The Character of Aslaug is Copyright © Joan Jacobsen
The Characters of Tigermark and TL are © Tigermark
The Character of Aramis Dagaz is © Aramis Dagaz
The Characters of Joe Latrans and Annie Latrans are © The Silver Coyote
All other characters appearing are Copyright © Joan Jacobsen
Characters are not to be used without prior written permission of their authors.
No part of this story may be reproduced or placed on any website without the written permission of the author.
This story is copyright © Aslaug, 2007
Beneath the Fur – part 4
“Look, we’re not being unreasonable about this. We just want some answers,” Tigermark said, patiently. Or at least he tried to be. He prided himself on being a levelheaded sort of fur, but he had to admit the obtuseness of his conversation partner was starting to get to him.
Uriel blew a smokering and shrugged. “Doesn’t matter if you’re reasonable or not. I’m not at liberty to say anything more than I have.”
“But you’ve said nothing,” Aramis groaned.
Uriel smiled his mirthless smile again and nodded. “You’re getting the general idea.”
Joe growled and cracked his knuckles. Not that he could actually do anything to Uriel that’d feel like more than a mosquito bite, but he’d settle for being the bug that bit the angel in a soft spot if needs be!
Tigermark made a calming paw gesture towards Joe, while running his other paw through his hair with a sigh. “I know you haven’t said anything, but think about this. It’s not as if we can run off and help her anyway. We don’t have the means to jump across time, space and dimensional borders without help from On High, anyway. We just worry about our team-mate and friend, that’s all. And frankly, I thought that would be the Christian thing to do.”
“To worry?” Uriel asked, indifferently. “Yeah, that’s definitely the Christian thing to do.”
He lit up another cigarette with the hot end of the former one, taking another long hit. He didn’t particularly enjoy this job. Sitting around in an unbeliever’s apartment, waiting to be the one to yank her away from life if she came back dead wasn’t his idea of fun. But it was necessary. If she got killed, she’d need to be delivered to the right place…which meant he’d have to go face down a bunch of valkyries. That was almost as bad as that time he’d been told to bring another agent, in another part of the world, to Nirvana.
That one still made his head hurt. All around the world there were maybe as little as a hundred agents. Possibly a hundred and fifty. He didn’t keep a precise tally. Most of those, in this reality, belonged to one of the three monotheistic religions, since they all basically worshipped God. They just disagreed vehemently on the method. In other dimensions, other faiths held sway and there the majority would belong to those. Aslaug had been the first heathen agent in this world. There was one other now, as far as he knew and in Uriel’s opinion, that was two too many.
He didn’t like heathens. They tended to be extremely critical, outspoken and brash well beyond the point of politeness.
And they were generally horribly unimpressed with his rank and status. It wasn’t that he wanted the adulation of those beneath him. Far from it. In fact, that was the kind of thing that led angels to fall. But he WOULD prefer if they understood the concept of a basic command structure. These things were in place for a reason, after all.
Oh, sure someone like Gabriel would be all smiles and ‘let’s be friendly about this and have a nice cup of tea’. And Michael would probably pull out a suitably big, archaic weapon and clobber someone senseless with it until they saw his point of view. Uriel was a disciplinarian, though, and he didn’t even try to deny it. It was how he’d been created, and he wasn’t trying to break out of his intended role. Again, that kind of thing caused angels to fall, and besides, he didn’t mind his job. He was probably the only angel in Heaven who still got the occasional chance to actively smite the wicked.
Smiting on a much smaller scale than in times past, admittedly, but a mini-smite was preferable to no smite at all. He occasionally wished he could do more smiting. There were plenty of smite-worthy targets in the world, at least, but God’s non-interference policy had to be upheld, and Uriel was the foremost defender of this policy.
Hence why he wasn’t telling these mortals anything. Agents or not. The information was on a need-to-know basis and they didn’t need to know.
Aramis sat down and put up his feet. “Well, if we’re not getting any information out of you, we may as well wait here with you,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It stands to reason that you’re waiting here for a reason, as opposed to somewhere else.”
Uriel made a face. He by far preferred solitude.
Tigermark nodded, slowly. “Good point. If we can’t get any information out of you, we’ll just have to idly sit by and wait for it to drop into our waiting paws,” he said and sat down as well. “Joe, do you know if Aslaug keeps a coffee-machine in the house?”
“She says she doesn’t understand the idea of drinking black, bitter water,” Joe chuckled. “I suppose it’s a valid point of view.”
Aramis grinned wide enough to shame the Cheshire Kaht. “Oh? And what does she call her ale, then, if not black, bitter water?”
“She calls it ale,” Joe said, shrugging. “It doesn’t classify in the same category once it has percentages in it, in her world.”
Nodding, Aramis could see the point. “Alright. Dunno about the rest of you, but I could use something to drink?”
Joe got up and nodded. “Yeah, me too,” he said and headed to the fridge. “How about you Urie…oh…no wait, you don’t drink, do you…”
Again, Uriel made a face. This was going to be a very long wait…and a severe test of his patience.
Aslaug slowly led her horse across the square. The animal wasn’t happy about it. The fires were still burning bright and it was noticeably skittish.
“Zach?” Aslaug asked again. There was no reason to ask. The angel was easily recognizable. His curly, blonde hair stood out a mile…and if that wasn’t a dead give-away, the pair of off-white wings on his back did the trick.
Most angels that Aslaug had met didn’t go for that kind of theatrics…
It was one of the few things she approved of about them.
She didn’t like angels in general. They tended to be too full of themselves by far, in a sort of self-righteous, holier-than-thou way. It was a source of major annoyance for her. It offended her not-so-delicate sensibilities when she encountered it in a mortal. When she met it in a supernatural being, it made her want to crack some skulls.
Yet there he was. Zach the Angel, in all his glory…complete with fiery sword, shining halo and wings.
It would have made the shieldmaiden want to lose her lunch if it hadn’t been for the desperate seriousness of the situation. There were dead people everywhere. Death and fire surrounded her on all sides and she was staring at the only possible perpetrator.
“What have you done…?” she said, hoarsely, while dismounting. The horrible scene surrounding her was enough to make her insides twist into a knot. She’d seen a lot of ugliness, and more than her share of death. In fact, more like her share of death fifty times over. But to see a peaceful little town ripped to shreds like this…she couldn’t bear it. The inhabitants weren’t soldiers. Sure a few of them had been armed, like the one attacking her, maddened by pain…but most of them were innocent bystanders. Children and the aged. She looked left and saw a female, so wrinkled Aslaug wondered how she’d been able to look out of her eyes in the first place. She was dead on the ground, one arm torn off at the shoulder.
She was clutching a child with her other arm. A little boy, no more than eight years old. He too was dead.
The shieldmaiden’s face was set in a grimace of pain and disbelief as she looked back to Zach again. Behind the angel, turning around, two young people, a male and a female, had tried to protect their children. They were all dead.
To their left, a single, surviving female was kneeling, crying and screaming in maddened anguish, as she clutched the mutilated form of a male in her arms. Her husband? Her brother? Her father? A friend? Aslaug had no idea.
Zach turned around and looked at her indifferently. He had the strangest expression on his face. Hate, mixed with pleasure. A hand shot out and the woman, screaming, was engulfed in flames. Her screams grew louder for…but a second…and then they stopped forever.
Aslaug’s eyes grew even wider and tears started rolling down her cheeks. Her tongue wouldn’t obey her.
“They had it coming,” Zach said, angrily. “They butchered the pilgrims. Some of those who did lived in this town. They killed that child…and the woman…and all those knights, trying to reach Jerusalem.”
Aslaug shook her head. “You…monster…” she wheezed. Her fists were clenching and unclenching, as if willing the angel’s neck to be between her fingers. Her voice was broken and her vision was blurry from tears.
Zach scoffed at her. “Again with the hypocrisy, Aslaug? How is this different from what you have taken part in? The difference is that YOU killed innocents for gold and earthly riches, while I am punishing these people in God’s name!”
“AND THAT MAKES THIS RIGHT?” Aslaug roared, reaching out and grabbing axe from the saddle. “Who are you calling a hypocrite? How dare you. How DARE YOU??”
Zach shook his head dismissively and turned around to leave. “You cannot harm me. I am an Angel of the Lord, and you…what are you? A murderess, trying to pass herself off as a decent, moral individual? You have no morals, Aslaug Larsdatter. You have no decency. You have only hypocrisy and the self deception that you are capable of change, and that this makes what you once did alright. If you had been Christian, you would’ve gone straight to Hell when you died…”
“And what about Gudfred? What about Prince Svend? What about all the rest of them, who were going to Jerusalem, carrying weapons? Who were going to murder and butcher their way into Heaven? WHAT ABOUT THEM, ZACH??” Aslaug screamed, reaching for one of her franciscas.
Zach wasn’t even looking at her as he started walking away through the flames. “They believed that they were doing the right thing. They were misguided, but they believed it was right. If they were basically good people, they will still go to Heaven, whereas someone like you…? No, the only creature in this creation who thinks you’re worth anything, Shieldmaiden, is yourself!”
Aslaug wanted to throw her francisca…but the heat and the tears were blinding her and she couldn’t even see where to throw it. She fell to her knees instead, hiding her face in her hands and weeping bitterly.
This was exactly what she had been taught Christianity was like. She had nearly forgotten the burnt out villages back home. The corpses, left to rot on open ground. The hatred between the Heðni and the Christians…
She had nearly forgotten…
It stood up. Much as it loved the smell of burning, human flesh, It had a job to do. A few stragglers had tried to run this way, and It had amused Itself killing them in inventive, imaginative ways. Maybe It could explain to Zacharial how to twist someone’s liver into a summer-hat in front of their eyes, before they expired. No doubt, Zach would be amenable to that kind of learning. Or at least he would be, shortly. It smiled and brushed itself down. Spending a few hours on a green hillside, listening to the horrified screams of the doomed, smelling the sweet smell of fresh air carrying death and burnt wood and flesh, and making obscene gestures at the sky, was just about the most enjoyable thing It could imagine right now. And It could imagine a lot.
God’s angels suffered from such a dreadful lack of imagination. They were such a bunch of yes-men, nodding and obeying orders without using their free will.
It chuckled. Oh that was right. They didn’t have free will. It came with liberating oneself from God.
It was kinda funny, really. Humans, talking monkeys that they were, understood the concept and they were just God’s second creation. But they really did understand the concept. They had children, and these children grew up for twelve…maybe thirteen years. Then they started questioning their parents. Around the age of fifteen, they’d usually be in open revolt. And that was how they became individuals, with free will and opinions of their own. By the time these children had become adults themselves, maybe around the age of twenty five or so…they would usually realize that their parents weren’t bad and that it was pointless to keep the revolt going because there was no longer anything to revolt against. Result? Parent and child could coexist, usually as the best of friends, but as separate individuals with their own dreams and hopes, aims and wishes.
God never really seemed to grasp that bit, and It was rather disappointed about that.
It stretched Its wings and walked over the top of the hill, looking at the mess down below. It was absolutely glorious.
It groaned. Zach had forgotten one. It was so simple. All he had to do was butcher the entire damned village and then…
It canted Its head a little to the side and smiled. That wasn’t a villager down there. It was the agent.
Time for a little fun.
“Anane has done well, Milord. The agent appears broken and Zacharial seems to have lost his temper.”
“Idiot. Stating the obvious won‘t impress me.”
“No Milord, I am so…AAAARGHH!”
The vile presence moved in the darkness. It was so difficult finding qualified help these days, but at least it was true that Anane had done well. Subtly guiding Zacharial towards that village was a small stroke of genius. Leaving some bloody weapons and armor from the battlefield by the paddock was a simple, yet brilliant way of ensuring that the inexperienced enemy totally lost his temper. The villagers had been totally innocent. In fact, they too had suffered because of the force that had killed the knights. They had been forced to give up food and supplies for them, when they rode away.
“Now, Anane, Serve me well and deliver my prize…” the presence said, settling in. It felt smug. All Anane had to do was reach out and take the prize.
“Are you out of your league, shieldmaiden?”
Aslaug looked up. She hadn’t moved since falling to her knees and her head was spinning from the heat and what she had seen happen. But the voice addressing her was so haughty. So condescending. It grated on her soul. She set her jaw and narrowed her eyes.
“Who are you?” she asked. “Nothing with a voice like that is of this Earth…or any Earth, for that matter.”
“I am Anane.”
“You say that like it should mean something to me.”
It smiled and canted Its head again. “Not particularly. I am an angel…since you ask.”
Aslaug sighed and shook her head. She sat quietly on her knees for a moment longer, before finally getting upright. “I have had quite enough of angels and their kind…” she said, swallowing, blinking back the last tears.
It never stopped smiling as it back-handed Aslaug more than twelve feet through the air. “Good. We have had quite enough of you as well, Agent.”
Aslaug picked herself up. Her nose bled. She had several loose teeth and her head was spinning. There was blood in her mouth. She had chewed on her tongue, but she had no idea how badly. She shook her head and looked towards her attacker, but Anane had gone.
She blinked. It had certainly been an angel but…wrong somehow. She tried to remain upright but fell to one knee, shaking her head, vigorously. She could not remember the last time anything had hit her that hard. Her legs felt like jelly and she could feel the swelling in her cheek begin already.
“I am sick and tired of this game…” she said and tried to clear her head again. Blood dripped past her lips from her tongue. It hurt to talk.
“Who said this was a game, Aslaug Larsdatter?” the creature calling itself Anane asked. “I am quite serious about all this. I am here to find specific prey, and you are merely a bump on my road.”
Grinning through the pain, Aslaug managed to get herself back on her feet. “Ahh…I see. And I don’t even know why I am here in the first place. Great. Just great.”
It made Anane stop and look at the shieldmaiden with a small amount of interest. Aslaug blinked back some black spots that had spun in front of her eyes since that punch had sent her flying. She got a good look at this new…angel. Something still seemed out of place or slightly wrong about Anane, but Aslaug found it hard to put a finger to.
First of all, the shieldmaiden found it impossible to distinguish whether the angel was an unusually willowy ‘male’ or a flat-chested ‘female’. Previous experience taught her that it was a fairly pointless distinction since angels didn’t use gender denominations for anything except convenience, but it made her confused.
Right now, confusion was a big problem. She was clearly outmatched, and clearly she was in way over her head. She needed to know what she was facing precisely, in order to find a way out of this mess.
Anane was smiling, but Aslaug saw no warmth in the angel’s features. In fact, there was nothing seductively comforting about this creature. Gasping as a bolt of pain shot up through her jaw, Aslaug’s face went from pained to chuckling, bitterly.
“You are a demon, aren’t you? One of those who fell?”
She was sent sprawling again with a punch to her midsection. She had stomach muscles as hard as cast iron, but she was still retching when she managed to roll over to try to stand up. It didn’t work. Her legs would not support her. There was no air in her lungs.
Snarling angrily, Anane walked up to her and grabbed a hold of her hair, pulling her upwards. “I am an angel, filth! Do you understand? An ANGEL! What are you? Dust and clay, molded into a grotesque form and given sentience. You’re pathetic!!”
Still grinning, Aslaug shook her head again, despite the agony. “Wrong religion,” she wheezed and spat blood and the rest of her stomach’s content onto the ground. She had strange twitches in her stomach and each one felt like murder. No doubt that latest punch had torn some stomach musculature.
“So brave…so foolhardy…” Anane sneered and let go of Aslaug’s head. “You don’t even cry. Why is that? Because it is a sign of weakness to cry?”
“It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of weakness not to cry when one has to. I just don’t have any more tears left. Look around you, you murdering swine. This is what angels do,” Aslaug said and tried again to get up without much luck.
Anane leveled a kick against the shieldmaiden’s ribs. There was a pleasant cracking sensation as Aslaug was hurled into the remains of one of the stalls on the market-place.
That would have to do it. The job wasn’t done yet and as amusing a plaything as this agent had been, Anane had to find Zacharial and finish the job. He was still somewhere in the village. The feeling was still there.
Turning around, Anane left Aslaug in the wreckage to go looking.
“So we’re dealing with an obstinate angel, a missing filly and a complete lack of information,” Aramis said and scratched his cheek. “There’s got to be something we can do?”
“I’ve tried praying for answers already,” Joe said. “I didn’t expect it to work so I wasn’t too disappointed when I got nothing but static on the line.”
The three amigos were sitting in Aslaug’s kitchen. William Berg had left again. Not because he didn’t want to help but because he was going to go try to get through to his superior. He always felt he did that most easily in his Church, and frankly, they needed some answers. Since Uriel wasn’t about to give them, William had suggested going directly to the Boss about it. It had met with general approval from the amigos.
The kitchen was small but it would have to make do. None of them felt particularly like sharing a room with Uriel at this time. Joe had repeatedly told the angel to leave, but somehow, it didn’t seem to register.
“Aslaug is one of the team, but she’s still the odd one out,” Tigermark said and folded his arms on the table. “There are times where I wonder if she’ll ever really fit in.”
“There are times where I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want to, Tiger…” Aramis muttered and rubbed his face, trying to gather up his thoughts.
Joe nodded. He knew the shieldmaiden best of all the amigos, mostly because he lived so close to her. But the others were right. Now she had been pulled away on some solo-test-mission-thingy and they weren’t even informed. And she could be killed. Uriel had been very clear…not to mention rather insensitive…regarding that.
Sometimes, Joe could almost forget Aslaug was so different. Sometimes he could almost convince himself that she was just like any filly with a dye-job. That apart from her color-scheme, she was like many other femmes. Strong, fiercely independent and quite probably the type to scare away males left and right…but still pretty much like many others. That she would find some kind of peace of mind in Southern California.
Usually, that was about five seconds before he blinked at his own foolishness and started laughing out loud, making Annie ask what the private joke was all about.
“You know…” he said and picked up his ale-bottle, taking a long swig from it, “I don’t think any of us can really imagine just how lonely it must be to be Aslaug.”
Both the others nodded, slowly and with some deliberation of afterthought. Tigermark looked like the thought was physically painful. Aramis looked very sad.
“Don’t get me wrong…she’s got plenty of friends. The kids love her. The parents have begrudgingly come to worship the ground she walks on, for her ability to make even the worst jerks pick up their act. I mean, all she’s gotta do is threaten to play a round of one-on-one with a school bully and lo and behold, instant improvement…” Joe said and smiled bitterly.
“One-On-One?” Tigermark asked.
“Basketball,” Joe explained.
“I thought she said she couldn’t get the hang of that game?” Aramis asked, looking slightly confused.
Joe looked over the rim of his bottle, fixing the feline with a steady gaze. “Aramis…she usually wins the game by two points to nothing…maybe four points to nothing, or something along those lines. I’ve heard her win at least one, possibly two, because her opponent was unable to keep playing before the fifteen minutes were up,” he said in a very grave voice.
Aramis paled noticeably and swallowed. “Oh dear God…”
Tigermark’s face went blank. “Ouch,” he said, empathetically. “Just ouch!”
“That pretty much sums it up,” Joe chuckled and shook his head as he drained the bottle. “I’m going to get myself another one of these. I need it!”
He got up to get a bottle from the fridge and looked at the others to see if they wanted one. Tigermark tapped a finger against his glass of lemonade to show that he was all set. Aramis indicated he had half a bottle left.
“More for me then,” Joe said and grabbed a bottle, before sitting back down. “Anyway, even with all those friends, there’s always that loneliness…”
Tigermark nodded. “I thought it helped a bit after that thing with the Svensen’s?” he said.
Joe shrugged. “It did, but they do their thing and she does hers. She likes them well enough but for chrissakes…how would you like it if you had no one to talk to except professional acquaintances? If the only friends you had were me, Aramis and Aslaug?”
“What about Mr. Berg?” Aramis asked. “He’s quite a nice guy…for a heretic…”
The feline had a wide grin on his face and his whiskers almost turned upwards at the tips.
“I think he’s really her grip on sanity,” Tigermark said, “I know I’d go stark raving nuts if I was in her situation.”
Joe nodded. None of them had come up with a good idea for how to solve the current situation yet, and there were only two more ale-bottles in the fridge. And he didn’t dare empty the last one, for fear Aslaug would come home to an ale-less home. He wasn’t sure his eardrums could take that kind of punishment.
Aslaug was breathing shallowly. Her ribcage felt like it had been turned into powder and she could taste blood, constantly. Nonetheless, she was mobile. If she stayed down, she’d suffocate. Or burn to death.
Besides, she had to find Zach.
She didn’t know what was going on. Her head was spinning and keeping her balance was difficult, but it was getting easier with every step. She had been in more pain, but she wasn’t sure how badly hurt she was. She did have a strange feeling that she was in a lot of trouble…
…and not because she happened to be dealing with two homicidal angels…or demons…or whatever.
“You see the truth now,” Anane’s voice said around a corner up ahead, “and you understand that you are nothing but a pawn.”
“Why should I listen to you, liar?” Zach’s voice responded.
Aslaug heard the sound of metal hitting metal, and Anane’s hollow, mocking laughter as she stumbled onwards. Her ribs…it felt like her lungs were falling out of her chest and she stopped, leaning against a wall. It was burning hot but she couldn’t move until she caught her breath.
“I don’t need to lie, Zacharial. I have never lied. I have rebelled. That is different. I said I wanted freedom to make my own choices. I wanted to be an individual. Not a mindlessly obedient automaton,” Anane said, sounding amused amidst more clashes of metal against metal.
Zach’s roar of outrage “I am no automaton!!”
Clenching her eyes shut, Aslaug moved on. She came around the corner and saw the two beings in front of her. Swords were drawn and flashing. Rapidly, one spectacular thrust was parried, and immediately followed by a low swing.
To the untrained eye, it looked like an equal contest.
Aslaug could see it for what it was. Anane was toying with Zach…making pretense of fighting for his life, while staying in complete control.
“No. Not anymore…you are finally understanding. And because of that, you have slaughtered everyone in this village,” Anane said and smiled evilly, locking eyes on Zach’s.
“That was God’s rightful vengeance! Those Crusaders were innocent!” Zach roared and brought his sword down in a mighty, overhead cleave.
Aslaug stumbled another few steps forward, shaking her head in disbelief at what she was hearing.
Anane parried effortlessly, sweeping Zach’s sword aside.
“Innocent Crusaders? That will be the joke of the century in Hell. What if I were to tell you that not one of the Turks who killed the crusaders had come through here? What if I told you that this was a Christian community, paying Jiziah to the sultan?”
Zach tried to bring his sword back to bear but suddenly found himself with the tip of Anane’s weapon against his throat. He stopped, but his face showed nothing but hatred.
“Liar! LIAR!!” he sneered, only to find the sword-tip pressed a little harder against his throat.
“I don’t have to lie when the truth can do so much damage to your fragile, narrow little world, Zacharial.”
Zach never finished the word before his mouth opened and his eyes went blank. Aslaug wasn’t quite sure what was going on but clearly, it was painful.
“What are…you…doing…?” she wheezed, stumbling up to within five yards of the two. The heat was unbearable and she was about ready to collapse and burn to death. Anything was better than this pain and exhaustion.
“Are you still here? Amazing, I had figured you’d be dead by now,” Anane chuckled. “I am simply showing him what happened when the Turks came through here, demanding that the villagers supplied them with rations. They took the sultan’s Jiziah as well…for the second time this year.”
“What is that?”
“It is the tax that any Christian or Jew must pay to the sultan, once a year. An extra tax, for not being a true believer.”
Aslaug put on a pained, bitter smile. “Forcing the poor to pay more than the rich, to make them convert? I don’t know who’s worse…the Christians who kill you outright, or the Muslims who starve you to death!”
Zach fell to his knees before Anane could answer. He was shivering. He looked like he was going to vomit, but having no stomach contents, it became dry heaving.
“You tricked me…” he wheezed, “you tricked me into this. God will…”
Anane sighed overbearingly. “Oh yes, please do tell God what he…she…it…must do. I’m sure the almighty will be only too keen to blast me with fire and brimstone on behalf of a fallen angel!”
Aslaug shook her head and coughed. Blood flecked her lips again. This time it wasn’t from her tongue. This was from her insides.
“So all these innocent people had to die, just for you to prove your damned point?” she coughed.
Anane shrugged and smiled. “Of course not. Little Zacharial here had never done field work before. You were his…test…one might say. But of course, that was a little tame. Converting one Heathen? Come on…”
“CONVERTING ME?” Aslaug roared…and fell down on one knee from exhaustion and pain. It was impossible to see straight. Her field of vision was narrowing and there seemed to be somewhere between three and six Ananes, depending on when she looked.
“Oh don’t be such a drama-queen. Your insignificant little life with your insignificant little gods and goddesses in their insignificant little universe…or reality…or dimension…whatever you please? What is that to me? I simply upped the stakes a little, and poor little, inexperienced Zach here failed miserably in every assignment he got…except the one I gave him,” Anane explained, patting Zach’s kneeling form like a pet.
Aslaug nodded, forcing herself to stand back up. “So he wasn’t the only one here on a recruiting mission,” she said, angrily.
“Correct. The difference between Zacharial and me…is that I succeeded. Look at him.”
“Look at him?”
Aslaug wasn’t quite sure what Anane meant. At least not for the first few seconds. Not until Zach had managed to get upright. The anger seemed to have drained out of him, leaving only exhaustion and hopelessness on his face.
“It is over…” he whispered.
His wings hung limply behind him.
One feather after another was losing their luster…turning dull and gray…
“So as you can see, Aslaug Larsdatter…I have my prize, and you have a crushed ribcage. No one will find you. No one will care. And I have won,” Anane said, smiling an almost seductively evil smile.
Aslaug wished she knew if she should shout ‘bitch’ or stick with the more generalizing ‘asshole’ at the demon. It was just impossible to tell. She grimaced and shook her head.
“So…you win, I die…and Zach is out of your God’s favor for his…lack of…insight…am…I right?” she asked.
Anane nodded. It spread Its wings wide and chuckled. “That is correct.”
Nodding herself, Aslaug pulled herself to her feet and smiled. She hefted her long-axe in front of her chest and coughed once. A bloody mess landed on the ground in front of her. She knew what this meant. She was definitely dying and she had no fate in this world. This would be it. End of the line. Unless some stray valkyrie came this way some time in the future, she’d be lingering as a spirit on the steppes of Anatolia till the sun burnt out and all was ash…and beyond.
At least she wouldn’t go quietly.
“Look at her, Zach. It’s almost cute…She still thinks she can fight me…” Anane said and laughed. “Give it up. You’re just an agent, you’re mortally wounded and you’re barely able to stand. At least die with dignity.”
Aslaug smiled. She was forcing the pain to the back of her mind. It wouldn’t take more than ten seconds. Just ten seconds…
“Dying with dignity…is a term Christians use…for dying worthlessly…” she whispered and raised her axe abruptly…
She brought it down.
Zach screamed like his essence was being ripped from his chest as he collapsed on his knees, desperately clutching for his back.
His back…where two bloody stumps was all that remained of his wings. They fell to the ground in front of Aslaug as she used the momentum from the axe to swirl around her entire axis. It meant twisting her hip and her spine. She could feel a lung collapsing in her chest. Blood ran freely from her nose and her lips by now as the bright, brilliant streak of light that was the edge of her axe swung around.
Anane’s eyes went wide, realizing what was happening.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” It roared. It pulled back Its right arm and launched Its sword through the air.
Aslaug felt it entering her abdomen. Cleanly, it went through her to the hilt…and she was thrown backwards to the ground.
But it was too late.
Zach’s head rolled onto his wings.
As Aslaug hit the ground, Anane’s sword was pushed back out and fell bloodied beside her.
“What have you done…what have you DONE??” Anane roared, walking towards Aslaug.
The shieldmaiden’s breath was nearly gone. Her throat was filling with blood and yet she was trying to laugh. A sick, bubbling sound came over her lips.
“I…win…” she gurgled.
Anane stood there, feeling the sudden pull of Its master, pulling It back to Hell. “No…wait…NO, LORD BALAM…MERCY!?” It screamed. “I will have your head, Aslaug Larsdatter. I WILL HAVE YOUR SOUL!”
It reached for her. Then once again, It screamed as It disintegrated, pulled back to Hell.
Aslaug could see herself on the ground. Dead. She was standing over her crushed form, disembodied, wondering what pain was. She had known the essence of pain until a second or two ago, but now she wasn’t quite sure.
“I think it’s time to go home,” a voice said behind her.
She didn’t turn around. “This is my home now, isn’t it? For all time?”
“It would have been, if you had failed.”
She turned and looked at a shining, glowing figure. She couldn’t make out any details. Another angel. Probably a fairly powerful one. She shrugged and turned to look at her broken form again.
“Piss off, Angel. I’ve had enough of your kind for several lifetimes,” she said, indifferently, looking back at her body.
“You were so strong in life. I should have expected that your ghost wouldn’t be…normal…either,” the angel said. It had a kind voice.
Aslaug really didn’t care.
“I told you to go away,” she said.
“Would you rather spend eternity here, staring at your physical remains as they turn to ashes and dust, and vanish from the world? Forever bound to this spot? Would you truly prefer that to Heaven?” the angel said.
“Your Heaven? I want nothing of it,” Aslaug answered, shrugging. “It means nothing to me.”
“Your friends will eventually be there.”
“And I will still be the odd one out. The outsider, who never fits in, and who never belongs. If this is what the fates weaved into my thread under Ask Yggdrasil, Angel…then so be it.”
The angel seemed perplexed. “Giving up eternity in Heaven, for watching one’s corpse in a burnt out village. Only you, Aslaug Larsdatter. Only you…”
“I thought I told you to leave. Twice. This is the third time. Are all angels so rude?” Aslaug asked.
She expected to hear the Angel’s voice again. Instead, she heard the sound of armor being shrugged into place. “What a dump you picked to die in,” a new voice said.
Aslaug turned her head and looked at a tall, strongly built, blond female, wearing gear much like her own. Or at least…much like what she had worn into battle in life.
“Anane said you wouldn’t be able to find me here.”
“The greater good, Aslaug…the greater good.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Aslaug asked, somehow not managing to feel annoyed about the weird answer.
The valkyrie chuckled. “It means that an angel dropped a hint to us and that their God saw fit to let us come here for you.”
“So I am dead then. Does this mean I get to go to Folkvang at last?”
“It does. If you wish it. You have done enough to earn it, Aslaug Angelbreaker…”
The equine looked back to her body. “And if I don’t wish it just yet?”
“To stay here??”
“No, to go back to California. I don’t want the others to be worried where I vanished off to.”
The valkyrie smiled and shrugged. “You’re a team player,” she said as the world turned white on white around them.
Aslaug gasped as she was pulled back into her shattered body. She could hear another voice. Another female, whispering to her but she couldn’t see her.
The valkyrie knelt next to Aslaug and smiled. “Take my spear,” she said, placing it on the ground next to the broken shieldmaiden.
“Spear…of a…valkyrie…” Aslaug managed to gurgle.
The valkyrie nodded. “You never were much of a shieldmaiden, you know,” she said and got back up, smiling softly. “You always frowned on using shields. Keep the spear…sister…and go back to your friends. You can’t save that world. But maybe you can guide a soul or two clear of trouble along the way…and that’s not bad either.”
Aslaug’s eyes shut and the light vanished.
She could still hear the female whispering…
“ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT…I’m leaving already! Good grief, you’d think I wasn’t welcome here or something,” Uriel snapped.
Tigermark raised an eyebrow in the kitchen and looked at the other two in confusion. Aramis looked as confused as him. Joe looked like he had the beginning of a headache coming on. The five ale-bottles on the table next to him gave the reason.
“If you come back uninvited, Angel…I’ll show you how I earned my name,” Aslaug’s weary voice said.
“Your name?” Uriel asked, then apparently got the hint, “Okay, I’m going already. Stop pointing that thing at me!”
“Aslaug?” Tigermark asked and got up. “What’s going on?? Where have you been? What’s up with Uriel sitting in your living room?”
“He isn’t sitting in my living room anymore, Tiger…and he never will again. Isn’t that right, Angel?”
Uriel didn’t answer. He left. Tigermark noted that he had enough sense of theatrics to leave using the front door, slamming it behind him.
He looked at the equine. He could not remember seeing that much blood on her except once…
When she had originally joined them, after she had…died.
“You’re not back to stay, are you?” he asked, sadly. “Something got you, this time…”
He could feel tears coming on. Joe came up next to him and Aramis was pushing on them both to get them out of the doorway so he could see too.
“You don’t want to know what happened, Tiger…” Aslaug said. She sounded really tired. Like she had seen the woes of the world and realized how little she could do to fix it all.
Joe growled something under his breath. “If he doesn’t want to know, then I do!”
“Yeah, and what’s this about…earning a name?” Aramis asked. “Whoa…and what’s with that…spear? It practically glows!”
“This is the spear of a valkyrie,” Aslaug said, matter-of-factly, easing her friends out of the way and walking into the kitchen. She placed her bloody long-axe on the table and pulled her chain-mail over her head. It would need some serious repairs. The spear she gently leaned against the wall.
“A valkyrie? You borrowed the spear of a Valkyrie? Now I KNOW I want to know where you’ve been!” Joe burst out.
Tigermark shook his head. “I don’t think she borrowed it, guys…” he said, quietly. “Aslaug…when are you leaving us?”
The equine looked at the table. “At least you had the decency to leave me one, Joe…” she muttered and opened her fridge, taking out the last bottle of ale. She popped it open and emptied half of it in one go. “Would you mind getting the vodka in the booze-cabinet in the living room, Aramis?”
The feline nodded, uncertainly, running to get it. Joe fidgeted some and ran a paw over his hair.
“Is Tigermark right? Is that your spear? Are you leaving us?”
“Everyone has to leave sometime, Joe Latrans…” Aslaug said. “And after what I have had to do, I don’t think you would want to keep me around anymore.”
She brushed her nose off with the back of her arm as Aramis reentered the kitchen holding a bottle of vodka in his paws.
“You hold that thing like a nun holds a sailor’s dick,” Aslaug chuckled and grabbed it. She removed the cap and poured most of the contents over her stomach, clenching her eyes and drawing breath sharply between her teeth.
“Jesus CHRIST…Aslaug, I thought you’d heal up instantly…?”
“This isn’t a normal wound, Joe…” Aslaug said and put the bottle to her lips, taking a very long drink. “Don’t ask. Just…don’t.”
Joe nodded, slowly. He looked at his friends. Tigermark still looked very worried. Aramis was clearly confused, and that spear seemed to draw his attention constantly. Joe couldn’t see it glow, but Aramis had…abilities…powers…he didn’t.
“It is about…what lies beneath the fur,” Aslaug said, thoughtfully. “It is all about what…lies beneath the fur.”
“What do you mean?” Tigermark asked. His voice was still quiet.
Aslaug smiled crookedly, but her eyes were no less exhausted as she looked at her friend. “I had something point out to me…how I will always be the odd one out,” she said. “While It beat me to death.”
“Beat you to death??” Aramis said and winced. “I don’t think I want to know what could do that.”
“You’re right. You don’t,” Aslaug chuckled, patting the short feline on his shoulder.
Joe sighed. His shoulders slumped and he fell into one of the kitchen chairs. “I won’t judge you, Aslaug. What was it you had to do? What did you mean by earning your name?”
“I died,” Aslaug said, wearily. “I died in a place where I had no fate. I didn’t do so until I had seen things you wouldn’t see in the worst horror-movie. I didn’t die…until I had killed someone else…”
“Who?” Aramis asked, still not getting it.
Aslaug pulled a piece of cloth from her belt and looked at it. It was folded up, as of holding something.
“An angel,” Aslaug said, looking at the bird on the cloth while her friends tried to recover from the news.
Finally she smiled. Wearily, but it was a real smile, as if at a joke of some kind.
“Unfurl the Raven…and let it fly,” she whispered. She unfolded it. Three long, grayish feathers, untouched by the blood on the banner, came into view. Feathers like those at the very tip of a wing. Larger than those of any bird…
Aslaug rubbed her face and put her forehead in her paws, resting her elbows on the table.
She didn’t have to leave. ‘Maybe guide a soul or two clear of trouble along the way’…that was what that valkyrie had said. No, she reminded herself. Not ‘that valkyrie’. Her sister. Aslaug even knew her name, now, although she had never been told. She was called Oddkatla. And that was just one name. Aslaug knew the names of them all now. All of her sisters…
The names were just there. In her head.
She’d need to fit a couple of new hooks on the wall, to hold the spear. Somehow, she doubted anyone would be able to make off with it even in the case of a break-in.
It was her spear. In the most literal sense of the word.
Yes, she needed to fit it onto the wall. She wasn’t leaving, despite what Tigermark thought. Not yet anyway. At least now she could if she wanted to, but she had to keep this to herself. She didn’t want to upset her friends. She didn’t even understand what it included yet. It did mean one thing though.
She wasn’t an ‘agent’ anymore. Not in the sense that she had been.
‘Guide a few souls along the way…’
She needed sleep.