Someone knocked on Aisling’s door while she was dressing.
“I’m indecent,” the Scarlet Princess called out. “You care?”
“Do you?” Margrave’s voice answered, wryly. “You have nothing I haven’t seen in the general case before.”
Aisling turned around to face away from the door and shrugged. “Come in. Just getting ready to kill some folks.”
The door opened; Margrave stepped in politely and shut it behind him. In deference to Aisling’s privacy he kept his gaze on a small vase containing a single white rose, on her bedside table.
“I’d heard of your invitation from d’Trayth. Do you think it’s a trap, your Highness?”
Aisling shrugged, hiding a dagger in her boot and slipping a pair of needles into a pocket on the inside of her leggings before wiggling into them. “Telling us to come armed and ready would be a pretty stupid kind of trap, even if he’s expecting that he has overwhelming force. Will it be dangerous? Probably. But d’Trayth doesn’t strike me as the treacherous type. Lost in his own little world, maybe, but not vicious. Not even deliberately unfeeling.”
“It’s okay to be afraid,” Margrave said suddenly, his voice soft. Aisling stiffened.
“…I am torn between wanting to turn around and stab you, and not wanting your last sight to be me half-naked,” the Scarlet Princess said slowly. “You’d better fuckin’ explain yourself.”
“Don’t be coy with me, Aisling,” Margrave said quietly, noting as he did that the bra the Scarlet Princess was putting on had not one but two sheaths for small knives. “Fear is my business. It is what you value in my service, aside from my insight and ship. You are frightened of what might happen if you fail. And, I think, of what happens if you succeed. The paladin is only mortal.”
“I can burn that bridge when I cross it,” Aisling growled. “Why is everyone suddenly so concerned about my romantic life?”
“Because we care about you, idiot,” Margrave snapped. “You’re finally threatening to be happy and not a man or woman of us is going to sit back and watch you sabotage it for yourself. We’re your friends, your Highness, and your servants.”
“Big talk from someone scared to tell Contessa that he can’t return her feelings.”
“Leave her out of it,” Margrave growled sullenly. “I’m not trying to belittle or attack you, Aisling. I’m trying to tell you that I – that we – understand. And we’re here for you. Even Duke.”
“Is Duke even capable of caring enough about another person to be frightened of losing them?” Aisling wondered, her voice soft. “I’ve wondered, before.”
“He is,” Margrave answered. “He’s scared to death of losing you. You’ve spent, what, a decade with him? More? As much as he tells himself he hates you, he’d be lost without you. You gave him something more than an early death and an ignoble grave.”
“You people need better taste in role models.”
“We are Scum, your Highness,” Margrave reminded his liege.
“Point. Hey – sarcasm aside, I appreciate it. And you’re right. I am worried. These people don’t deserve to die. And the thing with Ana…objectively I know it’d be an order of years before she aged and died, but what are years to me, and what are years to her? It gnaws at my brain. Still not sure what I want to do about it.”
“We’ll help any way we can,” Margrave repeated, loyally. “Good luck, Aisling. Are you certain you won’t take any of the other Scum with you? I doubt the Count would mind – or be in a position to object.”
“No,” Aisling said firmly. “You’re needed to keep Shatterdown safe and ready, and someone has to take command if I die in his estate doing whatever it is I’m being brought to do. You’re dismissed, Margrave.”
* * * *
“You look so fucking shiny,” Aisling said when she met with Anastasia, a few blocks from the d’Trayth manor in the Docks district. The paladin had polished her armor until it gleamed and wore a white tabard emblazoned with the symbol of her Order – an eye encircled by a war-horn. Aisling thought it looked rather fetching, though she wouldn’t admit it out loud at gunpoint.
“You’re supposed to look your best for a date,” Anastasia shot back. “And don’t think I haven’t noticed you making an effort too. You shined your boots.”
“Dunno what you’re talking about,” Aisling said innocently, taking Ana’s hand. “My boots always gleam with my natural majesty.”
Ana’s sputtering laughter carried them to the front gates of the manor; the squire only barely managed to find her breath as the two were escorted inside and met by Nathaniel, who bowed deferentially.
“Your Highness,” the servant greeted. “Understanding the urgency of the situation, my master has requested that I escort you to the cellars at once. However…”
A teenage boy stepped into the hall from a side door, dressed in finery and carrying a thin rapier. He bowed to Aisling, politely, and met her gaze.
“Knowing as well that this invitation is unusual, Count d’Trayth offers his son Lionel as collateral against his good conduct.”
Aisling blinked in genuine surprise. “A pleasure to meet you again, Lionel. Last time I saw you, you were only about knee high. Things’ve changed since then.”
“So my father tells me, your Highness,” Lionel said politely. “Please, time is of the essence. Where would you have me await your pleasure?”
“Find Sybil at the Protection Racket. She’ll dispose of your talents,” Aisling commanded. The boy bowed in acknowledgement and, with polite dignity, marched past Aisling and out the front door. Nathaniel turned and moved deeper into the house, and his guests followed after.
The stairs into the cellar were solid oak and well-lit; they admitted Aisling and Anastasia into a cool wine cellar. Ahead, down a passage, lantern light flickered.
“Your Highness,” a genteel voice called, echoing. “My apologies, but the heat from torches would quite spoil the wine. Please, I’m in here. Was your trip pleasant?”
“Quite,” Aisling agreed, walking cautiously through the gloom. “You do know that this seems an awful lot like you’re going to try to kill me?”
“I am sadly aware, yes,” the genteel voice said with a sigh. “Unavoidable, I’m afraid. But in keeping with my current spirit of honesty, the information I have will probably kill you. No one else has survived it.”
“Then how have you?” Anastasia asked.
“I have not tried to act upon it.”
“Good move,” Aisling complimented. The two of them emerged into the lit chamber – little more than a stone closet, really – where a thin, bookish man sat on a wooden table. A bricked-up doorway stood in the opposite wall, its mortar crumbling. Aside from his rimless glasses and an ugly scar running from his scalp to his chin, the man could have been Lionel’s twin. Aisling’s face softened.
“Does it still hurt?” the Scarlet Princess asked.
“At times,” the Count d’Trayth answered. “But I bear you no ill will, your Highness. You could have killed me, and instead gave me the chance to recant my defiance. Thank you for coming. There is much to discuss.”
“You said you had information on the artifact we’re seeking?” Ana asked.
“I believe I do, yes. My family was part of the founding of Shatterdown. This manor is older than the city proper, and its location was not selected on accident.” The Count gestured to the brick doorway. “My ancestors believed that a great power was entombed beneath the harbor. They had hired mages and psionicists guide diggers to it. All of them died. Since then, everyone who has gone into this tunnel has died. But the power remains. It could be the artifact you seek. Even if it’s not, it could help you in the battles to come. With the catch being…”
“That everyone’s died down here, yeah,” Aisling mused. “No survivors?”
“Just one, almost eighty years ago. One of our hired clerics, a priest of Odin, came up with her raven hair turned bone white. We asked her what she’d seen, and all she would say is that she’d met ‘the coward’, and that he’d let her go. She killed herself a week later.”
“That’s fucking comforting,” the Scarlet Princess muttered, folding her arms thoughtfully. “…What is it you want, d’Trayth? Not even nice people work for free.”
The Count was silent for a long moment, in which the three hear only the distant sound of the sea through the walls.
“I want to help,” he said, at last. “When you came for the nobility, at the head of those we’d failed and betrayed, you told us something. You said that loyalty is a circle that we’d broken, and that you were come to take from us that which we owed. Some fought. You burned their homes and extinguished their houses, one by one.”
Aisling shifted uncomfortably, her gaze flicking to Anastasia. “…I may have overreacted.”
“What’s done is done,” d’Trayth said quietly. “Your words spoke to me, even then. I have failed these people. I want to do more than pay your tithes and hide in my manor. But I want your blessing before I do so. If I were to simply walk into the city and begin throwing my wealth at its people, you would rightly suspect me of grabbing at your power, and I do not want that. I want peace between us, your Highness.”
“Most people would hate me for taking their power from them,” Aisling said.
“I am not most people.”
“…I need time to think it over. In the meantime, I’m game to try your death tunnel. Ana?”
“Eh, it’s a good night to die,” the paladin said mildly. “How do we open it?”
“I send for Nathaniel,” the Count answered, “and he comes down with a sledgehammer.”
“Excellent. You’ll have my answer when we get back, your Lordship.”
* * * *
The tunnel down into the darkness went for half a mile or more, descending sharply at first with the aid of stairs, and then leveling off.
My network is ready, Sybil said into Aisling and Anastasia’s minds. Don’t get too reckless, but as of this moment you have every one of my students, as well as myself, on standby.
“What does that mean?” Anastasia asked quietly.
“Sybil doesn’t heal like a spellcaster does,” Aisling explained. “Or even like you do. You’ve noticed some of it already, of course, but she has other talents you haven’t seen because she hasn’t had call to use them. She can, through her collective, shift wounds from one person to another, spread healing energies instead of letting them go to waste, and manifest her powers over great distances. The communication network we use is also a triage network, letting healing be shuffled through the various linked collectives and wounds be distributed over the same, if the situation calls for it. So what it means is that for this exercise, whoever’s attacking us won’t just have to kill us. They’ll have to kill everyone Sybil is connected to, and anyone those people are connected to, and so on, and so forth. In theory, anyway – they could run out of power before they die.”
“Aren’t I fucking clever?” Aisling said with an evil grin.
The Count d’Trayth had provided the pair with small iron bars on chains; the bars themselves flickered with heatless flames that shed light, and hung comfortably from their belts. The smokeless flame revealed that the tunnel opened up into a cavern ahead, much larger than the cramped passage that the two had been walking down, and they picked up their pace. Inside, their lights illuminated a small circle around the pair; even Aisling’s keen elven vision could not pierce the gloom to see the walls of the cavern, though she could see the cieling, some twenty feet above her head and curved gently.
A massive, gurgling voice coughed wetly, echoing through the cavern. The two women immediately drew their blades.
“I smell the stink of Aesir on you,” the voice wheezed, its strained syllables lingering like a miasma. “Have you come for my prize?”
“Is your prize a three foot gold ribbon, frayed at either end, that no mortal blade can cut?” Aisling asked cautiously.
The hulking, wheezing voice laughed, then descending into a coughing fit that shook dust from the roof of the cavern.
“Yes, little murderess,” it answered. “Little Princess, little Scum, little elf. I have that which you seek. Forgive me for failing to make my obescience known to you, O Princess, but I may not leave my post.”
Anastasia and Aisling advanced cautiously, their eyes scanning the cavern. “Your post?” Anastasia asked. “You guard this ribbon?”
“Once upon a time,” the wheezing voice began, “there was a wyrm. And his claws were as scythes, his fangs as swords, his flame hot enough to cleave mountains, and terrible was his majesty. But this wyrm was a coward, who feared death and the wrath of mortal dragon slayers, who sold his pride to live another day and was despised and looked down upon by his own kind. But every year he cheated death a little further. Every year he lied to himself and said that with the power and wisdom granted to him by his age, he would be able to live as a real wyrm ought.”
Something massive shifted in the darkness, scraping against the stone. A putrid scent – rotting flesh and infected wounds, mixed with the coppery tang of blood – wafted towards Aisling and Anastasia, making them choke. The two pulled cloths over their faces to ward off the smell.
“But years passed and the wyrm’s oath to himself was never kept, until he could feel the talons of grim death being stretched out to claim him. Having failed as a dragon, the cowardly creature reasoned that a god of the lesser races might take him in and thus rescue him from the ignoble fate that surely awaited in the hereafter. He visited many temples, there to beg the good graces of the gods, and at each he was turned away. But in the temple of Odin the All-Father, Odin the Oath-Breaker, Odin the Wanderer, he met an old man with one eye, clad in grey and leaning on a staff. And the old man offered the wyrm a deal. He could earn the chance to be carried to Valhalla, to feast and fight alongside great heroes, if he would perform a service for the Grey God. If he performed this service, the old man explained, the wyrm could die in battle against a worthy foe, and thus earn his way. Odin would preserve his life, so long as he remained faithful to the duty.”
The voice took in a deep breath and heaved; it coughed and hacked sickeningly, wet splats of fluid mixed with solids echoing through the caves.
“I took the deal. I was conveyed here, and told to guard my prize. There are only three, you know. Three fragments of Gleipnir. One given to the All-Father, for he is King in Asgard. One given to Loki Liesmith, for that is a father’s right. And one given to mortalkind, for all deserve a say in their own fate. With this piece of the ribbon, one could free the Fenris Wolf from his bondage and let him run free to seek his revenge upon the gods.”
“Gods above,” Aisling whispered. “She’s completely insane. You can’t just -“
“But you can!” the hulking voice interrupted. “That is the terrible burden, is it not? Any choice can be made, but once made, it must be lived with. I made my choice. I have lived for thousands of years with it, unable to die. Unable to leave. Wracked with pain, cursed by my deal with the gods. No one has been able to release me. No one has been able to take up my burden. Can you?”
“It’s honestly probably safer to leave the ribbon with you,” Aisling said slowly. She was pressed back to back with Anastasia; the two circled in place, observing the darkness around them. “But I don’t like the idea of not being able to keep an eye on it. I don’t suppose I could buy it from you?”
“There is only one thing left in this world that I want, and it cannot be bought. It must be earned.”
A massive, cracked claw entered the light, the bone blackened with disease and running with blood. The dragon that pulled itself into view had been red, once; now its scales festered with rot and mold, and its blank eye sockets swarmed with maggots that pattered against the ground. Its chest had long since rotted away, revealing black lungs that heaved with every breath and squirted tainted, spoiled blood into the wyrm’s mouth; the fluid dripped from between its broken teeth, running over a shockingly pristine tongue. The dragon opened wings that were more bone than flesh and roared its challenge, spraying gobs of necrotic flesh and poisoned blood into the air.
“CONVEY ME TO VALHALLA!”
Aisling and Anastasia split in opposite directions, narrowly avoiding a gout of maggots and bile that sprayed the ground where they had stood; the putrid mix sizzled and smoked as it ate away at the stone. Aisling gestured with one hand, closing her fist around empty air, and long lines of lacerations opened up in the wyrm’s flesh, spraying blood in every direction. As the dragon howled, Aisling sprinted towards it, blood pooling at her feet and following her like a shadow.
The Scarlet Princess leapt over a sweep of the dragon’s tail, only to be swatted aside by its massive claw. Anastasia called her name, but a mental Focus on the fucking dragon! snapped her eyes back to the wyrm. The beast charged her, and the paladin stood her ground, moving at the last moment to avoid the crash of its putrescent fangs. She lashed out with her blade, slashing a long line in the wyrm’s neck that sprayed her with burning blood.
Anastasia’s scream of pain was cut short by the odd and uncomfortable sensation of her burns healing over instantly, followed by the sound of pained growling over her collective.
“AREN’T I,” Aisling yelled, appearing at the dragon’s other side with her saber radiating sickly crimson light, “SO FUCKING CLEVER?”
The saber bit into the beast’s scales, but the light of Aisling’s curse broke against its will.
“Your treachery will not save you, little murderess,” the dragon snarled. The wyrm spat the syllables of a spell, snapping its head back from Aisling’s disrupting strike, only to have its incantation spoiled by Anastasia stabbing a festering boil on its side. The paladin danced away from the gush of infested pus while the dragon bellowed in outrage, swinging its tail into the fray.
The two mortals danced within the wyrm’s reach, each distracting it in turn as the other attacked, but the dragon was no fool or beast to be tricked so easily; it gave back as good as it got, crushing ribs and shredding their armor with its claws. As fast as the rotting dragon could cut its assailants down they rose again, wounds draining away like water through a sieve. The wyrm buried Aisling in a stream of bile; the Scarlet Princess staggered away screaming, maggots burrowing into her flesh and writhing beneath her skin until she turned into a pool of shrieking blood to get away from them. The floor sizzled and smoked, filling the air with a sickly funk, and the parts of the stone not tainted by bile were slick with blood from the combatants within the cavern.
The dragon leapt back after an exchange of blows, its face coated in fresh blood and its ruined lungs heaving within its open chest. Blood and rot spewed from its mouth with every labored breath.
“At last,” the wyrm wheezed. “At last, worthy foes. Such loyalty! I can feel your friends and servants suffer for you. I can feel them accepting the death they believe they will take in your place!”
“You’re,” Aisling’s words were cut off by a groan of pain; the swirling blood at her feet rippled and writhed, snaking its way up her boots and lacing itself across her skin. “You’re pretty fucking good yourself, for a rotting cripple.”
“I offer you this advice, young hero,” the dragon groaned, turning its head to regard Aisling with its empty eye socket. “The fragment has another use. It may be disposed of safely, if used to bind one thing to another. A prisoner, for instance. Or a sapient to their word of honor, a king to his duty, a lover to her swain. This power may prove as terrible as the Wolf, if used unwisely, but it belongs to whomsoever holds the ribbon.”
“Thank you,” Aisling said softly.
“We will be honored to feast with you,” Anastasia added. “In Valhalla.”
“Come then,” the dragon said, gathering itself. The beast uncoiled like a spring, leaping at its foes with claws outstretched and its jaw open to rend and tear. “HO LA, ODIN!”
Once more, Aisling and Anastasia split, one to each side. They ducked the slashing claws and thrusted, their blades piercing, then ripping, the soft flesh of the dragon’s lungs. The wyrm roared wetly in agony and crashed to the stone floor, gurgling as it began to choke out on its life’s blood.
Aisling panted where she stood, one eye on her enemy, while Anastasia walked slowly to the wyrm’s head.
“You have served faithfully,” the paladin said softly, tears in her eyes. “Go now, and feast with heroes. This…this was not justice.” Anastasia held her blade over the wyrm’s eye socket; silently, the dragon nodded, and Anastasia stabbed down hard. The dragon twitched once, and then was still.
Slowly, the cavern lit up, as if the moon had risen, revealing a golden ribbon on a low stone pedestal.
“Are you okay?” Aisling asked the paladin, her voice quiet.
“No,” Anastasia answered frankly. “I will mourn him later. There is much to do for those still living.”
Aisling hugged the paladin from behind and held her close; the two dripped blood and viscera onto the floor beneath them, as well as the broken fragments of their shattered chain armor.
“Look on the bright side,” Aisling said with solemn humor. “You’re a knight now?”
Anasastia was silent for a long moment, and then she laughed, a small chuckle with only a little real humor. “You know, I suppose I am. After all – I did just slay a dragon.”