Dagger and Scythe (First Three Chapters)
Maniodes stood in front of the fireplace in his office chambers, facing Scythe and Dagger. The fireplace was beautifully crafted from black marble, not showing a single seam. The rest of the furniture looked archaic in comparison. A single large desk and chair, both made of wrought iron and littered with parchment and quills, stood in the corner. In another corner a bench that would have been comfortable if it hadn’t been made of the same iron sat. That bench was not meant for pleasant exchanges.
The short crop of his dark-blue hair glinted when the firelight hit it. It had been styled differently yesterday. Scythe knew even gods had their vanities, and she wanted to compliment him on the change, but his demeanor was overwhelming. He stood a towering eight feet as he studied Dagger and Scythe. He wasn’t just angry this time; he was livid at the chaos they had caused. Scythe stayed quiet while staring at the ash on Maniodes’s boots.
Beside her, Dagger was equally quiet.
Maniodes sighed, seeming to be frustrated by his own train of thought. “You were given one victim of your choice, but you decided to torch the entire village. It will be a wondrous story, true, but you left a child alive! The Incruentus Ferrum are supposed to be subtle.”
His voice scared the warmth from the fire, or so it seemed to Scythe.
“It was not intended, sire,” Dagger said. “We got…carried away.”
Scythe had to bite her cheek to stop from laughing. She could still see Dagger stalking around the pile of bodies in the main square, relishing his work.
“Something funny, Scythe?” Maniodes asked, turning on her.
She had stifled the laugh but not the smile. She swallowed her nerves and looked up at the god. There wasn’t any point in lying now.
“We got excited,” she explained.
“Of course you did; that’s the problem. First, you ransack that wedding, leaving no survivors. Then you, Dagger, kill a king on his ship and everyone saw you. It doesn’t matter if panic ensues. You have to stay hidden. You are meant to cause mischief that the living can’t explain, not mayhem and chaos they can fight against. Keeping them cautious keeps them safe, and it reminds them there is a higher power.”
“What’s the point in causing mischief if we can’t enjoy it?” Dagger questioned. “And what’s the point, anyway? The living cause enough chaos with war and murder. Whatever we do, it’s a small percentage of what they do to themselves.”
“The purpose is to be subtle and cause terror. What’s more threatening—the hunter with the axe that you can see, or the monster in the shadows that stalks you? And the point is to frighten them in ways they can’t explain easily.”
Dagger didn’t reply; Scythe remained quiet as well. They were lucky they could discuss things with their ruler at all, but even they knew when to shut up.
“I have an idea,” Maniodes said.
Scythe hoped it didn’t involve being trapped in the river Acheron again.
“You two will marry each other.”
“What?!” Dagger exclaimed.
Scythe’s breath locked in her chest. She had finally gained freedom in death, and now she was going to be bound to a man nonetheless.
“That’s ridiculous,” Dagger said, gingerly overstepping his bounds.
“You two have worked together before, regardless of my say-so. And that’s more than most mortals get in arranged marriages,” Maniodes said civilly.
“But a marriage as a punishment?” Dagger asked.
“Call it an experiment. Conventional punishments haven’t worked on either of you, and I don’t want to rip away your lives. You two will guard each other. If one of you takes a step out of bounds, then both of you will go grey and rejoin the dead in the fields.”
“Guarding each other I understand, even forcing us to live together, but why the full marriage?” Dagger asked again.
“God of mischief,” Maniodes shrugged. “You two work well together anyway. Forcing the marriage should remind you who is in charge.”
Scythe stared at Maniodes, the insult tasting bitter. They’d had a silent understanding of her rogue behavior so long as she followed the basic rules. Forcing this upon her was almost as bad as what her father had tried to pull.
Maniodes turned to Scythe. She didn’t bother hiding her anger. He knew her story. It was why he chose her to become an Incruentus Ferrum. He guarded his expression well. She couldn’t tell if he was saddened by her rage, emboldened by his victory, or if he even gave a shit.
“Come, stand here.” Maniodes indicated for them to move closer.
Dagger stepped forward, but Scythe stayed put, nails biting into her palms.
The cold tone of a father talking down to a child, while also threatening to kill that child, compelled her to move. She hated herself and Maniodes for it, but she couldn’t become one of those mindless, stumbling shades. She took her place beside Dagger but couldn’t look at him.
“Raise your left hand,” Maniodes ordered.
Scythe did so and held it palm-down just over waist height.
“Dagger, your right.”
Dagger raised his hand and held Scythe’s from below. Their fingers wove together naturally. She forced herself to not let go. Dagger hadn’t wanted this, either. He’d even protested against it.
“Shit, I don’t have a ribbon,” Maniodes admitted, looking at their joined hands. “Hold on.”
He unclipped a chain hanging from his belt. Using that instead of the customary ribbon, the god laid it over Scythe’s hand, wrapped it under Dagger’s, then over again.
Once the chain encircled their wrists Maniodes spoke again.
“I won’t bother with fancy words. Dagger, do you take this woman as your wife?”
Dagger cleared his throat, then said, “Yes.”
“Scythe, do you take this man as your husband?”
If she said no she’d be dead. Swallowing her pride, she said, “Yes.”
“Good. Now, if either of you disobey my order again, I will strip the consciousness from you both. You are to watch and guide each other. Understood?”
“Yes,” Dagger said.
“Should things go well and you learn to control yourselves, I could grant an annulment,” Maniodes said. “Now go. I don’t care where, neither of you will receive any work for a while.”
Dagger watched as Scythe stormed out of Maniodes’s castle, nearly knocking over a skeletal guard. The guard was more for show since there was nothing close to threatening down there. Maniodes was the son of Nyx, the goddess of death, so no one had ever opposed him. The only inhabitants in Skiachora besides Maniodes were the Incruentus Ferrum and the grey husks of the dead. The living, above in Ichorisis, knew of the land of the dead, of course, but not the details. No matter how rich or poor, or which city-state the person lived in, they all ended up down there. Every single human was left as a grey shadow of his or her former self.
Scythe continued down the gravel path past the dead trees. She shoved the heavily spiked gate open, hardly aware of the clang as it rebounded. Dagger caught the gate before it could swing back into his face.
The Valley of Shades stretched out under him. The dead shambled as grey shells, each alone in a hoard reaching into the millions. Their bodies were buried during the funeral but the ghosts resembled their owners as perfectly as when they died, except for the color having been drained from them. None of them cared. Dagger doubted they even knew where they were. The Acheron River split the grey valley in two, its smaller tendrils of water branching from it.
The Acheron River rose from under Maniodes’s castle, split through Skiachora, then entered the land of the living: Ichorisis. Everyone born up there, ended up down here, no matter how cruel or virtuous their life.
“Do not give me orders!” She rounded on him midway down the stairs. The stone steps branched around The Acheron River as it rose from under the castle.
“That isn’t what I intended,” Dagger said, finally catching up to her.
Her red eyes glared at him with rage; he could almost feel the heat boring into him. The marriage wasn’t his bloody idea, but she looked personally offended.
“Listen, we might as well make the best of it,” he said.
“Are you serious?”
“I am,” he said bluntly. “I understand you’re pissed—”
“You have no idea why I’m pissed.”
“So some time apart to cool down is a good idea for us both. Maniodes wanted us to keep an eye on each other, and I have no intention of becoming one of those lifeless grey husks down there.” Dagger pointed down to the Valley of Shades to emphasize his point. “So, if you break one of his rules again we’re both fucked.”
“Well, what do you propose?” Scythe asked, crossing her arms, sarcasm dripping from her voice.
“I found some ruins in the mountains we could stay in. I’ve been working on making it homier as a project. That’s what married couples do anyway, right? They at least live together?”
“A happy little couple living together. You’d probably want to go now and commence the husbandly duties with your new wife?”
He couldn’t deny he liked hearing the venom fall from her voice. Not so much when it was aimed at him, but he could let that go. She was a powerful individual when angry, and he didn’t need it directed his way.
“This sham of a wedding wasn’t my idea, and I know we’ve flirted, but I’m not going to force you to consummate anything,” he said.
The heat dulled in Scythe’s eyes. The anger didn’t disappear completely, but some was replaced with unease. That stunned him, she had never once looked uncomfortable before. Scythe never backed away from anything. He could only assume it was because of this forced marriage. It struck a hidden nerve in her.
“I’m serious,” Dagger said. He knew Scythe was cautious for a reason. This woman had fascinated him from the moment he woke up as an Incruentus Ferrum. He wanted her to trust him at least, and up until now she always had.
“Not until it’s on my terms,” she finally said.
“Of course, my lady, but could the wedding chain be involved somehow?” He held the chain Maniodes used, half-smiling.
Scythe scoffed, but a grin took over. “Like when we first met?”
“Technically, the second time. The first time ended with a knife hilt-deep in my neck. I’d rather avoid that next time.”
“No guarantees. Send a bat to my place with directions, and I’ll meet you there tomorrow night. I’m not promising anything, but I might as well scout the place out.”
The scythe swung uselessly through the dead as she walked towards her cave. It sliced through the shades as if they were fog, only to have them reform right behind her. They didn’t protect, they didn’t even seem to care as Scythe sliced their transparent stomachs open.
Her mind wouldn’t stop whirling as she and Dagger talked on the stairs. He left her be after that, as he’d promised, opening the dead tree planted at the foot of the steps to travel back to the surface with his blade.
As she walked now, her thoughts rested on Dagger again, remembering how they met vividly. She admired his bold conviction right away, but his directness had frightened her. Not that she admitted that aloud.
Maniodes had allowed her one victim in the crowded city of Stymphalia. She loved it when she was able to choose. When there was a designated victim the job was still fun, but starting with a blank slate increased the thrill of the hunt. She had spent three nights stalking the streets of Stymphalia like a wraith. Several opportunities presented themselves. A prostitute working a corner alone, a drunkard stumbling home, even a well-dressed businessman, basically just waiting to be robbed. Scythe took her time; she wanted whoever she chose to feel death’s presence.
Eventually, she made her choice. She had been tracking a man who worked as a cobbler, and found his family. They were a happy little family: husband, wife, and three children. Not only would she end one man’s life, but she’d ruin several others.
One night the cobbler left home for an evening stroll. Scythe followed close behind well into the night. There were no stars or moon. The oppressive clouds wouldn’t allow it. Scythe let him feel her stalking him as he hurried home.
She raised her scythe, ready to swing in front of him. He would see the blade before his head flew. Before she could do more than twitch, a glint of metal caught her eye as a different blade flew from above.
The flying knife struck deep into the cobbler’s neck. It poked out the other side of his throat, crimson with gore. He fell, clutching his neck, and died gurgling in his own blood.
She slowly lowered her weapon, dumbfounded. She knelt next to the dead man and yanked out the knife. It was a gorgeous blade. The handle was made of corded black leather and the blade itself, Damascus steel, had a beautiful pattern of hundreds of small waves that danced across the blade. The gore made the knife look alive.
The man leapt down from the merchants’ stall, Scythe knew instantly that he was an Incruentus Ferrum like herself. He stood about a head taller than her, with black hair cropped below his ears. A clever smirk was on his lips, but he didn’t brag about the kill.
He bowed a bit and said, “My lady.”
Scythe wanted to stick the pretty blade in his neck.
“Nice aim,” she said instead. “What do they call you?”
“Dagger, and you must be Scythe?”
Obviously, she thought smugly. She gripped her weapon harder.
“You know me?” she asked, keeping her voice smooth.
“Our names are fairly easy to guess,” Dagger shrugged, “and the others spoke of you. You’re one of the oldest.” He was clearly new.
“You looking for some pointers?”
“I’d be grateful,” he said. “Maybe we could do a few jobs together?”
“First tip, then,” Scythe said, stepping closer.
She stuck the blade in his neck. He stumbled, clutching the merchants’ stall, but kept his feet. He glared at her, astonished, breathing around the steel in his throat.
“Do not take my kill,” she hissed
She left him there, a sour yet satisfying taste in her mouth.
They hadn’t met again until the circus job a month later.
Maniodes probably heard about their first encounter and forced them together, not wanting too much bad blood between his soldiers. At first, Dagger wasn’t overjoyed about doing the circus job with her either, but he eventually forgave her for stabbing him. Not that she actually apologized, and he never took her kill again. They even joked about it now.
The circus job had gone perfectly; it was even fun. They had to kill the ringleader of a traveling circus and an acrobat. She had suggested they design a story with their deaths, something to cause more mischief and scandal. Dagger had come up with the elaborate story that they were lovers caught in a murder-suicide pact. They arranged the bodies accordingly and watched as they were found. The living scattered like ants in the panic. It had been hilarious.
They thought so alike, Scythe hadn’t realized she might have been leading him on. People were attracted to each other all the time, and she knew Dagger admired her when they first met, but she didn’t know how she felt.
They had worked together on other occasions over the years, building an odd friendship. He’d join her on a few solo jobs, and she’d tag along on his when bored.
She swung her blade through the neck of a long dead king by her cave home. His grey head didn’t roll. A wisp of fog wafted around the cut as his neck reformed. After unlocking the iron wood door set in a depression of stone she leaned her weapon on the wall close at hand. She continued pacing. Her little cave didn’t provide much room to move around, but it was safe. The lock on the door was bolted again, and Maniodes probably didn’t even know where this place was. He’d never visited before, even though it was part of Skiachora. Maniodes hardly ever left his castle to explore the fields of the dead at his doorstep. Her cave was relatively safe from him, tucked away in the rock at the opposite end of the fields and the river.
Dagger had visited once before, though he hadn’t come inside. She hadn’t even seen him. He left a single rose wrapped in thorns outside her door after they completed the circus kills together.
Scythe kept telling herself that just because they were married, it didn’t mean things had to change, but her nerves wouldn’t calm down, and she wasn’t entirely sure why. No, that was a lie, she didn’t know why she was so nervous around Dagger all of a sudden, but he hadn’t done anything. Maniodes fucked things up by forcing them together. It was just like what her father tried to pull, selling her off to be someone else’s problem.
She sat in a chair next to the fire with her hands clenched. She stared at them until they stopped visibly shaking, but it still felt like her bones were vibrating. She didn’t want to associate her father and Maniodes to Dagger. He had been nothing but kind, even enticing, which was fine at a distance. She would hold onto that old friendship. This marriage didn’t have to affect anything.