The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 54

 

Wood cracked and groaned and splintered, sails whipped and snagged and strained against their lines. The Dutchman croaked its grinding chorus as it tried to lurch itself free from the cold grasp of the Naglfar, and on its deck, the few remaining survivors did all they could to fight on. The thunder of the cannons had ceased, the ghostly crew abandoning their ship as soon as the chance presented itself, all save for Jonah and his living companions.

Noemi pulled the trigger, feeling the hard kick of the revolver in her hand as another one of the Naglfar’s ghastly soldiers fell, the top of its skull reduced to powdered bone. She still had the axe as well and swung it with great effectiveness through the ghostly and skeletal boarders. Jonah was at the helm, doing all he could to maneuver the floundering ship while Ronny stayed at Noemi’s side.

“The ship’s taking on water!” Ronny said, looking to where the reinforced prow of the Naglfar had struck the Dutchman. The boarding had breached the Dutchman’s hull beneath the waterline and the cold ocean was rushing in, slowing the Dutchman along with the chains driven into her deck and hull. No matter how hard Jonah strained against the wheel, they were well and truly trapped.

“Noemi”, Ophidia’s voice sounded in her head. “I might have the strength to fly you and Rhonwen from this ship to the Isles…”

Noemi grimaced. It would mean abandoning the battle and abandoning Jonah to his fate. Where was Jormungandr?

Jonah strained against the wheel of the ship, trying with all his might to wrest it free from the Naglfar.

“The damn thing won’t budge!” Jonah groaned. “It’s like the keel is stuck on something!”

“The keel can’t be…” Ronny paused, thinking it over. “No…that’s not it…” She hurried to Jonah’s side as Noemi covered them, the deck now full of boarders as the three of them were forced to huddle around the helm, pressed in at all sides. Ronny strained against the wheel, struggling with all her might, and yet still it would not budge.

“See it’s-“ Jonah paused, his words cut off as Ronny’s cutlass went to his throat.

“Crewman Jonah, I am taking command of the ship,” She said. “Because…well because I’m a pirate and that’s what we do. But more because this ship won’t move without a captain!”

“What do you mean it won’t move without a captain!?” Noemi shouted, slamming the axe into another Viking raider.

“This ship is magic, Red!” Ronny shouted back. “It needs a captain like a lock needs a key. And the original captain’s gone!”

With that, she turned back to Jonah, sword still raised. “Accept me as Captain, Jonah. It’s our only shot.”

“I…” Before he could say any more, a long deep note rolled across the ocean from all sides. At once, all the boarders, from the cursed Vikings to the Naglfar’s forsaken troops, either scurried back to their lines or simply vanished. The Dutchman was still bound by the chains of the Naglfar and boarding ships, but in mere moments its deck had emptied.

“What’s happening…” Noemi said, her voice unconsciously falling quiet. It should have been a relief. They had a moment of reprieve now after all, yet something sank in the pit of her stomach.

From the ocean a strange fog climbed up the sides of the Dutchman. It was thick and dark, like a deep blue smoke the color of murky water that rolled over the railings and up onto the deck, obscuring everything it moved over in impenetrable fog.

Noemi raised her gun towards the fog, not sure what was coming, but she felt Ronny’s hand take her wrist and lower it.

“This isn’t them,” she said, her voice quiet as she stared into the fog. “This is…something else.”

“She’s right,” Ophidia said. “I can feel it as well. Something powerful, and something very old.”

From the fog, the sound of slow footsteps crossed the deck, heavy irregular feet that marched up the deck towards the helm, the source of the sound invisible through the fog. It moved steadily closer, and Noemi could hear an odd sort of echo to it, a pulsing in the noise as if they were underwater.

It came steadily closer until it was so loud, Noemi was sure the source was upon them. In the almost impenetrable fog she could finally make out a figure stepping towards them. She couldn’t make out the shape, and it stopped a little short of revealing itself.

It was tall, taller than any of them, and where she supposed its eyes were, she could see only a pair of dim bright lights, like the lures of some deep sea creature. It arranged itself, stepping on two feet though it may have been trailing a sack or a bag, or perhaps a fiendish tail. Noemi had almost no perception of what it was, its shape was a mystery, and yet it set off a kind of alarm in her heart that she had not felt since she had seen the terrible of reflection of Tezcatlipoca’s true form in the obsidian mirror on that temple in Tenochtitlan.

“Who are you?” It was Ronny who stepped forwards, though by the quavering in her voice she was almost literally shaking in her boots as she addressed the spirit.

The shape in the fog moved, and the fog seemed to grow thicker, an unearthly light opening like a jagged crack beneath its saucer eyes in the semblance of a mouth. When it spoke, it did so with a sound that could only be described as the sound of grinding wood and crushing water, echoed from the darkest depths of the ocean.

 

Davy Jones

 

That’s what Noemi heard, but its mouth did not move quite right, and judging by the way Ronny’s spine went rigid, she might have heard something quite different, but the message was clear. There were gods of the seas and storms, gods of strong winds and gods of sailors. But in the absolute darkness of the ocean depths, where no human could long survive and where countless sailors found their tomb, there was only one master, ancient and primordial.

 

Where is the Captain of the Flying Dutchman

 

“I uh…” Jonah moved from the helm to stand by Ronny. “The Captain…Captain Vanderdecken left. He fled D-…er…Mister Jones.”

The great shining eyes of Davy Jones moved to Jonah, and Noemi could almost see him shrivel under the gaze. For the first time, he looked more like a ghost than a man, intangible and translucent.

 

And you have stayed

 

“I…yes, I have.” Jonah said, doing his best to swallow his fear.

“I-I’m taking over as captain!” Ronny said, moving to his side. “Jonah can work for me but-“

 

The living cannot sail the Dutchman

Captain of the ship is more than a title and a helm

 

Davy Jones’ footsteps echoed as he drew closer, the fog closing in around them, his great bulk only growing larger as he looked down upon Jonah.

 

Vanderdecken spurned the title

A small man of small vision

Can you be what he was not

To be before all else the Jailor of the Deep

 

Noemi was close enough now to almost make out the silhouette, and she swore she could see sharp shark-like teeth lining its jagged maw as it spoke in its crushing voice.

 

Jonah

 

Jonah shuddered as if he had been struck. He glanced down at his hand, only to find he could barely see it as his ghostly essence withered. The message was clear to all of them: The choice was his, but Jonah, like all sunken sailors, belonged to Davy Jones.

Jonah’s hand curled into a fist as he drew himself back up to standing. Stepping forwards as he stared into the shining eyes of Davy Jones.

“I will,” he said. “Before all else. I’ll seek no harbor; I’ll look for no escape. I will do all that you ask of me and keep these sunken spirits where they belong.”

Noemi couldn’t be sure, but she believed to her core she saw the mouth of Davy Jones curl into a smile. An appendage, something like an arm ending in a hand extended from its side, still wreathed in falling fog, and Jonah, gingerly at first, took hold and shook the hand. If a ghost could grow pale, then the color entirely left Jonah when his hand met the hand of the entity before him.

 

Then the ship is yours, Jonah

Captain of the Flying Dutchman

 

With his great footfalls, Davy Jones stalked back across the deck and into the fog. The dark mist recoiling as it drew back into the sea. Cautiously, almost hesitantly, Jonah reached out and took the wheel of the ship. Almost at once he grew solid again, the solidity of the ship giving him back his own. The ship groaned and whined as it strained against the Naglfar once more. And soon the boarders once more began to climb aboard, emboldened by Davy Jones’ departure.

“Well we can maneuver, that’s nice,” Ronny said angrily. “But we’re still one ship against a fleet…Captain.”

Jonah’s hands curled on the wheel, and Noemi could see something distant in his eyes, like a foglight burning through the mist.

“No…” he said. “We’re not just one ship.”

Jonah left the helm, but Noemi could see the wheel still operating as if he held it, and he moved towards the starboard railing.

“Cap…Jonah? What’s wrong?” Ronny asked, the concern growing in her voice as she saw the lights in his eyes.

“I see it all, Ronny,” He said. “I see what this ship is. What it was really meant to be. It’s like he said …”

“Umm, guys…” Noemi said, drawing her pistol as the raiders climbed onto the deck once more.

Jonah lifted his hand, and aboard the deck a line of spectral figures appeared. Phantom marines, dressed in centuries-old uniforms, appeared along the stays with muskets drawn. In a flash of ghostly smoke, the first of the raiders were blown apart, sent scattering back into the mist.

“Vanderdecken thought he could still be a man,” Jonah said. “He thought if his phantom ship ever reached harbor, he could go home and be a living man again.”

“But I’m the Captain of the Flying Dutchman now. The ship answers my call…and not just this ship.”

Jonah looked out to the south, to the empty seas where the grey waters began to roil and churn. From the depths came the rising bow of a ruined ship, algae and mollusks clinging to its rotted wooden hide. Where the ship was missing beams and planks, ghostly energy appeared to take its place, a ship half-phantom half-ruin. After this ship came another, then a third.

Soon, from the south a small fleet had risen. Like the Naglfar’s fleet it came from all eras and lands. A Greek trireme rose alongside a rusted battleship from the first world war, the decks all manned by ghosts.

With a final rending cry the Dutchman pulled itself free from the Naglfar, the shattered planks regenerating from the fog as it sailed towards this new fleet.

“Jonah…” Ronny stared at the second ghost fleet. “Did you summon these?”

“I think I understand,” Ophidia’s voice rang out across the deck as the Dutchman pulled free, the ghostly marines hewing through the remaining border lines. “A Captain is a contract between man and ship, but Jonah has entered another. He is to the spirit of the ocean depths as you are to me, Noemi. Though that entity was more Primordial than god…one could say Jonah is the Champion of Davy Jones…or perhaps in this case, his avatar.”

“I’m still me,” Jonah said, going back to the wheel of the ship. With a flick of his raised hand, the sails realigned themselves, a new crew of ghostly sailors appearing as they worked the lines. “I’m still Jonah…but Ophidia’s right. A captain is a contract between man and ship. Those ghosts want to sail across the world and bring havoc, they want to rise from the depths in defiance of the natural order. I was always going to stand in their way but now…they’ve hurt my ship. They’ve wounded me. And I plan to make them pay.”

He turned to Ronny and Noemi. “The Naglfar might be an ancient Norse ghost ship…but how well do you think that hunk of nails and timber can take a broadside from a proper ship of the line?”

Noemi grinned. “Let’s find out.”

 

The Dutchman had pulled away from the enemy fleet with unnatural speed, but now the sails shifted as it began to come around, the flagship of its own ghostly fleet. It might have pulled free, but the Naglfar was still a colossal ship, and its own fleet easily matched the Dutchman’s in size.

“Fair warning,” Jonah said as he maneuvered the Dutchman back towards the Naglfar. “I’m not really up on my naval tactics.”

“I don’t think anyone can really prepare for a battle like this,” Noemi said. “But I think we can still give them hell.”

 

The battle that broke out off the coast of the Faroe Islands was the strangest battle at sea in history. Ships from every era, crewed by the damned, clashed in a storm of fire, wood, arrows, and spears. Guns from across the centuries thundered like a cacophony of drums as mortar fire streaked through the sky. Roman legionnaires slammed the heads of their galleys into Viking longboats and ran aboard as gladii clashed with bearded axes. Spanish galleons ruptured and exploded as the guns from destroyers ripped through their fragile wooden hulls from across the battlefield. Even the odd Chinese Junk collided with Polynesian ships as ghosts from across the world crossed sword, spear, axe and gun.

At the center of it all, two vast ships engaged each other again and again. The Naglfar, the enormous black skeletal ship with a hull like iron and divine power unleashed a hoard of boarding Vikings at each pass; and The Flying Dutchman, renewed by the vigor of its captain, moving with demonic speed, far faster than its size should allow as it unleashed on broadside after another into the tough hide of the Naglfar. Its spectral marines, led by Ronny and Noemi, repelled the boarders at every turn.

Noemi still had her gun and axe, using them to repel anything that got past the salvos of the organized marines. Her ears ached from the constant roar of gun and cannon fire, but above it all, as the battle raged, she heard another roar resounding from above.

“Noemi,” Ophidia whispered in her ear. “I believe that is the-“

“Dragons!!” Ronny shouted, and from the clouds overhead Noemi could see scores of large, dark, and serpentine shapes descending upon them. At the same time, the waters roiled as the bulk of sinuous sea serpents rose up. As the dragons descended, as if on some signal, a score of them unleashed torrents of fire like lances of light from the sky.

What had already been a mess descended into absolute chaos as the dragons joined the fray. Massive sea serpents coiled around the hulls of ships before crushing them like pythons. Great winged dragons of Europe strafed the Naglfar’s fleet, unleashing lines of fire that burned through entire ships. Some of the dragons even slammed into the decks, massive scaly serpents that ripped the ships apart with tooth and claw.

Noemi couldn’t help but smile as the Naglfar’s fleet began to come apart. Jormungandr had made good on its promise, and the tide of battle had turned.

“Noemi, duck!”

Noemi barely had time to throw herself to her feet as a torrent of fire ripped across the deck of the Dutchman, obliterating a line of marines as a figure leapt from the deck of the Naglfar to theirs with unnatural grace.

Noemi scrambled to her feet, raising her fun as the figure pulled back the hood of their cloak to reveal a woman’s face with pale skin, shimmering green eyes, and bright red hair.

“Who the hell are you!?” Noemi demanded as Ronny rushed to her side.

The woman stared at them, eyes narrowed as her fingertips glowed with barely-restrained fire.

“My name, child, is Morgan le Fay. And this farcical resistance has gone on long enough.”

Noemi could see Ronny’s face shift from one of fury to absolute terror. “Oh shit.”

The name sounded familiar, but right now Noemi didn’t care. Without a thought she raised her gun and fired.

With a sharp ping the bullet was deflected, seemingly by nothing but empty air as Morgan stared her down.

“It seems at least one of you needs a lesson in manners.”

Noemi gripped her pistol as she raised it again. “Yeah, I’ve got a history of having a problem with authority.”

“Uh Red, might want to rethink that…” Ronny said nervously. She was still shaking, but she had her cutlass raised all the same. “I mean…Morgan le Fay is a serious bit of magic firepower if you catch my meaning.”

“Allow me, Noemi.”

“Ophidia I’m not sure if you’re strong enough yet to-“

Before she could finish, Ophidia uncurled herself from where the small serpent had wrapped herself into a bracelet along her arm. It reminded Noemi of when they had first met, nothing more than a winged garter snake that needed her protection and faith. This time, however, Ophidia just kept growing.

More and more, the sinuous pale white curls of the feathered serpent expanded, the lights of the cannons and rockets shimmering across her iridescent scales as she coiled upwards until finally she could wrap herself entirely lengthwise around the Dutchman. Ophidia spread her wings, the long brilliant white feathers blocking out all other lights as they almost enclosed the ship, her enormous serpent head leveled down at Morgan, red eyes flashing as she bared long fangs. A serpent of her size could have swallowed ten men whole at once.

“I do not care what shore or forest or pit you hail from, Morgan le Fay,” Ophidia’s voice boomed across the deck, the shining white winged serpent visible from miles around.

“I am Ophidia, the Feathered Serpent, the Unity of Earth and Sky, and this girl is under my protection. Strike against her and we shall see what a witch is before a god.”

Morgan stared between them, her eyes flashing with fury as she looked from Noemi, gun still raised, up into the vast eyes of Ophidia. Her hands curled into fists, and for a second Noemi was sure she was about to strike anyway, but in a brief flash of fire she vanished, leaving only the smell of brimstone in her wake.

“Whew…” Noemi lowered her gun, exhaling in relief along with Ronny before looking up into the vast red eyes of the feathered serpent.

“Wow…you really have grown.”

“Thanks entirely to you, Noemi,” Ophidia said. “You have a goddess in your debt, something you should not be quick to dismiss,”

“Trust me, I’m in your debt too,” Noemi smiled. “Now there’s a lot of ships out there that need to be sunk again. Go show those European dragons a bit of Mesoamerican pride.”

With a shrieking hiss, Ophidia launched herself in the air, whirling through the sky as she joined the other dragons in the assault, her shimmering white scales visible against the dark grey sky.

The retreat of Morgan le Fay marked the beginning of the end for the Naglfar’s fleet. From the combined might of the Dutchman’s fleet and the draconic attack, the other ghostly ships had retreated or been destroyed, and soon only the Naglfar was left, its great black hull now covered in the scars from cannon and dragon fire.

Noemi was about to call Jonah to move in and prepare to board the Naglfar, but an instinct, a feeling in her gut, held her back, and she felt Jonah begin to guide the ship away from the floundering enemy ship.

“Where are we going?” Noemi asked, running to the helm. “The Naglfar’s still floating.”

“Not for long,” Jonah said, but his eyes were still locked on the great black ship. As one, the dragons and ghost ships began to pull away from it, as if all were given the same signal. Noemi stared in confusion, seeing the crippled ship floating alone in the waters, until she saw the seas beneath the Naglfar begin to churn.

 

Aboard the Naglfar, Loki swore under his breath as he tried to get the ship back on course. The sails and hull were immensely damaged and he was suffering as well, wounded by the nails and splinters of the ship’s collapsing hull and scorched by dragon fire. Nothing permanent, but certainly painful. He glanced out to sea, waiting for the next attack only to see that the enemy had retreated. At first, he felt a wash of triumph, but it was quickly drowned in a wave of confusion. Why had they retreated?

A great shadow fell over the deck of the Naglfar, blocking out what little light the iron-dark sky provided. Loki stood for a moment in the darkness before he finally turned and saw the shape of a great serpent looming over his ship, larger than any other wyrm, larger than any ship, larger than anything else on Midgard.

The World Serpent opened its jaws wide, revealing the vast yawning void of its throat as a voice boomed across the seas.

 

“Greetings Father”

 

Noemi watched as the jaws of Jormungandr came down upon the Naglfar, swallowing much of it whole as the rest exploded outwards into so much flotsam.

As the World Serpent sank beneath the waves, its prize safely in its endless belly, they were left with an empty sea where it had been. Soon the light grew brighter across the northern ocean as the clouds began to part and the mist began to fade away.

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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The Snake and the Mirror

Battle of the Faroe Islands

 

The Faroe Islands were rugged pieces of land that jutted out from the choppy grey sea. Noemi watched them from the deck of the Flying Dutchman, the only thing in sight save for the cold water below. This piece of ocean was where the Atlantic, Norwegian, and North Seas met, a convergence of water that would be the route by which the Naglfar came south, and the one place they could afford to stop it.

Now, more than ever, Noemi hated the natural quiet of the ship. The crew was, as usual, unseen and unheard save for an occasional whispy phantasm at the corners of her sight. At least there was still Jonah, Ronny, and Ophidia.

“Are you nervous, Noemi?” Ophidia’s voices sounded in her head.

“You know I am. I bet you can sense it,” Noemi sighed.

“Your mind is not so clear to me as you might think…but I can sense your apprehension.”

“It’s cold here.”

“It is very cold, yes.”

“Hey umm…Ophidia?”

“Yes, Noemi?”

“Thanks…for saving my life when we first met. I’m not sure if I really thanked you properly for that.”

“…It has been my pleasure, Noemi.”

Noemi smiled before another voice cut through the quiet.

“Having a chat with the serpent there, Red?” Ronny asked, stepping beside her on deck.

“That’s right,” Noemi nodded. “Surprised you’re still aboard.”

“Well I’m not about to run away and hide at this point,” Ronny folded her arms. “Doubt I’d hear the end of it.”

“Not a chance,” Jonah clapped her on the shoulder. “We’d call you a yellow-bellied elf till the end of time.”

“Can’t have that stain on my fearsome pirate reputation,” Ronny growled. “Cabin boy! How’s the ship?”

“Ship-shape and Bristol fashion, as they used to say,” Jonah said. “Not that you should be giving me orders, Miss Pirate.”

“I just want to make sure this barge is in fighting order when the enemy gets here!” Ronny protested.

“That will not be long.”

The voice of Ophidia was loud as it echoed over the ship, as the goddess took her more human form, a tall pale woman with red eyes and long feathered white hair.

Jonah glanced out to sea and nodded as Ronny gulped; even Noemi could feel the pit growing in her stomach as the temperature seemed to drop a few degrees.

The sky grew steadily darker, though it couldn’t have been past midday. The clouds overhead churned and roiled, threatening rain as a fog moved in from the North. Above them, from among the high masts of the Dutchman a warning bell began to ring.

“They’re here,” Jonah growled. “Get ready.”

Noemi ran to the ship’s railing, looking out over the dark mist-strewn water. She wouldn’t be much help in a naval battle directly. She’d need to act as a spotter until the boarding began. Looking out into the deep mist, she saw the sharp dark lines of a prow breaching the water, and another, then another.

From out of the mist came a fleet of ghostly ships, pale vessels shining with an unearthly light and crewed by ghosts or the living dead. The mist was too dense to see them all, but there were at least two dozen ships gliding quietly over the water towards them.

“Ghost ships!” Noemi called. “Off the port bow!”

“Like we though they’re coming from the North…” Ronny said. “This is the opening round. It’s not serious until we see the Naglfar.”

The ships approaching were of all shapes and sizes. Most were Viking longboats, raised from the deep to raid and pillage, the small ships dwarfed by the colossal man-o-war that was The Flying Dutchman. But there were still dozens of them, all crewed by fierce-looking spectral raiders looking for the chance to take hold of their ship.

“Don’t bother with the warning shot,” Ronny said. “Jonah, if you have any pull at all with these ghosts, tell them to open up and not hold back.”

“Right,” Jonah hurried back towards the helm as Ronny stood next to Ophidia and Noemi.

“I’m a little surprised,” Noemi said. “That they never reached out to the Dutchman.

“Whaddya mean, Red?” Ronny asked, glancing at her.

“Well, we’re on the most famous ghost ship,” Noemi said. “Makes sense a fleet of ghost ships would want it on their side.”

“Heh, you still don’t quite get it, do you?” Ronny smiled. “To put it in terms for you…they’re different sides of the same coin. Those sailors out there? Those raiders and risen ships? They hate death, they hate what they lost. There isn’t even a human spirit left in there. All those human souls went to Valhalla or Folkvangr or wherever they went…what’s sailing at us right now is all that hate and fear and misery you get in those last few moments of drowning at sea.”

“And what’s this ship then?” Noemi knocked on the wooden rail.

“This ship’s acceptance, it’s on the side of the drowning ocean itself. The Dutchman isn’t just a ghost ship it’s…like…well, back in Wales we have this spirit named Ankou, the protector of Graveyards and Keeper of the Dead. When I first saw the Dutchman, I thought it was Ankou’s ship. Hmmm to help you understand, you could call this…the Grim Reaper of ships. Those lost souls see this ship and they see death all over again.”

“Heh, now I feel kind of bad about it,” Noemi said, a sardonic smile tugging at her face.

“Death’s important, Red,” Ronny said. “I’m not saying it’s good, or pleasant, but it is. The dead need to stay dead.”

“Mmm…” Noemi felt her heart sink in her chest a bit. There were many people that she wished didn’t stay dead.

“I know what you’re thinking, Red, and forget it. When the dead come back, they don’t come back right. They come back looking like that,” She pointed out to the wailing Viking souls.

With a sound like a roaring lion the Dutchman launched its opening salvo. The frontmost Viking longboats exploded into a shower of wood and rope as they disintegrated into thin ghostly trails of smoke, mingling with the fog. The rest, however, just kept coming.

“Hope these ghosts don’t plan on stopping,” Ronny drew her sword. “Those longboats are coming fast. Expect boarding parties.”

“Right,” Noemi nodded, feeling the revolve at her hip. “What’s the plan?”

“Keep ‘em on deck,” Ronny said. “Don’t let ‘em get below!”

“Got it!”

Again and again the Dutchman lay full broadsides into the oncoming fleet. But more and more ships simply rolled in from the fog. Soon the longboats were joined by larger ships. The ghostly apparitions of ships from Britain, France, and Spain, from Roman Galleys to a roaring Spanish Galleon. None of them opened fire, save for archers on the decks of ships, the guns of the newer warships long since silent while the Dutchman’s still spat fire across the phantasmal fleet. But they kept coming, all of them sailing on a dead wind straight for the Dutchman.

With a clang, the first of the grappling lines were thrown over the deck, cruel-looking iron hooks that sank into the wooden railings as the boldest longboats pulled alongside the Dutchman. Even as ropes clung to her sides the ship continued its series of broadsides, shattering lines of ships at a time. One poor Viking ghost, heaving itself past the gundeck, was annihilated at point-blank range by a canon round.

Ronny picked up a boarding axe from the edge of the railing and began hacking at the thick lines, the ghostly rope fraying under the assault.

“Put those guns to work, Red!”

“R-right!” Noemi hurried to the edge of the deck, ducking low as arrows flew wildly overhead. Looking down over the railing, she saw the first of the Viking raiders hauling themselves up the side of the ship. Drawing her pistol, she leveled a shot and fired, the bang echoing between the booming canon rounds as the closest Viking’s head was reduced to spectral mist, his body falling from the line before evaporating as it struck the water. As Noemi watched, the empty chamber in her revolver seemed to suck in the ghostly mist before another bullet took form within. Good thing it did, because Noemi had a lot of targets.

She started firing across the side of the ship as Ronny cut through the boarding lines. Her revolver’s bang was dwarfed by the thunder of the Dutchman’s guns. Even with both of them working, soon there were a dozen lines hanging from the Dutchman’s port railing with more and more raiders hauling themselves aboard.

“Pull back!” Ronny shouted as they began to spill out onto the deck, Noemi’s shots driving through the first of them even as they came in twos and threes. Noemi pulled away from the railing, lining up her shots as more and more of the ghostly Vikings hauled themselves aboard. Ronny still had her sword and the boarding axe in hand, rushing forward to meet the boarders as she cut through them like mist. Around them, Noemi could see the crew of the Dutchman taking form, rushing to meet the Vikings with cutlass or musket round as they worked to repel the boarders as well.

The Vikings, armed with little more than spectral swords and axes, were repelled by the first musket salvo and charge from the Dutchman’s crew, and for a second it seemed they had a chance to repel them for good before Jonah’s voice sounded across the deck.

“Naglfar! Portside!”

Noemi turned and looked to the North, Out of the mist and fog game a ship unlike any other. The figurehead of its bow was modeled in the face of a snarling skeletal dragon, but massive in size, dwarfing even the Spanish galleons as it drifted past. As it breached the fog more and more of the great black ship came into view. Though looking vaguely like a longboat, it had stolen and stitched together styles from centuries of ships. Multiple decks rose above the water and a hurricane of torn and tattered sails flew above it. The ship itself was iron-black and narrow, with its stems visible against the hull as if the ship itself was a skeletal corpse. Images of human skulls and bones dotted every surface, and the deck seemed alive movement as a crew of risen dead worked to steer the massive ship directly for the Dutchman.

“That ship…is enormous…” Noemi breathed, staring at it. The Flying Dutchman was a large ship, over 40 meters long and armed to the teeth, but the Naglfar could have rivaled an old aircraft carrier for sheer size.

“I hope those dragons are on their way,” Ronny breathed. “Or that one of you have a plan.”

“Urgh…” Noemi swallowed, still staring at the looming ship. “Only one plan. Hold until they arrive.”

Ronny sighed. “I was worried you’d say something like that.”

Renewed by the sight of their flagship of the damned, the fleets had rushed the Dutchman, the longboats throwing their lines aboard as the larger vessels tried to corral the massive ship, guiding it towards the Naglfar.

Noemi leveled her pistol, firing at the boarding spirits as chaos broke along the deck. The line of musketmen had broken and the crew of the Dutchman and the raiders had descended into a fierce melee.

“Red!” Ronny shouted, tossing the boarding axe to her. Noemi caught in and slammed the hatchet blade into the shoulder of a ghostly Viking, the axe ripping through his spectral body as she leveled another shot and fired through the chest of another one. Ophidia had vanished, her smaller serpentine form moving to wrap around Noemi’s arm like a bracelet.

“Could use some help here, Ophidia!” Noemi said, firing off more rounds as the Viking ghosts fell, only for more of them to rise and take their place.

“I am helping to an extent, but I am mustering my strength.”

“For what!?”

A shadow loomed over the deck, and Noemi turned to see the terrible draconic prow of the Naglfar looming over them. The other ships hadn’t been luring the Dutchman in range to be boarded. They were going to be rammed.

“Jonah!” Noemi shouted. “Ronny!”

“Hit the deck!” Noemi felt Ronny’s hand on her back as she was forced to her knees. A terrible crashing noise echoed across the sea as the dark prow of the Naglfar slammed into the Dutchman’s port side. Wood splintered and shattered, the deck of the ship groaned and shuddered as Noemi felt the wooden planks straining under her. From the mouth of the draconic figurehead, spikes attached to iron chains launched forwards, embedding themselves in the deck of the ship as they were bound together, the Naglfar dwarfing the Dutchman.

Amid the sound of breaking wood and the groans of the ships and the attacking ghosts, Noemi could make out the sound of rushing water as the ship lurched and seized. Then, all at once, out of the fog came the sound of a bell. This wasn’t the high alarm bell of the Dutchman, but a much deeper tolling noise, like the sound of a great church bell.

All around them, Noemi could see the ghosts of the Dutchman’s crew vanishing, evaporating into the aether one by one until at last only one spectral figure remained, a tall gaunt-looking man standing at the helm, his hands held fast to the wheel with bony fingers. As Noemi watched, the man slowly, almost hesitantly, released the wheel of the ship and vanished.

“Noemi!” She looked and saw Jonah hurrying towards them, old cutlass in hand.

“Jonah! The crew!” Noemi shouted, rising up to stand with him as the ghostly raiders crept closer.

“The damage to the Dutchman undid the curse,” Jonah said. “Like a hole in a prison wall they all slipped through, even Captain Vanderdecken!”

“So it’s just us on a sinking ship,” Noemi said. She glanced towards the sky, hoping to see dragons soaring through the air, but only saw dark rolling clouds as the first soft drops of rain began to fall.

“We’ll hold,” Ronny said. “Not much choice left.”

“Right” Noemi nodded. “We’ll hold. As long as we can.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 53

 

“Copy Lab Rat, this is Blue Angel, beginning our descent.”

Asha spoke into the walkie-talkie before handing it back to Leyla. She hoped her voice could still be heard through the loud wind, as their descent was going to be very literal.

Asha was currently floating several thousand feet above the city of Babylon, able to see the entire city and surrounding desert laid out beneath them, the Tigris River flowing through the city’s multiple walls and making it a source of green in the desert. Asha told herself for the thousandth time, even if she was going to overthrow Shadiya, she’d make sure this green, those walls, and the city survived.

She began to swoop downwards, Leyla carried in her arms as the pair of them aimed for the massive palace complex at the city center, becoming clearer with every passing moment. It had been built in the style of a great Mesopotamian Ziggurat, the outer layer of sun-dried brick supporting a great glass ceiling that made it shine like a jewel during the day. According to plans smuggled from government offices, it functioned as a sunroof for Shadiya’s throne room.

It also made an excellent point of ingress.

Many of Shadiya’s monsters could flap their wings and glide short distances, but none could truly fly, which meant that the sky over Babylon was utterly clear as Asha descended, her brilliant blue and gold wings shining like a falling star as she approached.

“Get ready!” She shouted over the rushing wind as the two of them slammed into the glass feet-first with enough force to shatter one of the large shimmering planes, sending a shower of glittering glass beneath them as they flew down to the ground.

The throne room was a vast circular chamber, built from dark mud with gilded features in a series of arches supporting the glass roof. Long crimson banners fell from above, converging behind the opulent raised throne opposite the grant entrance. On the throne itself, a great seat of polished ebony and gold, sat Shadiya.

For a moment, even Asha was struck by the seated figure. From what Hazif and Leyla had described, she expected something more obviously demonic, the beautiful queen of her propaganda machine a mere artistic invention. Her face, however, was precisely the face seen across Babylon, beautiful and austere, tanned skin and dark hair above glittering gold eyes. It took only another second, however, for her to see the rest. A pair of long horns like those of a ram rose from the sides of her head, her fingers looked particularly sharp, and a long reptilian tail was coiled around the base of her throne. What she had at first thought was simply decoration for the throne soon proved to be an actual pair of draconic wings rising from her back, and they twitched with irritation as she stared down at them.

“And what…” Asha could feel the palpable level of enchantment in her voice. “Is this?”

With a shout, guards rushed into the chamber. These weren’t Uriel troopers, but instead fully armored men in armor and ceremonial clothing, carrying spears and shields in hand as they moved to surround Asha and Leyla.

Asha stepped forward as Leyla drew his sword, unfazed by the guard.

“Shadiya!” Asha shouted at the seated figure. “We demand you step down and hand control of the city to its people!”

Shadiya stared at her, face blank as their eyes met. There was a force like a hand grasping at Asha’s heart, and she felt her wings flutter as her spiritual aura burned around her. If she had been a normal human, she would have been on her knees.

“…Is that it? No threat? No demands for satisfaction? You want me to simply lay down my arms and surrender to…who exactly?”

“The people of Babylon,” Asha said. “And if at all possible, we would want a peaceful transition of power.”

“Ah right, ‘the people’,” Shadiya repeated the words with barely-hidden contempt. “The people whom I plucked from the desert like sand. The people who would be indulging in butchery, barbarism, and destruction of not for my guiding hand.”

“Your guiding hand is keeping them imprisoned and under constant threat!” Leyla stepped forward to join Asha. “You’re a petty dictator who’s cowed the population through fear and violence!”

“And look what I have built,” Shadiya gestured to the palace around them. “My jewel in the desert. My sanctuary in the storm. I have crafted the finest city in the world in which these people might live. Why would they not accept me as their queen? Why would they not love me and all that I do?”

Asha’s knees buckled at the last words, arms shivering as she worked to keep hold of her bow. This wasn’t Shadiya’s charm at work. There was something much more potent in her gaze now. She glanced at Leyla and saw he was struggling just as much as she was, those his eyes were fixed on Shadiya as he quietly hissed.

“Tiamat…”

“Hmm?” Shadiya’s voice had returned to its original enchantment. “I know not the name. Boy. Although…”

She smiled for the first time, and for a second Asha felt the same compulsion of affection, that same desire she’d felt when she saw Ishtar. She shook her head, working to keep her head clear.

“You are a handsome young man to be sure, you could father such fine children.”

“Th-think again,” Leyla’s eyes were burning with fire. “This body’s off-limits, Shadiya!”

Shadiya’s face promptly fell.

“Ah, I see. There is something ugly living in that body of yours. I’ll have to rip that out before I make you mine forever.”

She glanced again at Asha, her eyes utterly void of emotion. “For women I have no use.”

Asha scowled. “People are not your playthings to be used or thrown away, Shadiya!”

“And why not?” Shadiya asked, flippantly waving her hand at Asha. “I am not human, but I provide and give humans all that they desire and demand only worship and the occasional sacrifice of blood. Does that not make me a Queen? Does that not make me a god?”

“You’re not a god, Shadiya, you’re a monster!” Leyla shouted.

Shadiya’s pupils narrowed into slits, her lips parting to reveal sharp teeth as she snarled with a voice that made the very foundations shake.

You dare!

Vicious child of Ea’s design

Born from mud and blood of Kingu

Who was by godly power made to work the earth

And by my power made no more

 

At this outburst, even the guards seemed to quake, backing away from the throne as Asha and Leyla stood their ground.

“So I was right,” Leyla said, turning to Asha. “Shadiya might be Queen and URIEL might have made her…but the spirit of Tiamat is using her as a vessel.”

“So it’s not just a power-mad queen we’re dealing with,” Asha scowled. “But the ghost of a Primordial.”

“I don’t know where Tiamat is between life and death, but not even a Primoridal slain by the Prince of the Gods can stay dead,” Leyla said.

Shadiya rose to her feet, voice calming once more as she reclaimed herself.

“This is my city. In my hand, I crafted it from sand and blood. And it will exist in my palm so long as it amuses me, or I shall crush it between my fingers and let it fall to sand once more. Such is my right as Queen.”

“So you won’t step down peacefully?” Asha demanded. “You will hold this city to the very end?”

“It doesn’t have to be this way, Shadiya,” Leyla said. “We know the truth. You weren’t born this way, URIEL made you what you are…you don’t have to separate yourself from humanity.”

Shadiya’s eyes narrowed.

“URIEL…” She said the name with barely disguised contempt. “You drag its name before me like a beheaded corpse. They succeeded and in their success destroyed themselves. They sought to make a weapon and made instead a ruler. They sought to make a servant and instead they made a god. I was nothing before what I am now, and you offer me nothing as though it were gold.”

“Then I suppose there’s nothing left to be done.”

Shadiya raised a hand to signal their guards, who moved towards the pair of them, spears raised.

“No, nothing to be done save…” Her voice trailed off, eyes growing wide, and an instant later Asha and Leyla heard the first of the scattered roars of fear and pain echo from the city beyond.

“What have you done!?” Her fist slammed down on the arm of her throne before she rose to her feet.

“That’s probably our cue,” Leyla said.

“Agreed,” Asha nodded.

Together the two of them dove in opposite directions. Leyla hooked his arm around the spear of the closest guard, using his body as a fulcrum to skillfully disarm him before attacking the other guards, spear in one hand as the second drew his flaming shamshir. Asha took a flying leap over their head, going straight for the raised platform with Shadiya at its center. Hovering in the air, her silver bow formed in the air as she drew an arrow, aiming it straight for Shadiya’s heart before letting it fly.

With a swat of the hand, Shadiya deflected it in a flash of golden light, eyes burning with rage as she snarled at Asha.

“What have you done to my children!?”

Asha took hold of her bow with both hands, feeling the supernatural material reform itself as the bow itself split in two. As she landed in front of Shadiya, the halves of the bow reworked themselves into a pair of shining scimitars. Shooting a bow hadn’t been the only thing Christie had taught her at The Line.

Shadiya didn’t draw a weapon, baring her clawed fingers like an animal, long tail rising and letting Asha see the ornate golden spoke affixed to the end. This wasn’t going to be a civilized fight.

Asha flew forwards, feet skipping across the ground as her wings brought her to Shadiya, blades flashing as she swung at Shadiya’s neck and torso. Asha didn’t know what her weapon was made of specifically, but whatever spiritual material it was wasn’t strong enough, as the hardened bone and claws of Shadiya’s fingers deflected the edge of her swords without leaving a mark. Asha only hoped the rest of her wasn’t as resilient.

Shadiya had the figure that could be expected of a would-be goddess, and it fit her enticing persona, but Asha didn’t expect just how immensely strong she was. When her blade caught a swipe from Shadiya’s hand, Asha could feel herself being forced along the ground from the power of the blow alone.

As they fought, another surge of roars came from outside, followed by another. Even in the thick walls of the palace and the sound of combat the growing cacophony was clear as the monsters lost control.

“Hear that!?” Leyla shouted at the guards, doing his best to disarm them rather than kill. “Shadiya’s monsters are out of control and fleeing the city! Now’s your chance to run!”

A few of the guards hesitated, some near the back pulling away but others pressed forward, forcing Leyla to engage again.

“You’d dare tear children from their mother!” Shadiya roared, seizing the blades of Asha’s sword. “You’d attack them to stab at her heart, you barbarians!”

“Your ‘children’ are man eating monsters!” Asha shouted back, tearing her swords free as she redoubled her assault. “And they need to be expelled from the city!”

Shadiya snarled, and once more Asha saw that terrible glow in her eyes. When her voice came again, it did like a crashing of a thousand ocean waves, resonating with a vast depth.

 

You seek to free that which is safely contained

To lay ruin to the cradle of the stars

From throne on high we take our place again

Mother, destroyer, protector of all

 

“The people don’t need your kind of protection, Tiamat,” Asha hissed.

Shadiya seized one of Asha’s wrists and with impossible strength hurled her across the room. Asha managed to catch herself in the air, using her wings to brake herself as she raised her swords again. Taking a deep breath she called up more from the well of power within herself, feeling the light fill her body as it spread from her heart to her eyes and hands, her swords igniting with white fire.

“Surrender or not, I’m going to tear that Primordial out of you, Shadiya! And send it back to the darkness it crawled out of!”

Shadiya roared and leaped into the air after her, bat-like wings flapping as she threw herself at Asha. The two of them came to blows in mid-air, forced almost immediately into a grapple as they rolled through the air this way and that.

 

The Striking malice takes the North

The Sinuous Chaos to the South

The Father of Monsters sieges the mountain

The resurrection of my great ocean will be done

 

Shadiya roared at her with Tiamat’s voice, and Asha slammer her hard into a pillar.

“Don’t be so sure on that,” She growled at her. “Nidhoggr falls today, and you’ll go down with him.”

With a great flap of her wings Asha slammed Shadiya into the floor, landing on top of her as she tried to pin her down.

“Leyla!” She shouted. “Help me!”

Leyla rushed over from where he had managed to subdue the guards or convince them to flee. Kneeling down beside her, sword in hand.

“Do we-“ He said, starting to raise his sword as Asha struggled to keep Shadiya pinned despite her immense strength.

“N-no!” Asha shouted. “I want to…ah, let’s burn this thing out of her!”

Asha tossed on of her swords aside, raising a hand as she focused all of her divine energy into it, her palm and fingers glowing white with righteous energy. Beside her, Leyla did the same, the fire spirit within him focusing all of its tremendous power into his hand.

Together, the two of them pressed their hands to Shadiya’s roaring face over her eyes.

Instantly, Asha winced, bracing her arm with her other hand just to keep from having it forced back. They had been right, something terrible and tremendously powerful was lurking in Shadiya’s spirit. She remembered the way her skin had burned slightly when Hazif had first touched her, or the way a liar’s skin felt against her hand. This was like seizing a white-hot fire, the skin of her hand burning intensely as Tiamat’s spirit raged against her.

The sky itself seemed to darken around them, a shadow spreading across the floor around Shadiya.

“Hold onto it!” Leyla shouted, clearly in pain as he struggled to keep his grip.

Asha nodded, keeping herself focused as she tried to burn the corruption out of Shadiya.

Her vision blurred and, for a second, everything went black. Asha was floating in a void, the palace and Leyla gone as she was alone in an infinite blackness. It felt like…floating. Like being deep underwater with no sea bottom or surface, and though she could see nothing, she could feel that she was not alone. The void shifted, and she knew that there was something colossal, larger than even a mountain, lurking in the lightless void.

 

Tiny light of Ohrmazd

 

Tiamat’s voice echoed all around her.

The great ocean consumes

Before the split of sky and earth

A world held in dragon’s womb

As it was so shall it be again

 

Asha could feel the fear grinding in her heart. She was floating alone in the darkness of a primordial sea, surrounded by the bulk of an invisible leviathan.

“N-no…” Asha managed to stammer into the darkness. She steeled herself, bringing forward her resolve. “Not today, not ever again!”

She blinked into the void, and from the darkness she could see its eyes. Great sea-green eyes of light that whirled in the darkness, each larger than any ship as they stared at her with an empty gaze.

“This isn’t your world anymore, Tiamat. There’s sky and land, heat and cold, truth and lies, evil and righteousness, and there are people who will never let you take it back!”

With a burst of light the vision vanished, the void dispersed as she was once more in the palace beside Leyla.

A scream ripped through the air, a monstrous shriek that reverberated across the walls and sent the few remaining guards scattering from the throne room. The shadow beneath Shadiya ripped itself free, sliding across the stone floor before beginning to vanish, unable to hold its form with its vessel destroyed as the terrible spirit was dispersed across the world again.

Both Leyla and Asha let out a long sigh of relief. Shadiya had stopped struggling, apparently unconscious as she lay beneath them, eyes glazed over.

“What do we do with her?” Leyla asked, checking to make sure it wasn’t a trick.

“I don’t want to make this some bloody coup,” Asha said, brow furrowing. “We need to make sure she’s bound and-“

Her words halted as Shadiya began to stir, slowly and weakly as Asha and Leyla both pinned her down. When she opened her eyes, Asha saw that the shimmering gold had changed into a mundane brown.

“Where…who are you?” She asked, her voice quiet, almost meek. “Where am I?”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Babylon Uprising

 

“We should have heard the signal by now,” Hazif hissed. “Something’s gone wrong.”

“Not yet,” Eli said, his voice as steady as he could keep it. “It’s still only a minute after. Give them time.”

“How much time?” Hazif was pacing nervously back and forth, arms folded in front of him. “Before this plan turns back on us and gets us all-“

“Stop,” Eli said, and Hazif did, though more out of surprise at Eli’s tone than anything else. “What’s gotten into you?”

“I get you’re cynical, trust me I really do,” Eli said. “But right now, more than ever we need to have faith in them, in all of them.”

Eli’s hand was clutched tight around an old walkie-talkie they’d gotten back into working order. The channel it was tuned to was silent, as they’d all agreed. They didn’t know how much URIEL was tracking local channels and they needed to keep themselves hidden until the last possible moment.

Hazif was carrying a set of electrical equipment that looked like half an old car battery and a set of jumper cables. It didn’t look like much, but every team throughout the city had one such device, and they might just be what liberated the city.

Most teams had four to five people and were scattered to all corners of Babylon, areas where they could easily blend in. Eli and Hazif were alone at the moment, and they were hoping that would be enough.

“It’s easy to have faith,” Hazif said impatiently. “When your ass isn’t on the line. You can just come back after being shot after all.”

Eli scowled. “Yes, and if I am shot, do you think URIEL is just going to let the incredible resurrecting man go? I barely managed to escape the second time and let me tell you…resurrecting after being devoured by a monster was not a pleasant experience.”

“Mmm…” Hazif seemed about to retort but decided against it, letting the pair fall into silence. After only a few moments, however, the silence was broken by a voice broken by static and a voice calling over the walkie-talkie.

“This is Lab Rat. Brain Freeze is go. I repeat. Brain Freeze is Go. Over.”

It was Varia’s voice. She’d colorfully chosen the call sign “Lab Rat” for herself. The name “Operation Brain Freeze” though had been Asha’s idea.

Eli and Hazif both exchanged a brief nervous glance. If the operation was go it meant Varia’s ad-hoc devices worked. They could be hooked up to the signal towers to overload their signal and drive the monsters under Shadiya’s control into a panic.

It was good news. It meant their plan would work and the mission to liberate the city was underway. It also meant Babylon was about to fall into absolute chaos.

Before they could say a word, another voice came over the channel.

“Copy Lab Rat. This is Blue Angel, beginning our descent.”

That was Asha. They were on a timeline now.

“Let’s go,” was all Hazif said as the two of them hurried from the alley where they’d been huddled into the street. It was night, and most of the population were in their homes in observance of the curfew. All the better, Eli thought, because while they had ideas of how the monsters would react, none of them knew for sure.

Ahead of them, down the street, was a tall signal tower. It looked like a radio tower, a thin spire of strutted black metal with antennae and several dishes midway up its length. At the top, however, was a large covered dome of black metal sealed tight by metal rivets. Whatever was in that dome was the source of the signal.

Hazif passed the equipment to Eli as he took the lead. While he might have been more assured in the mission, Eli was still the pacifist, which meant Hazif had to take point.

The base of the tower was surrounded by a tall fence topped by barbed wire. The only gate was attended by two armed guards who were standing by a small gatehouse. Both of them were listening to something within the gatehouse, likely a radio broadcast. Both had swords at their belt, and rifles slung over their backs, and their backs were thankfully turned as Hazif approached with impressive silence.

Eli didn’t even see the curved silver dagger that Hazif drew from his belt until it had stabbed into the closest guard’s back. The guard screamed, and Hazif struggled with the knife as it was caught in some type of body armor.

Eli rushed forward as the tow of them fell onto the ground, Hazif grappling with the man as he tried to draw his sword while the other quickly worked to pull out his rifle. Without thinking, Eli tackled the second guard to the ground, doing all he could not to strike him as he instead wrestled for the man’s gun.

Hazif eventually got the upper hand, pulling his knife free and driving it into the man’s neck before getting to his feet and finishing the man on top of Eli, blood now covering much of the front of his tunic.

Eli was still in shock, staring as Hazif picked up the gear Eli had dropped and thrust it back into his hands.

Without a word, Hazif went into the gatehouse and flipped a switch, the gate sliding open as Eli hurried through to the ladder that rose to the top of the tower. He didn’t look down as he climbed, eyes fixed on the steps ahead as he moved as quickly as he could rung by rung. Hazif meanwhile hid the bodies of the guards in the gatehouse after relieving them of their swords and guns, disabling one of the rifles and keeping the other for himself as he slung the other two at his waist.

Hazif heard a low growling from the street, and when he turned he saw a monster staring him down as it came around the corner, teeth bared as it moved on four massive legs towards him. Judging by the collar it was one of URIEL’s tamed beasts, likely the one belonging to the guards that had been ptralloing, and now it saw that its erstwhile masters were dead, their blood now covering Hazif.

Hazif swore and ran into the fence surrounding the tower as the monster charged, he managed to slide it shut just as the monster’s claws rammed against the fence, but the thin metal chain and barbed wire wasn’t going to hold it back for long.

The monster was easily the size of a large tiger. Its mouth was far too wide for its head and filled with razor-sharp canine teeth. Its claws were long black sickles that curved through the holes in the fence, metal straining as it began to give. Its ‘fur’ was made of thousands of sharp quills poking out of diseased-looking skin that formed a wild mane and a line of spikes running down its back to its serpentine tail.

Hazif glanced up and saw Eli was only about halfway up. Not nearly enough time. He unslung the rifle from his shoulder before reconsidering. Bullets barely affected even smaller monsters, and the sounds of gunfire would bring every URIEL patrolman within earshot, as well as curious civilians who could get caught outdoors.

Hazif tossed the rifle to the ground and drew one of the guard’s swords. As he did, the gate of the fence finally gave way as the monster pushed through, a growl escaping its heavy lungs as it stared at him with glowing yellow eyes.

“Come on,” Hazif hissed. “Let’s see if you’re just teeth on the inside too.”

With a roar, the monster lunged and Hazif dodged quickly to the side, trying to take a swing with the sword but hitting only empty air. He wasn’t a fencer, he wasn’t cut out for this kind of monster killing. The beast landed before rounding on him again, long claws sinking into the dirt.

Hazif held the sword in front of him, shifting his weight from one leg to the other as he prepared to strike back. He had no idea where to even aim on the thing, and he couldn’t dodge the beast forever.

A feeling like cold water running down his back moved through him as he heard a second louder growl behind him. Hazif turned himself, sideways to keep the first monster in view, only to see a second, larger one crawling over the fence, sharp teeth ripping through the barbed wire like string.

This one moved on all fours as well but was more lopsided, its right forepaw was much bulkier, and ended in several tentacle-like appendages rather than a claw. It had a scorpion’s tail curled behind itself, and while it had the head of a jaguar, its eyes were disturbingly human.

“Shit…” Hazif swore, backing off as the second monster humped down off the fence, both of them moving to pounce from different angles. Hazif didn’t like his odds against one monster. Two of them…

More than ever, Hazif regretted saving Asha in that marketplace. It had brought him nothing but trouble. Except…well…

There was a flash of light, like metal catching moonlight as a sound of ripping flesh flew past his ears. Hazif stared, and where the second monster had been was now the sundered remains of the beast, a massive sword with a saw-like edge embedded in the earth where its torso had been.

Without a noise, a figure landed on the pommel of the sword, claw-like feet catching onto it easily as she looked down at Hazif.

“You’re getting into trouble again, darling,” There was no affection in Freny’s voice, but Hazif smiled in relief. That’s just how she operated.

“Blame Asha…though there’s another thing I need help with,” He said, eyeing the first monster, which was staring at the ruined remains of its companion, the spines on its back rising in fury.

“Oh…right,” Without missing a beat Freny hopped down off her sword, wrenching it free from the ground with her clawed hand just as the monster leapt at her. With a single mighty swing she cleaved it in two through the midsection, letting both halves fall to the ground as a shower of gore spread across the base of the tower.

Hazif walked over to her and, gently taking her horns in his hands, pulled her in to kiss her on the lips. He noticed she kept her eyes open when kissing, but then again so did he. She didn’t react, but that was her way of telling him she didn’t mind. Progress was slow, but it was there.

“Thanks, beautiful,” He smiled.

“You are welcome, darling.” Honestly, Hazif wasn’t sure if Freny thought ‘Darling’ was some kind of code name for him. She might not fully understand terms of affection yet. But when Asha told her that’s what girlfriend’s called their boyfriends, she hadn’t stopped calling him that since. He wondered if she remembered his name was Hazif at all.

As they spoke, Eli finally reached the top of the tower. He glanced down, and was relieved to see Freny was there along with the remains of two monsters. Freny was…disturbing at times, but she’d more than proven her loyalty.

He pulled the heavy box of equipment onto the narrow lip surrounding the dome. Nearby, he could see an access panel hidden under a lid secured with a lock. Pulling a pair of simple bolt cutters from his belt, he removed the lock, casting it aside as he pulled open the panel. Varia had taken two hours to explain to them every part and function on the panel, a dizzying assortment of wires, gauges, and dials. Most of it had been Greek to Eli, but at the end, she had laid out the instructions as simply as she could. Eli took the jumper cables, attaching one end to the device he carried.

Taking a deep breath, he took the cables and attached them to a pair of connection points along the side of the access panel exactly as Varia had told him.

“Well…Here goes nothing,” Eli said as he flipped his switch on the machine. There was a brief flash of sparks from the connection points that nearly caused Eli to lose his grip, but after that there was only silence.

As his heart began to pound, wondering if he had forgotten some step in the instructions, a sound began to rise from the city like a wave. A series of howls and roars in clear pain and distress rose from the streets around them and then spread further still. More and more as the towers overloaded their signals, the wild howls of monsters came. Soon Eli could see them in the streets and rooftops, all of them running or galloping, or flapping wildly away from the closest towers and towards the perimeter of the city.

“Aaaaugh!!”

On the ground, Hazif could only watch as Freny slammed her hands over her ears, shuddering as her eyes went wide, pupils dilated as she stooped over as if in pain, her mouth hanging open as her breath came in ragged pants.

Hazif swore as he took hold of her, hands on her shoulders as he leaned down beside her.

“Freny! Freny can you hear me!?”

“Stop! Make it stop!!” She all but screamed at him, rocking back and forth as she struggled to keep her footing.

“Freny, I need you to-“

“Hazif please! Make it stop! It hurts! Everything hurts!”

Hazif had never seen her give a response like this. Her entire body was clearly racked with pain, struggling to hold it together.

Hazif tightened his hold trying to keep her steady.

“Freny, please listen I need to-“

Her fist slammed into his chest, and Hazif felt several of his ribs crack as he was thrown bodily across the ground.

“Ow…” Hazif’s chest burned as he sucked in air, struggling back to his feet.

Freny’s expression had turned wild, almost feral. Her eyes were glowing red, long hair rising slightly as she stooped into a stance showing clear hostility, claws and teeth bared as she stared him down, like a cat preparing to strike.

“Freny…beautiful…” Hazif edged closer to her. “It’s me, Hazif…it’s darling…remember.”

Freny’s breathing was heavy, her unblinking eyes moving erratically as she struggled to keep focus.

“D-dar-“ She began to breathe, a low growl in her voice.

Hazif focused himself. Since he had turned thirteen, he had done everything in his power to suppress his incubus heritage. Now, though, he needed Freny’s attention and she needed his help.

An incubus was as spiritual as it was physical. Certain movements, unconsciously picked up by the human mind, can link the eyes directly to the release of pleasure chemicals to the brain. In other words, a succubus or incubus could literally make a person want them just from seeing them. More than that, they were spiritual chameleons. Able to tell every instinct a person had that they are to be trusted and kept close. It’s an insidious charm, against which most people had no defense.

Freny’s movements became slightly less erratic, her eyes staying focused on him now. Gently, he reached a hand out towards hers, as slowly as he could manage. He needed to be non-threatening, no offensive gesture that could be construed as a threat. In a lot of ways, it was like their first meeting.

Though her eyes never left his hand, she didn’t pull her arm away as his skin gently pressed against hers. This was where the real power was. At touch alone an incubus could suffuse a target with both a magically entrancing charm as well as a flush of dopamine into the system. With prolonged exposure, he could be as addictive as any drug to a person.

Even as Freny began to calm, her posture growing less hostile as his hand edged up her arm, he felt wretched. It was like manipulating her, enforcing the emotion he wanted to keep her in control. The only reason he allowed himself to do it was to override the conditioning and control already in her mind.

“Stay with me, beautiful,” Hazif said, edging closer, now both hands on her exposed skin as the other slid against her cheek. “You’re not controlled like the others, just push all those voices to the back.”

“It’s so loud…” She said quietly. “It hurts…”

“I know, but I can drown it out until we can shut all this down. Understand?”

Slowly Freny nodded.

Hazif smiled, embracing her as he made sure not to push too much of his own control over her. “Good. It won’t be long now. Soon the only voice in there will be your own.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 52

 

Cat never knew that a thousand men could be so quiet. The legion’s marching column was slumped low, armed and equipped as they waited for their orders. The sky overhead was slate grey, time marked only by the brief showers of light rain.

Rosa’s group was at the head of the line, the other champions and ‘empowered’ warriors scattered throughout the line. At the moment, they were in a shallow gulley that had once been a road. Trees grew tall and thick on either side of them, seeming to lean in over the road and block out the pale sky.

Hanne moved to the head of the column, leaning in to meet Cat and Rosa.

“You know the plan?” She asked, and both of them nodded.

“You move forward, we’ll be behind you but you need to keep ahead. Keep in contact, Hildegard and Turi will mark your progress.”

“Understood,” Rosa said. Hanne leaned in, pulling Cat towards her by the shoulder and kissing her on the forehead. “I don’t like this plan. I don’t like putting you in harm’s way, Catarina.”

“I can do this,” Cat said, and she felt Rosa clap her on the back.

“We’ll get her to the top,” Rosa smiled. “We’re all in this together.”

“Right,” Hanne nodded. “Then…good luck, God bless you all. Now forward!”

The six of them, Cat, Rosa, Torleif, Gisela, Megame, and Nicomede, rushed ahead down the road side by side. All of them could feel the gentle slope in the land and they knew this was it. The final climb up the bald mountain.

“Second Legion!” Cat heard Hanne’s voice echoing behind them. “Split column! Pull forward! March!”

The plan was in motion. There might be just shy a thousand legionnaires, but a block column wouldn’t hold against an army of monsters. They needed to fight smart, and that meant dispersing into smaller more mobile groups. The legion, like a synchronized machine, split itself into its Centuriae before those split again. Groups consisting of two contubernium spread out in all directions, each consisting of around twenty men trained to fight together and coordinate with other groups.

That was the key, Hanne had told them. To be quick, to be mobile, and to keep in constant communication. Fortifying positions against dragons and giants was a futile effort at best.

Cat glanced up as she heard the sound of great wings beating and saw Pegasus fly through the air above, the winged horse carrying Hilde and Turi ahead of the Legions to scout the enemy as they approached. All around them Cat could see the legionnaires running; occasionally she spotted someone she knew, a champion leading them or a familiar face from the field. All of them were putting everything on the line to get them here, to put her on top of the mountain.

The forest was too thick and the Brocken too low to see the mountain peak itself, but Cat could still feel it looming over her like a shroud. Her feet felt heavy, and she began to lose pace a little with Rosa. She hadn’t magically reinforced herself yet, keeping everything in reserve until the final battle.

“Cat-chan,” Cat felt Megame grab her hand, and she passed a small scroll of paper into her fingers. Just by grasping it, Cat felt rejuvenated, her body growing lighter as she quickly caught back up to Rosa. Looking at her hand, she could see it was one of Megame’s charms, the Omamori. Megame had worked for hours each day writing more of them, the names of dozens of kami written across them. Renewed and rejuvenated, Cat could easily match pace with the champions.

“Town ahead,” Nicomede called. He kept the vanguard, his shield on his arm, as he spotted for them.

“That would be Schierke,” Gisela said, bow over her shoulder. “We’re about seven kilometers out.”

Gisela placed a hand to her ear, and when she spoke next all of them could hear her voice echoed in their ears. “Salvatore, how does Schierke look?”

“Not good,” All of them could hear Turi. Most of the champions, Guardsmen, and Cat had been given a small artifact worn in the ear. It was more or less a microphone and speaker powered by magic courtesy of Evangeline.

“There’s a lot of movement between the buildings and…ah damn, movement up high. They’re coming off the mountain.”

All of them glanced up save for Nicomede who kept his eyes forward, at the edge of the sky. From the north, they could see shapes moving against the clouds, great wings flapping as they swiftly drew closer.

“Salvatore, Report!” Hanne ordered over the line.

“Drakes, lesser dragons, all kinds of demons with wings. Can we get some arrow cover if we pull back?”

“Negative, Turi, we’re still moving forward. You’ll be on your own. Don’t get in too deep.”

“Salvatore,” Gisela said. “Keep in line of sight of us. I can offer some supporting fire.”

“Don’t fall behind, Gisela,” Rosa said. “We need to keep moving”

“I won’t,” Gisela said.

“Much obliged, Gisela,” Turi said, and they could see Pegasus swoop in low towards them again.

The air was beginning to fill with noise. Growls and distant roars rolled in from the trees. Shrieks from the drakes and flying monsters echoed through the skies as they drew closer.

“Rosa!” Torleif said, needing to pump her legs extra hard to keep pace with them. “When can we do Hammer, Lance, and Sword?”

“We need to get closer,” Rosa said. “We need a lot of clearance and we need to be in the thick of it.”

“The other end of Schierke will do,” Gisela said. “Otherwise debris can be an issue.”

“Can I just say we never practiced that?” Nicomede asked. “And didn’t Hanne say something about “Too much risk”?”

“Today is kind of a high-risk high-reward kind of day,” Rosa said. “Megame, you in?”

“I-I think it can work!” Megame said.

“Up above!” Gisela shouted, and all of them could see as the first of the massive drakes came down on them. Cat remembered them from Sicily, enormous winged wyverns, smaller than dragons but nearly the size of a small plane they could easily lay waste to entire teams.

Gisela paused for only the briefest moment, bracing herself as she drew her bow. In a flash of the arm she drew and nocked an arrow, pulled it back, and released it, burying the onyx-black shaft in the drake’s heart to leave it to spasm wildly before it fell from the air. She didn’t waste a moment, however, hurrying to keep pace with them.

They saw another fly towards the legion, only to be intercepted by the flash of white that was Pegasus, Salvatore’s spear slashing across its wing and sending it flailing to the ground. No sooner had that one fallen, however, then had two more taken its place, hurtling through the air in pursuit of Pegasus. The drakes were quick, but the winged horse was quicker, darting gracefully this way and that as Turi tried to lure more of the winged monsters away from the vulnerable ground forces as he brought them out of sight over the trees.

“Aaah, damn this red one is quick,” Turi said. “Need some help from the ground.”

“Pull west, Turi,” Aurelio’s voice came over the line. “I’ve got an arrow for it.”

Cat heard a roar that was suddenly snuffed out, and the trees beside the road burst outwards as the body of a massive red drake crashed into the street before them, a long silver arrowshaft embedded in its throat.

The six of them ran past it, undaunted as they rushed down the street towards Schierke. The woods on either side of them opened as the first buildings came into view. But with them came the full weight of their resistance. The town was crawling with a menagerie of beasts. Great black-furred wolves stood on the rooftops, giants strode among the trees, and massive serpents slithered along the streets.

“Slow here,” Rosa said. “Wait for the signal from the legions.”

Together, the six of them slowed, Nicomede at the front flanked by Rosa and Torleif with Cat, Gisela, and Megame in the rear.

There was a brief moment of quiet, a silence over the town as more and more pairs of monstrous eyes fell upon them. No birds, no leaves, not even the wind could be heard as they stood, creeping forward towards the town.

A roar unlike any Cat had heard outside her nightmares echoed down the nightmares. It was a single bellowing bestial roar, yet at the same time there was an unnatural reverberation, a sound echoed by a thousand screaming voices. The unmistakable roar of Nidhoggr.

The battle had begun.

The monsters charged, the closest rushing towards their position. From the trees and ridges around them another shout reverberated, this one coming on the lips of a thousand legionnaires as the first of the groups broke the treeline from all directions.

This had been the plan. Attack from all direction, pull their attention away from a single point and keep moving to give Cat and Rosa’s squad the mobility they needed to keep going forward. The monsters charged in all directions, engaging whatever group was closest to them as the chaos began to descend. Cat saw a group of Roman soldiers leap to either side as a giant ran through them, getting back to their feet with spears in hand as they stabbed at its legs. On her other side, she saw the glittering brass of Evangeline’s largest automaton leading another group, raising its enchanted shield against the corrosive breath of a massive wyrm.

“Now! Charge!” Rosa shouted, and the six of them broke forward to meet the charging monsters.

A great wolf lunged at them, only for its skull to be shattered by Torleif’s hammer loosed from her hand, the weapon circling back in an arc to return to its wielder. A massive boar with quills like stone and eyes of fire bullrushed them, only to be stopped dead in its tracks by Nicomede’s shield, his lance and Rosa’s spear extinguishing its eyes as the tips drove through its head.

They never paused for longer than a second, doing all they could to keep their momentum going as they ran through the ruined streets of Schierke. Houses had been collapsed by monsters and overgrown with dark forest, and each shadow seemed to hide some new horror that leapt at them.

Cat’s sword cut clean through what could only described as an enormous burrowing worm that had broken through the hardened earth, splattering the ground with its vile black ichor while the blade itself remained shining silver. A beast that looked half-man half-bat leapt from a nearby rooftop down on them, only to be vaporized by a lance of sunlight summoned from one of Megame’s charms.

“Keep moving!” Rosa shouted, spear glittering as it cut through a line of skeletal footsoldiers. “Don’t stop for anything!”

Screams broke through the air, mixing with the shouts and roars, and Cat turned to see Roman soldiers dashed across the trees as the tail of a lesser dragon tossed them like so much straw. Cat reflexively moved towards them, only for Gisela to grab her shoulder.

“Keep moving,” Gisela said, and while she had her usual hard-eyed expression, her words weren’t malicious. “We need to keep moving, Cat.”

“R-right…” Cat said. All of them were fighting to kill Nidhoggr, to get her to the top of the mountain. People were dying for it.

Cat broke into a flat run again, the others moving with her.

Street by street, they moved through Schierke, fighting for every alley and lane as they moved. The air above them was thick with drakes, too many for Turi and Pegasus alone to deal with as they began to swoop down upon the Legionnaires.

“Turi, the twenty-seventh is being torn apart! We need those drakes off of them!” Hanne shouted over the line.

“Can’t shake them all, General!” Turi shouted. “Too many up here.”

“Permission to pull a Michael Maneuver, General?” Hildegard asked over the line.

There was a brief pause before Hanne replied. “Affirmative, Hildegard.”

Cat could almost hear Hildegard giggle over the line. “This is my stop, Turi. Bank here.”

Overhead she could see Pegasus bank hard to its right, wings nearly vertical as Hildegard leapt from its back. In a flash of light, a pair of burning wings erupted from Hildegard’s back and she fell like a meteor onto the closest drake. Cat could see the lick of flame where Stahlzan cut through its neck, decapitating the monster as Hildegard flew to the next one.

She flew to the ground in a long sweeping arc, cleaving through no fewer than twelve drakes before swooping out of sight to relieve the men on the ground.

“There’s a lot of them in the sky…” Torleif said, trailing off.

“We’re almost there,” Gisela said. “The next road leads onto the Goetheweg. We can follow those trails up the mountain to the Brocken’s peak.”

“Right…” Rosa glanced briefly around, spotting a field that was empty save for the ruins of what had been a small mountain resort.

“This’ll do!” From the field they could see the rest of the town down the slope. The air was a mess of drakes and flying monsters, and the ground itself seemed to move and shift with the number of beasts that filled them. Cat stared, the legion couldn’t last long like this.

“Nico! Brace your spear in the ground! Torleif, one hand on his spear, one hand on your hammer. Megame, charm in both hands, one on the hammer one on the spear! Gisela, Cat! You two and I keep them covered!”

No sooner had she said that then a giant lumbered into the field from the trees nearby. Gisela nocked another arrow, aiming down the shaft before letting it fly, the arrow embedding itself in the thick skin of the giant’s neck. It stumbled briefly, but only seemed to get angry as it broke into a lumbering run, ground quaking beneath it.

As Cat ran with Rosa to intercept it, she could see Nicomede, Torleif, and Megame get into position. The tip of Nicomede’s spear was pointed into the sky at an angle, grasped by both Torleif and Megame, who were both holding Torleif’s hammer in their other hands. A scroll ran from Megame’s right hand to her left, covered in a long string of calligraphy. Cat had asked what kami’s name could possibly be that long, and Megame had told her that when calling on the power of one of the great Okami, one needed to include a lot of titles.

Cat ran ahead of Rosa straight for the giant as more arrows landed in its face and chest, blinding it with pain and blood as it charged wildly. A path of frost formed between its legs and Cat ducked low as she fell into a slide, gliding down the line of ice and between the giant’s legs, her sword swinging in a broad slash as she cut clean through the giant’s hamstrings. Instantly it fell to its knees, only for its stomach to fall squarely on the tip of Rosa’s spear, letting a fountain of blood fall from its abdomen. Rosa pulled her spear back, only to swing it around in a long arc to cut through the giant’s neck, letting it fall to the ground.

“Good job, Cat,” she smiled at her.

“Team effort,” Cat smiled back before looking at the other trio, still gathered in a circle. The spear, hammer, and scroll had all begun to glow with white light, Torleif and Nicomede with their eyes closed in an expression of deep concentration, Megame chanting under her breath.

The sky overhead darkened, the clouds growing black as the first echoes of thunder rolled across the sky.

“Turi,” Rosa said over the line. “Get down low, clear out of the sky. Now!”

Hammer, Lance, and Sword. That was what Megame had called it when she’d proposed the idea. The first maneuver that truly combined the power of not only multiple champions, but the power of a trio of gods from across pantheons, all with similar domains. The light between them grew and grew, blinding all else until it was difficult to even look at them. The sky itself seemed to quake, the air growing thick with static and the scent of ozone until, finally, in a single terrible flash the sky itself seemed to tear apart.

First came the Hammer, the thunder, a wave of colorless force that ripped through the air over the town of Schierke like a windborn tsunami, flattening the tops of trees and ripping up monster and drake alike in its wake with a sound that could shatter glass. Through the deafening roar, one could almost hear the roaring battle cry of Thor as the thunder of Mjolnir smashed through the sky.

Then came the Lance, and here Cat had to shut her eyes as the sky itself seemed to be replaced with pure white light. A lightningbolt unlike any seen on Earth since prehistory cracked across the sky, branching like a massive tree in a thousand different directions, impaling every monster left in the sky and scores more on the ground in spears of electricity that shuddered and flashed, missing the human legionnaires unscathed but thoroughly unnerved as the air itself came alive with the wrath of Zeus, his divinely-forged thunderbolts seeking out every target in sight.

Finally came the Sword, a single razor-edged wind that cut from heaven to earth, splitting the great clouds open to banish the darkness and cut through the last remaining monsters out in the open in a single mighty slash, the leaves and grass itself for a kilometer around cut through by the finest edge, wielded by the greatest Okami of the Summer Storm Susanoo-no-Mikoto.

As the sun shone down from the rend in the heavens, the trio collapsed to their knees, gasping for breath.  A champion was strong, blessed by their gods, but the three of them together had just called on the full strength of three of the greatest Storm gods on earth. Hurriedly, Rosa, Gisela, and Cat moved to help them up, Cat getting Megame back to her feet.

“I-I think Susanoo-sama enjoyed that,” Megame smiled wearily. “A chance to show off to these foreign Okami.”

“Well, Zeus said I earned a favor, and he needed to make sure that the King of the Gods was still known this far north,” Nicomede smiled, a hint of pride in his voice.

“That was so COOL!!” Torleif shouted, all but leaping back to her feet. “Did you see Thor!? He was all ‘KRACKA-BOOM!!”

Cat smiled, her eyes moving out over the town. The legion had won a reprieve. While that had been only a small fraction of Nidhoggr’s army, it had cleared the town, and that gave the legion a terrain advantage. Now the streets, alleys, and buildings of Shierke were theirs to hold and fight from.

Gisela and Megame had conspired the maneuver together. Megame had long supported cross-pantheon cooperation, and it had been Gisela who had seen the synchronicity. Thor, Zeus, and Susanoo were all storm gods, and more than that they were all renowned dragon-killers. Even an army of monsters would be laid low by a strike delivered by all of them combined.

Cat had wished that the gods themselves could have fought on their side, but Nora and Gisela had warned against it back in Rome. If the Gods were fighting here on foot, then the battle would operate on an entirely different level. The legion and Cat would have been ants beneath the feet of gods and monsters.

“Alright dust off you three,” Rosa said. “Good job, but we’ve still got half a mountain to climb.”

“Three kilometers,” Gisela said.

“Right,” Cat nodded, and she led the charge this time, hurrying uphill from the field.

As they moved towards the trees, marking the edge of the town and the beginning of the wild mountain, the air before them seemed to warp and shift. As if from nothing itself, a massive wolf appeared before them. Rather than a snarling coarse-furred monster, however, this one had a noble countenance. A pair of vestigial wings sprouted form its back of sleek midnight black fur, and three of its legs had been replaced by artificial limbs of black metal and silver into the shape of a wolf’s slender legs. Most of all, however, Cat recognized the familiar bright blue eyes, the same color as the jewel in her sword’s pommel.

“Angel!” Cat smiled, running up to her.

“The Witches are ready,” Angel said, shrinking in a flash back down to her humanoid form.

“And so are we,” Rosa said.

Angel turned northwards, towards the distant peak of the Brocken.

“Then the mountain, and Nidhoggr, awaits.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Road Together

 

Megame packed up her remaining gear as the campsite was disassembled and stored in the Legion’s wagon train. Dawn had broken on a cool grey-skied day and there was a sense of anxiety rising through the camp. The last day had come; tonight, they were going to war.

The siege of monsters had broken off slightly before dawn, but even now the scouts were moving in groups to push back the ones straying too near the legions, but they were growing more numerous, and there were no doubt countless more were waiting for them ahead.

Megame was dressed in her familiar traveling clothes. They’d once been her ceremonial Miko clothing, but the sleeves and pants had been tied off at her elbows and knees, and they were reinforced with padding and a number of patches from where they’d been torn. They were what she’d worn from Japan to Rome, and they had a sense of comfort and familiarity to them. She was travelling again, and while she had Cat and the other champions for company, something about this trip had felt different, lonelier.

“You’re looking pretty down there, Shrine Maiden.”

Megame blinked, looking up from where she was working to see a familiar pale-skinned girl watching her, leaning slightly to the side with a subdued smile on her face.

“Kara!”

“Hey the-woah now!” Kara nearly fell over as Megame hugged her.

“What are you doing here?” Megame asked. “I thought you were staying behind!”

“Well, I figured if you all really did have a plan, it’d involve the kind of thing that’d get my patron’s panties in a real big twist. Decided I might as well be on standby if that’s the case.”

“And she’s not the only one,” Megame looked down and saw a red-furred fox circling around Kara’s legs. In less than a moment, Hachi’s familiar form as a fox woman was leaning on Kara’s shoulder from behind.

“I did say I’d escort and protect you, Megame. I need to keep my promise.”

Megame beamed before embracing them both. “But…weren’t you supposed to be with the Night Guard?”

“Rome can get by on a skeleton crew for a few weeks,” Hachi said. “Most of us are catching up along the supply train. Aurelio, Sybilla, Cade, Kira and Elisa will be here before dusk. Mary, Constantin and Aelia are in Rome, but they’re rooting for you every step of the way.”

“I…” Megame was lost for words, instead choosing to hug them both again. Hachi smiled, Kara just looked a bit exasperated, but Megame could see the smile tugging at her lips. “Thank you both…”

“We all have your back, and Catarina’s,” Hachi smiled. “I might want to protect you, but I think you’ve long outgrown that. But anyone who can get here to fight will be coming.”

Megame remembered the card she had drawn in her game with Skuld, a card that showed the people Megame now knew to be Cat, Rosa, Torleif, Gisela, and Kara walking alongside her. She wasn’t sure if fate was on their side, but she knew now more than ever that this is where she needed to be.

 

*****

 

Angel stood at the edge of the camp, eyes locked on the horizon. With what little remained of her sight, she could clearly see the Brocken. She could see the monsters gathering at its base, the air around it filled with drakes and lesser dragons while the mountain itself was untouched. They were waiting, all of them, for the coming of their master. Before the next dawn had come, Nidhoggr would fully manifest upon the Earth. If they failed, the sun might never rise again.

“Can’t say I’m surprised to see you like this.”

It wasn’t often that Angel was caught off-guard, though it had been happening more and more recently. She turned around, her vision re-focusing, and she saw Giovanni in his human form looking at her.

“Giovanni…” She said. When had he gotten here? When was the last time she had checked on him? Angel felt her stomach twist as she realized just how short her range had become.

“I just came in this morning,” He said. “A bit hard to convince some of these soldiers I wasn’t one of these monsters.”

“I thought you were in Barcelona…”

“I figured that if you would be trying anything it would be today, Stella and I managed to secure…quicker transportation.”

“Stella is here as well?”

“She’s taking a few minutes to lie down. Riding dragonback was…less than kind to her.”

“Dragonback…”

Giovanni smiled. “It’s been an…interesting pilgrimage, but I’m here to help Rome.”

“Ah…thank you, Giovanni,” Angel inclined her head.

“Mmm…I know you would prefer Capitolina to be here as well,” There was nothing resentful in his voice, he was simply stating an observation, and not an inaccurate one.

“That’s not…” Angel tried to articulate a response before trailing off.

“Don’t worry about it,” Giovanni said. “I wish she was as well. It’s a shame the Wolf of Rome cannot leave Rome, but she’ll be waiting eagerly for our return, both of us.”

“If I am being honest, Giovanni,” Angel said. “I came here…not expecting to return.”

“I had a feeling you didn’t,” Giovanni said. “Did you even give Capitolina a proper goodbye?”

“Well I…”

“Not to be presumptuous, Angel, but I think you didn’t. Someone like you…you’ve never had to say goodbye to anyone.”

“I erm…” Angel fidgeted a bit at the question. Giovanni smiled, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“As someone who has had to say goodbye…if you didn’t do it properly, then that’s all the more reason to make sure you come back. If not for yourself, then for Capitolina.”

It was likely the first time Giovanni had physically touched her. Angel winced a bit, but quickly recovered, and soon found she enjoyed the warmth flowing from his hand into her.

“I suppose…that is a good reason, Giovanni. Thank you.”

 

*****

 

While the legion was setting up camp, Torleif rested idly against the large runestone in the center of camp, getting a little extra sleep after her shift but before they began to march again. She had though it would be a quick catnap, not long enough to sleep deeply or dream, but almost as soon as her eyes were closed she drifted off into a dream.

She was standing alone in a misty field, the world falling away into fog around her. She couldn’t see anything through the fog, but ringing in her ears was the distant sound of a battle being fought. Metal rang and shouts echoed through the fog in all directions. She couldn’t tell who was fighting or what, but there was battle all around her.

A flash of light, a booming roar of thunder and Torleif was knocked off her feet, falling onto her rear as a massive figure appeared from the darkness and the fog. He was a colossal burly man, dressed in leather armor and a long cloak, his hands clad in huge gauntlets and a similarly thick belt around his waist. Slung at his hips was a hammer unlike any other, built like a sledgehammer with a handle that was much too short. His head was a mess of brilliant red hair, a thick beard growing from his broad chin and a veritable mane falling down his back.

“Little thunder all it take to knock you over, girl?” The man, no, the god said. “Thought you were made of tougher stuff than that!”

Torleif scowled, rising to her feet

“You caught me off-guard is all! I’m ready to fight!”

“Ha!” the god laughed. “That’s more like it! You going to kill dragons, little girl?”

“Lots of dragons! Lots of giants and monsters too!”

“Damn right you will! Toss those giants right off Midgard!”

“I will!” Torleif nodded fervently. “But uh…who are you?”

At this, the red-haired god broke into a fit of laughter. “Who am I!? I suppose it might be hard to remember; I looked more like you for a little while there.”

Torleif’s eyes grew wide. “W-wait…Thor!?”

“Now she recognizes me,” Thor smiled. “That’s right, the one true God of Thunder, I suppose it’s time we were properly introduced.”

“Uh…” Torleif wasn’t sure how she should respond. Was she supposed to bow? Curtsy? Torleif wasn’t good at either of those things.

Her train of thought was interrupted by a gruff slap on the back.

“Wanted to make sure you were on the right track. The Old Man said to check up on you, but I know you’re tougher than any other little girl. I knew you’d do fine on your own.”

“Y-yeah…” Torleif mumbled. “Umm…Mister Thor?”

“Mister, am I? That’s a new one. What is it?”

“Will you…be helping me-er…helping us tonight?”

“Little girl, I’ve been helping you the whole time,” Thor grinned. “But if you need that extra bit of godly kick well…any time you point that hammer I gave you and call the lightning down, I’ll make sure whatever it’s pointed at gets an extra swing from Mjolnir.”

Torleif’s face split into a grin. “You got it, uh…boss!”

“The All-Father likes to say every man has a day that he’s tested…little girls included.” Thor said, placing a massive hand on Torleif’s shoulder, nearly causing her knees to buckle.

“He’s wrong though. Sure, he’s right about most things but he’s wrong there. Every day is a test, it’s a test to be stronger, to swing harder, and to fight better than the day before. Today’s going to be a big day, a fated day, but it’s not the last day. Today, Torleif, is the day to swing that hammer harder than you’ve ever swung before. Got it?”

“G-got it!” Torleif nodded, and received a back-breaking slap on her shoulder.

“’Atta girl, then show those Romans what a Norse champion can do!”

 

Torleif snapped awake from her reverie, eyes looking out as the camp was packed away, head still resting against the cold stone of the runes. She let out a long sigh, reaching to the handle of her hammer for comfort. She’d do it, she’d fight harder than she ever had before. That didn’t mean she wasn’t still afraid. Thor had a lot of confidence in her, and they might have “shared” her body for a while, but he never really got to know her. The growing anxiety in her stomach remained.

Torleif glanced to her side, and noticed a tall white flower poking up from the ground next to her. That was odd, as there were almost no flowers left this time of year, and more than that it looked…oddly familiar. Looking closer, she could see that inside one of the soft white petals was what looked like writing.

Torleif leaned in, not wanting to pluck the flower, gently taking hold of the petal to read. Sure enough it was writing, as if the words had grown in pigment along the petals themselves.

Torleif,

I’m sorry I can’t be there in person, but a battlefield isn’t much of a place for a nymph. I know I said goodbye before you left, but I want to let you know that Nora and I, and everyone else, are all rooting for you. Messages are hard to send your way by the normal method, so I hope this reaches you, I think I can still feel your presence, and I suppose hope is all we have. I just want you to know that when you come back there will always be a place for you here.

Love,
Echo

Torleif felt her face burning as she read the message. Miss Echo was the nicest person Torleif had probably ever met, and had sent a flower just for her. Not a message for Cat or the Legion or anyone else, just her. Thor might have been her patron, but Echo was her friend.

Torleif gently plucked the flower from the ground and slid the stem under her hairband, letting the flower sit in her hair just as it did in Echo’s. Somehow, its presence alone made some of the mounting anxiety slip away.

 

*****

 

A lumbering reptilian beast moved its way slowly through the dark German forest, great claws cutting into the earth with each heavy footfall. It was a massive beast, made of strong muscle and hard scale, impervious to most attacks, it had confidence in its strength and in its armor. It was going to Nidhoggr, to destroy these humans from whom it had nothing to fear.

So little fear in fact, it never saw the silver arrow until it was struck in the eye.

Aurelio watched the monster fall, slinging his bow over his shoulder when the twitching ceased.

“Good shot,” Elisa said, watching from his side, her own footfalls through the forest as swift and silent as his.

“You doubted me,” Aurelio said, a satisfied smile on his face.

“Never,” Elisa scoffed.

“Then why was your hand on your sword.”

“Safety first.”

“Sure, that’s the reason.”

“Now, now, keep flirting like that and a girl will get jealous,” Their repartee was interrupted by the arrival of Sybilla, floating down beside them as her feet delicately touched the ground.

“Hardly,” Elisa said. “Simply banter.”

“I wonder if you banter like that with the werewolf recruit,” Sybilla smiled. It had been quite some time since Aurelio had seen Elisa’s face actually redden like it did at her words.

“How’s the west side of the supply lines?” Aurelio asked Sybilla.

“All clear for now,” Sybilla said. “But they won’t stop coming for long.”

“We’ll do what we can but we need to keep moving,” Aurelio said. “We only have a day to catch up to the Legion and we’re still kilometers behind.”

“Agreed,” Elisa said. “Best to take advantage of the morning hours while we have them. Any word from Hachi?”

“She’s reached the legion along with Kara,” Sybilla said. The Witchbreed had been using her magic to keep in contact, allowing communication almost as swiftly as Evangeline’s magic communicators, but those were few and far between.

“Cade and Kira are still a bit behind, but they’re more suited for rearguard duty.”

“Yes, neither of them are champions or possess military training,” Elisa said. “But they chose to come anyway.”

“We all did,” Aurelio said. “Aelia, Constantin, Mary, and the rest can look after Rome while we’re gone…but this battle needs all hands available so that there will be a Rome to come back to.”

“We know, Hunter, that’s why we’re here,” Sybilla smiled, moving to his side as she slid her arm around his.

“Right…” Aurelio said a bit sheepishly. “Guess I’m just telling myself because if I doubted it for a moment I’d run screaming in the other direction…after grabbing you of course,” He added as Sybilla gave him a firm squeeze of the arm.

“You’d better,” She smiled. “But I don’t think any of us are going anywhere but forward.”

“Agreed,” Elisa said, leading the way as the three of them moved through the woods. “And once we get there, we put our monster-slaying skills to the test.”

“These legionnaires are good, but with a lot of champions tied up helping Cat, they’ll need every extra bit of help they can,” Aurelio said. “Turi and Hildegard will be at the front as well as Evangeline but…well I think we can help a little.”

“Last I recall, we were the ones on the frontlines during the Battle of the Black Sun,” Sybilla smiled. “And I think the Night Guard has only gotten better at our job.”

“Agreed,” Aurelio said, pulling her in closer. “Time to show we’re all in, and we’re not backing down.”

 

*****

 

Scheherazade had left sometime during the night, and so Cat was alone when she woke up in her tent and had begun packing.

Today was the day.

As she put her pack together, she felt a familiar weight at the bottom. She glanced around, making sure she had a little time to spare before opening it and pulling out the thick magic tome she’d brought with her all the way from Rome.

It was a longshot, but Cat decided she wanted to make sure at least one last message got through.

“Hey Asha,” Cat scribbled onto the blank page, not expecting a reply at this hour. To her surprise, it took less than a minute before she saw “Hey Cat” appear on the page along with a sketch of Asha’s face.

Cat smiled as her pen hit the paper again.

C: Today’s the day.

A: You and me both.

C: Wish I could be with you.

A: I wish I could be there! But we’re a long way apart, even for a magic carpet.

C: Guess I can only say good luck then.

A: Heh, I know you can beat that dragon, Cat.

Cat paused, wondering if she should ask the question that was prickling at her mind, wondering if she even wanted it answered.

C: Hey Asha?

A; Yeah, Cat?

C: What was it like dying?

There was a pause before her reply, Asha’s illustrated face switching to an expression of concern.

A; Cat, don’t think like that.

C: I just want to know.

A: I’m not really the person to ask. I’m not exactly a normal case.

C: What can you tell me?

A: …I don’t remember much. I didn’t go…pleasantly. Starvation sucks something awful but…Cat you can’t be afraid of it. Whether the gods are right or not, whether there’s something after or not…there’s really just two things I want you to think about. What happens today, and when you’re going to write to me next. None of us stick around forever, not even a weird old ghost like me. So just do that for me, worry about today sure, but worry about tomorrow too. Cause there’s going to be a tomorrow, and I know you’re going to see it.

C: Thanks Asha. I just want you to know you’re a great friend. I’m glad I got this book.

A: Hey so am I! I’d still be at The Line if you hadn’t! The question is am I your BEST friend?

Cat couldn’t help but smile.

C: That’s proooobably Hildegard.

A: Your adoptive sister can’t be your best friend!

C: Mmm Megame then.

A: No fair I’ve known you way longer!

C: By like five months! Fine, Rosa then.

A; Pfft, she’s allowed to kiss you, no fair. I’d be your best friend if I could sneak over and slip my tongue in your mouth whenever I wanted.

C: Asha!

A: Not to mention where her hands are probably wandering.

C: ASHA!

A: See, this is why I’m your best friend.

C: This is why you totally aren’t!

A: Hehe, we can settle this later. Go kill a dragon, hero.

C: Go save a kingdom, hero.

 

Cat smiled as she closed the book, her mood significantly improved. She’d had a chance to talk with all of them. Asha, Schehera, there was Hilde and Hanne of course but they were with her. And of course…

“Hey, it’s about time to go,” Rosa said, tapping her on the shoulder.

“Right!” Cat said, slipping the book back into her bag. Rosa spotted it as Cat shut her bag.

“Get a chance to talk with Asha?”

“Yeah,” Cat nodded. “Heh…seems like yesterday we were on that magic carpet together.”

“It does…though a lot’s different.”

“A lot is going to be different tomorrow too,” Cat said. “But…different for the better.”

“I have no doubt,” Rosa said, smiling as she leaned in to give Cat a quick kiss on the cheek. “Now come on, it’s time to go. Everyone’s waiting.”

“Everyone?” Cat asked sarcastically.

“Just about,” Rosa smiled.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 51

 

The battle against the ghostly Vikings had been short, far shorter than Noemi had expected.

With their sail raised, their cries of the Naglfar carried across the sea, the Vikings had looked ready to commandeer the Dutchman for their black fleet. Noemi was not sure how one ghost ship could truly conquer another, yet Jonah seemed to take it seriously enough, sharing the captain’s orders to the two corporeal crewmates.

Cannon balls and fiery arrows lit up the foggy sea, the flames reflected on the tranquil water below. Loki’s men sailed beside the Dutchman, throwing down planks as they charged across to board the man-o-war. Clad in furs, wielding rusted blades that glowed with a spectral aura around them, the Norse dead were merciless in their assault, shouting in their ancient tongue at Noemi and Ronny.

A machete in one hand, her pistol in another, Noemi had stood on the deck, fighting the Vikings as they came, but it wasn’t long before the three of them were surrounded.

“Looks like this might be the end,” Jonah said with an almost calm fatalism.

“Easy for you to say!” Noemi shouted, parrying a longsword with her machete, before firing an enchanted bullet into the chest of a ghost. “You’re already dead!”

“What even happens if they take the ship, cabin boy?” Ronny asked, ducking beneath a high swinging strike.

“We will probably be compelled to serve Loki as we now serve Davy Jones,” Jonah said.

“I survived too much against Tess to let a god like Loki be my end!” Noemi said, trying to appear bold. Even so, the situation looked bad. While the ghosts of the Dutchman were fighting unseen, there were so many Vikings, more than could fit on a normal longboat.

The waves began to rise higher and higher as the din of the battle echoed through the ocean. The white foam crashed down, spraying all over the deck. Noemi hardly heard the rumbling until she noticed a shadow moving beneath the water.

From beneath the waves, Jormungandr raised its head above the water, its teeth long, sharp, and dripping with venom as it roared. It rolled and tightened its coils beneath the Viking ships, reducing them to splinters floating on the merciless ocean, the souls of their crews weighed down to sink to the Locker below.

Those Northmen ghosts aboard the Dutchman could only watch in awe and terror as the storm clouds rolled back to reveal the Feathered Serpent descending upon them, her form far more monstrous than when Noemi had seen her last. It felt like years to human since she had laid eyes upon her patron. Ophidia let out a screeching call as she crashed upon the deck of the Dutchman, her presence condemning the unwanted ghosts to the sea and Jormungandr’s waiting, ravenous maw.

Noemi blinked twice as she lowered her weapon. Ophidia stood before her, though the term ‘hovered’ seemed more appropriate. Her long white hair appeared more as a cowl of feathers; scales ran along her limbs and a pair of wide downy wings were displayed proudly. Ophidia stared down at Noemi through red, slitted eyes.

“It seems you had fun while I was away, Noemi.”

“I don’t know if I’d call it ‘fun’! But your timing was pretty good,” Noemi said, stepping forward. Her nerves started to calm. After all, it was still Ophidia who stood before her. “You look…ah, different?”

“Mm, yes. One moment,” The goddess spoke, as her feathers began to fall from her hair and wings. They were caught in the wind swirling around Ophidia, as they quickly took the form of her cloak once more, her skin becoming smooth as satin as her scales disappeared. Soon, she looked exactly the same as she had before she departed with the World Serpent. “Does that make you feel more at ease?”

“Yeah, that’s much less intimidating,” Noemi said with a smile. “Thanks.”

“Of course.”

Human Noemi.

The entire ship rocked violently as the voice of the World Serpent blew across the ocean like a storm. Noemi put her hands over her ears as she turned to stare up at Jormungandr, the sea snake looking down at the Dutchman with gem-like eyes.

“Y-yes? No need to be quite so loud. I can hear you better when you’re smaller, you know!”

The World Serpent blinked, letting out a low hiss. The waters began to churn beneath the ship. Ronny grabbed onto a rope to avoid being knocked about.

“What are you doing, Red?” She whispered under her breath, looking nervously up at Jormungandr. “Don’t piss her off when she’s that big!”

“That’s my point. If you want to talk, Jormungandr, then give us the respect of not having to cover our ears just to hear you speak!”

Jormungandr snorted, though it didn’t lash out at the Dutchman. Slowly, the great wyrm began to shrink, down to the size of the ship itself. Though still far larger than any of the people aboard the man-o-war, the ship rocked more peacefully beside it. The serpent’s tail flicked, spraying water back and forth, splashing the elf and Noemi with the salty fishy taste of the sea.

Noemi thought it petty, but decided it best to keep that thought to herself.

“Now…what is it you wish to say, Jormungandr?”

Who are they who sail against the Dutchman?

“Not sure honestly. Well, I can tell they’re Vikings, but I don’t know their names. They came out of the mist, screaming for the Naglfar.”

“I already tried to tell ‘em how this was a sign of Ragnarok, Jor!” Ronny shouted up, her hands cupped around her lips to amplify. “Looks like I was right!”

It is not yet time!

The World Serpent rumbled in fury as the earth began to shake again, the water turning as the storm clouds gathered around the great wyrm’s head. Venom splashed like giant drops, causing the sea to boil where they fell, before washing away. The snake’s jeweled eyes burned with a rage. It flicked its tongue out, hissing furiously.

The Naglfar should not yet be built. It is ahead of the schedule. It is not time for this world to come to an end.

“Yeah, but you know who is probably to blame for that, right, Jormungandr?” Ronny said with an amused grin, her fear having fallen away quickly. “The one who spits at fate, and I’m not talking about Odin.”

It can only be my father’s hand behind this.

“Bingo. I mean, it’s Loki’s ship after all!”

“I don’t know what game your father is playing, great serpent,” Jonah said, stepping forward, looking up at the snake with the same exasperated frustration that he often spared Ronny. “But the Dutchman won’t serve him.”

No. That cannot pass. The Naglfar must be destroyed before it sails proper.

“You know where it is?” Noemi asked.

I do not. My father has hidden it from my sight, constructing it in a secret dock or else I would sense it. If the souls from Helheim are sailing into Midgard, then it must be close to completion.

“So…what, we follow the ghosts? I don’t think they are going to tell us where they’re sailing,” Noemi said.

“No, but I believe it may be possible for us to follow the same channels as them. This ship is one of the wayward dead, even if it’s not in service to the same forces.”

“We don’t really have a pilot who can track spirits or ghosts. It’s not like just because I’m a ghost, I know the way, and the ship won’t sail off its course unless I manually do it,” Jonah said.

“Mm, is this what you want to do, Ophidia?” Noemi asked.

“It is important, not only for my debt to Jormungandr, but to all. After all, this is a threat greater than even Aztlan.”

Noemi nodded, as she turned to Jonah. “So are you willing to let the ship be commandeered for this?”

Jonah’s lips pursed as he thought for a moment, before sighing. “Putting aside the problem I just mentioned, yes. I can’t imagine Davy Jones wants the world to end.”

Sail the Dutchman to the North. Find the Naglfar. It will be at the center of this spectral fleet.

“What will you be doing, Scaly One?” Ronny asked.

I will be preparing for the inevitable engagement. Gathering the forces of the great wyrms and serpents. We will be there to stop my father’s madness.

“Am I to go with you? Or stay aboard the Dutchman.”

You shall stay, Feathered One. You will hear my voice as I prepare.

“What can I do, Jor?” Noemi asked, looking at her cutlass and pistol. She wasn’t an elf like Ronny, able to slip in and out of a story to play whatever role was most apt. Nor was she a ghost like Jonah, a face to an entire crew of souls manning one of the most powerful ship of the damned in the world. Even with her divine powers, she was still Noemi. She was one person, and never had she really felt more out of her league than here.

Jormungandr lowered her head, her eyes piercing through the mortal. Noemi didn’t shy away or turn her head, but staring into Jormungandr’s gaze always reminded Noemi of how small she was.

I have no task for you, champion. There is little one mortal can do in the plans of Fate, yet at times…I have found them deserving of my notice.

Noemi frowned at that, looking away as her cheeks flushed red. She knew Jormungandr was simply stating the truth, yet the serpent’s words were…blunt. It seemed even the world serpent took notice now, as it slowly rose its head back, speaking in a warmer tone.

Yet you work to stop Ragnarok, and in that task, even a single hand is invaluable. Take pride in that.

“R-right, well…I do want to help. Because like everyone’s saying, this affects us all. Not just the Dutchman, Ophidia’s cult, or the people oppressed by Aztlan, but all of us.”

Noemi turned to Jonah, a smile on her face as she holstered her gun. Even if she felt small, it was all about putting on a show. Sometimes, that’s all others needed.

“You need a pilot? Well, I can take you to a place where I think we can find someone able to track down the trail of spirits. It will just be a quick pit stop to get an extra set of hands.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Obsidian Lights

 

Gisela glanced at the candle still burning on the collapsible desk she worked on. The wick was down to very last strands and the wax was now more puddle than candle. Rosa liked to joke it was her ‘midnight candle’ and Gisela had been burning it for weeks. Gisela hadn’t mentioned how right she was.

It was part of being a Champion. Two hours of sleep every three days was the most Gisela could get away with while still remaining completely functional.

“…”

Gisela shook her head. It was too early in the morning to consider the ramifications of treating her body and mind like machines, and she had too much work to do. She’d wasted many long nights psychoanalyzing herself. When all this was over, she could publish a book on it.

By Gisela’s reckoning, it was about three hours past midnight. A few hours had passed since Evangeline’s reckless tampering with the runestones had woken up half the camp. No doubt Evangeline would eventually come to her for translation help. Evangeline was smart, a better engineer than Gisela could ever conceivably be, but tongues were not among her many gifts.

Gisela’s finger continued down the page of the book as her eyes wandered from line to line. It was Old Norse, very old considering it was still in the original Runic script. She’d told Catarina that her patron, Itzpapalotl, had given her the ability to read and understand every language ever known by humans. This was not technically the truth in two respects. Gisela could not literally ‘read’ the Runic script in front of her, and not all the languages she knew were made by humans.

What Gisela could do, her primary gift, was the ability to siphon literal and contextual information directly from any words or written script. It was, in Itzpapalotl’s words, the “Language of the Gods”. What Gisela could do wasn’t reading, it was so much more useful than that. By simply seeing the line of runes before her, Gisela’s mind could understand not only their literal meaning but the intent of the author, a key difference that gave her invaluable insight. Language is ninety-percent context, and what she could do was the dream of centuries of archaeologists and philologists: The ability to peer into the mind of the speaker or writer and understand not only what they said, but what they meant.

The book she read was fascinating in and of itself, a transcription taken from the personal memoirs of a member of the Byzantine Varangian Guard, supposedly of tales passed down through his mother’s line from a people unidentified save for being some elusive ‘other’, which Gisela believed to be some kind of fae or pre-historical autocthonous being. What was written, however, was more troubling than fascinating.

It had much to say on the primeval entities of the Norse World, on the frost giant Ymir (not only deceased but blessedly dismembered like its Mesoamerican cousin Cipactli), and on Jormungandr, the World Serpent. Jormungandr’s description had been surprisingly placid, she (Gisela noted the specificity of femininity) was seen as like the Spine of the World, part of Midgard and its life-cycle. Though Thor and Jormungandr would destroy one another come Ragnarok, this was seen as more necessity than malice, the world must die to live again. But of the most terrible dragons, the document saved its vitriol for Nidhoggr. While Jormungandr was part of the world and its fate, Nidhoggr was the “Great Other”, an alien force form the depths of Helheim that will rend through the borders of the Realms in an act of utmost chaotic destruction.

Gisela put the book down. Reading for hours about the destruction of civilizations was not going to be of any help. As she shut the cover of the book, hand sliding over the aged leather, the candle in front of her shuddered.

Gisela’s eyes narrowed. The flame’s movement was not in time with her shutting of the book. It was an innocuous detail, and one that she would have been certain to notice.

“So you’re here,” She said quietly to the shadows, and the shadows smiled at her.

Itzpapalotl wasn’t strong enough to take full form around her anymore, but she didn’t need to. A cold wind rattled through the tent, extinguishing the candle and filling the air with the sound of hissing snakes and rattling bones. Gisela turned and stared into the darkness, the only light coming from the muted starlight that peered through the slight opening in the tent. She stared, and a pair of stars stared back at her.

“You’ve been at this some time and yet nothing has helped, has it?”

The voice shivered through the air, as if carried on ice into her ears, the same rattling sword-breath she’d become familiar with.

“It doesn’t need to help,” Gisela said. “Any knowledge on these creatures is invaluable.”

“And they keep saying the same thing. Cut and run, flee while you can. The end is nigh.”

Gisela ground her teeth together. She hated when Itzpapalotl decided to ‘test’ her.

“I don’t need a plan or a stratagem from some old text. We have a plan. It will work.”

Itzpapalotl’s laughter filled the tent. The book flipped open, pages shuffling wildly back and forth.

“A plan? A witch’s word, the promise of a powerless Primordial, and a foolish little girl with more idealism than sense. Tell me, child, you’re so clever with numbers and facts, what do you think about the odds.”

Gisela scowled. She knew the odds, but she didn’t like being mocked.

“Have you told Catarina how much like the others she is?” Itzpapalotl’s voice ran down her spine like cold water. “Like the hopeful boys and girls in Morocco, France, Portugal and Algiers. All of them so like Catarina, all of them dead now. The soil of the Old World is rich with the blood of dead heroes, is it not?”

Gisela stood up.

“You,” She hissed. “Are my shadow, my patron, my cross to carry around with me, but I will not have you insult the people around me.”

“Oho, what’s this?” Itzpapalotl laughed. “Empathy? Caring? You defend the people you once groomed like lambs for slaughter. Tell me have you forgotten so quickly the reason you shut all that away, forgot how to care and to feel to simply keep yourself sane?”

Gisela’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you dare…”

“You weren’t the only ones watching those memories again,” She laughed. “I was right there with you. It was, after all, my eyes through which we saw them. From the beginning I was watching you, your shadow as you said. I know what you are, Gisela, and I know that when the time comes, you always choose to run.”

Gisela took a long deep breath. “You’re right…I know you’re right.”

Itzpapalotl remained silent, expecting more. Gisela obliged her.

“I ran from my home, from my fear. I ran from Tezcatlipoca and from all the monsters he sent after me…I ran from Noemi, I ran from the continent just to get away. I ran from death right into your arms and when I found others…people who could help, people who could make a difference, I ran from them. I ran from the potential because I was afraid of failing, and they all failed perhaps in part because of it.”

Gisela stood her ground, staring at the rogue stars peering at her through the night air,

“But I will tell you the same thing I will tell Tezcatlipoca. I’m not running anymore.”

“And where did this newfound courage come from?” Itzpapalotl asked, the mocking jeer still in its voice. “Do you have that much confidence in your plans? Are you this assured of the odds?”

“It’s not about the odds, it’s not about the plan. It’s about faith,” Gisela said plainly. Itzpapalotl laughed again. This time Gisela did not flinch.

“Faith? Where is your faith, Gisela? When have you ever had faith in anyone or anything?”

“I had…I have faith in Noemi,” Gisela said. The name itself hurt to say, but she pushed on. “But more than anything now I have faith in Catarina where I never thought I would.”

“And what makes her so different? What makes this child worthy of your faith?”

“Nothing at all,” Gisela said. “She’s no more special than anyone else could be. Sure she has magic, but so do I and so do others. Nothing sets her above the heroes I met before, or any other legionnaire in this camp…”

“Then what is it?”

“She isn’t worthy of my faith,” Gisela said. “That’s not how faith works…how it should work. I have faith in her because I want to, because what hope does she have if I don’t? And…because she has faith in me.”

“Does she now?”

“She believed me, heard what I had to say, brought me with her, took me into her home. Begrudgingly yes, more often reluctantly than not…but she has only ever been kind, kinder than I ever deserved. She has faith in me not to run when she needs me, and I need to honor that faith.”

“So what does this mean?” Itzpapalot said, her tone becoming calmer, more quiet. “When the moment comes to choose, when you find that threshold of no return?”

“I’m all in,” Gisela said. “No more running, no more hiding. No more hating myself for being a coward. I’ll be with Catarina, and we’ll succeed together, or we’ll all die together.”

“How bold…I must say, child, you are not the drowning girl I pulled up from the embrace of the deeps.”

“You saw to that,” Gisela said. “When you scorched my mind and set me on this path.”

“I did do that,” Gisela could hear the smile even if she couldn’t see it. “But that made you a machine, my harbinger of destruction. Something has changed in you since you failed to conquer Rome.”

Itzpapalotl did always have to phrase it in the most demeaning way.

“No, I think that Catarina has done something to you. She’s affected you far more than you’ve changed her.”

“Perhaps that’s for the best,” Gisela said. “If she were more like me she’d be a terrible hero.”

Itzpapalotl chuckled, less coldly this time. “That would be true, my child. Though I wonder if you plan to take that role yourself one day.”

“I’m not preoccupied with ‘one day’ at the moment,” Gisela said. “I have a world to save tomorrow.”

The tent seemed to empty, the shadows falling away and the candle lighting itself once more. The stars past the tent fold faded into the darkness, and Gisela felt distinctly alone again. She stayed standing a few minutes longer before taking her seat again, hands resting on the pages of the book she had been scouring, but her eyes staring into the tent wall before her.

Itzpapalotl was never truly gone, she knew that. It was true Gisela did not often have her full attention; no doubt she had plenty to do in her homeland where she belonged. Still, even when she was alone like this she knew that the Obsidian Butterfly’s presence was never too far away, lingering in a shadow somewhere.

Gisela stared at the smoldering remnants of the candle, the light starting to fade as the last of the wick began to burn away.

“She would be proud of you.”

Gisela sat bolt upright. The voice had been right in her ear, like a whisper over her shoulder, but it hadn’t been the cold mirthless voice of Itzpapalotl she knew. It had seemed warmer, kinder, spoken through human lips rather than the pointed teeth of the hollowed skeletal face. Gisela stared into the darkness for a long time, but nothing moved, and no new voice came.

Unsure what it meant, Gisela leaned down onto to the desk, head resting on her folded arms as she pushed the book away. She didn’t need the sleep, but tomorrow would be a long day.

 

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 50

 

By necessity, the Cult of Ishtar lacked a real hierarchy and power structure. The more people knew about such a hierarchy, the easier it would be to bring down. As a result, it had been separated into semi-distinct cells with Asha and Leyla as the only common element between them. A plan to bring down Shadiya, however, would require large-scale coordination and thus they needed to start planning with everyone they knew.

They were in one of the more well-to-do estates in Babylon, on the second floor of a manor with a view overlooking the Tigris and a garden of arid plants. In the distance, far too close for comfort, was the palace of Shadiya, an intimidating ziggurat of sandstone, glass, and semi-precious stones that rose in the center of the city.

Asha had gathered all of her companions from Babylon and Damscus, as well as a small crowd of new Ishtar cultists. The manor was owned by one of their wealthier patrons, who had the means to get a large number in one place somewhat surreptitiously.

“First and foremost,” Asha said. “We all want Shadiya overthrown, but no one wants innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Shadiya in control of her brood is dangerous but out of control, it’s not much better and there are very few people on our side qualified to kill monsters.”

There was a general murmur of assent throughout the group. Plenty were willing to fight guards or URIEL, if it came to that, but very few were willing to take on Shadiya’s brood.

“With that in mind,” Leyla spoke up next. “We think we’ve managed to come up with a workable solution. Have you seen those towers erected through the city, like telephone lines?”

He gestured out the window, and from their view they could see several such towers rising throughout the city.

“Those expand her area of control. They allow her to establish her will over the minds of monsters. If they’re destroyed, so is her control.”

“That was our first plan,” Asha said. “But you can see the obvious downsides.”

“Without control,” one man said. “We just have an army of monsters loose in the city…who are now OUT of control.”

“Bingo,” Asha nodded. “And that’s just as bad if not worse, even if we had everyone out trying to fight them.”

Varia stepped forward now. After escaping from beneath the city sewers, she’d had a chance to clean up, dressed down in a number of shawls to avoid being recognized. “While we have reason to believe the monsters would turn on their URIEL handlers, after that we would still have that problem to deal with. So instead we worked out a new solution, and a new plan.”

“The job all of you will have,” Asha said. “Is that in two days’ time, you are going to go out and try to get every single person off the street you can. We’re going to do this at night to make it easier, but everyone on the streets is potentially in danger.”

“Sure but…what’s this plan?” One asked from the crowd.

“Leyla and I are going to assault Shadiya’s Palace,” Asha said. “Head on. At the same time, Constance, Hazif, and Varia will target the broadcast towers, and this is where the plan gets really brilliant.”

“We’re not going to tear down the signal, we’re going to amplify it,” Varia smiled. “Imagine Shadiya’s voice is like a radio in their heads telling them what to do. We’re not going to shut it off, we’re going to turn it up so loud they can’t even register anything but intolerable noise.”

“Turn up the volume until they can’t take it anymore,” Asha said. “Rather than guiding them those monsters are going to run just to escape the pain of the noise. Hopefully right out of the city.”

“Will that really work?” One woman stepped forward, one Asha recognized as being from one of the larger Ishtar cults. “Just turn up the volume? They’d still be able to hear the orders right?”

“I’m familiar with the method they used,” Varia said. “I’ve seen it put in action before. This kind of…telepathy you could say…requires very fine control and a consistent signal controlled with a delicate touch. Too little and it’s only subliminal, hardly altering the mind at all. Too much and it’s like…well imagine sensory overload delivered directly to your brain. You can’t shut your eyes or put your hands over your ears. It’d be intensely painful and even a monster would flee.”

“And who are you?” The cult leader’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve never seen you around before and it seems like you know quite a bit. Maybe too much.”

“She’s someone we-“ Asha began but Varia cut her off.

“I know the system because I helped pioneer its use,” Varia said plainly. “I am a former URIEL scientist, and I’m not asking for your forgiveness or sympathy, just your cooperation.”

Murmurs and objections rose up among the crowd as people seemed to divide themselves. Asha sighed; she knew this would be coming if Varia’s identity got out.

“I know people are worried,” Asha said.

“We don’t know if we can trust her!” The cultist said. “Who knows what experiment’s she’s done!?”

“I tested her,” Asha said, showing her hand. “Held her by the skin and asked all kinds of questions on if she’d betray us. Dr. Archeille has no intention of betraying us. She’ll follow the plan to the best of her abilities.”

“She’s right,” Varia nodded. “As for what I’ve done…some may have been unethical, but I’ve always tried to act within the strictest morality my work could allow.”

There were still a number of disgruntled murmurs, but for the most part the crowd went silent.

“But that’s the plan,” Asha said. “The signal will be disrupted, Leyla and I will engage Shadiya at roughly the same time so she can’t fix the problem. At the same time, I’ll need all of you and your groups out on the streets pulling people out of harm’s way. On top of that, the URIEL soldiers won’t be fleeing either.”

“We don’t want you engaging them either,” Leyla said. “URIEL soldiers are heavily armed and better coordinated. What we need to know is where they hunker down while they try to recover.”

“They’re on their last legs,” Varia said. “Most of their command structure other than Shadiya have been exiled or murdered. Given a chance, and shown that her rule is broken, they’ll surrender or flee. Try to corner them, however, and they will try to shoot their way out. We don’t need that kind of conflict.”

As Leyla began to work with the crowd, pointing out where they would need to patrol on a map of the city, Asha pulled Varia aside.

“You didn’t have to tell them who you were,” Asha said. “That…complicates things.”

“You proved I’m trustworthy,” Varia said. “That should be all they need to cooperate.”

“For this mission maybe,” Asha said. “But we can’t have you going through a lie detector for everything. If you want a future working in this city, people will need to trust you a little more.”

Varia smiled. “So your plan was to get them to trust me by deceiving them.”

“I, er…” Asha pursed her lips.

“It’s a non-issue either way,” Varia shrugged. “I have no intention of remaining in this city. I’ll be leaving.”

“Leaving?” Asha asked. “Where? Damascus?”

“Farther, I expect,” Varia said. “There’s someone I need to find that I’ve been worried about for years now.”

“You never really told me,” Asha said. “What you did before the days of Revelation with URIEL. Obviously you weren’t brought on when they were building Shadiya.”

Varia sighed. “I was brought in on what I thought was a research project, purely theoretical but before I knew it my ‘theory’ had become exceedingly ‘practical’ and I was delving into the murky ethics of human cloning.”

“Cloning?” Asha asked. “Like making copies of people in pods?”

“Well…not pods,” Varia said. “But yes, I was involved in a clandestine cloning project studying the effects of reproducing ancient mage bloodlines via cloning. As the work continued, however, the work began to…stray from what I could comfortably be do.”

“What kind of work was it?” Asha asked, leading her further away from the crowd and into a hall where they could be alone.

“Three subjects…no, three young girls were cloned from the same DNA. I just wanted to see the effects and pitched fostering them among the staff, but the project lead…Dr. Joachim, was insistent they stay isolated from the staff and most interactions other than with each other. He claimed it was for their protection and while I…agreed at first due to their inherent genetic instability and lack of immunity to modern disease…things became worse.”

Asha listened quietly as Varia leaned against the wall, staring down at the tiled floor.

“They began undergoing behavioral conditioning…and I mean intense conditioning. After that was the additional gene therapy and…the project was getting out of control. I didn’t think we should have cloned them in the first place but when that was too late…I wanted to treat them like people…when I had the chance, I treated them like my own daughters. But by the time they were in their teens, it was clear URIEL’s only plans for them were to turn them into weapons. Clandestine soldiers for a war we weren’t even fighting yet.”

“You could have left,” Asha said. “At a lot of points.”

“I was under heavy security scrutiny. Finding a job would have been nigh-impossible,” Varia said. “But more than that…you have to understand how much these girls meant to me. By the time they were six they saw me as…well not as much of a mother as I wanted to be but…they were everything. And I wasn’t about to leave them.”

“So what did you do? If anything?” Asha asked, folding her arms.

“I arranged the conditions for them to escape,” Varia said. “Not all at once and not in any way that could be traced but…well Dr. Joachim knew it was me. That is when my employment turned from ‘non-disclosure’ into ‘compulsory’. I didn’t receive any further work until the Shadiya project after the Days of Revelation. I was just kept in one URIEL cell after another, a prisoner or a slave depending on how kind they were being.”

“So that’s who you want to find,” Asha said. “The girls?”

“I know, it’s not much, in all likelihood they’re not even alive. But if Shadiya is brought down…well URIEL isn’t holding me anymore.”

Asha stood silently for a moment, thinking things over. She wasn’t sure how much of what Varia was telling her was true. She could have found out but that likely would have said more about Asha than Varia if she had tried to force her hand.

“What were their names?” Asha asked finally. “The girls.”

“All of them were codenamed Eleanor. One through three,” Varia said. “It was my idea to give them nicknames they adopted. The eldest was Lenore, the youngest Ellen, and the middle one was Nora.”

“Nora…” Asha said the name, tapping her head. “That…something about that is familiar.”

“I mean it’s not uncommon,” Varia shrugs. “I know it’s not much to go on.”

“R-right well…” Asha shook her head. “If we make it through this…and that’s a pretty big if, then I wish you good luck.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Marks that Bind

 

It was late at night in the Second Legion camp. Most people were asleep, while a decent contingent of the guard stayed on the walls to keep back the monsters. Evangeline, however, was taking a little time for herself. Though she’d gotten by on her bad leg without issue before, the long days of hard marching were taking their toll. She used her automatons as a leg brace to keep pace with the others, but after a day of that it had chafed fiercely, and she was relieved when they set up camp.

Their camp was in a large clearing in the forest. Hanne had taken it as simple good luck and set up camp there immediately. It was built on a hill that gave them a commanding view of the surrounding forests and even a hint of the Brocken in the distance. Evangeline, however, was convinced it was no simple hill, and had decided after night fell to investigate on her own.

Atop the hill, in the center of the camp not far from the command tent, was a loose gathering of large boulders. Most of them were very long and stood up on their narrower sides as if raised like standing stones. Even the shortest of them easily dwarfed her, and they had caught her eye the moment she walked into camp. Hildegard and Angel had both insisted the hill was safe and without any trace of excess magic, but Evangeline wasn’t so sure.

She was investigating the stones, tapping the hard rock with her cane when she heard steps coming up the hill behind her.

“Poking around with rocks now, Evangeline?” She recognized Rosa’s voice, not even needing to turn around.

“That’s right,” Evangeline said. “Rocks are interesting.”

There was a pause before Rosa spoke again, and Evangeline kept at her work.

“…what kind of rock is it?”

“Granite,” Evangeline said idly, still tapping away.

“Uh huh…” Rosa’s voice trailed off, but Evangeline didn’t hear her leave. It was clear she wanted to talk about something. By now, Rosa knew her well enough to know that Evangeline was listening, but she wasn’t going to turn around when she was already so engrossed in her work.

“Do you have a minute to…?”

“By all means, talk away,” Evangeline said, hand sliding over the smooth stone. Too smooth.

“I was just wondering…you’ve…heard about me and Cat, right?”

“You two do have such a sense of timing,” Evangeline clucked her tongue. “Choosing to tie this romantic knot of yours on the veritable eve of battle.”

Evangeline smiled, she could almost hear Rosa bristling from the way her weight shifted her armor.

“H=hey it was Cat’s fault we-“

“I think it’s cute, Rosa,” Evangeline interrupted her. “Everyone does. Besides, late or not it’s better to get it out before the big battle. So don’t worry about it.”

Her cane made a looud tink sound as it struck the stone at an angle.

“Now that’s odd…”

“It’s just…well I was anxious about Cat because she was acting all weird. I get that it’s because she was worried about bringing it up, but now I’m worried because-“

“Because you’re worried about her even more,” Evangeline interrupted her again. “Because now she’s not just your friend and comrade, but your girlfriend…I think I hit the mark,” Evangeline was half-talking to Rosa and half-trying to focus on the stone. There was something under here.

“Yeah…” Rosa muttered. “Like I don’t regret it, but now I’m all…”

“We’re all worried, Rosa,” Evangeline said. “Cat has family and friends here. We all want her safe,” Her eyes were still locked on the stone. She flipped the cane in her hand, grasping the worn wood near the base as she weighed the heavy handle on the far end. With a flick of her thumb she tripped a hidden level and heard a soft metallic whir go through the device. At the head of the cane, a small glass sphere containing a modicum of divine lightning was slotted onto place.

“I know, I know it’s just…this is kind of different now. Like, I should be looking out for her more. I don’t know, maybe I should go talk to her…”

“Cat’s sleeping and you’re overthinking things,” Evangeline’s automatons moved to her bad leg, bracing it in place. This was going to take some effort.

“Wow, Evangeline,” Irritation was growing in Rosa’s voice. “Could you at least humor me for a second before cutting me off? It’s not easy for me to talk about this kind of-“

“One second, sorry.”

Evangeline swung her cane like a sledgehammer, the metal head contacting the hard stone with enough force to shatter the glass sphere. There was a flash of light and a sound like a thunderclap rolling through the camp. Evangeline saw a number of people sticking their heads out of their tents to investigate, and she waved her cane apologetically.

“Sorry!” She shouted. “Nothing to worry about! I promise!”

“Jesus, give me some warning next time!” Evangeline turned to Rosa for the first time and saw her gingerly rubbing her ears with her palms.

“Sorry,” Evangeline said. “Running tests.”

“Could you spare me like, I don’t know, ten seconds of your time?”

“Shall I time you?” Evangeline asked sarcastically, rebalancing herself on her cane. “Look, Rosa, I understand but you’re…well you’re blowing this a bit out of proportion.”

Rosa’s face reddened both in embarrassment and irritation. Evangeline could see why Cat found her cute.

“I’m worried about her!”

“Good,” Evangeline said. “Being worried is a good thing.”

“Wha-what do you mean?” Rosa asked.

“Come look at this,” Evangeline gestured for Rosa to come close to the stone. Hesitantly at first the redhead walked over to stand next to her.

On the surface of the old granite, lines of light were beginning to wind themselves across the stone surface. Slowly they moved and intersected, forming into runic inscriptions and stylized art, flawless in detail and shining with power.

“What is this?” Rosa asked.

“A runestone. They’re pretty rare this far south,” Evangeline said. “But there are a few you can find if you know how to see through the magic.”

“Runestone?”

Evangeline nodded. “Normally they’re just carved rocks people put up to commemorate lost relatives or boast about their own accomplishments. But stones like these are something special. You see here?”

Evangeline gestured to parts of the runestone all but covered in shining runic script over geometric lines that almost appeared to be schematics. Evangeline traced some of the lines with her fingers, following the patterns.

“These were put up by dwarves as a method of recording and communication. A bit harder to find than human replications, but all the better for it. I can only imagine the kind of knowledge these things had.”

“Uh huh…” Rosa looked over the lines, but the meaning of them was lost on her. “So, what was with all the thunder and lightning?”

“Oh that?” Evangeline shrugged. “Well, dwarves don’t sell their secrets cheaply. They usually demand unfair or unreasonable trades for their work. So, of course, if they write down their designs, there’s going to be a lot of security around it. I just had to bust open the lock a little.”

“Doubt they’d like that,” Rosa said, Evangeline shrugged.

“Assuming the dwarf that wrote that is still alive, he can take it up with me and my boss.”

“Right…so, looking to see if you can work some Norse dwarf metalsmithing into all that divine engineering you do?”

“Couldn’t hurt,” Evangeline smiled. “Shame I don’t have time to implement anything I learn before the battle…”

With a flick of her hand she released some of her skittering automatons onto the runestone, letting them crawl over its surface and record whatever they could. She couldn’t very well take the stone with her later.

“Mmm…but getting back on my point,” Rosa started to say.

“I don’t think you’ll have any problems, Rosa,” Evangeline said.

“What do you mean?”

Evangeline smiled. “I mean that of course you’re worried. A lot of people are, and not just for Cat…but I also know you. I helped fortify your spear after all.”

“Well true…”

“And remember what we did? How we narrowed its focus and the concepts worked within the metal of your spear?”

“Yeah, we made it less about just killing and more about protecting.”

“We did,” Evangeline said. “And we chose that because you wanted to protect Rome and the people in it you cared about. You’re the kind of person, Rosa, who never fights better than when they’re protecting something they care about…and you’ve never had the chance to fight for someone you cared about more than Catarina.”

“Mmm…” Rosa fell into a n uncomfortable silence, and Evangeline walked from the stone as her automatons continued their work, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

“You told me about your sister, Rosa…I can’t imagine how hard carrying those memories must be for you. The two of you struggled so hard to survive…but you never got the chance to do what you wanted, to fight for her and to protect her from else.”

“No…” Rosa said. “I never got to…”

“You’re not going to fail Catarina like you failed her,” Evangeline said. “No one is.”

“Mmmm…thanks, Evangeline,” Rosa said. “Just…needed to hear it and there wasn’t…it’s hard to talk about with the team, especially Cat.”

“I understand,” Evangeline nodded. “You need to look strong and fearless as the commander, especially with Cat as scared as she is. You’re all too tight knit for you to appear scared.”

“That’s…that’s more or less it, yeah,” Rosa nodded.

“All of us are scared, Rosa. For our own reasons and for the same reason in that we’re all about to go fighting a gigantic chaos dragon. Who wouldn’t be scared, seriously?”

“I don’t know how Cat’s even still moving,” Rosa said. “I’m…I worry. This is a lot for her. Too much for anyone really.”

“Catarina is like no one else I’ve ever met,” Evangeline said. “And you really should feel lucky someone like her loves someone like you.”

“Heh, well…I do feel pretty lucky,” Rosa turned a bit red in the face.

“She relies on all of us, but you most of all,” Evangeline said. “She knows you’re scared…but so long as she sees you pushing forward and braving through it, she’ll be able to as well.”

“I guess that’s what we’re all doing,” Rosa said. “Just putting on a brave face so the rest of us can do the same.”

“That’s what being brave is,” Evangeline said. “No one here is stupid enough to think that none of us are afraid. Everyone is scared and everyone knows it…but we’re all scared together and we all march together. Like links in chain armor one pulls along the other and they pull along others, and the first was pulled along by someone else. There’s no start, no lead, just a little collective bravery form all of us is what keeps this army marching. You and Catarina inspire one another, keep each other going, and it’s the same for the rest of the team.”

“Heh, you give pretty good speeches,” Rosa gave a weary smile.

“Just one on one.” Evangeline returned her smile. “I’m terrible at public speaking really, way too casual.”

“So who keeps you marching?” Rosa asked.

“You have to ask?” Evangeline said. “All of you, of course.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa