The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 33

 

“Are we there yet?” Noemi sighed, looking out over the rails of the ship. Jonah was busy as usual, and the elf Rhonwen, or as they had taken to calling her, Ronny, seemed to be unusually hard at work, moving about the ship with the natural grace of a veteran sailor. It had been a few days since they had picked up Ronny and Noemi had requested to be let off in the Caribbean. Since then they had seen a number of ports but none even close to the Caribbean Sea. A number of souls had been gathered floating above the water, their spirits quickly vanishing to join the rest of the invisible crew.

“How come they don’t become cabin boys like you?” She had asked Jonah on night, after discovering they had arrived with the fog in the South China Sea. They had discovered a group of six sailors sitting on their floating planks of wood, what remained of their ship. They had said something in their native tongue, but Noemi couldn’t piece it together, and then they vanished, fading out of her sight.

“Mm, probably because you and Ronny are anchoring me?” Jonah had said. “I’m not too sure myself. Not that I mind. It’s nice being…me.”

After the South China Sea they had sailed around the Horn of Africa, only to arrive in the Mediterranean off the coast of Tripoli. Noemi had started using an old set of star maps just to get a sense of where the ship was taking them. When she had last checked the sky, it had placed her somewhere in the North Sea, off the coast of Norway. Quite a ways away from the Caribbean.

“Look, I don’t know what to tell you,” Jonah said, handing her a broom to sweep the deck clear of dust. It seemed that no matter how often it was swept, the Dutchman had a perpetual layer of dust and dirt clinging to her. Noemi figured it was part of the atmosphere. “It’s really hard to predict where we are heading next.”

“Yeah, but there has to be someone in the Caribbean that is dying at sea, right? I mean, how come we can’t go to them first!”

“I don’t think we actually operate on a linear timeline…” Jonah had said, giving her a shrug. “If we did, then I imagine there’d be a lot of ghosts we just don’t get. But if we just appear a couple of hours after their death, it gives them enough time to start to realize their situation.”

“Wait…if time’s not linear, then could we go back to the past!?”

“In theory,” Jonah said, very slowly. “But we have no way of knowing what time it is exactly, just by the stars. Besides, how would you even know if it would apply to you? Even if I’m right, I don’t know what happens to living people when they leave the Dutchman. Maybe you just rejoin time in the point you’re supposed to.”

“Mm, I guess that’s true. It’s not a safe bet…”

“Not at all.”

“Hey, you two, stop talking, the water is getting rough!” Ronny shouted from her perch up above. The elf grabbed the rope and slid down to the deck to join them, her tricorn hat staying on her hair despite the strong winds. “Saw something big moving beneath the water. We may have trouble.”

“Big? How big?” Noemi asked. Was it possible there was another sunken man of war ghost ship sailing around? “Is it a ship?”

“Bigger!” Ronny exclaimed, pointing up excitedly. “Get the guns ready!”

“Why, what did you se—” Jonah started to ask, before there was the sound of breaking water, the soft light of twilight going dark as something large reared itself above the ocean. “…Oh. To the guns!”

Noemi ran as quickly as she could across the decks, throwing the broom to the ground as she started shoving gunpowder into the cannons. The boat was raised high into the air by the force of the waves, tipping dangerously to both sides. Looking over her shoulder, Noemi could see that the creature was a large serpent, easily five times the size of the Dutchman.

Her face went white, the powder she was scooping with her hands falling like sand between her fingertips. She stared wide eyes at the serpent as it pushed itself out of the water, passing over the ship with seeming no end as it crashed beneath the waves on the other side. It was wider than the ship, blocking out the stars above her as its dark shape flew above.

The water splashed aboard the deck with enough force to send Noemi flying backwards. She scrambled to catch her footing as the ship was bumped fiercely from beneath.

“I have you, Noemi,” the soft yet firm voice of Ophidia said, as Noemi felt herself being wrapped up in the Feathered Serpent’s arms. Ophidia was staring down towards the bottom of the ship with a worried look on her face.

“What, what is that!?”

“It is the World Serpent…”

“The what?!”

Ophidia didn’t answer, instead just wrapping herself around Noemi even tighter, her arms looking more like a bird’s wings than a human’s arms as she cocooned the red head. Noemi didn’t resist, her heart racing.

“It’s coming from below!” Ronny shouted, over the rush of the wind. Noemi couldn’t do anything, couldn’t move. She felt the ship begin to…sink? No…that wasn’t right…

It was like the ship was falling. She heard the rushing of water pouring down a hole in the world itself, as if the ocean had simply parted over a great abyss. They were falling and the stars were getting farther away above the. Noemi screamed, her cries of terror muffled by Ophidia’s chest as the Goddess buried the mortal’s face in her bosom, like a mother would a child.

The world was dark as the stars went out. It took Noemi a second to process why that was. The giant snake had swallowed them whole, gulping down the sea water with them. They were in the belly of the beast, or more accurately, the mouth of it.

Jonah said nothing, though Noemi could see there was enough life left in the ghost that even he was uncertain of what would await him. Ronny was screaming at him to do something, get the Dutchman to sail away, but they had no “jump”, not that Noemi had seen.

“Is…Is this where it ends? After all that, I get swallowed by a monster?”

“…Do not despair, Noemi. We have not reached our end yet. I am here with you. Though even at the height of my power, I do not know if I had the strength to fight the World Serpent.”

“So that’s it. We’re going to die here?”

“We are still here. Have faith, Noemi.”

The words were said in a calming tone, but that was hardly enough to overcome the fear that washed over Noemi as the ship was bounced and jostled inside the monster’s mouth. She waited with baited breath for the next drop down, when the serpent would throw its head back and send them to its endless gullet.

“There’s light!” Ronny shouted, pointing franticly. “Ah! Cabin boy! Make your ghosts push us or something!”

“This is a man of war, Ronny, you know damn well there are no sails!”

“Do something, cabin boy!”

“It appears that there is not much that is needed of us,” Ophidia said calmly, raising her voice to catch the attention of the other two. “It seems that the World Serpent is doing it for us.”

Indeed, it was. The boat began to slide towards the light. Noemi briefly wondered if that was the end, whatever fate awaited those who died. It would be fitting, dying aboard the ship of the dead, skipping right to the end. Maybe she had actually been dead the whole time. Maybe Tess had won and this was all in her head.

There was a grumble as the ship sailed out of the largest cave Noemi had ever seen, the stalactites were sharp and dripped with venom that hit the deck with the force of a wave. As the ship pulled outside of the cave, Noemi realized with a sinking stomach that it wasn’t a cave at all.

It was the mouth of the World Serpent.

Slowly, the giant beast began to shrink as it circled the ship, its body coiling out of the water, every movement causing giant waves that rocked the ship. After a while, it was merely twice the size of the Dutchman…Or around there anyway. Noemi could not see all of its body at once.

It swayed its head from side to side, eying them with slit jewel-like eyes. A forked tongue flicked itself in the air.

You are bad food.

“Err…Yes! Very bad!” Ronny shouted up, cowering behind a box. “Elves don’t taste good, I promise.”

“I think it means because of all the ghosts, actually,” Noemi said, still shaking. Ophidia had relaxed her grip around her, but the Feathered Serpent still held the champion in her arms.

The snake turned her face a few degrees, to look directly at Noemi, the great yellow eye looming large over her, the tongue flicking again in her direction.

Red headed…

Noemi could swear the snake said something else, but it was lost in a hiss, as the force of the sound caused the wind to nearly send Noemi flying out to see in the gusts. Ophidia strengthened her grip on the girl’s shoulders.

She is my chosen one, World Serpent. You will not hurt her so long as I am here.

“Y-yeah, what she said. Don’t hurt Ophidia though!”

The World Serpent dove back beneath the water, before breaching on the other side of the ship, its tail pushing the Dutchman out of the water into the air. The World Serpent, Jormungandr, stared intently at it with a worrying concentration. After a while, they heard it speak again in a rumbling hiss that shook the ship.

Feathered One, you are far from home. But beneath the feathers I can see you’re like me… but much too small. I can make you bigger.

“Bigger? Like…Like you can make Ophidia stronger?” Noemi said, her voice rising to be heard above the winds.

Yes. Serpents and dragons, I seek. You will come with me, and I will make you bigger. I know the seas the skies and the ancient places. Where gods grow wise and serpents grow large.

Go with the Jormungandr? Noemi wasn’t so sure she liked that. After all, the World Serpent was probably like the Dutchman in that they couldn’t tell it where to go. It would go where it pleased. But it could offer Ophidia power, making the goddess stronger. Or would it just make the goddess more like…itself? Noemi wasn’t sure.

“What is this deal?”

You will come with me, I will make the Feathered One more than she has ever been.

“It would be of great use to us both, Noemi, if I were to gain power. To grow “bigger” as the World Serpent speaks,” Ophidia said. “In the end the choice is yours, as my champion, but I would not mind to accept this offer.”

Noemi frowned as she rubbed her temples. This wasn’t what she had planned or imagined at all when she had set out on this journey. Then again, how many times had she almost died already, just from being out at sea? And before that, while running from the cult? She wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Ophidia, who knows how many times over. She owed the Feathered Serpent.

But when she closed her eyes, she saw the chubby face of her sidekick, of Gisela, waiting with worry in some jail cell, or lost and not knowing where to go in the world. They had said they were going to meet in the Caribbean. She had to at least make it there. Besides, while Jormungandr offered them quick power, wasn’t the World Serpent usually an enemy of humanity or something? Noemi was sure she had read that Jormungandr was a monster, not a hero. A cult in the Caribbean would be stable and closer to Ophidia’s home. It would be a solid place to start.

“Sorry, Ophidia, but I think we should stick with the plan and head to the Caribbean. It’s closer to Aztlan, and so it will be easier to get a cult going there then…well, here. The whole point is to go home eventually after all.”

Disappointing, yet there are things you can do while you are still small. If you wish to be bigger, the World Serpent will hear it. I am always listening.

Jormungandr turned on its side, crashing back into the water as it started to swim away from the Dutchman, its coils porpoising across the ocean surface. The four sailors aboard the Dutchman watched her go.

“Haaa, that was too close!” Ronny said, clinging to Jonah’s arm. “Never take us that close to her again, cabin boy!”

Jonah pushed the elf off of him in annoyance. “It wasn’t like I had a choice, pirate. Now get off me! We have work to do.”

Ophidia looked at Noemi with a questioning glance, and for a second, Noemi felt guilt and regret. She considered calling out to the retreating serpent to say she changed her mind. “There will be time to take her upon her offer, Ophidia. But like she said, there are things we can still do while we’re ‘small’.”

“It is as you think is best, champion,” Ophidia said, but her voice lacked much enthusiasm. Still, as she looked out at the sun rising across the ocean, her eyes started to light up. “I do believe the World Serpent has yet still aided us. Perhaps unintentionally. I would check the maps while there is still time to see the stars…but I believe we may be where we sought to go.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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Goddess of Victory

 

T24.1Nike

Nike holding lyre, Athenian red-figure lekythos C5th B.C., Blanton Museum of Art

 

Last chapter brought the previously introduced goddess, Nike, to the forefront. But who is Nike? Most people know of her through the modern shoe company giant that bears her name, and it’s not surprising that a company wishing to associate itself with athleticism and success would name themselves after a goddess who personified victory itself.

According to Hesiod’s Theogeny Nike is the daughter of titans. Specifically the titans Pallas (not to be confused with Athena’s epithet, Pallas Athena), and Styx (not to be confused with the river). Styx the goddess is the divine form of the legendary river, a nymph and titan said to live near the entrance to Hades. She is quite significant as it was she, according to Hesiod, who was the first titan to side with Zeus during the Titanomachy, the War against the Titans. It was for this reason that her name became the name that all gods swear upon.

It is unclear what side of the war against the titans that Nike’s father Pallas found himself on. According to the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, he was slain by the goddess Athena, and his skin became her enchanted armor (Making their cooperation in the chapter Flying Solo rather awkward). However, this is likely a conflation of the Titanomachy and the later Gigantomachy (War against the Giants) as most sources say Athena had not yet been born in the War against the Titans.

Regardless, Styx’s four children all fought on the side of Zeus and the Olympians. They were Zelos (“Zeal”), Bia (“Force”), Kratos (“Strength”), and Nike (“Victory”). Nike was most closely associated with the Olympians Zeus, as his charioteer, and with Athena, reflected in her first appearance i nthe serial. She is depicted with any number of items representing victory, such as a palm branch, a lyre for celebrating, and a sash or wreath to give to a victor. In The Cities Eternal, Nike avails herself of armor and a spear, as victory over Typhon and the Primordials has not yet been achieved.

800px-Victoire_de_Samothrace_-_vue_de_trois-quart_gauche,_gros_plan_de_la_statue_(2)

Winged Victory of Samothrace

Perhaps her most notable aspect are her wings. In virtually all depictions Nike is a winged goddess, giving her an appearance not unlike later depictions of angels. Indeed, it is possible that the first depictions of winged angels from Byzantium drew their inspiration from Nike and her Roman equivalent, Victoria.

Nike in The Cities Eternal is a subordinate goddess to the Olympians but still a formidable figure. Just as she did during the Titanomachy, she is prepared to fight with the Olympians to bring order back to a world in chaos. She might not have as much power to bestow as Ares, Hephaestus, or Zeus, but her new champion is far from an amateur.

The Snake and the Mirror

Wings of Victory

 

Hildegard was on the hunt again.

Ever since recovering from her illness, she had been eager to throw herself back out into the field and do what she did best: monster hunting. The city was full of champions, mages, and skilled warriors now, a far cry from the terrified rabble Hildegard had worked to train a year ago. Yet among them all, Hildegard was still the greatest monster-killer, save perhaps for Aurelio with all of his divine gifts and hunting prowess. But Hildegard wasn’t in this for the competition. She did it to safeguard mankind, to protect the innocent, and to feel the thrill of the hunt.

She was pursuing a pack of trolls through the rolling Italian hills. They were from the far north and hadn’t been much more than a nuisance until recently. They had attacked a young girl in one of Rome’s protectorate settlements, and they had passed from bothersome to dangerous. It was time for extermination.

She rode on the back of her favored horse, one of the few in Rome though they were working to breed more. She had a spear in hand and Stahlzan sheathed at her hip as she chased the pack of trolls across the countryside. She could see them ahead of her, running like a pack of bent hairy apes towards the closest treeline. Hildegard urged her steed onwards, grip tightening on her spear. While she often wished she had Turi and Pegasus with her, she enjoyed fighting on her own terms.

By the time the trolls had escaped into the trees, Hildegard had closed much of the distance between them. She was forced to slow as she urged the horse into the forest, but she could hear their grunting breaths and the heavy footfalls in their wake. She kept her ears pricked for the slightest sound. Trolls weren’t very bright, but they could be craftier than the average wolf. Traps and ambushes were not beyond their power.

Eventually Hildegard dismounted. She could move better on foot when the forest became this dense, and she left her horse to head back to the forest’s edge as she charged deeper into the woods, spear in hand. She might not be a champion, but she was a mage, and the mana in the air reinforced her body to the point that she was almost tireless, easily outpacing the lurching run of the trolls as she continued to close the ground between them. She heard them up ahead, hooting and grunting as they fled to whatever hole they called home.

Suddenly they went silent, and Hildegard found herself at the base of a tall ridge. Before her a cavern opened into almost impenetrable darkness, a narrow cave entrance that was no doubt the den of the trolls.

Hildegard stabbed her spear into the ground, leaving it there as she moved to the cave entrance. She wouldn’t have the room to use it well in there. As she stepped inside and the darkness began to envelop her, she drew Stahlzan from its sheath and as the blade came free it burst into flames, throwing flickering orange light across the walls and down the cavern before her.

The cave went deeper than she thought, and she could still no longer hear the trolls. She paused, considering turning back but decided to keep going forward. This was far from her first hunt in close quarters, and there was no telling where the trolls would go if she retreated.

Trolls were a nasty breed of monster, though they came in a number of varieties. Their human-like appearance, their ability to speak, and their somewhat comical features could make a person underestimate them. But Hildegard had encountered them before, and trolls were only human in shape. They were man-eaters and child-snatchers, and the only thing worse than being killed by a troll was being captured by one. Some were turned to stone at the touch of sunlight, but these ones were hardier, so Hildegard was going to teach them that they might not fear the sun, but they had plenty of reason to fear fire.

She walked forward into the growing silence, keeping her sword raised as she took one quiet step after another. She was lightly armored, mostly on her wrists, legs, and shoulders, most of her body covered in a thick coat of padded leather. It kept her light while protecting her more vulnerable points, and she was glad for it as she kept checking behind her to ensure she wasn’t being followed.

The cave continued deeper, far further than any Italian cave should have. It expanded out until it was a vast cavern, the narrow path she was on expanding and twisting upon itself as other paths led up the walls and off into shadowed corners. All of this was pitch black, lit only by the glow of her sword. A sharp breath and a hurried word expanded the flame until it was shining like a bonfire before her, the flame grew hotter, burning blue as it held to the blade.

She caught the first glimmer of dark eyes as they reflected the orange light, then another set, then another. Hildegard felt her heart sink in her throat as she realized she was surrounded by dozens of trolls. The ones that she had chased had led her back to their den and directly into a trap.

“Back!” Hildegard shouted and she waved her sword before her. The trolls withdrew from the blade, but others moved forward before she whirled around and drove them back as well. They were ugly creatures with large dark eyes and oversized warty noses over thick lips and worn teeth. Their hair was long, filthy, and shaggy, and hung like curtains from their brows. Many wore rudimentary clothing, but little else and none carried any weapon more advanced than a stone to throw. But they had numbers, vast numbers that Hildegard didn’t even know the upper limits of. Eventually they would get bold.

As she looked around, eyes trying to find any better ground to fight on, she spotted more and more signs of the troll den. Cages hung from the ceiling, big and strong enough to hold a man or woman, and bones littered the ground, not all of them from beasts. Simple huts made from grasses, bone, and sticks were here and there, and from all of these places more dark eyes stared. The air was thick here and the smell of filth and sweat and other vile things was almost overpowering.

Hildegard felt panic beginning to claw at the corners of her mind but she pushed it back. She had grown wild, confident, and more outgoing with the Days of Revelation, but at times like this she needed to fall back on her training. Her old training. The Jazheils had trained her how to funnel fear, how to control oneself, and to turn killing into instinct. Her mind cleared, her heartbeat steadied, and her eyes dilated as the flame on her sword grew more focused.

Hildegard struck first. She chose the direction that she’d come from and charged, bringing her blade in a long sweeping arc so that it cut through the first troll in a single elegant motion, cleaving him from stomach to shoulder as the fire left cinders in its stinking hair. The movements of her blade left a trail of fire in its wake, illuminating the cave as she kept moving forward, never falling back as she pushed into the troll ranks. They were numerous but disorganized, throwing themselves at her from all directions. Hildegard fought back with sword, boot and fist as she pushed her way towards the entrance.

Every time she turned one would leap at her from behind, forcing her to turn and kick with enough force to shatter its teeth as her blade thrust through the thick hide of another one. The place was soon rank with the stench of troll blood and viscera as Hildegard cut through one after another, her sword and arms red up to her elbows, save for the blade where the blood was boiled away by the licking flames. But for every one she killed more would take their place. Several climbed the walls to try and leap on her from above, and while most missed, one managed to smash into her back and force her briefly to her knees.

All of them leaped on her, beating their fists against her back and grabbing her feet to gnaw at her armored boots. She felt several take hold of her arm, trying to pin her as they piled atop her. Hildegard felt the panic creeping back in as she struggled to pull herself free. The trolls were strong, binding her limbs as they gnawed and clawed and tugged at her armor, clothes, and hair. One of them smashed its fist against the side of her head. Hard. And her vision swam as she tried to reorient herself. She swung her sword hand wildly, but pinned as she was she could do little more than scratch them, even as she kept a death grip on her sword.

She was on her knees, writhing in pain as the oversized troll hands grabbed at her armor and her body, ready to tear her apart or force her in a cage or heaven knew what else to her. She needed to get clear, to break free of their grip for a fraction of a second. There was one thing, but it had been a long time since she had called on magecraft like that. Cat was better suited for the flashy elemental magic than she was. If she overdid it, it could overtax her body to the point of leaving her defenseless.

Summoning that much fire from her body could mean death.

“It will mean Victory.”

A new warmth filled her body, like a presence that coursed through her blood. The pain dulled, her vision sharpened, and in an instant, everything became clearer.

She breathed in mana from the air, feeling it empty as it all flowed into her like a whirlpool. She kept going, waiting until her body was brimming with power, her skin and eyes almost aglow with energy as she focused it inside her, holding it back until the very last moment when it would burst free in all directions.

“Burn!”

Fire filled the cavern, a whirling conflagration that filled the entire space like a tornado of light, heat, and ash as it burned the hair and skin and flesh from every troll around her. Hildegard felt the hands grasping her disintegrate as the fire burned from her skin and armor.

As the fire began to clear she shakily rose to her feet, finding herself in the middle of a scorched cavern. The floor all around her had been scorched perfectly black, and the walls closest to her were similarly burned save for the silhouettes of trolls that had been obliterated where the fires had burned their hottest. Hildegard should have been exhausted, on her knees in pain, but she felt…fine. Stronger in fact than she had in years as the fear and doubt was washed away.

From the ruins of the cavern, a few scorched trolls peered out, their dark eyes now filled with fear. Hildegard looked down at herself. Much of her coat and armor had been scorched black, and her hands, eyes, and hair still looked as if they were still on fire, glowing like cinders as licks of flame rose from her. Hildegard’s grip tightened on her sword. It was time to finish the job.

The sun was beginning to set as she eventually managed to pull herself from the cavern and into the relative brightness of the forest, eyes straining as she walked free, assured that not a single troll had been left behind. She blinked blearily but gratefully at the bright sun, letting out a long sigh of relief.

“The hardest-fought victories are the ones we cherish most, don’t you think?”

The sun grew brighter, so bright Hildegard had to throw her hand over her eyes. When the light that seeped through her fingers faded, she lowered her hand and saw a figure standing…no, floating before her.

She was taller than Hildegard by quite a bit, and Hilde was far from short. She was dressed in Hellenic armor made of brilliant gold over a pure white tunic and skirt. Her hair, from what Hilde could see, was similarly gold and she wore a shining helmet that she lifted to let it rest on her brow, revealing an almost angelic face.

An appearance reinforced by the massive avian wings that spread from her shoulders.

“Hildegard Jazheil,” The woman spoke, and Hilde realized she was in the presence of a goddess. “I see promise in you. Others seek warriors, hunters, and leaders and find subjects of their own but in you I see something unique, that will to struggle on, to fight for victory.”

Hildegard fell to one knee, not sure on the protocol. “Wh-who are you?” She stammered, eyes lost in the goddess’ radiance.

“My name is Nike, Goddess of Victory,” she said. “And I wish to name you my champion.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 32

 

Knowledge in Damascus was a commodity just like everything else. It can be bought and sold, some pieces of knowledge were more valuable than others, and it was never given out for free. Asha quickly learned, however, that Leyla was a skilled haggler when it came to working the markets.

“Listen pal, there’s only one Queen of Heaven we’re interested in, so shove your Homer up your sack and give me what I want.” Leyla’s hands were on his hips, staring with cold eyes at the withered merchant, standing like an iron wall before his pile of books.

“I see you’re a customer with particular interests.” He wheezed between old teeth “But I have many books with many tales, and taking the time to search specifics is a long task, and an expensive one.”

“Oh I’m sure.” Leyla said “But we’re not all that picky. Ishtar, Inanna, Astarte, Asteroth, any of these names are good, and if you can find it in that moth-balled skull to dig a book up with one of those names we might just reward you handsomely.”

“I have many books” The merchant said, beady eyes locked with Leyla’s. “And the young had best to learn to be patient, and with the knowledge that special services cost more, in both money and favors.”

“Many books maybe” Leyla growled “But not that many teeth left.”

“So the child likes to play at threats?” The merchant says “Unwise if they want my business.”

“We’re not here for threats, we’re here for books.” Leyla said “And if you have none to satisfy our needs we’ll go elsewhere, and spread word that Abdul Al-Rashid is a miscreant and a vendor of worthless books.”

“Feh” The merchant spat before reaching back to gently pull a thick tome free. “This will satisfy a basic need, but for patience and goods of worth a better guide could likely be found.”

Leyla tossed him a sack of seeds and spiced bread before taking the book “For you we’re out of both. Let’s roll, Asha.”

The two left and began to walk out of the crowded market district as Leyla began to flip through the old book.

“What’s it written in?” Asha asked “Hellenic Greek? Latin?”

“Oxford English.” Leyla smirked “It’s an old scholarly publication though..ya, this should have what we need. It has a section on the worship of Ishtar in Assyrian temples.”

“Then let’s take it back to the apartment” Asha said “And we’ll have a read through. The offerings can’t be that bad, probably just fruit spices and meat.”

 

 

Several hours later, Rachel and Constance returned to find the apartment in a state of uproar. Asha and Leyla arguing furiously with Eli caught in the middle.
“Absolutely not!” Asha shouted “It’s out of the question and we’re not even certain it’ll work!”

“Well to hell with the other idea!” Leyla shot back “That description is nothing like me!”

“It’s absolutely like you!”

Rachel’s voice cut through the apartment living room “And what, pray tell, is this uproar about?”

“At a guess” Constance slithered up to her side “Asha and Leyla have discovered what we did: That Ishtar’ worship is less about sacrifices and more about specific ‘acts’ shall we say. Certain acts that in modern society could be considered salacious and lewd.”

“More or less” Asha folded her arms over her chest, cheeks crimson “The sources we found said that one of the prominent ways Ishtar was worshipped was through the dancing and possibly…other acts of androgynous young men.”

All eyes in the apartment turned to Leyla, whose face was as red as Asha’s “Okay first of all.” He pointed at himself “Not a man.”

“Mentally debatable but physically…” Asha began but stopped at a hard glance from Leyla.

“You have to admit you’re kind of an unusual case, Leyla.” Eli said “Probably a unique one.”

“The other method…” Leyla said more loudly “Is supposedly sacred prostitution.”

“Supposedly” Asha repeated “There was a lot of debate. And I’m not about to…”

“Look it can be easy” Leyla said “Just have Eli give you a coin or something then get all hot and heavy on the altar. You probably don’t even have to go all the way, just…simulate it a bit.”

“No!” Asha stamped her foot “Eli is…well no offense but not my type.”

“Is no one going to ask my opinion on that plan?” Eli asked “I have a few objections of my own.”

“It’s the easiest way.” Leyla said “And it needs to be a man and a woman, you two are the only clear-cut case of that who aren’t also demons.”

“I’ll try not to be insulted” Constance said dryly.

“It is probably for the best” Rachel said “We do not know what kind of affect our presence would have. Though you three are being quite childish about this.”

“I’m not being childish!” Asha objected “And Leyla just needs to-“

“Not a boy” Leyla said again “It’ll be easier if you-“

“Not a prostitute.” Asha shot back.

“We shall compromise.” Rachel said loudly “I don’t know many gods but I do know enough. If they’re as starved for worship as we believe Ishtar to be, then she’ll come running at even a subpar display.”

“It’s like if you only sort of know what someone wants” Constance said “You get them a gift card to a place you know they like so they can spend it how they choose. Ishtar is a war goddess and a sex goddess, so two warriors that embrace in her name should be more than enough.”

“Wait, two warriors.” Asha said “So…me and Leyla? And by embrace you mean…”

“It is the best of both worlds as I see it.” Constance smiled.

“Can’t we wait for Hazif to come back?” Leyla asked.

“I wouldn’t” Eli said “He’s half succubus and not really a warrior…”

“Not to mention I don’t like it when he touches me.” Asha frowned.

“And of course” Constance added “If he returns at all, he may do so with an amorous and violent dragon woman in tow.”

A silence fell over the group as they mulled through their options. Asha took a brief glance at Leyla, trying to see him in a more physical sense than she had before. He was certainly handsome if more femininely built. Slender shoulders and a thin waist under a softly curved face with high cheekbones, certainly not unattractive but…

“Don’t you…” Asha said hesitantly “Share all your senses with your brother?”

“Most of the time, yes.” Leyla said.

“That would be a big problem with it.” Asha said “It’s not entirely Leyla’s body and I’m not sure anyone would be comfortable doing it with their sibling as a copilot.”

“I mean obviously I’d need to talk it over with Derya!” Leyla’s face was burning red “And I can…shut him out for a while if I have to. I don’t like to since it’s not normally a problem but…”

“And there’s the fire spirit as well.” Asha said.

“Well, he doesn’t really care and…j-just give me a few minutes to talk it over with them!”

“Sure, I need some air anyway.” Asha said hurriedly, moving out of the room and onto the balcony outside, shutting the sliding door behind her to have a moment to herself.

She folded her arms, looking out over the city as her thoughts became a muddled mess. Leyla was her coworker, she liked and respected him and understood his…unusual circumstances. She hadn’t paid much attention to him physically, in fact their adventuring had been so all-consuming that she had barely paid any attention to that at all. Though it may be that it was due to her newfound powers as well. Nothing seemed to kill the libido quite like being killed and resurrected by divine energy.

Eli wasn’t her type. Too pacifistic, too meek, and she had a feeling she wasn’t his type in a much more significant way. Leyla however…now that she thought about it she couldn’t quite stop thinking about it. Besides, it’s not like she was proposing to him. This could be a one-off thing, just enough to summon Ishtar then to never be spoken of again.

Then there was the gender thing. Sure the body was male and that worked for her, but pronouns aside Leyla identified herself as female first and foremost. Not to mention sharing that brain with her brother. That bizarre mix of identities cast a pretty strange shadow over everything. Still…did Asha really have that much of a problem with Leyla being female? She teased Cat all the time even after learning her preferences.

“Ugh…”Asha sighed to herself, eyes staring out blankly towards the afternoon sky “What a mess.”

Did it really matter how or why she liked Leyla? Leyla was her friend, teammate, and confidante. He was cheerful, friendly, and certainly attractive. Assuming Derya and the fire spirit weren’t involved, would it be so bad? Briefly she spent a second to imagine Leyla naked, and the color rushed back into her face. Nervously she played with her fingers as her legs fidgeted. She wasn’t sure if she could date Leyla. She wasn’t ready to put the idea of love on the table yet…but if she would be willing to sleep with him for a mission? To summon a goddess who could help them overthrow Shadiya. She might be able to tolerate that.

She might even enjoy it.

A few minutes later, having readied herself, she stepped back inside the apartment to meet the others. Leyla was in one of the chairs, trying to keep a straight face but looking about as awkward as Asha likely did.

“So…” Asha began “What does your brother have to say.

“Well…” The color was clear on Leyla’s face “He said his body is as much mine as his, and while he doesn’t generally approve of ‘perverse practices’, he’s willing to submit to our judgment particularly given your…mm the words he used were ‘righteous and impressive body’…I think that’s his way of saying you’re hot.”

“Th-that’s good I guess.” Asha nervously took a seat on the couch. She noticed that the other three were all now pointedly doing something else, save for Rachel who didn’t bother to hide her eavesdropping. “But if he’s going to be around and active while we’re…hypothetically…”

“Oh! Nonono” Leyla shook his head vehemently “Derya will be shut off in a back little corner of my brain. He won’t be seeing or feeling anything or giving me any…running commentary. Neither of us wanted to get into the implications of that.” Leyla shuddered a little.”

“Well then” Asha was feeling a little more confident at the idea of dealing with Leyla alone “…what do you think of…well, me?”

“Oh well that…” Leyla stammered, his face still red “I mean, I thought you were gorgeous ever since I pulled you…er…your Fravashi out of that glass box.”

“And the fact that I’m a woman doesn’t…”

“I don’t really pick sides…so to speak.” Leyla said “And I’ve had this body for a few years…like Derya said it’s as much mine as his so I know…how it operates.”

“Oh come on don’t describe it like that!” Asha shut her eyes.

“Hey look how weird do you think it was for me!?” Leyla said, but he managed a smile “But I think with a little effort you and I can…make something work.”

Asha took a long breath “Alright it’s…worth a shot right?”

“And if it’s weird we just won’t speak of it.” Leyla nodded.

Asha smiled “It’s already pretty weird, Leyla.”

 

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Into the Darkness

 

For those who know where to find them there are passages between the worlds. In the hallowed and ancient places where space begins to bend and the walls between the material and the spiritual grow weak. These passages are usually guarded by fierce beasts or ancient enchantments, and only those who know the way and have the power to walk them can ford the divisions between the living world and the places beyond.

In an ancient forest, where the roots of old trees meld and merge into a floor of sinewy wood and branches curve into great yawning arches, two women moved furtively from the threshold of one world into the next.

“And you’re sure this is the way?” The shorter one asked, glancing at the other. Her face was non-descript, and seemed to shift with the movement of light against it. A beam of moonlight from the night sky above caught wrinkles on her features and silver in her hair, but in the semi-dark starlight her face was young and full.

“It’s the path I took” The other one said. Her face was more constant, with stern and matronly features under a long curtain of midnight-dark hair, and shining teal eyes. “And it won’t be guarded anymore. Escaped prisoners rarely safeguard their prisons. All we need to do is find the door.”

“If there’s one thing I’m good at.” The first woman said “It’s finding a hidden way.”

She waved her hand through the air and the branches of the trees began to shine. Veins of silver light like serpents wound their way across the wood as they moved and slithered over them. She watched them with a keen eye as they flowed like water from one branch to another, through the roots and the veins of leaves as they began to converge upon a single arch of tree branches until it was shining like a silver doorway. As they watched, the space within the arch grew darker, becoming a yawning black portal that spewed mist out into the forest around them.

“That’s the way” The taller woman said as she stepped towards the portal.

“Where does it lead out?” The shorter one said, lowering her hand. “I’m still not caught up on you Norse and all your worlds.”

“Helheim” The taller one said “Down among the roots of the World Tree, where the sinners and the oathbreakers go and suffer in the well of serpents.”

“Lovely” the other said, irritation on her face.

“The way is open, Hecate. There’s no turning back now.”

“After you then, Huldra.”

The two witches, Huldra the Unsealing Witch of the Dreaming, and Hecate the Shifting Witch of the Crossroads, entered the yawning portal with no small amount of trepidation. Powerful though they might be, there were places where even gods feared to tread. It was never good to trespass on the domain of another.

Through the portal, the world seemed to expand in every direction around them. They found themselves ankle-deep in frigid water with a floor like gnarled wood beneath their feet. They could hardly see a few meters past their eyes, but the world around them seemed silent.

“Do you mind?” Hecate asked, glancing at Huldra. Pointing a hand itno the air, Huldra shot an arrow of bright green light into the sky before it expanded in a sudden burst, sending rays of revealing light into the area around them.

The world they found themselves in was one of pure devastation. Tree roots as thick around as buildings had been shattered into a sea of splinters, great spears of wood driven deep into every surface from the destruction of the roots. In all directions there was only shattered and fallen wood, hanging limply or lying dead in the cold water.

“So this is the place then?” Hecate asked.

“Yes” Huldra nodded “Nidhoggr’s former prison.”

“Before you released it” Hecate noted, and Huldra shot her an irritated look.

“I know, I know, you weren’t yourself” Hecate said “But the facts remain.”

“We should hurry” Huldra said curtly “Our presence won’t go unnoticed forever.”

“Very well” Hecate said “But what is it you hope to find here?”

“A solution” Huldra said “To Nidhoggr, to all of this. To being the process of fixing what’s gone wrong.”

“I don’t think you understand how correcting mistakes works.” Hecate said, her face a slightly younger mask than usual “When you break something, repairing it doesn’t mean ‘un-breaking’, it means putting it back together as best you can. Idioms aside, nothing broken can ever be as good as new.”

“I’m aware” Huldra tried to keep the irritation out of her voice “But I need to do something. I need to do anything I can.”

“And we shall” Hecate said, giving her a reassuring smile. “Let’s start searching.”

Together the two of them set off into the darkest part of Helheim, moving slowly through the devastation as they picked their way through fallen roots and forests of shattered timber.

“So if this realm belongs to Hel” Hecate said “Where is she?”

“No one is sure” Huldra said “Most believe she’s Nidhoggr’s prisoner somewhere. But without her presence, the malevolent spirits of this place grow more restless. The strongest follow Nidhoggr’s path of destruction and join it as more souls for her army of the undead.”

“How efficient” Hecate said “Kill as many as you can, and soon enough your victims shall rise to join your forces.”

“And Nidhoggr will continue until there is nothing left.” Huldra said “When the world is turned entirely to chaos, creation is undone, and it along with the other Primordials rule over the pandemonium that remains.”

“Thank you for the colorful picture” Hecate said “Now what is it you hope to find here?”

“A weapon” Huldra said “Or chains. Or at least a direction to go in order to find them.”

“Of course” Hecate’s face seemed to transform into that of a sly old woman “You can’t kill the beast, so try to get it back in the bag. It’s the logical step to take, though are we the ones to do it?”

“No, unfortunately” Huldra said “We’re too…unbound. Too separate from fate to play a large role in it. But I do believe we have a part to play when all is said and done.”

“These Primordials aren’t bound like normal beasts.” Huldra said “It took Zeus himself at the peak of his power and the aid of his siblings and the traitor Titans to defeat Typhon, and that took a thousand thunderbolts and a mountain to drop on him. We’re a bit short on both. I imagine the Nidhoggr is similar?”

“Nidhoggr has been sealed beneath the tree since the dawn of time.” Huldra said “When Yggdrassil took root the serpent was trapped there. I have no idea how to bind it here again.”

“Or who’s the one to do it” Hecate added “Since it certainly can’t be us.”

“I don’t even know if it can be done” Huldra said “There’s no precedent at least.”

Hecate snorted “Precedent? The act in and of itself is precedent. This isn’t the tipping of the scales, Huldra. This is a cycle. Chaos wins then order wins then chaos wins again. The wheel will turn in our favor, that’s inevitable.”

“Inevitable or not, the world might be consumed entirely before the shift back occurs.”

“True” Huldra shrugged “But we need to make do.”

The two continued forward, not sure what they were searching for as they picked their way through the ruined realm. The light followed them, dispelling the darkness where they walked, and they both came suddenly to a stop when they say a great furry shape appear before them out of the darkness.

It was bigger than any bear, rivaling an  elephant in size, and covered in light chestnut fur. Its back was towards them, the creature lying on its side, and a dozen spear-like shards of wooden shrapnel were impaled deep into its body. They approached with trepidation, hearing the beast’s labored breathing, and Huldra moved with caution until she saw the long water-soaked bushy tail.

“What beast is this?” Hecate asked as Huldra moved forward more quickly, placing a hand on the beast’s flank “Do you northerners have a Cerberus as well?”

“No…well yes, we do, but this isn’t Garm.” Huldra said, walking around to move to the beast’s head, “Come and see.”

Hecate moved to follow her, and when she saw the creature’s head she realized that it was the injured body of a monstrous squirrel.

“Awww” Hecate’s face switched to its younger mask “He’s adorable.”

“His name is Ratatoskr” Huldra said “A messenger of Yggdrassil…I had wondered where he had wound up. I assumed Nidhoggr had eaten him.”

Gently Huldra placed a hand on the squirrel’s large brow, stroking his soft fur. A shiver ran through his body, and Huldra could see that his injuries were severe.

“He’s in very bad shape” Hecate said, pity in her voice. “I’m not sure if we can bring him with us safely.”

“Ratatoskr” Huldra said, speaking in the tongue of animals “We need to stop Nidhoggr, to end all of this. What can you tell us, what can we do?”

“Seek the Crown” Ratatoskr’s voice was weak and high. “Seek the stars in the darkness, the shepherd among wolves.”

“Really? Is now the time to be cryptic?” Huldra growled, even as she tried to comfort Ratatoskr, her hand still stroking the fur of his head.

“You need to respect the game, Huldra.” Hecate said “This adorable creature is almost like a Primordial itself. It can’t give us a straight answer because it doesn’t think on the same level as we do. It’s a creature of pure fate, but that does mean that this riddle, while a doorway, is not a deception or a lie. Such concepts are foreign to them.”

“How do you know all this?” Huldra asked.

“I’ve seen creatures like it before” Hecate said “And don’t forget I am the oldest of our number. Show a little respect for your elders, child.”

“Right…” Huldra frowned.

“The question is the crown” Hecate said “I do love riddles.The crown…crown to what? A king’s crown? What King could have sway over Nidhoggr?”

Huldra went silent in thought, but only for a moment. “We don’t have time to sit here and think. We need to do what we can for Ratatoskr.”

“Agreed” Hecate nodded, but even as she spoke, more sounds began to echo out from the darkness, a chittering and clatter that announced the arrival of the worn out bones of oathbreakers in Nidhoggr’s thrall.

Huldra rose to her feet, flames burning in her hands. “Seems we’ll need to fight our way out.”

“What is it with you Norse and fighting?” Hecate chided her casually “So much wasted effort.”

Hecate waved her hand, and the silver liens of light began to form again, this time floating in midair as they rapidly began to coalesce into an arch of solid light.

“I know where I’m going this time” Hecate said “It’s always easier to get back than it is to go somewhere new. Now get the squirrel and let’s go.” She put a powerful emphasis on the last word as Huldra hurried forward, using magic to gently lift Ratatoskr’s massive form off the ground to float behind her.

“Where is this door taking us?” She asked as she coaxed Ratatoskr’s bulk towards the arch.

“Old Yaga’s cabin” Hecate said, a mile flickering across her face.

“Oh she’s not going to like that.”

“She’ll live with it.” Hecate said “Now get going. We have a lead now, and a crown to find.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 31

 

It was about midmorning when Cat arrived on the training field. Rosa was already there as usual. Cat was pretty certain she got up extra early every day just to beat Cat there so she could tease her for being late. That said, Cat had come with company, and she wasn’t planning on taking Rosa on today.

“Brought a friend I see,” Rosa nodded to the new arrivals, leaning on her spear.

“Hey,” Kara waved casually. “Cat invited me.”

“I wanted to try to do some training against spirits,” Cat said. “That’s most of what we’ll be fighting in the north, isn’t it? Spirits and monsters. I can learn a lot training with you and Hilde, but I can’t learn everything.”

“Well this ought to be entertaining at least,” Rosa said. “And we might get an audience. Nicomede and Hildegard tend to roll in pretty soon.”

“I’m not here to show off,” Kara shrugged.

“Then why did you bring the shrine maiden?” Rosa asked, glancing over her shoulder, and the two turned to see Megame hurrying towards them.

“What’s up, shrine maiden?” Kara asked, surprise creeping into her voice.

“I came to watch, of course,” Megame smiled. “I don’t often get to see Kara-chan fight.”

“Wait, Megame, who are you going to be rooting for?” Cat asked, arms folding over her chest.

“Oh, I don’t think I’m going to take sides,” Megame said. “But I’ll wish you both luck!”

“Well that’s something…” Cat said. “Alright…to start, I want to see what a spirit can do barehanded. Just a friendly spar for now, no weapons.”

“How friendly?” Kara asked. “I need to know how much to keep back.”

“I don’t want you holding back at all,” Cat said. “I know I won’t be.”

Rosa whistled “This out to be good,” before leading Megame back to the nearby seats to watch.

Cat started doing some light stretching, focusing her magic to course through her as she reinforced her body, thin sheets of ice creeping harmlessly over her skin as she prepared herself. Kara simply rolled her shoulders before stripping off her jacket, her white skin almost glowing against the black tank top underneath. As she swung her arms, the glowing only grew more pronounced, her shining blue eyes burning brighter as well, and with a single stretch of the back a pair of large black wings sprouted from her shoulder blades.

“Well, then,” Kara’s tone was still deadpan. “Ready when you are.”

Cat surged forward, her eyes on Kara’s hands as she brought her fists up. She started with a quick jab towards her shoulder, testing her to see just how quick the Valkyrie was. Kara’s hand came up to block her jab like a blur. It was a loose hit, easy to deflect, but Kara’s open palm stopped her fist cold. There wasn’t even a hint of give, it was as if Cat had just punched a solid wall. Stepping back, Cat threw a few more strikes at Kara, each one stopped or deftly dodged as Kara started pushing her advantage. Cat threw another punch, realizing too late she had overcommitted, her arm moving too far and giving Kara all the opportunity she needed. The Valkyrie seized her wrist, locking her arm with one hand as the other swung in to land a blow to her stomach with Cat barely managing to avoid a devastating gut punch.

Even in a grazing blow, Kara’s fist hit like a sledgehammer, a force entirely disproportionate with the speed and mass of the blow. Cat felt her feet briefly leave the ground as Kara’s blow struck and the air left her lungs in a single wrenching gasp. Kara pulled her arm back for another blow, but Cat managed to twist her trapped arm free and back out of her range, her breath still coming in heaves as she worked to keep herself on her feet.

“Thing you need to remember about spirits,” Kara said, lightly swinging her arms to loosen them. “You’re not fighting flesh and blood. These aren’t human arms or human fists. We’re not bound by your physics or your logic. We can go a lot longer and we can hit a lot harder than you can, magic or no magic.”

“Right…” Cat managed to get back on her feet, the pain fading as ice moved over the sensitive flesh. She focused more magic into her fists, hardening and strengthening them. Kara might not be made of flesh and blood, but she WAS made of magic, which was close enough.

“Alright,” Cat said. “Round two, let’s go.”

The two moved in closer, Cat being more cautious as she watched the way Kara moved. Though her expression never changed, the skill and experience was clear in the way she held her body. Kara was never uncertain, never twitchy, watching Cat closely with that same half-bored expression as her piercing blue eyes watched every twitch of muscle across Cat’s body.

Cat started with a few light jabs, easily deflected by Kara as Cat pushed it into a full offensive attack, trying to keep her on the back foot as she tried to wiggle a hit through. Kara’s hands moved like blurs, slapping aside each new jab as it came, her feet dancing out of the way as Cat tried to sweep them out from under her. Though she wasn’t getting through, Cat never gave Kara the time to counter-attack, but it was a delicate balance. If she was too slow then Kara could squeeze in far more devastating blows of her own, but if she over-committed…

Cat threw another punch, realizing too late where Kara’s hands were. In one swift motion Kara had her arm in a lock, and Cat had to pivot and brace her feet to keep herself from being completely thrown onto the ground as she worked to twist herself out of Kara’s grip, only for the Valkyrie to hook her leg in Cat’s and pull hard as she moved to counter her, sending Cat onto her back.

“Better that time,” Kara said. “At least you’re thinking it through.”

“Ya well,” Cat dusted herself off. “That didn’t have to do with you being a spirit so much as me being an idiot.”

“I’ll say,” Rosa grinned. “Come on, Cat. How many times have I caught you with that move?”

“Alright,” Kara said. “Round three and I’ll give you a few more pointers. There’s more to fighting spirits than you might think.”

Cat surged forward again, repeating her method of going on the offensive, though careful to leave herself options if Kara tried to catch her in a lock again. Her reinforced hands hammered against Kara’s arms, hoping to wear her down, but part of her suspected that Kara’s stamina was virtually endless. In a test of endurance, the Valkyrie would be able to outlast her several times over.

She’s not flesh and blood, Cat reminded herself, she doesn’t work on the same principles.

As the two fought, Megame began passing around a thermos of tea for the other spectators, and Kara’s head turned on a swivel after deflecting another blow.

“Hey Megame, what flavor is that?”

Cat almost couldn’t believe it as Kara looked entirely away from the fight, hands still raised but her focus turned elsewhere. Cat launched a hard jab straight for her more exposed shoulder, only to see Kara’s hand shoot up to grab her fist in her palm.

“It’s called Chun Mee, Echo Kami-san gave me some,” Megame smiled.

“Smells good,” Kara still wasn’t looking at her, even as she turned her body to coolly deflect Cat’s next blow. “I’ll have some after this.”

Cat barely saw Kara’s fist blur as it struck her in the chest in a hard counter, sending her feet scuffling back as the breath was forced from her lungs, sucking for air.

“H-How did you…” Cat wheezed as Kara’s hands went to her sides.

“Next tip, Cat. See these?” She used her pointer and middle finger to point to her own eyes “These are for magic and decoration. Most spirits have three-sixty degree vision in any kind of mundane conditions. I could have been blindfolded in a blackout and I can still see you coming, especially with your fists glowing like a lighthouse to my senses. If you want to distract, trick, or blind a spirit, you need to appeal to their nature, or find something magic.”

“Got it…” Cat mumbled as she stood back up. “So, I’d need to, like, put a magic blindfold on you?”

“I prefer putting blindfolds on others, but hey buy me dinner and we’ll talk,” Kara smiled.

“I…w-wait, what?” Cat tried to say, but as soon as her hands were raised Kara was on her and Cat was forced onto the defensive.

Fighting Kara was a lot like fighting Rosa. Being a champion of Ares meant that Rosa usually had the edge in terms of raw physical strength, so Cat was forced to rely on dodges, parries, and deflection to fight defensively without exhausting herself. Fighting Kara, however, was like fighting a freight train that kept coming back. Each new blow forced Cat another step back as she rapidly gave up ground.

‘Come on,” Kara said. “You’re not going to beat Nidhoggr like this. That dragon is going to wear you down then crush you like an ant!”

“I know!” Cat growled, but try as she might she couldn’t find a hole in Kara’s offense. Nothing she could attack easily or safely exploit. If she wanted to beat Kara, to beat anything on this level, she was going to need to take risks.

Cat measured the pattern of her blows, waiting until her arm was forward before launching her counter-attack. It was an all-or-nothing gambit. Either she would seize the advantage or Kara would punish her brutally for it. Cat felt Kara’s fist slam into her side, but she turned enough to let it graze her, wincing at the pain but following through on her own strike. Moving her legs quickly under her, she seized Kara’s arm and twisted herself around to try for a throw over her shoulder. Kara moved with her, trying to twist out of the lock until they both fell into a grapple.

Cat had less than a second before Kara’s monstrous strength forced her to submit, and in that moment, she converted all of the pent up magical energy in her hands and arms into a burst of ice and snow, a dazzling explosion of white that blinded spirit and human alike. Cat launched herself forward, trying to use weight to her advantage as she and Kara went crashing to the ground. On her back, Kara lost most of the advantage her strength gave her, and Cat took it for all it was worth.

After another fifteen seconds of rolling struggle, Cat finally managed to pin Kara down.

“Whew,” Cat breathed. “Call it! I just pinned a Valkyrie.”

“Not bad,” Kara said, rolling back onto her feet when Cat released her. “Glad to see you’re willing to take risks. Learning something too.”

“Woo! Well done, Cat-chan!” Megame shouted from the benches. A small crowd had gathered to watch, most curious to see the newcomer taking on Catarina. Nicomede among them, clapping politely along with the others.

“We can take five,” Kara said, stretching her arms. “Or you can get back to practicing with Red over there.”

Cat nodded. “She’s probably pretty angry about having to sit out anyway.”

Walking back to the edge of the ring, Cat happily took some water as she went to meet with Rosa and Nicomede.

“Heh, not bad, Cat.” Rosa said “Looks a lot like when I train with Capi. Have to learn to fight spirits somehow.”

“I’m a bit envious,” Nicomede added. “Both of you have the chance to spar with friendly spirits. In Greece, if you wanted to fight spirits you better have thirty men with you.”

“I’m not about to wrestle a chimera or anything,” Cat said. “But it is helpful. What brings you to the field?”

“I like to get here before the others,” Nicomede said. “We have training in a half hour and it sets a good example.”

“Good thing too, I wanted to talk to both of you,” Rosa said, looking from Nicomede to Cat. “And Megame could probably hear it too.”

“What’s up?” Cat looked at her curiously, Rosa’s tone was more serious than usual.

“Capi said that the Consul’s started pushing for an attack plan,” Rosa said. “Seems we might be getting our wish sooner than expected. Within a couple of months we might be moving North.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Roman Holiday – Part II

 

“I think it’s about time we called it,” Rosa said, as both she and Torleif took an exhausted seat on the benches around the ring. “Not bad, you’re improving a lot, short stuff.”

“Thanks,” Torleif said, too tired to come up with a retort.

“I gotta run, Cat’s making dinner tonight,” Rosa said. “And you didn’t hear it from me but she’s real good at it so I’m not about to miss that.”

“Mmm…” Torleif was tempted to ask if she could come along, but shivered as she felt something cool being pressed to her shoulder. She turned to see Echo standing next to her, offering her a sandwich with her own in her other hand.

“Ah! Thanks Echo!” Torleif took it happily. “Have fun, Rosa!”

“Heh, see you later, Torleif,” She waved as she got up and walked off the field.

Torleif bit hungrily into her sandwich with abandon; training was tough work. Echo ate far more daintily as she took a seat beside her, both watching the other stragglers on the field as the sun began to set.

“What’s in yours?” Torleif peered over, trying to see what was in Echo’s sandwich.

“Ah, just greens mostly. I’m a vegetarian.”

“Gross,” Torleif stuck out her tongue. “I love meat on sandwiches.”

“I had a feeling you might,” Echo smiled. “You were doing really well out there.”

“Rosa beat me a lot,” Torleif frowned. “If I used my hammer it would have been different.”

“If you had your hammer, she would have had her spear.”

“True…”

Echo’s eyes turned upwards to the darkening sky. “Hmm…it’s getting late. Where are you staying?”

“Let’s walk around a bit more!” Torleif said loudly, hopping to her feet. “It’s not that late.”

“…alright.” The concern was clear on Echo’s face, but she decided to indulge Torleif a little longer, and the pair walked back into the city.

The streetlamps, half magic half gaslight, washed the streets in a cool mixture of soft yellows and mild blues, and the streets grew more subdued as people wandered home or into pubs as the evening began to turn into night. Echo and Torleif chatted easily as they walked along the streets, wandering nowhere in particular as Torleif regaled her with stories of her travels in the north.

“So, this girl, Wilhelmina I think, had armor and a horse and everything! She looked like a real knight! And she said she’d killed dragons. I’m not sure I believe her but everyone else said it was true!”

“A real dragonslayer? She does sound impressive,” Echo smiled, glancing upwards at the night sky. “It’s getting late, we should-“

A crashing sound caused both of them to jump a little as a chair flew out of a window ahead of them, scattering glass across the street.

“I’m not sure we should get involved…” Echo tried to say but Torleif was already rushing forward, hammer in hand, to find the source of the commotion. She peered in through the shattered window before ducking down just in time to avoid a lamp being hurtled out into the street.

The window looked into a large lobby of what was likely a former hotel. Most of the furniture was gone but what remained was up in the air, levitating as it was thrown violently across the room by an unseen force. At the center were two people, trying to dodge the flung furniture as they searched for its source. Torleif recognized one of them, the fox woman Hachi. The other was a young man with a silver bow in hand, arrow nocked as he tried to fix on his target.

“Where is it!?” He shouted, and Hachi pointed towards an apparently blank patch of wall. “There! Er…there!”

“Which is it!?”

“It’s moving very quickly!”

Aurelio shot a bow, the silver arrow lodging itself in the wall. Another chair hurled itself at them, forcing them to throw themselves out of the way.

Torleif vaulted the windowsill, wary of the shattered glass as she lunged into the room. She could feel the power building in her throwing hand, lightning beginning to dance around the oversized head of her hammer as she tried to find the source of the disturbance.

“Where is it!?” She shouted, the sparks on her hammer growing in size and power.

“Who are you!?” Aurelio shouted, but Hachi pointed towards a patch of whirling air near the far wall. Without pause, Torleif lifted her hammer, pointing it in that direction as several bolts of lightning arced from the hammer’s head, filling the air with static as the bolts struck something that had been floating in the air, invisible.

The furniture fell with a crash to the floor as Hachi rushed to where the lightning had struck, muttering something under her breath as the air began to glow, Japanese sigils writing themselves in the air as Hachi exorcized the weakened spirit.

Aurelio walked towards Torleif, slinging his bow over his shoulder. “I’ll say thanks first but…who are you? That could have been dangerous.”

“Torleif, champion of Thor!” She said proudly, clipping her hammer back onto her belt.

“I hope we weren’t interrupting, Aurelio,” Echo picked her way across the glass on the floor as she entered the room.

“Ah, hey Echo. Nothing too serious, just a poltergeist,” Aurelio said.

“Ah, you’re Aurelio?” Torleif asked. “You’re a champion too, right?”

“That’s right,” He nodded, and Torleif smiled at having finally gotten the better of another champion.

“A poltergeist, don’t you have a specialist for that kind of thing?” Echo asked.

“Aelia’s here, she was just locking down the space to make sure it couldn’t flee.”

“Who’s…” Torleif was about to ask, but before she could say anymore a smiling woman appeared out of thin air beside her, shouting “Boo!”

Torleif let out a shrill short of scream as she moved quickly to Echo before angrily drawing her hammer as the semi-transparent woman laughed.

“Sorry about that,” She said. “Sometimes you just can’t help yourself. I’m Aelia, I’m with the Night Guard.”

“Right…” Torleif was still wary, hammer in hand. She wouldn’t say she was afraid of ghosts. She wouldn’t say she was afraid of anything out loud, but at the very least she really didn’t like ghosts.

“We’re all with the Night Guard,” Aurelio said. “We’re the ones who keeps Rome safe from more magical threats.”

“Cool…” Torleif really did think it was cool, but her eyes were kept on Aelia. “Do you have a lot of ghosts?”

“We have a lot of…irregulars.” Aurelio said. “Only the one ghost, unless…”

Aelia shook her head. “Bernadette’s still not up to this kind of work. She needs time adjusting.”

“Ah well, do what’s best for her,” Aurelio said. “Again, thanks for the help, Torleif, we can take it from here.”

“Alright,” Torleif nodded, gaining some of her confidence back. “And if you ever need help punching out more ghosts you can call me!”

“I’ll be sure to come calling,” Aelia smiled as Torleif shivered, taking Echo’s wrist to lead them out as the nymph waved to Aurelio.

 

“Well that was an exciting distraction,” Echo said as the two of them walked down the darkened streets. “Though now it’s getting very late, Torleif.”

“Ya, I guess,” Torleif shrugged, still walking with no clear destination in mind.

“Torleif,” Echo said softly “Where are you staying?”

“…Around,” Torleif admitted. “Usually the refugee center. But I don’t like it there. It’s crowded and noisy, the beds are less comfy than the ground, and everyone’s asking if I need help or if I’m lost.”

“Don’t you have friends you can stay with? Like Rosaria or Catarina?”

“Don’t want to ask them for help…” Torleif mumbled.

“I see…” Echo said. “Is that why we’re out so late?”

“I guess,” Torleif said. “And I like…having friends around. I know soon you’re going to turn back into a tree or something and I have to go back there. Spirits are lucky, they don’t need beds or anything…”

Torleif felt Echo gently but firmly take hold of her wrist. “Come on,” The nymph said. “You’re coming with me.”

“W-wait…” Torleif had to hurry a little to keep pace with her. “Where are we going? I don’t wanna go back yet!”

“We’re not going back,” Echo said. “But trust me and just follow along.”

Echo led Torleif along into the city, away from the refugee center or anywhere else Torleif knew until they were in a dense clean-looking part of the city filled with impressive townhouses. Echo brought her to the door of a particularly large affair, giving it a knock before entering.

“W-wait,” Torleif tugged at her hand. “Whose house is this?”

“Nora!” Echo called into the house. “I’m back! And I have a guest with me.”

“Nora? Wait, the-” Torleif asked before a new person walked into the foyer. She was on the lean side, with pale skin and dark rings under her sharp blue eyes. Smartly dressed, and with an unusual color to her hair (dyed black on one side, white on the other) she looked over Torleif with brief recognition.

“Ah, Torleif, nice to meet you again.”

Echo looked from Nora to Torleif. “You’ve met?”

“Of course, I showed her to the temple and introduced her to the Thor cult,” Nora said. “Come on, Echo, I told you about this.”

“Sorry,” Echo bowed her head.

“So, what’s up? Was there a problem?”

“Uh…” Torleif went quiet, not sure what to say, but Echo put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Torleif here doesn’t really have a place to stay. I was wondering if she could take the spare bedroom for a little while. At least until the bureaucracy clears up.”

Nora shrugged. “Sure, I don’t have a problem with it.”

“Thank you!” Torleif said, before turning to Echo. “How does a little nature spirit know Miss Nora so well?”

“Who told you Echo was little?” Nora asked, leading them into the sitting room. “Echo here is a celebrity. She helped save Rome during the early days.”

Torleif stared wide-eyed at Echo. “Really!?”

“Well, I might have helped a little,” Echo said sheepishly.

“That’s amazing!” Torleif said. “And I was just dragging you around…”

“I had a lot of fun, Torleif,” Echo smiled. “Although you do have a tendency to run into things headfirst.”

“Well, she takes after her patron,” Nora smiled. “But yes, Torleif, Echo is important, and she lives here as well.”

“Why does a spirit need a house?” Torleif asked.

“Well I don’t need one so much,” Echo said. “But I stay here with Nora to help her out with things.”

“Ooooh,” Torleif nodded. “So it’s really okay that I stay here?”

“For a while at least,” Nora said. “just don’t make a mess and put things back where you found them. Also don’t bother Lenore.”

“Who’s Lenore?”

“I won’t be around much to be bothered.”

Torleif nearly jumped as a voice sounded behind her.

“People need to stop doing that!” Torleif said angrily, turning to face the new arrival. To her surprise she looked a lot like Nora, almost enough to be a…sister?

“I’m Nora’s bodyguard,” Lenore said. “I prefer to keep myself scarce.”

“Okay…” Torleif nodded before turning back to Nora. “My things are back at the camp…”

“I’ll send someone to get them in the morning,” Nora said. “But right now it’s very late. Though…do you have anything to do tomorrow?”

“No,” Torleif shook her head.

“Well then,” Nora smiled. “I think I can take a day to give a champion a ‘diplomatic tour’ of the city. We’ll have a proper Roman Holiday, sound good, Miss Hepburn?”

“Who?” Torleif asked.

“Forget it,” Nora smiled. “Echo can show you to the spare room. I’ll see you in the morning and give you…maybe a better look at Rome.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 30

 

The Viking ships sailed over the water, their rows splashing in the sea as they closed the distance between them and the smaller vessel. Loud echoing voices carried through the fog, speaking in a language that Noemi couldn’t understand. She didn’t need to understand to know what they were saying, however. It was the same as any pirate across time. Orders were barked, cheers were shouted, and the oars rowed ever on.

Bouncing along the crest of the wave, the smaller ship tried to hide itself in the rise and fall of the ocean, dipping behind a wave as it started its rise, before pulling back up to catch the next one. The single figure aboard kept one hand on the tiller and another on the rope, trying to catch the wing as best he could.

Neither side seemed to spot the Dutchman until it was already upon them. Raising over the zenith of a wave, it crashed down with a splash upon the ocean’s surface. The water rippled out, rocking the other ships side by side. The small skiff bounced even higher as it struggled to stay afloat, while the Viking longboats tipped dangerously one way then the other.

Aboard the Dutchman, Noemi could see the ghostly figures moving more readily, taking their ethereal form as they scuttled to and fro on the deck. Guns were loaded, though with what, Noemi couldn’t see. She followed Jonah as he worked with surprising stiffness. All the ghosts did. It was if they heard some drum, some beat, to which Noemi was deaf. They moved in time and when the first guns fired their warning shots, the cannons roaring and shaking the ship, they continued as if nothing had happened at all.

The waves grew wilder as the Dutchman drew nearer to the longboats. Noemi couldn’t even see the skiff as the clouds blocked the light, until the lightning of the storm flashed. There it was, still struggling to keep control, caught in the maelstrom that the Dutchman had brought.

The ship shook as the cannons fired again. Invisible cannonballs shot forth at the longboats, who responded with the whizzing of unseen arrows and the shouts of a legion of dead souls. Noemi felt her head spinning, both from the ship and the sounds coming all around her. She felt herself jostled, knocked about, by the ghosts, not knowing where she should stand to stay out of their way! She closed her eyes. They weren’t doing her any good anyway, and it was less confusing without them.

“The bell, Noemi!” She heard Jonah shout.

“What?” She said, dazed. She couldn’t see him, see anything with her eyes closed. She certainly didn’t hear a bell.

“The rope! Grab the rope!”

Noemi scrunched up her eyes more, trying to keep them shut. This was worse than the jungle. At least the jungle was just dark! Here, her mind felt like it was playing tricks on her. She heard a soft hissing in her mind, before she could see again.

“Eh?! AAH!” Noemi screamed, her eyes flying open. What her mind saw and what her eyes saw clashed, painfully, as her hands reflexively moved to shield her once-more closed eyes. She hadn’t been wrong; her eyes had been shut tightly. Even now, though, she could see the ship about her, the ghosts more solid and…real…than they previously had been. “What…what’s going on!?”

I have lent you my eyes, Noemi. To see what you could not.

The soft voice of Ophidia tickled the back of her mind. Noemi looked around. She could see the cannonballs and arrows in the air. She could see the sailors on the Dutchman. More importantly, she could see the rope, hanging from the mast, attached to an old copper bell, corroded from the wet sea air.

“The bell…” She whispered to herself. Without thinking, she grabbed the rope and pulled on it, giving it a test tug.

The bell tolled high above the water, with a low rumbling clang. The ghosts aboard the ship seemed to move more slowly, watching the bell with rapt-fascination. The bell rang again. Across the water, the long boats started to rumble and shake. Cracks appeared in their hulls, water seeping aboard their decks. The Viking ghosts stood as enthralled as the other ghosts.

Even Noemi found herself staring up at the blue-tinged copper bell, her mouth dropping open. She could swear she heard a voice echoing out beneath the clanging.

The Locker awaits…

A shiver ran up her spine and Noemi let the rope slide from her hands as she squeaked. She gave her skin a pinch just to make sure she could still feel pain, still feel warmth. Her heart beat faster, even as she let out a sigh.

The shouting of the Vikings grew more desperate. Noemi looked over the edge of the railing. For all the cannon fire, the bell seemed to have done more to split the boats than anything else. They fell below the water, on their journey to the bottom of the ocean floor. Their masts cracked and splashed into the water as the ghosts were pulled beneath the waves.

“I…I don’t…” Noemi said, her body shaking as she took a step back from the rope. She had seen a lot over the last few months, more than most, but it hadn’t truly resonated with her just what it meant to be aboard the Dutchman until now. She could hear Jonah’s boots on the deckboards creaking towards her, throwing a blanket over her shoulder.

“Those ghosts should have been in Davy Jones’ locker,” he explained, as though it were something normal and expected. “Come on, we still need to deal with the skiff and her captain.”

Noemi picked herself up, moving in a bit of a haze after Jonah’s steps. She could feel Ophidia manifesting herself more inside Noemi’s body, a comforting sensation that helped reassure the champion that she was still one of the living. She was just traveling aboard the ship of the dead.

Jonah threw a ladder over the side of the ship and the skiff-rider climbed aboard. At first, Noemi thought him to be a young boy, no more than a teen. As the person pulled themselves up, however, Noemi quickly realized that the figure belonged to that of a woman. Her long admiral’s coat did much to hide the slight flare of her waist, the gentle curves along her side. The blouse showed only the barest indication of breasts, making Noemi wonder if she had them bound, like the stories of Polly Oliver.

What broke the illusion was the long sliver hair that draped over ‘Polly’s’ shoulders, hanging down her back. Noemi had never seen anyone with hair as long as this woman before. A rather large tricorn hat with a feather pluming from its brim kept her hair off her face. As Noemi’s gaze met ‘Polly’s’ eyes, she couldn’t help but stare. The woman had the strangest purple-blue eyes that seemed to shift color depending on the light.

“What are you looking at, Red?” The woman said, grabbing some of her long hair and wringing it out of water. As she pulled it to the side, Noemi could see sharp pointed ears pointing out from underneath it.

“Ah, nothing!” Noemi said quickly. “You’re not…You’re not a ghost?”

“A ghost? Hah! Death wouldn’t know what to do with me! I’m the Dread Pirate Rhonwen, Scourge of the North Sea, Mistress of the English Channel!” Rhonwen said, her voice sounding strange to Noemi’s ears. It wasn’t quite what she would expect from an Irish accent…

“S-sorry, but…What are you?”

“First time meeting an elf, kid?” Rhonwen said with a smile on her face. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s been a while since I could stretch my legs like this! Thought I’d be stuck in Annwn forever!”

“…You know,” Noemi said, after the elf’s words sunk in. “I’ve met spirits, I’m on a boat of the dead…I don’t know why this surprises me but…I guess demihumans don’t make any less sense.”

“Hmph! Demihuman?! Do I look like a stupid human to you?!”

“Well…” Noemi said, holding up her hands. “If it weren’t for the ears…and the eyes…”

“Maybe you look like an elf, Red! But with rounder ears. Now where’s the captain of this ship? Bring ‘im out! I will have words with him!”

“I’m afraid the captain isn’t able to meet with the living, Rhonwen,” Jonah said, coming up from the side. “My name’s Jonah, I can pass on any message?”

Rhonwen frowned, before inflating her chest and giving a rather pointed grin to Jonah. “You, cabin boy! You will be my first mate from here on out! I claim this ship as my own!”

Noemi and Jonah just stared at the elf, eyebrows raised. Noemi stifled a giggle, as she just had to ask. “Wh-what?”

“You heard me, I’m seizing this ship!” Rhonwen said, drawing her sword and grabbing the ropes to strike a dramatic pose. “From here on out this vessel serves me, as…Hey, cabin boy, what vessel is this, anyway?”

“The Flying Dutchman,” Jonah said in a complete deadpan, his arms folded across his chest.

At once, Rhonwen’s energy deflated, her sword hand falling to her side as she looked across the ship. “Aw, damn. That’s…That’s a hard ship to capture…”

“You are welcome to stay aboard, Ronny, but you’ll have to put in your fair share. You might not be a ghost, but everyone helps out,” Jonah said.

“Ronny…Rrrr, fine! I’m not going to let you think you win, cabin boy.”

Jonah just sighed and turned to walk away, getting back to his duties aboard the ship. Noemi couldn’t hold back her chuckling anymore. Rhonwen, Ronny, turned her attention to Noemi, looking at her with a curious glance.

“Hmm…you’re not like the rest of these dead humans. Your spirit burns brighter, with a different color.”

“Ah, well, no. I’m not dead, I’m just traveling on the Dutchman for now.”

“That’s not it. Well, not all of it. You’re carrying a spirit with you! Ooh, impressive,” Ronny said, stepping a little too close for Noemi’s comfort.

Noemi took a step back. “I’m Ophidia’s champion, if that’s what you mean.”

“It probably is, Red, at least that sounds close to what I’m seeing,” Ronny said, looking Noemi up and down. After a while, her smile turned to a frown. “Ah, but it’s really faint. It looks like it could be so much more.”

“What do you mean more?”

“Come on, Red, you have to be able to feel it yourself, right? That spirit looks like she can be very powerful, but all she has to draw from is you. It’s like a lake filled with water. She has all this power that is being dammed up. You, by your lonesome, allow a trickle to filter through into this world.”

“I-I mean I’m trying to get her more worshippers!” Noemi countered.

“Hah! More worshippers traveling on the Dutchman? What are you doing on this ship anyway?”

“Err…I was looking for someone…”

“Someone dead?”

“No!” Noemi shouted. “I mean, I don’t know. Maybe. But…no, she’s alive. I know it. I just got sidetracked trying to get out of Brazil…”

“So where is this girl?”

“I don’t know…”

“You don’t know?” Ronny said, raising her eyebrow. “So she could be anywhere in the world? Anywhere at all?”

“Yeah, I guess?” Noemi said, her stomach dropping the more she talked.

“Red, I know you probably care about this girl, but…you could spend your whole life looking and never find her. While right now you have a spirit relying on you to take care of her and help her grow. If you want my advice—“

“I don’t,” Noemi interjected, knowing what the pirate elf was going to say.

“If you want my advice,” Ronny continued, undaunted. “You give it up and settle down, work on keeping your spirit powerful.”

Noemi scowled at Ronny, but the elf didn’t seem intimidated at all. She shrugged her shoulders, pushing the brim of her hat back.

“If you neglect your spirit…Ophidia you said? If you neglect her, her power will only dim even more. I’m just trying to help you out.”

Was that true? It made sense, that if more worship could bring a spirit more strength, no worship could diminish them…it was what Ophidia had told her all along. Maybe…maybe she should give up and let Gisela go. Her cute sidekick…

She saw Gisela’s face in her mind, peering out through her scratched glasses, looking to Noemi for advice, to lead. No, she couldn’t just abandon trying to find her now.

“Thanks, Ronny. And I’ll make sure I don’t neglect Ophidia, but…Hey, Jonah! Cabin boy!”

“Not you too…” Jonah sighed as he walked back over. “What’s up?”

“Can you see if the captain can head to the Caribbean? I’m looking to get off there.”

“You’re going to leave me here, with a pirate? I beg you, please stay,” Jonah said. “Don’t leave me alone with her.”

“HEY!”

Noemi chuckled a little, her spirits rising again. “Nope, I have to get back to finding my sidekick and getting a cult for Ophidia going. The Caribbean is where I’m going to start.”

“Well, I’ll see what I can do. I’ll miss having someone sensible around to talk to but…Good luck.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Roman Holiday – Part I

 

Torleif had not seen so many people in years. The streets of Rome in the mid-morning were lively and bustling as people moved for work, to get food, or simply to get from one place to another. Without cars, horses, or any vehicle more advanced than a bicycle, the roads were dominated by foot traffic. That meant Torleif, still a little short for her age (though she’d never admit it), was constantly underfoot and almost claustrophobic in the tight crowds of Rome.

She finally got some air at an open market on the edge of the Tiber. Leaning against a stone railing, looking down into the slow brown waters, Torleif could catch her breath as her eyes wandered across the view. Over the past few months she could have gone days without seeing another human being. Sure having company was nice, but the city of Rome was a lot of company to ask for.

Torleif’s stomach grumbled unhappily, and she recalled the breakfast line for new arrivals that she had ditched because it was too long. Regret was starting to worm its way into her head as she eyed the stock of a nearby apple stall hungrily, almost drooling with desire. Hesitantly she started to edge closer to the stall. The owner was busy talking with several customers, and she was small and easily missed, particularly since she had left most of her gear in a locker back at the camp, save for her hammer which still hung from her belt at the back of her waist.

Creeping forward, Torleif began to plan her attack, a quick grab and run and she’d be gone…

A hand gently took hold of her shoulder, causing her to almost jump in mid-air.

“I wasn’t doing anything!” She said so rapidly she almost stumbled over her words. She turned and saw the hand belonged to a woman looking at her with a mix of concern and confusion. She was a lot taller than Torleif (though most people were), with a loose chestnut brown hair and bright green eyes. She was wearing a simple sundress of light browns and off-whites, which only brought more attention to the large white flowers literally growing in her hair.

“I wasn’t!” Torleif said before clamming her mouth shut, realizing she was only digging herself deeper.

The woman simply smiled warmly at her.

“Hungry?” She asked. Torleif nodded silently, face red.

The woman with flowers in her hair lifted her hand from Torleif’s shoulder and held it with her palm up at Torleif’s eye-level. Torleif watched, marveling, as a vine crept down the woman’s arm and sprouted into a large shiny red apple in the palm of her hand.

“Wooow…” Torleif’s eyes went big as she took the apple before swiftly adding a polite “Thank you!” As she did before biting into it.

“Of course,” the woman smiled, but Torleif could see a bit of concern in her face as well. “Are your parents having trouble getting food for you?”

“Don’t got parents,” Torleif said roughly between mouthfuls of apple.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Echo said. “But the city has put you with a foster family, right?”

“No,” Torleif said. “Miss Capi Wolf said that my case is strange cause I’m a champion. Don’t need fosters. Don’t want ‘em either.”

“Ah, my, you’re a champion,” The woman said. “I’m honored. Whose champion are you?”

“Thor.” Torleif paused to take another bite before adding. “God of Thunder! Toughest of the gods too!”

“Oh, my,” The woman said. “I’ve heard of him. I’m just a lowly spirit though, I don’t meet that many gods.”

Torleif nodded, though she also saw the smile creeping across the woman’s face. “So who are you?” She asked. “My name’s Torleif.”

“My name is Echo,” The woman smiled. “Nice to meet you, Torleif.”

“Echo?” Torleif asked. “Like in a cave? Echo, echo, echo.”

“Heh, something like that,” Echo chuckled. “But can’t you use the breakfast food line for refugees?”

“That line is so looooong,” Torleif moaned.

“I’m sure it is,” Echo nodded. “Though if you like I can help you get lunch. I know some people who-“

Echo was cut off by the sight of guards rushing down the street up the river, a number of them hurrying together at the call of some emergency.

“U-umm excuse…” Echo tried to catch their attention, but she was ignored as they hurried past her. “Hmm…I wonder what the excitement is…”

“Let’s go see!” Torleif said eagerly, taking Echo by the wrist as she moved after the guards. Echo lurched along after her, clearly surprised at the small girl’s strength.

“But Torleif! It could be dangerous!” She tried to object, helpless to break free from her grasp.

“That’s okay, I’ll protect you,” Torleif smiled.

 

The running guards and soon sounds of commotion lead them to a local park, where a dividing line had been set up to keep out the public, manned by a number of guards trying to hold back a line of curious citizens. Within the park, invisible through the trees, came the sounds of creaking branches and splintering wood as if something massive was moving through the small forest. Without pausing, Torleif pushed her way through the barricade and the guards as Echo helplessly apologized. To her surprise, they weren’t followed as Torleif pulled Echo along into the forests.

In the center of the wooded park was the source of the noise. An enormous and likely ancient tree, with a trunk many times wider than an adult man, was moving and lurching of its own volition, massive branches swaying and coiling as its canopy crashed against the leaves and branches of its neighbors. Near the base of the tree stood a trio of women, deep in conversation as they watched the tree from a safe distance away.

“I can see why you called me, the spirit is clearly very upset,” The youngest, a shortish Asian girl dressed in bright white and red robes with short dark hair was the first to speak.

“That’s what we gathered. Aurelio wanted an expert on the subject,” The second one was the tallest. She was a slender black-haired woman dressed in a long cloak and slimming clothes that made her look like an evil sorceress.

The last one to speak was older-looking, but what stood out the most were the long ears and tail of a fox that poked out from her hair and the back of her dress. “That’s why I retrieved Megame, though a proper expert would be…ah, there they are!” The trio turned to see Torleif carrying Echo to join them.

“Hi!” Torleif waved. “Need some help busting up an angry spirit? I’m your champion!”

“Ah, you must be Torleif,” The youngest woman in white and red said. “Catarina mentioned you. My name is Megame Kamigawa.”

“Oh, right,” Torleif nodded. “Cat talked about you on the trip here. Who are these?”

“This is my friend, Hachi,” Megame said, gesturing to the fox woman who eyed her curiously. “And this is Miss Sybilla, they’re with the Night Guard.”

“We are, and this is one spirit we don’t need ‘busted up,’” Sybilla said, hands on her hips. “In fact, I’m much more interested in what Echo there has to say.”

“Echo?” Torleif looked at her. “She’s just a little spirit though…”

Hachi smiled as Echo stepped towards the thrashing tree. “Something to keep in mind, Torleif-san, is that sometimes the easiest solution isn’t necessarily the best.”

“It’s not too surprising,” Sybilla said. “As they say, ‘when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Torleif frowned.

“It means,” Hachi said calmly. “That when you have something that can fix a lot of problems, like your hammer, you tend to use that to fix all of your problems.”

“Oh…” Torleif said, going a bit quiet as she turned to watch Echo and Megame chatting closer to the tree.

“So can you hear the problem?” Megame asked.

“It doesn’t like all of the new transplants in the park,” Echo said. “It’s restoring the land but the tree doesn’t recognize them; it thinks they’re invading and trying to replace it.”

“That’s not true at all,” Megame said. “We were just trying to bring some life back, and move some trees that would have been cut down for construction.”

“I’ll try to reassure it,” Echo said, moving to the tree and placing her hands on the gnarled bark, vines spreading from her fingertips.

Torleif hung back, annoyed she had nothing to do but not wanting to abandon her new friend Echo with these strangers, even if Cat had said Megame was a good person. A while later Echo removed herself from the tree, vines withdrawing from her hands as the tree’s thrashing ceased and she went to speak to the others.

“He understands and will try to be more cooperative,” Echo said. “But Miss Kamigawa, if you could mention him when you do your rituals for the local spirits?”

“I’ll be sure to,” Megame nodded. “Thank you, Echo kami-san.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Echo smiled before she went to check on Torleif. “You look a bit bored.”

“M’fine…” Torleif mumbled.

“You know, if you wanted to fight a bit you could always go down to the training fields, there’s always someone there.”

Torleif’s eyes lit up. “Can we?”

“I’m not in charge of a champion,” Echo smiled. “Lead the way, the others can take care of the rest.

Torleif smiled and started leading her from the park toward the training field. “Sorry to get you roped into that stuff back there,” Torleif said “I didn’t mean to bother you. All you did was help.”

“Oh it’s no problem at all,” Echo smiled. “I actually like getting to know people, particularly since-“

“Oh we’re here!” Torleif grinned, interrupting her as she hurried towards the field, though she spared Echo her grip this time. While the nymph took to the stands to watch, Torleif looked around to see who was there to spar. She grinned as she spotted a pair of people she knew, Rosaria from the trip down south was in a wrestling match with Capitolina Lupa, the Wolf of Rome, and while the wolf might have had all her strength, she was in human form which meant Rosa was putting up a good fight.

Torleif went to the edge of the ring, watching before chiming in. “I’ve got next!”

She watched as Rosa finally managed to pin down Capitolina, though by the way the wolf woman’s tail was still wagging, she’d been treating it more like a game than a fight.

“Well done, Rosa,” Capi smiled. “Getting better at reading your opponents.”

“Or you at least,” Rosa said before looking at Torleif. “You said you want to go, short stuff?”

“Ya!” Torleif said, dropping her hammer to the ground at the edge of the ring and rolling up her sleeves. “And don’t call me short!”

After a bit of stretching both of them bent low on either side of the ring. Torleif charged, ready to throw all her weight against Rosa, only to find the taller girl skillfully maneuvering her out of the way, and soon Torleif felt her chest being slammed into the hard earth.

“H-hey!” She shouted angrily, getting her feet under her to push Rosa off of her.

“Want to give it another try?” Rosa smiled, and again Torleif charged her, and again she was on the ground in mere moments.

“Heh, you fight like Rosa did when I met her,” Capi chuckled as Torleif struggled to escape the pin.

“Grrr…whaddya mean?” Torleif said, still wriggling in Rosa’s grasp. “I’m stronger than her!”

“Probably,” Rosa smiled. “But you fight like a charging bull.”

“She’s using your strength against you,” Capi said, more gently. “You’re off balance when you charge, and with your height, you’d have an advantage if you keep your footing and leveraged your strength right. What was that saying, Rosa? The Greek said it.”

“Give me a firm place to stand and I will move the world,” Rosa said. “Fighting’s more than throwing a hard punch, and I’ve got the bruises to show it. Want to go another round?”

Torleif grumbled, already red with embarrassment and not sure she wanted to continue.

“You can do it Torleif!” Echo’s call from the nearby stands only made her face redder. She hated being embarrassed like this, but Echo was cheering for her, and she couldn’t give the nymph a bad impression of her first champion!

“Alright!” Torleif got up. “Let’s keep going.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 29

 

“We’re running out of options,” Asha said, arms folded over her chest. “And we’re running out of time.”

“It’s kind of difficult to make and execute a plan when you’re being hunted,” Leyla said. “How did she track us here anyway?”

“Likely because the two of you dropped the pretense after you let Babylon and lit yourselves up like stars for her to follow.”

Rachel had accompanied them and was now sprawled on one of the over-stuffed ratty armchairs as she chewed on a fig from their supplies.

Asha frowned, even as she knew it was true. The very night they had left Babylon, she had spread her wings and gone for a night flight. A pang of guilt ran through her as she realized this bit of relief might have drawn Freny to them, and then to Eli.

“Not many people leave Babylon,” Hazif said. “Most by choice. I wouldn’t be too surprised if that was the case.”

“Flinging blame around won’t solve our problems,” Asha said. “We need to eliminate Freny. She’s seen our faces, there’s no way we can get back in Babylon if she’s still on the board.”

“Good luck,” Hazif scoffed. “Freny’s a monster, and I don’t mean that figuratively. I don’t know how much dragon blood or whatever else they pumped in her but in a straight fight we’re a bit out of our league.”

“Leyla and I are stronger than we look,” Asha said. “If we catch her where she can’t run, we might have a chance.” She passed a glance to Rachel and Constance. “Maybe you two can even help.”

“You’re still talking about killing one of Freny’s top agents,” Rachel said. “We know her type; there will be reprisals, even if not against you.”

“A security crackdown on the city of Babylon complicates our lives…a lot,” Asha said. “But something has to be done.”

“There is…at least one alternative,” Hazif said, with some reluctance in his voice.

“What’ve you got?” Leyla and the rest of the group looked at him.

“Well…seduce her to our side?”

Asha blinked in surprise. “…really? You’re the one usually nay-saying our plans and you think we can convince her to defect.”

“I might think your plan is nigh-impossible,” Hazif said. “But I know a lot about seduction as well. Half-incubus, remember?”

‘O-oh…” said Leyla. “That kind of seduction. Does that work on…I don’t know dragon women?”

“Well, the usual issue is that these things are molded to love Shadiya,” Hazif said. “But they don’t usually venture this far away. That conditioning might be more flexible with distance and time.”

“So rather than kill the lion, you intend to tame it,” Rachel said. “An interesting proposal.”

“I didn’t go to your meeting,” Hazif said. “So, she didn’t see me. I can get close enough to…engage.”

“Then what, fine wine and a candlelit dinner in Damascus with the dragon-blooded manhunter?” Asha asked facetiously.

“Not my usual style, but whatever works for her,” Hazif shot back smoothly. “I might not have a sacred bow and arrow or a flaming sword, but this is an area in which I excel.”

Asha turned to Leyla. “Thoughts?”

“Well…it might be worth a try. Worst comes to worst…”

“Worst comes to worst, I’m dead,” Hazif said. “But I’m more or less signed up for that at this point.”

“Unfortunately, he’s right,” Asha sighed. “Alright, Hazif, if you think you can do it…”

“Worth a shot,” Hazif shrugged. “Safer than it would be in Damascus…besides, I suppose I’m interested in a challenge. Worst she can do is put her sword through me.”

“Ya, try and get it the other way around,” Leyla smirked.

“Leyla!” Asha scoffed at him.

“I’ll do what I can,” Hazif went to retrieve his coat. “And I have a few tracking skills of my own. If you don’t hear back from me in forty-eight hours…assume I’m dead.”

“You’re sure about this, Hazif?” Asha asked. “You’re a valuable asset and more importantly part of the team, you’re willing to just stick your neck out like this?”

“Well…” Hazif said. “Maybe it’s easier to give it a try then see you hopeless romantics torn to pieces by the sword of a dragon woman.”

“I …mmm,” Asha bit her tongue before saying simply. “Good luck.”

Without another word Hazif went out the door and into the night. There was silence in the room for a few minutes.

“We need to keep going forward,” Asha said, turning to Rachel. “With the plan. How do we contact Ishtar?”

“Like any goddess,” Rachel said. “You need a temple or an altar, along with suitable offerings. Thankfully this isn’t too hard to set up for Ishtar, but it will be difficult communicating.”

“Why?” Leyla asked. “If we got an altar together…”

“Imagine it like cellphone reception,” Rachel said, looking for a simile. “A temple or an altar is like a cellphone tower. You can build a terrible one in your backyard out of wood and copper wiring, but you’re not going to get a very good connection, right? The more towers you build, and the bigger and finer they are, the better the signal. We doubt Ishtar has an established temple within three hundred miles, if at all, so you may not get the best reception here on Earth.

“Will it be enough?” Asha asked. “That’s all we need. Enough.”

“Possibly,” Rachel said. “But we don’t know the kinds of things Ishtar wants in her temple.”

“Wait, you don’t?” Asha asked incredulously.

“Why would we? We’re not an archaeologist,” Rachel huffed.

“So we’ll need to find information on that…” Asha said. “I can try getting in touch with Cat, she has access to a lot of books and resources that could help us. If not we’ll…”

Her train of thought was interrupted by a knock at the door. All of them fell silent as they turned to face it. If it was Hazif returning for some reason he wouldn’t have knocked.

Asha drew her bow as Leyla’s sword appeared in his hand. Constance made a motion that she would open the door as Leyla moved to the side. If someone tried to charge in, then Asha could fire arrows through Constance’s incorporeal form while Leyla’s curved blade could swing in a decapitating strike. They moved into position, Asha at the far end of the room opposite the door, Leyla moving to stand at the edge of the doorway, out of sight of the new arrival but within striking distance. Rachel simply continued to slump in her armchair, eyes on the door as Constance opened it.

“Hello?” Constance asked, sliding the door. “How can we help…ah, Eli? What are you doing alive at this hour?”

Asha almost dropped her bow as Constance moved out of the doorway to reveal Eli standing there, his dirty robes wrapped loosely around him and his feet caked with road dirt.

Leyla lowered his sword as he stared, but kept it tightly in his hands. “E-Eli? Is it really?”

“Yes, it’s me,” Eli nodded, clearly exhausted. “I haven’t eaten in hours; do you guys have anything?”

“We watched you die,” Asha said. “I knew you’d come back before but I wasn’t sure…”

“No, you did the right thing,” Eli nodded. “Sky Burial was necessary for my Fravashi to find me.”

Both Leyla and Asha turned suspiciously to Constance, who had suggested it in the first place.

“An educated guess,” Constance shrugged. “Nothing more, I assure you.”

“So it’s…really you?” Leyla asked. “Well let’s…test that.”

Both Leyla and Asha moved forward, taking Eli’s bare hands in theirs as they reached out with their spiritual presence, testing for any evil or taint that could be lurking in him, but both of them came back pure.

“Seems it’s him,” Asha said. “Or at least he’s not lying about who he is. Still…just coming back from the dead, that’s…an incredible ability.”

“Certainly, one that could prove useful in the future,” Rachel said, looking him over. “You are certain he is not a revenant or a shapeshifter of some kind?”

“Yes,” Asha nodded. “One or both of us would have felt it if he was deceiving us or harboring some kind of evil, but Eli feels right as ever.”

“It’s less useful an ability than you might think,” Eli said. “It takes twelve hours, and I need to be taken somewhere rocky and exposed, and I still feel all of the worst parts of it. It’s not like I’m an immortal soldier who can fight off an army by just resurrecting. I’m not a particularly skilled or strong warrior, on top of that I’m a pacifist.”

“Right,” Asha nodded. “Well we weren’t about to…exploit you or anything but…Eli how do you get an ability like this?”

“Not in a pleasant way,” Eli sighed. “If I had to be honest, dying might have been easier. This is my…well, I’ve been told it’s not a punishment but it feels like one.”

“If you don’t want to talk about it…” Leyla said.

“Mmm, no…I think it’s time. This might help, actually,” Eli said. “Not long after the end of the world started, a lot of people were stranded out in the wilderness. The desert was spreading by the day and lots of towns were simply disappearing as the water dried up, the dunes ate them, or bandits emptied them of people and supplies.

“I was trapped out there with my sister, Delilah. It was just the two of us trying to survive and we were running out of water. And I…well I left my sister to die, hoping that I could make it to safety and save myself. She wasn’t in any condition to stop me, so I left her, taking what I could. Not that it mattered…”

“Mmm…” Asha listened as he spoke. “I…understand, more than you might think. I met someone who went through something similar.”

“Well, did they make it?” Eli asked. “Because I didn’t. I didn’t make it another twelve hours before I went down too. Last memory I had of that life was cursing myself for being such an idiot. I knew none of us would make it, I should have been with Delilah at the end, but instead both of us died alone.”

“But then you came back,” Leyla said.

“Then I came back,” Eli nodded. “I met my Fravashi, and instead of taking me away it told me that I was chosen to try and do some good. That I would get to keep going, and I would continue to keep going as far as any of us knew. I thought I was being punished rather than saved. How could I go back to that, knowing that I was still alive for no reason?”

“Well, you can do some good, maybe whatever brings you back just wants you to make up for it?” Asha asked.

“Probably, but all I wanted at that moment was for Delilah to be chosen instead of me. But she wasn’t…really, I think that might have been my punishment. I’m not being punished by being resurrected every time I die…I’m being punished with the knowledge that I’m alive instead of Delilah. Though honestly that might be for the best…I can’t imagine how angry she’d be if she came back to life…or how she’d take a life like this…”

Asha put a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, take a seat on the bed, Eli, we’ll get you some food.”

“Right,” he nodded, moving to the bed as he sat down, his eyes staring off into the distance.

“You handle it quite well,” Constance smiled at him. “This burden of yours.”

“It gets a bit harder each time,” Eli sighed.

“Stick with us,” Asha said. “And we’ll make sure it’s worth it. You’re going to help us do a lot of good for a lot of people, Eli.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa