The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 2

September 14th, 2024

“Aaah that feels amazing” Asha said as she felt the cool water pour from her cupped hands and spill over her face and down her neck. After days under the blistering hot sun and wind like furnace bellows, the feeling of even lukewarm water against her skin was positively heavenly.

Leyla didn’t respond immediately, too busy drinking water noisily from between his cupped hands, gulping down large mouthfuls at a time.

“Hey not too fast there.” Asha said “Drink a little and often, we’ll camp here for the night.”

The pair of them had arrived in a small oasis in what had once been called Iraq, and was now merely a part of what people were calling the Great Levantine Desert, as most arable land was stricken with harsh drought and an influx of sand. After days alone in the desert, the shade and water provided by the small oasis was like a spot of heaven to the weary travelers.

“I thought you didn’t need to drink” Leyla said, finally finishing his water “Being dead and all.”

“I’m only…mostly dead you could say” Asha said “I was sent back, along with my Fravashi.”

“And you’re more talkative than she was” Leyla said “I kind of like it.”

“Well that’s because you only knew part of me, I guess.” Asha said “Good to know I’m not a pest.”

“Well you will be if you keep drinking all the water, ghost girl” Leyla smiled “Leave us for some living folk.”

“I thought you were fused with a fire spirit or something” Asha said “water is bad for fire”

“Ya but it’s good for me” Leyla said, taking a long drink.

Though not in appearance, they were perhaps the oddest pair in the desert. Asha was a young Persian woman with deep tan skin and short curly black hair tied back out of her face. She was dressed in a mix of faded desert fatigues and a few padded pieces of leather over her chest, shoulders, and wrists worn under a long hooded coat. There were no apparent signs of her more supernatural nature, save for her eyes which were a brilliant sky-blue.

Leyla was similarly dressed for travel, with thick boots and durable clothing under a long loose travelling cloak, his head wrapped in a long scarf to keep out the wind and sun. Though he had the face and frame of a handsome young man, and Asha referred to him as ‘he’, the peculiarities of Leyla were entirely internal. Leyla’s body was home to three distinct spirits, that of Derya, the young man who was the body’s original owner; his younger sister Leyla who was it’s current ‘pilot’, the one in control of his body, power, and tongue, and an unnamed fire spirit of particularly potent power. The nature of the incident that brought these three into one body was still something Leyla hadn’t decided to share.

After a brief period of confusion, Asha was quick to learn not to ask too many questions about it, and had adjusted quite easily. After all, there were many other things in the desert that demanded her attention.

“How far are we form Babylon?” Asha asked as she laid out her pack alongside Leyla’s. Leyla sat next to his heavy pack and sorted through it before eventually withdrawing a map. It was dated 2019, and was covered in scrawled notes that Leyla had made himself regarding adjustments and new locations. Most of the cities on the map didn’t exist anymore, and there was a staggering number of red “X’s written across what had once been cities and towns bustling with life.

“Well Babylon is right where it’s always been” Leyla pointed to a mark on the map “A bit south of Baghdad near Hillah. As for where we are…”

Asha watched his finger trace southwest “…here, near Zahwah.”

“That’s a lot of desert in every direction” Asha said “Is there anything between us and them?”

“The Euphrates” Leyla said “So we need to cross desert, then river, then we’ll hopefully be back in more fertile land.”

“What are the odds of another oasis?”

“Slim to none” Lela smiled wryly “So don’t get on my case about water.”

“We’ll have to pack light then” Asha said “And most of the weight needs to be water. Kind of wish we’d picked up those camels in Tabarjal”

“Screw the camels” Leyla snorted “They were bad tempered and weak, they would have been dead long before we reached here.”

“Maybe, but then we would have only had to lug our stuff halfway here.” Asha said.

“You’re the one carrying a ten kilo book over your shoulder.”

Leyla said.

“Okay first of all” Asha raised a pointed finger “It’s not nearly ten kilos, it’s magic, remember? Secondly there is no way I am giving up that book.”

“I’m just teasing ya, don’t get all in a twist” Leyla said “I know that’s how you chat with your girlfriend.”

Asha rolled her eyes “Not my girlfriend but ya, it’s the only way to keep in touch with Cat. If it weren’t for her I wouldn’t be here.”

Leyla nodded and looked like he was about to speak before he suddenly froze up. Asha had come to recognize that bit of body language as Derya’s spirit passing some information along to Leyla inside their collective mind. The way Leyla described it, it was like having two separate trains of thought, one always in the background until it suddenly shunted onto the main track to take over.

“What is it?” Asha asked, suddenly alert. Usually fi Derya had something to say it wasn’t good news.

“Others are coming” Leyla said “We’re not about to be alone very long.”

In an instant Asha was on her feet. “How many? Are they friendly?”

“A number of them, Leyla said, standing more slowly” They’re on camel-back and…they’re being chased.

Asha breathed in, her mind searching deep within herself for power as she called upon the spiritual energy of the Fravashi, the guardian spirit that had fused itself with her. In her empty hands formed a pair of long curved knives. The shape didn’t matter, knife, sword, bow, Asha could use most of them with impressive effectiveness. Being dead, it turned out, had given her a number of opportunities to gain new career skills.

Leyla in turn drew a long curved shamshir sword from his waist, and together the two of them hurried to the edge of the oasis. The oasis itself was little more than a few copses of trees around the water pools protected on one side by a short rocky cliff that kept the dunes at bay. So as the two went to the side opening out into the desert, they could see for miles across the arid sandy landscape.

Ahead of them, about half a kilometer out, were the dark shapes of a hurrying camel caravan, about twelve beasts in a rushed line that were kicking up dust and sand as they made a mad dash to the oasis. Behind them, a dark blot against the pale sand and blue sky, was a monstrous lurching shape.

“Could you use a bow?” Leyla asked, one hand shading his eyes as he looked out at the group.

“They’re between it and us” Asha said “It’d be a risky shot unless I went around the long way, and there’s not much time.”

“Then let’s go out and meet them.” Leyla said, and with that the pair of them ran out at breakneck speed to meet the fleeing caravan and the monster on their tail.

The distance between them evaporated in seconds, and Asha could see the monster come into clearer focus. It lacked the defined shape and terrifying proportions of a proper mythological monster, it was instead a different sort of beast. It was a massive asymmetrical thing, looking like a cross between a bear and a gorilla with small legs and a grossly oversized right arm. It ran on all fours, hands and knuckles slamming the sand in great swinging lunges as it tried to catch the caravan. The head was like a jackal’s, maw open to reveal sharp white teeth as it let out its mad baying.

They passed on either side of the caravan, letting them towards the oasis as the stunned sun-scarred faces stared in amazement at the pair that ran out to meet the monster. As they came into range, the beast seemed to prefer keeping its chase on the bigger prey, and Leyla was there first to exploit its lack of attention. With a swing of his curved sword the beast stumbled and rolled over itself as most of its leg was severed, leaving behind the smell of scorched hair and burning flesh as the blade’s edged dance with sacred firelight. It let out a high-pitched doglike whine as it swung its massive arm at Leyla, who threw himself to the sand as the the bulk of muscle ripped through the air like a wrecking ball. However, doing so left its back open and exposed, and Asha made a running start before leaping towards it from behind. Feeling the rush of energy again, a pair of brilliant wings, feathers a blazing blue and gold, sprouted from her back in a burst of light, giving her enough lift to run up the monster’s back and broad shoulders, feet kicking off the fur as she brought both knives down on its neck, burying the white blades into its unprotected hide.

The scream this time was more subdued, and it faded rapidly as dark blood burst from its wounds, covering Asha’s hands where the divine energy coursing through her veins caused it to boil away. The beast made one last lurching stumble before it fell, lifeless, to the ground to rest in a crater of dusty sand.

“Well done” Leyla smiled, turning to Asha as her wings vanished as easily as they had appeared. “Derya agrees. He thinks you’re learning to use that power quicker than he expected.”

“Well, you kind of need to be a quick learner out here” Asha smiled. “I might be dead but I’m not a ghost anymore, not sure how easily something out here could kill me, so I’m not about to give it a chance.”

“Smart thinking” Leyla nodded before turning back to the oasis. “Now let’s check in on them before they drink all our water.”

Asha smiled as the two of them returned to the shade of the trees, where the caravan riders had dismounted as their camels moved to the closest water pool.

It was a mixed group of men, women, and a few children consisting of predominantly older men. They were muttering rapidly to each other and making glances to the pair of them. As soon as they got close, however, the group moved forward to meet them, inclining their heads and thanking them rapidly, a few muttering prayers to God for sending rescuers.

“Ah it’s our pleasure really” Asha said rapidly, nodding her head and shaking hands before she noticed a few men taking a curious look at her back. “A-and before you ask I assure you we’re not angels! Just…talented.”

There were a few laughs as the group moved back into the shade of the trees, and soon the caravan group had unpacked their saddlebags and begun laying out food for all of them. Judging by the lean looks of the camels and the riders this was likely some of the last of their food, so Asha abstained as much as she could while maintaining politeness as the group settled in near the water’s edge.

“Angels or not, you are our rescuers.” One man, likely the leader by his age and dress, spoke up. Though he was the oldest he hardly looked past forty, with only a twinge of grey in his beard, but his eyes were deeply set and his hands withered from effort and the sun. But when he took Leyla’s hand in greeting she could see the strength in his fingers.

The group was predominantly Muslim, judging by their prayers and their greetings, so Asha wasn’t surprised when they didn’t offer to shake her hand as well, but was silently amused at their ignorance of Leyla being a woman’s spirit inhabiting her brother’s body.

“As such” The man continued “I insist that you partake in all we have, for without you we would surely have been killed.”

“Thank you” Leyla said “But we don’t need much, though we’re curious where it is you’re going.”

“Most of us to Mecca, if we can get across this Allah-forsaken desert.” The elder said “It is late in the season for the Hajj, but even if it were winter we would be going. The safe lands for the Prophet’s children grow smaller every day.”

“Of course” Asha said, drawing eyes her way “We’ve seen a number of Muslims heading south, but you’re a far way off the roads.”

“We had hoped for a brief respite outside Babylon” The elder said “Though we dare not enter the city, we cannot reach Mecca without food and supplies.”

“Well if you don’t mind a few extra feet” Leyla smiled “We could offer a few extra hands.” Seems fate drew us together, since we’re on the same road.”

“Nothing would set our minds more at ease than able-bodied protectors” The Elder smiled “You may join us as long as it suits you.”

“Well then” Leyla smiled “Babylon it is then.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Journal Entry of Dr. P. Westcroft, Practicing Metaphysicist

April 9th, 2030

The autumn of 2024 was to mark the turning point in the new history of our world. It was to be the year when human settlement and permanent habitation reached a level approximately comparable to that of the zeroth year as judged by the Gregorian calendar (Approximately 50 million human souls across the planet.) Obviously, this number does not account for spirits, the demographics of which have proven “challenging”. That is to say that the population of spirits across the globe tends to range between seven million and eighteen trillion depending on who you ask.

The year 2022 was a year of catastrophe and destruction; 2023 was to be the year humanity began picking up the pieces, and 2024 was the year that humans, in their courage (and some would say arrogance) began pushing back. I, unfortunately, was not in Rome during the autumn of 2024 as I was in Greece at the time. However, I kept abreast of what news I could, and have used my position here to fill in the gaps of histories according to those who witnessed them.

I am not a historian (I must remind whatever hapless reader that one can observe from the interviews, hypotheses, and sketched diagrams in my journals that I am a metaphysicist first and foremost), and I have offered my findings as contributions to Volume 1 of the Nuova Storia Romana that was recently published. As such, I wish to look instead at the various forces that contributed to the new shaping of mankind, the campaign against chaos of the late year 2024, and the inevitable fallout.

I have spoken before on the subject of Champions, those mortals chosen by the gods as their personal warriors and messengers on Earth, and much can be said about them as well as the gods themselves. Rome, of course, focused its knowledge on its local deities, those of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. However, with the arrival of the Shrine Master Megame Kamigawa, to Rome in mid-2024, as well as the critical Battle of the Black Sun, the truth that had been suspected was confirmed: The gods and spirits had returned across the Earth, not limited by faith or by modern belief.

At the time, it is now estimated there were approximately 75 champions scattered over the world. As the system grew more widespread and popular so too did that number rise. People gathered around the chosen champions of the gods, and they acted as protectors of nascent settlements and cities. Rome was the unique case, as it had the protection of the esteemed wolf pack: Capitolina Lupa, the Wolf of Gubbio (Giovanni), Kebechet, and Angel. Across the Mediterranean and beyond, however, we see a clear pattern emerge of small settlement->Divine protector->Large settlement->Organized military defense->Self-sustainability. This pattern can be seen in Carthage, Athens, Sparta, Berlin, Paris, Babylon (Formerly Al Hillah), Prague, and I have heard reports of similar cases in Kyoto, New Aztlan (Formerly Mexico City), Oslo, and many others.

Of course, there are always variations and exceptions. Southern England and Wales lacked the divine champions that would characterize both mainland Europe as well as Scotland and Ireland; however they had the exceptional case of an established human defensive settlement in the form of Camelot. Similarly Syracuse was briefly ruled by a despotic (but unifying) magocracy that was replaced by a parliamentary monarchy under noted magical anomaly Tagus Vittorio. This magocracy took the place that a champion would normally occupy, though a champion was present in rural Sicily (Salvatore Messana). Thule continues to thrive as a Northern port settlement, but it is protected both by its peculiar geography and a supernatural protection other than divine.

By 2024, however, it was becoming apparent that protection alone was not enough, and proactive effort would be needed in order to ensure the future of humanity. However, by autumn many settlements and cities were still only on their first legs, hardly able to support themselves, let alone able to contribute to a larger unified effort, simple communication was difficult enough, let alone things like trade or military reinforcement when the forests and seas teamed with monsters.

To understand more about the relationship between champions, cities, and the great effort to push back against the Primordials, I’ve managed to organize a brief discussion between three such prominent individuals: Ambassador Jana Tule of Thule, Champion of Hermes Stefanos Melis, and Sovereign-Protector of the Province of Barcelona Wilhelmina Koenig. Below is a transcript:

 

Me: First of all, I would like to thank you all for coming on such short notice. I know you all have very busy schedules and a great many duties, I hope I won’t need to keep you too long.

Wilhelmina: It was not an issue, and your letter intrigued me, Doctor.

Jana: No problem at all, Doctor.

Stefanos: I managed to sneak some time in while I’m in Rome, surprised you came to me first though, there are a lot of champions here.

M: Very true, however I am interested in perspectives from outside Rome and you three were excellent examples. You spend most of your time in Carthage, yes?

S: I do, though I was born in Thessaly and that’s where I was made Champion.

M: How old were you when you were made a Champion, if I may ask?

S: Oh I was only thirteen at the time, definitely one of the youngest.

M: Well, to get onto the subject at hand, all of you lived in areas that were threatened by the attacks of the Primordials when you were younger. How did you survive, and how would you compare those methods in terms of benefit and effectiveness?

W: That’s something of a broad question, Doctor. I’m sure we can all speak for our own experiences, but it is a little difficult to compare.

M: I understand, then let us begin with the first part. If you could go first, Lady Koenig?

W: Very well. For the first five years or so the city and later Disctrict of Barcelona was under exclusively human protection.

M: From what I hear you were the bulk of that ‘human protection’.

W: While I don’t wish to downplay the contributions of Barcelona’s many defenders, I was called to meet specific large-scale threats personally, yes.

J: Lady Koenig’s reputation as a dragonslayer has reached as far as Thule.

M: And Rome as well. How did you gain these skills, Lady Koenig? Were you trained?

W: Yes and no. Much of my martial training came from my mentor, who unfortunately passed away during the first dragon attack on Barcelona. However, there are certain…instincts I suppose you could say that are specific to dragonslayers. It is inborn and, from what I’ve been told, strictly supernatural as opposed to hereditary.

M: I imagine Lady Tule has some knowledge in that regard?

J: It is accurate.

M: But still, it is these skills alone that you claim are responsible to safeguarding Barcelona, as opposed to patronage?

W: Yes, Barcelona remains one of the last few Christian cities in Iberia due to that. The lack of patronage of interference from foreign deities has given us that religious independence, and I personally believe my skills are a gift from God.

M: So it is patronage of a sort?

W: I suppose you could call it that.

M: Well with that said, let us move to Stefanos.

S: Thank you, Doctor. I’m not sure how much advice I could give. I’m not like some of your champions here in Rome in that I’m not a great fighter. I mean I’m not bad, but I’m really more of a messenger.

M: As befitting your patron.

S: Right, though that was invaluable to Thessaly’s survival. There was a vicious monster pack that almost had the place surrounded, led by one of Typhon’s nastier children.

M: Oh! Forgive me what breed?

S: A boar, huge one too, like the Calydonian Boar from stories. Thessaly didn’t have the resources or manpower to catch them all, but Sparta did.

M: So you were tasked to send that message?

S: Yes, it’s quite a story, I’ll have to tell you sometime.

M: I would enjoy that, but I’d like to hear more about your actions as champion and how that influenced Thessaly.

S: Oh, champions are like celebrities in Greece. There’s a big temple to Hermes in Thessaly now, statue and everything, and of course they love Rosaria back in Sparta.

M: So you would say that the divine status of champions led to the celebration of their patron gods?

S: Well of course, you see it here in Rome too. The gods with champions always get the most visitors and offerings, I think that’s half of why there are so many now; gods want to cash in and flooded the market.

M: Along with the threat of the Primordials.

S: Well yes, of course, that was the driving force behind the first big wave.

M: Lady Koenig, there has certainly been a visible decline in adherence to the Abrahamic faiths, though there are of course still strong Christian, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim cities, such as in your case of Barcelona. Would you attribute this to a lack of ‘visibility’ so to speak?

W: Hmmm…in a sense, yes. God does not come down in churches and let his will be known directly, but that has been the case since the days of Moses. As the saying goes ‘God works in mysterious ways’ and while he does not name his champions, I believe there are those, like myself or like your wolf, Giovanni, through whom he works his will. It is easy to throw caution to the wind and side with the spirit that says it can aid you, but we have had success in Barcelona matching that of cities such as Athens or Babylon without them.

M: There has been no small amount of religious strife in a number of pan-theic cities, including Rome, do you support the notion held by some that the cults supporting non-Abrahamic gods are apostates to be punished.

W: I think that is a question a great many places are working through right now and have been for some time. Though given the lack of prominent records and the umm…you mentioned it in your last paper.

M: Cavallo-White Effect.

W: Yes that, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to determine everyone who is or was an apostate. That said, Barcelona is a city for religious freedom. We do not turn away others for their beliefs, but we ask them not to tread upon the strong Catholic background of the district.

M: We have something similar regarding the Vatican. Now I apologize, Lady Tule, we have gone onto a religious tangent and you have been very polite in waiting, could you tell us something about Thule’s background and protection?

J: Of course, first of all it is important to note that we are not from Iceland or Greenland, but rather a distinct landmass named Thule, or Ultima Thule.

W: Right, and this distinction is due to its unique geography?

J: Yes, Thule is virtually unplottable, and until recently was unreachable along with similar places like Shamballa or Atlantis.

W: Or Lemuria or Mu.

J: Ah no, I’m afraid those lost continents are entirely fictional.

W: How odd…but regardless, this odd geography is what kept you safe? Was there any religious influence?

J: The people of Thule have a strong shamanic history with the local spirits as well as notable Norse influence, but we did not have any active temples to the Norse gods.

W: Hence why Calroch has such strong devotion in Thule.

J: One of several reasons, yes. Our geography protected us from most attacks, but Lord Calroch fended off those powerful monsters that did manage to push through. Thule would have been an ideal staging ground for Nidhoggr’s invasion of Europe, but thanks to Calroch they pushed it more south.

W: Which of course was beneficial to the joint-offensive.

J: Very much so.

W: Well, I think I have new information and some splendid new perspectives now. I would like to thank you all for coming.

J: No trouble at all.

S: Happy to help.

W: Of course.

M: I shan’t take up any more of your time then, thank you all.

-Interview End-

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 1

September 13th, 2024

The mid-afternoon sun came down thick and golden through the pulled curtains of the library’s window, casting the tall bookshelves in gilded light and deepening shadows as the hours of the day wound down. The air outside was hot and humid, but within this sanctuary it was always dry and comfortably cool. The tea that had been laid out on the table between the two chaise lounges was still steaming and lending an aromatic fragrance to the thick smell of book paper and library dust.

“This is good tea,” Catarina said as she took a long sip from the steaming cup. “Sheh said it was Turkish.”

“It’s a bit bitter for me,” Megame said, holding the cup with both hands as she took her own drink. “Though I am grateful to your friend for making it.”

“Sheh makes all the best teas,” Cat smiled.

The pair of them had come here to cool off and relax as the afternoon reached its later phases. Thanks to a last minute change in Cat’s lesson plans and Megame’s delegating skill, both of them found themselves free in the golden hours of the afternoon, able to wile them away in the expansive library of Scheherazade.

Cat’s friend, Megame, had quickly grown accustomed to living in Rome. She was a young Japanese woman around Cat’s age, with short dark brown hair she had only recently started growing long again. When they had first met, Megame had been much rougher in appearance, with a thinner face and grungier skin, hair, and clothes. The comforts of sleeping in a bed, eating three meals a day, and regular access to bathing water had softened her considerably, though she never lost the friendly smile on her face nor the bright shine in her eyes. She was dressed in the loose white jacket and a pair of bright red broad pants, apparently the uniform of her position as a miko, a shrine maiden. She sat neatly on the lounge with her legs and back straight as she carried the teacup delicately in her hands.

Cat herself was half a head taller than Megame and a bit broader in the shoulders and hips. Unlike the shrine maiden, she was a trained fighter, and it had become more apparent as the constant training and exercise had given her the toned figure more like her adoptive sister Hildegard. She was seated on her side, half-sprawled over the long lounge chair, and kept the teacup held loosely in one hand after she’d drained it.

“So have you heard the rumors coming in from the North?” Cat asked as the silence began to descend.

“North of where?” Megame asked. “North of the city? North Italy?”

“Northern Europe,” Cat said. “Though a lot of it is trickling down through the alps. They say things are only getting worse up there.”

“Right, that’s where the Primordial lives, yes?” Megame asked. “The…Nido-hogu?” She struggled briefly with pronunciation.

Megame’s accent was a curious thing. Most of the time Cat didn’t even notice it, and it only became apparent with proper nouns and more obscure foreign words. The strangest thing of all was that, according to Megame, she only spoke Japanese and a smattering of English, but had no problem casually conversing with the Italian-speaking Catarina.

“Nidhoggr,” Cat said. “They call it…well a lot of things. The Serpent of the Damned, the Dragon of Yggdrassil, the Striking Malice.”

“A real monster then,” Megame said, putting her teacup back on the tray. “That is the one you fought in the dream, wasn’t it?”

Cat nodded, the memory from several months ago still fresh in her mind. She had faced a shadow of Nidhoggr, a mere fragment of the thing, inside of a dream. She had been victorious, but only barely, and the real thing promised to be more terrible than anything that could be conjured in a dream.

“But Italy is safe behind its barrier, isn’t it?” Megame asked.

“It is,” Cat said. “But we can’t just sit behind our walls and let the rest of the world fall apart, can we? According to the legions, the Alpine settlements come under frequent attack since they live where the border is hazy, and beyond that…well we only know what we hear, but what we hear isn’t good.”

Megame smiled at her. “You care a lot about other people, Cat-chan, I like that about you.”

Cat giggled slightly at the nickname. Megame had started by calling her ‘Catarina’, but Cat had insisted on the Japanese modifier.

“Well, I always try, but there’s not a lot I can do on my own in this case. I can’t just ride out and fix all of Europe by myself; even I don’t think that much of myself.”

“You would be surprised with what you can do when you set your mind to something,” Megame said. “But I do think that task might be better suited to Rome’s Legions.”

“That’s the problem,” Cat said. “Convincing the people of Rome to put themselves and their loved ones at risk to help people outside of Italy.”

“Isn’t it in their best interest?” Megame asked. “With the world falling apart outside without help, Rome might not have neighbors for very long.”

“That’s what I say, but a lot of people are scared and…can you really blame them? When you’re up against things like undead dragons and giants and sun-eating wolves…you don’t really think of it as a fight you can win.”

“I understand that,” Megame said. “But you’re not the type of person to be afraid, and I doubt you’re alone.”

“Well you never seem afraid,” Cat said. “After all, crossing the world’s biggest continent on foot…I bet there isn’t much of anything left that would scare you.”

“Mmm…” Megame didn’t reply, merely taking another long sip of tea before speaking again. “What about this girl…Gisela?”

“Oh, her…” Cat’s mood soured almost instantly, poisoning the taste of the tea in her mouth. “I haven’t been back to see her.”

“Why not?” Megame asked, her face curious. “You said she knew you by name, and her capture was mere days before you defeated the shadow of…that dragon.”

“Coincidence,” Cat said. “Remember she was the one leading the charge in the Battle of the Black Sun. She’s the champion of an evil goddess and should rot in jail where she belongs.”

“But being a champion means she might have knowledge,” Megame said. “Knowledge we can use. Isn’t that what she said to you?”

“In a sense…” Cat said, no longer enjoying where this conversation was going.

“Could it really hurt to go back and talk to her again?”

“I don’t trust her,” Cat said. “She attacked Rome, brought her evil goddess here, and I’m more than willing to bet she’d say anything at the chance of a little leniency. That’s not someone you can trust!”

“Well I am not asking you to trust her” Megame said. “But not everyone you think is evil can be figured out so easily. Don’t forget I came here with a vampire.”

“Ya and I remember the uproar THAT caused,” Cat rolled her eyes, even as she knew Megame had a point. The Shrine Maiden apparently agreed as she continued to press home on the matter.

“Cat-chan, this isn’t something you can just ignore and hope it improves. If she has nothing to offer, if you think she’s lying, then you can just leave and she’s still stuck in her cell. She can’t enchant or hex you through the glass, and you’re not about to just let her out on her own, are you?”

“No, of course not…”

“Then try.” Megame said.

Cat let out a long groaning sigh. “Dammit, why do you have to be so reasonable?”

Megame smiled triumphantly. “Because you and everyone around you can be very unreasonable, of course.”

“Can we finish the tea at least?” Cat asked, eyeing the kettle.

“Of course.”

The afternoon had shifted into evening as Cat climbed the steps onto the Capitoline plaza. The sun was drawing closer to the horizon and the sky was growing a steadily deeper blue in the east as new colors sprang up in the west. Streetlamps were beginning to be lit, most by hand, and the nightlife of the city was beginning. As people moved out of the plaza with the end of work, Cat moved against the flow to find herself in the holding chambers beneath.

For nearly half a year, the girl called Gisela Silva had been sealed away in a holding cell, kept under constant watch and behind a glass panel reinforced with several kinds of magic. A year ago Rome had been too small for prisons to be viable, and even now forced labor and community work was the punishment for most offenders, but Gisela could not be trusted, even under guard, in the city at large. She was a champion, and that made her dangerous.

Being a champion was to be chosen by a god as a vessel for power. Many gods across many religions and mythical pantheons had champions. Most of the ones in Rome were Greek or Roman deities. Her friends Rosa and Salvatore were the champions of Ares and Minerva respectfully; the head of the Night Guard, Aurelio, was a champion of Diana; the Pontifex Maximus, Nora Newstar, was in a way the champion of the entire Egyptian Pantheon; and a professional engineer and masterful artificer, Evangeline, was champion of Hephaestus. Even Megame was a champion to her Japanese goddess Inari.

Gisela, however, was something much more dangerous. She was a champion of the Aztec pantheon of ancient American, and specifically of Itzpapalotl, the Obsidian Butterfly, whose cult had laid bloody siege to Rome last April. Cat had been out of the city when it occurred, but resented everything that Gisela stood for.

Gisela was a tall, slim woman with long black hair and eerily pale skin. Though she seemed to be in her early twenties it was difficult for her to tell. She was dressed in an ugly white jumpsuit, the closest thing to a prison uniform they had, though Cat thought she would be better served in a straightjacket.

“Catarina Aldobrandini,” Gisela’s voice came in clear despite the thick glass, again likely the work of some enchantment. Cat shivered, there was something…wrong when she said it.

“I was hoping you would come back. You left our last meeting rather…abruptly.”

“I’m back, not that I’m happy about it,” Cat said, arms folded over her chest. “But because I think you might be useful to Rome.”

“And how does Rome wish for me to be of service?” Gisela sat back on the stark mattress she had been given. A book resting under her hand. While Rome had decided to keep her in holding indefinitely, they didn’t treat her like an animal. She had decent bedding and books to read (given approval first), and she had apparently never complained save for the occasional request to meet with people, usually Catarina or Capitolina.

“What do you know about Primordials?”

“More than anyone in this city,” Gisela said. “More than even the Capitoline Wolf’s pet Primordial.”

Cat stared. Only a handful of people knew that Angel was a fallen Primordial. It was one of the best-kept secrets in Rome, but apparently this woman knew it offhand.

“If that’s true,” Cat stood her ground. “Then that’s information we need.”

“Oh, I have no doubt,” Gisela said. “Rome and you in particular will be in need of it, and I would be happy to provide.”

“Ya, and what are you asking in return?” Cat wasn’t about to be fooled. “I’m not about to strike a deal.

“I ask for nothing,” Gisela’s face remained steadfastly serious. “I offer my advice and my services freely…save perhaps an upgrade in accommodations. My one condition is that I offer this information only to you.’

Cat slapped her hand against the glass, loud enough to send a resounding slam through the cell. Gisela didn’t flinch.

“What is with you about me?” She demanded. “Why am I so interesting? Why do you know my name? Why will you only talk to me!?”

“That’s simple,” Gisela said. “Because you’re a hero, and I came to Rome to help you.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Prologue

 

The sounds of battle grew closer every day. The drumbeat of marching feet, the echoing clatter of steel, and the high chorus of death-shrieks and battle-roars had echoed across the hills and grown louder and louder as fields were turned to churned mud and forests were reduced to ash. The battle had been fought for years as the wounded and the dead rose each night, picked up their weapons, and charged out once more to meet their foes the next morning. But all the courage in the world could not shift back the tide of this war. In a world above the world, the great gods of the North were losing the battle for their home.

Odin, the All-Father, the Deceiver, the God of the Hanged, rose from his throne in the great hall of Valhalla as the sounds of coming battle rang in his ears. The time for thought had come and gone, the time for action had come. In an age past Odin had been granted visions of the future, and he had seen the death of the gods, of his people, of his world, and time had made his visions reality. Odin had watched all the realms consumed by fire, water, and darkness before the great jaws of a wolf consumed him to. Now Odin, all his kin, and all his enemies had been reborn afresh into a new Asgard, with a new Midgard, and a new future.

And it was happening all over again.

Dressed humbly as he was in a long grey cloak, a walking staff in hand and a broad-brimmed hat over his eye, the tired grey god walked through the empty halls to his chambers, hidden away deep beneath the lofty hall of Valhalla. There was no one to stop or to question him, for they were all on the battlefield fighting for their lives and for their future against a sea of foes.

Within his sanctum, upon a table, rested Odin’s last confidant. Stooped in the shoulder and hidden beneath his own shadow, Odin inclined his head to greet the pale and emaciated head of a man, long since severed from its shoulders.

“The day is grim, Mimir” Odin said. “And it is dark”

“And it will grow dimmer and darker still, Father of Hosts” The severed head spoke back to him with a shriveled voice through decaying lips.

“Has it come again already?” Odin asked “Is Ragnarok upon us as it was before?”

The muscles of Mimir’s face twisted into what it could manage of a smile “Many times you have asked me, Odin, and every time I have answered the same: Only the Norns know fully how the cycle will pass, they let you be privy to their plans last time, but Urd contents herself with creating order, Verdandi chooses to weave her spider threads about us in silence, and Skuld keeps her darkest secrets tightly hidden.”

Odin could not help but feel a dark smile creep across his own face “Fate will not be kind to us, it seems.”

“Kindness is rarely the method of fate” Mimir said “But you would resent it if it were.”

“Aye, that I would.” Odin gave a tired sigh as he took a seat beside the table, placing his hat idly on Mimir’s head “Greatness rarely springs from kindness. Only in the heat of fire and under the hammer’s blow can good steel be made.”

“I cannot say what will be, All-Father” Mimir said “But ask me what is and I shall tell all I know.”

“How bleak are the signs?” Odin asked “How much time do we have before the serpent buries this world?”

“Bleak” Mimir said “Loki and Surtr have thrown in their lot with Nidhoggr.”

“As I knew they would.”

“As you knew they would” Mimir made his best approximation of a nod. “Fenrir is still bound, but his gnawing grows more pronounced each day. The Midgard serpent is unbound but seems…slothful. Its allegiance lies nowhere.”

“So my son has told me” Odin said, recalling Thor’s excited and half-drunk telling of his adventures down the river between worlds. “How is Midgard?”

“In no fit state to fight that I have seen.” Mimir said “But it has only felt the beginnings of the Primordial’s assault. Nidhoggr seeks to conquer Asgard before the wretched serpent will set all its power against Man’s Earth.”

“If Asgard falls” Odin said “if the Naglfar reaches the northern seas and Surtr strides across the lands of Midgard, then no amount of human heroism will save them from the end of days.”

“Do you think the humans have no hope?” Mimir asked, and at this the One-Eyed god’s smile grew a little broader. “Do you think they are too weak to fight?”

“On the contrary, Mimir, I think the world of the stupid little apes.”

Odin rose once more to his feet, he had spent enough time worrying and talking to a severed head. As he did, the grubby grey cloak feel away, replaced by a long cloak of dark grey wolf fur with a mantle worn over armor woven from thick gold rings. In his hand was no longer a walking staff, but a tall spear with a wicked edge and a haft blackened by fire and ablaze with shining runes. He drew the hat off of Mimir’s crown, but when he placed it on his brow it had become a great helm of gold that did not disguise his face or missing eye.

“They are a troublesome and irritating race with a penchant for discord and dishonor” Odin said “Though the same can be said of we Aesir. They are dumber than us, weaker, and more short-lived. They cannot see far past their own eyes, nor travel further than their own feet, but there is more to them than driftwood.”

“In a rare few perhaps”

“In those rare few, but they number many now, and those rare few are like fire. Where they burn, their fire spreads to others.”

Odin began to walk, steady on his feet and shoulders up, back into the hall.

“They are cowards, and they are heroes. They are criminals and they are paragons. Ten thousand contradictions in a single ugly race, but with a little pushing and molding they can be as mighty as the gods.”

“Let us hope then” Mimir gave his parting words “That they can be dragonslayers too.”

Odin walked with calm and steady footsteps back up to the great hall of Valhalla, and once more the echoing sounds of battle rang in his ears. How long could they hold this hall? A month? A week? Days? The Norns taunted him with their silence, and while Odin the Wise knew most things, he did not know it all. He relied on an old trick even more ancient than he was: Always pretend to know more than you do, more often than not people will believe you.

With a thought he called his ravens to him. Huginn and Muninn took their places on his shoulders, the great black-feathered birds looking into his single eye awaiting his instructions.

“I have a message for you two to deliver.” He said, and he whispered so that only they could hear it.

“Now begone! Get it delivered at all the speed your paltry wings can muster.”

With a squawking caw the ravens were away, dark wings carrying his words away from Asgard, leaving Odin alone with a crooked smile on his face. With nothing left to say and no one left to say it to, Odin strode out of the hall to join the din of battle.

It was night in Asgard, as it had been for weeks. After the first few days of darkness the stars and moon had blackened, but now a new aurora was cast across the heavens as great shards of multi-colored light danced and twinkled in their place. The ruined remains of the bifrost had been thrown across the sky after the shattering of the rainbow bridge, and now its ruined remains twinkled overhead.

Ahead of him Odin could see the battle lines, glowing with fire as the giants, the dragons, and the hordes of the honorless dead clashed with his Einherjar. Odin drew in a deep breath, and his nose filled with the scents of blood, filth, and carnage that could only come from battle. The ravens were already circling in their wide arc, keeping their distance until it was safe to come to feast.

He was disrupted from his reverie by the sounds of galloping hooves as a line of mounted warriors came to greet him. All the riders were women, all of them trained, battle-hardened, and beautiful, and as they rode to him many more came down from above, supported on their own great wings. The lead rider had, clutched in her hand, the reins of his own massive steed, the eight-legged Sleipnir, which dwarfed all other horses as he did all other men when he rode into battle.

“All-Father” the lead Valkyrie bowed her head as she handed him the reins “You’ll join the battle today?”

“I figured it was about time.” Odin shrugged as he mounted his horse, and he could feel the excitement brewing among the valkyries as he did. “It can never be said that I run from battle.”

“None would even think it, All-Father.” The lead Valkyrie bowed once more as the line fell in behind him.

Odin turned Sleipnir to face the battle line, even from this distance, his one remaining eye could see the fighting and the carnage as if it was happening at his feet, and soon enough it would be.

Odin, God of the Spear, God of War, and Lord of Lords, would ride to battle this day in command of his many Valkyries and his countless einherjar. As he had before, so it would be again.

 

A world away, on Midgard or as the humans called it Earth, a young girl had hitched a ride on the back of a traveler’s wagon. It wasn’t safe, the kindly man had said, traveling alone form one town to another, not with the world in the state it was. She had agreed, smiled, and let him cart her to the next town on her journey south, and she had let him remain blissfully unaware of just how rightly unafraid she was.

Her name was Torleif, and sitting beside her on the wagon, always within reach of her thick leather gloves, was a mighty hammer gifted by the god of Thunder, Thor.

“How long’s the trip, old man?” She called forward, legs swinging off the back. She had ridden up front with him for a while, but she had a child’s restlessness, and liked to move around.

“Still the better part of the day” he called back, somewhat gruffly as he repeated himself “But we’ll be there before nightfall, no reason to fret.”

Torleif lied back down in the cart, blue eyes staring upwards into the great empty sky. As she stared, a pair of dots appeared high overhead, appearing at first like her distant memories of jet planes, but these grew larger and larger still.

Soon she could see the shape of two large black birds descending in a slow spiral towards their cart. She considered taking hold of her hammer, but she could sense no danger from these birds. The ravens weren’t threatening, and in fact she felt slightly calmed by their presence. So instead she merely sat up in the cart to watch as the ravens perched gently on the sides, watching her through beady black eyes, unbeknownst to the old man who merely continued driving his cart.

One of them opened its mouth, and when it spoke it did so with a man’s voice, a god’s voice.

“Torleif” Came the voice of Odin the All-Father, though she did not know it by sound “Wielder of the Thunder and Champion of Asgard, listen well because this may be the last message you receive.”

Torleif straightened up, listening intently to the words of the raven and paying mind to every word.

“Asgard is fallen for all intents. The Aesir and the Vanir shall hold Valhalla for as long as we can, but when the hall falls and we are forced from Asgard, the Dragon of Yggdrassil shall set its sights upon your world, and by then it may be too late.”

Torleif bit her lip, hands curling into fists as she listened.

“Your only hope is to challenge Nidhoggr on Midgard, to make the dragon face you on human terms. On Midgard, a human can succeed where even the gods have failed, but you cannot do this task alone.”

Torleif had already grabbed her hammer, ready to leap off the cart and run towards Nidhoggr at his word, but now she paused.

“Seek out Freyja, the only one of our kind outside of Asgard who has not returned to fight. Find where she is and what she has been doing. More than that, however, you must seek out more like you. Find the champions and the heroes, the warriors both nearby and foreign-born with fire in their souls. You cannot slay this dragon alone, Torleif, but if you heed these words, find Freyja, and follow my signs, then you can begin to stack the odds in humanity’s favor. Follow the roads, for all roads lead to your destination.”

With that final riddle, the raven closed its beak, and it and its partner, the silent one, both flew back into the air.

Torleif frowned, she didn’t have patience for riddles, particularly when the topic sounded so dire.

“Hey old man!” She called forward again.

“Not polite to call people old, young lady” The man said gruffly “True as it may be.”

“Where do all roads lead?” Torleif asked, ignoring him.

“Well, no one place really…” he trailed off “Though there’s this old saying..”

“What old saying?”

“All roads lead to Rome.”

 

Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Volume 3

With only one week remaining until the release of Volume 3, we’re happy to announce that we have some information for you all regarding the upcoming volume. Without further ado, the title for the newest book is The Cities Eternal Vol. III: The Snake and the Mirror.

Not only that, but we have the names of the three point-of-view protagonists that will lead the main story chapters of the new volume. Returning from the previous volumes are Catarina Aldobrandini, and Asha, alongside them will be newcomer Noemi Valente. The story will be taking a broader scope look at the world, as Catarina’s story will remain focused in Rome, but Asha’s will be centered largely in the Middle East and the new state of Babylon, while Noemi’s story takes us to the New World in Central America.

We hope those of you who read our updates will look forward to this new story, and that this new volume will bring new readers and orders of success.

Vol 2 Conclusion

With the last chapter “The End of Spring” we officially mark the end of The Cities Eternal Volume 2: Where All Roads Lead. Of course, this is hardly the end of the serial, and after a brief 2-week hiatus we will return with a new Volume! We will try to keep regular updates of background material and interest regarding this new volume until then. For now, us the time to catch up if you’ve fallen behind, or send the serial to your friends. We try to improve the site all the time, but it would be even better if we could get our feedback.

Where All Roads Lead

The End of Spring

July 26th, 2024

 

It was midsummer now in Rome, and the air was hot, dry, and thick with the sounds of people as the sun rose steadily towards its apex. Catarina had finished breakfast and was on her way to the training field for her morning routine, and today she wasn’t going alone.

“I wonder if you two will beat me today,” Hildegard smiled as she fell into step beside her.

“Of course we will!” Cat said proudly, hands on her hips “We get stronger every day! You can’t be the best forever.”

“I don’t need to be the best,” Hildegard said, her voice tilting as she teased her sister. “I just need to be better than you.”

The pair of them laughed as they made their way past the barracks of the first legion to the training field where dozens of people were already gathered to exercise and spar. Their favored training ring was a chalk circle drawn on the ground about five meters across, and their third was already there waiting for them.

“You Italians know how to keep someone waiting,” Rosa tapped her foot impatiently, training spear resting over her shoulder. “These spots aren’t exactly reserved you know; I gotta fight people off to keep it.”

“Then you’re nice and warmed up,” Hildegard said as she and Cat retrieved training swords from the racks.

The banter might have been cleaner, but the sparring matches between Rosa and Cat were no less brutal. They had stopped holding back on their abilities as well. Cat used her ice magic wherever possible to compliment her swordsmanship, but Rosa didn’t relent with her champion’s strength, and a powerful body blow from Rosa would often throw Cat out of the sparring circle entirely.

They ran a few rounds one on one, keeping the other sharp as they kept finding new ways to exploit each other’s weaknesses.

“Back legs too far out!” Rosa jeered as the butt of her spear smacked hard against Cat’s shin.

“Ow! Dammit!” Cat growled, striking out against Rosa’s defenses.

“She’s right!” Hildegard called from the sidelines. “You keep ignoring your footwork when you’re not on ice.”

“I don’t need reminding!” Cat shouted back as she parried another quick blow from Rosa, countering into a quick elbow to the ribs.

“And you get too aggressive when you’re parried, Rosa!” Hildegard called to her in turn.

“Ya ya!” Rosa retorted as she pulled back. “Not game point yet though.”

After several spars, Cat finished in the lead at two hundred and fifty six wins to Rosa’s two-fifty three (The pair of them had kept track since their very first bouts). They switched to coordinated fighting, with the pair of them up against Hildegard.

Hildegard could have used her magic, but it was quickly apparent she didn’t need to. Catarina didn’t even know how she moved like she did. There was no excess energy, no nervousness or uncertainty to her movements. She could dodge the edge of Cat’s practice sword by centimeters and be utterly unfazed. She was also incredibly ruthless with the pair of them, using her entire body as a weapon, as Rosa was quick to discover when Hildegard’s knees slammed into her stomach after a miscalculated spear thrust. The pair of them didn’t need to keep track of their wins against Hildegard. They hadn’t won one yet. They didn’t train against Hildegard to win, however. They did it to communicate.

“Rosa, up top!” Cat called, as a wave of ice-filled air whipped towards Hildegard’s head. Hilde ducked low, just in time for the shaft of Rosa’s spear to swing around towards her face, forcing Hilde onto the defensive as she raised her sword to block the blow with the flat of the blade. Neither of them were done yet, and they moved as one to attack Hildegard from both sides. On anyone else it would have worked, but Hildegard was dangerous from all angles. She dodged a thrust from Rosa’s spear, hooking her arm around the shaft and redirected it towards Cat just as she stopped her swing with a counter of her own, twisting out of reach as Cat and Rosa all but collided with each other.

“An improvement,” Hildegard smiled. “But not good enough.”

“We’re not done yet,” Cat said, picking herself up along with Rosa.

“Not even close,” Rosa added, leveling her spear at Hilde.

 

As the sun reached its peak, the three of them finished their spar. Rosa needed to leave to continue her training with Capitolina and Hildegard needed to train some of the recruits. On her own until her magic lessons, Cat decided to grab a sandwich to go and take a walk through the Parco San Sebastiano, where quite a bit of development had gotten underway.

Utmost care had been taken not to disturb the native trees, and in fact more had been imported as a large complex of wooden buildings began to take form at the center of the park. They were built with naturalism and minimal impact in mind, and the three masterminds of the structure were currently meeting beneath a large wooden gate that stood austerely at the front.

“Painting it red might be too much of a statement,” Nora said, looking over the large building schematics. “This is an inter-pantheon shrine after all.”

“I think it’s a lovely shade of vermillion,” Echo smiled.

“Well the painting isn’t really necessary, but I’m glad to see Echo-san is onboard,” The last one, and the newest to the city, smiled before catching sight of her. “Ah, Cat-chan!”

“Hey, Megame,” Cat waved at them, finishing the last of her sandwich. “More shrine work?”

Megame gave an exaggerated sigh. “It doesn’t seem to stop. Inari-sama never said it would be this hard…”

“They rarely do,” Nora clicked her tongue. “Anywho, this gate…called a tori right?”

“That’s right,” Megame nodded.

“We’ll leave it bare wood for now. Now regarding the central shrine…I dunno, Echo, general purpose? What do you think?”

As the Pontifex and nymph chatted, Cat took the time to talk with the young Japanese woman, a shrine maiden as she had explained.

“I’m still surprised they’re building a shrine in the city,” Cat said. “We have the temple after all.”

“Temples are for gods, shrines are for the lesser spirits, Cat-chan,” Megame smiled. The nickname had been a joke at first but Cat liked it, and all but insisted Megame continue. She’d met the shrine maiden not long after she arrived in the city a month ago, hardly a day in fact and it seemed at times as if the Japanese girl had deliberately sought her out. Still, Cat didn’t have much company her age, so she was more than happy to make friends. “And there are some god-like spirits who prefer a more natural setting.”

“Well it’s coming along great,” Cat said.

“Did you just get off sparring?” Megame asked. “You seem a bit sweaty.”

“Ya, I did,” Cat sighed. “Hilde kicked our asses again.”

“Aaw, well, maybe tomorrow you’ll have better luck!” Megame said cheerfully.

“So where’s your fox?” Cat asked.

“Hachi? She’s sleeping, she spends most of her nights out with Aurelio and Cade now.”

“Ah right, she’s with the Night Guard too,” Cat nodded. “Shame, she’s cute and I barely get to see her anymore.”

“I’ll let her know,” Megame giggled.

 

The two of them kept chatting until the sun passed its noon zenith, signaling the time for Cat to make her way back into the city. She waved a goodbye as she walked out of the park, making her way to Lord Nassar’s impressive estate. His lessons were as challenging as ever, but much of it felt like busywork to keep her occupied with minimal effort on his part as he continued his campaign work, so for many lessons Catarina found herself either alone or in the company of Albion’s new assistant.

“Now that is a fascinating interpretation” Lutetiana said as she glanced over her homework. “Though I feel you’re missing the historical relevance of the katadesmoi in favor of a literal interpretation. I suggest rereading the Selinus documents.”

“Right,” Cat bowed her head. “I will see to it.”

She had no idea where Lutetiana had come from. Indeed, the accomplished and knowledgeable mage seemed to have appeared from thin air to work as Albion’s campaign assistant. While she was supposedly a lesser mage to Cat’s teacher, the breadth of her knowledge at times seemed to rival Scheherazade’s. She was also a tremendously attractive woman, with unnaturally young silver hair bound behind her head, and gleaming curved eyed always watching past her thin glasses. At times, during her lessons, Cat found her eyes distracted as they followed her around the room.

“See that you do,” Lutetiana said with an enchanting smile. “A smart mage can’t afford to ignore the classics.”

 

After her lesson, later in the afternoon, Cat made her way to Scheherazade’s library. Normally she spent the time reading or having the storyteller help her with her homework, but it was Friday so she had an appointment to make. Inside the vast library Cat hurried through the varied shelves, almost inadvertently passing a collection of chairs where Scheherazade sat engrossed in conversation with another visitor.

“Afternoon, Catarina,” Schehera smiled as her guest, a lithe dark-haired woman, raised her cup in casual greeting.

“Hey Schehera, hey Kara,” Cat nodded. “Sorry, need to take a call.”

“Of course, we won’t hold you up,” Schehera smiled. Cat hurried on and found the familiar journal she’d be given sitting open on a pedestal.

“Afternoon, Asha,” Cat wrote happily, waiting for the familiar face to appear on the opposite page.

“Evening, Cat.” Asha’s smiling face and flowing script appeared. “Off your lessons already?”

“Ya, Lord Nassar is super busy these days so I get off easy a lot. How’s the campaign?”

“Well another day another monster fought and another village saved,” Asha said. “But at times it feels like trying to drain a river with a bucket, you know? Leyla says we should set eyes on Babylon.”

“Well, whatever you think will work best,” Cat said. “Just stay safe, I want to make time to visit you soon, and I can’t do that if a monster eats you!”

“Not a whole lot to see out here, Cat,” Asha said sheepishly. “Sand, rock, and monsters mostly.”

“Well, you’re there for starters” Cat smiled. “And if that’s the case you should come to Rome!”

“Heh, we’ll see,” Asha said. “How else have you been?”

The two of them kept exchanging conversation through the book until the sun was low in the horizon, and it took a gentle reminder from Schehera in the form of a golden bird on her shoulder to remind Cat that she would soon be running late for dinner.

“Thanks, Sheh, bye!” She called as she ran out of the library and headed home.

 

The dinner table at the Anchesi-Jazheil-Aldobrandini household had only grown larger and more cramped, to the point that Hanne was considering looking into a larger home. Where before it had just been her and her adoptive daughters, it was now Hanne, Hildegard and Salvatore, Catarina with the frequent company of Sheh or Megame, and now Rosaria and Capitolina were frequent fixtures as well. There was, of course, Basil the cat but he tended to make himself scarce whenever Capitolina was around. The dining room was filled with the noise of Cat and Rosa arguing, Hildegard and Turi flirting to the absolute limits that Hanne would tolerate, and Hanne herself discussing legion movements with Capitolina. When she was away on the march, Hilde tended to take control of the household, much to Cat’s dismay.

“You’re always the slower one,” Rosa argue, skewering a meatball with her fork before pointing it at Cat. “I mean honestly, it’s like being chained to a slug.”

“I’m plenty faster than you!” Cat said. “But at close range that spear is useless, so I need to cover more ground to keep you protected at that range.”

“I do just fine!”

Capitolina sighed but gave Hanne a smile. “Nothing like a noisy dinner.”

“Is this like how wolves do it?” Hanne said. “They do have similar manners at least.”

Capitolina gave a short bark of laughter. “Ha! Well not too different. Lots of yipping and barking and fighting for the scraps.”

“Sounds like home,” Hanne said. “How are the others?”

“Kebechet and Giovanni are doing what they can. They both approve of this shrine plan given the pressure on the Temple and the Vatican.”

“And Angel?” Hanne asked, passing some of the salad to Turi.

“She’s in one of her weird moods again,” Capitolina sighed. “I worry about her…and other things as well. These weird moods tend to come before something else bad happens.”

“Well hopefully this time we’ll be a bit more prepared,” Hanne said. “At least, I hope we will.”

 

Capitolina left soon after dinner, leaving Rosa to chat with Cat and Hildegard about their training until well into the night, at which point Cat elected to walk with Rosa back to her small apartment in the next district over.

“So things seem to be going well,” Cat smiled, as the pair of them strolled under the moonlight.

“What do ya mean?” Rosa asked.

“We’re having fun being part of Hilde’s unit, right?” Cat asked. “Better than being a huge jerk and a loner at least?”

“Eh,” Rosa shrugged. “It has its perks I guess.”

“I know Hilde likes it,” Cat said. “And so do I.”

“Aaah come on stop making a thing out of it,” Rosa groaned. “We work decently together, isn’t that enough for you?”

“We’ll talk about it,” Cat stuck out her tongue teasingly. But her short giggle was interrupted by the sounds of another joining them in the narrow street.

“Ah, there you are, Cat,” Aurelio said as he slid down a nearby wall. “Hilde and Turi said you were coming this way.”

“Sure, what’s up, Aurelio?” Cat asked, curious.

“There’s…something you need to see,” Aurelio said, and Cat caught the slight twinge of nervousness in his voice.

“Right now? It’s kind of late…”

“Best not to keep it waiting too long,” Aurelio said.

“I can make my own way home,” Rosa said. “See ya tomorrow, Cat.”

“See ya,” Cat waved as she followed Aurelio into the city.

“How’s the Night Guard doing?” Cat asked as they moved towards the Capitoline Hill.

“Better than expected,” Aurelio said. “And growing every day.”

“How’s…what’s her name again? Sybilla?”

“Ya, Sybilla, we’re…fine,” Aurelio said, and Cat smirked at the slight redness in his face.

“So is Night Guard business why you’re looking for me?” Cat asked. “I mean, I think it’s really cool and all but I doubt I’m qualified.”

“It’s more…unfinished business,” Aurelio said as he walked into the building at the head of the square, leading Cat down into the dark and empty basement. His face had gained a serious tone that Cat wasn’t used to, and she fell into a hushed silence as she followed him down the stairs.

“It took us months to get a word out of her,” Aurelio said. “She’s not someone you can just throw in jail, so we’ve had her in holding until she started making requests. The first one was to see you.”

“Me?” Cat asked.

“By name,” Aurelio nodded.

“Who is she?”

Aurelio led her to a holding cell, where the wall had been replaced by a clear pane of enchanted glass so reinforced Cat could practically see the magic glistening across its surface. On the other side of the glass, standing at the center of a prison-like cell of a padded mat, toilet, and desk, was a young woman with long black hair and a pair of bright violet eyes on her thin face.

“So you brought her here after all,” The woman said. “Catarina Aldobrandini, it is a pleasure.”

Despite her words there was no smile on her face, or any sign of emotion at all.

“Who are you?” Cat asked, suddenly wishing she had her sword, despite the barrier between them.

“My name is Gisela Silva,” the stranger said. “And I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
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Where All Roads Lead

The Way of Fate

May 29th, 2024

The sun was shining overhead as Megame helped load more supplies onto the horse-drawn cart. Cade, Hachi, Kara, and several other villagers were aiding her as they loaded food, water, and other necessities, so much that Megame felt positively overwhelmed when she compared it to the stark and almost monk-like existence she had been leading up until then. The biggest load that had been brought onto the cart, however, was an elegant wooden coffin, tied tightly and securely in place.

“By cart, it’s about two weeks to the Adriatic,” Cade said, slapping on the last box of food rations. “From there you can sail to Italy and barter passage to Rome.”

“Won’t you reconsider coming with us, Cade?” Megame asked. “Hachi’s coming of course, even Constantin!”
The vampire, after profusely thanking Megame for her selflessness and courage, had decided that while his un-life wasn’t over yet, he felt the need to move on away from the town and castle of his youth.

“It is as much tomb as home sometimes,” The vampire had mused at a dinner in Megame’s honor. “Whether I have one year or a hundred left I do not think I shall spend any more of them here. My family’s legacy has haunted this castle for centuries and perhaps I have merely become another part of it.”

“But won’t the town need protecting?” Megame asked.

“They’re not frightened children,” Constantin smiled. “And there is a fine line between them benefitting from my protection and becoming dependent upon it. I have seen to it that they know how to fight the monsters of this land, both the strong and the cunning. As well, no doubt when trade routes expand they will come in contact with other towns like this one. The supremacy of man over his environment is returning, I can feel it, no doubt the dear fox can as well.”

“I can,” Hachi nodded. “You humans truly are industrious. The end of the world came and went and you scarcely needed more than a year to get back on your feet.”

“So what will you do?” Megame asked.

“Well, I cannot be quite as nomadic as I was in my youth,” Constantin said. “Travel is still a danger for me…but I think I can relocate.”

“You should come with us to Rome!” Megame almost shouted.

“Ah, Rome…” Constantin said, leaning back as he smiled as if daydreaming. “The Eternal City…Yes that seems an ideal place to put down new roots.”
So it was that Constantin had announced his departure to the people he had protected. There was a festival the following night that ran until morning, and Megame wasn’t particularly proud of just how drunk she had been. But the day was too beautiful to be hungover, and the thought of the journey to come too exciting to be mellowed by fatigue.

“After all, what have you got to go home to?” Megame asked. “That lonely hut in the woods?”

“That lonely hut has done just fine for me,” Cade said. “Thank you very much. Besides, I imagine there’s someone else you want to have come along even more.”

Megame gained a somewhat sheepish expression as she glanced over to where Kara had taken a seat on the branch of a nearby tree, somewhat apart from the others.

“Go ask her,” Cade said. “I’ll give it some thought.”

Megame nodded and started towards Kara. As she left, out of the corner of her eye she spotted Hachi sidling up to Cade, clearly intent on doing some negotiation of her own.

“Hey, Kara,” Megame said casually, as she walked up to the tree.

“Morning, shrine maiden,” Kara said, and Megame felt a shiver as she recalled the card game with Skuld, and the fate she had played for herself. She had drawn a card labeled “The Bond” then, and among its many figures had been the clear image of Kara. Megame didn’t want to let their bond end here.

“I want you to come with us,” She all but blurted out, unable to phrase it delicately or elegantly. Kara, however, responded with a slightly crooked smile.

“Ya I thought you might try to convince me,” She said. “But I’m a busy Valkyrie with a pretty hard job.”

“I thought you were freed from your contract!” Megame said. “I made sure Skuld agreed to it and everything.”

“It’s a bit complicated, Megame,” Kara said. “But you did help, don’t worry about that. My service is completely voluntary.”

“But what you do…”

“What I do is necessary. Sometimes cruel and sometimes kind but always absolutely necessary.”

“I don’t believe that,” Megame said. “I didn’t before and I definitely don’t now.”

“Then I think you and I will never be able to see eye to eye,” Kara shrugged. “And is that really something you can deal with forever?”

“Mmm…” Megame found she had no response, instead merely quietly backing down with a bow of the head and walking away.

She didn’t want to return to the cart, but she didn’t want to try convincing Kara again either, so instead she merely walked a little ways into the forest to be among the trees, but always keeping the castle within sight.

“A lovely day, isn’t it?”

Megame nearly jumped as a voice sounded behind her. She turned and saw a young woman, probably a little younger than her, kneeling beside a nearby tree, plucking flowers from where they sprang up among the roots.

“Ah…yes, yes it is,” Megame nodded with a smile, regaining her composure.

“It’s never bright as often as it should be around here,” The girl said. “So many cloudy and gloomy days.”

“Gloomy days can be nice too,” Megame said. “Though I admit I’m a bit partial to the sun as well. But just because a day is cloudy or rainy doesn’t mean good things won’t happen.”

“And bad things can happen even when it’s sunny,” The girl nodded. “Though sometimes you get lucky, like today.”

“Like today?” Megame asked.

“Sometimes good things happen on sunny days,” The girl said, still busy with her growing bouquet of flowers.

“Sometimes,” Megame sighed. “Other times you just can’t seem to win.”

“You don’t win because you’re still learning how to play.”

“Excuse me?” Megame blinked, and in the space it took her eyes to close and open again the girl stood up to face her, hands full of flowers.

“You have real talent, Megame Kamigawa, and the heart of a saint, but this isn’t a game for saints. Sometimes you need to understand the cruelty in the world in order to see the kindness that’s there too.”

“Who…?” Megame began to ask, but before she could even finish the first word she saw it. The flicker behind the girl’s eyes, the ancient power and infinite potential hidden beneath the cloak of a young girl.

“People don’t understand destiny,” Skuld said. She was much more muted now than the last few times Megame had faced her. She spoke and acted much like a human would, save for the odd flicker of her outline and the ageless quality of her eyes.

“What don’t we understand?” Megame asked.

“You think, much like your patron, that fate is a one-way road, a path that is set for you that you must walk down. The truth is more nuanced, more complicated.”

Skuld smiled, and this time Megame felt a genuine warmth to it.

“Your fate, your destiny, is determined by the choices you make. My sisters and I cannot make these choices for you, it is and always has been in mortal hands how the threads will interact. Our job is simply to ensure that there are no ugly snares left on the tapestry, and to ensure that each of these decisions face the consequences both malevolent and benign.”

“So we make the choices?” Megame asked.

“And we ensure you face the consequences,” Skuld finished for her.

“But I beat you,” Megame said. “Constantin didn’t face his chosen consequences. He was spared because your judgement was wrong.”

“Is that what happened?” Skuld asked, her expression inquisitive. “Would you like to know what I saw?”

“Umm…” Megame hesitated a moment before nodding.

“I saw a Valkyrie whose soul needed saving and sent her on a path towards you,” Skuld said. “I saw a shrine maiden who needed to understand her role in the world and sent her towards the Valkyrie. When the pair chose to travel together I put the problem of Constantin before them. I saw you endeavor to save him, and I plucked the threads of fate to ensure you would succeed.”

“Wait…” Megame said. “So I didn’t succeed? You just let me win?”

“Now, now,” Skuld said comfortingly. “You didn’t know that. You chose, unaware of what the result might be, to risk your life to save Constantin’s. Is that not the greater accomplishment? Does that not speak more of your victory? Besides, what game did you think we were playing, Megame?”

“A Game of Fate…” Megame said.

“It is a game we never stop playing,” Skuld said. “And now you know how to play. Though with this commendation comes a warning.”

“A warning?” Megame gulped.

“I like you, Shrine Maiden,” Skuld said. “But fate is not within your domain. Fate does not command the choices you make, but it does demand the consequences be fulfilled whatever they may be.”

Skuld’s voice had not changed, but Megame felt a chill go down her spine.

“A player of the game must understand that those choices can be influenced, but the consequences cannot be avoided. If you try and undercut that law again, there are things even a paradox can’t beat.”

Skuld reached a hand into her sleeve, dropping the flowers as she did. From within her sleeve she pulled a card and offered it to Megame.

“Consider it a gift,” She said as Megame took it with both hands, bowing as she did. Looking down at the card, Megame saw it was another card with a figure on it and she recognized it instantly as Kara. It was not, however, the same Kara that had appeared on “The Seeker”; this one seemed older, thinner, and with the distinct black leather jacket Kara now wore along with a pair of trim black wings, a rifle slung over her shoulder. At the bottom of the card were the words

“The Hunter”
“Is this the card you drew?” Megame asked “This card could have beaten mine…”

“It is,” Skuld nodded. “But I chose not to play it. That is something you must understand, Megame Kamigawa. Fate is not a single road you must walk down. Just as all roads lead to Rome, any road you choose to take is the fate you follow. So you must ask yourself which road is the one you wish to take?”

“I think I understand,” Megame said, bowing her head deeply. “Thank you.”

Skuld smiled, and in an instant she was gone, the only sign of her passage being the card in Megame’s hand and the flowers scattered around where she had been standing.

Without pause, Megame hurried back to where Kara sat in the tree.

“I want you to come with us,” Megame repeated herself, emphatically this time.

“I thought you disagreed with what I do,” Kara said, raising an eyebrow.

“I still do, and I always will,” Megame said. “But that’s the choice you made and the consequences you have to live with…but I have my own choice to make, and I want to look out for you.”

“Why’s that?” Kara asked. “You barely know me.”

“Maybe that’s true,” Megame said. “But you’re my friend and I care about you. The people I care about, the people I want to help…I’ve decided they’re the most important thing in the world to me. I know you need to see your work through to the end…but I choose to stay with you as you do.”

Kara sighed, but the smile didn’t fade from her face. “You’re going to be a huge headache for me, aren’t you, Megame?”

“Yes, I will, Kara-chan,” Megame grinned, and the pair of them shared a brief laugh.

“To Rome then, is it?” Kara asked. “You know the way?”

“They say that’s where all roads lead,” Megame said. “It can’t be hard to find.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link:  https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=70&sl=528

Where All Roads Lead

The Night Guard

April 15th, 2024

Aurelio still had his arm in a sling as he walked the steps up to the Campidoglio. Once the center of the Roman Sanctuary, it had fallen out of use as the center of new Roman life when the Senate had relocated and the new market districts began to open. It now served primarily as offices for mid-level bureaucrats, artifact storage and, most notably, the den of Rome’s favored wolves. It was with them that Aurelio was to meet, and while he disliked being up so early in the morning, he moved with purpose so as not to be late.

The city had largely recovered from what was being called the Battle of the Black Sun, though tensions were still high and Pontifex Nora had been working overtime to try and calm fears and stifle false rumor. Butterfly cultists were still being drawn out of the woodwork every day, some by force and others turning themselves in for hope of leniency. Still, the damage had been mostly repaired, the injured were safely in hospital care, and Aurelio had been working overtime to seek out and destroy the last of the cacodaemons that had cropped up during the siege.

The battle had not been without its casualties. A number had died during the attack and Rome had instituted a day of mourning in honor of both civilians killed and the soldiers lost defending them. But in the recent days there had been some hope amidst the post-battle malaise that clung to the city.

Hildegard was back on her feet. Though not in fighting condition, she was lucid and moving around, improving with every passing day. According to Mary, Cat was to thank, and she’d fought valiantly inside the Dreaming. Aurelio had suspected that Hildegard’s adopted sister had a lot of potential, but he was starting to think he had been underestimating her.

“Good morning, Aurelio,” Elisa’s voice pulled him from his thoughts as he looked up at her. She had recovered much more quickly from the fight with Gisela than he had, which he suspected had much to do with her being a homunculus.

“Oh, hey Elisa,” He said, giving her a wave. “Capitolina call you here too?”

“She did,” Elisa nodded. “I imagine to thank us for our work.”

“Maybe,” Aurelio said. “Though I’m not really one for being decorated, and that’s not the impression I got from her.”

When Capitolina had asked him, it had been with a serious tone in her voice. She’d thanked him then for all he had done, but had left him with a somewhat ominous message.

“We can’t let this happen again.”

“I suppose we’ll find out soon.” Aurelio said, and together the pair of them walked into the old senate palace.

Capitolina was waiting them in the large room that had once housed the senate, now empty save for a large round table of oak lined with chairs, and a broad window looking out over the city and letting the morning light shine into the otherwise lightless room, filling it with the pale grey light of morning. She was not alone either. Joining her in the room, standing along the edges of the table were Sybilla, Mary, and to his surprise, the ghost Aelia as well.

Capitolina’s ears rose as they stepped in, and she smiled at the sight of them. “Good, the last two are here.”

“Almost late, hunter,” Sybilla said, arms folded over her chest. “Hardly gracious.”

“Almost,” Aurelio said. “So why are we here, Capitolina?”

Capitolina began to pace a bit, hands held behind her back as she spoke. Though there were many chairs around the table, none of the people standing took a seat.

“If there’s anything that this battle showed us,” Capitolina said. “It is that the city is unprepared for this kind of attack.”

“Can anyone be prepared for something like that?” Aurelio asked. “An attack by an Aztec cult and its monstrous goddess? Not to mention an enemy champion…”

“There is precedent now, even if there wasn’t before,” Elisa said. “We know it’s possible, and no doubt there are other threats we haven’t predicted brewing as well. We all knew we would have to deal with monsters and hostile groups of humans, but the world has changed in the past two years, and the threats against this city will change as well.”

Capitolina nodded. “Precisely what I’m saying. We’ve had to deal with cult sabotage, dream plagues, violent gods, and enemy champions. These aren’t the threats that the legions were raised to deal with.”

“We’ve managed,” Aurelio said.

“Barely,” Sybilla spoke next. “By the time you and Elisa had fixed a problem it was often long after it had developed. People were put at risk, and now people have died.”

“We weren’t alone in failing,” Aurelio snapped at her. “You wouldn’t help us until you could turn it into a bargain for your own gain, and it’s not as if you could have prevented the battle either.”

“A bargain to secure my own freedom!”

“Enough!” Capitolina barked. “It is true that you and Elisa were not enough to track down the cult before they became dangerous, Aurelio.”

The words stung, even if Aurelio knew they were true. If they had found some clue earlier, one lucky break, the battle might have been avoided entirely. Instead they had been caught up in chasing Mary and dealing with Sybilla in the last few crucial weeks, missing any time the cult may have tipped their hand early.

“The important thing to take from that,” Capitolina said. “Is not that you two failed, but that what you did simply wasn’t enough. Rome is a big city, and it’s getting bigger every day. Two people can’t patrol it alone.”

“So you want to form a team,” Elisa finished the thought for her, and Capitolina grinned somewhat impishly.

“I was thinking more of a…guard.”

“Like a task force?” Sybilla raised an eyebrow. “For what exactly, cult extermination?”

“More than that,” Capitolina said. “There are a lot of threats to this city that the legions can’t deal with. Mary showed us that we’re not necessarily safe in our dreams, and the cult showed us that not every god out there has the city’s best interest at heart. During the battle we saw that monsters and cacodaemons will take any opportunity to rush back into the city if chaos reigns, and of course I have little doubt that the Primordials have their own plans now that they’re aware of Rome, even if the shield is keeping the bulk of their forces back.”

“Umm…i-if I can speak?” Aelia spoke up quietly as all eyes turned to her. She was visible enough, but the ethereal morning light made her slightly translucent.

“It’s why I invited you too,” Capitolina said. “You were part of the city’s defense, and one of its spirits. Besides, I always like hearing from the Romans I know best,” she added with a smile.

Somewhat reassured, Aelia spoke with more confidence.

“You keep phrasing things as threats to the city, things that need to be eliminated like the cult…but that’s not the only way to deal with these things. I mean…look at Mary, if what I’ve heard was true, she used to be a threat to the city and now she’s helped defend it.”

“You can add me to that list as well,” Sybilla said. “I wasn’t exactly welcome when I arrived.”

“I’m not welcome either!” Aelia said, nodding along. “I’m a spirit, so of course people are afraid of me. But I love this city and the people in it. I think that there might be ways to deal with spirits other than brute force. If we approach some of these threats the right way, they might become allies instead.”

“She has a point,” Sybilla said. “The legions negotiate with the human settlements, but no one’s tried to negotiate with the spirits in Italy, not even in Rome itself, except the Pontifex but from what I understand she deals exclusively with gods.”

“Probably because it requires a very specific kind of negotiator,” Mary said. “You only managed to capture and work with me thanks to Sybilla.”

“And that’s just the kind of thing we need,” Capitolina said excitedly. “We need warriors, negotiators, experts in all fields regarding spirits and the supernatural.”

“That’s a tall order,” Aurelio said. “If you consider it’s just the five of us right now. Has anyone heard from Evangeline?”

“From what I understand she wants to work freelance,” Elisa said. “Besides as a champion, she’s not as well-versed in spiritual or magical matters.”

“I’m a champion,” Aurelio frowned.

“But also a hunter of spirits, a role which made you uniquely suited for the job,” Capitolina said. “Evangeline will help this city, no doubt, but she might not be right for this group.”

“I believe Capitolina is looking for people of distinctly inhuman nature,” Elisa said, looking over the room at the people gathered. “Benandanti, homunculus, mara, witchbreed, lemure. None of us can be called a completely mundane human, and where there are five of us we might very well find more.”

“There have been a few promising people entering the city recently,” Capitolina nodded. “I keep getting reports of people with powers or spiritual natures, though distinct from mages or champions. There’s also exorcists and other experts from the Vatican to consider.”

“Well, I mean this is all well and good to discuss,” Elisa said. “But we do require a great deal if we want to make this more than unorganized patrols. There’s funding, management, and supply requisition to consider. Not to mention selling to the public the idea of a squad of inhuman warriors and spiritualists.”

“I’ll see if I can make it work,” Capitolina said. “I still have plenty of pull with the senate, and right now I think the people want that little bit of extra reassurance.”

“I think that’s all any of us want,” Aurelio said. “To make the people of this city feel safe again, and back it up by preventing this kind of thing before it happens again.”

“Well,” Sybilla said, uncrossing her arms. “I’m not quite what this city’s little mage club is looking for so I’ve no better place to be. I’m onboard.”

“As am I,” Mary nodded.

“Me too,” Aelia smiled as she nodded.

“And I as well, though I still have my duties to Renard,” Elisa said.

Aurelio hesitated before speaking as the eyes came on him, though only for a moment.

“Before coming to Rome I prided myself on hunting alone. But during the battle…I doubt any of us could have succeeded without the rest of us working together. I can’t protect this city or the rest of Italy alone so…count me in.”

Capitolina’s tail wagged as they all agreed, her toothy grin wide. “Then it’s settled…though we’ll need a name.”

“Dream squad?” Sybilla offered jokingly with a half-grin.

“Legio Spiritus?” Aelia offered sheepishly.

“I think a fanciful name for it is somewhat silly…” Elisa said.

“What about the Night Guard?” Aurelio offered, and the others looked at him.

“Short, evocative, gets the point across,” Sybilla mulled it over. “Not bad, hunter.”

“It’s not overly flashy,” Elisa said. “It could work, and we do seem to operate largely at night.”

“I kind of wish it was in Latin, but I can’t complain,” Aelia said.

“I certainly don’t have a better idea. I barely understand how humans go about naming things,” Mary said.

“Seems like Night Guard is the winner,” Capitolina said proudly. “I’ll start pushing the paperwork through with the Senate.”

The rest of them started discussing the direction this fledgling guard would take, times of operation, and rumors of arrivals in the city who might be of use. They spoke through lunch and well into the afternoon before departing for the evening, all of them now flush with dreams for the future defenders of Rome.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link:  https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=68&sl=973

Where All Roads Lead

Chapter 34

April 10th, 2024

“So how does this work, exactly?” Cat asked.

The pair of them had moved upstairs to the barren room Hildegard used for her own magic practice. It was little more than blank walls, floors, and ceiling, as the candles and target dummies, as well as jars of material reagents had all been cleared out of it.

“We must enter a dream,” Mary said, stooped over the ground as she traced a circle of fine white ash across the ground. “From there I can lead you into the dream of the Lady Huldra.”

“Right…” Cat nodded along. “But what then? The way you said it made it sound like Nidhoggr was in her mind, not her dreams.”

“Something you must understand,” Mary continued, working even as she spoke. “Is that Huldra is a unique brand of witch, one that occurs very rarely across history and culture. She is a being for which the lines between mortal, witch, and god are all quite thin. Are you familiar with the deity known as Hecate?”

“I think I’ve heard of her,” Cat nodded.

“Hecate is another such ‘True Witch’, in her case she is known as the Unbound Witch of the Crossroads,” Mary said. “What they are and where they come from is…uncertain to say the least. I only know what I do because Lady Huldra created me. They might simply be divine aberrations, those caught in a nebulous place between mortality and godhood, or perhaps they are all merely minor aspects, living incarnations of the great forces of magic. What you need to know, however, is that they are as powerful as they are inhuman.”

“I think I understand,” Cat said. “But it doesn’t answer my question.”

“Lady Huldra is known as the Unsealing Witch of the Dreaming. The separation between her mind and the realm of Dreams is so thin as to be almost nonexistent. She can walk through dreams with a thought, bring order to the chaos between the dreams, and enact the will of dreams upon reality. We can reach her very core through the Dreaming alone.”

“Well, you say it will work,” Cat said. “So I’ll trust you at least.”

Truth be told, she didn’t really understand everything of what she was getting herself into, but she knew enough. Enter the mind of this True Witch and slay the dragon within. If she succeeded, Hildegard would be cured.

She had not asked what would happen if she failed.

“Be seated in the circle,” Mary said, and Cat took a seat, crossing her legs with her sword in her lap. Mary moved to sit across from her, making sure the folds of her long white cloak were within the edges of the circle.

“Normally we would enter your dream, and from there follow a trail of dreams into that of Lady Huldra,” Mary said, checking to make sure the circle was unbroken. “But we are short on time, and I am not an average Oneiromancer, so we are going to…brute-force this somewhat.”

“How exactly?” Cat said nervously, hands tight around the scabbard of her sword.

“I will be using my connection to Lady Huldra to enter her dream directly.”

“Is that…worse?” Cat asked. “Sorry I’m still new to this whole ‘dream walking’ thing.”

“It will be…somewhat disorienting,” Mary said after a moment’s consideration. “But you should be able to fight at full power.”

“Do I get any cool dream powers?” Cat asked eagerly. “Like I have dreams where I can fly, will I be able to fly when I’m there?’

“Probably not,” Mary said. “I will be working against Lady Huldra to keep the dream stable. It will be as…real as I can make it.”

“Why not stack the odds a little?” Cat asked. “These are dreams right?”

“Please bear in mind,” Mary said. “That dreams are highly mutable to both sides, and a nightmare is still a dream. By keeping the dreamscape stable, it ensures that they will not try to gain an advantage either.”

“So how do I keep it stable? Cat asked.

“That is for me to contend with,” Mary said. “Your only duty is to slay the spirit of Nidhoggr within Lady Huldra’s soul. If you attempt to alter the will of the dream on your own, then it will be your willpower measured against Nidhoggr’s as it will try to do the same.”

“Alright, sounds simple enough,” Cat nodded. “I’m ready.”

“Good,” Mary said. “Because I already began the ritual.”

“Wait…what?” Cat said, but even before her words had finished her vision began to blur, her eyelids grew heavy, and a sudden wave of sleep washed over her. She never stood a chance of resisting as her eyes fell shut against her mind’s protest, shoulders slumping as her head nodded, with Mary’s shining turquoise eyes being the last thing she saw before she fell asleep.

She was in a dark forest when she woke up, the trees and bushes around her lit by a pale blue moon that sent its light down in great silver shafts through the treetops. She was still sitting, and she was glad to see her sword was still in her lap. Taking it in her hands, she stood up and looked around, hoping to see some sign of Mary, or anywhere she was supposed to go.

As she looked, the trees before her seemed to open, their trunks and branches bowing outwards to form a path through the trees. As a trail took form, shining turquoise spheres of light appeared in a line above the trail, casting their light down upon the newly-cleared trail.

“Guess I should go this way…” Cat said as she nervously set off down the trail.

There was still no sign of Mary, but she was a dream spirit after all; maybe she was there right now, invisible to Cat. More worryingly, maybe she wasn’t there at all, and Cat was walking right into a trap set up by Nidhoggr and the enslaved Dream Witch. The color of the spheres, however, were the precise shade of blue-green as Mary’s eyes, giving them a reassuring presence. Even if she couldn’t see or hear her, it made her feel as if Mary was close by.

Swallowing the growing fear in her chest, Cat began to walk along the trail.

The path had been level at first, but it soon came to shift upwards until Cat was climbing a winding uphill trail along a mountainside. The trees grew sparser as the wind grew cold, and soon a gentle dust of snow began to fall as she hiked further up the mountain. Time was difficult to factor in. She was still in a dream of sorts so she couldn’t easily determine the passage of minutes or hours. By the time she was nearing the mountain’s peak, it felt simultaneously as if she had spent the better part of a day hiking, and as if she had spent no time at all.

The mountain plateaued at the top, creating a shelf of relatively flat, snow-covered stone that rose above the last of the forest. As Cat cleared the treeline, her breath steady as she worked her way towards the peak, she could see that while the moon was bright, the sky was far from clear.

Great dark forms twisted across the sky, arching from one horizon to the next as they twisted, intersected, and divided above the mountain like a great net that contained the world that met directly above her head. Though a few stars could be seen from the gaps in this colossal barrier, everything within, even the moon, seemed to be held beneath the great dark forms which rose to meet in the sky directly above them. Cat stared up at the great shadows in the sky, and she recalled part of a story that Angel had told her a year before.

There is a great tree that holds the cosmos together, all the worlds are held between its branches, and the stars rest upon its crown. That is Yggdrassil, the World Tree, and its roots had been Nidhoggr’s prison. With this in mind, Cat could see how this great barrier could be the great roots of a cosmic tree. The dragon could escape its prison in body, but the shadow of its mind still lurked there.

She was on the right course.

Catarina drew her sword as she neared the mountaintop. Caeruleamor’s shining silver-white metal seemed to glow with its own light as she drew it, gleaming in the frosted air. Snow crunched under her feet and her breath came in wisps of steam as she rounded a patch of boulders that marked the end of her ascent and arrival at the mountain’s peak.

As it had looked from below, the mountaintop was a broad flat area of stone, covered in a few centimeters of snow that gave it an almost unearthly quality. Standing on the white with nothing around save for the moon, stars, and the roots of the great Tree, it was almost like standing on the surface of an alien moon. She stepped forward, leaving a lonely track of footprints in the snow behind her as she looked out across the horizons and saw the expansive dark forest below.

At the center of the peak, from the darkness in the sky, something began to form. It seemed to draw itself out of nothing, a great bulky body that ripped itself free from between the beams of silver moonlight. Steadily it grew larger and longer, great rolls of dark flesh billowing outwards and resting on the ground, an immense serpentine shape coming into being.

As it drew more of itself into existence, the dark shadow-stuff began to gain definition. Lines began to harden and form into a skeletal visage. Flesh withered as quickly as it formed, leaving great patches of exposed muscle and bone visible across its ever-rotting form. A pair of enormous batlike wings began to spread, their fingers withered away until only scraps of dark flesh remained. Its entire body was corpselike, decaying flesh bound and tied together into the hulking form of a draconic monster.

From the billowing coils, fearsome claws, and great wings a head began to emerge. Rising from the mass of its body, a fearsome serpentine head, scaled skin clinging tightly to sharp bone, stared down at Catarina. It was surrounded by a mane of horns, great spikes that breached the skin where it was drawn too tightly, and from the deep shadows of its eye sockets came a pair of burning cold blue lights.

It was a massive dragon, its length impossible to determine as it coiled and undulated upon itself, but even seeing it now Cat could sense that it was merely a shadow of something larger. The air around it seemed to flicker in a dark haze, shadow smoke rose from its body to make it indistinct and almost transparent in some places. As it emerged from nowhere, the sky itself seemed to grow dark around her. Cat gripped the hilt of her sword tightly with both hands as she stepped forward towards the dragon. It opened its mouth, lined with countless teeth as it spoke.

And they come alone, this little silver thing.

Bright eyed and foreign forged, weak and lost.

In far flung dream they seek, the unseating of a greater being.

Of dragon, death, and rotting root. Of darkness from the deep times drawn.

 

Nidhoggr spoke in a voice that was not its own. The dragon had chewed on the corpses of the slain for countless years and now it spoke with their combined shrieking voices. Its breath was rot itself, as sickening to smell as it was to listen to, and there was an otherworldly echo to it that made Cat’s very bones shake. It was a tremendous voice, powerful and terrifying, forced through the mouth of this dark serpent before her. The message was clear, even if she could not understand the words. She was alone against something far more than a dragon, and even this was but a mere shadow of the real thing.

Cat raised her sword and pointed its edge at Nidhoggr.

“I’ve come to slay you, dragon!” She shouted at it. “So I can free this witch and heal my sister! I won’t be stopped by a serpent like you!”

It sounded a bit flat in her ears as declarations went, though she wondered if it could even understand her. She had heard the words it said before, but the noises it had made weren’t quite right, as if it had been speaking another language entirely and it was the intent, not the words, that had reached her mind.

Among the names of serpents, the striking malice sinks deep.

The poison of the world tree, the devourer of flesh

From the shadow mountains rise, and cold peaks dwell upon

No steel can harry ancient flesh, no mind pursue what dwells within

 

It spoke again in that strange verse-like tone with that same overwhelming voice. From the cruel edge and the hint of dark laughter alone Cat could tell she was being mocked. She doubted she would get much in the way of banter from this monster, but she didn’t need to get it angry. Cat just needed to kill it.

Cat charged forward, sword raised as she kicked up small clouds of loose snow with each step, leaving a trail of wet stone behind as she broke the unperturbed surface of the mountaintop. With an almost casual ease the great tail of the serpent swung out to meet her, a whip-like tendril of shadow and diseased flesh that tore through the air. Cat rolled under it, not slowing down as she drew closer to the beast.

Nidhoggr readied itself, sharp claws digging into the earth as it opened its great mouth, whipping up a great storm of snowflakes as it uncoiled itself. From deep within its gullet came a plume of sickly black and green gas that spread towards her, stinking of death and rot as it spread through the air.

Cat raised one hand, focusing her magic as the snowflakes surrounding them were redirected towards her hand, forming into a barrier that collapsed into steam at her command, creating a gaseous shield that collided with Nidhoggr’s poison breath and forming a massive plume of vapor that filled the mountaintop.

A few great whips of its massive serpentine body cleared the air, dispersing both Cat’s steam and the poison gas harmlessly into the sky. Cat had not stopped running, eliminating the distance between her and the dragon. Magic wasn’t going to kill this monster; she needed to get it in sword range.

Nidhoggr didn’t seem to realize the danger Cat’s sword posed, and it threw all of its great bulk into the next attack, massive coils undulating as it moved to surround Catarina. Claws shattered the stone as it dragged itself along, great wings flapping until they were practically in a snowstorm, all the snow that had been on the ground whipped up into a frenzy around them.

Nidhoggr’s great head pulled back, arching into the striking position of a snake, and Cat readied herself, magic flowing through her body as the slick ground hardened into ice beneath her feet. With a snap of its fangs the dragon struck, head whipping down on her with terrifying speed. Its bulk, however, made it slow enough for Cat to avoid, throwing herself out of the reach of its jaws as her feet slid across the ice with practiced ease. The dragon had missed its strike, and worse still left its chest exposed.

Cat gripped her sword with both hands, pulling it back before driving it with all her might into the creature’s chest of withered muscle and grey sinew. The silver blade, shining with a light of its own, tore through the Nidhoggr’s flesh, and where it cut it left dancing blue lights in its wake.

Nidhoggr screamed with a roar that echoed across the mountain as its body lashed in pain. Cat barely had enough time to pull her sword free and run before she was crushed by the great coils of the writhing serpent, needing to fling herself to the ground to avoid its massive bulk.

The reverberating echo of the Nidhoggr’s roar of pain made her very bones shudder, as if it was screaming with the voices of all the dead it had consumed.

No steel of man or dwarf she swings, this thing of light and mortal flesh

It brings a blade of Urd to bear, biting tooth of burning starlight

Of glossy pinion made and forged, from fallen wing its power plucked

The vicious voice from great tree’s crown, by serpent fang made silent tune

“That’s right!” Cat grinned as she got to her feet. “I’m not some pushover to be thrown around. This sword was made from one of Angel’s feathers! And that means it can hurt even something as powerful as you!”

The great dragon coiled and uncoiled its serpentine body as it prepared for its next strike, tail whipping through the air as it gathered itself together before lunging at Cat, throwing all of its massive weight towards her. Cat steadied herself, taking hold of her sword with both hands as ice began to spread from her feet, covering the mountaintop around her in a thick layer of dangerously slick ice.

Nidhoggr’s coils slid loosely across the ice, but its great claws easily smashed through it to keep itself steady as it swung its long tail towards her. Cat ducked low, bringing her sword up in a fierce upward jab that caught the flesh of the dragon’s tail. The withered muscle and stretched skin burned and sizzled away at the touch of the blade, but it still had the incredible force of the dragon behind it, and Cat was thrown bodily off her feet and sent skidding across the icy ground.

Her hand dragged across the ice, her magic slowing her slide and keeping her steady, but the dragon recovered more quickly than she did. Like the blow of a sledgehammer the dragon’s claws came down on top of her, its massive hand pinning her to the icy ground as its claws dug painfully into her shoulder and side, the massive weight of the dragon crushing down on her ribs.

Her breath was squeezed out of her chest, arms struggling for grip as she saw her sword, thrown from her hand, just out of her reach. As she stretched her arm, fingers trying to reach the end of the pommel, another squeeze from Nidhoggr sent a wave of spasming pain through her as she felt herself being slowly crushed beneath it.

The great jagged maw of Nidhoggr stooped low over her, empty blue eyes staring into her own as it opened its great maw. Its stench sent a nauseating sickness down her throat as she felt it burn and blister against her skin, the withering breath sucking the last of the air from her lungs as it spoke.

Of supple flesh and stitched bone, fragile daughter of Embla

No elder blood or carven name, brought low with just an empty hand

No dragons here stand, only darkness awaits

 

The dragon squeezed its claws again, and Cat screamed as she felt her ribs began to crack, the sharp claws cutting through her meager armor and into her flesh. Still the Nidhoggr spoke, and this time its words came through clearer.

Die and be mine

 

Cat’s eyes stung and watered, her vision hazy from the decaying breath of the dragon, but past its forest of teeth and down its dark maw she saw lights within its throat, burning blue like countless tiny eyes, staring out at her from within its endless stomach.

She was being simultaneously crushed, cut, and suffocated as the dragon drew out her death, but as it drew back its great serpent’s head, jaws open wide, she could see her death fast approaching as it prepared for the kill strike.

Cat tried to summon up what magic she could, reaching into her body’s native aether to cast a spell, any spell, but the battle and the intense pain of Nidhoggr’s crushing claws kept her firm calling up anything more than the weakest sparks.

As Nidhoggr drew itself up to its full height, head arched backwards like a cobra, she thought of what Mary had warned her of. This dream felt all too real, she had reached her very real limits and she had done little more than scratch the dragon. The thought of failure was almost as great a pain as Nidhoggr’s claws. She had come this far and died for nothing, lost in a dream.

Cat’s hands balled into fists. Mary’s rules be damned. This was a dream, she knew it was a dream, and she wasn’t about to be beaten in a dream. She didn’t need to call up her own native aether, she had all the fuel she needed if she desired it.

Nidhoggr’s head came down, bone-like fangs glistening in the moonlight, but as it did a dozen massive spikes of ice rose from the ground to meet it, impaling the jaws of the serpent like glistening blades of crystal. Most of them shattered on impact, unable to breach the Primordial’s hide, but it was enough to stop its strike, and more than that it was enough to loosen the dragon’s grip on her. She reached out as far as she could, stretching her hand to take hold of the hilt of her sword, willing the dream to nudge the sword into her hand.

With the familiar weight of the sword once more in hand, Cat swung it upwards, cutting a gash in Nidhoggr’s leg that caused it to release her as it edged backwards. Cat rolled to her feet, and while she tried to will the dream to dull the pain, it still came through as all too real. Her breath came in ragged pants, her legs shivering and the bloody wounds on her shoulder and side showing no signs of stopping, her face burned and she was still trying to blink the poison from her eyes.

“I’m not about to lose to some rotted out carcass!” She shouted defiantly, trying to buy time as her vision recovered. “Not even a shadow of the real thing! I won’t lose to you in real life and I definitely won’t lose to you in a dream!”

Lost in a dream far from home, the bitter drink of defeat

So far deep in delusion, unable to see the truth

The horns of Ragnarok blow, the Dark Hills empty

Trapped in a place before the World’s end, lost in a dream of the past

Cat’s vision had mostly returned, and she swallowed the pain in her body. Her hands tightened around the pommel of her sword.

“Maybe it is all just a dream,” Cat said. “Maybe none of it really matters. The new Rome we’ve built, the people I’ve helped, the new friends I’ve made…maybe it’s all just one last dream we’re having before the world really ends…but that’s enough for me!”

Cat stepped forward, pointing her sword at Nidhoggr.

“I’ll keep believing in that dream! I believe that the world can come back, better and stronger than it was! I believe that every person I help, every single person I save, will help the world a little more! I believe all of it matters! And more than anything else I believe in what I’m doing, in what I am! Even if it’s just a dream!”

Cat placed her left hand over her heart, feeling it beat even here in the dream. It was her dream to be a hero, to help everyone she could. But hers was one of countless dreams. It had been the dream of the wolves and the citizens of Rome to rebuild their city. It had been the dream of Vittorio in Sicily to see his country rebuilt. It had been the dream of Asha to earn a second chance and follow in Cat’s footsteps.

All of it had been nothing but dreams. But dreams could build cities, and dreams could kill dragons.

Catarina felt a warmth behind her, and the dark sky began to fill with a faint pink and yellow glow as the first rays of dawn approached, banishing the night.

Nidhoggr did not bother with reply, it charged her again, maw first, once more throwing all its weight behind its attack. Cat focused herself, digging her feet into the frozen ground as she braced herself, the coils and wingbeats of the serpent sending up another blizzard of snow as it opened its mouth impossibly wide to lunge forward and devour Cat, but this time she was ready for it.

At the last second, Cat lunged forward, closing the last meter between before driving the tip of her sword into the roof of Nidhoggr’s mouth, its own momentum forcing her entire sword through its jagged skull and piercing the creature’s brain. Her success, however, was short-lived as the colossal weight of the dragon kept moving, its inertia forcing her off her feet as she and the body of the massive black dragon were thrown from the mountaintop.

Cat rolled over stones and down the slope as the undulating body of the Primordial thrashed around her, massive coils smashing against the earth as it fell down the mountainside. Unable to find her footing, Cat fell to, rolling painfully across barren stone and missing the crushing coils of the dragon’s death throws by the skin of her teeth. She just needed a handhold, something to grab onto as her hands clung uselessly to the loose dirt and stones of the mountainside.

Whether by luck or the virtue of the dream she all but crashed into a warped and withered sapling that had taken root in the mountain’s slope. Clinging to it for dear life, Cat watched as the long sinewy body of Nidhoggr crashed into the forest below, toppling trees and shattering stone as  it coiled and uncoiled, its screams echoing across the landscape.

Cat continued to cling to the small tree, one arm and her legs wrapped tight around it as her free hand clung to her sword. As the last of Nidhoggr’s screams faded and silence began to settle across the dream, Cat looked toward the horizon and watched the sun slowly begin to rise, the early morning light banishing the great binding roots of Yggdrassil, leaving the sky clear save for the brightest stars.

“There is a power in dreams.”

Cat turned, almost jumping out of her skin as a figure seemed to simply appear next to her.

She was a tall willowy woman dressed in ornate robes crafted from rich silks with a long cloak of thin fur around her shoulders. She had the same glossy dark hair and blue-green eyes as Mary, but they were older eyes and her hair reached to her waist. She turned to Cat, fixing her shining eyes on her.

“It is rare for me to offer someone my gratitude, rarer still for that someone to be human,” She said. “But nonetheless you have earned it.”

“Ah…Lady Huldra?” Cat said.

“I am,” Huldra nodded. “And thanks to you I am for the first time in years truly myself again.”

“Well…you’re welcome,” Cat said, before adding awkwardly. “Well…i-if you’re grateful, I could use your help with-“

“Your sister,” Huldra nodded, her eyes turning form Cat towards the lightening horizon. “I will see to it that it is done.”

“Thanks…” Cat felt relief wash over her and she joined Huldra in silence staring off into the distance.

“Catarina!” Mary’s familiar voice, mixed for once with shock and surprise came next as the much smaller young woman appeared next to her opposite Huldra. “I…you actually…” She failed to summon words as she looked towards the devastation Nidhoggr’s body had left behind.

“What, didn’t think I had it in me?” Cat smiled.

“Well…I am impressed,” Mary said. “But I sensed you used the dream to your advantage. That should have let Nidhoggr beat you.”

“There are a few things you still do not understand, little mara,” Huldra said. “The Nidhoggr failed to utilize the dream because it was no longer its dream alone. The Dragon of Yggdrassil has long since forgotten the light and color of the sun.”

Huldra turned again to Catarina. “You did not try to manipulate Nidhoggr’s dream, but you called upon the power of your own. Through will alone you merged your dream with that of the dragon’s, melding the dreamlands together.”

“Can’t really say I know what that means…” Cat said sheepishly. “But it worked!”

“Simply put, your will was stronger than Nidhoggr anticipated.”

“Told it not to underestimate me,” Cat grinned.

“You have done a tremendous thing,” Huldra said. “But if you seek to challenge the Dragon of Yggdrassil again, understand that it will be expecting you, and you will not have the power of the dream behind you. What you fought was a shade of the real thing, a small shadow thrown against the wall, bound by the limits of the dream.”

“I don’t plan to stop,” Cat said. “No matter what. I won because of my dream, and I won’t give it up because I’m scared of a dragon.”

“Then the only advice I can give you before you wake up,” Huldra said. “Is to keep tight hold of that courage, and that dream.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link:  https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=69&sl=850