Something tickled the underside of Anastasia’s chin, drawing her out of her warm, comfortable sleep and into slow wakefulness. The paladin yawned, snuggling against the warmth of –
“You have got to be the blushiest person I’ve done that with,” Aisling murmured affectionately, stroking Ana’s soft, red hair. “I wanted to let you sleep more, but we’ve got things that need doing, love.”
Somehow the paladin had not yet reached the limit of her ability to blush. “Th-things? I mean. Of course, but. The sun. I mean. It’s early and you’re warm -” she cut herself off, flustered. “Was it like this your first time?”
“Yeah,” Aisling admitted, hugging her lover with a grin. “Except he woke me up with breakfast in bed. But we’ve got people to kill today and we’ve got to get ready.” Aisling’s tone sobered up, regretfully. “They took the bait. Sybil’s tracking the ribbon even now, and Jasmine has it. From the looks of it, she’s getting ready for war.”
The cold shock of surprise, followed by resignation, flowed through Anastasia. “Are her Wolfbrood accounted for?” she asked as she sat up. She soon got off of the bed, hunting through the room for her clothes. “…I guess there was no avoiding it but. Way to kill the mood, Aisling.”
“I’m sorry,” the Scarlet Princess said sincerely. She slid from the bed and scavenged her own clothes, dressing with practised haste. “…This isn’t what I had in mind either, you know. I wanted to spend a morning in and talk, maybe get breakfast delivered up here. Cuddle and joke and…”
“The Wolfbrood?” Anastasia reiterated, shyly.
“The vast majority of her forces are completely unaccounted for. She must’ve figured on some method of scrying. She’s not stupid, just not as smart as me. Fun fact – past a certain point, even vast differences in raw intellect start mattering less. You can be as smart as you damn well please, but situations have limits that you can’t always think your way around.”
“Makes sense,” Anastasia granted, finally dressed. “…Wait, isn’t your new armor still unfinished?”
“Yeah,” Aisling admitted, heavily. “I’ve…got another chain shirt. I just. Hate wearing it. It’s in that trunk, there.”
Obeying the unsaid request, Anastasia opened the trunk and dug past piles of letters and small objects until her fingers brushed cool metal. The chain shirt she drew forth was glimmering mithral, shining in the light despite the coating of dust that clung to the links.
“This is elven,” Anastasia said softly, giving Aisling a questioning look.
“His name was Teth,” Aisling murmured. “He took a shining to me my first day in elven lands. In Summerset. He worked mithral, and he didn’t think my words were coarse or my manners unacceptable. When I wanted to leave in the first month, I stayed for him. He said I should have elven armor, that the others would see it and think better of me. It wasn’t enough. Nothing I did was enough.”
Anastasia set the shirt on the bed and took Aisling’s hand. “What happened to him?”
“I left,” the Scarlet Princess said simply. “It’s been more than a decade. I’m over it. I’m just sorry I didn’t have the fucking spine to say goodbye. And this was definitely the thing to talk about the morning after. Fucking gods, I’m a wr-”
Ana put a finger on Aisling’s lips. “You’re fine,” the paladin murmured. “You’re scared, aren’t you?”
“What if I’m wrong?” Aisling whispered. “What if I just signed the death warrant for Shatterdown? For the world? I’m not – Ana, I’m a fucking warlord. I took over a city so I could make people call me princess and give me shit when I wanted it and have to respect me or else. I wasn’t ready for this. I wasn’t ready for any of this.”
“Those called to duty are rarely ready for it, your Highness,” Anastasia said quietly. She kissed Aisling’s forehead. “I believe in you. Your people believe in you. And you’re not a warlord, love. You’re a princess, and you just proved it.”
“I – what?”
Anastasia offered the mithral shirt to Aisling. “You wouldn’t be scared of failing them,” she said with a small smile, “if you didn’t care.”
* * * *
She’ll attack at noon, Aisling said across Sybil’s network; links in the other collectives dutifully transmitted the message. She won’t want the sun in her men’s eyes, not knowing how dug in we can get at a moment’s notice. First priority will be to get the noncombatants to safety.
Still not comfortable using the citizenry as bait, Sybil noted.
They volunteered, Duke answered. Do not disservice their courage. What is Jasmine’s move from there?
She’ll go after the citizenry, the Scarlet Princess answered. She won’t want her ritual disrupted by our forces, so she’ll send her men and their pet monsters after the citizens to keep the Rabble tied down and buy time. Which is why Ana and I are staying in the Racket, to intercept wherever she ends up and pick a fight.
We’ll join in as we can, Margrave agreed.
One last thing. Contessa?
Yes, your Highness? the teen asked.
I’m authorizing the Voluspa Contingency. Use your best judgement. And remember, if it kills you, you’ll be in pieces too small to raise back to life.
Raw eagerness flooded the network. Yes, your Highness.
“The Voluspa Contingency?” Anastasia asked, concern in her voice. She and Aisling shared a small meal, at a table next to one of the Protection Racket’s windows.
“Any given pattern can only contain so many psionic tattoos,” Aisling explained. “Trying to go over that triggers them all at once, even the new one. Contessa’s said it’s possible to do that by absorbing a tattoo from another being, like one of the Rabble. She’s at her limit, and the Voluspa Contingency involves her tripping that limit and firing them all at once. If it works how we want it to, she’ll have a brief but god-like surge of power. If not, she’ll explode, possibly down to the level of her soul, and die.”
“…Gods. No pressure.”
“Pretty much,” Aisling agreed.
* * * *
The portals opened up in the streets of Shatterdown just as the clocks began to chime noon. Duke blew a sharp whistle, sending his Rabble for their rifles and the perches set up for them in the windows of the buildings that lined the streets, and the civilians running for their safehouses. A motley horde of summoned beasts, their hides and feathers stained with blood and frosted with rime, poured forth only to be cut down by a hail of disciplined fire.
Duke drew his broadsword and strapped his shield to his arm and waited, calmly.
Hold your fire he ordered, and all along the street, it was so. The next wave that advanced swiftly through the portals hid beneath thick shields, but Duke could see no weapons, no armor. The drow frowned. Why would they – no.
Load the corrosives! Duke ordered. Aisling, she’s turned her men into werewolves.
Fuck me, Aisling swore. Gods, and I knew Harry’d gone werewolf already too, why was I not expecting this?
Blame yourself later, Sybil snapped.
With no gunfire forthcoming, the Wolfbrood flooding into Duke’s street began to transform, their flesh tearing away in bloody strips as they swelled from beneath with fangs and silvery fur.
“Darkness, crown my glory,” the drow called as he advanced, slamming the flat of his blade against his shield. Billowing blackness, scented with sand and blood, flooded from his shield and into the street around him. “Éirigh an ceithearn!”
Dozens of ectoplasmic soldiers, their faces running like putty but their spears deadly sharp, formed from the cobblestones behind Duke. A shouted command brought them into a tight formation that blocked the street, causing the werewolves to stop their charge and snarl at bay.
Duke settled into a defensive stance in the midst of his darkness. The lycantheropes could not see him, but they heard his loud, mocking challenge.
“Dare you enter my magical realm?”
The wolves howled as one and charged.
* * * *
Jasmine stepped out of a portal in the town square, not a hundred feet from the Protection Racket, with her brother beside her and dozens of werewolves pouring from the gate. Corrosive rounds cracked from the Rabble’s rifles, sending the beast-men sprinting for the buildings; the square was soon alive with the sound of shoulders slamming into wooden doors.
Aisling emerged from the building with her mouth open, but Jasmine interrupted her with a series of amplified chords from her guitar; the wave of sound shattered the cobbles that had Contessa’s enchantments laced into them.
“You fucking slut,” the Scarlet Princess swore, drawing her saber.
“Harry,” Jasmine said mildly as she wound the golden ribbon around her arm, “kill your girlfriend, will you?”
The werewolf grinned, and then he charged.
“Ana, smash her guitar,” Aisling ordered, running to meet Harry’s charge. “I need to confront some of my fucking issues.”
* * * *
We’ve got a rogue pack in the alleys, Sybil said in a restrained panic. We don’t have coverage – hold up, who’s the civilian?
Levie grinned crookedly at the werewolves trying to cut through the alleys in Shatterdown’s market, a long metal rod in one hand and her thumb hooked into a circular ring on her backpack. “Ladies, gentlemen,” she greeted warmly. “Have you found Thor? Guy owes me some money.”
The werewolves looked at each other in confusion, but their eyes snapped back to Levie when the half-elf pulled the ring, dragging a ripcord behind it. Her backpack let out an unholy screech of metal-on-metal, shredding the cloth and revealing a whirring, massive clockwork mechanism connected to her metal rod by a thick set of mithral cables.
Levie leveled the rod at the werewolves, and it spat a bolt of lightning that fried their fur and slammed the pack into the alley walls.
“I said,” the half-elf repeated, shouting to be heard over her generator, “Have you found Thor?“
* * * *
They’re not all werewolves, Contessa spat, wincing as another round took down one of her constructs. I’ve got a pair of snipers on me.
Don’t worry, Margrave answered with a grim chuckle. They’ve got their demon summoners in the docks.
That’s a hell of a plural, Sybil said with a sigh.
Contessa poked her head out from behind her cover and snapped it back just in time to avoid a pair of shots.
“You can’t win this one,” a voice drawled, its accent shot through with a deep twang.
I need a tattooed Rabble down here right now, the human teen snapped. A rope came down from a window above her, down which one of her riflemen slid. Aisling, I’m activating it.
Godspeed, you glorious psychopath.
Contessa took the rifleman’s hand. “You’re gonna want to get clear, very quickly,” she said seriously. He gulped, and then nodded. The teen closed her eyes and concentrated, feeling the pulse of a psionic tattoo in the man’s pattern. She slid it into her own, trying to jam it into a space in which it couldn’t fit. There was a struggle, and then her tattoos flared to life, pouring their powers into her form.
“Hold back,” the twanging voice barked sharply to its men. “She’s doing something. Look at that glow!”
The rifleman scrambled desperately up the rope from whence he came, trying to escape Contessa’s mad laughter. The teen’s body glowed white with burning light, like a stained glass window cut from sunshine.
“Can’t win this one?” Contessa laughed, and her voice echoed in layers. “Haven’t you heard?”
She did not so much sprint from cover as appear, bringing a storm of bullets with her that surged with crackling energy. She twitched aside from the return fire, dodging at impossible speeds while her assault blew stone from buildings and shredded street lamps in a chorus of breaking metal and shattering glass amidst the blasts of her pistols.
“Entropy always wins!”
* * * *
Blood streamed from rifts in Harry’s hide while he dueled with Aisling, who ducked and danced away from savage claw swipes, answering with cursed slashes and maledictions that broke against the werewolf’s hide, leaving behind wounds but not slowing his assault.
“Still need your sister to do anything useful, huh?” Aisling mocked. She leapt back from Harry’s jaws and crashed her fist into the side of his muzzle, making him jump back and circle warily.
“I’m going to wear your hide as a trophy, witch,” Harry snarled.
Behind them, Jasmine and Anastasia fought before the mouth of a massive, forming portal; the lich’s guitar played a wild song, rapid and furious, and the portal shimmered and jumped in time with the music. The sorcerous instrument had conjured a pair of hatchets, sickly things made of greasy violet light that dripped and sizzled, and these held the paladin at bay.
“The pack will get your Rabble soon,” Jasmine crowed, dancing back and letting her axes keep Anastasia back. “Do you think they’ll beg? I bet they will. Cowards have always flocked to Aisling.”
“Do you not shut up?” Anastasia said in exasperation; she blocked an axe with her shield as she rushed in, only to watch her blade slide uselessly off of Jasmine’s animate bones.
“Lich,” Jasmine said with a shrug, headbutting Anastasia. The paladin staggered back, cursing, and raised her shield instinctively, just in time to catch a savage chop from both axes.
“Tell me again why you sent the puppy to fight my sister?” Harry asked. His eyes flicked to the growing pool of blood beneath Aisling’s feet, which rose around her legs in spiralling threads that creeped up her body.
“Because I clean up my own messes. Unlike some people who fall asleep right after.”
“Real mature,” the werewolf roared, charging in. Aisling flashed him a savage grin just at the point of no return; her blade flared to life with sickly red light, slashing into the lycantherope’s hide and slowing his movements.
“Hey!” Aisling shouted to the werewolves. “I’m about to murder your alpha, anyone want to watch?”
“No, don’t -” Harry started to say, only to be cut off by a backhanded slash across his face. He howled in pain and staggered back, as if through molasses.
The pack howled in panicked fury and charged straight at Aisling.
“That’s right,” the Scarlet Princess murmured eagerly. “Come to momma.”
* * * *
“Demons, Mister Greene. Gods, but this takes me back,” Margrave noted. Ahead of him, tucked between makeshift barricades, cannons wheeled from his ship and set up into the street bellowed their fire into mobs of advancing fiends, blowing misshapen parts into the air and painting the streets in black blood.
“That it does, Captain,” Margrave’s chief gunner agreed. “Though those werewolf priests don’t seem to be running out of the damned things. What’re you waitin’ for?”
“We have their attention,” the pirate said with a shrug. “As long as that remains true, I am quite happy to expend our ammunition in keeping it.”
“Captain!” Anka called out. “They’re breaking off!”
“I had to say it out loud, didn’t I?” Margrave sighed heavily. He produced a small wand from his pocket and held it to his own throat; it glowed briefly, amplifying his voice. “Roar, ye traitors!“
All down the street, small coins – golden, and marked with psionic patterns – glowed white-hot as they activated. Demons and werewolves clutched at their heads, screaming in terror, before laying eyes upon one another and falling upon their allies in frenzied horror.
“Every time I think I’m a bad person,” Anka said slowly, “I remember who I work for.”
“Good girl,” Margrave agreed. The pirate took out a small cigar and lit it, taking an experimental puff. “Load the last three kinslayers. If the fighting slows, fire them into the crowd.”
* * * *
“The portal opens!” Jasmine crowed. A crack, like thunder, echoed across the square as the glowing outline of the massive portal solidified, revealing a dark cavern. “Can you feel it, paladin? This is how forever dies!”
Anastasia’s shield, glowing with burning rainbows, smashed into Jasmine’s jaw and seared her with holy power. “Pay attention.”
The lich crashed to the ground, screaming at the energies that clung to her bones. She rolled away from a downward slash that sparked off of the broken cobbles and leapt to her feet –
Only to feel the edge of Anastasia’s shield bite into her guitar, cracking the instrument in half.
“No!” Jasmine screamed. The werewolves’ gazes snapped to her, just in time to see her sorcerous instrument explode in a surge of uncontained arcane energies. The wave carried her through the portal, and the lich laughed.
“I still have the ribbon!” Jasmine crowed. “And now I am with Lord Fenris! I am unstoppable! I – wait. Wait, my lord, what are you -“
There was a crunching sound, in the dark, and silence stole over the battlefield.
“That,” Aisling said slowly, “cannot be good. Can we…maybe hold off for a moment?”
“Agreed,” Harry answered. His pack, bloodied and wracked with curses, backed away from Aisling. All eyes were on the portal.
Anastasia stepped in front of the portal and sheathed her blade. She swallowed, with difficulty, and raised her voice. “Lord Fenris,” the paladin called. “…Lord Fenris, I would humbly beseech you to permit me into your home, to collect the ribbon and remove it from your sight.”
A deep, bellowing laugh shook the square; windows shattered in their frames, dropping chunks of jagged glass into the streets.
“How bold, servant of Heimdall,” the voice rumbled, loud enough to shake Ana’s bones. “And why should Fenris the Odinbane treat with the likes of you?”
“Name your price,” Ana pleaded. “These people…this city, it is not so different from you. Don’t make them the victims of your revenge.”
“Come forth, paladin,” the Fenris Wolf rumbled. “Gaze upon me.”
Ana, don’t –
I’m going, Aisling, Anastasia said firmly. She stepped across the threshold and into the cavern – and saw him. The Fenris Wolf was massive, trapped as much by the cave that constrained his body as he was by the golden ribbon slipped around his neck. Beneath one paw, she could see the tattered scrap of Glepnir, still wound around Jasmine’s severed arm.
The wolf had sores on his body from ancient escape attempts, scars that marred his hide and muzzle, and the rage in his eyes was ancient. Pity wrung Ana’s chest.
“Your lich is dead,” the Fenris Wolf said plainly. “That which I destroy never returns. You may have the ribbon, paladin. You may leave this place alive and unharmed. But I ask that you listen to me.” The wolf lifted his paw, permitting the paladin to – cautiously – take the fragment of Glepnir and clutch it in her hand.
“I will hear you, Lord Fenris,” Ana swore, solemnly.
“Would you believe that I do not want the freedom this cowardly thing offered me?” the Fenris Wolf said. His muzzle pulled back into a mirthless smile. “I do not wish to die, Anastasia Luxan. I did not ask to live, or to be born, but I was. I did not ask to be the Odinbane, or to terrify the gods, but I did. If I could live, and live free, I would be content to surrender even my revenge. But Odin the Oathbreaker fears his prophecies, and so I am caged. If I cannot have my freedom, then I will take my revenge.”
“But then – why not destroy the fragment and free yourself?” Anastasia asked in confusion.
“I have nowhere to go where I would not destroy the land, the living, the very fabric of being, simply by existing,” Fenris answered. “I would not be free, and I would not have the power of fate backing my vengeance. If I must seek my revenge, I will permit prophecy to work for me, rather than against me. Do you understand?”
“…I think I do,” Anastasia said softly, sorrow coloring her voice. “This was not justice, Lord Fenris.”
“No. It was not. Carry a message for me, young paladin. Tell me old friend that I forgave him a long time ago.” Fenris shifted in his place, shaking the stone of the caverns. “…Tell him that I wish he would visit.”
“I will,” the human promised. “I – prophecy is not absolute, I…”
“Make no promises you cannot keep,” the wolf warned. “Go. Your mate is worried sick.”
Anastasia bowed deeply and turned. Ribbon in one hand, shield still strapped to the other, she emerged from the portal. Aisling caught her in a flying hug, knocking the wind from her lungs.
“Idiot,” the Scarlet Princess sobbed. “Why’d you do that?”
Anastasia hugged her lover back and stroked her blonde hair; behind the pair, the portal snapped shut with a rush of air. “Because someone a lot smarter than me taught me there’s more to being a paladin than killing evildoers,” she murmured. “I’m sorry I worried you. But you’ve gotta chin up for a little while longer. Our city is still full of werewolves.”
Aisling lifted her tearstained face and looked at Harry. “…Right,” she said slowly. “That.”