Rise Above the World
By Al Kristopher
The color black suited her well.
Hrist Valkyrie took in a deep breath and narrowed her dark eyes until she was all but squinting at the Weeping Lily Meadow before her. There was a wind that day that blew across the plains, sending the poisonous pollen floating upwards into the sky, and sending her long braid of death-black hair waving in the air like the spurting blood of a demon. She was completely immune to the affects of the pollen--being a goddess of fate had its advantages--and could have stood in that field until every last living thing rotted away, if she didn't have something better to do.
With the deadly intellect and cold fighting spirit of a pit full of snakes, Hrist Valkyrie stood in wait for word from Valhalla. Unlike her sister Lenneth, she did not have a Spiritual Concentration that would allow her to search for souls--but she didn't need one. Her orders came from Odin directly, or else from Freya, and they always involved some sort of nasty work that she specialized so well in. Hrist didn't spite her masters for their orders--in fact, she praised them for it. Unlike the businesslike Lenneth, she took a perverse glee in performing the most difficult and dangerous missions.
Recently, Odin had commissioned her to stage the rescue effort of Silmeria, the only Valkyrie that was inactive. Of course, this was harder than it sounded, since an age or two ago, Brahms the vampire had captured Silmeria for his own and was keeping her hostage inside his deadly castle. The confrontation between the Aesir and Brahms was inevitable--Freya was always mentioning that she would one day face the Undead King--so the mission to retrieve Silmeria only hastened the inevitable.
Hrist had devoted much of her time to capturing her beloved youngest sister, and only very recently--very recently, she thought--had she been aided with the help of others. As all Valkyries did, Hrist had under her dark wings the responsibility of handling a small but powerful group of Einherjar, and many of these Einherjar beheld their first true experiences in the field of battle with Hrist, inside the castle of Brahms. Unlike Lenneth, who would collect the souls of the dead into her own self, Hrist recruited living beings for her jobs. So far, she had exactly four Einherjar for allies... Four Einherjar... Four Einherjar...
"It has been a long time, Hrist," came a very familiar voice. Hrist's eyes widened to their normal size, and she ceased in staring at the Weeping Lily Field. There was nothing of interest for her there--nothing at all.
"What is it you command of me, O Freya?" she asked. The image of Freya, appearing just in front of the Water Mirror, came to life in the field of flowers. Anybody could make contact with the Valkyries through the Water Mirror, but only Freya and Odin were allowed to use it.
"Your performance thus far has been magnificent," said the goddess with a faint smile on her face. "However, Hrist, I must ask you to cease your hunt for Brahms for a moment. There is another task at hand."
"If you command, I obey," replied the dark Valkyrie as she bowed. Freya's face stiffened to its usual look, and she gave Hrist her customary haughty glance before speaking.
"There is word in Midgard of a great kingdom in the northeast. The King of this land, which is called Dipan, is climbing towards goals that should never be within reach of humans. He defies and blasphemes against the name of the gods, by wishing to declare himself and his kingdom an eternal paradise."
"...Eternal Paradise?" mimed Hrist as the wind blew more petals upwards. Freya affirmed it with a goddess' nod.
"Yes. Our sources tell us that this King of Dipan has hired three of his most trusted mages to construct for him a machine that can alter time, thus easily granting him eternity. Obviously, this is a declaration of war against the very gods themselves." Hrist snarled, more so than usual, and only through years of intense training was she able to keep her temper in check. She cared little for humans, except for a select few that truly fascinated her, but she was more or less tolerant of them--except for those who yearned for powers that never should have been theirs. Freya might or might not have noticed the snarl; in any case, she continued.
"Your task is to bring justice to this travesty," said Freya coldly. "You are to execute the King and his mages, and you are to destroy the kingdom. Such blasphemy against the gods will not be tolerated."
Even when facing the deity of life and death, Hrist couldn't help but grin ferociously.
"Are there any specifications that you require of me?" she asked. Freya shook her head.
"No. Lord Odin has agreed with me that you should be sent. Go and demonstrate the anger of the gods, as only you know how..." And with that final mysterious phrase, Freya vanished from view and was not seen hovering around Midgard for a very long time. Now that she had more privacy, Hrist grinned maniacally and drew out her sword. It was a great joy to perform such acts for her master--to demonstrate her power, her command, her influence over the mortals... and to strike a deadly blow for justice and order... it was really a pleasure.
Naturally, Hrist was not a bloodthirsty savage--far from it, in fact. If she had been ordered to make peace somewhere, she would do it, or if she were ordered to save a person's life (or soul), she would do it. Hrist followed orders with great fanaticism--not to prove herself or to impress others, but because it was her duty, and by the gods, she loved it. She was more bitter than the glare of a snake's eye, and fiercer than the mouth of a dragon, and as deadly as hate itself--all while appearing calm, and thoughtful, and ever-observant.
The "perfect" killing machine. The color black suited her well.
"Faster! Faster, you lazy worthless good-for-nothing girl! Faster!!"
There was silence, and the sound of grinding. Grain was being processed and turned into flour, through a slow process of difficult work and sufferable labor. Only one girl turned the wheel that grinded the grain--the immeasurably heavy wheel, with large spokes, and rusty hinges, underneath a deadly sun, with nothing to protect her feet from the rocky surface...
"I said faster! Worthless slave! I ought to poke your eyes out! Faster!"
Whatever she did--whatever she did--the girl knew that she could not speak to the Master unless he specifically asked her to. She could not tell him the wheel was heavy and rusted, and she was doing her best, and that the day was hot and rough, and her young muscles sang out terribly, and death was her only companion...
Just turn the wheel, and maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe she would get something to eat. Turn the wheel, grind the grain, and hope that it can be sold for enough money to buy another slave. Maybe one her age. Maybe a young boy, who was strong! Or maybe another girl, so they could be friends! Maybe an older person, so they could take care of her! Maybe--
"Get back to work!" screamed the Master. The girl yelped out in pain, and if the day had not been so hot, her tears would not have evaporated into the air.
Hrist opened her eyes from the brief vision and shook her head. She had seen that vision before once, a long time ago, just before finding the whereabouts of Brahms' Castle. It was strange then, it was strange now, and it obviously bore no relevance to anything she was doing. It was not a soul crying out before death--only Lenneth could hear those--so maybe it was what the humans called "dreams".
"...What nonsense..." murmured Hrist to herself. Her face was a cruel but emotionless one, at least at that point, and for no reason at all, she dug her sword into the ground.
"Milady, is something bothering you?" asked one of her Einherjar. Hrist turned around, looking rather bored, and shook her head.
"No, Lawfer... I am just impatient. When did you say that the boat would be here?"
"Not long, milady," replied the young man. "Llewelyn said that it will be another two hours. With your permission, I would like to recreate until then." She nodded her head and permitted him to leave, and watched him go with dead, empty eyes. She was just not herself during those long tired hours. She was starting to see things now.
Nonsense. That's all that it was. Just nonsense.
There was silence in the small room, but given the circumstances, it was acceptable. The noble King Barbarossa, his face drooping and his mood in a negative darkness, stared with weary years at the body of his dead son. His wife Malabeth comforted him as best she could, kneading his hands and whispering words of encouragement, but there was no mortal effort that could bring the young prince back. Death, it seemed, had won yet another round.
It had happened slowly, slowly, over a period of a few short but painful years. The boy, not even a teenager yet, had grown sick and weak, and the disease continued to fester at his body for years to come. No doctor could save him, and thus, he was left to suffer alone, until the day he finally lost his strength. Barbarossa and Malabeth had been devastated--they had been in pain ever since the first day, and although the death was inevitable, they still mourned as parents should when their child leaves before they do. There had been nothing that either one of them could have done... nothing... nothing... nothing at all... Absolutely nothing...
But deep inside his mind, Barbarossa swore that his son would be the last to suffer.
For three days, the King and Queen shut themselves away from their people, entrusting the kingdom to the wisdom of three certain mages until the time of depression was over. When Barbarossa presented himself in public again, the people gave him a loving welcome and supported him in the time of darkness--and he accepted it gratefully. He smiled at them, and gave them a brief address to assure them that all was well. However, in private, he spoke of many future plans to his three most trusted mages, and whispered to them his thoughts. They suggested many things, being renowned magi, and one thought in particular struck a chord in the King's mind.
"If ye could alter the course of time itself, O Great King, then death would have no influence on you," suggested Walther, his most intelligent advisor.
"But how is this possible?" wondered the King. "Can not even the gods do such a thing? How would you suggest performing a feat such as =91controlling time' if even the deities cannot?"
"There is much that can be done when one combines magic and technology," hissed Dallas, a crafty member of the trio. "For example, with the advancement of machinery, and the strength of our combined skills, we may yet construct a machine that can not only bend time, but also perhaps send your grace into a period of the past or even the future. Can you imagine such possibilities?!"
"I don't think I'm able," murmured Barbarossa. Gyne, the third member of the magical trio, placed his arm around the king's neck and hissed into his ear.
"But a journey into the past could easily resurrect your son," he said. "And a journey into the future could yield you a cure for what ailed him. You would even be able to see the future of your kingdom!" Barbarossa nodded his head eagerly, agreeing with his mages more and more and liking their idea just as much.
"Hm, hm, I see, I see... This is a great proposition, my friends, but I must exert caution. It is one thing to dream these dreams; it is an entirely different situation to put them into practice. Is it really possible to construct a machine that bends time??"
"Any old Flenceburg scholar could tell you how simple it is to briefly =91stop time' with magic," explained Gyne. "And any man or woman from Vilnore could tell you that making a machine that could house a magic spell such as that would be no difficult job."
"It only takes a prudent mind to combine the two skillfully," whispered Walther. "In fact, I may be able to accomplish the deed alone. Naturally, even I have not the power to manipulate the flow of history, so my comrades will be invaluable."
"Once again, your methods are sublime," muttered Gyne happily. "So, King, what says ye? Do ye need time to deliberate over this?" Barbarossa frowned, and rubbed his beard in thought. What his mages were telling him was promising, and they made it sound so simple and selfless. There was just a bit of warning nibbling at his mind, that to twist Time into one's own design was a great blasphemy against the gods, but it was easily silenced by the King's desire to preserve his loved ones and his kingdom. Still, he did not become King just through inheritance; he really thought things over.
"I shall need time to think this over," said Barbarossa after a slight pause. "You mages may take the next few days off and recreate. I shall attempt to reason all of this out for myself."
"Of course, majesty," said Dallas as he humbly bowed. "Take your time. This is, after all, quite a delicate and complicated matter. We would want your absolute assurance before we considered starting. We bid you farewell, for now..." The three mages seemed to float away from sight, leaving the King to spend some very important hours in thought.
Hrist was the only one completely awake as the boat sailed from Crell Monferaigne to the Kingdom of Dipan. The night sky above was but a mere dark-blue compared to the black shade of her hair and outfit. Hrist seemed to vanish into the night air, leaving behind little indication that a Valkyrie had ever been on the boat. One could only tell that she was there if she moved or spoke; even her pale-creamy face seemed basked in shadows.
A full moon, with the agonizing look of a lost soul trapped in bondage forever painted on it, broke through the dark clouds that had blotted out the sky. Its light fell upon the boat, and Hrist became truly visible. She opened her eyes and gazed up at the moon, feeling her body swaying just barely thanks to the rocking of the boat. There was little activity that night--her Einherjar were all asleep, even the most active members--and even the waves below seemed too sleepy to splash. Hrist smiled, a useless gesture on her part, and spread her arms out as if to fly.
She had the ability to levitate, naturally, but her Einherjar could not. If they had been souls, part of her own self, then perhaps there would be another story to tell. But no, they were all mortal, and they required the transports of mortals. Hrist didn't mind--she was kind enough not to fly off by herself and leave everyone else to catch up--and besides, she sometimes liked to really interact with the mortal world.
Not prone to talking to herself, or reminiscing on things, she took in a deep breath and began to hum a song with it. Hrist might have been the owner of the darkest Valkyrie armor and hair the color of demon's blood, and eyes more chilling than the breath of the Reaper, but she was not an evil entity. She had a heart, and a soul, and a will of her own--but all these were fiercely dedicated to the tasks given to her. Hrist took her job with deadly seriousness, and would not even allow her other sisters to get in her way......
"Now I wonder what you're doing up so late," sighed a masculine voice from afar. Hrist stopped humming, but didn't bother to turn around to see who spoke to her. She could tell just by pricking her ears up.
"Is it your duty to care?" she wondered. The speaker shrugged and casually joined her. She eyed the famous Arngrim blankly, but at least she made no objection to his joining her.
"I follow you to the ends of the world, don't I?" he retorted. Hrist hummed out again, briefly, and crossed her arms. If one looked very closely, they could see a glimmer of beauty underneath that façade of deadly ice.
"I suppose. But I thought you went to sleep. You can master any fight, Arngrim, except that against your own insomnia. But I suppose it's the result of so many nights spent drinking, and wondering how many more people you must kill in order to live yourself." He shrugged and snorted and leaned up against the ship's railing.
"Hey, cut me some slack, Valkyrie! I didn't come out here to be judged; I just wanted a walk. Besides, now I'm only doing the crap that you tell me to do." Hrist coughed out a laugh, and several others after it, and turned towards her favorite Einherjar with a wicked glare. She would have made a pack of jackals whimper away in terror with that smile of hers.
"Heh... heheh... All right, all right. I'll drop it, Arngrim, but I expect you to be refreshed tomorrow in return. I am sure that you will know what to do."
"Yeah," he said, nodding his head. He said nothing else, the excellent conversationalist, and quietly dismissed himself from Hrist's presence. She kept her jackal's grin even after he left, and turned around so that the moon could see it too. After a long time, she dropped the mad smile and simply went back to being stoic. Without any cause, reason, or explanation, she whispered something into the wind, something that she had heard once long ago, in a worthless dream.
"Have mercy... I'm trying my best......"
So cold... it was so cold... It was so cold that it was painful... The air was more merciless than the teeth of a shark, digging in knives of freezing agony into her body... That body of hers was frail, and gentle, and lightly covered with a small cloth. It could not withstand the cold for long--not for long, if at all. But it was freezing, so cold that the icicles were nearly unbreakable, and the snow was thicker than mud, so cold that even the slightest wisp of breath created a terrifying ghost in the air. It was so cold, and she was wearing so little, and she shivered so much...
Please, please, anything for a fire... a blanket... even a place on the floor...
Just stop the cold... It was so cold... So cold, and she had almost nothing, and her tears froze before they ever reached the ground.
"I did my best," she whimpered, creating more puffs of white in the air as she spoke. "I... did my best... Please... Lord and Master... have mercy on me... Have mercy... on... me..."
Barbarossa sighed and shook his head wearily. There had been pain in his heart when his son died, and now, there was pain in his heart because he had committed a great sin. He had finally asked his mages to make a machine that could break the bonds of time, and for a moment, he was content and ready to challenge death and fate. But on his regular visit to the chapel, a heart-wrenching confession forced his deepest regrets out into the open. The priest he spoke to took the news with a grave heart, and though he told the King that even entertaining such thoughts were scandalous, he would pray for the man's forgiveness, and hoped that all went well.
"Just have mercy, father," murmured a depressed Barbarossa. "Have mercy on a poor pitiful King... It will be on my shoulders if something ill comes of this..."
"Despair not, my son," replied the wise priest on the other side of the booth. "Though you have ordered a violation of the will of the gods to be constructed, you may yet have the power to cancel its creation. You and you alone have the power to end a tragedy before it begins, so waste no more time in this house of God. Go, and may the blessings of the lords and ladies of Asgard be with you."
"Thank you, father!" exclaimed the King. He quickly rushed out of the booth, and marched straight towards the castle that he loved so dearly. The priest was right--only he had the power to fix this problem. It was altogether proper that he should remedy the situation--after all, he had been the one that set it loose.
Quickly and quietly, Barbarossa weaved his way through the deserted streets of Dipan, glad that his subjects were not there to see such guilt being mixed in with determination. The weight of such a problem was on his shoulders, and if he did not release it...... No, he would take responsibilities and see to it that the deed was not done. With a Kingly stride, he marched into the castle and descended down into the lowest regions of the place, where he knew his mages were, constructing the God-awful machine. He could only pray that they were not so skilled that they had completed it so quickly...
The King entered into their study, and found the mages hard at work creating the machine. He wanted to let out a sigh of relief, as the object was nowhere near being completed, but he had not the time for that luxury. Using his most commanding voice, Barbarossa stormed into the room and barked for his mages.
"Walther! Dallas! Gyne! I would like to have a word with you concerning this machine!" The three mages stopped working and turned to speak with their king. Walther, the one in charge, bowed deeply.
"Yes, O King? What of it?"
"I respectfully request that you desist working on this atrocity at once!" he snapped. The mages gave each other questioning glances, confused.
"King, with all due respect, why do you say this to us merely a week after giving us orders to make it?" asked Gyne. The King let out a humiliating sigh and covered his face in shame.
"Guilt has crept up on me... Guilt over asking for this thing to be made, and remorse for daring to challenge the works of the divine. Please, if it is not too much trouble, please destroy it immediately. I will even pay you double for your efforts."
"His Majesty is fickle, but generous," noted Dallas. "We will... do as you say. The machine... will exist... no more..."
"I have your assurance?"
"Completely, sire. Trust us as you have always done."
"Then there should be no problems," said the King with a relieved smile. "After all, how can a kingdom prosper if it is destroyed because of some act like this? We will not even have a future to look into!"
"Indeed..." murmured Walther. He turned around and began to gently scrap the machine, piece by piece. Satisfied, Barbarossa turned and left the lower regions of his castle, feeling like spending many hours of quality time with his beloved wife. However, as the hem of his mantle disappeared from view, the mages quickly turned around and worked all the harder on their wicked machine...
"We're here, Valkyrie."
Hrist Valkyrie opened her eyes and found her redheaded Einherjar Mystina standing at her door. Hrist did not need sleep like the common mortals of Midgard, but if things began to grow dull, it was a good way to pass the time. She easily woke out of her bed, straightened herself out, and plucked her sword from the cabinet she had placed it on.
"Do you know what we are to do?" asked Hrist as she prepared herself. Mystina nodded her head.
"I have a pretty good idea. Didn't Freya tell you to execute the royals and the mages, and destroy the city?"
"That's correct," replied Hrist as she fitted her battle helmet on. "That is precisely what we are going to do. I am unsure about the people of the kingdom--if we are to kill them or not--but we are at least going to remain true to our original duties. This is, after all, a heresy and a betrayal against the will of the gods." Mystina rubbed her chin thoughtfully, and narrowed her eyes in thought.
"Do you have anything against that?"
"......No," replied the redheaded mage after some thought, "I just..."
"The ability to question an order is a part of what makes you human," observed Hrist emptily. She looked into Mystina's eyes--directly, since their height was similar--and probed the other woman deeply. "I am unable and unwilling to ask questions; I am merely content to do my job. This is a fierce and cruel business, and may Odin forgive me if I enjoy it too much. Yet even I may envy that moralistic feeling that you just experienced."
"Moralistic feeling...?" mimed Mystina. "Oh, no, you have me all wrong! I'm just wondering if the five of us are able to stand up against an entire kingdom. You know that there are going to be some people who object to our system of justice!"
"Then they shall be able to speak to Odin personally about the matter," said Hrist darkly, her hand clasping her blade in subtle reference. "...Or else, if not Odin, then Hel..."
"...I see..." murmured Mystina again. "Well, as long as you feel that we can do it, I will follow you. There's just something about you that really intrigues me, Valkyrie..." Hrist smiled weakly, and left the room before she got any more chummy with the other woman. She would need to focus all her concentration on the task at hand, not on any possible friendships. Besides, making friends was for those too weak to stand on their own, and those too afraid to face the tasks of the world. Hrist didn't need their companionship; she just needed the extra strength that these few humans provided.
She couldn't help but wonder how to best enter into the kingdom. Perhaps quietly? Or with violence? There were so many possibilities that it was difficult to choose just one.
Ebony gently held the whimpering girl in her arms, combing through her soft strands of gorgeous auburn hair as she tried to comfort her. There was a cool wind blowing that night, and a haunting feel in the air that indicated trouble and danger around every turn. The other girl, Ruby, was younger and even gentler than Ebony was, and the dark-haired female was barely into her teens. Yet here she was, acting more like a mother than a big sister to Ruby.
"I'm so scared, Ebony..." whimpered Ruby, shivering even with the thin blanket over her body. "What if the master finds us? What if he learns that we ran away? Won't he be mad? Won't he hurt us? Maybe we'll die!"
"Don't worry," whispered Ebony softly as she stroked Ruby's beautiful red hair. "We're so far away from the farm that we'll never be caught! Do you see those mountains over there?" Ruby looked in the direction that Ebony was pointing, and saw the mountains.
"The master will think that we went into those mountains," said Ebony in a soft, gentle voice. "He will probably give up and forget about us."
"But what if he doesn't?! What if he chases us all the way out here?!"
"He won't," assured Ebony with a gentle smile. "I've heard many people mention that this place is dangerous, but I've seen it many times when I went to get firewood. You haven't been here yet, but master says that it's okay for us girls to go here. He won't send anybody else. I wonder why!"
"He thinks...... we're the only ones that can?" offered Ruby. Ebony smiled and shrugged.
"It could be. But that doesn't matter. Master never went here himself; he just knows where it is. I don't think he'll come here."
"But what if he does?!?!"
"We'll just keep running then!" said Ebony warmly as she gave her dear friend a happy smile. Ruby tried to mirror it, but twelve years of life as a slave had made her suffer and strain and stress beyond her capacities. She had weathered through blistering summers, freezing winters, long days plowing and plucking crops, and agonizing nights filled with frozen beds. She had rarely eaten, and slept even less, and from what Ebony had already experienced, her life could've only gotten worse from then on.
Ruby had been traded to Ebony's master the previous year, for a few cows that could no longer give milk and some gardening tools. Ebony was absolutely overjoyed at the arrival of another person on the farm, and immediately befriended Ruby the minute the two girls met. Their bond was more unbreakable than steel cords, and had been fashioned under the heavy stress of slavery and toil. One night, cool and calm and full of opportunity, had enticed them to run away together, far away, from the grasp and even the memory of their cruel master.
They had made it that far, a great distance away from the farm and miles away from any village. The girls survived off of the land, and off of each other, but even their will could not keep them going for long. Ruby began to grow frightened, and was slipping further and further into delirium. Ebony, who had seen more suffering than her younger friend, comforted and supported the redhead as much as she could. She loved the other girl dearly, and would have shed her own blood just to see her smile.
"It's going to be okay," she whispered gently, hugging Ruby even closer. "We're going to be fine. Let's rest for awhile, and continue running. We'll make it somewhere, far away, away from the master and the farm and everything. We might even make it to Lassen, or to Crell Monferaigne! Doesn't that sound nice??!" Ruby sniffled up her tears and smiled, and for a time, her worries ceased.
Boldly, without any fear or signs of stopping, Hrist Valkyrie marched into the city of Dipan, into the thick crowds that were always milling around the area. The black armor of a Battle-Maiden made her stand out significantly against the whitewashed buildings and the cobblestone roads, and her four Einherjar following her made her presence known to everybody. A few townspeople watched the small parade in awe, or else in fear. Some cowered and ran into their houses, others prayed for deliverance, and one foolish young man stood in front of them.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "What business do you have in this kingdom? Speak!" Hrist smiled that same jackal's smile, and pointed her naked sword at the man's throat.
"By decree of Odin, I, Hrist Valkyrie, have been ordered to execute the King of this land and the three mages that serve him."
"On what charges?!" roared the young man. Hrist's smile grew even more devilish.
"Blasphemy, conspiracy to create powers that would elevate humans into becoming gods, manipulation of the flow of time, and heresy. Of course, if you keep pestering me, human, you shall be charged with obstruction of justice, and I will have little choice but to kill you." The youth snarled, and instead of letting Hrist's group pass, he stubbornly stood his ground.
"The King has done none of these charges! You are mistaken!" Suddenly, Hrist's temper flew out of control, and the dark Valkyrie grew demonic as she roared at the young man.
"How DARE you question the word of a Valkyrie?!?! You foolish human, do you not know that the gods see all and know all?! There are things that are kept hidden away from your puny eyes that you cannot conceive, but my masters know about it all! I should execute you on this spot for such a remark!!" With a fierce slash, Hrist cut the man down as he stood, creating a splash of blood that flickered out like a firework. With a small growl, the black Battle-Maiden ignored the motionless body beneath her, and marched on towards the castle, silently daring anybody to challenge her. The only thing the townspeople could do was watch, and wait for ruination.
With tears in his eyes, Barbarossa held his wife Malabeth close to him, and didn't dare let go for fear of losing her. But he had to release her sometime--if he continued to hold her, then the divine forces of Odin would find them both, and destroy them. He had to face his punishment alone--it was nobody else's fault but his own. Even his mages, who must've destroyed the infernal machine in question by now, were blameless in this mess. They may have suggested such a thing, but it was he who ordered its construction.
"I will go out and face the Battle-Maiden as a King should," said Barbarossa quietly as he held Malabeth. "I will go take responsibility for everything, and beg that the people of this kingdom be spared the wrath that should rightfully be my own. You, Malabeth, should stay in hiding for now, and please make sure that Walther and the others are safe. I am who they are searching for..."
"Barbarossa..." Malabeth looked into her husband's face sadly, and tried to memorize every noble detail that had been etched into it by the hands of creation. Those same hands would now be destroying that face...
"Take my crown and keep it safe while I go out and meet the Valkyrie," said Barbarossa. He gave Malabeth his crown to hold onto, and asked her to find some means to give it back to him before his execution. And with that, Barbarossa turned around and left his wife to hide in secrecy. He marched down the halls of his castle for the last time, with the pride and dignity that defined a true King, and made his way down to the keep, and into the town. He showed himself to the Valkyrie, who had been "kind" enough to walk all the way up to the entrance of the castle to meet him. Hrist pointed her sword at him in greetings.
"King Barbarossa of Dipan, do you know why I have come here?"
"I believe I do," answered the King. "But please, Battle-Maiden, I beg of you... Leave my people out of this. I am the only one who sinned; they are all blameless in this heretical act. I am the only one worthy of execution, so please, I beg you... let them leave this country once I have paid for my crimes..." The noble speech stirred Hrist's heart, and she gently lowered her sword. She had dealt with enough Kings to know that a dignified death full of selflessness was the best way for a monarch to go, and smiled faintly at his words.
"...Very well. If you will go quietly, then I will harm nobody else. If, however, there are some who would...... interrupt this execution, then I will not be held responsible for the actions of myself or my Einherjar. Is that understood?"
"Yes, perfectly." Barbarossa agreed, and followed Hrist as they walked carefully to the execution square. Silently, the Valkyrie turned her head, and gave her Einherjar a nod. It was a signal, and without a sound, the four warriors quietly marched towards the castle, and began to search for the mages.
Ruby stopped cold and turned around, running back to the only friend she had ever known. Ebony had plummeted to the ground, sick and weak and tired, and could not even support herself. Ruby bent over her only friend, and tried to pick the dark-haired woman up off the ground, but it was a useless gesture. Escaping the farm had weakened her already-frail body, and years of toiling away her life for some other person had rendered her too weak to do anything except cry.
"Ebony... get up!" wailed Ruby as she shook the older girl. Ebony groaned, and rolled over so she was not face-first in the ground, but still could not move.
"So hungry..." she moaned. "So tired...... Can't... go on..."
"Ebony, please! Don't stop now! We've come so far...!"
"I'm sorry... Ruby..." murmured Ebony weakly. She hated to see Ruby cry--an angel like her did not deserve to know what sadness was--but could do nothing about it. "I... can't move... not even to save my own life... I'm sorry, but I'm just so... tired..."
"But we're almost there!" begged Ruby. "The next town is surely behind that grove of trees! You said so yourself! Come on! Get up!"
"I can't move..." murmured Ebony. "I've spent so many years on that farm that I've grown weak... Weak from beatings, weak from toil, weak from so much suffering... I... just... can't... stand it... anymore..."
"I... love you... Ruby... But... if I had... one wish... I would wish that... we could have met... under... better... circumstances..."
"Ebony... Ebony... please... don't do this! I... I... I don't know what I'm going to do!!!" Ruby wailed out into the dark air, and screamed for her closest friend as she slowly gave up on life. So great was her despair that she fell down on the ground as well, and never released her hug on her dearest friend, even as the night faded, and the morning frost chilled her.
"I... wish... we could... have had... a better... life..." she murmured weakly, as the morning grew cold as ice. "I... don't want... to suffer... Please... Ebony... I don't... want... to suffer... any... more..."
**I just want to forget... forget... forget... it... all...**
The night sky enveloped Ebony in a cloak of darkness, and as the fiery morning sun erupted to warm the chilly world, the sky hugged Ruby into its beautiful blue emptiness.
Their wish would be granted.
"Death to all those who oppose us!"
Hrist Valkyrie shouted out a declaration for everyone to hear, and expected them to heed it. She kept true to her word, and had not caused any person harm--but as she and her Einherjar searched the castle for the mages, they encountered a bit of... resistance. A large score of very skilled but very unwise soldiers had showed up to intercept them, and all of them seemed ready to die for a kingdom that was doomed anyway. Hrist had laughed at their attempt, and asked Arngrim to "dispose" of the annoyance. He did.
That had been a day ago, and now, the castle was filled with dead soldiers who had been foolish enough to oppose the will of the gods. None of the townspeople were injured, at least not the ones who kept to themselves, and things seemed to be wrapping up well thus far. Unfortunately, neither the Queen nor the mages had yet to be found...
Hrist walked past the castle gates and into the town, shouting out her declaration for anyone wise enough to listen. Mystina and Llewelyn were flanking her; Arngrim and Lawfer were already at the square, making preparations for the execution. All was going according to plan, and soon, the kingdom would be destroyed, albeit without its citizens. The price of blasphemy and ambition unbecoming a human was always paid in blood and ruin...
"Have the mages been found yet?" asked Hrist as she stepped past the castle gate. Mystina shook her head negatively.
"No... but don't worry, they can't hide for long. We'll find them."
"Hmm... Well, I suppose that we could at least make an example out of the king," murmured Hrist. "I am afraid that we do not have the luxury of time on our side, ironically. If we do not find the mages three days after the execution of the king, then they shall just have to be destroyed along with the rest of the town."
"Yes!" agreed Llewelyn. "But what about the Queen?"
"I've heard of a secret room that's inside the castle," said Mystina. "Do you think...?"
"Perhaps, but it is of little concern," replied Hrist faintly. "After all, I have a promise to keep, do I not? Speaking of which, how goes things at the square?"
"Arngrim is making preparations as we speak," replied Mystina. Hrist nodded her head and smiled.
"Good... All is truly going well. All right; let's get a move on." Her Einherjar obeyed and walked on ahead, but from out of nowhere, a strange yet familiar feeling tickled at Hrist's mind. It was a brief sensation, like the feel of a single drop of rain, and it was so insignificant that the dark Valkyrie barely even gave it thought.
"...This surge of power, where have I felt it before?" she wondered. A strange feeling came to her, one from times long gone by... "...Lenneth? No, impossible. It's just my imagination." The feeling left her, and she continued on her way. Whatever that feeling had been, it didn't concern her at the moment. All she needed to do was her duty; everything else would be left up to time and fate.
Secretly, Lenneth Valkyrie stepped out of the shadows and wondered what was going on.
Gathered together in the square were the people of Dipan: soldiers, merchants, priests, smiths, architects, physicians, women, children, everybody. Most people covered their faces as their beloved King was sentenced, and others watched with passive faces. Some wailed, some cried, some wondered how the gods could be so cruel to a good king. Barbarossa was agonizing on the inside, but he did not show it as he nobly accepted his punishment. Like a true King, he faced death boldly, and without fear.
"Please kneel down, your highness," instructed Lawfer, the young spearman. Barbarossa obeyed, and his head was shackled in. Above him was the sharp blade of the guillotine, ready to fall at a moment's notice. Llewelyn and Mystina were in the crowd as well; Arngrim was ready to pull the switch, and in the balcony of the castle was Hrist, ready to proclaim sentence upon the perpetuator. She stepped out, casting a black shadow on the area below her, and pointed her hand at the king.
"Behold your king!" she declared. "This is the punishment for challenging the will of the gods! Behold, and may he be granted mercy for his crimes!" The crowd grew fearfully silent, and a thick tension gathered in the air as the moment of execution was at hand. Barbarossa clenched his teeth and accepted his punishment, and with a signal from Hrist, Arngrim pulled the lever that released the blade. A brief whizzing sound could be heard as it crashed towards the King's exposed head, and then...
All was twilight.
"And may you all learn from this," concluded Hrist darkly. "King Barbarossa's final wish was for his entire people to be vacated elsewhere, and undamaged during the purification rite. This entire kingdom, however, shall be reduced to ruin." The crowd babbled out a fearful objection, but the deadly look in Hrist's eyes told them that she was serious. Quietly, she slipped away like a shadow, and met her Einherjar at the lower levels. The sea of onlookers parted as she and her warriors filed past them, and from that moment on, the people were left to fend for themselves.
Hrist and her Einherjar organized the people and sent them sailing elsewhere, and when they figured that everyone was gone--even the queen--they set about destroying the entire place. Arngrim and Lawfer were given giant clubs to wreck the place, Mystina used her magic to scorch the castle, and Llewelyn threw stones and broke glass. Hrist blasted away at the city until it was turned into an apocalyptic setting, and took in a deep breath of satisfaction once everything was scorched. She could not sense the mages' presence, even with Mystina helping her, and reasoned that her mission was concluded.
"That seems to be all," said a weary Arngrim as he approached the Valkyrie. "Llewelyn's checked the whole area, and there's not a sign of them around. Looks like this place is just a ghost town now."
"Good." Hrist sheathed her sword, and directed her companions to the boat which they had used to get there. "You all may proceed ahead of me; I have some private business to take care of." The four warriors understood and left her standing there in the city by herself. Now that she had privacy, Hrist looked up into the sky and mentally wondered what Freya's next assignment would be.
"Well... unless you intervene sometime in the next two days, I will assume that I am to continue my battle against Brahms," she spoke. There came no response, so Hrist shrugged and assumed that her theory was correct. As calmly as ever, she walked away from the ruined city of Dipan, and prepared for her next mission.
Silmeria... I won't let you suffer any more... I will come for you, and I will save you from the grasp of that loathsome devil! I swear it on my own blood! Please be patient, dear sister... please be patient. We will reunite once again, very soon, and I swear that you will never have any more need of sadness...
Nor will I.