The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 16

October 1st, 2024

“You’ll be staying here for now,” Cat said to Gisela, her hands on her hips and a frown on her face.

“I must say this is quite a bit lovelier than what I had expected,” Gisela said, eyes looking around the sitting room as they entered.

“It’s my family’s ancestral home, of course it’s nice,” Cat said, moving her arms to fold them over her chest. “But don’t get comfy. This place was warded to the gills by a half-dozen mages, including Albion Nassar so you’re not setting a foot off this property.”

“I’ve no intention to,” Gisela said. “And I will say…thank you, Catarina.”

Cat blinked, taken aback “Er…for what?”

“You didn’t have to do this. I could still be in my cell, and there was no reason to offer the Aldobrandini manor as a place to stay.”

“It was open,” Cat tried to shrug it off. “And the place is much more magically secure than most. You couldn’t escape or get where you weren’t wanted even if you tried.”

“I imagine a number of rooms are off-limits,” Gisela said. “Fair enough, I have no reason to try and test my boundaries. I’m in this city for you, after all.”

“Right, me,” Cat said, still a little apprehensive. “We can do our training here as well. Do Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays work?”

“My schedule is overwhelmingly free,” Gisela said. “I’m sure we can make that work.”

“Good,” Cat took a seat on the couch and Gisela moved to sit gently in an armchair across from her, legs folded and hands in her lap.

The difficulty of finding a place for Gisela had not been easy to overcome. There were not only her own abilities to take into consideration, but also the response of any neighbors she might have. Rome was a crowded city and while Gisela’s face was not well-known, if who she was and where she was living got out there could be a riot. She had needed to be sent somewhere isolated, somewhere that could be easily wrapped in a network of wards and blessings that even Gisela, with her god-given gifts, would not be able to escape. So, it had been Catarina who had offered her home. It had a multitude of spare rooms and with a reason to visit, Cat could have a reason to begin cleaning the old place up with Alice’s help.

Of course, exile in a comfortable manor was not Gisela’s only punishment. Her training of Catarina was considered part of her community service, but on top of that Pontifex Nora had requested the use of her knowledge and her lingual skills as well. Already piles of boxes full of books were filling the entrance hall of the Aldobrandini Manor. Nora had been amassing an enormous library of all the books she could fine on ancient lore, religious cults and practices, and most things with any hint of the occult. After being scanned to ensure they didn’t contain any actual magic, they were packed up and shipped for Gisela to read and interpret, as well as aid Nora in creating a new system for organization. It was a light punishment as far as Cat was concerned, but as Gisela had pointed out she had committed no real crime in Rome other than assaulting Aurelio and Elisa. The blame for the Battle of Black Sun feel squarely on her patron, Itzpapalotl and her mad cultists. Most of the cultists had been executed or imprisoned with much more stringent punishments, and without her worshippers the goddess herself had all but vanished from Rome.

“So about the training,” Cat said. “I take it you’re going to show me more of those memories of yours later?”

“When I get my thoughts in order, yes,” Gisela nodded. “These are memories I have tried very hard not to think about for the past. They take some time to get in order and ensure I haven’t…altered them.”

“So…this girl,” Cat said after a brief pause. “Noemi…your memory ended right after you met her.”

“It did…it’s difficult to think about,” Gisela said. “I needed time just…even imagining her face was hard for me.”

“She was important to you, huh?”

“She was…important, yes,” Gisela said. “As were all the others you’ll see in my memories.”

“You can just tell me,” Cat said. “If it’s that hard and if we need to focus elsewhere.”

“No,” Gisela shook her head. “There’s more reason to it than just needing to get things off my chest or show you what matters to me. It is important that you know what you’re facing out there, beyond Nidhoggr. There are other things in this new world that demand a hero’s attentions. I want you to do again what you did when you faced Nidhoggr. To see what evil is and stare it in the eye.”

Cat shivered, her mind going back to those massive pale blue eyes of Nidhoggr staring through her body and into her soul. “Alright, I get it,” Cat said. “But what else will we be doing.”

“Well it is a good thing that the Pontifex sent us so much reading material,” Gisela said. “While I’m doing my duty translating, I will be creating summaries and translations for you to read and giving you lessons on their content. As has been said before, the most important thing is to know thy enemy.”

“Right,” Cat nodded. “But there can’t be that much literature on Nidhoggr, can there?”

“Not as much as I’d like specifically,” Gisela said. “But we will be looking at all Primordials. Typhon, Apep, Tiamat, Nidhoggr, and several others. They are all the same class of being and share common traits, so that is what you will be studying.”

“Alright,” Cat nodded. “What else?”

“Small-scale battlefield tactics,” Gisela said. “You’re good with a sword from what I hear and I imagine Miss Jazheil is teaching you more. But you will need to learn how and where to apply that strength.”

“I don’t think I follow,” Cat said.

“Alright let me put it this way,” Gisela said patiently. “You, right now, are a knife. You are a well-forged and impressive weapon. But having a good knife does not win a knife fight. You need to know when and where to thrust, otherwise no matter how good your knife is you’ll only ever scratch their arm when you need to get that first and most strike to the heart.”

“Ah…” Cat nodded. “So knowing how best to move on a battlefield?”

“Yes, and not just you,” Gisela said. “The destruction of a Primordial in the field will require armies, and you will need close allies.”

“Well I can rely on Hilde,” Cat said. “And Rosa I guess.”

“Not just people strong in a fight. You need skilled people to get as broad a range of assets as you possibly can.”

“Right,” Cat nodded. “A wide skillset for any situation.”

‘Good, you’re catching on,” Gisela said. “Start taking those considerations into account, as well as the fact that anyone who joins you will likely die in the effort.”

“Right…” Cat frowned. Gisela had a way of sobering any kind of heroic buzz, even though she knew it wasn’t unfounded. While the thought of gathering her friends and family in an attack on Nidhoggr was spirit-lifting, she knew that recruiting them for that would both be pulling them away from Rome’s primary army, and putting their lives at extreme risk. It was not something to be taken lightly.

“You will also need to learn how to endure more than just physical pain,” Gisela said. “Nidhoggr will attack you on all fronts, body, mind, and soul. It will inflict pain upon your spirit and lash your mind with fear. This isn’t rosy language either, Nidhoggr is a Primordial and has access to a deeper form of magic than most mages can even approximate. Able to directly and deliberately tap into your human primal fears.”

“What do you mean primal fear?” Cat asked, recalling just how much her encounter with Nidhoggr had shaken her over the past few months.

“Primordials are chaos, but that doesn’t quite do them justice,” Gisela said. “When the chaos serpents were overthrown by the gods, cast beneath the world by the great powers of the pantheon, it was symbolic of the conquest of civilization. Zeus is the fledgling Greek states that rose up out of the ash and smoke of the Primordial’s reign. Do you think it was simply the symptoms of their coming that caused civilization to collapse? The relationship is a symbiotic one. When the gods and man are triumphant, the Primordials are imprisoned and we exist in a relatively enlightened time of civilization.

But when the Primordials rule, as they rule now, that is when you can see them for what they are. They are the darkness that humans banished with fire. The fear of the night and the predator, the tooth, the claw, the hunter. So long as they control the world, so long as that chaos reigns, there will be nothing but war, darkness, and death as humans and gods do what they can to cling for survival.”

“Jeez, I get it, the pressure’s on,” Cat groaned. “I already knew my odds were long in trying to beat an unkillable dragon monster from before the dawn of time, but could you soften the blow a little?”

“No,” Gisela said. “Because I’m not choosing you for your personality or your skills. If I needed that I’d just kill Nidhoggr myself. No, I’m choosing you because your existence and a potential hero gives you a substantial handicap in this race. I’m not starting at zero with you.”

“You say that,” Cat said. “But are you really sure I’m even a hero you’re looking for? That I have this ‘aspect’ of me as you like to call it?”

“No, I’m not sure,” Gisela said bluntly. “In fact, I’m only around forty percent sure I’m right with you.”

“Wow, you’re terrible at reassuring people.”

“That’s the game we’re playing, Catarina,” Gisela said. “If you go in there thinking you’re going to succeed because you’re a hero then a hundred to one says Nidhoggr turns you to dust before you even get in sight of it. These are the highest stakes in human history. Get with the picture.”

“Ya well,” Cat grumbled. “Stop treating me like a child who doesn’t get it and start treating me like a goddamn adult. Maybe then we’ll get something done.”

“Alright then,” Gisela said. “Then think of this less like a class lesson and more like survival training. Start planning your resources and think…and I mean really think about what you’re doing and what you can use to your advantage. You don’t get marks for a passing grade, and I’ll need you to be an adult and take initiative on this. Everything you do, everything you learn, everything at your disposal must be assessed in this context ‘Can this help me against Nidhoggr?’”

“Right,” Cat nodded. Much as she disliked Gisela, she knew there was some truth to it. She had been regarding Gisela like one of her teachers, like Albion or Schehera or Hilde, when that wasn’t really her job. Gisela was more like a boot camp instructor, making her assess her way of thinking and how to achieve a singular goal. It was less about passing on knowledge and more preparing Cat for what was to come.

“Though I do want to clear one thing up,” Cat said. “You’re a guest in my house. Ya, you’re my mentor and instructor when it comes to killing Primordials…but you’re also a guest living under my hospitality.”

“Of course,” Gisela nodded simply. “During meals and other such time, I will be the pinnacle of politeness. I’m not unaccustomed to etiquette, as you can imagine.”

“Fine,” Cat said grumpily, wanting more than ever to find someone actually enjoyable to talk to. “Maybe with that in mind we won’t wind up killing each other within a week.”

“One can only hope,” Gisela said.

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The King Beneath the Mountain

September 30th, 2024

Jana stood, rigid as a statue, as the great dragon unfurled itself before her, wings spreading to fill the dim caverns as the dull light of the shining garnets illuminated the dark scales of its thin sinewy body. It, or rather he, was built like a lion, with a barrel chest and massive muscular legs that were covered in a smooth carapace of armored iron-grey scales. His eyes, bright as gold, stared down at Jana as he lowered his head to get a better look at her.

“And who are you?” The great dragon Calroch asked as it looked her over, and Jana had never felt so exposed standing there with no cover under the gaze of a dragon.

“Jana Tule,” It was all she had to keep her voice steady, though it still had a slight tremor. “Daughter of Jarl Hod Tule.”

“As you have said,” The dragons voice was booming, summoned up from thunderous lungs. “Your given names mean nothing to me, only that of your family do I recognize.”

“Long has our family served and governed on Thule,” Jana nodded her head. “We have kept its people safe and kept the legends of your presence alive and strong.”

“And how do the stories compare, child of Thule?” Calroch had risen to his full size, filling the cavern as the edges of his wings were lost in the dark cave, his tail wrapping around the floor and great claws digging into the stone.

“They hardly seem sufficient…” Jana all but felt herself shrinking. “Though the legends did not say that you were…”

“That I was a dragon?” Calroch asked. “One of the last and mightiest from the time before your words were written?”

Jana could only manage a nod.

“And does that make you afraid, child of Thule?” Calroch asked. “To know that your people have lived and died at the whim of a dragon?”

Jana took a deep breath to steady herself before speaking. “I am not afraid of you, Lord Calroch. The stories say you are mighty, and clearly those were true. But they also say that you have protected Thule. From fire and storm and conquerors. I may fear the man with the sword, but I do not fear the man who holds the sword in my defense. So, I do not fear a dragon that has protected Thule for eons.”

There were many ancient stories of the great spirit of Thule, the King beneath the Mountain. While most revolved around making the fields fertile and stopping the raging storms from sweeping the towns away, the more colorful stories had the spirit raining fire down upon Thule’s many would-be raiders and conquerors. The revelation of the great spirit being a dragon shed those in a different light.

“Mmm,” There was a low rumble in the dragon’s throat that echoed through the chamber. “Good, they sent a thoughtful child to me this time.”

Jana bowed her head again. “Thank you, Lord Calroch.”

“Though I sense it has been a very long time since another was sent to me. How many years has it been, Jana of Thule, since the last one was sent before you?”

“I…cannot tell you in years, Lord Calroch,” Jana said slowly, ever aware of his burning eyes upon her. “It has been many centuries to be sure.”

The dragon considered her words for a few silent moments before speaking again, moving past her astride four great legs as he began to move towards the passage she had come down.

“Then that is why the mountain feels so cold.”

“Cold, Lord Calroch?” Jana had to hurry on her feet to keep pace with him, trying not to outright run as she hurried alongside the massive dragon. With each footfall, she felt a quake run through the ground, though for his size Calroch still seemed to move with almost cat-like grace, long legs held beneath him rather than sprawled on his belly like some ancient worm or legged serpent.

“Not to you perhaps,” Calroch said, his head well ahead of her but his voice still booming. “But it is to me.”

Jana had to admit the cavern was still immensely hot, and even standing next to Calroch felt like walking alongside a furnace. Soon the pair of them made it back to the vast treasure room beneath the volcano, and Jana realized that it was not only just a repository, but a full-blown dragon’s hoard. She watched his eyes move over the piles of gold and precious stones.

“I touched nothing, Lord Calroch, I assure you.”

“I would have smelled it if you had,” Calroch said. “But it is not for my own satisfaction that I keep this gold here.”

“I had heard that dragons like to hoard gold.”

“Some do,” Calroch said. “Those of my weak-minded and avaricious kin. But the richness of Thule is not only in gems and gold.”

The dragon turned and began walking off the path, massive feet easily moving through the low hillocks of gold that sent avalanches of coins scattering around. Jana struggled even more to keep pace, needing to clamber over gold piles, which led to her tripping and sliding down more than once.

After the third time, when her foot caught on the handle of a gold amphora and sent her rolling down a bank of painful golden goblets, the loud clattering and echoing of a dozen metal cups rolling over the stone floor was loud enough to give Calroch paused as he turned to look at the source of the noise, seeing Jana rise to her feet and adjust her dress.

“Sorry…” she said, red-faced. “These shoes aren’t meant for gold-climbing”

“Of course. I suppose I wasn’t paying attention.”

Calroch brought himself up, sitting on his hind legs like a cat as his tail and wings curled around himself into a great egg-shaped leathery mass. Before Jana could ask what he was doing, the dragon’s entire form seemed to dematerialize, solid scale and leathery wing disintegrating into dark fog as it was scattered through the cave. When the last was gone, all that remained of the enormous dragon was a lone figure standing where he had been.

“I occasionally forget the scale humans operate on,” The man spoke with Calroch’s voice, but without the ground-shaking thunder of a dragon. Jana hurriedly stepped over to him to get a closer look.

He was undeniably a human man. He had a square face with broad jaw covered in a short black beard, coupled with a long mane of straight black hair the same color as his dark scales. His skin was pale, and the only features he seemed to have carried over were his bright golden eyes. He was dressed in the ancient regal garments of a king, with a suit of golden lamellar armor over a richly patterned gray gambeson. His shoulders were adorned in a mantle of wolf fur, and a cape of dark grey hung to the floor. It was a regal (and very old) fashion, but still had glimpses of his draconic nature, from the horned pattern of his gauntlets to the scale-like structure of his armor.

“W-wait, so are you…?” Jana was confused. She had never heard stories of a dragon who could take the shape of a man.

“I am a dragon, through and through,” Calroch said, and he began to walk again. At this size, however, Jana had a much easier time of keeping pace.

“Dragons, like all creatures made of more than flesh, grow with power the longer they live. Some who live long learn to think and speak as humans do, the ones who live longer still can even learn to take human form. If find it…convenient for meetings such as these.”

“Of course, thank you for the consideration,” Jana nodded her head. “Though if I may ask, where are we going?”

“This mountain is my castle, and there are many places in it. For now, I wish to see my domain.”

Though her question had not quite been answered, Jana followed him through the great cave of gold, carrying the torch to light their path, though it seemed as if Calroch didn’t need it, as he would move beyond the reach of its light without any change of pace, prompting Jana to hurry after him to avoid losing pace.

He led her down a different tunnel than the one she had come in through, which led to another spiraling staircase. They climbed and climbed for so long that Jana soon went from winded to exhausted after what felt like fifteen solid minutes of steady stair-climbing.

By the time, they reached the top Jana was exhausted and dehydrated. Sweat was running down her neck and back and her hair, so carefully kept that morning, was coming loose and sticking to her neck and face. With growing horror, she realized she must look awful, and likely smell worse, while Calroch didn’t even seem slightly phased by the climb. It was only when he turned to face her that he seemed to notice how exhausted she was, and Jana could feel her face flush as she tried her best to stand prim and properly while feeling like she’d just run a marathon.

“There is a basin of water connected to a spring in the third chamber down,” Calroch said. There was no hint of admonishment, merely a statement. “I will meet you in the fifth chamber when you are ready.”

“Thank you, Lord Calroch,” Jana managed to sputter as he turned and left, cape whirling behind him. She sheepishly hurried to the pointed chamber and found it to be a small sort of washroom carved into the stone. The stairs, the hall, and this room were all sized for a human, and the rocks here were relatively cool to the touch. At the center of the room on a broad dais was a basin filled with the purest water she had ever seen.

The first thing she did was dip her hands into the blessedly cold water and bring it to her lips, relishing the feeling of something that was finally cold, before taking a quick glance around and simply lowering her head to the water level to eagerly drink straight from the source. Not her most elegant moment, but no one was watching and she had never been so thirsty.

After her thirst was sated, she set about washing her face and putting her hair back in place as best she could. It was a far cry from what it had been upon entering the mountain, but it was still an improvement, and she left the burned-out torch she had carried in the corner of the room before finally washing her hands and going to meet Calroch again.

The fifth chamber turned out to be the entrance to a stone balcony looking out over the island of Thule, skillfully hidden in the rockwork to make it all but invisible from the outside, with a banister of stone encircling the edge. It was late evening now, and with the clouds beginning to disperse the sun was free to bounce a myriad of colors across the sky.

“Pardon the delay,” Jana said as she joined him on the balcony. She reveled in the feeling of the cool wind as it swept over her face and through her clothes. She stood next to him, and passed him a glance as he stared out at the island. Now that she could see him better in the light, she saw that he was younger than he had looked at first, somewhere in his early thirties. Rather than a crown he wore a thin circlet of gold on his head, the front marked by what looked like the cast image of his draconic horns. He was, she quietly noted, strikingly handsome.

“It has been a very long time,” Calroch said, his hands grasped together as he leaned over the edge of the balcony. “The world has greyed and grown old while I slept. I wonder why it is I awoke at all.”

“Something is changing,” Jana said. “The mountain bellows fire and the storms and mists have begun to fade. Thule is re-entering the world.”

“Then it will need to be ready,” Calroch said. “I told you that Thule’s wealth is not in its jewels or in its gold. It is in its people. Many centuries before, your forbearers and I made a compact. While my kind were being slayed in droves by famed dragonslayers, I chose instead to become a protector rather than a destroyer. The gold in my lair will give this island wealth rivaling the most prosperous nation, and you shall use it to grow that influence. Thule does not need to be a nameless island backwater.”

“If people know we have mountains of gold,” Jana said. “They will come to raid it.”

Calroch’s lips curled into a somewhat cruel smile “I welcome it. But we should be wary with the gold we spend. Too much will decrease its value. Thule shall be given enough to buy its influence; the rest will stay with me.”

“You seem quite eager to take charge again,” Jana said, slightly worried how the people in town would take the plans of an ambitious dragon.

“Do you know why they send a child of Thule to my lair, Jana?” He turned to ask her.

Jana shook her head.

“Because I need an ambassador, someone who can speak to the people on my behalf but without the booming voice of a dragon. You will be the go-between for the people of Thule and myself.”

“That’s…quite a position,” Jana said hesitantly, head spinning. She had been planning on a day-long ritual, now she would be serving as the speaker for a dragon?

“And responsibility,” Calroch said. “But you seem like a clever and thoughtful girl, and you will find the mountain to have all the pleasure and amenities of life in the town. In time, perhaps you will speak on my behalf to other peoples and nations as well.”

“I suppose it is in a dragon’s nature to think in the long-term,” Jana said.

“It is,” Calroch said. “And Thule has a long future ahead of it.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 15

September 17th, 2024

The jungle seemed to go on forever. Every time Noemi felt that they must be nearing its end, that they must be almost out or that the river would finally let out into a delta, it would take another bend or the trees would grow thick and dark once more. Junko did seem to be an amazing tracker and hunter though, keeping the three of them from encountering any other Aztlan forces as well as always managing to have food for Noemi to prepare and cook when the sun set and they made camp.

“How do you do it, anyway?” Noemi asked, as she carefully sliced the scales off a fish Junko had snatched out of the water.

“Do what?”

“Get us something new to eat every day, keep us from getting lost…or have we really been going in circles this whole time!?”

“We’re just following the river, boss,” Junko said, her eyes smiling even as her mouth was hidden behind her mask. “It’s hard to get lost along that.”

“You say that, but we’d be fighting a lot more Azzies if that were the case,” Noemi argued, holding her knife out, flicking her wrist as she sent scales into the fire to sizzle. “Speaking of which, I want to learn how to fight like you do.”

The ninja girl’s eyes went wide as she didn’t say anything right away, just looking to the river then back to Noemi.

“Come on, Junko,” Noemi continued. “You took out an entire squadron of the Aztec Jaguar Warriors and they even had a spirit with them! I mean, yes, they were chasing me not you, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone move that fast.”

“Well, the thing is, boss, I’ve been training since I was little. It’s not something you can just pick up overnight.”

“I know how to handle myself in a fight, so it’s not like I’m completely hopeless! I’m not like…Well, doesn’t matter, point is, I’ve been in my fair share of fights, but I feel like I need to stop relying so much on luck to get out alive!”

“I’ll say,” A soft voice said, drawing out the s as the sound escaped from her teeth. Ophidia stepped into the clearing, her feathery cloak draped around her shoulders as she stared down at the two girls. “If I recall correctly, champion, you had lost the fight when I had found you.”

“That wasn’t a fi-!” Noemi started, before shaking her head. “Okay, fine, but that just proves my point! I wouldn’t have gotten out of that one if it weren’t for you, but maybe if I was able to fight as well as Junko, I would have!”

“As I said, boss, I can give you some basic training in self-defense…”

“Sure, but how do I do the neat spirit tricks, like running faster than the wind?” Noemi asked, before turning back to the Winged Serpent Goddess. “You could have at least provided me wings!”

The only response the redhead got from her patron was an audible, yet somehow dignified, snort of disapproval.

“I can’t even get my patron to help me! How do you get the spirits to give you those powers, Junko?”

“I don’t,” Junko said, simply, rising to her feet. She stretched her neck to the side, rolling her head in a circle around it, though keeping her eyes on the other two at all times.

“What do you mean you don’t? You said the spirits make you super fast, blend into the shadows, all of that.” Noemi said, throwing a few jabs rapidly in the air in front of her. Junko winced a little, though Noemi thought she could see the hint of a smile.

“I mean, I don’t ‘get’ them to give me their powers. It’s more than a simple matter of asking them. Spirits are not merely batteries from which you can draw your power,” Junko said. She started to go through various forms that Noemi had seen her perform a few times, usually in the morning before they started on their long hikes.

“These are those…what did you call them, the katas?”

“Mmm, more or less. Do you know why I do these every morning?”

“I figured so you could stretch and get warmed up for the trekking we had to do.”

“No. There are spirits all around us, boss. Their power is there, but most don’t even see it. They feel the breeze on their face and say that they stopped the wind. The spirit of that breeze has no power to move them,” Junko said, closing her eyes, her voice growing steadier. “But that’s not true. They believe it will break against them, that the wind cannot lift them from the ground. Their minds are cluttered, heavy.”

Noemi watched, her eyes widening as Junko started to take steps up into the air, as if she were climbing invisible stairs. Beneath her shoes, Noemi could only just see the air move a bit, carrying detritus from the ground as it passed by.

“Empty your mind, let go of your shape as you know it. Become like the air, light and unseen, everywhere at once. Or become like water,” Junko said as she fell backwards, from her spot floating above the ground, into the river behind them. Noemi bolted forward to try to catch her. The river was too shallow; there was a chance Junko could hit a rock and hurt herself! But even as Noemi stretched out her arm to catch the other girl though, Junko’s body hit the water. Noemi could only gasp as the girl seemed to melt away into the water itself.

Noemi could still hear her voice though, babbling out from the river, distorted by the water. “Become the spirit, let it guide your form, changing you into whatever shape it takes.” Her voice said, as the water started to rise, taking the shape of Junko, before she stepped out looking none the worse for wear.

Noemi just looked the girl up and down eyes wide. While she had seen Junko do some impressive things, melting into water only to reform was new. “I want to learn how to do that!”

“Do you plan to continue to engage with the forces of Aztlan, Noemi?” Ophidia asked, folding one arm beneath her breasts as she rested her head upon her hand, watching the two humans. Her lips pursed together into a frown as her voice carried with it an air of concern.

Noemi shook her head, sliding her knife back into her belt. “I just want to be able to fight better. I can’t fight a war all by myself. Even with you and Junko, that’s just three of us. Besides, there’s…somethings I need to see to first. At the coast.”

“You haven’t actually said what it is you need to do, come to think of it,” Junko said, grabbing some of her hair and wringing it out as the water to fell to the ground.

“Mmm, well, it doesn’t matter too much. I just made a promise to someone that if I survived, I’d head to the coast. Anyway, don’t think I’m going to forgive Aztlan for all this. They’ve caused too much pain, too much suffering to too many people. They’ve brought so much death to this land in the name of their order…Bunch of liars and murderers!”

“You know, boss, you don’t need to be fighting this war alone…” Junko said.

“We are not fighting a war, we are trying to build a cult,” Ophidia said, with some firmness behind her voice. “I did not save you so you could throw your life away.”

“Oh, come on, Ophidia, you must be just as furious with Aztlan as I am. And isn’t part of building your cult to get you more power? Hey, Junko, can you become one with Ophidia? What would happen if you tried that?”

Junko looked down, her face a bit pale as she fidgeted uncomfortably. “Well, ah, the stories say that gods are just more powerful spirits so it might be possible but…It comes down to a matter of ego. Ophidia has…too much of a presence. I’m able to easily pull myself back from the water by focusing, because the water has very simple thoughts. Ophidia…if I were to try to flow into her, well, I can only imagine the noise that would fill my head. I don’t think I’m good enough to do that.”

“I would suggest you not try it,” The goddess said, a smile playing at her lips as she seemed amused for the first time since the conversation started. “Though I don’t forbid it. You are forbidden, champion. I have the most need of you.”

“Hmph, I’d start with the air first, unless merging with you allowed me to fly or something. Anyway, what were you talking about not fighting this war alone, Junko?”

“Ah, well, there are a number of…I suppose they’d be resistance groups now, but they were originally the rivals to Aztlan. Quite a large number of them.”

“Oh? If they’re so many of them, why is Aztlan so powerful?” Noemi asked.

“For one thing, they’re very disorganized,” Junko said. “And so most keep their head down to the ground. I helped one out for a bit, in return for some food.”

“Well, what if they worked together? I bet they could probably at least halt Aztlan!”

“It’s not as simple as that, boss,” Junko said, her tone getting quiet. “Don’t forget, Aztlan has spies everywhere. It’s hard to run a resistance group, let alone five, when you’re never sure who you can trust.”

“I’m sure they hate Aztlan more than they mistrust each other!”

“Mmm, actually, more often than not, the resistance groups will set each other up to take the fall for Aztlan expansion…”

“What?!”

“Many of my missions were sabotage not on Aztlan, but on other groups.”

“Why would you possibly attack anti-Aztlaner forces?” Noemi’s voice was rising to the point where she was very nearly screaming. She felt a hand on her shoulder and a wave of patience wash over her. Her muscles went very still, as if they had been suddenly numbed. “Mrr…Ophidia!”

“You were getting agitated, champion.”

“It’s like this, boss,” Junko said calmly, putting her mask back over her face, tying her wet hair back into a pony tail. “The Aztlan spirit corp runs on the blood of its enemies. Heartblood, if you want to be fancy. Now no one wants to be the one to end up on the chopping block, so when you hear the army coming, you run. And if you’re with others that Aztlan wants dead, well, you make sure Aztlan catches them first. It’s not pretty…it’s why I stopped working for them, in fact.”

“That’s terrible!”

“Ah, I see…” Ophidia said quietly. “If it is for the heartblood, then it must be ritualized. It is likely the groups do not even know they are playing into the desires of Aztlan when they think of their own desires.”

Junko nodded. “The Aztlaners call it their Flower Wars, cause it’s not about conquest, it’s just about getting the hearts still beating to their altars.”

Noemi stood up, her eyes alight with anger. “I don’t care what their reason is, they’re never going to stop Aztlan that way!” She reached down, picking up a large rock, before tossing it into a tree trunk so hard the bark splintered a little. Her breathing came faster, but as she took a few heavy breaths, her eyes dulled. “…Damn it, I’m just one person. I don’t know if I can help the resistance groups anyway. But they have to see that that’s just a losing way to fight, right?”

“Does the mouse see it’s already dead when the cat bats it between its paws, keeping it in a corner?” Ophidia asked. “A snake is far kinder. We merely snap its neck immediately, rather than letting it draw itself out in misery.”

Noemi sighed, putting her hand over her eyes as she took a few steadying deep breaths. “It’s not my problem. Right now, we need to get to the coast. Maybe one day, when your cult is strong enough, we’ll knock some sense into the so called resistance. But we’ve spent enough time here already. Let’s get moving.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Caverns of Thule

September 30th, 2024

 

In the distant north, in frigid seas and blistering wind, where the rare sun is hidden most days by clouds, there is a land unmarked on any map, untraveled by any since time immemorial, a place lost forever in the mists of legend. In the ancient days of Greece and Rome, it was known as Ultima Thule, the unreachable North, but to the people of that land, it was simply known as Thule.

Thule was not a grand island; it was a small rocky place that existed on the fertile slopes of a tall conical volcano. The people there were not the scions of some great lost Hyperborean civilization, but they were very much like their relatives in Orkney, Norway, and Iceland. They were strong and hearty people who lived humble lives in small towns that dotted the perimeter of the island. They lived on the grains and the millet and the roots that heavy rain and rare sunshine could provide. It was a life and an existence unchanged for thousands of years, forgotten in time.

But times were changing and places that were lost to myth were being drawn forcibly back onto the map. For the people of Thule, this meant that for the first time they could see the shape of distant isles against the fog and grey seas, and the volcanic heart of the isle of Thule growled and groaned as it had not done since mythic times. But the legends had persisted through this community down through the eons, and they knew what to do. One of their own must venture into the mountain and parley with the spirit within. Though they had lived comfortably in their solitude on a quiet island, Thule was coming to life again.

All the town had come together. At the edge of town, a congregation had gathered, all of them focused around two people. They were town Jarl and ruler of Thule, Hod Tule, and his daughter Jana. Jana, approaching seventeen, had been chosen as an envoy to the great spirit within the heart of Thule, but Jana was like her father, strong-willed and always one to stand with her head held high. She did not stand at the edge of the town, face towards the mountain like a virgin sacrifice, but as a woman to speak on Thule’s behalf.

“Be wary, Jana,” Jarl Hod said. “For we Thulians have always lived by the grace of the volcano and the spirit at its heart. I have told you what my title means, yes? The title that will pass to you someday as well. I am a Jarl, commander of men and second only to the king. And here on Thule there is but one king, the king beneath the mountain.”

Jana smiled. “I remember all the stories you told me. Don’t worry, I’m a big girl now.”

She took her father’s shoulders and kissed him on the cheek. “I won’t let you or anyone on Thule down. After I’m done speaking to this spirit, we’ll have peace and prosperity we haven’t known since ancient times.”

“I can only hope you’re right.” Jarl Hod sighed but managed a brave smile for her. “You’re as strong as your mother.”

“And stubborn as my father,” Jana grinned. “I’ll be back, don’t worry.”

And so, with nervous cheers from the crowd Jana set off alone towards the great mountain, the red and black banners of Thule fluttering in the morning breeze. The sky over head was an almost slate grey that was reflected in the distant churning seas. The fields at the base of the volcanoes slopes were green, the soil rich with water and ancient ash. Since she was born, the mountain had only rumbled or quaked once or twice, but a month ago it had started to belch smoke from the vast caldera, and on some nights fire could be seen at its peak. The signs were clear, and the laws of Thule were carved in the ancient lodestones that stood like sentries on the isle’s rocky shores.

Jana strode with confidence through the fields of her childhood, and before long the farmland gave way to wild grass and scattered brush. There were few trees, and most of them were close to the shore, so the great rocky slopes of the volcano were clear, the soil dark and scattered with green grasses. There was an ancient trail, the way marked by standing stones carefully kept by Thule’s ancient priesthood. There were no gods on Thule; they were far from the Norse pantheon of their cousins in Norway and Orkney. There were only two forces that the people of Thule worshipped. They worshipped the faceless sea and storms that kept them locked upon their island; but even more they worshipped the spirit of the mountain, which gave them the rich soil to live, the heat of the earth to keep the soil warm, and the riches of the mountain that made Thule rich in gold and metals that they had worked and stored for centuries. For the people of Thule, their only god was the King beneath the Mountain. And today Jana would be his audience.

The path led her up the steep slopes, to a place where the black and grey stone of the mountain jut upwards in a steep cliff. Here a passage had been carved, a great doorless gate leading into the mountain’s interior. Jana carried a torch with her, and she lit it as she stepped into the dark passage and into the mountain’s volcanic interior. The passage was smooth with an arched ceiling, the walls hewn form solid igneous rock. Though it was largely straight, Jana could feel the gentle slope downwards as the passage struck deeper. More than that, she could feel the heat and stale air become more apparent with each step she took away from the entrance.

Eventually the tunnel opened into a large domed chamber with a stairwell in the center leading straight down. The walls of the chamber had been carved into a series of reliefs depicting the many legendary rulers of Thule, those great explorer heroes who had first come to try and conquer this land, an age of war and strife three thousand years before that ended when Lord Tule became the first Jarl of the island after striking a deal with the King beneath the Mountain, thus taking control of its people and proclaiming the land “Thule”. Jana paused to marvel at the portraits of each of them, somewhat abstract in their style with deep dark eyes, stout jaws, and powerful frames. Until the mountain had gone silent, each of these rulers had sent their sons or their daughters to meet the spirit to ensure the continued prosperity of Thule. Now Jana would follow in their footsteps.

Jana began to walk down the spiral stairs, one hand on the warm stone wall to steady herself as her small pocket of light traveled downwards one step at a time. The deeper she went, minute by minute, the stairs seemed to grow hotter. It didn’t help that the air here was utterly dead, with no feeling of wind or breeze as she took in one long hot breath after the other. Soon she could feel sweat beading on her brow and on the back of her neck, wondering how hot it would be before she reached her destination.

She descended the stairs for what seemed about ten minutes, all the while trying to ignore the growing heat and pressure as she descended ever deeper into the earth. When the stairs finally led her out, she found herself in what must have been a vast chamber as she lost sight of the walls and ceilings. Raising her torch high and reaching it around her only served to reveal more darkness. Unsure of where else to go, Jana simply stepped forward, away from where the stairs had let out. The stone beneath her feet had gone from smooth tile, to carved step, to roughly hewn rock that was slightly uneven under her feet. As she walked, she saw a glimmering light reflect the light of her torch, and she paused to look around.

Gold.

Walking in a circle, finding the edges of her rough stone path, she found she was surrounded by piles of gold. Coins, ingots, candlesticks, vessels and more were piled high around her on either side, the work of a thousand years of Thulian mining, smelting, and plunder. Amidst the piles of gold were other rare metals and stones as well. Gem-encrusted swords, sapphire-eyed statues, and piles of silver were scattered among the almost overwhelming gold.

Jana marveled as the piles of riches glimmered and shone, reflecting the light of her torch. But soon she set off again. What use was a pile of gold to Thule? Its people were separated from the world at large, and a mountain of gold for each man and woman of Thule was at that point no more valuable than a pile of cow manure. Less in fact, as you couldn’t fertilize a field with gold. Jana buried that glimmer of goldlust and kept walking, set on her task.

Even this vast chamber of wealth, Jana realized, was sloping gently downwards, and the floor under her feet was growing warm with the heat of the magma that stirred in the volcano’s heart. Eventually the trail led her to the other end of the vast treasure chamber. Here she found another gate, but this one was so huge it took a moment to realize that there was a wall for the gate to separate at all. It rose so high she could not see the top of it. And spread at least twenty meters across. There was a limit to monumental architecture, Jana thought wryly to herself, but with a stroke of sobering realization, she gulped it down.

The other gates and passages were sized for humans, this one was not.

Taking another deep breath of hot air, Jana entered the colossal passage. The time for fear or hesitation was long behind her, outside of the mountain, here she would have to press forward.

The passageway, as near as she could tell, led into another enormous chamber. This one she knew had to be near the very heart of the volcano. The air was intensely hot and stale, the very walls seeming to pulse with heat, reflecting the light of her torch on black stone with a dull orange-red glow. As she entered, massive bulbous crystals of garnet, deep amber and red in color, caught the light of her torch and seemed to expand the glow until it filled the massive cavern with a dim red light. Just as in the treasure cave, this chamber was hewn crudely from solid igneous stone, rising in a great dome over her head until it met its apex somewhere in the darkness above her. Jana nervously took a few more steps forward, torch raised to get a better look, until the light from her torch caught something before her, what seemed to be the edge of a great hunk of iron.

As she paused her footsteps, the air shifted. What she had though was iron withdrew into the darkness, and something enormous began to move before her. Jana raised her torch, trying her best to see, and as she did the massive garnets embedded in the wall began to shine more brightly, spurred on by some supernatural force as the cavern was filled with reddish light.

As the light grew, the silhouette of the great shape rising before Jana took on a more defined shape. She heard the rumbling of stretching muscle, the sharp sound of metal like swords grinding on stone, and what sounded like the flapping of a cloak in the wind but much deeper and louder. Hot air rushed around her as the massive shape rose before her, growing more visible by the second.

“Who are you,” The massive spirit spoke, its voice as deep as thunder as it resonated off the walls. “To enter my domain beneath the mountain?”

“I-“ Jana found herself stuttering, but took a deep breath to steady her voice. “I am Jana Tule, daughter of Jarl Hod Tule, lord of the men of Thule. Come to speak to the King beneath the Mountain.”

The light grew until Jana could finally get a good look at the spirit, and as she did her eyes went wide as the realization struck her. She had always assumed that the King beneath the Mountain, the Lord of Thule, was a great volcano spirit, a being of basalt and magma and fiery temper, but the creature standing before her now was much more defined. It was serpentine, with long neck and sinewy tail, standing on four great lion-like legs of claws and steely muscle. From its back sprouted the undeniable shape of vast bat-like wings and its face was a triangular jaw of sharp teeth topped by a crown of long horns. Its entire body was covered in scales like polished iron.

It was colossal, unparalleled in size by anything Jana could imagine let alone what she had seen, easily fifty meters in length with no doubt a greater wingspan, and the shape of it was undeniable. The ‘spirit’ she had been sent to see was a dragon.

“I am Calroch of the Iron Scales,” The dragon bellowed, voice echoing a hundredfold off the stone walls. “The King beneath the Mountain.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 14

September 28th, 2024

 

C: What’s up, Asha? It’s been a while.

A: Likewise. Been super busy here in Babylon, sorry we haven’t been able to chat.

C: Cool. I’ve been busy too, so no worries. Even got to hook up with an old friend of mine!

A: Awesome! I’ve been less lucky. Things are pretty bleak here. And we met a new guy who might help but he’s…pretty jaded.

C: I know you, Asha, you can turn things around!

A: Heh, thanks for the support as ever, Cat.

Asha smiled down at the book in her hands. She was sitting on the edge of the window in their tiny studio, legs inside and her back against the frame as she felt the cool late afternoon air pour in, the sunlight glinting on the rooftops as it began to set. People were moving outside in the street below, and Asha would watch them pass as she waited on Cat’s reply in the magic book.

C: The new guy around? I could give him a piece of my mind!

A: Heh, no, he left to do some research, though he thinks we should look into drumming up support elsewhere.

C: Like where?

A: He suggested Damascus.

C: Wow, that’s pretty far.

A: Ya, and I’m hesitant, he might just be trying to get us to leave the city.

Asha frowned. She didn’t particularly like Hazif and she didn’t trust him entirely either. Leyla was out scouting while Asha stayed on watch at their ‘base’, ready to make her escape if Hazif returned with a contingent of monstrous guards and ensure a trap wasn’t laid out for them. On the other hand, while she didn’t trust Hazif enough to think he’d happily work with them, she didn’t believe he would sell them out either. He wasn’t evil, just…jaded.

Though he was also a half-demon, Asha couldn’t forget. She hated the idea of discriminating for that reason but…then again half-demon WAS half-demon. She couldn’t just discount it. It wasn’t like mistrusting him for being Arab or something…was it?

Asha frowned. She didn’t want to think about post-apocalyptic race politics right now.

A: So who’s this friend? They cute~?

C: Jeez, Asha it’s not like that!

A: Fine, fine, I’m just teasing. I know I’m the only girl for you~

Asha smiled, mocking a swooning gesture as the book recorded her appearance in the form of a brief sketch sent to Cat.

C: You’re legitimately the worst sometimes, Asha.

Asha couldn’t help but grin as Cat’s smiling face appeared on the blank page.

A: I do my best.

Her smile faded, however, as she glanced outside and something caught her eye. She saw a young man moving down the street, dressed in a plain tunic and pants, arms at his side as he moved with purpose. He would be entirely unremarkable if it weren’t for one thing: Asha had watched him die, eaten by a monster the day before.

She needed to sit up and do a double take to be sure, but there was no mistaking it. The appearance of the man as he’d been pinned and killed by the monster was scorched into her memory. This man was identical. Was he a twin? An illusion?

Asha couldn’t just let this go.

A: Catch you later, Cat. Gotta run.

She scrawled the massage before shutting the tome and swinging her legs out over the window, dropping lightly on her feet to the street below, surprising a few pedestrians as she did. Asha kept her eyes locked on the young man who hadn’t seemed to notice her, and quickly fell in behind him in pursuit.

There was an itch in her mind, something telling her that something very strange was going on. Like a warning intuition acting as a siren in her mind. She needed to get to the bottom of this. Following this lead might lead to a trap, but her gut told her that ignoring it would be worse.

Asha stalked him quietly from several meters behind, trailing him through the crowded street without ever letting him fully leave her sight for long. She couldn’t just accost him in the street, she wanted to be able to question him without onlookers or anyone who could overhear. So Asha continued her silent pursuit, waiting for the opportune moment to strike.

The moment revealed itself before long, as the crowd began to shrink and she found herself alone on the street with him. He still seemed oblivious, walking with a quick but not hurried step as he moved past the buildings, and Asha saw a dark alley up ahead that would provide them some cover. Quickening her step, her footsteps still all but silent, Asha made her approach, and just as the man passed the entrance of the alley Asha moved in, threw her arm roughly over his shoulders and strong-armed him unceremoniously into the alley.

As Asha pushed him against the wall she kept one hand on his shoulder and another pressed to the wall by his face, keeping him in place.

“We should talk,” She said quietly.

The man was clearly terrified. He was young with short and tousled light brown hair and tan skin, clean shave and with narrow shoulders. His eyes were wide as he looked at Asha, his mouth slightly open as he struggled to find words to react.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Asha said. “I’m not robbing or threatening you, I just want to talk.”

“W-who are you?” he stammered lightly.

“Someone who is very curious,” Asha said. “And intent on learning how it is you’re still alive.”

“I-I don’t understand…” he tried.

“I watched you die,” Asha’s eyes narrowed.

“You…you must have been mista-“ He tried to pull away but Asha’s hand pushed him back against the wall.

“No I’m not,” Asha said, voice still low. “I was in the market the other day. I watched you die, eaten by a monster. You didn’t survive but here you are still walking and talking.”

“I-I wasn’t eaten by a monster, I swear!”

There was a buzzing feeling that moved gently through Asha’s body, a brief flare of her spiritual essence that reacted when he spoke. It was subdued, but not unlike what she felt when she fought a monster or saved someone, that twinge of feeling telling her that the Fravashi spirit was active.

“See, that wasn’t smart.” Asha said. “A better story would have been to claim he was your twin. But it doesn’t matter, because I can tell when you’re lying to me.”

Inwardly, Asha was silently relieved that her powers actually did work that way. At the very least it meant Hazif had been telling the truth…assuming it worked on half-demons.

“Who are you?” Asha asked.

“My name is Eli,” He said.

“Alright, Eli,” Asha said. “Tell me exactly what are you? Spirit? Human Hybrid? Ghost?”

“I-I’m just human!” Eli said. “That’s it, I promise!”

“See, that makes it hard for me to believe you,” Asha said. “Humans generally don’t come back for the dead, not while staying human. Trust me. I know.”

“I-It’s not really like that. I…”

Eli cut himself off as he looked out towards the street, his eyes went wide with fear before he suddenly took hold of Asha’s upper arms.

“Bear with me,” He whispered rapidly, and before she could respond he had pulled her in close for a sudden kiss on the lips.

Mixed confusion and anger filled Asha’s brain as she tried to pull away, but Eli held a tight grip on her shirt and Asha could see his eyes were still focused out of the alley. Asha followed his gaze and saw a dark figure, silhouetted by the evening sky, walking along the rooftops across the street. A sheathed sword was slung over their shoulder, and what were undoubtedly a long pair of horns rose form their head, combined with a sinuous reptilian tail that coiled around their legs.

The figure walked along, briefly passing a glance down the alley at them. In that instant, Asha felt a chill run through her spirit as if ice water was running down her spine. The figure didn’t stop and continued on to the edge of the roof before leaping with inhuman grace and speed to the next roof and continuing on before soon falling out of sight.

The second Eli’s grip slacked, Asha pulled herself away. Her fingers curled into a fist before a moment’s consideration, and a second later she settled for slapping him hard across the face.

“Okay…I deserved that,” Eli said, rubbing his cheek where it turned red.

“Damn right you did,” Asha said.

“Look I didn’t like it either,” he said. “I just did that to make us seem less conspicuous.”

“Why would that matter, you were terrified of me,” Asha said, though she did lower her hands to her sides.

“That figure out there?” Eli said. “That’s Freny, one of Shadiya’s lieutenants and her chief enforcer.”

“Aha, so you want to avoid Shadiya’s attention as well?” Asha asked.

“Wouldn’t you?” said Eli, still rubbing his face. “Either way, I didn’t think you were aligned with her to begin with, and I wouldn’t call her wrath down on anyone.”

“Wait…how did you know I wasn’t working for Shadiya?” Asha asked.

“Because you didn’t try to kill me,” Eli said, lowering his hand. “And I’m kind of hoping you don’t.”

“I don’t plan on it,” Asha said. “But I still want answers.”

“I can’t give you answers until I know who you are and I know I can trust you,” Eli said, more stubbornly.

“I’m Asha,” She said. “Now start talking.”

“What…no that’s not how it works!” he said.

“Well if you’re not giving answers and neither am I,” Asha said. “One of us has to give in and trust the other. And I’m not the one who tried to lie.”

“No you’re just the one who pulled me into a dark alley alone,” Eli said. ”But…I guess I see your point…But I’m not that special. I can’t fly and I can’t jump a hundred meters in the air. I can’t heal the sick or shoot lasers from my eyes or anything.”

“But you can come back from the dead.” Asha said.

“Maybe!” Eli said. “Just…maybe. I know I can heal. I don’t get sick or starve or suffocate. I hadn’t died before and I don’t really want to test it again!”

“Why?” Asha asked. “Why can you do these things?”

“I don’t know,” Eli said. “I don’t know how I was given these powers…just that I have them now.”

Asha didn’t feel that same buzz that told her he was lying.

“Well…I suppose you’re telling at least a little of the truth,” she said.

“I am, I swear,” Eli nodded vehemently.

“And you seem to be terrified of Shadiya, so that’s a good start.”

“Who isn’t…” Eli said.

“Well we can use that kind of feeling,” Asha said, looking him over thoughtfully.

“I-I think you might be looking at me the wrong way,” Eli said. “I’m no kind of freedom fighter or rebel.”

“Then what are you?” Asha asked him, hands on her hips.

“I’m just trying to get by, that’s all,” Eli said. “That’s all anyone here wants. To just get by.”

Asha sighed, it was like dealing with Hazif all over again.

“Look I get that…” Asha said. “I do. You don’t want to put yourself at risk or anything but…how about you move with us for a while?”

“Move with you? Where?” Eli asked.

“Well we’re staying in the city for now” Asha said. “We’ll see how that goes…but we’re not making any active moves yet. You can listen to what we have to say then make up your own mind.”

“I have to say…” Eli said. “Given how you grabbed me…I’m surprised your recruitment pitch isn’t more…forceful.

“Don’t tempt me,” Asha smiled. “But it’s not just you and not just for your powers. To make a change we need people, but we need people to want that change as well.”

“Right,” Eli nodded, more confidently this time. “I suppose…I can at least take a look.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Stepping Out

“So this is a memory we’re in?” Cat asked, looking around the stately decoration of the manor hallway.

“Yes, everything here is set and unmutable, it is not like a dream, and they can’t hear or interact with us.” Gisela nodded, staying by her side.

“Ya I get it, it’s like A Christmas Carol, right?” Cat said “So that makes me…Ghost of Christmas Past then?”

“A good enough approximation” Gisela nodded. “Now then, you wanted a story, so observe.”

Together, the pair of them walked through the hall in pursuit of the younger Gisela. They weren’t intangible apparitions, Cat could clearly see her own hands, but her presence felt…ethereal. They made no sound on the hard wood floor as they walked, and their faces weren’t reflected in the glass of the windows they passed either. Cat was aware and present, but as far as the memory was concerned she simply didn’t exist.

“So was this your house?” Cat asked.

“My parents’.” Gisela said “I was only ever a minor tenant of it. As you can see I wasn’t…particularly healthy.”

Cat nodded as she stepped forward to look closer. The young Gisela that moved with what she apparently thought was stealth through the building was clearly having trouble. Her joints shook and her breath was irregular.

“I was an ill child. There was always one problem or another with my body that kept me at home while my parents were globetrotting. Weak knees, heart arrhythmia, severe asthma, and of course all of that bed rest led to sleep difficulties and weight gain.” Gisela regarded her younger reflection coldly. “Nearsighted as well, I almost forgot…”

“So why are you sneaking around?” Cat asked. “I mean, it doesn’t sound like anyone’s home.”

“This memory takes place during the Days of Revelation. I was only now leaving the little sanctuary I’d made for myself in my bedroom.”

“What pulled you out?” Cat said.

“Hunger” Gisela said “And the screaming had stopped a few days before.”

“Your parents?” Cat asked “Were they…in the house?”

“No” Gisela shook her head “They had been on a plane headed for Argentina when it started…according to news reports their plane was downed by an enormous bat.”

“Wait, Argentina?” Cat asked “Where are we, Gisela? You never told me where you were from.”

“Hmm? Oh right, I suppose you wouldn’t know. We’re in Villahermosa in Tabasco.”

“…Which is?”

“We’re in Mexico” Gisela said “I am Mexican by birth.”

“Wow seriously?” Cat asked “I always too you for…I dunno I guess…”

“Either way it’s largely irrelevant” Gisela said “The locations are different but the dangers are quite similar across the world, though the spirits here wear very different faces.”

“Like what?” Cat asked

“Like you will see.” Came Gisela’s cold reply.

Together the two of them walked in silence acting as the young Gisela’s shadows. Even just watching her attempts at safe movement through the house caused Cat to cringe slightly. She was focusing on corners and dark places while glossing over primary methods of ingress. She was investigating room by room with only partial sweeps and leaving openings behind her. It was very much the movements of an amateur trying to be stealthy and in doing so becoming much more noticeable

“Painful isn’t it?” Gisela asked.

“I wasn’t going to say anything!” Cat said “Besides, it’s not your fault. I can’t say I was much better.”

“Unfortunately I lacked the guidance of someone like Hildegard Jazheil.” Gisela said.

“Who did you have? Your goddess patron?” Cat asked, but Gisela seemed resolute in remaining silent.

After a (markedly poor) sweep of the house for danger, the pair of them watched the young Gisela start packing food into a pack for travel.

“Ugh all that junk food is going to make you sick, not help you.” Cat said warily.

“It’s what I knew…as well as taking advantage of the opportunity.” Gisela said “My parents kept me on a strict diet, but they weren’t around to stop me now.”

“I guess not…”Cat said. “So…tell me honestly, are we just here to watch this? Because I feel I don’t need this vision quest to learn you were…unhealthy and inexperienced at the start of all this.”

“There is more to it” Gisela said.

“Good because…I’ll be honest, I think you might be a bit too hard on yourself.” Cat said “Like…you had the initiative to go out, didn’t you? I heard a lot of people just hunkered down and starved to death. It’s pretty brave to go out unarmed.”

“I wasn’t unarmed.” Gisela said, and she gestured for Cat to follow as her younger self moved out of the kitchen pantry and into the parlor.

Hanging from the wall on a beautiful wooden stand was a collection of very finely-made swords. Most of them were very thin fencing swords, with several epee and sabres. But the young Gisela took hold of the longer and heavier rapier before tying the sheathed blade around the belt on her waist.

“That…” Cat began saying but decided to hold her tongue, however Gisela finished her thought for her.

“A rapier is a poor sword for killing monsters.” Gisela said “It was an ill-fit for the style of combat. That was a duelist’s weapon, not the blade of a warrior.”

“Did you even know how to use it?” Cat asked.

“Yes, to a degree.” Gisela said “I had fencing training for several years as a younger teenager before my heart condition put a stop to that.”

“Color me surprised.” Cat said “Aurelio said you used a bow.”

“I do.” Gisela said plainly, offering no further comment.

“Well…hey there’s something I didn’t have!” Cat smiled “I was a complete novice when I started training with Hildegard!”

“It’s not a skill that served me well.” Gisela said. “Come, she’s about to leave.”

Cat noticed that there appeared to be gaps in the memory, like they were skipping along through a movie and Gisela would occasionally skip a scene or fast-forward. The younger Gisela would sometimes vanish, reappearing elsewhere that Gisela would point Cat too, her pack slightly more full and her slippers changed out for traveling shoes.

“Skipping parts?” Cat asked.

“Not every detail is relevant” Gisela said “Besides, I don’t have the time to show you a year and a half of memory in one sitting.”

“Oh ya…” Cat said “How long is this taking? You know, in the –real- world?”

“When we finish this particular memory” Gisela said “it will have taken about three seconds real time, long enough to hopefully not scare those guards with us too much.”

“Three seconds? Really?”

“Really.”

“Impressive….that could be really useful magic.” Cat said.

“And unfortunately not the kind I can teach” Gisela said. “Now come, more is happening.”

Slowly, the younger Gisela had opened the front door, peered outside, and begun her trek out. As Cat followed her, she had to stop herself in surprise as she took in the sight.

What had once been a fine estate along a meticulously kept boulevard was now overrun with jungle and humid forest. Vast trees rose like towers all around them as their roots consumed pavement, streets, and walls. Massive ferns with man-sized fronds sprouted in every beam of light that came down, and all around them the world was filled with the chittering of sound coming from birds, bugs, and other unseen animals lurking in the dark forest. For a moment, the young Gisela seemed to consider fleeing back inside, and Cat could hardly blame her.

“This is…amazing” Cat said “There’s jungle everywhere!”

“The forest were quick to exact nature’s vengeance” Gisela said. The spirits here are old and powerful and can live off of the pure life essence of the jungle itself. Entire towns and villages disappeared in days as the forests overtook them.”

“The forests back home got bigger as well” Cat said “But nothing like this.”

“Your Italian spirits and Roman gods are more…tame.” Gisela said “The most powerful gods in Mexico are the Aztec gods, and where Jupiter and his brood demanded praise, the gods here take their payment in the most powerful currency of spirits. Blood.”

“They sound vicious…” cat said, recalling Aurelio’s description of the horrific goddess Itzpapalotl.

“Not always so.” Gisela said “There are many benevolent gods in the Aztec pantheon, and they treat their worshippers well. The average person on the street isn’t about to sacrificially murder their neighbor to get by…but there are other forces at play in the world. Fate weaves itself through the threads of time, and just as more and more people begin to worship the gods of Rome and Egypt, so too did the people here begin to put stock in ancient practices, particularly as the world falls apart around them.”

“That still seems a long way to drop” Cat said “I mean…human sacrifice?”

“Understand, Catarina, that Rome was unique in its protections. In the early days people were willing to turn to any power that would keep them safe, keep them fed. But people are good, as you and I both understand. No man, Mexican or Roman or Egyptian, will give up their family or their friend to the hunger of a God unless they were already deeply disturbed. But what about an enemy?

Imagine you had a small stake of land you cared for, in times like these an acre of safe farmland is worth more than gold and may be the only thing that separates you from death. Apocalypse breeds the worst in people, and soon you have raiders and bandits come to your farm and demand your food. They threaten to murder you, enslave your family, and burn all you have in the world if you do not do as they obey. Or another scenario, that same farm is threatened by a powerful and dangerous spirit. A great forest spirit wishes to reclaim your farm for its own and will simply destroy any resistance you make. Both of these are forces the average man cannot stop.

But then an offer is made. A spirit of unrivaled power reaches out to you. It says it can give you strength and weapons, enough to ensure your land is safe and your family protected. Enough to kill the bandits and the spirit that threatens your land. All you need do is offer their blood to these gods, sacrifice your enemies upon the altar you make for them. Would you do it, Catarina? One way or the other blood will be spilled, and all you’ve done is killed a very real threat and ensured your farm and your family’s safety. Is that so monstrous?”

Cat was quiet. She wasn’t sure she had an answer, or could speak truthfully about any idea she came up with. She knew quite well from Sicily and Rosa’s stories that in the Days of Revelation it was kill or be killed.

“I don’t like it” Cat said quietly.

“No one does.” Gisela said “Save the gods.”

The young Gisela had reached the edge of what appeared to be a large pond at the edge of a forested bog. The surface was choked with algae, river plants, and massive lily pads. Even just looking at how hidden the water’s depths were made Cat tense. But the young Gisela didn’t seem to care as she kneeled down to get some of the water into a spare canteen.

“See, this is one of those examples of being smart and idiotic at the same time.” Gisela said idly “I was planning to boil the water later, as I knew it was unsafe to drink…but I never stopped to think about what might be lurking under the surface.”

“Crocodiles?” Cat asked nervously.

“Not quite.”

With an enormous splash the water heaved as a great bulk rose from the pond’s depths. The young Gisela scrambled back as she fell on her rear, eyes wide as she stared up into the hideous face of a colossal frog.

Cat blinked in surprise. The frog seemed, in most respects, to be a normal frog save for the fact that it was nearly eight meters tall. When it opened its colossal mouth, however, she saw the large teeth and whiplike tongue and knew that it was likely as dangerous as it was bizarre.

Gisela clumsily tried to draw her sword, but the angle was bad for the draw and her hands were shaking as her eyes were kept focused on the gargantuan frog.

Before the massive amphibian good bend down to snap her up, however, several loud repeated bangs echoed through the forest. Cat covered her ears with her hands before realizing how little that would help. What kind of noise was that? It took a moment for her mind to register the source of the unfamiliar sound.

It was gunfire.

Several more echoing shots lashed out, and this time Cat saw the strikes hit the frog. Compared to its immense bulk they were tiny, and Cat had learned that most spirits were resilient to firearms. Still, it seemed enough that the great lumbering beast decided Gisela wasn’t worth it, and it lurched back into the dark waters.

The young Gisela got shakily to her feet, head turning this way and that as she tried to find her savior. From the trees emerged a taller, fitter, and slightly older-looking young woman. Her skin was dark, well-tanned and particularly pronounced next to Gisela’s pale skin. Her eyes were a deep brown and her hair was a burnt reddish brown color. She was, even at a glance, far better-equipped than Gisela with a proper traveling pack, sturdy boots and pants, and a working vest over her shirt and a noticeable holster at her hip where she was sliding a long-nosed silver revolver.

“That was a close one” The woman smiled at the still-shaking Gisela. “Almost had you for lunch.”

“Th-th-thank you…” Gisela stammered, and Cat realized it was the first time she’d seen the younger one speak. “I-I’m G-Gi-Gisela…”

“Pleasure to meet you, Gisela” The woman said with a smile “The name’s Noemi.”

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 13

September 27th, 2024

“A pleasure to see you again, Catarina.”

Gisela’s voice was calm and level, her face a mask that Cat couldn’t read as she spoke. She offered no hint at amusement or disappointment, not even the shadow of a smirk on her lips or a glitter in her violet eyes. Cat found it unsettling, like a talking painting.

“I came to talk,” Cat said firmly.

“I imagine so,” Gisela nodded. “What shall we talk about?”

“I want to know how to kill Nidhoggr,” Cat said. “And I know…I know I can’t do it like I am.”

“No, you cannot,” Gisela nodded again.

“I thought I could just train and become stronger…but I don’t know how to train to kill a Primordial.”

“No one else on Earth that could teach you would do so,” Gisela said. “Though it is an astute observation to make.”

“I don’t trust you, and I doubt I ever will,” Cat said. “But I’m willing to listen to you…and take instruction.”

“Very good,” Gisela said, rising from her seat on the bed. “Then we have a place to begin.”

“Good,” Cat said, trying to keep her own face neutral. “Where do we start?”

“With negotiation of my fee,” Gisela said, and with this a flash of a smile did appear at the edges of her lips.

“What!?” Cat reeled. “Fee? You never mentioned a fee!”

“Well, a negotiation then,” Gisela said. “I have to say I’m growing weary of being kept in this cell.”

“You led a religious terrorist attack on the city!”

“As I’ve stated before to your city leaders and your wolves, I act only as Itzpapalotl’s champion and have no affiliation with the Butterfly Shroud, nor did I have any at the time. My only crimes were assaulting Aurelio and the homunculus.”

“It’s not just about that,” Cat frowned. “Itzpapalotl is dangerous.”

“So are most gods,” Gisela said. “Do recall Zeus flooded the entire earth when he thought humans were getting too uppity. I’m not asking for full release, I’m fine with supervision and probation, but I represent no threat to you and living here is…stifling.”

Cat’s frown only grew, lips curling in irritation. Gisela in turn walked up to the glass that separated them and tapped it with her knuckles, creating a ripple as the magic field covering the glass reacted to her touch. On her wrists, Cat could see a pair of bracers made from what looked like bronze inlaid with precious stones and strange calligraphy. Cat recognized them as Albion’s anti-magic shackles, which could be used both for subduing rogue mages and unpleasant teaching devices.

“Come on, I know what your mages can do. Keeping me locked somewhere more comfortable shouldn’t be much of an issue, and your city has made its message clear.”

“What message?”

“That they could bind me up to rot for eternity if they wanted. Consider this a…work release program.”

“Look,” Cat put her hands on her hips. “I’ll…fine I guess I’ll talk to Capitolina for you, but distributing living space is a lot of work, and no one wants to give a home to a criminal when they could be given to a refugee.”

“It’s a big city,” Gisela said. “I’m sure space can be found.”

“Ugh fine, look I said I’ll talk to her okay?” Cat said. “Now do you agree?”

“Absolutely,” Gisela said. “I said I would, after all. However, these will be rather complicated lessons, there is a lot of material to cover, and doing it from opposite sides of this wall would be…inconvenient at the best of times.”

“Ugh fine, hold on a second,” Cat walked away from the room towards the closest guard.

“Is she allowed to leave that cell?”

The guard looked at her, perplexed. “Well, she’s given an hour in the temple of Saturn behind the hill every other day…”

“Fine, we’re going out,” Cat said.

“Well, she’s a champion so she’ll need to be under strict guard…”

“Fine,” Cat said. “I won’t let her out of my sight but bring whoever you need.”

“She’s a champion,” The guard’s face grew stern. “Even for someone like you she can’t be underestimated.”

“Trust me, I won’t,” Cat said before returning to Gisela’s cell. “Come on, we’re going for a walk.”

“How generous,” Gisela said. “I promise, I won’t try to escape.”

“Damn right,” Cat growled.

After clearing it with their supervisors, the guards unlocked Gisela’s cell, double-checked her shackles, and escorted the pair of them out of the building. It was early evening as they walked the path through the ruins of the old Roman Temple of Saturn. Gisela seemed quite at ease, her hands folded behind her back as she walked down the gravel path.

“It is nice to get some fresh air now and then.”

“So talk,” Cat said. “What kind of lessons will we be doing?”

“As it is often said,” Gisela said. “Knowledge is power. You will be reading a great deal in some very old languages, a number of them dead. Your spirit servant will need to help you with them.”

“I’m fine learning old languages,” Cat folded her arms. “I already read Latin, Coptic, and Hellenic Greek, and I’m learning Arabic.”

“We’ll be delving deeper than that,” Gisela said. “I can speak and read Hitite, Peiligang, and Rongorongo to name three of several thousand. I’ll be giving essential texts to your spirit and she can tutor you from there.”

“Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to be the teacher?” Cat asked.

“I am,” Gisela said. “That’s not the focus, its background. We will be focusing on some of the oldest legends ever written by human hands, and some that might not be human at all.”

“So we’re reading legends?” Cat asked.

“That’s a start,” Gisela said. “Know your enemy, as they say. The Primordials are ancient and many of them ruled like gods before they were overthrown.”

Gisela stepped back and gestured to the temple around them. “Take this Temple of Saturn. To the Romans he was a mythic god-king of wealth and agriculture, who ruled over ancient Pelasgium Latium in a lost Golden Age. But when Rome was syncretized with Hellenic tradition, he gained the aspects of the vicious progenitor God Cronus, who devoured his children. Gods and spirits are fluid things, you see.”

“Yes, I know, Megame talks about it a lot,” Cat said.

“Keep her talking then, she could be an excellent resource,” Gisela said.

“Alright, so we’re learning about Primrodials in order to kill Primordials,” Cat said. “That makes sense.”

“Lesson one for you then,” Gisela said. “You cannot kill Primordials, not permanently or in any way that matters.”

“Well then what would you suggest?” Cat asked, growing steadily more irritated.

“Imprisonment, confinement, put them back down where they came from.”

“And then they’ll eventually break out again,” Cat objected, but Gisela simply nodded.

“And the cycle begins anew.”

“That sounds like giving up,” Cat said.

“If it helps at all, I assure you it is not,” Gisela said. “Nidhoggr was bound within the roots of Yggdrassil at the beginning of creation, it can be bound again. So can Typhon, Apophis, Tiamat, and any others that might have been loosed upon the world.”

“Except most of them were imprisoned by gods,” Cat said. “I’m not a god, how do I make that happen?”

“These things, the fall and rise of gods and primordial, are the kinds of forces mandated by fate. And the thing you need to understand about fate is that while you have to play the game, you can fudge the rules a little if you know what you’re doing.”

“And I take it you know what you’re doing?”

“I do indeed,” Gisela nodded.

“Look,” Cat frowned. “I get that you’re the smart one here, that you’re the girl with all the answers, but you’re also being an ass about it.”

“I’m sorry if I don’t have the patience to craft this information specifically to fuel your ego.”

“It’s not about ego,” Cat argued. “I don’t care about my ego, if anything it’s yours.”

“Excuse me?” Gisela turned on her.

“Look, I realize you want to do the dramatic thing and open with a lot of rhetorical questions, but I’m here to learn, and I want to start actually learning something rather than have you tell me over and over I’ve got a lot to learn.”

‘I wonder if you talk to Albion Nassar this way,” Gisela mused. “He is teaching you as well, isn’t he?”

“That’s the thing,” Cat said. “Lord Nassar is an older established mage, an extremely talented one at that, with a long relationship with my family and a lot of experience. You…I don’t know anything about you. For all I know, you could still be a charlatan!”

“What can I tell you?” Gisela asked, and now her own impatience was starting to come through. “What do you want? A degree? There isn’t one for the things I know. A thousand year magical lineage? I haven’t got one of those either, I was born without a trace of magic in me. Everything that I am was born out of experience, the kinds of things that you’ve never witnessed.”

“Then tell me,” Cat said.

“I’ll do you one better,” Gisela said. “I’ll show you.”

“Excuse me?”

“You want to know who I am? What I’m capable of and what I know? Then I’ll show you just how I became the person I am today. Just remember that you asked for it.”

Gisela reached out a hand, placing her palm horizontally over Cat’s forehead until she could feel the cool touch of her skin pressed to hers. The guards, noticing the odd behavior, stepped forward but Cat told them to wait with a raised hand. Cat had beaten Nidhoggr in a battle of dreams, if Gisela wanted to mind-control her she wasn’t going down without a fight.

But she didn’t feel an intrusion of her mind, no sense of Gisela’s thoughts invading her own. Instead she felt almost the reverse, a rush and a feeling like vertigo as her sense of balance was thrown off and her mind was hurled into Gisela’s, her senses twisting and distorting as the world rearranged itself.

As her vision readjusted itself and she began to adapt, Cat realized she was standing somewhere else entirely. As if pulled through a vortex she found herself in the well-kept hallway of some pristine house or mansion. It was unfamiliar, unlike anywhere she had been, and as she regained her composure Cat panicked as she feared that Gisela had displayed some teleportation trick she’d kept hiding.

“Before you begin panicking…” Gisela seemed to almost appear out of thin air beside her.

“Where are we!?” Cat cut her off.

Gisela gave her an annoyed glare before continuing. “We’re in a memory. My memories to be specific.”

“How?” Cat rounded on her. “You’ve got those anti-magic shackles on…”

“These shackles work on the principle of cutting off a mage from their supply of aether. I just told you that I wasn’t a mage.”

“So what’s the point of them, exactly?”

“Well, there are some dangerous things even a non-mage can do with aether,” Gisela said. “This is an old spirit trick from ancient Mesoamerica I picked up.”

“So what, we’re watching a movie of your life now?” Cat asked.

“Something like that,” Gisela said, and as she spoke Cat heard the creak of a door opening behind her. She turned and saw a young woman poke her head out form within the dark room behind the door, calling out into the hallway.

“H-hello? …Is anyone there?”

The young woman had short dark hair held in pigtails, thick red-rimmed glasses over her face, and a fairly ugly pink wool sweater pulled over herself. She was also undeniably Gisela Silva.

Cat stared, her eyes darting back and forth from one Gisela to the other. The new Gisela, peering out from the door, was a bit chubbier, rounder in the face and with much shorter hair. In comparison, the current Gisela with her slim athletic build, sharp cheekbones, and waist-length curtain of black hair looked positively gaunt.

“That’s…you?” Cat asked, almost in disbelief.

“That is me a year and a half ago,” Gisela said. “And on the day everything went wrong.”

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Mark of the Wolf

September 25th, 2024

 

The room where Leon was being interviewed was far less comfortable than where Aurelio and Hachi spoke with Kira. It was a windowless room lit by long fluorescent lights that shone with a dim buzzing over the cold grey walls. Elisa stood leaning against the metal door, the only entrance, her arms folded over her chest and her sword sheathed at her side. Quietly, minute by minute, she waited for the dawn to come. At her feet were a pile of clothes offered by Cade.

Across form Elisa, hunched on the floor, was the form of the massive werewolf. In the light and in such a small place, Elisa could get a better look at him. His clawed hands were bound behind him with enchanted manacles designed and built by Evangeline Metaxes, champion of Hephaestus, and summoned in by Mary to be used when needed. They were made of silver with ringlets of cold-forged iron encircling them. They were designed so that there would be few things on earth that could break or magic their way out, and Werewolves were no exception.

Still, even in his bonds the werewolf called Leon did not seem to be trying very hard to attack or escape. His legs and jaws were unbound, so he could have thrown himself at Elisa in the hope of attacking, but such an attempt never came. Instead he merely hunched against the opposite wall, yellow eyes watching her keenly as his breath came in long low growls. He was certainly bigger than a human, Elisa noticed. Easily thirty centimeters taller than even a tall man, and with shoulders nearly twice as broad. What could be seen of his chest under the thick fur was heavily muscled. The face had almost no human characteristics left, possessing the head of a wolf with only the faintest marks of humanity. Though he walked on hind legs, his feet were digitigrade like the hind legs of an animal.

Eventually the dawn must have come, as a few hours after being brought into the room a change began to overtake him. His body seemed to collapse inwards, slowly and painfully with several twisted motions as the wolf fled the body of the man. The fur regressed and the snout and muzzle pushed inward to form the nose and distinct jaw of a human. Within a minute, Leon had changed back from wolf to man, but Elisa did not move immediately to set him free.

 

“Are you able to talk now?” Elisa asked, stepping forward when the transformation ceased.

“I…” Leon began, his breath coming in panting gasps as he looked around shakily. “W-where am I?’

Elisa looked at him curiously. “You remember nothing of last night?”

“No I…” Leon tried to stand, but stumbled when he realized his hands were bound behind his back. “Well…it looks like it didn’t go well,” He turned to look at her, fear and worry covering his face.

“Please, did I hurt anyone?”

“No,” Elisa said plainly. “Tell me everything about yesterday evening, as well as the details of your condition.”

“Well, you do seem to know the basics,” Leon said. “I’m a werewolf.”

Leon the man was still quite tall, easily a head taller than Elisa, and with a robust build. Though lacking a full body of fur, his chest and back were hairy and his hair was a matted shoulder-length curtain. His face likewise had a short beard and moustache.

“We guessed as much,” Elisa said. “But you seemed to retain some level of control.”

“I’m not sure if I’d call it control,” Leon said. “Influence maybe…But I can barely remember anything about what happened…y-you’re sure I didn’t hurt anyone? There’s this girl, Serlida.”

“Serlida is here, and quite safe,” Elisa said. She meant it to be reassuring, but there was little comfort in her voice. “She is concerned about you.”

“Too much,” Leon sighed. “I told her not to get involved.

“Before anything else,” Elisa said. “You entered a city of thousands fully aware that you possessed a potentially dangerous affliction, and yet you reported it to no one. Why?”

“Look, I knew that was a mistake,” Leon said. “I wanted to tell someone, but I didn’t want to…I didn’t want to be thrown out. I scheduled to see a doctor but the waiting time for non-emergencies can be weeks and-“

“You put a lot of people in danger recklessly,” Elisa said, arms remaining folded. “All you did was increase your chances of exile.”

“I thought as much,” Leon said. “I was getting ready to tell the guards or someone, but Serlida pitched me this idea.”

“Where did you meet Serlida? What is your relationship?” Elisa asked.

“We were in the same convoy,” Leon said. “She was one of the few who knew about my…condition. She wanted to help, girl’s too nice for her own good.”

“She cared enough to chase after you once you had transformed,” Elisa said.

Leon stared in disbelief. “She did? Ah God…I knew she cared but…I never wanted to put anyone in that kind of danger.”

“What did she suggest exactly?” Elisa asked.

“She said she could enchant some chains to keep me in place, one’s that even a werewolf couldn’t break.”

“Well, apparently, something failed,” Elisa said.

“Ya…” Leon nodded. “But I suppose I have you to thank for bringing me in?”

“Among others,” Elisa nodded. “I’ll give you the details later. For now, we need to know everything we can about your condition before we consider even unshackling you.”

“Makes sense, I suppose,” Leon nodded morosely. “Well…I’m not going to lie, it’s not something that’s easy to manage and it can be dangerous.”

“Clearly,” Elisa said. “Last night wasn’t a full moon, does it happen every night?”

“No,” Leon shook his head. “I can only do it at night, and while I can resist it, the longer I go without shifting the more difficult it becomes to stop, and the wilder the wolf becomes. My limit is about a month, but a week lets me retain at least some control.”

“That makes your release more difficult,” Elisa sighed. “If you can change any night you want then you’re a potential threat every night.”

“I know, you see now why I hesitated?” Leon asked. “It’s one thing if it’s just once a month, but something like this is harder to deal with. But I just want to live my life.”

“I understand but please, I need to know everything. Is your condition transmissible?” Elisa asked.

“Yes, through biting mainly but contact with my blood might do it too.” Leon said. “Not sure how transmissible it is in human form.”

“I’m sure we can develop tests for that,” Elisa said. “Now is the more difficult part…have you ever killed anyone, Leon? Either as a human or as a wolf?”

“Do you ask everyone that?” Leon asked. He didn’t sound contemptuous, merely curious.

“We do,” Elisa said. “We understand the world is not easy outside of Rome. Sometimes hard decisions need to be made. It is why we ask these questions, to gauge what level of assistance you might need.”

“Well I have,” Leon said. “But only one, in human form.”

“Do go on,” Elisa said.

“Before I met the convoy I moved with a group of similarly afflicted people. The curse affects different people different ways. It’s worse than some than in others…a lot worse,” Leon’s expression darkened. “We moved…well I’ll be honest, like a bandit camp. We raided and stole and threatened. We fought for our lives now and then but I refused to kill people to survive. It also gave me the opportunity to shift almost every night giving me a certain…well clarity I guess. I could remember most of what I did and temper my actions, I still felt more man than animal.”

“And why did you choose to leave them then? If it allowed you that clarity?”

“Because the price of that clarity is knowing precisely what you were doing,” Leon said. “I’m not a thief or a murderer, I’m not a bad guy. I could take being sick…being a werewolf, but I didn’t want to be a monster as both a man and a wolf.”

“I understand,” Elisa nodded. “Please, continue. How did you leave?”

“Not easily,” Leon sighed. “I had to fight my way out, including through our nominal ‘leader’. I…don’t like to talk about it. But it was either die a pacifist or kill to get away and survive. I chose the latter, and I suppose I deserve some kind of judgment for that decision.”

“It’s not my place to make judgment,” Elisa said coolly. “I’m here to take your statement and ensure you are mentally fit to have your case reviewed. This will…complicate things…”

“But…?” Leon asked hopefully.

“But I believe given the circumstances, the fact that you harmed nobody, and the lack of resistance you’re offering now gives you a fighting chance,” Elisa said. “Your release may be conditional but for now…”

Elisa walked over to him, gently moving behind him to undo the shackles around his wrists.

“That’s a lot of trust you’re putting in me…” Leon said, rubbing his forearms. “I could have lied. I might try to attack you right now.”

“You’re a human man,” Elisa said. “I could kill you before the first strike hit, and if you tried to shift form I would kill you before you were done. While I believe you are telling the truth, it was still a measured response.”

Leon couldn’t help but smile. “Heh well…I assume you got my name from Serlida. Mind if I know yours?”

“Elisa,” She said plainly. “And because it’s obvious you’re wondering, no I am not human.”

“What are you then, if you don’t mind my asking?” Leon said. “Not really in a position to judge you, just curious.”

“I’m a homunculus,” Elisa said plainly.

“Well I’ll…take your word for it,” Leon nodded.

“Here,” Elisa said, handing him the pile of spare clothes. “You seem to have destroyed most of your old ones.”

“Oh, thank ya,” He smiled. “Ya, tailor’s worst nightmare right here.”

He quickly pulled on the shirt and the tear-less pants as he stood up, stretching his arms, “Ah, that feels much better. Have to say though…I’m impressed.”

“Impressed?” Elisa asked.

“Normally when people know you’re a werewolf, you get torches and pitchforks. Best I had hoped for when it got out was dirt looks and terrified stares. I mean…you’re not exactly all smiles but I’ll take the neutral mask over and angry mob.”

“It’s…just how I am I suppose,” Elisa shrugged.

“It helps when it’s on such a pretty face,” Leon added with a smile.

“Don’t push your luck,” Elisa said. “We still need to review your case,” Despite her words a smile still tugged at the edges of her face.

She honestly did believe Leon. Work with Mary and the later hearings would confirm if he was telling the truth or not, but Elisa believed him. Many who entered the city tried to do so under false pretenses, masking the deeds they did to survive in a harsher world. It was understandable, and Leon knew that there was little point left hiding.

“It is likely that you will be assigned a caretaker if you stay,” Elisa said. “Someone who can report on you and make sure you’re healthy and under control.”

“Sounds like a dangerous job, and a pretty degrading one,” Leon said. “I don’t need a social worker, or someone to put in danger if I change.”

“Think of them more like a parole officer,” Elisa said. “And in your case…someone like myself might volunteer.”

“Oh?” Leon asked. “Why you?”

“As a homunculus, I am likely immune to your affliction in all its forms,” Elisa said. “And I have the strength and speed necessary to subdue you. More than that, however, I suppose I…understand.”

“You understand?”

“You’re with the Night Guard, Mister Leon,” Elisa said. “We’re the misfits of Rome’s guardians. None of us fully human and plenty of us mistrusted. If anyone can empathize with the plight of a desperate werewolf, it’s us.”

 

 

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The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 12

September 12th, 2024

“Well, since you seem to have an idea of where we’re going. Where to, boss?” The girl asked Noemi.

“Boss?” Noemi repeated back to the smaller girl, looking her up and down. Athletically built for speed rather than for power, Noemi could understand why it had been so difficult to track her movements. The girl looked Chinese or…Japanese…Korean? Noemi blushed as she stammered out several attempts at asking the other girl where exactly she hailed from. “So where are you…like….from?”

“From, boss?” Junko said, sizing Noemi in return. She took a step forward, holding out her hand, before she caught sight of Ophidia glaring at her in suspicion. Junko frowned but didn’t say anything about it as she took a step back. “I’m Brazilian.”

“Wait, seriously?” Noemi said, keeping her eyes locked on Junko even as she leaned against a tree and crossed her arms. At this point, if Junko tried anything, Noemi was certain that Ophidia would have been able to halt the (probably) Japanese girl long enough for Noemi to draw her weapons, if not just stopping her outright.

“It’s called being a second generation immigrant, boss,” Junko said, her frown lightly playing up the sides of her face as her eyes lit up with amusement. “My parents came to Brazil before I was even born. I’ve never been to Japan in my life.”

“Eh?! You’re not from Japan, but then…what is…” Noemi gestured up and down at Junko’s clothing. The girl looked straight out of a kung fu movie or B-list action flicks as one of the bad guys, the ninjas that the action star would fight off as they came for him in hordes. The dark clothes, the mask, the sword on her back. It was actually a real sword too, not like the machete that Noemi wielded, still hanging off her belt. Noemi had no doubt that if it weren’t for the fact that she traveled with a bona fide goddess, she would have probably been sliced down in the middle of the fight. That thought made her scowl at Junko. “What are you, some kind of ninja?!”

“Bingo!” Junko said, her smile growing as her eyes opened wide. “I mean, it’s amazing that I don’t have to really hide it anymore. What’s a ninja when there are spirits walking around, right?”

“No, not right…” Noemi muttered. “Okay, so just because there are spirits returning, that doesn’t explain what a ninja is doing in the middle of the rainforest!”

“I told you before, boss, I think we’re hunting the same people,” Junko said, her eyes darkening a little as she pointed at one of the corpses with the blade of her knife. “I don’t like Aztlan. And neither do you it seems.”

“No,” Noemi said slowly, not sure how much to trust this girl with. “But that doesn’t answer the question really either! Start at the beginning!”

“What my birth? That’s a bit personal, boss.” Junko said, seeming far more relaxed now than she had only moments before when Ophidia had been coming down upon her. Noemi threw a rock at her, which the ninja effortlessly dodged.

“How did you become a ninja in the first place, jeez!”

“Mmm…fine,” Junko said with a sigh, sliding down the trunk of her tree and taking a seat upon the ground, her legs crossed over one another. Noemi paused for a moment, before sliding down to sit as well. “My dad made me do it.”

“Your dad made you train to be a ninja?”

“More or less…it’s complicated,” Junko said, looking away, her cheeks flushing red.

“Hey, you can’t start a story like this and then not tell it,” Noemi said. “Spill it!”

Junko sighed as she looked down, fidgeting with her hands in her lap. “I guess it doesn’t matter now, given who is in charge of the land but…my father was…let’s say he was a prosperous businessman…a very prosperous businessman.

“Ah huh…” Noemi nodded, catching her clear attempts to be subtle “The kind of prosperous businessman who’s so prosperous that people like the police can make things uncomfortable?”

“Yes, that kind of businessman.” Junko nodded “The kind who had many associates who were similarly…prosperous.”

“You mean like the Triads?”

“Those are Chinese, boss.”

“Oh, right, like the umm…the Yakuza, right?”

“That’s ridiculous boss.” Junko waved a hand as if to brush the thought away “The Yakuza aren’t real.”

“Just like ninjas aren’t real.” Noemi raised an eyebrow.

“Just like” Junko said “And Yakuza ninjas? That would be ridiculous.”

“Riiiiight” Noemi said “So does your father continue to associate with his…prosperous friends after moving to Brazil for reasons?”

“No, he does not” Junko said plainly.

“An ex-yakuza,” she muttered to herself, tossing the word about on her tongue. It sounded cool to say, even though she knew what it meant. It didn’t make it any less fun to let slip off her tongue. “I didn’t know the yakuza used ninjas.”

I am here, Champion. The voice of Ophida said inside her mind. But I feel you are better suited for this task than I, so I have withdrawn to recover what strength we used.

What task is that? Noemi though loudly to herself.

We need a guide. She is able to get around on her own. She will be good for this role.

Noemi nodded before she noticed Junko was staring at her. It had never occurred to Noemi what it must look like when she was meeting with the snake goddess. She liked to think it just made her look as if she were day dreaming.

“Aaaanyway…thing about being a prosperous businessman is that other prosperous businessmen you associate with don’t want you to leave, since it makes them less prosperous and you could share that prosperity with other less deserving people.”

“Right” Noemi said, seeing through the pretty obvious metaphor. “Yeah, can’t imagine what it must have been like,” Noemi said, nodding her head slowly. “I’ve been on the run for Aztlan and it’s exhausting. It must be hard to be on the run all the time for years.”

Junko mirrored Noemi’s nod, folding her hands together as she squirmed a bit in her seat. “A-anyway, he was rather big into the idea of personal safety, so I’ve been studying martial arts for a long time.”

“They have teachers for ninjas?”

“It’s called modern day ninjutsu,” Junko said with a huff, crossing her arms over her rather flat chest.  “And it’s not like I didn’t learn other forms of personal protection. I learned a lot of different ways how to fight…some just involved a lot more stealth and hiding than others.

“How much use did you ever get out of your ninja training before, I really want to know.”

“Actually,” Junko started to say, before she hopped to her feet. Once more she was moving faster than Noemi could track, though she could feel the wind rushing by her as Junko leaped over her, pushing off against the trunk of the tree, before swinging on its branch and somersaulting through the air and landing on her feet like a cat. “I’ve always gotten a lot of use out of my ninjutsu. The personal defense is certainly helpful, but with all the spirits around here, I’m able to combine my speed and sneaking techniques with their own abilities.”

“Kind of like you did against those Aztlan soldiers, huh?”

“Indeed. I made a pact with an air spirit to make sure the wind was always at my feet,” Junko said. Noemi could see the air swirling around her sneakers as Junko pointed to them, tiny eddies cycling around her shoes. “There are some others here and there that will help me out. Most of them do it for my aid in getting them away from Aztlan and its cult.”

“That’s kind of my situation, except I have to actually get Ophidia out before we both get caught.” Noemi said.

“Ophidia, so that’s the name of the spirit following you? It doesn’t sound native.”

“Well…it’s what I call her and she doesn’t seem t mind, she said she forgot her own.” Noemi said.

“Odd for a nature spirit. You sure you know what you’re traveling with, boss?”

“I do. Because she’s not just any nature spirit, Ophidia’s a full-fledged goddess in her own right, just a bit of a…small one right now.”

“I was taught all spirits are just spirits” Junko said “Whether they’re big ro small, but I take it you’re trying to make your little goddess big again?”

“That’s right” Noemi smiled “It’s why we’re heading to the coast, but the way seems completely filled with those sna—With Aztlan soldiers.” Noemi didn’t want Junko getting any ideas that Ophidia’s feathered serpents were allied with Aztlan. She still needed a guide and the more she talked to this girl, the more Noemi grew to like her. There was something that felt comfortable talking to another human being. Even the out of place conversation they were having was the most normal experience Noemi had had in weeks.

“To the coast?” Junko asked.

“Yeah, but…well, I don’t know this jungle as well as I thought,” Noemi said, faking a cough to cover the awkward silence, filling the void with any sound. “You seem to have a better knowledge of the area, so I’ve got to ask, would you like to travel with us?”

“You and your goddess?”

“Ophidia’s not too bad, and she’s already given her blessing,” Noemi said, pulling herself to her feet and stretching her arms. “What do you say? We’re trying to get a ship to take us away from this place. Surely you don’t want to stay here any longer either, right?”

Junko stared at Noemi for a few seconds before nodding her head slowly. “Very well,” Junko said. “I can take you to the coast. I had my own business there anyway. I see no reason not to travel with you.”

“Business? What sort of business does a ninja have anyway? Isn’t that basically assassination?”

“I couldn’t tell you, boss.”

“My name’s Noemi, by the way, Noemi Valente.” Noemi said, holding out her hand. Junko took it, looking up into the taller girl’s face.

“Pleasure to meet you, boss.”

“Err, you don’t have to call me that. I figured you were just calling me that since I hadn’t given you my name.”

“Right now, this is your team, boss. So that’s what I’m calling you. Now come on, get your goddess and let’s get a move on.”

“Right!” Noemi said, as she picked up all the stuff that had been scattered in the fight, the various weapons and charms that the Aztlan soldiers had dropped. Given the dangers that faced them, Noemi knew every tool was necessary to survive. “To the shore!”

It looks like we’ve got ourselves another companion, Ophidia. You’ve already doubled your cult in size!

Noemi could almost swear she heard a strange, almost hissing laughter, in her ears.

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Knights and Monsters

September 25th, 2024

 

The ‘interrogation room’ of the Night Guard headquarters was really more of a lounge that many of the Guard used between shifts. Even now, as the night began to trail on into early morning, a pot of coffee had been started and there was a plate of pastries on the table though no one had deigned to start eating.

There were three people in the room, with two on one side of the table and the third opposite. On the one side was Aurelio, hands folded on the table as he eyed their guest, and at his side was the fox spirit Hachi, who sat quietly with a calm and demure smile on her face. Sitting opposite them was the ‘knight’ from the confrontation with the werewolf. She had willingly doffed most of her armor and was now sitting in her padded gambeson in the room with them.

In the light, and with her armor removed, Aurelio could get a better look at them. She had darker tan skin and possibly bleached blonde hair, amber eyes and a noticeable scar running down her cheek. She was taller than Aurelio and more strongly-built, as he was often seen as lean and somewhat wiry. She kept her arms folded over her chest as her eyes passed back and forth between them, though mostly lingering on Hachi.

“So who exactly are you, Night Guard?” she asked with barely restrained contempt.

“There were a number of pamphlets and bulletins sent out,” Aurelio said. “We’re Rome’s guard against spiritual threats that the city guard and the legions aren’t equipped to deal with.”

“And half of you are…spirits yourselves,” It was clear from her tone that she had been very close to using the word ‘monster’ instead, and her eyes had never left Hachi.

“Well none of us are what could be called ‘fully human’,” Aurelio tried to keep his tone level. “But we all have nothing but Rome’s best interests at heart.”

“And yet you choose to lock up or talk to spirits rather than engage them,” She said, scornfully.

“When it is feasible,” Aurelio said. “When they cannot be reasoned with we answer with force.”

“Well I don’t know how your ‘spirits’ are in Rome, but where I come from, if you don’t hit first and hit hard then you wind up dead.”

“Then it must be unfortunate for you that you’re in Rome now,” Aurelio said, irritation creeping into his voice.

“Let us try to keep this civil,” Hachi said diplomatically. “First of all, we have been quite rude to our guest and failed to introduce ourselves. My name is Hachi.”

“…Captain Aurelio Furlan,” Aurelio said.

“…Kira,” The knight finally said, keeping her arms folded disdainfully.

“Very good, Miss Kira,” Hachi smiled. Aurelio was impressed at how level Hachi could keep her expression, especially considering how most of Kira’s insults had been leveled at her.

“Dame Kira,” Kira shot back scornfully. “Of the Order of the Brass Eagle.”

“Dame Kira, excuse me,” Hachi didn’t miss a beat. “It is obvious that the attitude of spirits and of monsters varies between regions. I have seen proof of this with my own eyes, being as I am from very far away. With that said, I believe that most people in this city would assure you that the spirits present here seek cooperation and coexistence over death and conquest. Our current Pontifex Maximus Nora Newstar, as well as Spiritual Ambassador Megame Kamigawa, are the social and political representatives to the spirits of Rome and they have done tremendous work.”

“If they’re so cooperative, why even have this Night Guard?” Kira asked.

“Earlier this year, from my understanding, the city came under attack by a cruel and merciless Aztec deity that wished to overthrow the city,” Hachi said. “That, coupled with other incidents, showed the need for a specialized task force, one that could deal with spirits on an equal footing, something most humans are incapable of doing.”

“My order is something similar,” Kira said. “Except we didn’t recruit negotiators and ambassadors. We hired monster hunters, trained warriors, and anyone willing to fight and kill for humanity. Spirits only care about one law, the law of the strong over the weak, and no matter how much they dress it up in pretty language I’ve never seen evidence it changes.”

Aurelio glanced at Hachi and the fox woman hadn’t even twitched. Had it been Aurelio he would have visibly bristled at her comments, but Hachi never lost her cool.

“Then I am sorry for the experiences that you have had, Dame Kira,” Hachi said. “But I can assure you that the spirits of Rome wish to live in harmonious balance with their environment, a desire which requires effort both on their part and on the part of the spirits in question. And now, for the benefit of further discussion, I wish to establish the difference between a spirit and a monster.”

“I’ve yet to see the difference, save that some men can be turned into monsters too.”

“Well, it is true that most monsters are spirits and the legions have seen their fair share,” Hachi said. “Manticores, hydras, great lions and boars…there are spirits which have formed for the express purpose of hunting and killing humans. However, this is why we employ expert hunters such as Aurelio and Elisa. We believe in an even-handed approach, seeking diplomatic solutions while also carrying the capacity to respond with force.”

“I didn’t see much of that response when you chose to drag a werewolf back in chains rather than kill the damn thing where it stood!” Kira slammed her fist on the table.

“Leon hadn’t attacked anyone,” Aurelio said. “It was clear he was fleeing, not hunting.”

“So what, are you going to let a dangerous beast just walk!?” Kira demanded.

“No,” Aurelio said. “We don’t know the limitations and dangers of his condition, and he broke the law by not reporting it when he arrived. He will be dealt with as Roman law decides.”

“And how will I be dealt with?” Kira spat. “For trying to protect this city form the monsters it refuses to see in front of its face?”

“Well, thankfully, you didn’t hurt anyone either,” Aurelio said, but a slightly raised hand by Hachi left him silent as she took over again.

“Indeed, you were acting entirely in the way you believed best for protecting this city. Your actions were, perhaps, a bit heavy-handed but you broke no written law as we see it. You will be free to go after this talk is over, though we of course recommend you leave these kinds of matters to the Night Guard and the city guard patrol.”

“If there’s a werewolf on the loose,” Kira said. “I’m not going to standby.”

“I understand,” Hachi nodded, though Aurelio could feel slightly more force in her voice. “However, this city does not abide by vigilantism. If you began hunting spirits outside of self-defense then there would certainly be legal ramifications. What I can recommend for someone of your obvious, skill, and talent, is to seek out legitimate employment with the Legions or even perhaps with the Night Guard itself.”

Both Aurelio and Kira looked at Hachi with incredulous expressions.

“I’m surprised you’d even suggest hiring a full-blooded human,” Kira scoffed. “By the sound of it, that wasn’t in your hiring policy.”

“There is no reason to discriminate,” Hachi said. “You have skills that might prove useful in case there is a violent incident.”

“She might be able to work with Hildegard as well,” Aurelio said. “They do a lot of monster hunting.”

“Our point,” Hachi nodded. “Is that there are a number of excellent options for you that can fully utilize your skills, there is no need to make a vigilante of yourself chasing problems that might not exist.”

“Hmm,” Kira frowned, clearly still unhappy with the stated options, but her arms had moved onto the table. “I will…consider things.”

“That’s all we ask,” Hachi smiled. “We would hate for there to be another incident with a less peaceful resolution.”

After a few more questions regarding her background and her living arrangements Kira was released. Hachi offered to put together the official report to give to the guards, so Aurelio left her to it and soon found himself in the large entrance lobby to the Night Guard Headquarters, though he wasn’t alone for long.

“Make much progress?” Sybilla asked, pressing a mug of coffee into his hand.

“We think she’s cooled off a bit,” Aurelio said. “Guards will probably be keeping an eye on her for a while. Here’s hoping we don’t run into her again mid-chase.”

“Here’s hoping,” Sybilla nodded.

“What about the girl, Serlida?” Aurelio asked. “You and Cade had her, right.”

“She’s fine, sleeping on the second-floor lounge couch,” Sybilla said.

“What’s her story?”

“She’s a mage, as it turns out,” Sybilla said. “Explains the hair if your friend Catarina is anything to go by. She seems honest enough, very concerned for her friend Leon.”

“How does a mage meet a werewolf?”

“They apparently came as part of the same caravan. We’ll have more details when she’s rested in the morning.”

“Odd combination,” Aurelio said. “Elisa keeping a watch on the werewolf until his transformation wears off?”

“So she said,” Sybilla nodded. “This turned into a very interesting night.”

“Well, the night’s almost done,” Aurelio said, sipping the coffee.

Sybilla smoothly sat down on the arm of the chair, leaning on his shoulder. “But after a scarce few hours of daytime it’s night again and we’ll be right back at it.”

“Mmm…” Aurelio nodded but said nothing.

“Something on your mind, hunter?”

“The knight we brought in, Kira,” Aurelio said. “She reminded me a lot of…well, me.”

“Only natural,” Sybilla said. “You were very similar not too long ago.”

“I’m still similar now,” Aurelio said. “We have Hachi and Aelia and others for diplomacy, I’m mostly part of this team to be…well, a monster hunter like Kira.”

“Well of course you are,” Sybilla said. “Is that worrying to you?”

“Well if Elisa hadn’t already been there. I’m not sure if I would have held back an arrow on that werewolf,” Aurelio admitted. “I might have just shot him on the spot to be safe.”

“Mmm,” Sybilla simply leaned on him more. “But that’s not what happened.”

“But it could have happened.”

“Hunter,” Sybilla said, turning to look at him, black hair hanging idly around her shoulders. “You could have killed me dead the second I stepped out of my cell in Rome, or shot me in the Dreaming. You could have killed Mary when we had her captive in a cage. You could have spurned the idea of the Night Guard and insisted on working alone. You could have pushed me away the first night we got close….”

Aurelio felt her thin fingers slide over his chin as she drew his head to face her.

“But you didn’t. Do not waste your time and worry on the things that might or might not have been. Here we are in the now, everyone is safe, you are a respected member of the Night Guard, and you are with me.”

“I suppose,” Aurelio said. “That might be enough for now.”

 

 

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