The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 42

Noemi woke up early in the morning, sunlight peeking through the corners of her windows, as she had more often as of late. With a yawn and a stretch, she slid out of her bed, grabbing her snake amulet and placing it around her neck. Engraved in the center was the symbol of the Feathered Serpent, Ophidia’s ancient cult. She stumbled out of her bedroom into the common room, where Junko was already eating breakfast.

“Morning, boss,” Junko said, holding out a cup of tea for the still groggy red head. Noemi took it gratefully as she settled down at the table.

Things had settled into a sort of normalcy on the island after Noemi and Junko had led the spirits of the jungle back to the village. Riled up as they were, it didn’t take long to overwhelm the Jaguar priest and with the Tess’s cult cowed and captured, the village had been more than willing to put the would-be-conquerors on a merchant ship bound for the mainland.

 

“Aztlan will not take this lightly,” Nicholas, one of the locals, had said. The people of the village were gathered by the docks, watching the sails of the trading vessel disappear into the horizon.

Noemi nodded her head, her eye steeled. “No, they won’t. Especially with Tess…Tezcatlipoca knowing I’m here. But she’s not stupid. This island isn’t worth much to her besides…indulgences. I have a plan.”

 

They would need protection, from the naval fleet of Aztlan and marauding pirates. Lucky for them, their port was a waypoint on one of the larger Caribbean trade routes. Whenever a ship came to dock at port, Noemi greeted them personally, wearing the amulets of the serpent she had made. Ophidia had often stood by her side, in as much divine splendor as she could muster.

Noemi, as representative of the Cult of the Feathered Serpent and with growing influence among the village, often bore with her contracts with her cult’s seal, as well as Nicholas’ signature, offering preferred prices on food and water to restock their hulls. In return, those who bore the letters would offer their protection of the port, keeping the waters around it free of Aztlan ships. While at first, most were skittish, it didn’t take too long before Noemi found captains who hated Aztlan with a fiery passion. Former pirates and exiled merchants gladly offered their protection as privateers, to strike back at the hated power. Soon, there was always at least one ship or so near the small port. While Aztlan had sent raiders from time to time, they found the village far better protected than they had expected and eventually, as Noemi had predicted, the Aztlan sails were rarely seen.

As the people felt more secure, thanks to her efforts, more and more of them started wearing the amulets as well. Noemi led the rituals as Ophidia directed, often just prayers over an offering of some small mammal they had hunted. Ophidia would stand beside her, ready to accept the prayer, before taking to the skies in her Winged Serpent form, the offering in her mouth.

“Do you actually eat the offerings?” Noemi had asked.

“I do. While a simple vole or mouse would not do anything for a spirit, these are offerings. They serve as almost…vessels for the spiritual energy that the prayers give me. Eating these is similar to you eating your dinner. It provides me sustenance.”

“So you literally eat them…like tear them apart and chew?”

“Well, it is the quickest way of breaking them down.”

Things had been going well for Noemi, enough that she had finally started to be able to walk through the town openly without looking over her shoulder constantly. The cult of the Feathered Serpent had gotten a solid foothold and, with Junko’s help, had earned the trust and allegiance of the many minor spirits in the jungle around the village.

“Mm, what’s on your mind, boss?” Junko asked, taking Noemi out of her thoughts.

“Ah, I was just thinking of how Ophidia’s cult is really starting to get some momentum. The people seem so much happier than when we got here. Ophidia has really helped them prosper.”

“Well, you as well. You’re a natural cult leader, boss,” Junko teased, taking a bite of her breakfast plantain.

“Ugh, when you say it like that…” Noemi muttered. “But there’s more food and water than ever, they’ve had great weather, and we’re starting to make real friends with the privateers.”

“The privateers I think are mostly from your efforts, Noemi,” Junko said. “Though it’s amazing this little merchant’s alliance you’ve got assembled, loose as it is.”

“When enough people hate Aztlan,” Noemi said. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as they say.”

“So what’s on your plate today, boss?” Junko asked.

“Going on a fishing trip. The villagers asked for Ophidia to bless the voyage and it’s been a while since I’ve been on the water. I figured I’d join them, Ophidia can fly around a bit, and we’ll come back with a lot of fish.”

“Sounds pretty easy.”

“Should be. What are you doing today?”

“Mm, probably going to explore the jungle some more. Do some survival training,” Junko shrugged.

“I’ve got dinner taken care of, so just enjoy yourself then,” Noemi said with a smile as she finished her tea, grabbing her coat as she stepped out of Nicholas’ home. The innkeeper and sort of mayor had generously offered to house them again, though without any fee, though Noemi and Junko still did what they could to keep his pantry full.

“Later, boss!”

As Noemi headed to the port, she saw Ophidia ahead of her, flying among the clouds in her spirit serpent form. Once, she had been able to fit around Noemi’s shoulder or her arm, now the goddess was almost large enough that Noemi could imagine herself riding on her back. She grinned, not sure how Ophidia would take to the idea, but it would certainly put a fear of them into the heart of any Aztlan patrol or raiding ship they came across.

The fishermen were standing at the edge of the pier, in one of the larger fishing vessels the village had. The children had gathered around, pointing and laughing with joy as Ophidia looped about the sky before diving down, transforming into her human shape. Noemi respectfully bowed to the goddess, as the villagers all rubbed their amulets.

“Ready, Ophidia? Are the winds fair?”

“They are. The sea is calm and the clouds have been sent away. We should have a prosperous yield.”

The villagers all said the prayers and sang her praises, Noemi smiling as she stepped aboard the fishing ship. “Whenever you’re ready, boys!”

The winds were at their backs, filling their sails as they set off from the village, though the mountains of the island were always there on the horizon. Noemi found it easy to slip back onto her sea legs as she walked along the rocking ship, helping out where she could despite the insistence of the fishermen.

“Please, priestess, allow us,” one of the fisherman said, as Noemi moved to help haul the net out of the water.

“Hah! This isn’t the first time I’ve been on a ship, you know!” Noemi said, with good cheer as she tugged on the ropes. “It feels wrong to not be busy and moving about!”

The sun rose across the sea as they continued to slowly drift over the low waves, pulling in yield after yield of fish. The fishermen were laughing and singing, as Ophidia stepped lightly on board, watching with satisfied eyes. Those who felt her gaze upon them said a quick word of praise, rubbing the amulets, before continuing about their work.

Around noon, Noemi felt a cool wind blowing from the east. It bit right through her clothes, sending shivers down her spine. “E-eh? Ophidia?”

…I can see a shadow beneath the water, Noemi.

Noemi took a deep breath to steady her nerves. “Captain, that strange wind…I believe we should turn back.”

“A-aye,” the captain stuttered. The men had suddenly lost their good cheer. “Make for port, men! We have enough fish for weeks!”

With the order given, the fishermen got to work, trying to turn the ship around, sailing now against the cold wind. It began to howl, rocking the ship to the side as the waves started to pick up.

“This is no ordinary wind!” the captain shouted over the gusts.

“No kidding!” Noemi shouted back. “Ophidia, what is…Aah!”

Before the goddess could even reply, Noemi saw the prow of a ship climbing its way to the top of the waves, rotted wood dripping with briny waters. As the waves rolled forward, more of the ship rose, its white, cut sails bearing no markings, but Noemi needed none to know this ship. Her face went white.

“The Dutchman,” she whispered, staring in wide eyes at the familiar man-o-war. It couldn’t be her time already, could it? This was to be an easy voyage. After all that, a simple fishing trip was to be her end?

The men were all whispering, frozen in fear. Noemi hoped they’d stay like that a little longer, though she could feel the tension boiling beneath their white faces. Eventually terror would drive them to panic, and once the first lost it, all hell would break loose.

Noemi gritted her teeth as she stepped to the prow of her ship.

“Jonah! This better be some kind of joke, do you hear me?! There’s no way it’s our time!”

“Hehe, now that’s the kind of spirit I wish all captains showed when we arrive!” A giggling feminine voice said, right below Noemi. The red head blinked, and looked down. There, hanging off a rope attached to the bow, was an elf in a tricorn hat, smiling up at her.

“Ronny?”

“The one and only! We’re not here for your people, Red, we’re here for you!”

“I-It can’t be, I…how?!”

“Nah, not like that. Cabin Boy needs to talk to you. Almost makes me jealous, but he says it’s the captain’s orders.”

Noemi looked over her shoulder at the faces of the fishermen. Terror had given way to confusion, though their eyes were still flecked with fear. Ophidia stood before them and stepped towards Noemi, nodding.

“…Prepare me a boat, men. The Dutchman isn’t going to take me forever. Still, get yourselves back to port.”

“Yes, priestess!” They said, springing back into action as a rowboat was lowered into the water, Noemi climbing down the ladder to it. Ronny shrugged her shoulders as she saw Noemi rowing away and let go of her rope, falling back into the water and swimming to the rowboat.

“So you’re a priestess now, huh? Guess you got that cult going after all!”

“Yeah, Ophidia is doing a lot better now. She’s definitely…grown as well.”

“Well, Jonah has a few things he wants to discuss. Figure he can explain it better.”

Ronny chattered away as the two of them rowed to the Dutchman, catching Noemi up on what had been going on in the ship, most of it focused on Jonah. By the time they had made their way to the other ship, Noemi was sure the pretty elf was obsessed with the “useless, bossy cabin boy” she was complaining so much about.

Climbing the ladder to the deck, Noemi could feel the unnatural chill settle over her again. She had almost forgotten what it felt like, having spent so much time in the warmth of the sun. Jonah was waiting for her on the deck.

“Good to see you again, Noemi.”

“Sooner than I thought. What’s up?”

“Mm, we’ve been having a lot of trouble with ghost ships. A lot more have been rising up lately, especially in the waters of the North. We’ve been fighting nonstop since we dropped you off.”

“Eh? You don’t think that I have anything to do with that do you? How could I-“

“No, no, it’s not that you’re the cause! It’s just, uh, we’re looking for more help. Want to join back up with our crew?”

Noemi stared at him in confusion for a moment before her eyes went wide. She raised her hands in front of her shaking them emphatically. “Wait, wait, wait…you want me to just pack up everything to sail around on the Dutchman again? But, that’s…It’s a ship of the dead!”

“Please, Noemi…I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t of the utmost seriousness. I know what it must be like for one of the living to sail with us…”

“Besides, what of Ophidia? We just got her cult started and…”

“Actually, I believe it is wise for us to go.”

Noemi jumped as she heard Ophidia’s voice behind her. The feathered goddess stood aboard the deck, looking at Noemi with determined eyes.

“…Wait, what?”

“I have gained much strength thanks to your efforts, Noemi. Enough that I can now be both here on the ship with you and on the island, with the cult. You have done well as my priestess, but I need you as my champion once more and I wish to speak with Jormungandr once again. Junko has a way with spirits and while she may not be as much of a leader, I will help her keep the villagers faithful in your absence.”

Noemi folded her arms, giving the goddess a determined stare back, ready to refuse. Still, Ophidia’s words made sense. This was a chance to get her more power, as the World Serpent had offered.

“Fine. I’ll help, but on one condition, Jonah,” she said, turning to the cabin boy. “When I need your help against Aztlan, the Dutchman helps. Deal?”

Jonah sighed. “I suppose I’ll…bring it to the captain.”

“And I want to stop at the village first. I owe it to them to explain it.”

Ophidia tilted her head. “Shall I tell them now? They are starting to gather at the port.”

“Just tell them I’ll be back! Besides…I need to say goodbye to Junko. I’m not going to leave her behind, just like that.”

“I already heard, boss,” Junko’s voice said, making Noemi jump.

“Eh!? Junko?”

“Ophidia’s been filling me in. I get it. I’ll do what I can while you’re away,” Junko said, a spirit of her appearing before Ophidia, dwarfed by the tall goddess.

“Mm…Do you think you can handle it, Junko?”

“It’s fine, just make sure you don’t leave us here for too long, boss. I don’t know how to bully the merchants as well as you.”

“You’ll do okay, I think, Junko,” Noemi said with a smile. “I guess…This is a temporary goodbye.”

“I’ll see you when you’re back, boss!”

“See you, sidekick…”

 

 

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The Snake and the Mirror

The Wolf and the Dragon

 

It had been too long since Giovanni had seen the coast. While Barcelona had a fine coast line, he had traveled a little outside the city on Wilhelmina’s recommendation to a nearby village. Stella was staying in the city, enjoying the pleasure of civilization after a long pilgrimage.

The village was a small one, not unlike the village they had saved in North Italy, a collection of new smaller buildings within a palisade on the coast of the sea, making their living off of fishing and trade with nearby Barcelona. He kept his scarf on, keeping his ears out of sight as he greeted the locals, who welcomed him with polite greetings as he admired the serene midday coastline.

“Afternoon, sir.”

He turned and saw an old man sitting a chair down on a nearby pier, nodding to him politely.

“Afternoon,” Giovanni nodded his head politely.

“You a pilgrim? You look the type,” The man said idly, setting up his fishing rod. “Not to prod or be impolite, just an observation.”

“I am,” Giovanni nodded. “I was told this was a nice stretch of coast.”

“Oh, it’s about the finest you’ll see,” The man nodded. “I was just curious if you were a pilgrim or one of those ‘dragon slayers’ you hear about.”

“Dragon slayers?” Giovanni asked. “You mean Wilhelmina?”

“Ah, no, Miss Koenig’s got enough on her plate to deal with. But this village is popular with every man and boy who can pick up a sword and fancies themselves a monster-killer. Most of them we send home.”

“Why would they think that…is there a dragon around here?” Giovanni asked, slightly nervously, but the man just chuckled.

“Ah, well if you believe the stories there certainly is, but those are just stories. No great fire-breathing lizard’s ever come down on this town. It’s just fire up in the hills outside of town is all. Gas fissures some think.”

“I..see…” Giovanni said.

“Well, if you want to see for yourself by all means,” The fisherman nodded. “It’s not particularly dangerous hills, no more than any other place.”

“Any other place that might have a dragon?” Giovanni said.

The man laughed. “Ah, intrigued you, have I?”

“More like concerned.” Giovanni said. “Dragons are monsters of the devil.”

“Well,” The man said. “If that’s the case, someone should probably check in on what that old dragon is scheming.”

He finished with a hearty chuckle as Giovanni frowned.

“Ah well, if it’s that serious to you, one of those would-be knights came through earlier and was pointed to the hills. At the very least, you can probably go make sure she doesn’t stick her head in a fissure looking for dragons.”

“I…think I might,” Giovanni said. “Which way did she go?”

“Up north, over the road there,” The man pointed out of town. “Go quick enough and I’m sure you can catch her. People dressed in armor tend to make a lot of noise, so they shouldn’t be hard to find.”

“I will,” Giovanni inclined his head politely. “Thank you for your time.”

“Oh no, by all means,” the man waved it off. “Come back around afterwards. You’ve not lived till you’ve had some of the fresh catch here.”

Giovanni wasn’t normally one for fish, but his stomach rumbled at the thought.

“I’ll be sure to,” he said, before going off in the direction the man had pointed out.

As soon as he was out of sight of the town Giovanni shifted forms. He could track and move more easily as a wolf than as a man, and it wasn’t long before he had what was probably the trail. The scent of a young woman dressed all in metal was easy to find, and soon he was fast after her.

Giovanni wasn’t sure if he entirely believed the man about the dragon, but he wanted more answers and a ‘would be knight’ as the man put it would likely have them, or if they were as young and foolish as the man had implied, he could keep them from getting lost or injuring themselves.

As he drew closer to the source of the scent, he shifted once more into human form, making sure his scarf and robe were in place to cover his more wolfish aspects. Still on her trail, it wasn’t long until he heard the sound of an armored warrior moving through the brush.

“Hello there,” He called into the trees ahead of him and the sound came to a halt. Giovanni moved towards where it had been, letting himself clearly be heard as he moved.

She was pretty young, as the man had said, but not very. She was probably in her late-twenties. She was dressed mostly in reproduction armor that still looked at least marginally effective, and she had her brown hair tied up tightly at the back of her head.

“Who are you?” She asked somewhat nervously, hand moving to the hilt of her sheathed sword.

“Just a traveling monk,” Giovanni said. “No one of particular concern.”

“I see…” The woman’s hand fell to her waist. “My name is Isabella, and yours?”

“Giovanni,” he said. “I heard you were out hunting dragons.”

“I am,” she nodded. “The fact that there is a dragon in these hills is known far and wide.”

“All the better that a warrior like yourself is here.”

“Perhaps,” Isabella said. “The stories here are rather strange.”

“A man in the village said that there is no dragon,” said Giovanni. “That it was simply gas fissures and an overactive imagination.”

“And did you believe him?”

“It sounds reasonable…but in a world like ours, it’s never wise to discount hat it might really be dragons,” Said Giovanni. “If anything, it might be even stranger if there were no dragon.”

“Oh, there is a dragon in these hills,” Isabella said. “But it’s an unusual one for certain. Local stories say it’s a peaceful dragon, doing nothing and harming nobody.”

Giovanni scoffed. “Now that I find even harder to believe than there being no dragon at all.”

Isabella smiled. “Is that right? A peaceful dragon just seems too odd?”

“Dragons are the minions of evil,” Giovanni said. “From Saint Martha to Saint George, dragons are vicious and all-devouring beasts born from evil itself. I would think that would be obvious so close to Barcelona, where one can meet an actual noble dragon slayer.”

“Aaah, yes, Wilhelmina, the late Abraham’s young student.”

“She doesn’t seem much younger than yourself,” Giovanni said.

“True, I suppose, and she did kill an evil dragon. But was the killing of the dragon the only righteous thing that Saint George did?”

“Well of course not,” Giovanni said. “He was a saint and a martyr, one who lived and died for virtue and faith. When he slew the dragon, he saved the town and the woman meant as a sacrifice.”

“So was the dragon slain for being evil, or being a dragon?”

“I don’t see much difference,” Giovanni said. “Dragons are evil.”

“I hear rumors,” Isabella said. “And stories of dragons in the far east who are benevolent spirits of rivers and sky.”

“True or not, we’re not in the far east,” Giovanni noted. “All dragons here, going back to antiquity, are monsters to be slain.”

Isabella smiled. “Slain by knights and heroes and thunder gods, no?”

“That seems to be the way of it,” Giovanni said.

“But it doesn’t quite answer my original question,” Isabella continued. “If the dragon had not eaten villagers or demanded sacrifice, would Saint George have had reason to kill it?”

“That seems an odd question,” Giovanni said. “Like if it is still a bird if it does not fly.”

“Penguins don’t fly.”

“That’s not my point,” Giovanni growled.

“Nor do ostriches,” Isabella smiled. “My point is, monk, that judging a thing by its nature is rarely so cut and dry. Have you heard of the story of the Wolf of Gubbio?”

Giovanni flinched. Had she sensed something? Seen something like a slip of his ears? How could she have known who he was just from that…unless Wilhelmina had told someone…

Giovanni grew nervous, but he tried not to let it show.

“I believe I have yes.”

“In that story there is a wolf, a man-eater, who feasts upon a village and its livestock. Instead of a knight come to slay it, a holy man converts it instead into a pious wolf.”

“Yes, but before that holy man came, it was an evil wolf,” Giovanni said. “It did not know the grace of God or the meaning in its actions, it only knew how to kill and destroy.”

“But the wolf overcame its nature, could not a dragon do the same?”

“There is Saint Martha’s story,” Giovanni said. “She pacified the Tarasque and led it to the city where it was killed by the frightened villagers. But all of these stories require outside intervention for mere beasts of evil to be elevated to such a place.”

“Dragons aren’t beasts,” Isabella said. “They are quite intelligent, some more intelligent than men. Even if they are born with a predisposition towards evil, would they be incapable of becoming good? Is it sinful for a dragon to even attempt it?”

Giovanni opened his mouth to speak but paused, thinking on it. They continued walking together, Giovanni slightly behind her, as he thought over her words.

He had been a simple wolf. Powerful and dangerous yes but lacking in intelligence. Kebechet had been born with the intellect of a goddess and Capitolina had evolved as spirits do through the cultivation of her own personality cult in Rome. Giovanni’s intelligence had come all at once at the hands of his best friend and the touch of God.

If a dragon truly was as smart as a man, and it felt an earnest need to repent, could he criticize it? A dragon had no eternal soul to be saved, it is true, but neither did he. Giovanni did not think he would be rewarded for his virtue, but he felt that, blessed as he was with a man’s intellect, he owed it to himself to try. Could a dragon be any different?

“I suppose…it would be possible,” Giovanni said. “If the dragon wished it…truly wished it in their heart to do good and be virtuous in the eyes of God, I could say no word against it.”

He looked at her curiously as he spoke, brow furrowed. “Though for a dragon slayer, you seem much more an advocate than anything.”

Isabella smiled warmly at him. “Because I wished to see what measure of person such a deceptive pilgrim could be, Brother Wolf.”

Giovanni pulled back, ears falling flat against his head as he bared his teeth. Isabella just continued smiling at him, but beneath the armor and the light perfume he could smell something that had been carefully hidden suddenly blossoming to the forefront, a distinct scent that made the hairs of his tail stand straight.

Fire and brimstone.

“You…” Giovanni said. “You’re the dragon of these hills.”

“That I am, pardon the deception,” She bowed cordially. “Though my name is Isabella, that part is no lie.”

“Does Wilhelmina know?” Giovanni asked. “That you…”

“That I exist?” Isabella said. “She’s quite aware. I’m the reason she sent you here in fact. She wanted to know if a figure such as yourself could see the reason in what she does letting me stay in my lands.”

“You…you’re attempting to be a pious dragon?” Giovanni said.

“I am,” Isabella said. “I see no reason for bloodshed between myself and Wilhelmina. If we were to come to blows the only outcome would be bloody for both of us, and I now serve a…much higher purpose, just as you do.”

“And what purpose is that?” Giovanni asked.

“I serve to test all these knights and dragon slayers,” Isabella said.

“A test?”

“You see, after Wilhelmina killed her dragon, people came from far and wide to prove that their settlement could do it just as well as Barcelona. All of these young men and women flushed with pride went out seeking monsters to kill to prove themselves, seeking to be Wilhelmina’s equal.”

“Not because the monsters were evil…” Giovanni nodded as she spoke. “But to try and improve their own standing.”

“The sin of pride,” Isabella said. “I would not have it in these people of faith. If they came to hunt me, and I found a knight of noble bearing who feared for their homeland and their faith, I would reassure them and send them on their way to protect their homes instead of venturing on some fool’s errand.”

“And if they were proud warriors who cared more for bloodshed than faith?” Giovanni asked.

Isabella smiled, perhaps a bit too toothily. “I am still a dragon, after all.”

“I suppose you have me trapped then,” Giovanni smiled. “While I don’t approve of that, I did say I could not speak out against you.”

“You vowed to your friend to never kill a man,” Isabella said. “I made no such promise after all.”

“Then perhaps,” Giovanni said. “You and I might find much to talk about.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

 

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 41

 

A new phenomenon had spread through the city of Babylon like wildfire. From the highest to the lowest, rumors had started to rise of a new cult, a new power, a new lady to worship. For most, they were easily brushed aside. Rumors like this sprang up all the time. Other cities might need their demons or their gods, but the people of Babylon had Lady Shadiya. What more did they need? Others tried to justify their interest. This new goddess, it was said, was the goddess of beauty and of war. Who was more beautiful than Shadiya? Who was more powerful than Shadiya? It stood to reason that Shadiya was an agent of this goddess’ will, and thus there was nothing wrong with showing interest. Still, they kept this growing faith to themselves, meeting secretly at dusk in the hidden spaces where the cult had started to grow.

To URIEL and other forces of the regime, it seemed more like a plague. The new cult, worshipping what they had thought to be the defunct goddess Ishtar, was spreading faster than they could purge it. The cult was organized and developed, using changing password, semi-independent cells, and a constant rotation of temporary worshipping places to keep the hounds forever just behind their heels.

Keeping things that way was Asha’s job. She’d spent the past few months working with Freny and Hazif to determine the best methods for keeping them underground, even in the very heart of enemy territory. She was grateful she had a spirit’s resilience, as she’d often gone days without sleep making sure everyone knew where they needed to go and keeping URIEL and Shadiya’s monsters off their trail.

Freny had proved herself even more valuable than they had hoped. She was their spy and their first contact when it came to determining how to react to URIEL’s movements, allowing them to keep always one step ahead of the monstrous tyrant.

“Asha.”

She had been walking down the street, eyes alert but mind lost in thought as she traveled from one task to another, always a little on edge. She whirled around and saw Hazif behind her.

“Hazif?” She asked, but he didn’t stop, pulling her along as the two of them walked down the street at a quick pace.

“Not here,” he said. “It’s bad.”

Asha nodded, going quiet as she followed him with hurried footsteps, fast enough to be quick but not so fast they’d draw attention. Together the two of them walked to an old and shabby looking apartment building and unlocked the door. Through the front room and into an old storage closet they moved, glancing around to make sure curious eyes weren’t following them. Inside the closet, hidden under a false floor mat, was a trapdoor which led into their most recent hideout.

“Welcome back you two,” Leyla said, waiting for them in the small space.

It wasn’t much bigger than their first shrine to Ishtar. It was an old room of carved stone about five meters across in all directions. They wished they could build lavish temples and grand altars to Ishtar, but for the time being, these guerilla temples would have to do. Ishtar wasn’t complaining…much. She turned up her nose at most offerings but it was clear she appreciated the recent explosion in worshipers.

Leyla was alone in the room, which meant Freny, Eli, and Constance were out somewhere else. Asha frowned; she preferred knowing where Constance was at all times.

Leyla stepped forward, pulling Asha in for a quick and affectionate kiss on the cheek before they both turned to Hazif.

“So, what’s the problem?” Asha asked, leaning against Leyla.

“One of ours has been captured,” Hazif said.

The silence was so stiff and so sudden they could have heard a pin drop.

“You’re sure?” Asha asked. “A hundred percent?”

“This is from Freny,” Hazif said. “She’ll be out and keeping her head down for a while since suspicions of a leak are high, but she managed to get word to me.”

“Freny hasn’t been wrong yet…” Leyla said, the worry clear in his voice.

“Then we have to go under the assumption it’s true,” Asha said, voice hardening. “Do we know who it was? Any chance it was Eli?”

“No, I managed to reach Eli an hour ago,” Hazi said. “It’s not one of the higher-ups, just a new guy who got careless…or someone who tried to turn us in.”

“If he or she was that desperate…” Asha said. “But we can’t deal with motive right now.”

“You’re right,” Leyla nodded. “We need to figure out exactly who they were and what they know.”

“The answer to that is ‘too much’,” Hazif said. “We need to spread word to lay low and abandon all sites now.”

“That’s extreme,” Asha said. “If we drop everything now it could take another month to put it back together. It would almost be like they destroyed it to begin with.”

“But the people will be alive,” Leyla said. “It’s hard but…we need to play it safe.”

Asha let out a sigh. A month of work at least, gone. “Alright…spread the word. We’ll-“

She was cut out by the muffled sound of a door being slammed open above them, shouts and screams as heavy boots moved into the apartment above the dimly-lit stone chamber.

“Damn,” Hazif said. “We’re out of time.”

“Are we secure down here?” Leyla asked.

“Not even a little,” Asha said. “They probably have some kind of monster to sniff us out.”

“Then we need to break out swinging,” Leyla said.

“Great,” Hazif muttered. “I’ll just go ahead and die then while you two bravely charge in weapons drawn.”

“Just stay close and we’ll be fine,” Asha said. “We’ve managed to cover for Eli, haven’t we?”

Leyla moved to the trap door, quietly unlatching it as Asha moved to the entrance, letting her essence spread as wings formed on her back.

She waited, poised to jump beneath the hatch as she heard the noise of guards and their chained beasts move through the building above them, followed by the slow creak as someone opened the supply closet. She stood there, one hand against the trapdoor until she felt it depress slightly, the weight of something standing atop it.

Summoning her energy and putting her arms above her head, she launched herself into the air with enough force to slam the trapdoor from its hinges and barrel into the closet, smashing whatever had been standing on it against the ceiling. The inhuman squeal and the sudden scrabbling of claws told her it was one of their monstrous hunting beasts, and Asha wasted no time crushing it against the ceiling.

A URIEL guardsman stood in the doorway, dumbstruck for the briefest second before raising the rifle in his hands. A single hard boot to the chest sent him flying across the hall and crumpling against the wall.

“Let’s go!” Asha shouted down the hall before rushing out of the closet.

Leyla was the first behind her, his flaming sword in hand as he ran into the fray. The sounds of crashing had called in the other troopers, and Leyla and Asha knew they couldn’t get bogged down in an extended engagement. Instead they worked together, pushing towards the back door with Hazif close behind them. Leyla was the close-combat specialist and took the front, his curved sword cutting through anything that got close enough. Asha moved behind Hazif, taking up the rear and using her bow at close range to take down anything in sight.

The backdoor led out into a narrow alley, and waiting for them were three more URIEL troopers and a monster bred for siege. It was huge, barely able to fit in the alley and looked like a stocky two-headed minotaur with scaly skin and sharp teeth. The troopers drew swords, clearly believing Asha and Leyla were spirits or just trying to avoid friendly fire. They were piled tight in the alley, the monster down one end and the troops down the other. Without sparing a word Asha and Leyla split, Leyla rushing for the troopers as Asha struck at the monster.

The barrel-sized fists of the monstrous creature both came down with enough force to shatter pavement. Asha flapped her wings, flying back as she drew her bow, arrow flying to stab through the monster’s chest.

The beast seemed to hardly notice, trying to snatch her out of the air with surprising speed. Asha needed to keep low to avoid being spotted across the city, swerving low to slip through his fingers before pulling back another arrow to fire into his neck.

The second arrow dug deep, calling up a torrent of black blood that sent the beast into a rage, fists swinging wildly as they gouged great holes in the buildings in either side of the alley, scaled hands tearing easily through brick and stone. Spirit or not, Asha had no wish to see what they could do to her.

With the beast enraged, Asha knew she needed to end this quickly. It charged forward, putting Leyla and the other troopers at risk of being trampled. Asha drew back one more arrow, aiming carefully before it flew from the bowstring and dug deep into one of the creature’s four eyes. One head went slack, as did an entire half of its body. The beast toppled, one leg and arm still thrashing as it tried to right itself with only half its body. Another carefully drawn arrow, and Asha put the monster out of its misery just as Leyla had finished the troopers with his sword.

“Well, now that you’ve both shown off,” Hazif said. “Let’s leave.”

“Just stay close,” Asha rolled her eyes, grabbing Hazif by the sleeve as they sped off into the town, the sounds of battle no doubt bringing half the city’s guard down on them.

Both Asha and Leyla were quick to conceal their weapons and pull their essence, trying to blend in among the crowds as the streets swarmed with troopers and beasts, all of them rushing this way and that in a flood like they’d never seen before. People were being pushed off the street and ordered home as a new crackdown began.

It was around dusk when the fires began burning.

“That was the base beneath third street,” Hazif said, watching the light and smoke of a massive building fire rise into the air. “They’re finding more and more of them.”

“Maybe they’re not bothering with capture anymore,” Asha said. “Either it means they think they found them all or they want to intimidate us into staying quiet.”

“They haven’t found us all,” Leyla said. He’d been talking to a young man in a long robe, who hurried off into the darkness as Leyla turned to them. “I’ve got word of another cell making it out. That’s…more than two-thirds of known associates accounted for. This could have been much worse.”

“That’s almost a third unaccounted for,” Asha said. “And a very angry goddess when she learns most of her shrines have burned down.”

“This is the price of rebellion,” Hazif said. “I told you since the start to expect something like this.”

“If we’re going to be a rebellion,” Asha said. “Then it’s time to start acting instead of just waiting and reacting. This hit us badly, and the next one could hit even harder.”

“What would you do then?” Hazif asked. “Challenge Shadiya to single combat?”

“No,” Asha shook her head. “Not yet…but it’s time we started showing URIEL that we’re not going anywhere.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The snake and the Mirror

The Wolf and the Dragonslayer

 

“This must be the Barcelona settlement,” Giovanni said as they approached the tall reinforced palisade before them. All around them were the crumbling remains of old Barcelona. The city, like so many others, was a shadow of its former size and population, but behind the walls he could see more buildings in good repair, smoke from cooking and forging fires, and the high spires of Barcelona cathedral.

“At long last,” Stella breathed a sigh of relief. The journey through the wilds of Europe had been tougher on Stella than it was on him. They had spent weeks at a time camping quietly in the dark woods, hiding from the monsters and living dead that stalked the continent. Occasionally they happened on a friendly settlement, but more often than not they were sent away without food or rest, the people fearful of what outsiders could bring.

Giovanni had taken to disguising himself somewhat. His head was wrapped in a long scarf to disguise his ears, while his tail was hidden in the long monk’s robes he still wore. Stella still wore a nun’s coif but she had traded much of her other clothing out for more comfortable traveling clothes. They walked together as they approached the gate, watching the motion of the guards who stood by the door. The gates were open, but the pair of them were stopped as they approached with a lifted hand from the guard.

“You two. You’re not from the city,” He said.

“How could you know that?” Stella asked. “There must be several hundred people here.”

“Near a thousand,” The guard said. “But not many of them go in and out during the day, and I’ve a keen eye for foreigners.”

“What my friend means,” Giovanni said, stepping forward. “Is that we are from foreign lands, we are tired and seeking respite from the road.”

“Travelers are welcome in Barcelona, of course,” The guard said. “What good people of God would we be if we turned the needy aside? We only ask you go through a simple search procedure. Shapeshifters and strange folk have been a problem for us in the past.”

Stella gave Giovanni a nervous glance, but he simply nodded.

“So long as such a search does not compromise the dignity of my friend here,” He said. “What does it entail?”

“Nothing invasive,” The guard said waving it off. “We have dogs that can sniff out spirits and devils. Nothing gets past them.”

“I imagine not,” Giovanni said. “We will gladly submit.”

They were ushered inside to a guard house near the gate. There another man brought out a pair of hounds on short leashes to inspect them.

They sniffed over Stella, one growling slightly before they were pulled back.

“Don’t worry,” the guard laughed it off. “Most people coming in stink of spirits from the outside. If they were barking, we’d have a problem.”

“O-of course,” Stella nodded as Giovanni stepped forward.

The dogs approached him, and while they set into the same growl, before they could start barking, Giovanni locked eyes with them. Instantly, the dogs were cowed, whimpering and backing off as the wolf put them in place.

“Huh…never seen ‘em do that before,” The guard said.

“Should I be worried?” Giovanni asked, pulling his eyes off of them.

“Doubt it, these boys’d bark at a dragon if they caught one. You’re free to pass.”

“Thank you,” Giovanni bowed his head as he ushered Stella into the city.

“How did you do that?” Stella asked.

“I did nothing,” Giovanni said. “But there is an order to things, and to be a wolf among hounds is to be a king among men.”

“If you say so…” Stella said. “Where are we going?”

“To find a place to stay and some food,” Giovanni said. “Then I plan to find the woman Torleif spoke of.”

“I’d like to meet her,” Stella said. “But if you don’t mind, I think I’ll find a place to take a bath after we get some food.”

“As you wish,” Giovanni said.

They found a nearby inn that had an open room. Giovanni had brought some gold and scavenged supplies along for bartering, and they were given a clean room with two beds for a decent prize, though Giovanni was quick to deny any assertion they’d be sharing a bed. After that they bought a quick lunch at a market which Stella clearly relished. Giovanni had never gained a taste for cooked food, but for Stella’s happiness, he didn’t say anything. After lunch they split ways, Stella going to look for a bathhouse or something similar while Giovanni walked to the cathedral.

There were a number of people milling in and out of the cathedral, chatting and walking as they moved over the steps and into the square beyond. Among them, Giovanni caught sight of a tall woman with braided blonde hair and a set of armor, a sword carried at her hip. More than sight, however, he could smell her. All wolves had a keen sense of smell, but a wolf like Giovanni could catch the scent of things beyond the mortal spectrum. There was something to this woman he couldn’t explain, she smelled like fresh-spun cloth and bright rays of light, but there was another undertone, the distinct scent of blood.

He moved up to her, head bowed as he approached. She was greeting and making brief small talk with many of the people, but he noticed how she held herself stiffly, keeping herself separated as if leaning slightly away from them, creating a noticeable gap in the crowd where she stood.

“Excuse me,” Giovanni said as he approached. “Would you be the woman they call Wilhelmina Koenig?”

The woman looked at him, eyes moving quickly up and down his body before she nodded. “That’s right, are you new to the city?”

“I am,” Giovanni nodded. “I am simply a pilgrim traveling the land where I can along with my companion. I have heard stories of you and I was wondering if I might have a word?”

Wilhelmina looked him over, a second longer than he was comfortable with, and he wondered if she could sense something off about him.

“Of course,” She said. “Right this way.”

She led him quickly away from the grand front entrance of the cathedral, leading him to one of the smaller side entrances, stepping inside as she held the door open for him.

Giovanni could smell a trap, but not a violent one. Stepping into the cathedral, Giovanni would feel compelled to remove the scarf over his head. It was a simple trap, and one he could have easily ignored, but he decided to take a risk.

Slowly, Giovanni stepped inside as he removed the headscarf, revealing his pointed black lupin ears.

Wilhelmina’s eyes widened a little, but her expression otherwise remained set, confirming his suspicions that she had sensed something off about him.

“Will you let me speak?” Giovanni asked as Wilhelmina followed him into the cathedral.

“For now,” Wilhelmina said curtly. “You didn’t try to assassinate me and you didn’t burst into flames when you stepped inside.”

“I was more concerned about covering my head than bursting into flames,” Giovanni said.

“A man should not cover his head in church,” Wilhelmina said. “A wolf wouldn’t need to.”

“But then I would be betraying that I am not a man,” Giovanni said.

“Or just not a particularly observant one,” Wilhelmina countered. “Better to be seen as impious than a wolf.”

“I disagree,” Giovanni said. “But allow me to introduce myself. I am called the Wolf of Gubbio, now I go by Giovanni.”

“Gubbio?” Wilhelmina blinked in surprise. “Saint Francis’s wolf? You’re a long way from home.”

“Very far. My companion and I were on a pilgrimage of sorts. I wanted to find the other bastions of Christendom in Europe.”

“Well, you’ve found one at least,” Wilhelmina said. “And a large one, I like to think…truth be told contact outside the walls has been pretty slim.”

“It’s the largest west of Rome I’ve yet found,” Giovanni said. “But I haven’t traveled too far north.”

“Few have,” Wilhelmina said. “But I doubt you just wandered blindly. How did you find this city?”

“Well, that’s largely because of you,” Giovanni said. “I heard about you and this city from a girl called Torleif.”

“Torleif?” Wilhelmina’s eyes went wide before her face settled into a smile. “I’m glad to hear she reached Rome. I was worried sending a girl alone on her own. Even a girl…like that.”

“She is…a character,” Giovanni settled on. “But she did make it, eventually. Hardly worse for wear,”

“And what stories did she have about Barcelona?” Wilhelmina asked. “She was a lively little girl, with a pagan streak to boot. I want to make sure she’s not badmouthing this city to the rest of the world.”

“Far from it,” Giovanni smiled. “She seemed almost enamored. She wouldn’t stop talking about the woman in Barcelona, dressed like a knight and slaying dragons.”

“I only ever slew the one dragon,” Wilhelmina said. “And it was a narrow thing. Something I’d prefer…never be repeated.”

Her face gained a somewhat strained expression, and Giovanni gave her a quiet moment to recover herself.

“A good part of the sanctuary was destroyed in the attack,” She said. “We lost a few people. Too many.”

“But the dragon is dead,” Giovanni said. “…right?”

“Very dead,” Wilhelmina said.

“It is a noble thing you did then,” Giovanni said. “Dragons are the servants of the devil, and they spread destruction wherever they go.”

“It was a task. I did nothing more than what was necessary…”

“Slaying dragons is something for heroes and saints,” Giovanni said. “It’s not something to be brushed off.”

“I am not brushing it off…I’m just not one to elevate myself,” Wilhelmina said. “TO the people I might be a hero…and I’m no saint…but I did it because if I didn’t, a lot more people would die. The city would be destroyed and…Because it was my master’s last command.”

“Mmm…you are very humble,” Giovanni said. “But I won’t press the matter further. Tell me, are you getting by well in the city?’

“We are doing well, and growing,” Wilhelmina said, clearly a little relieved to change the subject. “We’re looking at solutions to expand the wall soon, it’s getting a little cramped in the city.”

“That’s good…” Giovanni said. “I received word from Rome a little while ago…the people there are preparing a strike on Nidhoggr.”

“Ah, the chaos dragon. Torleif told me about it…in her way,” Wilhelmina said. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure we can spare…”

“Ah no, I wasn’t looking for recruitment,” Giovanni shook his head. “More…I was hopeful. If Nidhoggr is defeated…Rome will look to expand its trade network beyond the Alps.”

“Rome is very far away,” Wilhelmina said. “That’s quite a proposal.”

“Ah but we’re bound by things stronger than geography. Tell me, is there an active archbishop in the city?”

“In Barcelona? Of course.”

“Then I would like to speak to him,” Giovanni said. “It’s time the faith was brought together and made whole again.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 40

 

It was growing cooler by the day, a fact only made clearer by the crisp emptiness of the Piedmont sky in northern Italy. The Alps here dominated the horizon, rising in the north, a visual reminder of the great barrier that separated Italy from the devastation throughout Europe. Here, the long fields of wild grass were interrupted by a forest of white tents, marked here and there by red banners bearing a new sigil. Legio I Capitolina had become famous for carrying the image of a wolf throughout Italy. This camp, however, and its two thousand legionnaires carried the image of an eagle, the sigil of Legio II Aquila.

It had been several months since the official formation of the second legion and the famous duel between Rosaria and Nicomede that had ended with Rosa’s victory. The legion had been armed, armored, trained by the top warriors from the first legion, and then sent north to a forward camp in the foothills of the Alps to begin preparations for what was becoming known as the “Dragon Offensive”. While the soldiers were put through constant drills, tested against captive monsters, and instructed how to deal with the horrors they might face in the north, the ‘Forward Offensive Team’ as they had been named were doing training of their own, though among the soldiers of the second legion they had earned a slightly mocking nickname: “The Champion Unit”.

Cat’s sword struck the hard metal of Rosa’s spear shaft as the redhead easily brought it up in defense before lashing back with a vicious counter. Cat backstepped out of range before rushing forward again, keeping her eyes trained on Rosa as she covered her free hand with ice, holding it back before lashing out with a sudden flurry of blinding ice crystals. As Rosa tried to rub them from her eyes with her arm cat pushed forward, only to be stopped as something hooked around her collar from behind. Cat felt herself pulled from her feet and thrown bodily away from Rosa, landing in a roll as Rosa recovered.

“Got your back, Rosa!” Torleif grinned, standing firmly planted from where she’d thrown Cat, Rosa moving beside her with spear in hand.

“Good save, kid,” Rosa grinned as Cat rolled back to her feet, looking around for her own backup.

“Megame, you were supposed to keep her busy!” Cat shouted as the shrine maiden hurried to her side.

“Sorry!” Megame apologized profusely. “She’s really small and hard to keep a hold of!”

“Don’t call me small!” Torleif hurled her hammer at the pair of them and Megame rushed forward, hands glowing like the sun as a person-sized shield of cascading light formed in front of her, deflecting the hammer with enough force to send Megame grinding a few inches back as Torleif’s hammer spun wildly off-course into the air.

“Rush her!” Cat said, knowing they only had seconds before Torleif remembered to recall her hammer. The pair of them charged forward, Rosa moving to intercept them as Torleif hung back a few steps. Cat engaged Rosa, sword meeting her spear as Megame darted off to the side to flank her, only to be caught by Torleif who lunged at her, still unarmed but using her immense strength to send the shrine maiden bowling over.

As Cat and Rosa resumed their duel, Cat caught a sight of something out of the corner of her eye. From half the field away she saw Gisela, bow drawn, leveling an arrow directly for her. Cat prepared to dodge, disengaging from Rosa, only for Nicomede to rush between her and Gisela, followed a moment later by the sound of an arrow being deflected from a shield.

“Thanks Nico!” Cat said, pushing her advantage on Rosa as Nicomede covered her flank. Torleif reached out a hand as she entangled herself from Megame, calling her hammer back to her hand, only for Megame to roll forward, summoning a shield as the hammer was deflected again.

“Stop that!” Torleif shouted, rushing to retrieve it by hand when Megame to grab her heel. Torleif was strong but still light, and tumbled easily onto her front where she had trouble getting leverage.

Megame drew another one of her charms from her sleeve, slamming it into the ground as the grass and roots began to coil around Torleif’s arms and torso, binding her in place.

“Just stay right there for a moment,” Megame said, moving back to Rosa as the glowing light on her hands reformed into claws of sunlight spreading from her fingers.

Cat lunged for another attack, only to be knocked off balance as Nicomede was pushed roughly against her side. Gisela had abandoned using her bow from a distance, slamming herself hard enough against his shield to send him backing into Cat. Rosa seized the moment, spear thrusting forward only for Nicomede to pivot to face her, deflecting it with his shield as Cat rushed past him to engage Gisela at close range.

Cat’s sword flashed as it swung against the black bludgeon that Gisela’s bow had changed shape into. Gisela lashed out with a sweeping kick, only to find her leg caught in a patch of growing ice over the ground as Cat pushed forward, hammering at her defenses with her sword as she forced Gisela back on the defensive. Megame and Nicomede were both on Rosa, forcing her to back up as they tried to attack her from either side.

A blast of lightning from down the field signaled Torleif freeing herself from Megame’s trap, recalling her hammer to her hand as she rushed in to back up Rosa. Nicomede stepped in to block a hammer blow meant for Megame, sending both of them crashing backwards as the force of it sent him sprawling over her.

“Sorry…” Ha managed, a bit flustered as he pulled himself off the shrine maiden and helped her to her feet. The shift in combat had slowed Cat’s assault, enough for Gisela to regain her footing and her speed as she began her counterattack. Her bludgeon and legs slamming against Cat every chance they took as Cat was forced to draw more of her magic from her ice and into her body to match Gisela’s champion speed. As Megame and Nicomede re-engaged Rosa and Torleif, Cat could see what Gisela was doing. She was pulling Cat away, trying to keep her focus away from the others, as she had with Nicomede, but if Cat backed up now Gisela’s counter-attack would likely put her out of commission entirely.

“Nico!” Cat shouted. “Shield!”

Without even a question, Nico released his shield and tossed it to Cat who caught it loosely in one hand. Without strapping it on she didn’t have all its utility, but she could do enough. Maneuvering around Gisela she lunged forward, shield raised, as she forced Gisela backwards towards the group. Gisela managed to pull away from the charge but Cat continued forward until she was engaged with Rosa again, bringing the six of them together into chaotic melee.

A small crowd had gathered to watch the display of skill, magic, and divine power as the two teams sparred relentlessly, weapons colliding and magic flashing as they broke apart and reformed again and again. They would have continued longer, perhaps as long as they could, if it hadn’t been for a sharp voice cutting through the air.

“Time!”

All six of them pulled back, magic fading and weapons lowering as Hildegard walked onto the field. While already impressive, her ascension to being Nike’s champion had made her a radiant presence on the field. The color of her hair and skin seemed more vivid, and she seemed surrounded with an eternal kind of glow, particularly in her eyes. It made her stand out even before she manifested Nike’s wings during battle.

“We almost had them!” Cat objected, even as she sheathed her sword.

“Pfft, you wish,” Rosa said. “Nice try though.”

“I was pulling a lot of those hammer blows!” Torleif said. “If I went all out we would have won in the first minute!”

“We were all holding back,” Megame said. “We are friends after all.”

“That’s half the reason I told you not to perform these split-team matches.” Hildegard said, arms folded. “It only teaches you how to fight each other and coordinate half the team, not to mention you won’t be holding back against Nidhoggr’s forces.”

“It’s not like we can train against monsters,” Rosa said. “We’ve thinned them out all over this area and the captive ones don’t last long enough against the six of us. Besides we switch off teams to learn how to coordinate.”

“And yet you and Cat always seem to end up on opposite sides,” Hildegard said, a frown still across her face.

“Alright, alright, point taken,” Rosa said, turning to the rest of them. “Team dismissed! Training’s done for the morning.”

As the group began to disperse Cat walked up to Rosa, keeping pace with her as they moved off the field.

“Wanna go out for lunch?” Cat asked to which Rosa shrugged.

“Sure.”

“Something on your mind?” Cat asked as she moved them towards the mess tent.

“Just thinking through that fight, seeing a few issues.”

“I think I know what you mean,” Cat said. “Torleif forgets she can summon her hammer to her half the time.”

“Well yeah, but other than that…” Rosa said. “Gisela’s still not working well in a team. Nicomede has trouble holding ground with his shield up when he’s one on one.”

“We’ll be fine,” Cat smiled. “We’ve got a tough commander to whip us into shape after all.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Rosa smirked. “It’s still a pain when you’re that commander.”

Together the pair of them got some food from where it was being handed out and took a seat at a makeshift table under the sky.

“But what about you?” Rosa asked.

“Huh? Me?” Cat looked back at her curiously.

“You’ve been acting weird,” Rosa said. “A bit fidgety. Plus I keep baiting you into one-on-one and you keep falling for it.”

“Well that…” Cat went off, burying her food in her mouth to stifle the silence. She had managed an excuse by the time she was finished swallowing.

“Just nerves I guess.”

“If you say so,” Rosa said. “I mean I get it, but it’s not your normal way of dealing with stress, you know?”

“Not normal?”

“Well, sure,” Rosa said. “Normally when you’re stressed you get angry, or frustrated, or something Nowadays you seem…I dunno, scared of us.”

“Uh…”

Cat seriously hoped Rosa wasn’t looking too closely at her. They’d all been travelling together and working as a team for months. It had meant Cat was with Rosa pretty much every hour of the day, and all of that exposure had only confirmed what she’d been worried about for several months now.

Rosa, Cat had realized, was tough, effective, kind, and a bit of an ass in a likable way. She was also incredibly attractive, and had the body of an Amazon. It hadn’t taken long for Cat to realize that she’d fallen head over heels for the stubborn redhead.

This had been revelation enough. Cat had become aware she preferred women to men when she’d been quite young. She’d always been the knight saving damsel in her imagination after all; and that damsel had never been a man. She’d stifled a lot of that when she was younger, as it was a mage’s duty to continue the bloodline, though with the Days of Revelation that restriction had been lifted for the most part. But she had never in her life ever been attracted to a specific person like this.

Alicia and Asha might have been cute, but Alicia was straight and Asha now had her own…slightly confusing thing going with Leyla, and neither of them had stoked a fire in her quite like Rosa had. Cat spent months in between hating Rosa for making things complicated and wanting to throw herself at her. The only result of that conflict had been a lot of awkward pauses at meals and in conversation that Rosa seemed either to ignore or get confused by. Cat didn’t even know what Rosa’s preferences were; she couldn’t tell whether her aggressive flirting with Nicomede and Evangeline was legitimate or just teasing, and she wasn’t sure how to bring it up without potentially damaging the friendship they had. It hadn’t been an easy friendship to build to begin with.

“So uh…” Cat began. “Sorry just…a lot of pressure, you know. How about Nicomede? He still doing fine with the team?”

“Hmm? Nico’s fine as ever. What’s up with you, Cat?”

“Ah well…” Cat steeled herself. “It’s just, uh…”

“Catarina.”

Cat nearly jumped in her seat as she turned to see Angel stepping towards her. The winged wolf had traded out her more casual attire for a somewhat more armored appearance, complete with silver helm with holes for her long wolfish ears.

“Ah! Come on…Angel, what is it?”

“You are about to have a visitor, I did not want them to catch you off-guard.”

“Too late for that,” Rosa chuckled as Cat’s face burned.

“Who is it?” Cat asked, defeated.

I do hope I’m not interrupting anything important.”

Cat blinked as she recognized the source of the familiar voice. A tall willowy woman in long dark robes and unnaturally bright teal eyes and hair. Huldra, the witch she had met in the dream battle against Nidhoggr stepped forward to join them, standing at Angel’s side.

“I have some news that might be of interest.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The End of the Road

 

“All aboard!” The ship captain’s voice rang out over the small docks as the last of the sailors brought their cargo aboard. It was a decent-sized sailboat, much of the cabin emptied out to make room for cargo and supplies, one of countless ships like it that ran much needed goods from island to island throughout the Caribbean and beyond.

“Excuse me?” A small voice caught the captain’s attention, and he turned to see a frail-looking young woman standing on the docks. She was in a pitiful state, half-starved, bruised, and clothes that looked like they’d been dragged through jungle mud for ten miles or more. Her black hair was barely restrained in a ragged braid and one of the lenses of her glasses was missing, leaving an empty frame.

“We’re casting off now, Miss,” the captain said. “Nothing left to trade. We’ll be back in three weeks’ time if the weather’s good.”

“Ah, that’s just it…I was hoping to buy some space on your boat,” She was shaking almost like a leaf, but her voice remained somewhat steady.

“Ah, a passenger then. I think we might make a little room if the price is right.”

The girl fumbled through her pack and at her pockets for a brief moment, clearly not the type to have much. Eventually, she unhooked her belt and offered up a thin rapier kept on a sheath to him.

“Even if it’s not much for monster-killing,” the girl said. “It’s made of high-quality steel. I’m sure someone can find a good use for it.”

The captain looked them over, first the sword, then the girl.

“It’ll do. Climb aboard then we set sail within the hour.”

Relief broke across the girl’s face as she bowed her head. “Thank you, sir.”

The captain took the blade from her, carrying it over his shoulder. “Just try not to get underfoot, Miss…what’s your name then anyway?”

“Gisela,” She said. “Gisela Silva.”

 

As a ghost in her memory, Cat watched as the younger Gisela climbed quickly aboard the ship, trying to keep a low profile as she scurried to the stuffed cabin below. Always trying to keep from getting in the way of the sailors as they began preparations to cast off.

“So, this is how you left the mainland?” Cat asked the apparition of the older Gisela beside her. “Got on a boat and sailed off?”

“It is what we had agreed on,” Gisela said.

“You could have tried going back for her,” Cat said. “I would have tried…”

“What would that have gotten me, Catarina?” Gisela asked. “Noemi sacrificed herself so I could escape. Trying to rescue her would have been insulting everything she tried to give me.”

“You don’t know she died,” Cat said. “You might have been able to-“

“Look at what I was, Catarina,” Gisela cut her off, gesturing to the girl on the boat. “I could barely keep myself standing. I hadn’t had any real food in days and I’d been on the run for weeks. All I could have done was get myself captured and killed. Sometimes staying alive is all you can afford to do.”

Cat fell silent as she continued to watch the ship being readied, sails unfurling as they cast off from the dock, carrying their cargo out towards the sea.

“So where are you going?” Cat asked.

“The ship was sailing for Cuba,” Gisela said. “I would have taken it anywhere, so long as it was far away.”

They stood on the dock, watching the ship move out of the harbor under a clear sky.

“You know…” Cat said, watching the ship leave. “I’ve been wondering about a few of these memories.”

“Hmm?” Gisela gave her a questioning glance.

“There seems to be a lot of things you couldn’t have seen or been a part of like…you’re below decks on the ship right now, right? How do we know what the sky looked like, or the view from the docks?”

Gisela remained still, but Cat could have sworn she saw a smile tug at the edges of her lips.

“Smart. I’m glad you’ve started noticing that.”

“Well, I noticed it for a while,” Cat said. “I just assumed you were embellishing a little.”

“I wish it was as plain as that,” Gisela said. “This is the last memory I have for you, and soon it will all be made clear.”

“Seriously, the last?” Cat asked in surprise.

“One more,” Gisela said. “On the ship.”

Once more the memory began to change, the white fog rolled around before clearing again. Cat found herself standing on the deck of the boat, almost feeling the cool ocean breeze as it rolled over them, carrying swiftly across the sparkling blue Caribbean waters.

“It’s pretty at least,” Cat said, looking out towards the horizon.

“It is,” Gisela nodded. “This is a beautiful part of the world…I’d like to see it again.”

“Get away from all us annoying Europeans,” Cat grinned. “I can see the appeal.”

Looking out towards the horizon, Cat watched the distant clouds rolling over the western sky, dyed gold and crimson by the lowering sun. Cat narrowed her eyes a little, watching what seemed like tiny spikes on the water, black against the red sky. As she watched, they began to grow larger, rising higher slowly into the sky like the fins of approaching sharks.

“Are those…”

“Sails off stern!” The call went off across the ship as people rose to the alert. One lanky shirtless sailor brought his binoculars to his face, looking out towards the horizon.

Cat looked at Gisela, whose face was once more fallen into stony silence.

“Red sails!” The man cried out, voice cracking slightly.

Cat saw the color drain from the captain’s face. The younger Gisela slowly crawled up from the hold, her eyes haggard as terror began to grip her face.

“Full sail!” The captain roared. “We have the wind with us! “

“Those ships are far away…” Cat said. “It’ll take a while for them to catch you, right?”

“Under normal circumstance it might take days,” Gisela said, her expression hardening. “But these are not normal waters, and those are Aztlan blood pirates.”

She glanced at the horizon, watching the sun begin to set. “Something darker than sails propels those ships, and wherever they appear the Night Wind rolls in across the waves.”

Even as she spoke, the sails of their boat seemed to collapse, caving in as the wind turned in an instant, slowing them as the ship began to lose its cutting momentum. The sails of the ships behind them, however, still seemed full, and they were gaining rapidly.”

“Pirates?” Cat asked. “They’re here to loot the ship?”

“It’s not just the cargo,” Gisela said. “Aztlan blood pirates are…efficient. They’ll take the cargo for bounty, they’ll take the supplies to keep raiding, they’ll take the ship to join their fleet, and they’ll take the crew for the blood that flows through their veins.”

Cat swallowed as she watched the sails, bright red against the sky, cut through the wind to bear down on them.

“So, what do you do against pirates like that?”

The ship’s captain rallied the men. Those who weren’t busy navigating or working the sails drew knives, guns, and sharpened boathooks into their hands. Even Gisela was pulled forward, the captain thrusting her sword into her hands.

The clouds had followed the Aztlan ships, rolling overhead like a massive stone-grey wave across the sky. Both of the pirate vessels outsized the small cargo ship, and Cat could see magic fires burning on their decks in vivid blues and greens as they drew closer, casting the silhouettes of their crews into strange dark light.

The young Gisela braced herself on the lines of the ship, sword in one hand as she watched in terror as the twin ships overtook their own, one on either side.

For a moment there was silence as the crews traded hateful glance, before it was broken by a shrieking war cry. Dozens of raiders and soldiers leapt or swung across the gap between ships and the deck erupted into melee. The young Gisela tried to run where she could, ducking, rolling, and clawing away from the swinging weapons and shrieks of fury and pain as combat broke across the length of the ship.

“I think I knew this was it,” Gisela said, watching her younger self struggle. “Nowhere to run or hide, no one left to save me, and I didn’t even have the strength or courage to fight.”

The younger Gisela moved towards the bow, only to be grabbed forcefully by the collar by one of the Aztlan soldiers. As she struggled weakly to break free, hitting his arm with the pommel of her sword, both of them were thrown off balance as the warrior was tackled by one of the sailors, sending him to the deck as Gisela stumbled off the boat and into the cool darkening waters.

Gisela gasped and spluttered, choking on the rush of salt water as her arms thrashed. Her arms began pulling her through the water as her feet kicked furiously, carrying her away from the dueling ships as fire was launched from the deck of the Aztlan raiders, burning through the sailors of the small trading ship.

Barely managing to tread water, limbs still weak, Gisela watched as the fires burned through the sails and cargo was hauled up from the captured ship.

“Nowhere to go, no one to help,” Gisela said as they watched from the water. “What can anyone do but sink?”

Cat watched with growing pity, like something was squeezing her heart as the young Gisela thrashed at the water as long as she could. Whether it was exhaustion or simple despair she couldn’t tell, but the fire left Gisela’s eyes and without even a splash of water she sank beneath the waves.

Cat’s ghostly form sank beneath the waves with her, watching Gisela sink into the darkening clear water. Suddenly, in the quiet water, another shift seemed to occur. She saw the front of Gisela’s shirt pull suddenly upwards, as if an invisible hand had taken tight hold of it and yanked upwards.

The young Gisela’s eyes opened in surprise, bright and surprised, her glasses having been knocked off her face as something began to tug her back towards the surface.

“Rise, child.”

Cat shivered, a cold voice echoing through the water as she saw the ghostly shape of something move around Gisela, a shimmer in the light like a heatwave under water.

“The cold lord of the ocean depths will have many souls this night, I would not give him yours.”

Gisela was still rising slowly, too slowly, as the force pulling her upwards seemed to weaken with her weight. It seemed almost as if Gisela wanted herself to sink. The forms in the water grew more solid, tendrils of air that slithered like serpents, weaving and binding until they coalesced into the shape of a skeletal clawed hand. Once more the voice echoed through the water, a sharp hissing voice that echoed from behind sharp teeth.

“All the ocean can give you is death, child. Take my hand, bind your soul to mien and I can give you a future. Power, strength, and the knowledge fit to reshape the world as you always wished it to be. All you must do is take my hand.”

Gisela’s mouth opened, bubbles rising through the water as she coughed and gagged in panic. Cat saw the despair in her eyes, the terror coursing through her before with a slow grasp she took tight hold of the ghostly hand and let herself be pulled upwards once again before she finally broke the surface. Cat rose with her, seeing her gasping for breath as she was kept afloat.

The choppy water had grown still, the clouds had cleared and all sign of the ships had vanished leaving only the mirror-calm sea and the stars overhead. A shape moved in the darkness, the night sky shifting and warping as a new dark form came into being.

For an instant it seemed human, Cat swear she saw the silhouette of a tall woman appear before that was wrapped in layer after layer of rippling feathered cloth. Within the cloth, pale bones took form, assembling into the shape of a great robe-dressed skeleton. Its body was bedecked with jewels and gold which, upon closer inspection, was comprised of slithering hissing serpents with glimmering scales. Massive wings, dark wings of an obsidian butterfly, filled the sky and blotted out the stars. The great skull-head, filled with needle-like teeth and covered in wiry hair, stared at her with empty eyes that burned with starlight.

“Do you accept my gift, child?” The terrible goddess asked. “I have watched you from afar for some time. I have seen you run, struggle, and crawl. Your will is strong, the will to live stronger than all. Will you take life before death?”

“I-I do!” Gisela gasped. “Please!”

“Then take my many gifts child,” It reached out and placed a bony sharpened fingerbone against her forehead. “And do what you must to save this world with the power of Itzpapalotl, the Obsidian Butterfly.”

Cat watched Gisela’s eyes go wide, her body stiffening before beginning to shudder, her pupils dilating before beginning to shiver.

The older Gisela moved to Cat. “This is how I learned what I know now,” Gisela said. “It was delivered to me in pure form at the hands of a goddess. But few of the gods here are kind.”

Gisela screamed, eyes wide as Itzpapalotl kept her finger pressed against her skull, unable to escape or seek relief or do anything but scream in pain as ancient knowledge was decanted into her mind. With nothing around save for the water, Gisela’s screams seemed to echo for miles around.

“It was like having my mind rewritten with a dagger,” Gisela said. “New knowledge roughly hewn over the old. A million words in a thousand tongues, all with dozens of meanings all of which I was made to know.”

Eventually the screaming of the younger Gisela began to fade, still floating in the cold water. Cat leaned in, and could see a change had come over the young girl. She still didn’t look quite like the Gisela she knew, Still a bit too young, too unhealthy, and too afraid. But she now saw the familiar glimmer of violet in her eyes.

A piece of wooden flotsam floated by which Gisela swiftly and desperately took hold of, fingers curling around the damp wood.

“Now then, Champion,” Itzpapalotl said. “Do you know what you must do?”

Gisela looked up at the goddess, and now for the first time Cat saw the familiar hard-eyed expression on her face.

“I do.”

If the terrible skull face of the goddess could smile, it did.

“Good. Then start moving, the world awaits.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 39

 

It seemed it didn’t matter where she went these days, Noemi was getting used to being either aboard a rocking creaky ship or running through the underbrush of a jungle. After running off from Nicolas, Noemi had followed the bare markings that made up the trail of a human, doing the best she could with what little she had before her. A footstep in some dried mud, fabrics caught on thorns and bark, or the remains of a campfire here and there kept her going deeper into the jungle.

It seems odd that your sidekick, from what you’ve told me, would go this deep alone, Noemi.

“Well, maybe she found a spirit of her own. I don’t know how she got here but…look, even if it’s not her, we’ve come this far. We should see it through!”

I suppose. Though what will you do if it is not her?

“I don’t know…probably talk to whoever is leaving this trail, I guess. They must be good at surviving. Maybe they’d be willing to travel with us, or at least get us in contact with spirits…”

Yes. The local spirits here feel…oddly tranquil.

“They probably haven’t had much happen to stir them up as of late.”

Noemi hadn’t been paying much attention to the spirits as she ran through the jungle. Most seemed to just shuffle out of her way, scurrying beneath the leaves and vines to hide. Others watched with curious but passive interest as she charged forward, ignoring them. They were certainly less aggressive than the spirits in Tess’s jungle had been, though there she had no idea which ones were spies for the jaguar.

Perhaps she should have paid them a little more attention, though. Noemi’s foot caught on a vine and sent her tumbling to the ground, right beside a number of spirits who swiftly took the form of birds, flocking away together, chattering and calling to one another. She could feel the hair on her arms and neck rising as she pushed herself off the ground, spitting out mud.

In Tess’ jungle, that would have been a death sentence. Here, it was just carelessness. Still, carelessness was unacceptable. Noemi cursed herself silently under her breath, as she started to run again. She could feel Ophidia’s presence pushing her forward, as the previously quiet jungle started to fill with sounds.

All the animals, large and small, joined in the cacophony around her as Noemi winced. That…didn’t seem to be a good sign.

Now they are no longer tranquil.

“Is that…sarcasm?”

An observation.

“It is!”

I would be careful, Noemi. With everything so…active, it is hard to get a sense of what is ahead of us.

“Yeah…can barely hear anything over these screeches. Stupid birds!”

Pay attention, Noemi. You are getting careless…

“Right…Sorry…”

Noemi shut up and stopped running, moving slowly through the brush. It might have been late, but her instincts and her habits from surviving in the rainforest were starting to return to her as she took a moment to recover. The spirits were active now, sure, but she could use that to her advantage. It means that it would be as hard for others to hear her as for her to hear them.

She drew her machete from her belt. The weight of it felt familiar in her hands, and helped her slide easily back into the cunning survivalist mindset she had before. She pushed her red hair out of her eyes, the strands sticking to her skin, sweaty from the humidity. Noemi swung the blade, clearing a path as quietly as she could, even as the jungle made noise all around her.

The feeling in the back of her mind, that they were being followed and stalked, never went away though, even as she continued along the trail. Eventually, the jungle gave way to a small clearing around a pond. Noemi looked around, but there was no one. No black-haired girl…

Stepping out from the foliage, her machete raised, Noemi slowly approached the pond. The water was flowing into it from a small creek, it seemed to have some fish swimming beneath its surface. Noemi wondered if perhaps the water spirit had seen any other human, if she could tell her where Gisela might have gone.

“Guess we should see if someone’s home…”

I do sense a spirit nearby but…Noemi. We’re not alone!

“What do you—” She didn’t even finish the sentence before she heard the soft twang of a bowstring. Actually, she felt it before she heard it, her instincts warning her of the danger before the arrow had left the bow. Falling to the ground, she rolled forward, raising her machete in front of her as she took a knee.

Men started to step out of the forest, wearing dark greens and blacks, though decorating themselves with the feathers and fur of animals. Most were carrying bows, though some held swords in their hands. They all bore the symbol of the jaguar on their cloak. Servants of Tezcatlipoca, an Aztlan raiding party…they had reached even here.

Noemi swore under her breath, her eyes darting around like a cornered beast. They were all around her, and there was nowhere close enough to take cover from their arrows.

She could hear the sound of a woman laughing. Stepping from the shadows came what seemed to be a priest, dressed in the raiment of the Jaguar, the black skin of the beast draped over her head. The priestess continued to laugh, though there was a deeper, louder chortle underneath her haughty airy one.

You’ve made it far too easy,” she said, the strange echo on her voice. Noemi’s face blanched.

“Tess…”

“That and a thousand other names.”

“How…How did you…?”

“You think my influence so meager, my power so thin, that I cannot reach this far? I told you before that there was nowhere you could go that I could not find you, no shadow dark enough for you to hide from me. Aztlan has no boundaries, -I- have no boundaries. The village was already under my control, before you set your feet upon the sands.”

“How!?”

The priestess grinned, and for a second, Noemi thought she could see the face of the young girl who had once traveled beside her in the priestess’ dark smile.

“Fate, I suppose. The spirits know to keep an eye out for you or your ‘sidekick’. When you washed ashore, it was not long before my priestess was informed. I knew you would not think before rushing off after your precious Gisela.”

“Gisela…”

“Is not here, girl, and you will never find her. Your search has ended, and I plan to make good on that promise I made you.” The priestess sauntered over and Noemi could almost feel Tezcatlipoca’s power coursing through her body. She ran her finger down Noemi’s chest, eyes dark and burning with divine light. “Your heart will make a fine meal for…what’s this now?”

The skin over Noemi’s heart started to glow a faint white, the color of Ophida’s feathers. The priestess’…no…Tezcatlipoca’s face split into an even wider grin.

“Oh ho, what a treat. So this is how you escaped my forces in the jungle before. You found yourself a patron, just like poor Anton. An imitation god for an imitation hero,” Tezcatlipoca said, wrapping her fingers around Noemi’s throat, cutting off her air. “An ancient shadow of my fallen brother. You’re not even a goddess anymore, little snake. I would hardly deign to give you the honor of sacrifice but…I suppose you’ll make good fodder.”

The long, soft, fingers of the priestess loosened their grip on Noemi’s throat. Noemi sucked back in air, rubbing her throat gingerly.

“Bind her and prepare her as a proper sacrifice. I’ve waited too long to simply devour her here. I want to savor the last beats of her heart.”

Noemi was still gasping for breath as the soldiers started to grab her, throwing her to the ground as they pinned her arms behind her back. They didn’t bother being gentle as they tied her arms together, tightly so that she could barely move them, before slipping a collar and chain around her neck.

Noemi pulled against the collar but as they yanked on the chain, she found herself unable to breathe again and was forced to stumble forward. She glared at them all, even as they led her through the island jungle towards their camp.

“Ophida,” She said silently, thinking it rather than speaking. “Do you think you can get us out of here again?”

I cannot. I’m afraid I’ve grown too diminished, and there are none of my winged serpents here upon which I can call.

Noemi grimaced. Ophida didn’t say it, but Noemi was blaming herself anyway. After all, she had made the choice to come here over helping Jormungandr or even staying behind to build a cult for Ophida and make the spirit stronger. She had bet it all on finding Gisela and now…Well, it had gotten them here. Captured and with no power between them to break free.

“I’m sorry, Ophida…”

I understand, Noemi. It is…unfortunate. But know, that I did enjoy our time together.

“Thanks. I…I haven’t been a good champion for you, but…I really am sorry. I wish I had been able to see it more clearly before now.”

There is nothing we can do now, Noemi.

“Yeah…”

She felt the tug of the chain on her neck, bringing her out of her inner thoughts. Noemi let out a groan as the metal dug into her neck, glaring at the Aztlan soldier who held her chain.

“No escape for you, not even into your own thoughts, prisoner,” he grinned at her, looking pleased with her capture and degradation. “We’ve got to get you prepared for your sacrifice.”

“Oh, please, don’t let me stop you there,” Noemi said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

They pulled her forward, dumping a bucket of water on her head, scented with some sort of flower she didn’t know. Noemi grimaced from the shock of it. “…You are such a princess, Tess! Perfumed water, really?”

“That’s Tezcatlipoca, slave! He has demanded very specific preparations for you.”

Noemi spit on the ground in front of her, some of the perfumed water leaving her now scented lips. “Thought I was a sacrifice. So just slit my neck already, cut out my heart, and be done with it.”

The guard glared at her, but he continued to prepare her, stripping her out of her worn, raggedy, clothes and giving her a fresh dress. Noemi rolled her eyes, but didn’t struggle as they slipped the dress over her, briefly untying her bonds. She considered throwing a punch and making a run for it, but that was just likely to lead to more torture before they had the grace to kill her.

“There, just as the Jaguar demanded.”

Noemi was dragged towards the altar in the center of the camp, where the priestess stood, a knife in her hand as she voiced the words of prayer to the Jaguar. Noemi sighed as she marched, the crowd parting for her.

As she started to climb the steps up the altar, a loud screech came from the jungle, followed by hundreds of weaker shrieks. Noemi looked up, as dozens, if not hundreds of bird spirits took to the skies above the canopy of the trees, flying above the clearing where the Aztlan hunters had made their camp. She could hear the grunting and snorting of angry boars in the trees, the cracking of snapped bark.

“The spirits, they’ve been disturbed!” The priestess shouted, her voice human again. “Oh, great and mighty Jaguar, pacify these unruly, urgh!”

The priestess’ hands went to her throat, blood pouring through her fingers as her voice failed her. The animal spirits charged out from the trees into the camp in a rush of claws and talons, stampeding over the Aztlan soldiers. People went flying towards the branches, which grabbed those unfortunate few, pulling them into the shadow of the leaves.

Noemi’s jaw dropped open as she watched, her hands still bound together. The soldiers drew their swords and grabbed their bows, trying to fight off the forces of the jungle itself.

“Boss!”

Her head whipped around as she heard her name being called. There was Junko, riding on the back of a giant boar spirit, throwing knives at any who sought to block her path. The Asian girl reached down with one hand and grabbed the redhead, pulling her onto the back of the spirit as they continued to barrel into the jungle, leaving the sounds of the chaos behind them.

“…I thought the cavalry was supposed to be horseback. This is one strange looking horse,” Noemi joked, though her voice came out forced.

“Thank god I wasn’t too late. When I heard Nicholas say he sent you into the jungle…”

“What are you doing here, Junko?”

“I told you I had my own business, boss. But…I needed to get out too, hid away on a ship to Cuba. Been here a couple of months.

“…the Dutchman…It must have…”

“Come on, we’ll get you to a port, get you out of here before Aztlan can recover.”

“…No,” Noemi said, with confidence in her voice. “I’m not going anywhere. I said I was going to stop running but…I haven’t been doing that, I’ve still been letting Tess run me through a maze like a rat. We’re freeing this island from Aztlan.”

“Ehh?! Boss…That’s not going to be easy, they’re already here!”

What of Gisela, Noemi?

“I made a mistake! I let my desires get in the way of my responsibility. Things only got worse when I went off searching for Gisela. They’ll only keep getting worse if I don’t do anything and then it will be too late to stop them.”

“So…what are you going to do, boss?”

“We’re going back to the village, Junko. I’ve got a new cult to sell to the people.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Broken Crown

 

It was around midnight in Rome. The city was, for the most part, quiet. A few places might still be bustling on the busier streets, revelers and night-owls out for the excitement of the evening. There was also the occasional sign of the Night Guard, out on their nocturnal patrol as they moved through the city in hunting pairs.

For the most part, however, the city remained asleep and quiet, precisely how Angel preferred it.

Angel had often confused Capitolina whenever she told her that she saw better at night. Even for a wolf it was easier to see and track and hunt during the day, but for Angel, the clear crystalline starlight gave her the clearest view of creation. On nights like this, when the air was crisp and clear and the sky was full of stars, Angel could see for thousands of miles, to the very limits of her waning vision. On nights like these, she could pretend she wasn’t weakening.

Her vision had receded more and more as the years passed, since she was thrown from her former perch. Her powers as a Primordial were drifting away as she became less the Eagle and more the wolf. It was a fact she had come to accept, not easily but with resignation. Within a few years, the last of her power would be gone.

“My, my, how strange it is to find a wolf brooding like a gargoyle.”

Angel whirled around, eyes blazing with light. Two figures had snuck up on her from behind; that alone was reason for alarm. It took effort to hide from Angel. It was almost impossible to sneak up on her.

Her alarm faded somewhat as she recognized the faces of the two figures. They were witches of a particularly peculiar breed. She was more familiar with the taller of the two: Huldra. The shorter one was likely her associate and elder, Hecate.

Still, she wasn’t alarmed, but she didn’t let down her guard. Huldra had unleashed Nidhoggr, and for a moment hatred coursed through Angel’s entire body. This witch, this creature, was responsible for her downfall.

Another moment and the hatred passed. Angel knew better, she knew that Huldra had been compelled by Nidhoggr’s hold on her. And Nidhoggr’s hatred for Angel had been entirely Angel’s own doing.

“You two…what do you want in this city?” Angel asked.

“How uncivil, you make it sound like we almost aren’t welcome,” Hecate smiled, flashing a youthful smile under ancient eyes.

“Our goals are the same, wolf of Rome,” Huldra said. “The re-imprisonment of Nidhoggr.”

“It can’t be done,” Angel said. “Nidhoggr’s prison was shattered, the bonds of fate placed on it shattered. Another way must be found.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Hecate smiled. “We’ve been having some chats with a friendly squirrel we found. One familiar with the layout of Nidhoggr’s arboreal tomb.”

“Squirrel…” Angel paused then her eyes went wide. “Ratatoskr? He’s alive?”

“Mending,” Huldra said. “He was dying of his wounds in Nidhoggr’s old prison.”

“He also speaks in riddles, it takes some time to work out what he means,” Hecate said. “But we had a score of witches who are all too clever by half, no riddle can resist us for long.”

“Ratatasokr speaks according to his nature,” Angel said. “And he is a messenger, unused to speaking his own words.”

“But what he has told us is intriguing,” Huldra smiled. “Our group has begun preparing the spellwork he’s described.”

“Spellwork?” Angel asked.

“The reconstruction of Nidhoggr’s prison,” Huldra said. “To recreate it would require a massive alteration in the web of fate. It’s no easy task, and impossible for anyone who doesn’t seek the ire of the Norns.”

“So, we decided ‘hey, they hate us already, why not?’” Hecate added. “Plus witches love a challenge. This is going to be some pretty stupendous work.”

“I am…surprised your number care so much,” Angel said.

“Our kind has been toying with fate as long as we’ve existed,” Hecate said.

“Another reason,” Huldra said. “Is…I suppose it’s guilt. I was not fully responsible for Nidhoggr’s release but…I cannot simply ignore the role I played. I am going to right this wrong as best I can.”

“That is admirable of you,” Angel said. “But I do not understand why you need to bring this to me. Catarina perhaps, or Capitolina, but I have no role to play.”

“To the contrary,” Hecate’s smile never faded. “You were the most intriguing riddle of them all.”

“I’m a riddle?” Angel asked.

“One put to us by Ratatoskr,” Huldra said. “And that stumped us for quite a while.”

“The broken crown, the shepherd among wolves, the light in the darkness,” Hecate said, repeating the great squirrel’s words. “It took us quite a while indeed to work out what it all meant. But now we know, it’s not a literal crown but the crown of a tree. The shattered perch you were thrown from, the eagle who guides wolves like a shepherd, the light that first started burning in the darkness.”

“The biggest detriment, of course, was that none of us knew you were still alive,” Huldra said. “I thought you had been killed by Nidhoggr at the start.”

“Nidhoggr came close,” Angel said. “I only barely survived the fall.”

“It’s quite a ways to tumble, no doubt about that,” Hecate said. “But still, knowing your alive gives us the advantage once again.”

“An advantage?” Angel asked.

“You are a Primordial,” Huldra said. “One diametrically opposed to Nidhoggr’s essence. You could be the keystone of the entire operation, a seal forged with your essence is a seal the dragon could never break.”

“Whether that is true or not,” Angel said. “I’m afraid you may have come too late. I’m losing power rapidly, I doubt I could put much of my Eagle’s essence into anything.”

“Seems to be true,” Hecate playfully tugged at one of Angel’s wolf ears. “She’s more Lupa than Aquila, as the Romans say.”

“We can still work with that,” Huldra said. “The barrier around this country…I should have recognized it the first time I came here. That’s a barrier formed by your essence, not dissimilar to what we need.”

“That barrier was made using the tools of a forge god,” Angel said. “And even still…it won’t last forever. We don’t have the resources to make anything more permanent.”

“I think you underestimate the resources you have,” Hecate said. “More than the legions and your champions, this city has three pantheons of gods backing them. Put your Pontifex to work, it’s time to start asking favors.”

“Three?” Angel asked. “Is the Norse pantheon coming around?”

“What’s left of it,” Huldra said. “But Freya has made contact with the Olympians. I plan to dig up old connections to make contact with Odin again.”

“We’ve been trying to get pantheons to cooperate for years,” Angel said. “We’ve met with consistent failure.”

“The tide is starting to turn,” Hecate said. “Those of us still attuned to it can feel the shift in the wind. This campaign against Nidhoggr is the first real push back, and the gods are starting to realize they need to capitalize on it.”

“And you say you need me,” Angel said.

“We do,” Huldra nodded. “Your essence, your spirit, whatever remains of the Eagle in you will be necessary.”

“How did you even find me?” Angel asked. “I covered my tracks.”

“Not all of them,” Huldra smiled. “The girl, Catarina. I knew her sword was an oddity, but when I knew I was looking for you it was easy to deduce; the same goes for the shield around Italy.”

“When did you…” Angel began to ask before nodding her head. “Ah…of course, the dream.”

“That’s right,” Huldra smiled. “Cat brought her sword with her into the Dreaming to face Nidhoggr, and when she did she brought a little of you with her.”

“What part will she have to play in all of this?” Angel asked.

“In all likelihood, she’ll be the lynchpin of the entire thing,” Hecate said. “That girl has more threads of fate woven into her than some small countries. I haven’t seen anything like it since antiquity.”

“That sword carries a permanent piece of your essence,” Huldra said. “It will be the key to Nidhoggr’s prison, but we will need your help constructing the lock and the bars to hold it there forever.”

Angel was quiet. She was quiet for a very long time as her mind worked. This could be her last chance, the very last thing she could do to help the war against Nidhoggr before her strength as a Primordial abandoned her entirely. A seal, a cage for the dragon, would stand as a testament to what she had been, a last eternal mark left on the world by the great Eagle before its wings finally vanished. It would be vindication for a life that was finished. But it would also be her final admission that there was no going back.

Doing this would likely mean burning through the very last vestiges of her power. If she wanted a seal that would last forever, even with the aid of multiple gods of multiple pantheons, it would leave nothing left for her to keep for herself.  The Eagle would be gone, and her wings and her sight gone with it.

She thought of Catarina and the group she had gathered to her, of the legions being assembled and the thousands preparing to march north and fight. She had seen mortal armies marching before, seen millions die on battlefields across the eons and mocked the pointless waste of life, the senselessness of mortals sacrificing their already brief lives. But she wasn’t the Eagle anymore, she was a wolf, and she was among them now. She could see them as she never had before, their nobility and their courage. If all of them were prepared to give everything, even their lives to stop Nidhoggr, then she had to do the same.

“Very well,” Angel said. “Where do we begin?”

Both Huldra and Hecate smiled, Hecate stepping forward. “We’ll need a spell to work the land, weaken the borders between worlds to make a portal big enough to force Nidhoggr through. We witches might be able to pull something like that together.”

“We’ll need chains as well,” Huldra said. “Stronger even than the chords that bound Fenrir, something to lash Nidhoggr to the roots of the World Tree.”

“Then we’ll need forge gods,” Angel said. “I know one, and the champion of another.”

“Then we’ll need the seal,” Hecate said. “A spell or artifact to bind Nidhoggr to Helheim. Seek out the Egyptians, they were good at keeping their Primordial trapped in their underworld.”

“Pontifex Nora and I will see to it,” Angel said.

“Last but not least, the most obvious.” Huldra said. “Get Catarina to Nidhoggr, and make sure she wins.”

“I do not know how much of that I can assure,” Angel said. “But…I will do everything in my power to make it so.”

“Good,” Hecate smiled kindly at her. “How’s it feel, Angel, to be the one Primordial on the side of humanity?”

“Mmm…” Angel was quiet again for a moment. “I can’t say…not because I don’t think I’m on their side but because…I don’t believe I’m a Primordial anymore.”

“Maybe not,” Huldra said. “Maybe you’re not an Eagle anymore, but you’re a good wolf.”

A portal formed from starlight opened behind the two witches as they moved to leave.

“We’ll be in touch,” Huldra said. “Rally your strength, wolf of Rome, we will need every ounce of it to win.”

Angel watched in silence as they departed before turning her eyes back to the stars. She wouldn’t be the Eagle anymore, unable to see across the worlds with a simple flick of her eyes. She wouldn’t be able to tell when the stars were right or wrong, but maybe she would be able to see them as mortals did, full of possibility and beauty.

She wouldn’t be an eagle, Angel doubted she had more than a few years of flight left in her even without this mad plan, but even if she couldn’t fly, she realized, she could be free. For now though all of her thoughts would need to go to Nidhoggr’s defeat. The end was coming soon.

 

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 38

 

“All I’m saying,” Constance said, the infuriating smile never leaving her face. “Is that you two took an awfully long time to negotiate with Ishtar.”

“She’s a goddess,” Asha shrugged, refusing to give the demon any satisfaction. “It took some time to work things out fully.”

“Certainly, but four hours? I’m surprised she could manifest for so long.”

“I don’t think the particulars are your business,” Asha said stubbornly. “Point is we have it done. We now have Ishtar’s support in taking Babylon.”

“It is a good start,” Rachel said. “Well done, both of you.”

“Well, we definitely couldn’t have done it alone,” Leyla said.

“You two played your parts quite admirably,” Constance said. “one would almost think you were romantic partners.”

“Watch it,” Asha growled, leaving Leyla with a slightly exasperated smile.

“It was a group effort, like he said,” Eli said. “Though again…thank you both for everything…although speaking of group, it’s been a while since we’ve heard from Hazif, hasn’t it?”

A worried silence went through the room.

“He was aware of the risks,” Rachel said. “It was not an unexpected outcome if he failed.”

“We’ll wait another day,” Asha said. “Give him twenty-four more hours before we…decide anything.”

A knock at the door, however, caused them all to glance its way.

“Seems that might not be necessary,” Constance began to glide towards the door before Asha cut her off, moving ahead of her to pull the door open.

Hazif stood in the doorway, his hair and clothes slightly ruffled but seemingly otherwise unharmed, hands idly at his side and his face neutral as Asha’s eyes wandered to the much more noticeable figure behind him.

Freny was slightly crouched, as if hiding behind him with her hands on his shoulders, glancing at Asha and the room beyond with suspicious red eyes. If she was trying to hide it was a failed gesture. Her thick boots, and clawed hands, along with the tall horns and long sinuous tail, were all clearly visible behind Hazif’s slender frame, but the way she was attempting it seemed almost…protective, like a nervous dog.

Asha didn’t hold back, letting her magical energy flow free as she stood barring the doorway, her voice calm as she regarded Hazif.

“Morning,” he said casually. “I’m back.”

“So I see,” Asha said. “With someone in tow.”

“See?” Freny hissed into Hazif’s ear. “She’s getting ready to attack.”

“Calm down,” Hazif sighed. “I told you she’d react like that. It’s only natural.”

He turned back to Asha. “Right…she insisted she come along if I was to negotiate on her behalf. She also just doesn’t like being away from me.”

“I do!”

Hazif gave a brief snort of laughter. “She’s calmed down, she also left her sword behind at her hideout. So she’s unarmed.”

“Still plenty dangerous,” Asha said. “But…for now, come in, better than just standing on the landing with a dragon girl.”

“True enough,” Hazif smile slightly, leading Freny inside as Asha shut the door. As they walked into the main room, all the people waiting regarded Freny with mixed suspicious glares, save for Constance who maintained her usual mischievous and almost vacant smile.

Freny shared the expression, her eyes narrowing as they passed over Eli.

“I killed you,” she said firmly, almost accusingly.

“You did,” Eli nodded. “It just…didn’t stick.”

“That’s…annoying,” Freny settled on. “Dead people normally stay dead.”

“Yes, I’m weird like that,” Eli said. “Sorry to disappoint.”

Before she could respond, Hazif put a hand over Freny’s shoulder and pulled her in. To their surprise, the gesture seemed to send her into a flustered shudder. Her eyes darting away as she sank into his grasp.

“Fine…” She said. “I’ll accept it for now…Hazif said I should be more…accepting.”

“What did you do?” Leyla asked. “She seems almost…”

A glare from Freny caused Leyla to cut his sentence short, but she was soothed again by a gentle stroke of the hair between her horns.

“Freny is hardly ‘tamed’ or ‘fixed’, I just helped her broaden her perspective a little. She’s now a bit more willing to accept that she’s different, and since we’re different too we might have a few things in common.”

“I’m doing it for Hazif,” Freny said. “Not for any of you…but I won’t kill you right now.”

“Brilliant,” Asha said. “I suppose that will be good for now. Do you think she-“ Asha was about to ask Hazif a question before deciding to direct it to Freny herself.

“Freny, we do a lot of dangerous things, and while that might not bother you, we do them in opposition to Shadiya, who you…serve?”

“I know,” Freny said. “I’m not dumb.”

“Well if you want to be here…with Hazif I might add,” Asha continued. “Then we’ll need some kind of assurance you won’t just turn on us the second we get back to Babylon.”

“Mmm…Hazif told me you’d say that,” Freny said. “I can tell you…where the URIEL bases are.”

“We found the base already,” Leyla said, pointing at Constance. “It’s where we picked up this one.”

“You found one,” Freny corrected him. “I know the others. The places where they make monsters. Where they made me. And where they made Shadiya.”

“Wait…” Asha said. “URIEL made Shadiya? I knew they were trying to control her but…”

“Shadiya was human,” Freny said. “So was I. We were taken and…changed, mixed with monstrous blood and magic. I can show you when we get there.”

“It’s still a lot to trust,” Leyla said. “Hazif…will you vouch for her?”

Hazif looked at Freny, who looked back at him with an expression Asha couldn’t quite quantify. Was it desperation? Affection? Fear?

“We can trust her,” Hazif said. “There’s no mind-control on her. And she’s not evil just…raised and taught differently.”

“And you’re willing to fight Shadiya’s forces, Freny?” Asha asked, folding her arms over her chest.

“Shadiya offers me lots of things,” Freny said. “She gives gold but I don’t want gold. She lets me hunt but then gets strict about who or what I can hunt. She offers me boys but none are as nice as Hazif.”

“Well, all we can offer is Hazif,” Asha said. “And a chance to fight URIEL and Shadiya’s mosnters whenever they’re in our way.”

At this, Freny flashed a rather unsettling shark-toothed grin. “That sounds more fun than hunting criminals.”

“Uh huh…”Asha nodded, passing a worried glance at Hazif, who gave Freny another pat on the shoulder.

“We all need to show a little restraint now and then, dear.”

“Unless we’re trying to lure in some deity,” Constance grinned.

“Zip it,” Leyla snapped. “Point is…are you able to hold back unless one of us tells you not to, Freny?”

“Mmm…fine,” Freny settled on, leaning against Hazif. “I suppose I can agree to that.”

“What managed to convince you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Eli asked.

“Hazif,” Freny said. “He managed to convince me that all of you were…good people. Shadiya had told me that she was a good person but it never really seemed that way…”

“No surprises there” Leyla said.

Freny continued. “Mmm…it seems kind of dumb when I say it like that,” Freny shifted nervously from one foot to the other, clearly not used to speaking in front of people, or speaking at all for that matter. “I don’t know…Hazif?” She looked at him with a brief pleading look, clearly relying on him to finish for her.

“Yeah, Freny’s not great on philosophy or public speaking,” Hazif said. “It took me a few hours to work out what she wanted. She’s not dumb, she’s actually quite bright, just with a fairly…unique perspective as I’ve come to understand it.

“See, Freny is basically conditioned to be a pack predator. She thinks in those terms, like a wolf or a lion. She saw Shadiya as a sort of ‘alpha’ I guess you could say, but the thing is Shadiya doesn’t hunt, at least in a way that Freny here is used to.”

Freny nodded along with his words.

“So, I told her about our group; to her, we’re a more…appropriate approximation of a wolf pack or a lion pride. We work together, we cover each other’s’ weaknesses, and Leyla and Asha at least are fighters who regularly go ‘hunting’.”

“I saw as much the last time I met you,” Freny said. “Shadiya said I should expect you to be strong…so you might make better friends than her.”

“Freny doesn’t really have the whole morality thing down yet,” Hazif said. “So she’s not in this for the people or for justice. But I don’t think that should stop us from receiving help from a very valuable woman.”

Freny smiled at him before nuzzling into his neck, and Asha tried to stifle a groan. She and Leyla at least had decided to be subtle about their future relationship.

“Well…that is better than nothing, and I suppose it makes sense,” Eli said.

“Agreed, and now that Hazif is back, with Freny no less, we can start making our plans towards the future,” Leyla said. “Now that we have some backing I think it’s time we made our way back to Babylon.”

“Agreed,” Asha nodded. “We head to Babylon within the next few days. Freny, you’ll travel a bit behind us so you can look like you’re still chasing us. The rest of us will-“

“We will not be going,” Rachel said idly from her chair. Asha paused before asking.

“Umm is that we as in the group or…?”

“That is we as in this person,” Rachel said. “Our place is here in Damascus, though we will continue to offer our support.”

“You’re sure?” Asha asked, receiving only a calm nod in reply.

“Alright, well…” Asha said. “Eli, Hazif, Leyla, Constance…the five of us will go on ahead and set up a new base of operations. Once we’re in the city and we can meet with Freny…I guess it’ll be time to start our rebellion.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Dragon Heart

 

It was about mid-afternoon in the city of Damascus. The sun was getting lower and the clouds had cleared, the market was full of people getting their last-minute supplies for dinner, and Hazif was fairly certain he was going to die.

He had a slight inkling as to where the woman sent to hunt them, Freny, would be. Being half-spirit gave him a number of spiritual senses he couldn’t quite put into words. Freny was an aberration, and he could sense her with something halfway between a keening noise and a smell. Still, being able to track her down was only the first part of a task that would, in all likelihood, see him dead before the sun had set.

He followed what trail he could make out to the ruins of an old sand-clogged apartment building along the edge of the border wall. Normally a place like this, a bombed-out ruin with several remaining stories, would be a haven of vagrants and the desperate just looking for shelter or a place to congregate, but as Hazif clambered up a brief ramp of rubble he found the dark interior was entirely empty. There were signs of past habitation in the graffiti and the ash marks left by poorly-constructed fires, but there was little else. The interior was stark and barren, concrete floors and pillars with large holes here and there in both floor and ceiling. Any walls that existed were also concrete, and the stairwells were nearly falling apart.

More than that, however, was an almost overwhelming sense of dread that poured over him. It was, he realized, what had likely driven out any previous inhabitants. It was like entering a dark forest at night, a place where you had the constant sensation of being hounded by a predator. He was tempted to reach for the knife at his belt, but he kept his hands at his side. Any act of aggression, real or perceived, could be the deciding factor in whether he lived or died.

He started towards the nearest stairwell and began to ascend. If he could avoid it, he didn’t want to confront her in the darkness of the lower levels, particularly when an errant blow from an inhumanly powerful aberrant could bring the whole thing crashing down on them. He moved with slow deliberate steps up the stairs, one at a time, hearing his own footsteps echo in the concrete stairwell around him. He listened, ears ready to pick up the slightest noise, and he paused mid-stride just in time to hear another foot come down on the concrete stairs above him before silence. That wasn’t an echo, there was someone else coming down the stairs.

“Before you attack,” Hazif said loudly. “I would like to talk.”

Hiding would have sent her into a hunting mood; he needed to approach this calmly, and never show her a vulnerable side that would tempt her to attack.

There was silence in the stairwell above him. The view was narrow so he couldn’t see how far ahead she was, but she wasn’t getting closer. For now, he had her attention.

“Talk?” Hazif was surprised, her voice was slightly higher than he would have expected. Almost light and airy rather than the low contralto he had expected of a woman tinged with draconic blood.

“Talk, converse, just you and me,” Hazif said.

There was another long pause before she spoke again. Still she was out of sight, likely one level above him.

“You are alone?” She asked. There was an odd cadence to her voice as well, a slightly stilted and unnatural way of speaking.

“I think you know I am,” Hazif said. “You wouldn’t be talking if you thought this was an ambush. It’s just me, alone and here to talk.”

“And who are you?” Freny’s response came more quickly this time. Hazif allowed himself a smile. He’d made contact and he was still alive. That was a good start.

“My name is Hazif,” He said.

“And why did you come here, Hazif? Did you come to die?”

Hazif’s smile fell a bit. He was far from out of the woods with this one.

“No,” He said back to the echoing stairwell. “I would like to avoid dying, if at all possible. I came to learn more about you.”

“There is nothing to know about me,” Freny said, her voice cold as it bounced off the barren concrete walls.

“Now I don’t believe that,” Hazif said. “There is plenty to know about everyone. I would just like to know a little more about you in particular.”

“And why is that?” Came Freny’s reply. There was no hint of curiosity in her voice, just a cold routine. “To gain some advantage in combat? You will fail.”

“No, that’s not it,” Hazif said more hurriedly. He needed to get closer, to look her in the eyes. “I just want to talk…and I think we can do so more comfortably than this.”

“Comfortably?” Freny asked.

“Yes,” Hazif said. “Facing each other like…well not like human beings, but like people. One on one, face to face, you know?”

There was another long tense silence that hung in the air between them. Hazif waited, holding his breath, wondering if he should move up or flee while he had the chance. He had to focus to keep his heart from hammering. Freny was likely not the most stable of creatures. It was hard to tell what might offend her.

There was the sharp loud sound of a footfall on concrete. Then another. Hazif recognized the sound of someone coming down the stairs with slow deliberate footsteps. Hazif moved to the landing at the base of the stairs and waited until he saw Freny’s dark silhouette come into view at the landing above him, illuminated by the dim sunlight coming down from the second floor.

She was tall…very tall he realized. She had been crouched low or at a distance on the rare instances he had seen her before, but standing straight and this close he could tell that she was above six feet tall, and that was before taking her horns into account. Her skin was the color of chalk, pale and unhealthy and only exacerbated by her coal black hair that hung in unkempt sheets around her head. Her eyes were a smoldering dark red, a color present in the tall curving horns that rose from her forehead and the scaled claws where her fingers should have been. She wore a loose shirt and jacket, both black and with quite a bit of tearing. Combined with a skirt and tall boots that were similarly worn down, Hazif wouldn’t be surprised if the clawed hands didn’t give her some difficulty dressing herself. Slung over her shoulder was the familiar and enormous sword with an edge like a saw blade.

Freny stared down at him with a steady unblinking gaze and he returned the expression, keeping her eyes locked on his as he began to stoke his spiritual essence like a furnace.

What he could do wasn’t mind-control, far from it. Just as a person could light a fire from a candlestick, Hazif could exacerbate the lust in someone’s mind from a glimmering spark into an inferno. But there had to be something there first, that was the tricky part. And even if there was, the less that was there, the harder his job and the more obvious his intentions. If he wanted to seduce this woman, he’d have to do most of it the old-fashioned way.

Hazif took a deep breath, this was not going to be easy. He put on a casual smile, not overly-wide or eager, but just enough to lower the tension and throw her a little off-balance.

“See? Much better, now we can see each other. Makes for much better conversation.”

“Does it?” Freny asked, and again there was no curiosity in her voice. Hazif was going to have to work a little harder.

“Of course,” Hazif smiled. “I can see your expressions, your face, and you can see mine.”

“What has that got to do with anything?”

“Plenty,” Hazif smiled, and he put a step forward onto the stairs. He saw her hand twitch, but he kept his eyes on hers. He couldn’t be timid now, but he needed to telegraph his movements so she wouldn’t be surprised. He didn’t want this dragon on edge. Very slowly he began to ascend.

“Humans don’t always like it. I think that’s half the reason they invented phones personally, but you and I are something different.”

“We are.”

Hazif had to wonder a moment if she had asked a question or not.

“Indeed, we are,” he nodded. “And surprisingly similar. Neither of us human, just…about halfway there.”

“Shadiya says they are halfway to me.”

Hazif was caught off-guard by the casual use of the name. No ‘my lady’ or ‘my queen’ just a blanket ‘Shadiya’.

“Heh, that’s another way to put it.”

Step after step he drew a bit closer. She stayed on the landing but edged aside, leaving him room to pass as he walked until they were on the same level. There was no tension in her stance, but no relaxation either. She was at a perfect neutral, as if waiting for him to do something to respond to.

“Were you made in a lab too?”

The question caught him off-guard, and it was the first question she had asked where he sensed genuine curiosity behind it. Hazif’s smile grew as he continued to walk, and he was pleased to see that she followed him, a long sinuous tail hanging in the air behind her.

“No, I was made the old-fashioned way…well, sort of,” Hazif said. “But I came from a mother’s womb.”

“Oh…” Freny seemed for a moment almost disappointed, though it was only apparent in her eyes.

“But the way I see it,” Hazif said quickly. “Where you were born ultimately doesn’t mean much.”

“It doesn’t?” Freny asked, and more and more he could sense something breaking through her.

“Of course not!” Hazif said, a bit more loudly as they existed the stairwell into the sun strewn second floor. “Life began after I left the womb, and suspect it began for you when you were pulled out of a tube!”

“I…” Freny thought it over, bringing a clawed hand to her chin. “I…can’t remember anything beforehand.”

“Precisely,” Hazif said. “So that just goes to show how little it matters. Sure, it brought you into the world, and I bet you’re as grateful for that as I am, but it hasn’t got a whole lot to do with the rest of your life, does it?”

“…” Freny seemed conflicted, following Hazif almost automatically as he moved towards the great empty windows looking out onto the city. In the light, he could better see her face, the way her pale skin and the shiny scales of her claws gleamed. She was frightening to be sure, and plenty inhuman, but she couldn’t be called…entirely unattractive.

“The tube told me to serve Shadiya,” She said finally. “That makes it important.”

“My mother told me to eat my vegetables,” Hazif said. “I still try to follow that advice from time to time but I’m my own man, you know?”

“Your…own man?”

“It means I own me,” Hazif said. “No one but me tells me what I do. Sure, I can break the law and get arrested, or I can pick a fight and get beaten up, but no one made me do those things. I chose to do them.”

Freny looked at him, more closely than she had. Before she had been watching his movements, looking for an attack or a threatening gesture. Now she was more inquisitive, trying to look deeper into him, to see more. She’d taken the bait.

Still, talking to her, listening to her hesitation and simple speech, he didn’t…despise her. He didn’t like to think of what he was doing as entrapment. She seemed more…confused and naïve than malevolent. She simply didn’t seem to understand him at all.

Hazif was more familiar with that kind of confusion than he was comfortable with. Being inherently attractive with a seductive gaze was all well and good when you were trying to bed a gorgeous noblewoman or entice a lordly man. But no one likes to think about an incubus’ gifts when they’re an uneducated and orphaned teenager, living on the streets with barely any social sense or wits beyond survival. It was the kind of naivety the predatory and the cruel were eager to feed upon.

“So, Freny,” he said, when the silence had gone on long enough. “Are you busy tonight?”

“Busy well…I’m not busy now,” It would have been a coy phrase if she hadn’t delivered it with such straight-faced earnestness. Hazif couldn’t help but smile.

“Then I hope you don’t mind my company for a little while.”

“I…don’t mind.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa