Chapter NineMature

Vahalla was alive and bustling with charisma and color during the daytime. Entertainers from snake charmers, to belly dancers gave the Capital City a vivacious morale. Mercs and businessmen alike worked hard, and scammed even harder to watch the city flourish whilst enjoying the fruits of their labor. The port city sat before an imperialistic looking citadel on a high cliff overlooking the city and sea's edge. Iron gates laced the entrance to the fortress. Imposing statues of great dragons and legendary beasts, warranted danger, and held out threats to anyone who ventured beyond the city's safety net.

Within Valhalla's security, inventions came to life, and many steam driven industries prospered. Various vendors set up camp in bright canvas tents, pushing their product or latest invention on anyone within their vicinity. With Freya close on her heels, Rayna walked heavily cloaked -wishing she could wear the iron mask without speculation. She was caged in even while she walked freely in the market square. Her proximity to the other civilians set her on edge.

Her hand clutched a dagger that was secured in an inside pocket of her billowing sleeve. The gloves she wore were equipped with tiny retractable talons. Even with the added precautions, she hoped that she would be overlooked and able to blend in as just another face in the crowd. She did her best to hide her features and keep her facial expression neutral. All of her hard efforts were quickly wasted when a cold hand grasped her wrist.

Rayna's reactions were without any forethought. She flexed her fingers on her free hand, signaling the sharp talons on her glove to retract. She threw her fist at the merc's cheek, marring his leathery skin with claw marks. He screamed and dropped her hand. Something fell to the ground. An odd looking contraption; A brass horn attached to a wiry box, covered with a tight black mesh material. The impact of it hitting the ground, triggered a distorted sound of orchestra instruments playing merry go round music. Rayna covered her ears. The man began pointing and shouting furiously at her. “Ye broke me music box! Ye broke it!”

A crowd quickly formed around Rayna and the man. It was more attention than she wanted. Her heart slammed furiously against her ribcage. The man reached for Rayna again. Rayna removed her hands from her ears. She grabbed her suitcase, and hurriedly pushed her way through the crowd. Once she fled the market square, she pulled a yellowing map out of the cloak's deep pocket. She studied it for a moment while catching her breath. Freya came up beside her. She nudged Rayna's leg, urging her to keep walking.

Rayna put the map away. She kept walking, not bothering to check it Freya was following or not. She became less tense as she put distance between herself and the mercs. After an hour or so, she found herself entering an small area of thick forestation. The wooded trail died, when the trees backed into a rock wall of the cliff. Rayna pulled he map out again. It urged her to continue on a path that seized to exist. She stared at it even harder, as if the contour lines would rearrange itself in a way that made more sense. She blinked when her eyes began to water from starring too hard. She turned to face the wall of the cliff. It had always been there as a child. Nothing had changed since her parent's death twelve years ago, well perhaps the merc were more forthcoming and desperate, but other than that- nothing drastic had changed the geography of Vallhala. She examined the wall closer. Perhaps there was a door in the rock wall, or a lose stone that would give something away. Her hands roamed over the wall carefully, but it was her foot that stepped on something hollow sounding. She tapped her foot once more. Sure enough it created the same empty echo.

Rayna fell to her knees, and began scrapping dirt and moss away with her fingertips. Freya, once again at her side ,mimicked Rayna, with playful excitement. A few minutes later they had unearthed a slightly warped door, with tiny finger holes. Rayna's mouth broke out into a satisfied grin. She heaved the door open upon rusty hinges. Damp stairs lead far below the earth's surface. She dug through her luggage, until she found a tiny wand that emitted a soft, but bright light. She carefully hauled her suitcase through the entrance way, and waited until Freya was through to secure the door closed.  She was careful not to slip on the moss ridden stairs, and curious as to what lay ahead in the dark underground cave. Freya followed from a safe distance.

When finally she reached the bottom, she spotted odd slits in the walls. They were large enough to sleep in, she thought as she became weary with exhaustion. Freya must have gotten the same idea because she tucked herself away in one of the cells. She curled into a ball, as if she intended to sleep on it. Rayna sighed. “Come, now Freya.” Rayna walked over to the cell. Upon her beckoning, Freya jumped down. She ran her fingers over a delicately engraved name. “Ark Lawson,” she read quietly. She shook her head and shone a light on the cell besides it. Rayna Erikdotter,it read. She turned towards Freya “Well, I found my bed.”

She studied various cells, all of them were made in tribute to the crew members and the fallen who didn’t receive a proper burial. Skulls, and bones were embeded into the walls and mason work of the cavern. The  large multi tomb narrowed. She followed the damp brick path to a large room with high scintillating ceilings. The brick floor was stamped with a large compass painting. Taking residence inside the center of the compass, acting as a needle, was a hulking steam vessel, pointing south. The sail was knocked askew and seemingly pointing east. Upon her parents wishes to keep her protected, she had never been allowed  so much as glance upon the Asterius, or permitted to say the name in public. Now, her eyes greedily drank in the sight, as she repeated the name out loud. “Asterius!” She howled with excited laughter that made Freya step back.

The ship was about three times the size as Lawson's house in Dablu. The bow and stern protruded into an imposing, fearful looking dragon. Its eyes gleamed with red rubies. The ship's rived planks were reinforced with strong iron. Oars hung frozen in midair, as they jutted out from the sides of the boat.  The billowing sail was embellished with a golden flag. The flag housed a painting of an all too familiar dragon. Rayna eyed the flag in wonder. She  could envision it restored, and proudly waving in the air once the ship set sail.

Inside, the captain's quarters were covered with cobwebs, and her parent's ghostly possessions. Like Lawson, her father enjoyed tinkering in  his spare time. His desk was covered with knobs, grinds, gears, and metal piping. Various parts littered the shelves surrounding his desk. A cedar chest sat at the foot of their bed. It lay empty. Rayna wiped a layer of dust from the surface. She unpacked her clothing, and Lawson's journal into the chest, making it her own. 

She curled upon a large bed covered in animal pelts. The ceiling was adorned with a depiction of Valhalla. Mermaids sat on an island in the sea, colorful dragon men brandished swords. They ran through the city, protecting it from fork tongued men, who stood in pools of their own blood. The corners of her mouth quirked up at the odd image. She punched at a dusty pillow, and twisted her body to get comfortable. The mattress shifted on the box spring. Rayna cursed as she moved off of the bed entirely. She attempted to push the mattress back in place,but something felt off.  She pushed it off the box spring. She gasped. Underneath the bed, was yet another secret stairway. Rayna clicked her light back on.  The stairs led to a sphere shaped room. The floor was sparse, void of nearly any furniture. The walls however, were congested, thriving in warfare. Bows, knives, swords, axes, and other various polearms lined the walls. What caught Rayna's eye was a long handled javelin. It appeared to be handcrafted, carved with ancient looking runes. Rayna lifted it off of its shelf. She ran her fingers over the odd runes. Perhaps in time, she would find someone who could translate them.

The weight of the javelin in her hand was invigorating. Adrenaline coursed through her veins, her fingers itched in anticipation. With a steady breath, she lunged and launched the javelin into the air. It made a soft whistling sound before it lodged into the wall between a set of knives. She did this day after day, in her mask and cloak. She taught Freya how to quickly retrieve her javelin. She practiced her other lines of defense against ghost men and inanimate objects.

One day she visualized the mast as Orkson, himself. She threw the Javelin at him, it wasn’t enough, but it served as a good distraction, catching him off guard. It was fine with her, she wanted to feel Orkson die in her own hands anyways. She wanted to be close enough to hear him take his last breath. She dived into a handspring, clearing the distance between herself and the mast. She visualized knocking him on his back, with a well placed kick. And so the floor now became her enemy. She poised herself over him and reveled in the swift clink of her retractable talons. Freya whimpered, nudging the javelin in Rayna's direction. Rayna kicked it away. “The only way for him to die will be at my own hands. I want to see if his blood is as dark as his soul.”

For three months Rayna pushed her body to the breaking point. Lunging and extorting her body into handsprings, back flips, high kicks, until it became second nature, and the motions became seamless. They hunted, or fished from the sea, only venturing into town at night to collect information. Rayna sat listening to drunks ramble on about nothing of any relevance almost every night. She stayed in the shadows, quietly observing. She heard names and stories that rivaled her own, learned of enemies that she wanted to make her own, and men she wanted to challenge.

Rayna grew restless on her hunt for information. She took interest in the reward posters tacked up around Valhalla's taverns. While the Asterius sat immobile in the cavern, she did her research, and ventured out into Valhalla during the day, careful to avoid anymore run ins with the mercs. At night she downed her iron mask, and shrouded herself in Lawson's cloak. She grappled with drunks and felons, making quick work of knocking them down and tying them up. When finally, she had saved an abundance of coin, she took to spying on the patrons again. She was sick of fighting drunks, and weak men. This time she held out hope that the gossip would be at the avail of finding a worthy crew.

The End

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