel the Arcane churning inside me now, like the energy that gushes out of you when you're excited about or aggrieved by something. Ygg's Rood might be the only thing keeping that power in check."
Flannery frowned. "...I didn't know."
"Well," Milva chuckled a little, a tad derisively. "There's little way you could. Everything feels different now. Not just with the Arcane, but... the way I looked at things."
"Explain it to me." Flannery asked.
"...There were times when, you and I, on this journey, faced hardship. I don't need to tell you that, you lived it. But in my eyes you always had a command of the situation. No matter what the problem, you had either the solution or the will to overcome it. I never had that. Then for the first time in my life I came face to face with a genuine mortal threat... and somehow the will and the means to combat it... they awoke in me. I stood at death's gaping maw, suffered agonies I have yet to comprehend... and I survived. All the petty things that once scared me... they seem so meaningless at the moment. It's just so much liberty. Perhaps too much. Clutching the Rood as I do, it provides me with a sense of security. I have its knowledge flowing into me and rationalizing all my instincts..."
Flannery looked away, astounded after all she'd been told. "I cannot say that that sounds... healthy."
"It gives me happiness, too," Milva drew the Rood closer to her. "I now know what my mother looks like."
"I'm an orphan. Ygg's Rood stores the wisdom and memories of those who wield it. I see my mother through Olga's memories."
Flannery smiled a little, in spite of herself. "...What is she like?"
"Beautiful. Very, very beautiful. She has my skin, my hair, my ears. I only wish her face was not twisted in scowls... but these memories are Olga's. I imagine my mother disliked her as much as I did."
"Your mother and Olga...?"
Milva exhaled, swallowed another breath, then gazed at Flannery. A great many secrets permeated the Rood's heart, only a few held Milva's interest and even fewer would hold Flannery's, beyond perhaps one. Yet was it truly time to reveal those decade-held secrets? For Milva to speak of all she'd learned of Madeen would be to reveal her mother's last worst gift to the world. Could Milva really unburden the weight of the Valkyrie Genesis upon Flannery?
Milva's half of the broken wish mineral scorched her pocket. It was the result of a resonance swell between the Rheinshard and Ygg's Rood, its triplet. So much power...
The Dark Elf sighed once more. "Perhaps another time. There have been too many revelations today."
Flannery's eyes, green and unshaken and probing, held her Milva's. A few days prior Milva might have resented such an analytical gaze, to be stripped bare by the glare of another, but after all that had occurred and with all their days spent together finally forming a pattern in Milva's mind, she understood Flannery's cold obduracy with frank fresh precision.
Worry hidden so well beneath the enshrouding vestments of reticence and quiet. Perhaps that was the meaning of courage; to fear, but to act in spite of it.
"You worry so terribly," Milva said smiling.
Flannery did not return that smile.
"What's the matter?"
"You say you've learned 'revelations' from that stick?" She asked.
"Do you think you're meant to know those things?"
She had wondered. An ocean slumbered inside the Rood also. Who was arrogant enough to tell another they would not drown in the overflow of such knowledge? "I don't know, Flannery."
"Aren't you frightened?"
"I will not allow myself to be. I must prove I am worthy of the Rood."
Flannery sharpened. "Are you even listening to yourself? You make it sound as though that stick is more important than you."
"This 'stick'," Milva tapped her shoulder with the Rood. "as you call it, saved our lives back at the castle. I know my mother's face. I keep my hurricane contained. You don't believe I owe the Rood something?"
"And you think Tetra would want to hear that?"
Milva frowned. "...That's cruel, even for you."
All of a sudden she lost her stomach for this conversation. Milva rose to her feet ready to leave, when Flannery snatched her wrist. "Wait," She said. "Wait. I don't want to upset you."
"What do you want?" Milva said. "Why are we even discussing these things when you've already made it very clear how you feel about me?"
Flannery winced visibly, remembering with lucidity her words at the Graefalz Chateau. She said nothing in retort.
"We both know how you'll vote tomorrow, and Spirogui's ultimate goal is to eliminate the valkyries, even if that means suffering the fleet. Forget your 'debt' to Tetra. Our shared path ends here."
Milva tried to walk away. Flannery would not let her go.
"I want to be alone now." Said the Dark Elf.
Flannery arose. Her grasp pulled Milva back to her. "After everything we've endured, how could you possibly believe that that's the only reason I stayed with you?"
"Because those were your words. Am I not to take you at your word?"
"Words can be deceptive, can't they?"
Milva peered at her, enquiringly. "...What do you actually want to say?"
"What if I told you how much I've-"
Milva's eyes rolled into their sockets as the mystic chains of the Arcane wrested her extra senses out of her control, irrespective of her wishes, and deployed them over the glade. Her mind's eye traversed the forest, rushing swiftly through legions of tree trunks and willowy branches until it climbed out of the canopy and witnessed the sight her senses warned her of.
"What's going on?" Flannery said. In Milva's head Flannery's voice was so muffled it sounded as though she were in another room. "Why are your eyes like that?"
Milva wearily threw her skull into her palm when she regained full control over herself. "W-we have to warn everyone," She said. "...Valkyries are coming."
The flock drifted through the sky like a black cloud. Their cacophonous shrieks unsettled treetop fauna miles before they arrived. It was midday when they finally arrived in a deserted, eerily quiet Eiszweigstadt.
Every window and door had been bolted or locked. Every stall had been shut, every shop closed, every house its curtains drawn. It was as if time had stopped for this place.
All the valkyries' shrieking declined into a collection of suspicious growls and snarls. They were sceptical of the lack of life here. That might have meant less if they came looking for food. No, they had another purpose, and this time a guiding hand.
It was a man.
In wind-whipped black clothing, the hybrid of a tunic and a coat, a man of his late forties was ferried beneath the flock by a sole valkyrie's talons. He pointed to the abandoned town square with one hand while pressing down his fedora with the other. The flock followed his orders and landed in the square. They released the man. He dusted himself off and picked the feathers out of his clothing while his flock huddled behind him, purring and mewling at this village's melancholic silence. That was when Milva appeared.
A rising chorus of cackles rippled its way through the valkyrie flock, but they held their position. Milva came out of the bakery's shadow with an arrow-nocked Flannery and an unsheathed Spirogui at her flanks.
The gentleman with the valkyries smiled calmly. "Greetings. Might you be the ones who did away with the mirror witch?"
"Olga was already dead," Milva said. "Who are you?"
He doffed his fedora. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Johannes, former rector of the Grauheim University."
"Johannes? Johannes?" Milva said the name just to reassure herself that she heard it. "As in leader of the Johannes Expedition?"
His smile was soft yet cold, giving him a remote 'tint', that was as much as Milva could say for his character without truly knowing him. What she did note, right off the mark, was the Arcane timbre radiating from him. Her watchful eye distinguished it as a smouldering white aura flickering gradually like a slow-burning flame. Its peaceful nature did little to mask its potency.
Johannes carefully nudged his glasses back up the bridge of nose. "As you can imagine, I did not come here to reminisce."
"Why did you come?" Flannery asked.
"More importantly," Milva began. "Just what are you doing with those valkyries? Do you control them with the Arcane?"
"I am here on behalf of Her Royal Highness of the Valkyrie Queendom. Consider me an ambassador of sorts while Her Highness prepares for Her destiny."
Johannes tipped his fedora. "Certainly, presuming these events lurch in her favour. Now about my coming here... or rather our coming here. We know what you have. We would like it."
Milva thrust Ygg's Rood to the cobbles. "What I have?"
"Not that staff," Johannes said. "The Rood is useless to Her Highness the Queen. I speak of another god relic. The Rheinshard. I know you have it."
"What would the Queen do with it?"
Johannes heaved a sceptical breath. "Everything Olga could not. Or so she believes."
"You don't sound convinced."
"I don't need to be," he said. "Give it here."
Milva smiled. "And if I refused?"
"Then these valkyries would kill every last man, woman and child in this village before they tore it to the ground."
"The town is deserted," she replied. "There's no one left to kill."
"I am not as gullible as the valkyries," Johannes' widened his cold smirk. "The Arcane shows me at least twenty other people cowering in these shuttered houses. Give me the Rheinshard or I'll loosen the flock upon them."
Milva shifted into a fighting stance. "You would have to get past us to make that happen."
"Don't be a fool. You are outnumbered."
"And you are outclassed."
Johannes smiled and sighed, pulling off his fedora, dusting it, then fitting it back on. "How quick youth is to violence these days. Unfortunately for you, I am not as dim-witted as the creatures accompanying me."
A window shattered to the left. Milva, Flannery and Spirogui turned and saw a valkyrie glide out of Elsa's house. At once they noticed the golden sparkle in one of her talons.
"It's got the Rheinshard!" Flannery screamed.
As her muscles relaxed to loosen an arrow, Johannes circled his arms around and thrust both palms into the cobblestones. One after another, cobblestones around them cracked open and spat up gaseous geysers of smoke. Hissing grey fumes surrounded Milva on all sides, and thickened so greatly she lost sight of Flannery and Spirogui. A bowstring groaned as she waded her way out of the smoke clouds, until Milva, tired of the effort, and thrust Ygg's Rood up. A towering wind encircled her and blew the smoke around them into a thinning spiral that evaporated dozens of yards above them.
The smoke was gone.
But so too were the valkyries, and much more crucially, the Rheinshard. The only one who remained was Johannes, and his veiled smile draped itself in a new mantle of "cunning".
"If you still want to protect the Realm from the Dukedoms, come with me..."