The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 24

 

The sea seemed to be never ending to Noemi. It reached out to endless horizons that curved off into limitless expanse. Having spent so much time running through the jungle, with its low branches and overgrown vines, where you could never see further than a few feet ahead before the view was blocked off or the light grew dark, the sea seemed a lot more…open. She had come to be known for standing on the deck, just letting the fresh ocean air breeze across her face and hair.

Sometimes the blue skies turned grey, dark clouds rolling across them and blocking the sun. Other times, they turned black, flashing lightning across the sky. At night, they lit up with the red and orange of the setting sun. The merchants always seemed happy when the sun went down, as the day’s work came to a close. The morning sun was treated with a lot less joy, especially compared to the joy Ophidia showed for it.

The goddess would often whisper in Noemi’s thoughts, far more than she did when she had Junko by her side. It seemed Ophidia felt just as cooped up on the sea as Noemi did, reaching out through their connection to talk and question Noemi about her plans.

As my champion, you should be working to increase my power, Noemi, by increasing the number of worshippers I have. For instance, there are a number of people aboard this ship…

“I’m not going to recruit a bunch of pirates to a cult, Ophidia,” Noemi hissed through her teeth, trying not to attract too much attention as she pulled the ropes to the sails, trying to catch the winds Ophidia was providing.

And why will you not?

“Because they’re pirates! Yeah, I know they said they’re honest traders, but I looked at the maps, we’ve been avoiding ‘safe’ ports in favor of heading to smaller, harder to get to docks. They’re pirates!”

They are still potential worshippers.

“Look, when we get to Hispaniola, I will set about getting us a permanent spot to build a shrine, and we’ll go from there. Though I don’t know how pious people will see me. I guess I can be a salesman easily enough…”

“CAPTAIN!” A voice shouted from above. Noemi looked up at the crow’s nest, a feature on ships that had come back into style as radar and global positioning systems became…less reliable. Noemi had been talking with the sailors about it. Many of them just scratched their heads, seeming to have forgotten the big metal behemoths that had sailed the seas just a few years prior. For many, the only way to sail the sea seemed to be with…well…sails.

“Land ho!” The lookout screamed, pointing somewhere off in the direction. The crew cheered, and Noemi could not blame them. After all, while she certainly preferred the sea to being cooped up in an Aztlan cage, it had been some time since they had seen land, and that had been a small island, barely even a waystation. To hit true, solid land, with actual ports and cities would be a relief after so much time spent on this ship.

“That’s funny,” the captain said, staring out through his spyglass towards where the lookout was gesturing. “Looks like there’s some fog rolling out from the coast.”

“Fog?” Noemi asked, leaning against the edge of the railing. It was still too far off to see anything but water on the horizon. The blue skies were a bit grayer than normal, considering there didn’t seem to be a storm coming. The wind Ophidia had created was still pushing them along at a good pace.

“We’ll just need to be careful as we approach, to avoid hitting a reef or getting stuck in the shallows,” the captain said, folding his spyglass and slipping it away. “In the meantime, boys, half-sails, we don’t want to come upon the beach too quickly, now.”

“Aye, captain!” a dozen voices called out in response, Noemi’s among them.

“Ophidia, can you slow the winds down a bit?” Noemi whispered under her breath.

It is not as if I am simply adjusting a dial, Noemi. But I will pull back my efforts and conserve my power. We do not know if this is truly Hispaniola.

“Well, we’ll find out soon enough,” Noemi said, as she started to pull the sails shut. She could barely feel the ship slowing beneath her feet. It was hard to tell at times if they were truly moving or simply drifting in place.

All the crew were bustling on board the deck, preparing for the promised land they were approaching. Crates needed to be fastened once more, sails tied, ropes secured. No one wanted to find themselves crashed upon the rocky shores.

As the sun began its descent from the zenith towards the western horizon, land could be seen from the deck of the ship by the naked eye. More accurately, the fog could be seen rolling across the sea, slowly crawling out to greet the ship. Noemi heard more than a little murmuring from the crew as they sailed towards the low gray cloud.

“Don’t like the feel of this,” one pirate said. “They say monsters lurk in the fog. Even fire don’t do much good inside of it.”

“Fire does alright,” another replied. “The problem ain’t the fire, it’s that you stand out like, well, a beacon if you’re carryin’ a torch. They’ll see you before you see them.”

“Enough chatter, men,” the captain said, silencing them all with a quick word. “Pilot says this is where Hispaniola should be. We might have been workin’ against the winds all this trip, but we should be coming up to a port soon enough, so eyes sharp.”

“Even through the fog, cap’n?”

“Aye, through the fog,” the captain said.  “There won’t be any Aztlan here, but for all we know, them stories of New Orleans and their Loa might have spread to here. Or even worse things. Get the guns ready for anything.”

Noemi continued at her post, watching the others prepare the ship for any hazards they might face. She prayed silently in her heart that it would turn out to be just fog. She had had enough to do with spirits and magic for a while. It would be refreshing to just have a weather phenomenon that wasn’t cause for magical alarm. Her hands pulled at the ropes, even as she heard the hissing of Ophidia’s tongue in her ears.

You should keep your wits about, Noemi. I do not like the way this looks.

“Well, fog does make sailing harder,” Noemi said, light heartedly.

The crew moved with relative silence, talking to one another, but the celebration that had come when they had heard of land had died down quickly. Noemi could feel it too, that slight tingle in the back of her neck that told her they were sailing into trouble. Still, their supplies were running low and the pilot assured them all, this was Hispaniola.

They sailed on, the wind dying down as the afternoon turned into evening. The fog rolled over them as they rocked along the waves, carried into the cloud. The air turned cold and wet and dark. Shadows seemed to be moving about the ship. Noemi held her hand in front of her face, moving it far away to see just how thick the fog was. Her hand grew shadowed as she moved it out, clear as she moved it in. The other people on the deck moved like grey silhouettes, those bearing torches standing out among the darkness.

“Captain!” The lookout cried again, from his perch up above. “Incoming vessels…Can’t make out who they are! Towards the bow!”

Noemi squinted as she looked out into the fog. She could just make out two large shadowy shapes moving towards them along the water, in no real hurry. The ships were smaller than the pirate vessel, though sleeker. Noemi could tell they weren’t meant to carry much storage, which mean they were unlikely to be pirates. Unfortunately, that only narrowed out one threat.

The men moved to the bow to stare, even as the captain barked orders for them to stay at their posts. The ships, a pair of sloops with gray sails to better meld with the fog, appeared from the haze. The figures on the deck were hard to make out, with ashen skin and drab clothing. It was as if the mist had given shape to people made of the same gray cloud.

The captain stepped beside Noemi as she stared down. One of the sloops sailed close to the pirate ship. As it drew near, Noemi could see the people aboard the ship were not…human. They looked human, in many ways, but their skin was a pallid white; their eyes were dark and empty. Gaunt figured, their hair clung to their skin like slimy leeches.

One of the figures spoke up to the deck of the ship, its voice sounding at once both faraway and right beside Noemi’s ear.

“Yo ho, children of day,” the voice said. Noemi’s spine stiffened involuntarily, but she felt Ophidia’s presence fill her heart, keeping her from freezing. Most of the crew were not so lucky. “Welcome to the waters of the night. The Lost Fleet welcomes you to your new service.”

Noemi’s hand fell to her machete as she drew it. The men were staring down, almost as if in a trance. She didn’t know what this Lost Fleet was, but it didn’t sound like anything she wanted to do. No, if the ship was going to be commandeered by some ghost pirate or naval fleet, she would find her own way to the shore, if it came to that. The other sailors looked to each other, muttering and asking one another what should be done. The ghostly captain’s voice drifted along the wind up to the ship once again.

“Of course, for those who choose to resist their fate…the ocean will welcome you, to the lands where the sun reaches not. Your worldly goods belong to the Fleet, with or without you.”

“Come on, men!” The captain bellowed. “If’n both options be death, then let us at least sink their ships before they can sink ours!”

“But captain…how do you shoot a ghost?”

“They may be ghosts but their ships are still wood! Guns at the ready!”

“Yes, captain!”

Noemi joined the chorus, even as she subtly made her way to the rowboat. She knew she wasn’t the only one who would have thought of such a plan, and there were only so many boats aboard the ship. She saw the crew move through the fog, many heading below the decks to pack gunpowder into the cannons.

“Captain…” The lookout’s voice rang out once again. “There’s another ship coming, port side.”

Noemi looked over the edge of the railing. Sure enough, there was a third ship sailing through the fog, though this one seemed far away. She heard movement on the sloop below them. The ghosts were rushing about, pulling their ghastly sails away, loading their cannons.

“I don’t think it’s a friend of theirs, captain,” Noemi said, with a grin.

“It might not be a friend of ghosts, but that doesn’t mean it’s a friend of ours! Raise the sails, men, we’re making a run for it!”

Noemi could barely tell what was happening in the confusion that followed. People rushed to and fro, pulling on ropes and adjusting the rudder, heading down below the decks. The sloops seemed to be preparing to flee as well, though their sailors were still brandishing their swords and pistols at the pirates.

“Captain, I don’t think…”

She heard the sound of the cannons before she got the sentence out. The sloops might have been running, but if they couldn’t have the ship, they would make sure their rival didn’t. Noemi gripped the railing as the cannonballs tore through the hull, rocking the ship.

“Return fire!” the captain ordered, firing their own broadsides back at the sloops. Noemi’s struggled to keep her feet as the ship moved back and forth from the force of the cannons. She could fight in the streets, in the jungle. There was always a place to run or jump, a solid piece of ground to land on. Here, there was nothing as she nearly slipped.

The second volley was too much for her. As the wood splintered in the explosion, Noemi found herself flying backwards off the ship, the railing snapping behind her.

“Caaaaptaaaain!” She cried out as she grabbed fruitlessly at the air, the pirates’ growing smaller and smaller until they were barely larger than toy soldiers to her eyes. Noemi crashed into the water back first. The first thing she noticed was the cold as the ocean water chilled her to her bone. The second thing was the pain the impact had upon her spine. Had she not been blessed by Ophidia, Noemi would have probably died, joining countless others on the ocean floor.

She pushed the water back, swimming furiously for the light of the surface. With her first gasp of breath, she screamed in pain. The second breath she called out to the pirates.

“Captaaain! Come back! Don’t leave me like that!”

They are not coming, Noemi.

“Well someone has to! Ghosts! Hey! I want to join your fleet!” Noemi waved her arms, trying to get the ghosts attentions. It failed. The sloops were sailing away just as her ride was. “Someone, please! Anyone! Come back!”

Noemi.

“Please, I don’t want to die here, in the water! Someone help me!”

Noemi. The ship is coming closer.

“The ship, what shi-“ Noemi said as she spun around in the cold salty water, her face going pale. The ship that had scared the ghosts was sailing towards her. Even from a distance, she could tell it was big. Bigger than the pirate ship she had been sailing with. Its hull was made of black wood, covered with slimy green rime. The water around it seemed to glow from an unseen light source. Its sails were tatters, holes letting the last light of the sun shine through, though it didn’t seem to affect its movement. In fact, it was traveling with far greater speed than Noemi expected.

She treaded water for a bit as the large vessel sailed towards her. Noemi was about to call up, waving her arms when a rope ladder was dropped down the side. Thankful just to get out of the icy water, Noemi grabbed hold of the ladder and started climbing her way up, shivering the whole time. The rope was slimy and slippery, though she could feel Ophidia curling around her shoulder and neck beneath her shirt as she pulled herself up, giving her the balance needed to keep from falling.

After the longest climb of her life, Noemi finally pulled herself aboard the ship, gasping for breath as she collapsed into a shivering soaking pile upon the deck. She looked up to see a pair of boots. Slowly, she raised her eyes. A man was standing above her, looking down at her with a smirk upon his face.

“Well, now, isn’t this a surprise. You made the climb still living,” the man said, laughing. Noemi just collapsed again, exhausted from the effort. The last thing she remembered hearing before drifting off was his laughing voice telling her one more thing, something that chilled her more than the water did.

“The name’s Jonah. Welcome aboard The Flying Dutchman.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Inner Demons

 

The young red-haired girl took the bread cautiously from Asha’s hand. She glanced furtively around to make sure none of the other beggars were watching as she hid it quickly in the folds of her ragged cloak, nodding in a silent thanks to Asha. She remained quiet, watching the girl leave as her companions admonished her for giving out bread to the poor in Damascus. It was smart criticism; there were many who weren’t starving nearly as much as she was still out begging on the streets. Though the fact that Asha had singled her out told the girl a lot about her. It told her that Asha was kind, generous, and had a sense for things she still did not quite grasp completely.

A few minutes later she stood up and moved quickly into the closest alley, going from a quick walk into a run when she cleared the busier streets, still clutching the bread wrapped in her cloak with one hand as she moved at speed through the cramped, filthy, and labyrinthine alleyways of Damascus. Her feet were bare, and the hard gravel, ruined asphalt, and bare stone was rough on her calloused feet, but she fought through it. A person couldn’t afford to stop or be cornered in this kind of place or else…

She turned into another narrow alley and saw two larger men standing at the opposite end. Cursing inwardly she turned to run back, only to see another man blocking the entrance to the alley.

All three of them began to move in, boxing her in as she searched frantically for an escape. The walls were easily ten meters high on either side with nothing to climb. The sides of the alley were lines with trash and other refuse, but it wasn’t enough to hide in and there was no point in trying.

She felt the one behind her take hold of her cloak, pulling it back to slide her hood from her head as the other two pulled in.

“Well, what cute little thing’s fallen into our net this time?” The biggest, seemingly the leader asked, placing a large dirt-calloused hand on her red-haired head. She knocked his hand away, but could feel how much more strength he had in that arm than she had in hers.

“Now see, that’s not very nice of you,” The thug only grinned at her stubbornness. “If you’re going to be like that then we’re just going to have to be rougher about this, aren’t we? Wouldn’t you rather this go easily?”

The girl took in a deep breath, if worst came to worst…

She felt one of them place a rough hand on her shoulder as the others checked her hands, one of them holding up the bread she had been given.

“Aw, she even brought us a little gift on the side,” The leader said. “How thoughtful.”

“That belongs to u…to me,” The girl said sharply, amber eyes flashing.

“No, see I don’t think you get it,” The thug said. “You might be new to this part of the city, but you’re in my territory. I’m like…well I’m like a king here, like what they’ve got in Babylon.”

“Ain’t the king in Babylon a chick?” One of his crew spoke up.

“Shut it, you idiot. It’s the idea. Point is, everything belongs to the king, so if he wants your bread, your stuff, or your body, then you give it up. Got it?”

The girl spat at his feet. “You are nothing but street slime. Render unto us that which is ours.”

The faces of the other brutes fell into almost exaggerated grimaces, but the leader seemed to keep a calm expression, even as his hand curled into a large fist.

“See, that was rather rude. And when you’re rude to a king, then you get punished. Some kings chopped off hands as punishment, but I’ll just settle for giving you a beating before taking what’s mine.”

His fist came down in a hard swing towards her head, but even before it struck her skin his entire arm seemed to erupt into flames.

As he stared at his hand in silent shock the fire dimmed, and they could only stare at the remains of his arm. Nothing of his lower arm past the elbow remained save for empty air and the ashen memory of bone near the scorched stump. A silence hung in the air for a half a moment as his face changed slowly from stunned confusion, to anguish and a scream began to erupt from his lungs.

Fire filled the alley, an inferno that burned brilliant red as it flew in a great conflagration almost to the rooftops before dying out just as quickly. A sudden burst of light and heat that many in the surrounding streets simply shrugged off as one of the city’s many oddities.

The girl fled from the alley again, bread in hand, leaving nothing in her wake save for the outlines of three men left in the scorched building walls and the faint smell of burning rubbish.

She managed to reach her hideout without further molestation, tucking herself into a small lean-to built into the side of a building, empty save for her sleeping mat and what few odds and ends that she kept around. Taking one last furtive glance around, she took a large bite out of the bread and chewed it, thoughts heavy  as she tried to make the taste of the bread last as long as it could, chewing it well past the point of necessity as she felt the stomach-filling food dissolve between her tooth.

Damascus was free of three rotten souls, she didn’t particularly mind her actions. What irritated her was that it needed to happen at all. If too many incidents like that happened around her people might start asking questions and she would need to relocate to another district of the city. At least this time she didn’t appear to have left any witnesses…

A sharp knock on top of her shelter sent warnings through her body as she sprang to alertness. She swallowed the bread, tucking the rest of it away as she nervously opened the small curtain that marked the entrance.

Standing before the lean-to, alone in the narrow courtyard, was a single woman dressed all in black traveling clothes. Her skin was an unnaturally pale white and her hair a void-like black above scintillating green eyes, a crooked smile set upon her face.

“You,” The girl’s face set into a harsh scowl. “What are you doing here? We thought you were URIEL’s lab rat?”

“Now that’s unkind,” the woman said. “And here I was overjoyed to see you. May I come in or would I be intruding, your majesty?”

The last words were delivered with a powerful air of mockery and sarcasm which the girl did not appreciate. But nevertheless she pulled herself back into her shelter, giving the pale woman the room to slip inside.

“Oh, this is lovely,” She smiled. “So what name are you going by now, is it still Rachel?”

“Rachel is our name,” she said stubbornly. “And it’s staying that way.”

“Tsk, that won’t do, you’ll need at least two,” the woman said.

“And you?” Rachel asked. “What moniker do you have now, is it still Dantalion?”

“No, that one fell out of favor a long time ago; I go by Constance now. Constance U. Smith.”

“’U?’” Rachel raised an eyebrow. “What does the ‘U’ stand…ah, irrelevant. We don’t care to know. It’s an appropriately ironic name we suppose, ‘Constance’. Why are you here?”

“To check in, of course. I was quite surprised to see you, though I was less surprised that you failed to greet me, even if it does sting a bit. I thought we were friends.”

“You are a heretic and a troublemaker,” Rachel said, eyes narrowed.

“Now that hurts, right here,” Constance mocked pain and placed her hand over her chest.

“You have no heart,” Rachel spat.

“Well that makes one of us,” Constance’s smile came back. “Truth be told I came on behalf of someone else.”

“The girl,” Rachel nodded, picking up the remaining bread. “And her companions.”

“That’s right. I’m surprised none of them sensed you, you must be keeping all that power tucked away quite deep.”

“What do they want?” Rachel asked impatiently.

“They want to overthrow the Queen of Babylon,” Constance smiled.

Rachel stopped chewing her bread for a moment as she eyed Constance.

“We do not like getting humans caught up in our plans,” Rachel said, stuffing the bread back into her mouth, swallowing the last of it before speaking. “We really don’t like getting strange spirit-hybrids caught up in it.”

“Why? Do you dislike the company?” Constance asked, and Rachel shot her a venomous look.

“The way I see it,” Constance continued. “All you wanted was Shadiya out of the way, and these people can accomplish it, given the proper resources and contacts. You didn’t want Babylon, you just want Shadiya and URIEL to crumble. Then you can move forward with…whatever plan it is you have, and I can move forward with mine.”

“It is that last part we take umbrage with,” Rachel said. “We know you well enough to know how untrustworthy you are.”

“Why do people keep saying that?” Constance asked. “I am perfectly trustworthy, I have never gone back on my word, as well you know. If anyone’s untrustworthy it’s you humans.”

“If there is one thing to be relied upon,” Rachel said. “It is your utter and all-consuming ignorance of how humans operate.”

“Ignorant and proud!” Constance’s grin grew.

“Ignorant maybe, but we know you well enough to not be fooled. You want something out of this, and we are always concerned about the desires of heretics.”

“Oh, I desire many things, quite a few of them heretical to certain minds,” Constance said. “But what I desire right now, and what concerns you, is a free and independent Babylon…as well as a crown upon your kingly head.”

Rachel paused in her thinking. She could see the lure before her, knew how well Constance had baited it. This was the easiest and most transparent kind of trap…or it would be for the malevolent. Constance might be a demon, but even demons were only malevolent around half the time and Constance…Constance was strange even by demonic standards, even before URIEL had performed its experiments and done strange things to an already strange mind.

“We will make no deals and strike no bargains…at least not yet,” Rachel settled on finally. “But we are curious about this group. They have an air of fate about them.”

“Oh yes, they’re all quite entangled in the fate of Babylon and this region as a whole. The girl, Asha, has been touched by the Lady of the Future herself,” Constance nodded. “They are the metaphysical envy of those who wish to influence the future of this land.”

Rachel sighed. This was too good an opportunity to pass up, and both of them knew it. She had been handed the solution to many of her problems, she simply objected to the messenger. Still, Constance was a nuisance and a rogue element, not necessarily her enemy.

“Fine,” Rachel said. “We will seek them out on my own and in my own time. And if things go well, we might even see fit to…give you our thanks.”

“That would be lovely,” Constance’s crooked grin never faltered. “It’s been centuries since anyone ever thanked me for anything.”

“And we shall see if you deserve a king’s gratitude,” Rachel growled.

“Indeed, we will, though that also depends on you becoming a king,” Constance said. “At least you have the diction down to an extent.”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “That’s enough. Begone from our sight.”

“A simple goodbye will suffice,” Constance gave her one last teasing grin as she slipped like a shadow out from the shelter.

Rachel sighed as she laid back on her sleeping mat. Constance might be more trouble than she’s worth, but it was true that she never lied and that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And much as she’d like to believe otherwise, Rachel only had a single lifetime to set her plan in motion.

This would have to do.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 23

 

With the rising security after the near-disaster at the URIEL research facility, all of them had decided that the ideal time had come for them to temporarily leave the city in favor of striking out for Damascus to see what support could be found there. Between them all, they had enough to trade and sell to acquire three camels and supplies for the trip. One camel carried their supplies while the other two carried Hazif and Eli, the two who still only had the stamina of an average human. Leyla, Asha, and Constance could walk unhindered for an entire day, even across scorched ground and over sandy dunes.

None of them were particularly happy about their newest companion. Hazif had seemed as baffled as they were on what manner of creature Constance was, and Leyla had only gone along with it because their options were running short. Eli was cautiously optimistic about her presence, and Constance herself seemed downright chipper.

They traveled mostly by dawn and dusk, stopping to rest where they could during scorching midday and freezing night. Although the going was slower, Asha found herself enjoying traveling in a larger group than moving with only Leyla for company. Hazif and Eli both seemed more open to talking now that they were out from under Shadiya’s gaze, and Leyla had relaxed somewhat as well now that the constant tension of the city was behind them.

Together they made camp in the shadow of a ruined and desiccated skyscraper that rose from the sand dunes like a worn tombstone, lighting a fire as they prepared their meager dinner beneath a brilliant and high full moon.

“You know, as bad as the desert can be,” Leyla said. “There are a lot more stars you can see. The sky feels so much bigger.”

“It’s true,” Eli nodded. “In Babylon, you always feel sort of…boxed in. It’s almost claustrophobic. Out here there’s just miles and miles to see.”

“Miles and miles of sand and monsters,” Hazif said, before gesturing to Asha and Leyla. “Thankfully we have our stalwart protectors here.”

“Mm, I didn’t really like leaving,” Asha said. “Felt like leaving a job half-done.”

“Oh, we’ll be back,” Constance said brightly, choosing to sit slightly apart of them on a bent piece of steel like a looming bird. “We’ll be back with a plan and allies to make that revolution a reality.”

“You know it’s not going to be a bloodless coup, right?” Hazif asked Asha, Eli noticeably stopping his eating. “There’s no path to go down that has a smooth transition of power.”

“That’s probably true,” Asha said. “But it has to be done, and while minimizing civilian casualties. This needs to be a city that works for its people, and we can’t afford to kill them to make it that way. It defeats the point.”

“Shadiya needs to be destroyed, or at least permanently removed from the picture,” Leyla said. “And URIEL needs to be ousted from the city as well. They’re two different poisons from the same source. If we want to free Babylon we need to eliminate Tiamat’s hold on the city.”

“You’ll find no such poison in Damascus,” Constance smiled. “You’ll find a host of other ills that plague that city, but they are human vices, not Primordial influence.”

“What do you know about Damascus?” Eli asked, looking up at Constance.

“Oh, I’ve been once or twice before I was…interred,” Constance said. “I thought it was lovely. Though you humans might call it a ummm…’wretched hive’ seems apt.”

“Lovely,” Hazif said. “Out of the fire and into the oven.”

“Just be on your guard,” Leyla said. “None of us are particularly naïve. We can handle a bit of roughness, I think.”

“I’ll…stick to you guys,” Eli said hesitantly. “I’m not great in that kind of environment.”

“Oh, you’ll be fine,” Constance smiled. “It’s the kind of place that has endless possibilities.”

 

 

It took them a little over a week to reach the city of Damascus. And even from a distance they could see that it was a city that was entirely unlike Babylon. There were walls, as most cities required, but they were ramshackle things of wood and brick manned by a half-armored militia of undisciplined layabouts, chatting and drinking among themselves as they occasionally tossed out a glance towards the horizon. The gates were open, and here as well a throng of people moved out of the city, many of them trying to sell cheap and useless goods, or buy the excess of traders at extortionate prices.

It took them nearly an hour to find a reputable place to keep their camels, and it took a great deal of convincing and a few veiled threats to make it clear that they would be back for them in a few days. But soon enough they were able to set off on foot into the city itself.

Inside the walls was even worse. Gone were the gleaming spires and glass mixed with the spotless walls. Here everything was half-built and supported by a mix of permanent scaffolding and the building next to it, creating a haphazard maze of buildings that seemed at once squat and precipitously high, all of it looking as if it were a stiff breeze away from collapsing in on itself.

The place was intensely crowded, the five of them having to push forward as a group in order to make any forward progress at all, save for Constance who seemed to slip through the masses like a trout through a stream, guiding them along into the city.

Everything here was several shades dirtier than it had been in Babylon, dirt and dust were kicked up everywhere. Loose sand from the dunes crept in among alleys and street corners, and the stench in some places was almost overwhelming, indicating that the plumbing of this city was only semi-functional. The people seemed a few degrees seedier as well. The peddlers here were largely hawking either overpriced counterfeits, or charging exorbitant prices for even basic necessities. Thieves and pickpockets seemed to lurk around every corner, and beggars and homeless lined a number of streets, or made their homes in smaller shanties built within narrow alleys.

Everywhere eager merchants and criers tried to corral the obvious newcomers into ‘luxurious’ and expensive apartments, restaurateurs tried to lure them in with strange and delicious scents of food, alchemists and amateur pharmacists tried to sell them the body parts of monsters that could cure any illness, and heavily perfumed and beautiful women tried to lure them into dens of pleasure.

“Thi-this is certainly…different,” Eli stammered after managing to extricate himself from the silken shawl of one such woman. “From Babylon at least.”

“Keep close, kid,” Leyla said, chuckling a little to herself as she pulled Eli in with an arm around his shoulder. “This is a bit more like what I’m used to.”

“Where do we even get started in a place like this?” Asha asked, trying to keep her head from being on a swivel as she tried to take it all in.

“Same as before. We find a place to stay that’s not absurdly overpriced, then we start reconnaissance”.

“Right but…” Asha’s eyes caught the gaze of one of the city’s many homeless beggars. She was a woman, or rather a young girl looking a few years younger than Asha herself, clutching a wooden bowl in hand that was empty save for a few loose coins. Her eyes were bright amber, and her filthy red hair hung loose over her shoulders as she looked up at Asha with a silent pleading expression.

Asha felt her heart twist up in a knot. Knowing it was a foolish thing to do, she surreptitiously gave the girl some of the flat bread she had saved, stealthily enough not to catch the eyes of other beggars, but not escaping Hazif’s gaze, and he quickly took her wrist as he pulled her along.

“That was a stupid thing to do,” He said, getting her back in line with the others as they moved through the city.

“It was just the one, and it was some of my own rations,” Asha said stubbornly. “Doesn’t affect you.”

“She was probably a panhandler” Hazif said “And has you marked as a sap.”

“I’m not a sap,” Asha shot back, pulling her wrist free. “Heaven forbid someone show a little humanity now and then.”

“Come now, you’re both right,” Constance stuck her face between them, causing Asha to jump a little as she was sure that the demon had been ahead of them.

“Hazif, you should learn to care a little more about your fellow man on an individual level,” She said, placing a hand on his shoulder, which caused him to recoil slightly at her touch. “After all, if you forget them, then you might miss the forest for the trees during your little revolution. Societies are made up of people, and that touch of humanity could be the saving grace of nations.”

Asha smiled triumphantly for a moment before she too felt Constance’s hand on her shoulder.

“And you, my dear Asha,” she said, smiling toothily. “Should know better than to take anything here at face value. For your own safety and prosperity, assume everyone around you has some ulterior motive. Everyone is two-faced, and in a place like Damascus that becomes more apparent than ever.”

“Two-faced,” Asha frowned. “Like you?”

“Like everyone,” Constance smiled. “But most people don’t understand the expression. You see, they think it means you have a good side and a bad side. In truth, we all have two faces and the trick is finding out which one is the real one. There’s the face we show people, the social mask that defines us. But there is also the face in the mirror, the one by which you define yourself. None of these faces are inherently evil or inherently good. The trick is knowing which one you’re working with.”

“And what’s the trick then?” Asha asked. “Since I assume knowing which face you’re dealing with means you’ll know if you’ll get betrayed.”

“The trick is knowing that the face you’re working with, the face that might betray you, isn’t the face you can see, but the one that they choose.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Flying Solo

 

While Hildegard, Cat, and Rosa were away on their diplomatic mission, it had fallen to Salvatore to take care of the numerous monstrous threats that still lingered at the wild fringes of Italy. The speed of Pegasus combined with his and Hildegard’s skill as monster slayers meant that they could be wherever they might be needed with great speed and could deal with anything they found there.

This time however Salvatore, or Turi as he preferred to be known, was on his own and keenly aware of it. He kept a tight hold on Pegasus’ reins as the winged horse swooped through the clear Italian sky over forests and low hills. It was a routine mission, he told himself for the hundredth time; it was just an oversized lizard, nothing more, barely even beyond the cacodaemon stage. Rosa, Aurelio, Evangeline, and all the other champions he had met had slain more terrifying monsters than that, and he was champion of Athena, She Who Fights in Front, and he wasn’t allowed to disgrace his patron goddess with cowardice.

The green hills eventually gave way to azure coast, and Turi brought Pegasus low to fly over the narrow strip of sandy beach that divided land and sea. He picked up his spear from where it had been resting on the side of his saddle, keeping its familiar weight in hand as his eyes scanned the short and cave-riddled cliffs that rose here and there along the beachhead. Whatever he was looking for was hiding somewhere out here…

Pegasus’ snorting alerted him before his eyes caught it. He brought Pegasus lower to the ground, great white wingbeats kicking up sand as the horse hovered over the beach before a particularly large cave entrance, the interior filled with impermeable shadow. Turi’s fingers tensed around the spear, working to keep his breathing steady as his heart hammered in his chest.

There’s nothing to be nervous of, he reminded himself. Just because your monster-slaying girlfriend isn’t here doesn’t mean you can’t handle this yourself.

From within the cave something stirred. The first thing he saw were its eyes. Shining yellow that seemed to glow with their own malevolent power. Then more of it appeared, a massive snake-like head ridged with spines and with a cruel mouth filled with sharp fangs. As the long neck slid free from the shadows, the first of four massive clawed feet moved forward into the sunlight.

Soon all of it was visible, a massive serpentine monster looking like an anaconda mixed with some horrible dinosaur, covered in sharp spines and glistening black scales. It had only one long neck, but it was undeniably a hydra.

Turi gulped, glad Hildegard wasn’t there to see how nervous he was, but also wishing she was there to lighten the situation somewhat. He liked to think he was brave, but Hildegard seemed to be fearless. He had asked her before if there was anything she was afraid of. She had told him the three things she was afraid of, and a hydra wasn’t on the list.

The beast was over seven meters long from nose to tail, and powerfully built with a thick body and muscled legs ending in many-fingered hands each tipped in a razor-like claw. It eyed him, head swaying slowly from side to side as its serpent tongue flicked out to taste the air.

Turi rapidly went over everything he knew about hydras. He was smart enough to not try to chop its head off. That couldn’t possibly end well. He’d never fought one with Hilde, but Evangeline said she had fought one once, and had killed it by hurtling a lightning bolt through its chest. Turi, unfortunately, would have to make do with a spear.

He whistled to Pegasus and the great winged horse flapped forward, moving with speed as it rose into the air and began to circle the hydra like a vulture. Turi watched how its head moved, how it kept its gaze fixed on Pegasus as it sluggishly tried to turn along with their great wheeling circles.

That’s good, he thought. Eyes on the horse, not the guy on its back.

Turi had no divine weapons like Aurelio or Rosa, and he didn’t have any supernatural skills like Evangeline or Megame. What Turi had was aptitude, the ability to plan and recover, but more than anything else, he had Pegasus. The horse was as smart as a man and particularly agile. He also had a keen sense for working out Turi’s plans at the same time as his rider, and always knew what his cues and signals meant.

Turi whistled again and down Pegasus dove. The hydra braced itself and pulled its head back before lunging forward to snap at Pegasus with its powerful jaws. The horse, however, remained just out of his reach, and Turi’s spear lashed out to cut a long gash along the Hydra’s flank.

The hydra screamed in pain and Turi felt a rush of success swell through him as Pegasus pulled away. It wasn’t a mortal wound, but it was effective and if he stuck to this plan…

A sizzling sound called his attention, and as he looked at his spear the rush died in his chest as terror filled him. The blade of his spear was gone, and nearly half of the wooden haft was being eaten away by what looked like boiling black acid. Turi threw what remained of his spear away before it could eat any closer to his hand as he swore loudly. He’d forgotten another key weapon of the hydra: Poison blood. He’d thought it meant simply venom, or some kind of contact poison, but it apparently had the strength to melt metal and wood.

He was unarmed save a knife he kept for emergencies. But he wasn’t about to try that against a hydra, particularly considering that a cut with a knife would let the acidic blood spill across his hand.

As his mind raced, Turi thought of the first thing Hildegard had told him she was afraid of: Being unarmed and unable to fight. It had seemed silly at first. Even unarmed, Hildegard was one of the most dangerous people he knew, a master of several brutal martial arts. And he was still far from unarmed. He had Pegasus, and he had his wit. This fight wasn’t over yet.

 

***

 

“Seems your boy is in a little bit of trouble.”

Far away, atop divine Olympos, two goddesses watched Turi and Pegasus battle the hydra through a well of clear water, able to see the events unfurling from hundreds of miles away as it was reflected on the water’s surface. The one who had spoken was tall, fair, blonde, and beautiful beyond measure. Her hair fell in bright golden curls about her shoulders beneath a circlet of gold and above staggeringly green eyes. She was dressed finely in earthy tones of green and brown beneath a cloak of falcon feathers, all embellished with gold finery that paled before the necklace she wore looped around her neck. It was a marvel of jewelry that did not outshine her beauty, but served only to enhance it beyond even divine levels. Wearing it, she went from stunning to a fair rival of Aphrodite herself.

Her counterpart, though lovely as well, was far more conservatively dressed. She wore a long robe of white brought in and clasped by relatively modest adornment and completed by an ornate golden breastplate. On her brow over her light chestnut hair rested a gold helmet that could be brought down over her face at a moment’s notice. Her favored spear and shield rested nearby, always within arm’s reach, and she surveyed Turi’s battle with large silver-grey eyes.

The fearsome grey-eyed goddess was Athena, Turi’s patron, and her guest was from a land far beyond Olympos.

“I did not choose him to be a fighter, Lady Freyja,” Athena said, giving her only a passing glance. “I chose him for his affinity for horses and for his wits. When it comes to problem solving, he will often surprise with his cleverness.”

The smiling blonde goddess, Freyja, smiled as she leaned in closer. “Well then let’s see just how clever he is.”

 

***

Turi had lured the hydra into a forest near the coast, taking it from where its size gave it a natural advantage. He brought Pegasus in low over a clearing and dismounted before sending him back into the air. The forest slowed the hydra but also limited Pegasus’ abilities, but Turi had a plan, one he needed to work quickly to set into motion.

All the while he could hear the hydra rattling through the trees. Branches and narrow trunks snapping beneath its bulk and its powerful legs. A deep resounding hiss echoing from its monstrous lungs. Turi swallowed his fear, ignoring the hammering in his heart as he set off into the woods, gathering what loose dry wood he could pick up off the ground as he ran, looking for a suitable bit of bramble.

He remembered the second thing Hilde had told him she was afraid of. The only monster she feared was not a hydra or a werewolf or even a mighty dragon. What Hildegard feared was a vampire sorceress by the name of Jezerette Al-Sonara, a monster in human skin who had nearly killed Hildegard once when she was sixteen, and a second time earlier this year when a dark contagion she had left behind nearly destroyed Hildegard’s body from the inside out. The thought of a creature like Jezerette, and worse still the lingering fear that the monster might still be alive, had always sent shivers down his spine.

This creature was not Jezerette Al-Sonara; it was a hydra, a kitten in comparison. It didn’t deserve a champion’s fear. That thought kept Turi going as he set about making his trap.

 

***

“Resourceful at the very least,” Frejya smiled as she watched him work. “He clearly has a plan.”

“All good warriors do,” Athena said. “I admire the work Capitolina has done with Ares’ champion, but she’s still a wild fighter, uncontrolled and too bloodthirsty.”

“Can’t say I disapprove of that, though I do disapprove of your other war god,” Freyja said. “I find you far better company, Lady Athena.”

“Likewise,” Athena smiled.

“Mmm, he’s cute too,” Freyja licked her lips hungrily. “Do you think his lover would mind if I-“

“I’d avoid it,” Athena said curtly, doing her best to retain her now somewhat more strained smile. She did honestly like Freyja. The Norse goddess was bold, powerful, and beautiful. Much like herself in many ways. But she was also a goddess of love and sexuality which, given Athena’s own staunch chastity, did leave them occasionally at odds, as accommodating as Athena tried to be.

“As you like,” Freyja sighed, though she quickly gained a mischievous smile. “So when he and this Hildegard girl are together do you ever look in and-“

“A-absolutely not!” Athena cracked at that, even as she knew Freyja was mostly teasing her, leaving her red-faced and irritated. The last time someone had tried to embarrassed Athena like that she had turned them into a spider. Freyja was only lucky she was a goddess, and one Athena needed.

“Naturally, my apologies,” Freyja smiled. “But I am curious what his plan is.”

“I think I know,” Athena said, looking back to the water. “But we will have to see.”

 

***

 

Turi breathed a sigh of relief as he stumbled across a wide briar thicket, a mess of thorns, vines, and brambles that could put a halt to any attempt to traverse it. There was no way a human could move through it, but he could only hope it would slow down a hydra.

Slowly he began to move around it, trying to put the bulk of the thorny brambles between the hydra and himself before dropping the armload of old dead wood he had picked up along the way. As he piled it together, he took one stick and began to bang it loudly against the tree, letting the hollow wooden sound echo outwards.

“Come on!” He shouted into the woods. “Come on, you damned ugly snake!”

He heard a distinctive rumbling hiss and the crashing through the underbrush as the hydra changed course to move towards him. He pulled a small firestarter from his pocket and set to work lighting a fire on the dried wood he had carried. Swearing as the first few flames petered out as soon as they appeared.

The ground shook as they hydra approached, and as he dared a single glance up he could see its great snake head staring at him from across the briar patch. Slowly it took a step into the brambles, gaze never leaving him.

Turi forced his gaze back down as he set to work, trying to control his breathing as it came in short terrified pants. The hydra was only getting closer and his plan was a long shot. It was natural to be terrified, if that hydra got within striking distance then he was without weapons and without Pegasus in these woods.

The earth quaked as the hydra took another step and the firestarter fumbled in his hands.

He took a long breath, remembering Hilde’s presence. Her arms around his waist when they flew together, the feeling of her hands guiding his when they trained. They had been lying together outside under the stars when she had told him the thing that frightened her the most, when she had been perfectly beautiful beneath the moonlight.

“And I suppose…the thing I’m most afraid of,” She’d said. “Well…that’s pretty simple. It’s not being able to protect the people that matter to me. Before Mother, I didn’t have anyone to worry about except myself. But now I have her, I have Cat, and I have you, Turi. I…I guess I’m scared of the thought of losing you, of not being there when you need me.”

Turi had promised her then that she’d never lose him. That he’d always be at her side when they needed one another. He wasn’t about to die out here and let her live through her worst fear. Athena and Hildegard had both come to be such a large part of his life, and he didn’t plan to let either of them down today.

With a plume of orange flame, several of the larger sticks caught fire and Turi grabbed them where he could before tossing them into the thick briar patch, filled with dry thorns and thin leaves. The hydra was almost upon him, but its feet were caught in the groping vines, and it thrashed a bit as it tried to pull itself nearer, ignoring the smoke as it began to rise around it.

There was only one thing left. The thorns wouldn’t hold back a hydra for long, but he had one last trick. A sharp whistle called Pegasus back to the clearing, the winged horse swooping behind the hydra and with several mighty wingbeats it blew a harsh steady wind into the thicket.

The dry vegetation and rushing wind combined to send the flames up into a conflagration, great licking flames soon rising up around the hydra as the monster began to suffocate in the rising pillar of smoke, snapping wildly in the air as Turi ran from the thicket.

 

***

 

Freyja and Athena watched as flames consumed the hydra. Trapped in the thicket and soon caught in the center of a spreading inferno, the monster burned alive as Turi made his quick escape, meeting Pegasus in a clearing before flying to survey the monster’s drawn-out death.

“A very clever boy,” Freyja smiled. “You must be proud.”

“I am…satisfied,” Athena said, though a smile tugged at her lips.

“Well, I have to say you’ve won me over,” Freyja said. “You say you have a more modest champion and yet here he has slain a monster with nothing but his wits. You may consider me fully intrigued in the idea of a champion.”

“I’m glad I could convince you,” Athena said. “They really can make all the difference in…ah, we have company.”

Another goddess entered the chamber. This one was slightly shorter than the others, and though she was often armed and armored she had eschewed them both to meet them, choosing a relatively simply long white dress, though she was always marked by the large white wings which spread from her back, and the golden hair that was bound tight around her head.

“Nike, good of you to join us, and aptly timed,” Athena said before gesturing to Freyja. “Lady Freyja, this is Nike, Lady of Victory. Nike, this is Lady Freyja of the Vanir, from the North.”

“An honor,” Nike bowed her head.

“Likewise, a pleasure,” Freyja returned the gesture.

“I’ve come with a report,” Nike said. “The Roman delegation has defeated the monsters threatening Malcesine. No casualties among the group, though they met a figure that might interest you, Lady Freyja.”

“Thank you, Nike, but you didn’t need to trouble yourself,” Athena said. “We would have seen to it shortly.”

“I was watching on my own,” Nike said. “I must say, I am quite impressed by the girl Hildegard, your champion’s lover, Lady Athena.”

“She is quite impressive,” Athena nodded.

“Is there a reason you chose someone like Salvatore over her?” Nike asked. “She seems an ideal candidate to be a champion.”

“I chose Salvatore for his wits, his aptitude for learning, and his equestrian abilities,” Athena said. “Though Hildegard is quite able, she is not quite as quick-witted, and mages do not always make compatible champions.”

“Hmmm…” Nike nodded but she seemed lost in thought, as if considering other matters.

“Well let’s see to this other battle,” Freyja said. “I’m curious and I do love a proper battle over a monster hunt.”

“Ah, of course,” Nike snapped back to attention. “This you’ll find to be both. Though this figure…Lady Freyja do you know of a mortal named Torleif?”

Freyja paused mid-stride and blinked before breaking out into a spontaneous fit of laughter.

“Is…something funny?” Nike asked Athena, who could only give a confused shrug.

“Oh, Odin, you conniving bastard,” Freyja grinned as she recovered from her laugh. “Just what have you been planning with that girl?”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 22

 

The diplomatic mission to the Alps had been rather hastily organized. It had seemed like a whirlwind for Cat to prepare everything, meet with the others, get packed, and start on their travels across Italy. It didn’t help that this would be her first long-term trip out of Rome since her escapade off to Gaza earlier that year. Rosa and Hildegard, more used to week-long monster-hunting sorties, were more casual about packing and also much quicker about it, admonishing Cat on some of her choices, particularly the book she used to communicate with Asha, which was light for its size but still quite bulky.

“Don’t worry about it,” Asha’s smiling face came over the page the last time they had chatted. “Have fun on this mission, I want stories when you’re back. Things here are getting a bit…interesting anyway.”

The other oddity in their mission had been Giovanni. Unlike the more casual approach of Hildegard and Rosa, Giovanni was decidedly strict in their traveling schedule and in protocol for when they would arrive in the small settlement of Malcesine where they were expected. All of this had been recorded and announced meticulously by his assistant, Stella.

Stella was a bit of an odd girl, but the two of them had quickly hit it off. She dressed almost exclusively in the long dress of a nun minus the distinctive habit, though Stella said she had ceased her training in order to explore other career opportunities. She seemed quite devoted to Giovanni in a way Cat thought at first might indicate a crush on him, but it became quickly apparent that Stella was, oddly enough, possibly the Catholic wolf’s only honest human friend. And it was a position Stella clearly took quite seriously.

So it was the five of them had left the city of Rome with modest fanfare and set off into the rolling hills of Northern Italy.

“So what exactly is my job when we get there?” Cat had asked early into their first day.

“Well, you’re something of a celebrity in Rome,” Giovanni had said. “But not terribly well-known outside of it. You, Miss Kokinos, and Miss Jazheil will be there to show the relative strength of Rome, the unity between its government and its mages, as well as the benefits of being a divine champion. So for the most part we’ll need you to be presentable, charming, and talkative. More than anything else we need to sell Rome as a safe haven, and having approachable and kind representatives is key.”

“Be pretty and charming,” Rosa said derisively. “I’ll keep my mouth shut, got it.”

“If we’re looking for pretty and charming with you, we might be out of luck,” Cat teased her before turning back to Giovanni. “But ya, I got it, Albion makes me do a lot of ‘stand there and look pretty’ at Mage’s Guild meetings.”

“Well, you’re all hardly just wall decoration,” Giovanni said. “Stella and I will be speaking to their leaders in terms of negotiations, but you three will be interacting with the average folk. Offer to help out a little, show you care about more than killing monsters. A little Samaritan work can go a long way.”

“You got it,” Cat smiled. All told it sounded like a fine expedition, and a relaxing detour from her almost exhausting schedule in Rome, where she had to run between Schehera, Hilde, Gisela, and Lutetiana for lessons on top of extra training with Rosa and meeting Alicia to talk about house repair.

The trip took ten days of walking, fairly tirelessly too. Cat and Hilde were both mages, with bodies reinforced beyond the average human’s, Giovanni was a centuries-old wolf and Rosa was a particularly tough champion, which meant that Stella, the only mundane human among them, set a somewhat slower pace. She was, however, quite apologetic and held out particularly well, and Cat didn’t mind, enjoying the more leisurely pace and occasional breaks to marvel at the sight of the country around them.

So much of Italy had returned to a primordial undisturbed naturalism. Ancient forests spread for miles amidst rolling hills of high grasses under the clear blue sky. All was made lovelier by Stella, as she played a skilled recorder and would often play for all of them into the night under an almost endless starry expanse of sky.

They carried two tents, with Cat and Rosa in one, Hildegard and Stella in another, and Giovanni preferring to sleep in the woods. Cat wasn’t sure if she was just getting more used to it, but Rosa’s company was more…enjoyable than she had thought possible. With little to do but talk on their long treks through the countryside, Rosa exposed more of a casual side to her that Cat had only started to discover. A more subdued Rosa than the one that carried her spear in hand, Cat didn’t mind her company nearly as much as she thought she would.

Eventually the hills gave way to the rocky foothills of the alps, marking them as drawing closer to Malcesine on the shores of Lake Garda. They had decided to be more well-dressed on their arrival. Cat had combed her short hair and worn her relatively simple silver armor over her surcoat and pants with her white cape around her shoulders. Hildegard was dressed more ceremonially than her usual monster-hunting gear, wearing a long coat marked with the Jazheil family crest and her sword, Stahlzan at her hip. Rosa, naturally, wore her champion armor complete with her sharp spear over her shoulder and her long red hair somewhat tamed into a ponytail. Giovanni and Stella had foregone any finer clothes, though Stella was wearing her best robe and had tended to her hair somewhat for appearance if not for vanity.

It was early afternoon, and the sky had darkened with heavy clouds when Hildegard made the motion for the group to stop.

“Something wrong?” Cat asked, moving forward to stand beside her.

“Smoke,” Hildegard said, and a moment later Cat could pick up the very faint scent of burning wood.

“We’re not far,” Giovanni said. “The town should be visible over the next hill.”

Hurrying forward, the five of them crested the hill, a new sense of dread filling them as they reached the top and looked out over the landscape.

Lake Garda was a dark slate grey beneath the heavy clouds that had come rolling in form the north. The town of Malcesine was a collection of buildings populated by several hundred all surrounded by a palisade wall of wooden stakes, using the wall, rocky terrain, and the natural border of the lake for protection these past few years. Today, however, smoke was rising from the town as fires burned in several spots across it, and from here, about a half-mile out, they could hear the soft din of battle and screams mixed with monstrous roars.

None of them needed to be spurred on, and they broke into a flat run towards the city as one, Cat Hilde and Rosa naturally gaining ground more quickly than Stella and Giovanni who remained in human form behind her.

“We need to clear the town!” Hildegard said hurriedly as they ran.

“Move in from the west,” Rosa said. “You can see two main streets running the length up the coast. Hilde, strike left to the coast; Cat and I will stick to the right. Reconvene at the East then work backwards, clear what you can and send people back out behind us!”

“Got it,” Hilde said. “Good plan.”

“R-right.” Cat nodded hurriedly. When had Rosa learned to take charge like that?

As they neared the gates of the palisade they saw the large wooden door had been blown open with tremendous force, flattening whom or whatever had been behind it. The road leading into town split, with the right road leading up along the coast along the wall and the other going lower to run by the coast of the lake. Without hesitation, Hildegard started down the left road before calling back to them. “Stay sharp, and stick close together!”

“Ready, Cat?” Rosa asked, holding her spear ready.

“Ready!” Cat nodded, heart racing as she drew Ceruleamor from its sheath.

It didn’t take long for them to find the source of the damage. The town wasn’t just under attack, it was overrun. People screamed and ran through the streets, pursued by the hordes of the wandering dead. Cat shivered as she recognized them. Tall skeletons, fleshless and scorched, bound together with magic as their eyes burned with the same eldritch blue light she had seen in Nidhoggr’s eyes. These ones held swords and primitive spears, and moved with more strength and assuredness than the shambling monsters Cat remembered.

The skeletons weren’t alone, however. She could see the great dark shapes of true monsters tearing through the town amidst the smoke and fire. The air was thick with the din of roars, screams, and the crumbling of stone along with crackling fire. Cat barely even knew where to start, looking this way and that in the unraveling chaos as she clutched her sword in her hands.

“Focus, Cat!” Rosa shouted, and instantly Cat’s mind snapped to work. Together the two of them charged in at full speed, heading towards the closest skeletons that were menacing a few of the locals barricaded in their homes. Rosa’s spear easily cut their legs out from under them, her armored boot coming down to smash their skulls in. When Cat’s sword cut through their bones, however, Ceruleamor seemed to shine with white light as the Primordial magic binding the bones together was undone, and the skeleton crumpled into ash.

With a divinely-empowered kick, Rosa smashed the front door in, shouting in and ordering the people cowering inside.

“Everyone out!” She roared. “Town’s on fire and this door won’t stop a monster! West gate’s secure! Go!”

People rushed past her out the way they came as Cat kept Rosa’s back clear.

“Come on!” She shouted back at her. “There’s a lot more people here!”

The pair of them kept going, keeping close together as they worked down the street, going from one side to the other as they tore through the skeletal ranks. Rosa’s spear was a golden flash as it lashed like a venomous serpent from one rushing skeleton to the next. Cat always managing to keep pace with Rosa, her own sword whipping through to strike at everything within range, leaving a path of dust and ash in her wake.

The pair of them had been training to fight together for months, and their progress showed as they tore through the gangs of undead. They kept close, never pulling out of the other’s range as they moved from one group to the next, shouting warnings and movements to one another as they kept pace. Even as they worked, however, it was clear the town was coming apart at the seams. A building before them seemed to explode into the streets, forcing both of them to their knees, arms raised to block the storm of dust and debris as an enormous manticore burst forth from within, red scales blazing in the fire light and its claws and monstrous inhuman jaws red with blood.

“Go for the tail,” Rosa said, lifting her spear. “I’ll keep it preoccupied.”

“Right,” Cat nodded, dodging off to the side as Rosa darted forward. The manticore braced itself, scorpion-like tail striking down at Rosa repeatedly. She was quick, however, and Cat couldn’t help but notice she was starting to move like Hildegard. No excess of energy or motion, moving just enough to dodge the whipping spined tail, eyes keenly searching for an opening, spear kept up on the defensive, moving lightly on her feet.

“Come on, ugly,” Rosa said, dodging another strike as the manticore batted its wings on fury. “Keep those eyes on me, you hell-faced oversized bat.”

The manticore prepared to charge her, iron-colored claws raking the dirt, but before it could move Cat was behind it, her sword singing through the air before chopping clean through the manticore’s tail near the base, severing it entirely as the manticore let out a roar of confusion in pain. Before it could whirl back on her, Rosa charged forward, burying her spear deep in the gaping maw of the creature before ripping it free as the manticore fell into its death throes.

The pair of them exchanged brief grins before readying themselves to keep moving. Before they had even made it a few steps, however, an enormous serpent-like creature burst from an alley. It had once been a pale white color, its body undulating like a snake or some obscene worm as its body was covered in scorching and consuming flame. As it pulled itself from the alley, the pair of them saw Hildegard lunge forward in pursuit, sword blazing with fire in her hands as she wove her ways through the lashing coils, blade leaving shallow cuts along its foul glistening ide from where explosions of flame burst forth.

“Cat!” Hilde shouted, spotting the pair of them. “Ice this thing’s head!”

Cat didn’t need telling twice, rushing forward as Rosa ran alongside to cover her. Cat raised a hand, and the gibbering eyeless maw of the worm began to crack and blister as crystals of ice began to spread relentlessly across its flabby skin. As the beast struggled, flesh cracking and flaking away as the ice cut deep, Hildegard made a last running jump, kicking off the monster’s flesh as the fiery glow around her sword expanded into an inferno. In one great swing she brought it down, shattering the monster’s head in an explosion of frozen meat before landing gracefully on both feet.

“Whew, thanks,” She smiled at them. “Damn things are tricky, cut them in half and you’ll just wind up dealing with two. How’s it looking on this side?”

“We killed a manticore and got a few people out,” Cat said. “There are probably more monsters still but-“

She was cut off at the last second as Hilde grabbed her by the shoulder and threw her aside, a moment later the space between them erupted in flames, throwing them all bodily into the air and Cat felt herself roll as she hit the ground hard.

Cat blinked rapidly to try and clear her vision. Her ears whined at her in shock as her body resisted her orders to move, everything briefly numb. When she did finally roll herself over, she saw their attack land lightly on the ground from where the rooftop perch where it had made its attack.

It was an enormous wolf, easily matching Giovanni or Capitolina at their full size. Its body was covered in spiny black fur formed from pure shadow, and spots of cinder, ash, and erupting fire marked its skin, its eyes and mouth blazed with the same terrible orange flame as it rounded on her, Cat struggling to pull herself up to her feet.

Her hands tightened reflexively, but in a moment of terror she realized the explosion had knocked the sword from her hand. She whipped her head around, searching for its familiar blue gleam, but the wolf took that instant to charge, mouth opening into a too-wide snarl as it lunged at her, teeth bared to rip her limb from limb.

There was a sound like a thunderclap, nearly deafening Cat a second time, and the wolf that had charged her was sent crashing off to the side as if it had been hit by a freight train.

Cat stared at the fallen creature’s body. Where its head had been was now nothing but a crater of shattered stone and the monster’s black gore exploded outward around a shining silver object. Looking closer, Cat could see it was a hammer, a massive block-headed warhammer with a shaft much too short and a rune shining white with power glowing on its side.

As she stared, the hammer loosed itself from where it had embedded itself in the ground, flying with a whoosh under its own power past her again and, as Cat watched, into the gloved hand of a small girl.

“Is that all it took to knock you guys off kilter?” The red-haired little girl demanded, hefting her hammer as she scowled at Cat. “Are you guys from Rome?”

“Y-ya…” Cat said, still in shock.

“Well then get off your ass and get to work!” She bellowed with more force than Cat would have thought possible. “Let’s see what Romans are made of!”

Cat’s mind snapped back to the alert, and after a second of searching, she saw Ceruleamor glistening in the ash where it had flown from her hand, picking it up, she looked around and saw Hildegard and Rosa helping each other to their feet, both of them looking shaken but otherwise fine.

The sounds and noises of destruction, however, had called down a veritable army of the skeletons on them, nearly a hundred from all over town had come at the sound of the roars and explosions and Cat backed up towards the other three as they began to circle, the girl beside her.

“Who are you?” Cat asked. “And where’d you get that hammer.”

“I’m Torleif!” The girl said proudly. “Champion of Thor!”

“I’m Cat,” she nodded in reply, sword raised.

“Scared of some bones, Cat?” Even as Torleif spoke Cat could see her eyes glancing this way and that. Even for the four of them, from sheer numbers and positioning, the skeletons were posing a real threat.

A howl burst through the town, and some of the skeletons in the back turned in time to see an enormous black wolf, hide scarred and eyes a fierce gleaming yellow, crush the closest ones under its paws, jaws grabbing the closest one and swinging it until its bones flew apart.

Cat saw Torleif lifting her hammer for another throw, but grabbed her wrist.

“That one’s with us,” she smiled.

“Fine,” Torleif said. “Leggo of my wrist…”

As Cat watched Giovanni in full form, she saw someone else slide off his back. Stella, rather than hide behind the massive wolf, rushed towards the closest skeleton, parrying a wild swing with a sword of her own before her hand shot out to take hold of its forehead. Cat couldn’t hear the words she mumbled, but in a second the skeleton’s eyes turned to smoke and its entire body crumbled into a pile of bones.

“Let’s not leave it to them!” Hildegard shouted. “Exploit the opening, go!”

Cat and Rosa rushed forward as Hildegard kept their flanks secure, the pair of them rushing the crowd of skeletons where Giovanni and Stella were fighting to make a gap in the ring around them.

“H-hey, wait!” Torleif hurried after them, moving at impressive speed despite her short legs as she caught up to them. “I’m here to!”

“Then start killing monsters, kid!” Rosa said, the arc of her spear cutting down two skeletons in one swing.

Cat saw Torleif’s brow furrowed, and above them the roiling clouds echoed with thunder. She raised her hammer skyward, lightning beginning to dance from her wrist to the hammer’s oversized metal head.

In one motion, Torleif brought her hammer down, and a bolt of lightning shot forth like a geyser, ripping through a score of undead and leaving only ashen bone in their wake.

“Don’t call me a kid!” Torleif shouted pointedly at Rosa, hammer still sparking with stray flecks of lightning.

“…point taken.” Rosa said.

The six of them broke through the line of skeletons, escaping being surrounded as they worked in tandem. With their backs relatively secure they could work more easily, Hildegard’s burning sword and Torleif’s hammer kept their sides clear, the pair of them able to destroy large swathes of the undead on their own. Cat and Rosa held the front, working together to keep the line held as more of the skeletons pressed in around them. Giovanni and Stella held the rear, destroying any that got past the others and making sure any survivors made it out.

It was nearly two hours before the town was finally clear, and by the end all of them were visibly exhausted, most of them leaning on walls or weapons while Torleif simply flopped back on her rear.

The town had been evacuated, with many thankfully having hidden before the attack began, and while Giovanni and Stella tended to the wounded and met with the town leaders, the four warriors took a few minutes to recover.

“So,” Cat looked at Torleif. “Got a better opinion of Romans now?”

Torleif’s tired face broke into a smile. “Mmm, I guess you’re not tooootally soft,” She said.

“So what’s the champion of Thor doing down here?” Rosa asked.

“I’m going to Rome,” Torleif said. “And it looks like I finally found the way.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Artifice

October 12th, 2024

 

“You sure this is the place?” Rosa asked, looking at the drawn door of what looked like a run-down old garage.

“It is indeed,” Angel, the black-haired and winged wolf girl at her side nodded. “Though I must remind you again that it’s unlikely he’ll help.”

“Well, it’s worth a shot,” Rosa said. “Besides, I need every edge I can get and you said he was the best in the city.”

“Unquestionably,” Angel nodded. “Though he is also…temperamental.”

Rosa snorted. “Welcome to the club.”

Without another word, she banged loudly on the metal door of the garage. “Anybody home!?”

Angel rolled her eyes before stepping past her. “Honestly, that’s not going to work either.”

Angel placed a gloved hand on the metal of the door and from where her fingers touched the surface long ornate lines of light began to spread and curl from her hand. The pattern spread, formed, and twisted into the image of a doorway illuminated on the surface of the metal door.

“He’s been busy,” Angel said quietly, and when the pattern had drawn itself completely, the metal outlined as a doorway slid open to invite them inside.

Rosa, frowning, decided to let Angel lead before following her inside the garage.

Inside was a workshop and forge far too large to have fit in the confines of the small garage. Numerous workbenches and drawing tables were scattered about and countless tools hung from bands on the ceiling, with supplies filling shelves, drawers, and barrels covering the walls until there was hardly room to maneuver. The entire place was slightly dark, illuminated mostly by several bright spotlights and the dull orange glow of the slumbering forge.

“Ilmarinen?” Angel called into the semi-darkness. “I’m here for maintenance, and I brought a guest.”

Rosa almost jumped when she saw a figure her eyes had missed rise from where he had been slumped over a drafting table and turn to face them. He was taller than average, well over six feet, with a lanky build and snow white hair over a young but stress-lined face. Despite his thin appearance, his hands and arms revealed by his rolled up sleeves were tanned and brawny, belying a strength that he didn’t make immediately apparent.

“Angel, lovely as ever. And who’s this?” He asked, stepping forward as he examined them both.

“Rosaria Kokinos,” Angel said as Rosa gave a relaxed wave. “A…student of Capitolina’s, as well as Champion of Ares.”

Rosa saw Ilmarinen’s face falter at the name, not that she could blame him.

“This,” Angel said, addressing Rosa. “Is Ilmarinen, a god of artifice from Finland.”

“Nice to meet ya,” Rosa said. “Angel says you build things.”

“S’what artifice means, kid,” Ilmarinen said. “Angel if you could get up on the examining table. Let’s see how that arm is doing.”

Angel nodded and stepped over to what looked like a cross between a work bench and a doctor’s examining table. She stripped off her gloves, jacket, and scarf leaving her dressed in a thin undershirt over pants, and Rosa couldn’t help but stare at the artificial arm affixed to her shoulder. It was a marvel of engineering, a combination of ebon black and silvery metal, woven together like bone and sinew into a skeletal hand that moved smoothly and soundlessly. The modifications didn’t end at her arm either, as Rosa could see hints of metal protruding from her ribs and spine, and likely her legs as well.

As she watched, Ilmarinen moved to Angel and began examining her arm closely, testing its range of movement and the smoothness of its part, a silver rod in his hand that seemed to change its shape and purpose to whatever tool he needed.

Rosa watched for a few minutes, letting the pair work largely in silence. When they did speak, it was generally brief and awkwardly, and Rosa could sense some kind of tension between the two of them.

“So if you make things,” Rosa eventually spoke up, though Ilmarinen simply continued to work. “Could you improve the artifacts other gods give champions?”

“Hypothetically,” Ilmarinen shrugged, not looking up from where he worked on Angel’s arm. “Most gods don’t know much about proper forging. I might be able to make some modifications.”

“Cool,” Rosa said. “Cause I have this spear from Ares that…”

Ilmarinen clicked his tongue, cutting her off. “Better luck elsewhere, Red. I don’t do weapons anymore.”

Rosa frowned. “Seriously? I’ m not like a…well, I use it for good or for the defense of Rome and stuff. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing in principle,” Ilmarinen said. “Just a policy of mine. Don’t do weapons.”

“You fixed Angel,” Rosa said. “Bet an arm like that could punch through a brick wall, doesn’t that count as a weapon?”

Rosa saw both Ilmarinen and Angel visibly stiffen, and this time the god did turn to face her, and Rosa began to feel just what it meant to argue with the divine.

“Look girl.” Ilmarinen said. “I saved Angel’s life and even then it…didn’t quite work out how either of us might have wanted it to. Now I’m not going to touch your spear, especially not one made by a god as blood-hungry as Ares, got it?”

“G-got it…” Rosa said, swallowing her mixed frustration and fear. Ilmarinen might not be as naturally intimidating as Ares, but he was a god, and she was still only mortal.

“…Got anyone else I can go to?” She decided to try her luck, even though she could tell Ilmarinen’s patience was wearing thin.

“If you’re looking for someone like that, and it’ll get you out of my hair, then try the girl near the temple. Blonde. Goes by Metaxes. Shouldn’t be hard to find.”

“Got it,” Rosa said, not wanting to stick around much longer. She swiftly made her exit out the door and saw the lines of light vanish from the surface.

“Grumpy old bastard,” she muttered to herself as she left, hurrying in case the Finnish god’s divine ears were still listening.

 

 

All told, it took her about three hours to find the woman going by the name of Evangeline Metaxes. She was apparently a popular figure around the Temple of Rome, and also the Champion of Hephaestus. Rosa would have preferred an out-and-out god fixed up her weapons, but she supposed beggars couldn’t be choosers.

After some asking around, she had tracked Evangeline down to a two-story flat with the bottom floor converted into a workshop. It was impressively at odds with Ilmarinen’s magic forge, being much smaller and more cramped, with piles of papers and scrapped designs mixing with dust in the corners, as well of drawers of far more mundane materials half-open and rimmed with soot and powders.

“Hello?” Rosa called out as she entered the open garage-style door, this one lacking any kind of magic entrance.

“Hello!” Called down a cheerful voice as Rosa heard the sounds of someone maneuvering down a flight of wooden stairs with some difficulty. Soon at the base of the stairs appeared a woman around Rosa’s own age. She was, to Rosa’s surprise, quite different than how she had expected a Champion of the Forge to look.

She had expected someone tall, broad, and brawny, but Evangeline seemed…too thin. She wasn’t entirely thin, being very curved in certain places Rosa was quick to notice, but she seemed better suited to being the Champion of Aphrodite than the champion of a forge god. The only oddity was her walking with a pronounced limp, enough for her to require a cane. She was otherwise intensely beautiful, particularly her round heart-shaped face beneath a head of straw blonde hair kept tied up neatly at the back of her head.

She wasn’t even dressed for the job, her buttoned shirt and pants looking almost immaculate, and her neck and wrists adorned with gold necklaces and bracelets.

“Evangeline Metaxes?” Rosa asked, still not entirely convinced.

“The one and only”, Evangeline smiled warmly, extending her free hand as she rested on her cane. “And you are…?”

“Rosaria Kokinos,” Rosa said, firmly taking the hand, and she was surprised to feel an intense strength in her grip.

“Ahhh the Champion of Ares,” Evangeline smiled. “I was wondering when I might get a visit from you.”

“I was wondering if…”

“You were wondering if I could improve your weapons and armor?” Evangeline cut her off. Still smiling “Well I won’t know for sure unless I see it, will I?”

“Er…right,” A bit caught off guard, Rosa summoned her spear into her hand as her armor appeared across her body. She left the spear on a nearby table as she stripped off the thick bronze and gold armor, giving Evangeline a chance to look it over.

“Fascinating…” She marveled, and Rosa did a double take as she saw what she had taken to be jewelry around her wrists and neck scuttled to life, moving over her body like insects as they combined, split, and reformed. As she watched, one curled itself into a hand lens that Evangeline lifted to her eye to examine the spear more closely.

“Quite interesting.”

Rosa laid her armor out on the table beside her spear, feeling a little exposed. Without the armor she was dressed in little more than a padded sleeveless shirt and a skirt, neither of which were ever really her style.

“What’s so interesting? Anything you can do?”

“Well first of all, yes, I can be of service to you,” Evangeline said. “Secondly, it confirms my suspicions that while war gods are good at using weapons, they’re not particularly good at making them.”

Rosa couldn’t help but snort. “So what do ya need to make this thing even sharper?”

“Well improving a divine weapon is a…complicated procedure,” Evangeline said, putting down the lens as she rested on her cane. Rosa glanced at the hand lens and saw it reform into a tiny gold beetle and scurry out of sight.

“See, a weapon like that spear isn’t really forged out of metal, it’s made of ideas.”

Rosa frowned, tapping the head of the spear with her finger. “Kind of feels like metal to me.”

“Well yes, of course it’s metal to us,” Evangeline said. “But gods are creatures of spirit and ideas, they don’t work in real metals, but in ideas that take the shape of metal. Did you ever read the Iliad?”

“Mmm, skimmed it,” Rosa shrugged.

“Well, Homer goes into quite a bit of detail on the shield of Achilles,” Evangeline said. “The Shield is not described in terms of metal, but in terms of the imagery and the potential for meaning. Achilles’ shield bore the very image of a microcosm, as if he carried an entire world’s worth of ideas in that one shield. The relationship between life and death, war and peace, civilization and destruction, all carved into a single circle of metal. It’s little wonder that a shield with such conceptual power was indestructible.”

“So my spear’s concept is…what?” Rosa asked.

“You have to ask?” Evangeline looked at her curiously. “Your spear is war and violence born out in metal shape. With the right training I can see it as clear as the Spartan Lambda on your armor. Speaking of which…your armor is very rudimentary. It’s the idea of ‘protection’ crafted rather crudely into bronze and gold…Ares is not one for subtlety or complexity is he?”

“No, not even a little,” Rosa frowned. “So how do you go about improving it?”

“As one can sharpen a blade so to can one focus an idea,” Evangeline said. “I have enough training to hone something like your spear into a more noble or more violent weapon. I’m just an artificer, to me it’s not my job to judge on how a thing I make is used, so before I can start improving this weapon, I need you to tell me what you want out of it. It’s not just about what the spear can do, I need to know what you plan to do with the spear.”

“Hmmm…” Rosa fell silent as she began to think. “I think…that spear was made with only one thing in mind: to kill.”

“That’s about right,” Evangeline said. “It is a rather savage spear in that respect.”

“I want something more trained,” Rosa said. “Something that can lash out with more than just violence. I want a spear that can…protect as well as destroy. One where I can aim where all that wrath is going.”

Evangeline smiled at her. “I think I can arrange something like that, though I’ll need you around for help on it.

“Right,” Rosa nodded. “I’ll be around but…hey can I ask you something?”

“By all means,” Evangeline nodded. “What is it?”

“You seem a bit…well umm…”

“Unusual?” Evangeline smiled mischievously. “Unorthodox? Not what I appear?”

“…Too hot for the job,” Rosa settled on. “Like I expected a burly amazon with an arm like a tree, not a lingerie model.”

“I actually used to model while I was getting my Masters in mechanical engineering,” Evangeline chuckled. “Not lingerie though.”

Rosa clicked her tongue in disappointment.

“Either way, what got you the job?”

“Well I have a mind for machines, always have,” Evangeline said. “Though not really the forging process. That part came after Hephaestus offered me the job.”

“And what convinced him to…wait…” Rosa’s brow furrowed. “Did Hephaestus offer you the job because you were hot?”

“If I said that had nothing to do with it, I’d probably be lying.” Evangeline shrugged. “Not like I was advertising it though. He is a touch lonely and not great with women. I’m not surprised he might have given me a long look…that said…”

Evangeline rested one hand on the table as she pointed her cane at Rosaria. “I am every bit qualified for this job, Miss Kokinos. Try to imply I got it for my looks alone and I will show you just how wrong you are, Champion of Ares or not.”

Rosa raised her hands in submission. “Look you got it, whatever you say.”

“That said, it did have its downsides,” Evangeline said. “Hephaestus picking me did not endear me to a certain Goddess of Love.”

“Ah…right, I suspect not,” Rosa said. Aphrodite was not known to tolerate other beautiful things.

“So she set about making sure I was very visibly imperfect,” Evangeline tapped her lame leg with her cane.

“Wait…so Aphrodite made you a cripple? Out of jealousy?” Rosa asked incredulously.

“I am most assuredly not a ‘cripple’,” Evangeline said, losing her smile for a moment. “I am somewhat disabled but perfectly functional in all aspects of life, even if I’m not running any marathons.”

“Right…sorry,” Rosa said sheepishly. “I meant more…Aphrodite’s kind of a bitch.”

“Well on that I agree, if not necessarily in your vocabulary,” Evangeline’s smile returned. “But I like to think of it as a…badge of office. I’m even more like my boss now.”

“Heh, sounds about right,” Rosa said. “Though I’d like to be as little like my patron as I can.”

“Understandable,” Evangeline nodded. “You know, I think talking to you like this will help a lot when we’re reworking your artifacts. Would you mind coming around a few times a week? Or maybe I can come to you?”

“Sure,” Rosa shrugged. “I’m pretty free. I train with Hildegard and Cat most mornings and I have a lot of lessons with Capitolina, but I can make time.”

“Excellent,” Evangeline smiled. “Well then not to be cliché but I think this might be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

Rosa chuckled. “Don’t get sappy on me, but I wouldn’t mind hanging around you.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

 

Chapter 21

October 6th, 2024

 

Noemi rested her arms over the railing of the ship, staring out across the sea. It had been a few days out on the open sea, aboard the sleek merchant vessel that had carried her away from the Aztlan port. As the pirates raided the port, Noemi had swum through the water, grabbing hold of the ropes on the side of this boat and pulled herself aboard. Met at sword point, the only reason they hadn’t tossed her overboard was because Ophida had manifested and promised to provide them as much good wind as her meager powers could provide.

That had been just under a week ago. Since then, Noemi had been working to earn her keep on board the ship, tying knots and cleaning the deck more often than not. The work was hard and boring, but Noemi didn’t complain. At least here, she didn’t have to fear having her heart cut out by a crazed priest of that damn girl. Noemi grimaced as her mind turned to the face of her betrayer, her nails digging into the wood of the railing.

“Captain on deck!” One of the sailors hollered. At once, all the crew hustled to their feet, to greet the captain properly.

He was an older gentleman, his skin ruined by the harsh rays of the sun, tan and the texture of old leather. His beard was scraggly and thin, though Noemi had quickly noticed the clear patch on the right side of his face, a dark discolored patch of flesh showing instead. She hadn’t needed Ophidia’s voice in her head telling her that it would have been a poor idea to ask him what had happened to his beard.

His eyes scanned the deck, trying to see if there was anything out of place or poorly done. Noemi stood straight and tall, her eyes following his. After a while, he smiled a little, indicating his approval.

“Alright, men, get back to work. This ship isn’t going to sail itself,” he said, and like that, everyone sprung back to their tasks. Noemi didn’t move, having already done her tasks to help pay her passage.

She heard the captain coming up behind her, felt him slide beside her and puts his hands on the railing, looking across the horizon as well. “Miss Valente,” he said, his voice more jovial than it usually sounded, barking orders across the ship. “I don’t think we have ever had such easy sailing from this port. I must thank you and the Feathered Serpent again for the winds.”

“Mmm, it’s all her, really. If I have any power over the winds, I haven’t discovered it,” Noemi said. It wasn’t quite true. Her training with Junko had left her with the ability to travel on the wind, running across its gusts as if it were a field of grass, but she had no ability to summon it forward like Ophidia. Noemi didn’t think she ever would. Noemi stretched her back as she turned to face the captain. Though she’d already been on the ship for a couple of days, there hadn’t been any time to speak with the man in charge.

He’s in a good mood. Might as well ruin it with talk of Aztlan.

“Is it always that difficult to set off these days?” She asked.

The captain chuckled with a dry bitter laugh. “It is from an Aztlan occupied port, if you don’t fly their colors. The number of free ports are dwindling every month it seems.”

“Mmm, I had been sure that the coast would still be free, but there are so many Aztlan flags flying…”

“Aye,” the captain said with a nod. “And it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. If it were not for those pirates, well…I would not have given much to our chances.”

“While I was swimming, I noticed a red flag on their ship. Do you know whose colors they were flying?” Noemi couldn’t help but think of the old saying: the enemy of my enemy is my friends. While pirates might not be the best company, they might not be bad friends to make if they hated Aztlan as much as she did.

“One of the more famous scoundrels, though given who he fights, I think I’d like seeing his flag more than most,” the captain grinned. “His name is Solomon Redd, Captain of the Crimson Dagger. He’s one of the most wanted men on the sea, but no good-natured sailor is going to turn him in.”

“…They won’t?” Noemi asked, incredulous. She had too many bad experiences with people stabbing her in the back to have much faith in something like honor among thieves. “Why not?”

“’Cause the Crimson Dagger chases only one kind of prey,” the captain said. “Aztlaner ships! Any ship not running for Aztlan need not fear Captain Redd. I’ve heard stories of him coming in the heat of battles to cover for ships being bullied by Aztlan. I never met the man personally, but anyone that will stand up for me is a good man in my book!”

Noemi nodded as she listened. She could feel Ophidia beside her, the divine presence feeling like a wind rushing against her skin. What do you think?

I do not think we should be planning for war. Perhaps this Redd will be useful one day, but for now, we must find a way to increase our own power.

Noemi just bobbed her head up and down as she faked listening to the captain talk more about Solomon Redd. It seemed that the pirate had quite a name for himself on the seas, but Ophidia was right. They didn’t have enough to bring down Aztlan. She needed to just get away.

Hold that thought…

“Say, Captain,” Noemi waited until the captain reached a break in his story about how Redd made off with the Aztlan warship Crimson Dagger and claimed it as his own, using it to fight its former masters. “If Aztlan is up and down the coast, where are we sailing, anyway?”

“Now that’s a tricky question,” the captain said, grinning widely again, though it had a bit of a harsh edge to it. “The short answer is wherever we can make port that Aztlan can’t reach.”

“Not really a destination…” Noemi said, though trying to not sound too curious. This captain seemed to hate and fear Aztlan perhaps even more than she did, and if that was the case, she didn’t want to know why. Though if the captain had as much reason to hate and fear Aztlan as Noemi did, he might hold his talk a little more.

“This region isn’t safe for free ships like mine. We’re going to outfit it to cross the ocean, but we’ll need a safe harbor to prepare.

“Across the Atlantic?” Noemi asked, her eyebrows raising in surprise. “That’s…quite a journey by ship.”

“Well, it’s not like there are many planes to take us there these days!” the captain laughed. “But it’s become too dangerous to sail in these waters, and north and south don’t seem much better from what reports I’ve heard.”

“Has everything really gotten that bad?” Noemi looked back across the water. It looked so calm, with them being the only ship in sight. She thought she saw a whale splashing in the water in the distance.

“Indeed it has,” the captain said. “Aztlan patrols the Gulf waters, looking for ships like mine to seize for their goods and their crew. Those who don’t end up impressed end up on the altar.” His eyes grew dark as he talked, his voice growing harder and quieter. “Follow the coast south and you find yourself at the mercy of the wild spirit courts. While they’re not as bad as Aztlan, it’s not safe for humans. They don’t have anything to trade and they’re more likely to tear this ship to pieces than grant us passage.”

Noemi frowned as she thought back to her early days surviving the apocalypse, trying to get by the best she could with only her two guns and a knife by her side. She knew how scary a wrathful spirit could be to those without the power to fight them. Her fingers wrapped around her guns as she felt them spark with energy at her touch. Snapping out of her reverie quickly, she let go of the grip, though the captain was giving her an odd look.

She crossed her arms back on the railing. “Bad experience with wild spirits s’all,” she said. “Haven’t met many spirits I liked besides Ophidia. Anyway, what about the north?”

“Ah, well,” the captain said, his eyes studying her with a bit more care now than he had before. “To the north of the Gulf, you have Louisiana.”

He said that as if it explained everything. Noemi waited for him to continue for a few long seconds, wondering what was so scary about a place like Louisiana. From what little she knew, it had a lot of swampland. It wasn’t like the Amazon. Or Australia.

“…And?”

“We don’t sail near Louisiana…At least not without an escort. Many a free slaver will sail through there. Aztlan seems to trying to push to take it as well. Not friendly waters, even without the Loa.”

“The Loa?”

“It’s what they call themselves, the rulers of the city. I don’t know if they’re spirits or not…but from what I’ve heard, they’re all crazy.”

“Mmm…”

“Putting aside politics, this region of the ocean has just become too much trouble for a single ship like ours to sail. The dangers are just too large for a single boat to bear.”

“I mean, smugglers have existed forever,” Noemi pointed out. The captain seemed to have a flair for overstatement and stories. “Don’t see why the flags would drive you across the ocean.”

“It’s not just the south that has the wild spirits. Sea serpents, blood gods, cursed pirates of the damned and wretched haunt these waters now. Perhaps the other side of the ocean is the same…but we’ve all had about as much as we can take here.

“Hmmm…” Noemi said. She looked out to where she saw the whale breaking the water before. Looking at the splashes, she could see a series of three appearing at any time. Was it a pod, or perhaps a serpent bouncing in the water?

“But we will take you to the nearest port, as promised. Have no fear,” the captain said, his smile still hanging on his face as he turned, back to shouting at his crew as Ophidia formed out of the wind in his place.

Noemi looked to the goddess, tilting her head towards the captain. “Were you listening to all of that?”

“Most.” Ophidia said, her feathery hair catching the sea spray whenever it was carried by the wind.

“A lot of stories. But I’m worried about what he said about Aztlan.”

“You already knew that Aztlan had begun to encroach on its neighbors, Noemi. It is why we agreed it was best to flee by ship.”

“Yeah, I get that. But I thought we were going to go to like Florida or something. Maybe to the Caribbean. What if the only place to escape is an entire ocean away?”

“It very well may be.” Ophidia said, resting her head in the palm of her hand as she thought. “But I do not like the way you use the word ‘escape’”

“Eh? What’s wrong with it?”

“We are not here merely to leave, Noemi. You are my champion, and I will have my rightful place as the Feathered Serpent restored. This…abomination that is Aztlan will be overturned. To do that, you must build my cult.”

“Well, yeah, but I can’t very well do that anywhere Aztlan controls! They’ll kill your worshippers!”

“People will die. It is inevitable in any resistance, Noemi,” Ophidia said, with surprising calmness. “But the farther we are from the land, the harder it will be to establish a cult. Perhaps…We should look to creating a foothold in the islands here.”

“A foothold?” Noemi furrowed her brow. This was a lot more complicated than just surviving had been. She hadn’t need to think more than two or three days ahead. Ophidia seemed to be thinking in years.

“Yes, a foothold. A safe harbor from which we can establish my cult before heading farther from Aztlan. That way, it will spread behind us, and when we return, it will be a useful tool.”

“While I’m all for creating friends to fight Aztlan, where exactly are we going, Ophidia?”

“Why, did you not hear the captain?” The goddess asked with surprised. “We are going across the Atlantic.”

“Wait, what?! They’re dropping us off at the nearest port!”

“Indeed.” Ophidia said with a smile. “And it is in that port that we will prepare for our own journey across the sea. But we will need some place out of easy reach of Aztlan. His talk of the Loa and Louisiana gave me an idea. I think the winds will guide this ship to the east.” Ophidia started to vanish before Noemi’s eyes as the wind carried her away like feathers.

Wait! You can’t leave me hanging just like that! Where the hell are you sending us?

I told you, my champion, to the islands farther to the east. You will start my cult in safer waters, where Aztlan has more competitions. We will be going to Hispaniola.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Witch’s Gambit

 

The sky wept rain in great sheets as grey clouds rolled across the sky. At a place where the lashing seas met the high cliffs there seemed to be no peaceful spot to take refuge from the storm and waves and danger of falling rocks. Any mortal human would be tucked away safely in their homes, away from the roaring waters and the driving rain.

There was, however, one figure that made its way across the rocky coast. At the base of the cliffs, on a narrow path of stone cut into the rain-soaked rock, walked a lone person wrapped in a thick oiled coat who made their way slowly across the path of stones and gravel. Ahead of them, cascading down the high cliffs, was a waterfall, a great curtain of white that mixed with the rain and sent a mist of water through the damp air, making the rocks of the path slick and dangerous.

This place was treacherous to reach, and more treacherous to stay, as it had once been the hideaway of the most infamous of the northern gods. They were the Falls of Franangr, the secret home of an ancient trickster.

Behind the falls stood a short round tower, built from the stone of the cliffs themselves, and abandoned for many years. Nearby, beside the roaring waterfall, was a great stone slab exposed to the elements. The slab was pockmarked with holes and pits where acidic venom had dripped across it, but the snake that had produced this venom was gone, as was the god once bound upon the slab. Franangr’s Falls was an empty place, or so the world had been led to believe.

The figure reached out a hand, and felt the illusion around them. The air was thick with magic that could trick all but the most keen-eyed god, or someone with power that not even fate could define.

The figure knew illusion when she felt it. She was a master of them, after all.

With a swipe of the hand the illusion shattered like broken glass, falling like droplets of the waterfall as it disintegrated. What had once been an abandoned and stone-cold tower was now occupied, with the four-facing windows aglow with light from within. The owner no doubt sensed the illusion being broken. The figure didn’t mind, she preferred being announced anyway.

As she stepped towards the tower door, another wave of the hand blew it open. From within the door burst hundreds upon hundreds of bald-faced emaciated hawks, a storm of birds that rushed the figure with claws raised and sharp beaks ready to tear through skin and flesh and bone. A wailing screech from a hundred hungry voices wailed alongside the roar of the waterfall.

As the cloud of birds came down upon her, a flash of red light burst from the base of the canyon, and the flock of ravenous hawks dispersed as a swarm of harmless gnats.

“I didn’t come for your tricks, giant-son,” The figure’s voice was cold as she spoke to the tower’s open door. “I’ve little patience for it, and I come to talk.”

The door remained ajar, a warm light shining from within, and the figure took this as a gesture of welcome.

As she stepped inside the warm light vanished, replaced once more with the cold darkness of an empty tower. The fire and warmth had been simply another illusion wrapped around the tower.

“This seems excessive, even for you,” the figure said. “But magic never was your strong suit. It was a waste to lay magic traps when you knew what might be coming.”

The figure clapped her hands together, and a dozen more traps that lay in wait were obliterated by a pulse of magic power.

“Who did you have to cajole to lay those runes?” She asked the darkness. “Your own abilities never extended far beyond your own shapeshifting and cunning, Loki.”

“I suppose I must have underestimated my guest,” Came the reply.

Out of the darkness stepped a tall figure. Though short by divine standards, the god Loki was still easily nine feet tall if he wished it, and his thin and lanky form towered over the human-sized figure.

“When a witch comes calling I expect a little reverence.”

“That’s because,” the witch replied, pulling back her hood to reveal a head of voluminous red hair and sparkling green eyes. “You’ve never met a witch like me. Name me, giant-son. You know the names of all your visitors.”

Loki’s face twisted into a grin that seemed far too wide for his jaw.

“Morgan le Fay, it is a rare pleasure.”

“The pleasure belongs to neither of us,” Morgan said. “You don’t wish me here and I don’t wish to be here.”

“A rare kind of meeting then,” Loki said. “When both guest and host despise one another seemingly in equal measure.”

“Rare but necessary,” Morgan said. “I would have words.”

“You’ve had quite a few already,” Loki said. “I hope you have better ones.”

“You and I share a common predicament.”

“There is nothing common about either of us, though there is plenty vulgar about you.”

Morgan’s eye twitched, but she didn’t stop. “We’re both being hounded by our fellows, Loki. The Asgardians hunt you like game.”

“The Aesir are rather preoccupied, as are the Vanir,” Loki grinned.

“Then why is it, Loki, that you are hiding here at the edge of the world? I may not be a god but I know how to spot a cowering rat.”

A strange sort of expression came over Loki’s face, it was as if he wore an ugly scowl and a grin at the same time. As perplexing as it was unpleasant.

“Just as you run and hide from your trollops-in-arms.”

“Neither running nor hiding,” Morgan said coldly. “I simply saw no need to go to their little get-together at the Russian crone’s fowl shack.”

Despite himself Loki let out a cackle at the pun. “Very well, two fleeing cowards who are neither fleeing nor cowards. What of it?”

“The Aesir believe you to have thrown in your lot with the Dragon of Yggdrassil, yes?”

“I surely do not know what the Aesir think,” Loki said. “Though that sounds ludicrous enough for them to believe it.”

“My point is we all know you have a role to play,” Morgan said. “The Dragon will come to Midgard in time. That cannot be stopped. And when it does it will herald Ragnarok. The horns will blow and there’s a ship you must attend to.”

Loki scowled. “I’ve played that role. I’d rather not do so again. Repetition can be rather dull.”

“The Three have seen it. It will be so.”

“Those three see a lot of things,” Loki shrugged. “And you’re certainly one to talk of destiny and fate, witch-woman.”

“All the more reason to want my help,” Morgan said. “The Naglfar is one of the largest and mightiest ships to ever sail. Its presence all but makes certain dominion the seas.”

“If you have the mind to steer it,” Loki said. “And that ship only sails one place, and only at the end of days.”

“As you put forward, Loki, I am hardly one to be bothered with Fate when it doesn’t suit me.”

“So if you want to start the events of Ragnarok, just to get your hands on a ship?” Loki asked, scarred lips curling into a smile. “Bold if nothing else, Le Fay.”

“It’s far from just a ship,” Morgan said. “The Ocean is home to many ancient sources of power. She who commands the seas commands the forces of the world.”

“But you need a god to get that ship,” Loki smiled.

“Indeed, a very specific one,” Morgan said. “You, Loki, are destined to steer the Naglfar. But with a True Witch like myself aboard, then there are many destinations other than Muspellheim that you can sail to. Leave Surtr and his brood to rot while you and I take what we will from the seas.”

“Name a few of these destinations then, Witch,” Loki said. “Where would you demand Loki sail you like some humble steersman?”

“Oh, to many places. To the Mediterranean seas where we could make dealings with the ancient Typhon for access to his vaunted seas. To the far western shores where blood gods prey on their mortal worshippers and command powers even wise Odin knows little of. Or if riches be your pleasure, then the treasure troves of Atlantis and Thule would be wide open to the captains of the Naglfar.”

“Captains? A tempting offer, witch. Though I am no humble sea god to be satisfied with dominion of the waves.”

“Command of the seas breeds command of the land,” Morgan said. “More than trade, more than power. There are ancient forces lost beneath the waves. In the dark places where the water runs cold with the blood of Primordial beings. In the deep-down blackness where your world-spanning child sleeps. Powers that, with my aid, you can pull free from the web of fate and use to put down the gods that hunt and imprison you.”

“Mmm, I appreciate your rather wild ambition, Witch,” Loki said. “But I know better than most the price when one tries to meddle with fate. As should you.”

Morgan scowled. “Then cower in your cave if you must, giant-son. I have other threads to weave and other fires to burn.”

“Hold yourself, Witch,” Loki said, raising a hand. “I think an arrangement can be made. But there are measures that must be taken. The Naglfar is far from ready to sail.”

“There are times when the aid of a witch can be invaluable,” Morgan said. “If we strike an accord my magic will aid in the ship’s construction, as well as make it mightier than it ever could have been.”

“So I set sail on the Naglfar,” Loki said. “And then you and I shall jointly lead it to glory and the ruin of our enemies, it sounds almost too good to be true, particularly given your reputation, witch.”

“A reputation we share,” Morgan replied scathingly. “We are united in our mutual dishonesty,”

Loki let out a short cruel barking laugh. “Well said, Le Fay. Very well, let us see what amusement we can make together,” He held out his hand, and even before she took it Morgan could feel the bonds of the oath tying them together.

Both of them knew perfectly well the nature of the other. Loki the Trickster, the Liar, the Son of Giants and Father of Beasts. Morgan le Fay the Deceiver, the Wicked Enchantress, the Queen of Air and Darkness. These were not the names and epithets of trusted partners and comrades.

But Morgan had not spoken entirely in jest. It was a careful and tenuous arrangement, one bound together in whatever loose threads of Fate the Norns had overlooked. But both were so perfectly aware of each other’s nature, so understanding of their opposing treachery, that from it could arise a macabre sort of understanding. Betrayal was coming, from both sides inevitably. But they both knew well enough that it would come after what they wanted was achieved. Even if it was not a partnership to last it was one to be feared. For the Naglfar would sail and Midgard would burn before the strikes of betrayal were made.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 20

October 3rd, 2024

 

“This is bad,” Leyla said for perhaps the fourth time. “This is bad, really, really bad.”

“I get it,” Asha said. “This is bad. I agree.”

The pair of them, along with Eli, were standing on opposite sides of a transparent wall to a self-confessed demon, who was trapped in a chamber of reinforced glass-like plastic.

“As I said,” The demon spoke again. “I prefer the name Constance, not ‘bad’ if you please.”

Its voice came through a speaker in the wall allowing them to hear while preventing any noise or movement of air from escaping the chamber. It was androgynous in appearance, neither male nor female, with chalk-white skin and jet black hair that hung in short curls around its neck and head with straight bangs over emerald green eyes. The straightjacket it wore kept its arms pinned around its sides and back, and it sat loosely cross-legged on the floor.

“Shut up!” Leyla snapped at Constance. “We’re not talking to you.”

“No, we’re not,” Asha nodded. “But what are we doing with…it?”

“Destroy it obviously,” Leyla said. “It admitted to being a demon, after all. What else is there to do with it?”

“We just need to figure out how,” Asha said.

“Now, now, rather hasty discussion, isn’t this?” Constance asked. “Come I can be quite agreeable, even in appearance. Let’s clarify our pronouns, shall we?”

Even as she watched, Asha could see Constance’s outline shifting. Between the blinks of her eyes the demon turned from almost rigidly androgynous into definitively female. The demon’s waist shrunk as its hips expanded, the face rounding and the eyes tilting, the flat chest swelling into prominent breasts as the arms thinned.

“I imagine most of you find this form more agreeable,” Constance smiled, “At least one and a half of you do. Which is good enough for me.”

“Wait…” Leyla blinked. “One and a half?”

“Oh yes,” Constance’s smile never faded. “I can recognize the powers burning in your souls from here. Call it a gift. Let’s see…” It, or perhaps she, gestured with her head towards Asha “Reunified Fravashi empowered by a Zoroastrian spirit of no mean power…” She looked to Eli. “A similarly empowered Zoroastrian mortal, though much more subdued in power and in purpose…” finally she looked to Leyla. “And here we have two people in one shell, plus one spirit makes three, Must get crowded in that head of yours.”

“That does it,” Leyla growled. “Let’s find a way to open this fish tank and burn this demon.”

“Hold just a moment,” Constance said. “Let us all think rationally for a moment, shall we? If I am so wonderfully gifted to dissect the three of you on sight, imagine what I can do regarding your enemies.

“Don’t listen to it,” Leyla said. “Demons are masters of temptation. All they want is your soul.”

“Says who?” Constance scoffed. “I could not care less what you do with your soul. It seems demons have a rather poor reputation here.”

“Hmmm…” Asha thought. “Back in Rome, Cat talks about how all spirits are called ‘daemons’ with evil ones being called cacodaemons.”

The demon laughed, a cold and humorless tone that bounced off the chamber wall and caused the speaker to quickly garble into distorted static.

“I am no cacodaemon, daeva, or dragon. What I am is something you very clearly have little experience with.”

“Then how about you tell us?” Asha asked. “Precisely what you are.”

“Asha, it will only lie,” Leyla said. “It will say anything to get out of that cage and turn on us. We can’t humor it.”

“I’ll be able to tell if its lying,” Asha said. “It can lie to the humans who contained it, and to you two maybe, but not to me. If it’s lying, then you can use that sacred flame to turn it to ash.”

“I doubt that will work,” Constance shrugged. “But you could give it a try. As for your questions, by all means, ask away. If you’re intent on killing me either way I’ve no reason to lie.”

“We’ll see,” Asha said. “If you’re not actively malevolent, but not a cacodaemon or eudaemon, what are you?”

“I call myself demon because that is what I have been called,” Constance says. “Like all things I define myself by how I am observed to be. But I am of a different brand than your gods and nature spirits. I am a piece of that roiling chaos from which this and all universes were born, living contradiction of order and chaos in corporeal form.”

“So you’re what…neutral? “Asha asked skeptically, senses ready to detect any trace of falsehood.

“More like a living contradiction,” Constance smiled.

“So you’re as much nature spirit as a Primordial?” Eli spoke next.

“And equal parts neither,” Constance nodded. “At the creation of all things, when order was born in chaos across dozens of cosmologies, my kind were born. We are far from all-powerful, not comparable to Primordials or even petty gods, but we like to keep to ourselves, and we like mortals most of all.”

“Because you can trick and tempt them,” Leyla frowned.

“Because they are like us,” Constance said. “The people who trapped me here called me demon, but I can be as much angel as I am demon, dependent on who is asking and what I want.”

“And what do you want?” Asha asked. “Remember to speak truthfully.”

“Short term same as you,” Constance said. “Get out of here and deprive those URIEL scientists of their research power. Long term…well, any number of possibilities, but I’m inclined towards chaos at the moment, particularly pointed at Shadiya’s government.”

“Why,” Asha asked. “Why attack Shadiya’s government?”

“Well, for one they are sort of keeping me prisoner,” Constance gestured around with her shoulders. “That’s reason enough right there.”

“But that’s not all,” Asha frowned. “Not enough reason to trust you.”

“You don’t need to trust me, just agree with me,” Constance smiled. “We both want Shadiya removed and power restored to the people. I can give you more than you can imagine. Knowledge about Shadiya and URIEL, contacts in Damascus. I could be an invaluable resource to you.”

“I think,” Eli said, frowning. “That is the very definition of a Faustian bargain.”

“Clock’s ticking,” Constance smiled, and as she did, the alarms from the door outside grew louder. Reinforcements were on their way.

“How do you know about us wanting aid from Damascus?” Asha demanded.

“Inductive reasoning,” Constance said. “You’ll need outside help. The only viable solution for hundreds of miles if Damascus. Though you’ll find that difficult. If it’s anything like it was three months ago there’s quite a power struggle going on there…of course, all this is academic if I remain in this ‘fish tank’ as you called it.”

Asha ground her teeth and turned to Leyla. “We have three options. Listen to it and let it help, kill it, or leave it to URIEL.”

“Well, we’re not leaving it,” Leyla said. “That we can’t allow.”

“Do we even know if we can destroy it?” Eli asked.

“If it’s evil, infernal, or comes from any dark place the sacred flame will burn her to the core,” Leyla said, drawing his sword. “I say we finish it. I’d rather have nothing than have its aid.”

“And if the sacred flame doesn’t burn me?” Constance asked. “What will you do then?”

“Then we’re going to have to make some difficult decisions,” Asha said, going to the controls and pulling the lever covered in red markings warning them not to pull if the case was occupied.

With a great hiss of stale cool air rushing into the room the walls of the chamber slid upwards into the ceiling, leaving Constance sitting alone a raised dais which Leyla stepped up onto, burning sword in hand.

“Any last words, demon?” Leyla asked, raising the sword.

“Fire away,” Constance said smoothly. As Leyla’s sword came down on her neck, Constance didn’t even flinch, and the blade seemed to glide smoothly through the skin and flesh of the demon’s neck, not leaving so much as a scratch behind save for the sound of rushing air.

“What the…” Leyla pulled his sword back before taking several more wild swings at Constance, each time the blade simply passing through her body as if she was a ghost.

“As expected…” Constance sounded almost disappointed. “Your blade kills all manner of evil, as it was designed by spirits of good. I think it’s time the three of you learned to broaden your horizons.”

Constance stepped past Leyla, dropping down onto the floor. “Thankfully I don’t take offense to futile attempts on my life…not that it matters, our little spiritual conflict runs both ways.”

Constance swung around with inhuman speed, raising a clawed foot in a kick that would have smashed directly into Leyla’s skull, but instead her foot simply passed clean through.

“All of you are defined by spirits existing within you, untouchable to something like me. Even most humans are beyond my direct interference.”

“It seems we need to rethink our options,” Eli said.

“Before that,” Asha said. “We need to escape.” She reached out and grabbed Constance by the coat, satisfied that her clothes at least could be grasped. “And you’re not leaving our sight.”

“As you wish,” Constance smiled. “Lead on.”

The three, now four of them, ran back the way they came, Asha and Leyla using their combined powers to burst through any doors that remained in their way, and felling the guards that chose to stand and fight. After a frantic and wild half hour, all four of them managed to break through a rear door of the facility and escape into the moonlit night.

As they rushed down a side alley to catch their breaths, Asha squeezed her fingers to ensure that she still had a tight hold on Constance.

“Don’t worry,” the demon smiled. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Neither are we if we don’t keep moving,” Leyla said, his voice going quiet as they heard dozens of monstrous howls echo through the night. “What if they can sense that thing?”

“You can’t even touch me with a sword, you think they can smell me?” Constance asked, amused.

“I don’t know what the hell you are,” Leyla growled.

“He’s right,” Asha said. “Come on, let’s keep moving.”

The four of them stole away into the darkened city as the streets began to fill with armed guards and hunting monsters. Though Eli needed help, the three of them could move with inhuman alacrity, jumping to rooftops or ducking into side streets to dodge patrols as they moved slowly and cautiously through the night, eventually reaching their small rented apartment and sneaking in through the window.

“Safe for now,” Leyla said. “But we can’t risk a raid like that for a while. Security will be insane.”

“A fine time to go to Damascus then,” Constance smiled.

“What are we going to do with…it?” Leyla asked.

“Oh come now, I changed myself to feminine form for all of you,” Constance scowled. “Calling me ‘it’ feels so…dehumanizing.”

Leyla let out a short bark of laughter. “I say we just keep trying until we find a way to kill this thing.”

“I want Hazif to see Constance first,” Asha said. “He said he was half-demon, it’s a start. No doubt he’ll be here tomorrow to confirm we caused all this chaos outside.”

“In the meantime,” Constance smiled. “We can discuss…arrangements.”

“No,” Asha said. “We are not cutting a deal with you. That is where I’m drawing the line.”

“Asha…” Eli started, but Asha cut him off.

“No, Eli. I know we need to make compromises and we can’t always do right when we’re trying to take a city, but I’m not going to cut bargains with a…being I don’t fully understand.”

“My, seems you’re all smarter than I gave you credit for,” Constance said. “Very well, no deal, but I will offer my services for…consultation.”

“We’ll see,” Asha growled. “For now, you’re not a partner, consultant, or even help. You’re a prisoner until we have reason to say otherwise. Got it?”

“Got it,” Constance smiled. “Prisoner or not, I can already tell this is going to be a very interesting experience.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

 

Memory of Butterflies

October 9th, 2024

 

Mariposa Huerta slid off of her bike as she reached her destination. She resettled the broad hat on her hair and got her clothes unwrinkled from where the warm wind had whipped at them. She wanted to look halfway decent, but in truth she was stalling for time. She had ridden about an hour outside the city center to come to her destination, the large gate of an old and opulent estate that was locked tight, not just with steel locks and bars, but with a more arcane kind of protection.

The name on the side of the gate was engraved “ALDOBRANDINI”.

Mariposa had been told to wait outside the gate and someone would come to fetch her. So she stood there feeling slightly foolish as she looked through the gates towards the distant manor on the hilltop. Her heart fluttered in her chest as she saw the shape of someone coming down the hill. She was …nervous she settled on the word, though simply nervous didn’t seem to cover the level of fear and anxiety that sill squirmed like slugs in her belly. She hadn’t wanted to come here, she wanted to be anywhere else, but she needed to be here. Mariposa needed to put her fears to rest.

The young woman who came to greet her was about her age, with tied back blonde hair and bright blue eyes.

“Morning,” she smiled “You must be Mariposa, Cat told me about you…er, Miss Aldobrandini told me.”

“That’s right,” Mariposa nodded nervously. “I’m here to…” She found herself having trouble even choking up the words.

“Don’t worry, I know,” The woman smiled. “My name’s Alicia, part-time caretaker.”

“Nice to meet you,” Mariposa, and she stepped inside as Alicia swung the gates open for her, stepping out of the way as Alicia moved to lock them again. Together, the pair of them began making their way back up the hill.

“Sorry if the place is still in a bit of a state,” Alicia said. “Definitely not a job one woman can do part-time by herself.”

“I-it’s fine,” Mariposa said. “It’s a very nice place.”

“We try to keep it that way,” Alicia said. “The garden is a mess though, and we’ve had to board up a lot of old wings to focus on getting the necessaries up and running.”

“Right…” Mariposa trailed off. She appreciated what Alicia was doing, trying to distract her from why she was here. But nothing she said would calm her nerves.

“So…” Mariposa began, speaking slowly as if choosing her words with utmost care. “What is she…like?”

“She’s a bit of an enigma, and I think she likes it that way,” Alicia said, instantly picking up on who Mariposa meant. “She can be a bit patronizing, sometimes to the point of being an ass, but I don’t think she’s outright…malevolent. Cat doesn’t seem to think so at least.”

“So she’s not…cruel?”

Alicia shook her head. “I wouldn’t say so. I think she’s…seen a lot. From what I’ve picked up, the things she’s been through it’s…hardened her. It’s like she’s made of stone now. But she’s still human…heck, I think she even still has a sense of humor, if a bit of a black one.”

“That’s something,” Mariposa said, and she felt Alicia put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“It’ll be fine,” she said. “I think if she’d be open and honest with anyone, it’d be you.”

“Well…I guess we’ll have to see,” Mariposa said. “Where is she?”

“She wanted to meet you in the sitting room,” Alicia said, opening the front door and guiding her into the manor. “Can I get you two anything? Tea? Coffee?”

“No,” Mariposa shook her head. “I’ll come find you when…when we’re done.”

“Sure thing,” Alicia said. “I’ll be nearby so don’t hesitate to call.”

Mariposa nodded, and Alicia left her by the entry into the sitting room. Taking one last deep breath, Mariposa steeled herself and stepped inside.

The main sitting room of the Aldobrandini manor was built around a massive stone mantle carved into the fashion of Greek pillars. The walls were covered in portraits of past generations, both realist and abstract. Large statues stood in the corners of the room, cast in darkness in the limited light. The thick curtains of the large windows had been mostly drawn, allowing only a thin channel of white light to shine in from the morning sun outside casting most of the room into a serene sort of half-light.

Sitting in a high-backed leather chair was the woman, Gisela Silva. She was finely dressed in a clean white buttoned shirt that was loosely undone at the top. Beneath that was a slimming skirt of deep violet worn over black stockings and similarly shining black shoes. Her dark hair hung loosely over her shoulders and reached mostly down her back. Her eyes remained focused on Mariposa as she entered, a distinct and shimmering violet color.

“Good morning,” Gisela inclined her head politely before gesturing to a chair across from her, which Mariposa took nervously. “I’m Gisela Silva.”

“Mariposa Huerta,” she inclined her head in turn. “Thank you for meeting me.”

“Of course,” Gisela nodded, her face was inscrutable, her tone utterly flat. “I believe I know why you’re here; you were the vessel for the will of Itzpapalotl during the Battle of the Black Sun.”

“And before,” Mariposa said. “I was like a…sound piece for her.”

“So then it’s only natural,” Gisela said. “That you come to me to ensure that it won’t happen again.”

“More than that,” Mariposa said. “I still have…nightmares. She’s still in my dreams.”

“Hmm,” Gisela looked her over carefully.

“I need to know where she is,” Mariposa spoke more quickly. “I need to make sure that wherever she is and whatever she’s doing…I’m not involved anymore.”

“You’re no reason to fear,” Gisela said calmly. “The Butterfly Shroud is broken and with it her power in Rome.”

“But she wasn’t just a goddess to me. She was in my head, controlling me…”

Mariposa shivered. She could still remember the fear, the frequent night terrors, the long gaps in her memory. The times when a foreign goddess had used her body like a puppet, commanding her without her even being aware. At times it had been like going mad.

“She was not possessing you like some sort of demon,” Gisela said. “You were not even her champion. You were…enchanted by her, ensorcelled by some dark blood magic.”

“But I still need to know,” Mariposa pressed. “Now and forever, is she out of my head?”

Gisela stared into her eyes, and for a moment Mariposa swore she saw a glow behind them, a shining in the vivid violet of Gisela’s eyes.

“Whatever spell she put you under, whatever power she had over you is gone,” Gisela said. “She can no longer command you to act or enter your dreams and visions. You are no longer her mouthpiece.”

Mariposa felt some bit of relief wash over her, but it wasn’t as much as she had hoped. In the back of her mind, in the corners of her anxieties, she knew she would always fear that Gisela was wrong.

“And the nightmares?” Mariposa asked.

“The natural result of going through such trauma,” Gisela said. “Becoming the tool of a goddess, particularly one as cruel as she can be, is going to leave scars on your mind and soul.”

“I sort of figured that…” Mariposa said, eyes moving downwards.

“As for the goddess herself,” Gisela continued, causing Mariposa to glance back up. “Her power is broken, so all of her influence in this country is now tied to me. I am her sole able representative. She lacks the power to take hold of you again, and it would be much more difficult to do a second time even if she could.”

“Do you see her?” Mariposa asked. “Is she…around?”

“Rarely,” Gisela said. “She prefers not to be seen more often than not. But there are…reminders, signals of her passing, making sure I remember who it is that holds my contract.”

“Why are you her champion?” Mariposa asked. “A goddess like Itzpapalotl is…”

“That is a long story,” Gisela said. “One I have neither the time nor inclination to tell you. Rest assured it was an act made in desperation, one made to save my own life. I sold my soul to the Obsidian Butterfly and became her herald as a result.”

“Miss Aldobrandini said you were helping her,” Mariposa said.

“Itzpapalotl plays a very long and strange game,” Gisela said. “Whether training Catarina to defeat Primordials is in her interest or not I cannot say. This could be my quiet rebellion or it could be playing directly into her hands.”

“Then why do you do it, if you can’t be sure?” Mariposa asked.

“Because there is always more to things than there appears,” Gisela said. “The gods wear many masks, many of them innocent and many of them cruel. The balance between order and chaos can alter the face that they wear. What I can hope…All I can hope, is that what I choose to do is right, and in this case I believe it is. The right choice for me, for Catarina, for Rome, and for the world.”

“I see…” Mariposa nodded. She looked at Gisela, regarding her for a moment.

The woman could be intimidating to look at to be sure. She had an expression of utter determination on her face that seemed to override everything else. But Mariposa could have sworn she saw more behind it.

When Itzpapalotl had been using her, stealing her body for hours at a time or compelling her to sing the song of calling for her monstrous star-children, it had been a like a living nightmare for her. The goddess’ presence tainted everything it touched, the traces of the Obsidian Butterfly always visible in the corner of her eye and audible in a range just outside her hearing. It was like being spied on and hunted at all times by a monstrous force you could never hope to confront.

Mariposa had lived with that feeling for nearly three months, ever since her night terrors had begun and up until the Battle of the Black Sun. But looking at Gisela now, she realized the young woman had been living with the goddess’ presence for years. Every step across continents had been haunted by Itzpapalotl, her rattling sword-breath and the great flapping of heavy black butterfly wings hounding her every move. Gisela had known precisely what had stalked her, and could do nothing about it.

“Thank you,” Mariposa said. “You’ve been very…reassuring.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Gisela said, and she did seem to be sincere about it at least, though her expression hardly changed.

Mariposa rose to her feet, before walking to Gisela and offering a hand. Gisela rose as well and politely shook it, and Mariposa quelled a shiver at the coolness of her touch. She really did seem almost made of stone.

“I hope this will help you recover,” Gisela said. “I will not attempt to justify my patron’s callousness. It was cruel what was done to you.”

“Thank you,” Mariposa nodded, but even as she did she couldn’t help but wonder if anyone else hoped for a similar recovery for Gisela, or at least freedom from Itzpapalotl’s presence. Could a deal with a god be broken? Could the god themselves be changed?

Mariposa was a radio singer, it’s who she is and what she was good at. She planned to return to work soon and sing with her own voice, not with Itzpapalotl’s. It was not her place to question if Gisela could change her patron’s nature, or at the very least be freed from her constant presence.

As she left the sitting room, Alicia coming to meet her and guide her out, all she could hope for was that Gisela could find similar relief and reassurance. Or at least hope that she could find a bit of peace to hold onto.

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa