The soles of your boots tread silently on the cold, stone floor. Through the darkness, you can see a faint light creeping slowly toward you as you approach an opening. Your soundless breath creates a soft cloud before you as the water molecules escaping from your hot lungs reach the freezing air around you. Your long-empty stomach attempts to groan, but you pay its noiseless motion no heed. There’s no food to be had here, and you’ve kept yourself sufficiently hydrated via the ice formations all around you. The light continues to grow larger, and images begin to come into a colorful clarity for the first time since you entered this tunnel.
Laid out before you is a scene from a nightmare. A city that had been in ruin for aeons like the one you had crashed in was one thing. This city has only just felt the sting of the sword edge. The putrid smell of the dead and dying accents the horrible stench of the smoking city. You had prepared yourself for that when you first smelled it a few days ago, but the unseemly sight of so many grotesque figures splayed out in forms that made their very species seem to come to question wrenches at your gratefully empty stomach. You try to look past the bodies – some still breathing – and search the large, icy dome over the city for that one, small hole that would mean your exit. As you spot it at its greatest feasible distance from your current location, you are reminded of the markets back home, where the things you need always seem to be on the side opposite the entrance you chose.
Wishing you had not lost most of your helmet to that ice wyrm, you pull your breather over your mouth and nose until they form a seal, the metal arm’s motors whining punily in their feeble attempts to do at least that much for you. Gratefully, the smell fades from your nostrils, and you give a silent prayer of thanks for that small blessing, choosing to ignore the pathetic, continuing sighs of the motors. You lift your feet out of the ash which has gathered over them in your moments of respite and begin to tread across the decimated city.
Looking around yourself as you begin to enter the once heavily populated area, you are reminded of the true wages of war. The Monarchy’s purse may be tighter in times such as these, surely, but it was the lives lost that showed the true cost. With the establishment of the Valkyries as an independent organization free from Monarchy control, however, that particular cost could be swept under the rug a bit by the higher-ups. After all, it wasn’t the Armada that had taken out this entire city with one multipurpose ship and two fighters. That, after all, would have been impossible for the Armada, anyway, though the achievement of such razing would certainly be possible with the recent introduction of the Ultracarrier, a ship capable of carrying its own, self-contained fleet. Still, to achieve such widespread violence through a city whose population had numbered in the tens of millions only a handful of days ago would have required almost the entirety of said fleet, and this had only required two Valkyries. It would also have been possible to achieve such an end with a few nuclear devices, but the tunnels leading down the ice and into the city were designed in such a way that in order to be in range to deploy the attack, the attacking force would have to be within blast range. The maze of tunnels in question also happen to be filled to the brim with anti-air platforms, a discovery you had made on your way to your own target. Valkyrs may have been designed to withstand even a nuclear blast once or twice, but very few hulls were capable of holding off high-energy attacks indefinitely. There were plans for a Valkyr with such a hull, but you weren’t entirely sure how one of those rocks would fly.
Recovering from your endless trail of thought, you look about, certain you just saw something move a little too much to be on the verge of death. Perhaps one of your cousins had missed a target, as improbable as that was. You begin looking for a building that isn’t on fire. Maybe you can grab some food and rest before whoever’s been following you decides to attack. Looking about, you see a small house separate from those surrounding it. You head toward it, carefully treading over the bottom half of what had once been a man’s body, its entrails now splayed about in a mess of blood and excrement. You reach the door and start looking for the lock’s manufacturer so you can pick-
The danger of exhaustion, you remind yourself as you turn about once more, certain you saw movement this time, is that you can’t seem to maintain a firm hold on multiple facets of the world around you. Silently, you curse the Oa’din who invented exhaustion, making the sign of Drigan’di’s Sword as you pray to the Great One that your Valkyri’din really is more powerful than you because if she isn’t, she must be having just as hard a time staying awake. The journey through those ice caverns, in particular, had taken more out of you than you had expected. Then again, who expects to be attacked by an ice wyrm?
The door opens, and you push inside, finding yourself looking at the inside of a meat grinder. The walls are sprayed with blood, and you’re able to pinpoint at least five individual organs stuck to the wall and several more spread about the room on the floor. This seemed more toward Sefli’Andi’s handiwork than Pliadrae’s. This is a Valkyrie’s interrogation room, and there’s definitely something lacking for class in Sef’s style. You, for instance, would have left both lungs in your subject instead of throwing it across the room. Sef always does get carried away, though. Maybe the repulsiveness of this room will deter your stalker. You head further into the house, closing each door carefully behind you and heading up the central ladder. When you reach the second floor, you hear the door opening, followed quickly by a stifled gasp. Your stalker’s lunch soon joins the other fluids on the floor of that room. While all that’s taking place, you position yourself inside a doorway behind the door’s opening path. You hear your stalker making her way through each door, taking less and less time to cautiously check behind each one until, as you expected, she doesn’t check the entrance to the ladder well. You listen to her footsteps making their way up the steps, trying to figure out what’s wrong with them. She takes your clue and opens the closed door to the next room over. As you expected, she hasn’t regained much caution, her feet sliding only momentarily to check behind that door to verify that you still have no intention of doing exactly what you plan on doing in three, two, one…
The door opens, and the footsteps pass you, not checking the space behind the door, where you happen this time to be hidden. Holding your breath and moving out from behind the door like the well-trained assassin you are, you get your first look at your stalker trying to figure out which closed door you’ve hidden behind, and you freeze.
Standing opposite you in the room and facing away is a slender figure about half your height in a winter nightgown. Her long hair, once beautiful and silken but now matted with ash, vomit, blood, and dirt, hangs over her back. Her forearms are covered in scabs, burn marks, and fresh scratches. Her feet, bare skin against the ground, are charred and blackened. Despite all that, however, there is a crucial detail that no Valkyrie eyes, even ones as fatigued as your own, could miss.
The white door she currently faces has a very slight green glow at her eye level. This child is a Valkyrie.
Your head reels as you try to comprehend what a Valkyrie child is doing in a Nivlahimi city. You’ve never heard of Valkyries being born on worlds other than Thor before now, though continued thought on that subject causes you to wonder why you had assumed that meant it doesn’t happen. You realize that your
cousins must have been unable to kill one of your own, which made you wonder, “Where’s your mother, little girl?”
cousins must have been unable to kill one of your own, which made you wonder, “Where’s your mother, little girl?”
The girl jumped at the sound but not in the way a scared little girl jumps at a startling sound. Instead, her motion had a very controlled and conditioned look about it, as if she had simply learned that that was how little girls were supposed to react to sudden, startling sounds behind them; but there was no fear in her voice as she let out an expected yelp. There wasn’t enough stiffness to her body afterwards, either. She was still incredibly relaxed as she turned around, her calm eyes just as wide as they were supposed to be and her shoulders raised perfectly square but with no tension. Her sharp, rapid breaths were metered out perfectly as she waited for you to repeat the question just like you would have to do if she were actually scared.
Instead of repeating yourself, however, you cross your arms and lean to the right a bit, raising one eyebrow expectantly. You’re far too tired for this, and you need to know if there are other Valkyries here. After a few moments, you give her a look that says you’re waiting, and she drops her shoulders, her eyes narrowing and her lips pursing slightly to one side, debating whether she wants to answer, not whether you can hurt her or not. Her eyes are trained on your goggles, which you remove to show her your own eyes despite the protocols against such an action. Her lips return to a neutral position as real emotion crosses her face. Pain is easily read across her eyes as she says, “No mommy. Daddy took care of me, but the other ones… No daddy, either, now. Just Keri.”
Her words betray her age more than anything else, even her size. Her actions may be perfectly conditioned, but a child will speak like a child if she’s raised like a child properly regardless of anything she may learn. That much speaks to the benefit of her father. The understanding she seems to hold over the subject of death, however, saddens you. Not even a Valkyrie should know what death is so early in life, and you know that personally. This girl isn’t the only orphan in the room. You speak again, “Why were you following me?” It crosses your mind that she could want revenge over her father’s death, and you just happen to look close enough to the same as his killers, but she already called Sef and Pliadrae, “the other ones,” with no ill feeling in her voice. She doesn’t have the necessarily limited intelligence to think that hurting you or anyone else would bring her father back, either, which makes her a bit wiser than a lot of older Valkyries you know.
She lowers her head to face the ground. Then, she raises her eyebrows, her eyes retraining on you but her face remaining down, and says, “You look like Daddy’s pictures.” Your heart sinks. This poor girl thinks you look like her mother? This cannot end well.
Tentatively, you ask, “I look like your daddy’s pictures of your mommy?”
Raising her head, her brow furrows slightly, and she shakes her head fervently. “No. Not like Mommy. Daddy’s other pictures.” This time, it’s your stomach that finds itself pressing toward the ground.
“Where do you live?” For a moment, you’re afraid she’ll say this is her house and that her father is the mess of organs downstairs. Instead however, she looks out the window, raises an arm, and points across the city to one of its taller buildings.
“Keri lives there.”
You expect it’s unlikely to be otherwise, but you ask anyway, “Is that your name? Keri?”
Keri nods. “Keria’Ledrii Khuda’Cronell.”
You smile gently, extending your hand. She takes it. “It’s very nice to meet you, Keria’Ledrii. I’m Zhilo’di Khuda’Cronell. You can call me Shilo.”
Keri smiles weakly, grasping your hand a bit tighter, clinging to this moment that seems so normal in the midst of this calamity. “It’s nice to meet you, Shilo.”
For the first time in several days, you’re actually glad your ship crashed. Your copilot might be gone, and you may have lost your helmet to an ice wyrm, and you may not have eaten in days but you never wanted to kill anyone in the first place, and this seems a much worthier cause than ensuring the primacy of some Monarch you don’t think should be in power, anyway, when he’s got a perfectly good Armada to do that the hard way himself.
Returning from your revelry to look at Keri, you start walking toward the back exit so you won’t have to pass back through that mess Sef left in the front room. “Are you hungry, Keri?” She nods. You wonder how she wound up so far from her home downtown but don’t ask. You probably couldn’t bear the answer. “Me, too,” you continue. “What do you say we find a place that still has some food?” Keri’s face lights up, and she picks up her step a bit to express her readiness to go. You make your way to the exit together and start on your journey. You still need somewhere to rest.