Lines in Sand
April 9th, 2024
The desert seemed to stretch on for an eternity, nothing but mountain-like yellow sand dunes and barren waste in all directions, the only marks of life being the occasional spot of withered scrub casting small black dots of shadow on the overwhelming barrenness of the earth. It was nothing but empty blue above and empty sand below, the blue sapphire coast of the Mediterranean far behind them now. The carpet was large enough for both of them to sit, stand, or lie down comfortably, but the trip was beginning to wear on both of them.
“Are you sure this thing knows where it’s going?” Rosa asked impatiently, arms folded and legs crossed on her ‘side’ of the carpet.
“I’m sure it does,” Cat said stubbornly. “Scheherazade told it where to go, she wouldn’t send us to the wrong place.”
“Well, she sure as hell knew how to send us to the deserted end of nowhere,” Rosa said, glancing over the side. “There’s nothing down there but sand. I don’t see a fort or monsters or anything.”
“Well, it’s just one fort,” Cat said. “It’s not exactly going to be huge, is it?”
“I dunno,” Rosa said. “I’m trusting you on this, probably too much.”
Cat ground her teeth. Rosa might not be as awful as she had been, but contact even for this long in a confined space was getting to be a bit grating. They fell into silence again as they stared out over the desert. The altitude and the magic of the carpet meant the heat wasn’t unbearable and they had a steady breeze in their faces. Cat had to admit she liked the way Rosa’s bright red hair streamed out behind her, catching the sunlight between the strands.
“I thought there wasn’t supposed to be this much desert,” Rosa said.
“Huh, wha-?“ Cat shook her head, pulling her eyes away from Rosa’s hair.
“The desert,” Rosa frowned. “Like, I know everyone thinks of the desert around here, but then all those smart-ass map nerds would say things like ‘oh but there’s really a lot of fertile land out there!’ and stuff like that. But I’m not seeing it. No roads or towns or either. Just…nothing.”
“Mmm…” Cat had to admit she was on to something and gave it some thought. “Maybe…maybe it’s the Primordials? Like Nidhoggr in the north, the ones out here are causing the desert to grow.”
“I guess…” Rosa said. “Gotta say…I’m not scared of monsters but this kind of stuff? I mean…there could have been whole cities down there and now they’re just…gone. It’s creepy stuff, y’know?”
“Ya…” Catarina nodded, thinking of her own abandoned home on the outskirts of Rome, and of all the small towns no doubt left in ruins by Nidhoggr’s scourge. “Well…that’s part of what the legions are doing, right? Taking that land back?”
“I guess,” Rosa shrugged.
“Have you ever thought about joining the legions, Rosa?” Cat asked. “You could be the best there!”
“Nah,” Rosa “I guess…I guess I’m more like your sis. I’m better being thrown against the big ugly stuff than standing in a formation line. I guess Capi could put me at the head of a column, but I’m not about to stand in one.”
“Heh, I guess that makes more sense,” Cat smiled. She glanced over the edge of the carpet and saw a shadow in the desert that she was sure she hadn’t seen before.
“Hey Rosa, you see that?” She asked.
“See what?” Rosa moved over to her side, looking over the edge.
“That shadow down there.”
“Ergh…just look. There! Where my finger’s pointing!”
“I don’t see it. Is it just a mira-Oh! There it is! There right, by that bunch of trees?”
“You weren’t pointing there at all!”
After a few back and forth accusations both of them saw that the shadow was not stationary. What had at first appeared to be a simple hill of sand began to move at rapid speeds across the desert.
“What is it?” Rosa asked.
“Looks like…think it could be something moving underground?” Cat offered. “Like Wormsign?”
“Like what?” Rosa looked at her incredulously.
“Like…grr…forget it, it’s from a book. Point is it might be a monster moving under the sand.”
“Well it’s moving in the same direction as us,” Rosa said. “Let’s hope that’s a sign of something.”
Cat nodded, and together they sped across the desert on the carpet in pursuit of the hulking mass moving under the sand.
In less than an hour the mass was joined by other shadows on the desert, the lumbering shapes of hunched giants with bestial heads, fearsome looking wraiths and revenants that shuffled with impressive speeds, and a veritable zoo of other monsters all converging on a point ahead of them.
“I have a feeling we’re getting close,” Cat said.
“It’s just one fort,” Rosa said. “Can’t these assholes just go around it? What’s stopping them?”
“Magic probably,” Cat shrugged. “I don’t know how it works.”
“Whatever it is it must be close.” Rosa said, peering out over the horizon. “…Ah! I see something!”
Looking out in the same direction, Cat squinted against the sun and saw the dark silhouette of a low structure on the edge of the horizon. As it drew closer, the outline of walls began to appear, and Cat knew they had reached their destination.
“There it is!” She shouted excitedly. “The Line!”
Rosa stood up on the carpet as it began to descend, her brilliant bronze and gold armor appearing across her body as her spear materialized in her hand in a burst of crimson light. “Well get ready.” she said. “Because it looks like it’ll be a rough entrance.”
Monsters were beginning to pile up along the south wall, many of the creatures already pulling their way up onto the battlements to engage the soldiers waiting for them there. Even as they scrambled to the defenses, more and more holes were beginning to open in their defenses as the swifter beasts began to mount the walls.
Cat brought them down low, preparing herself for a dynamic entrance as she steered the carpet with her thoughts towards an undefended portion of the wall where a tall beast-headed and bronze-skinned humanoid had mounted it.
The carpet slammed into the body of the monster with impressive force, coming to a halt as it was thrown bodily off the wall, Cat rolling with the impact before leaping off the carpet, sword drawn. Rosa did the same, jumping from the carpet onto the wall beside her as she readied her spear.
Cat placed a hand on the wall, focusing her mind as she began to draw what little moisture she could find from the hot air and sending a thin sheet of ice spreading across the wall. The claws of monsters scrabbled in vain for purchase before they were sent tumbling down to the sand below. Together, the pair of them ran down the wall to where several other soldiers were raising spears towards a bulky monstrosity that appeared half-man and half-scorpion, its stinger tail lashing at them as they tried to stand their ground.
“I’ll go high,” Rosa said, not breaking her stride. “You go low!”
Cat nodded, not sure what her plan was as she prepared another spell in her mind. She raised her free hand, creating a trail of ice across the ground between herself and the scorpion man. As she did, Rosa jumped to the side, kicking off from the edge of the battlements to take a flying leap at the monster. As its tail struck at her, her spear flashed crimson and cleanly cut the tail in half just as Cat smoothly slid long her ice trail, bent low and using her momentum to drive her sword into the monster’s chest.
The scorpion man fell almost instantly as Cat rolled back to her feet, Rosa landing on the ground beside her. The soldiers of the line only stared in mixed shock and surprise at the unfamiliar warriors.
“Plenty more where he came from,” Rosa said, looking at the vast number of monsters clambering toward the wall, crawling over the corpses of their fallen kin.
“Well let’s not wait around!” Cat said, and together they continued their run down the wall.
Cat knew that it was dangerous, that these were real and powerful monsters that would kill her if they got the chance, but she was exhilarated as well. She hadn’t fought like this since Sicily, had never had the chance to fight against a real army of monsters. More than that, she knew she had someone reliable by her side. She was still angry at Rosa for any number of reasons, but she felt glad, almost comforted, to have the redhead fighting at her side. In the field, Rosa was her equal (even if she’d never tell her that), and Cat enjoyed having someone like that to rely on.
A hulking jackal-headed giant loomed before them, but neither Cat nor Rosa hesitated for even a second. As its massive fist came swinging down, the skin of its arm became rapidly encased in a thick layer of ice which was promptly shattered along with the encased arm by Rosa’s spear. Another red flash of the spear and the giant’s legs were hamstrung, leaving it stumbling just in time for Cat’s sword to plunge into its exposed chest.
The two of them had fought against one another for so long that they could read each other like books, Rosa didn’t have to say a word as she aimed for a high thrust to the closest monster. Cat could see the attack coming and cover the blind spots in Rosa’s defenses, just as the redhead could do for her. Their attacks weren’t well-coordinated, but each of them knew how the other fought so well that they were practically in synch, so well-tuned to the movements of the other that they could strike together without missing a beat.
Rosa would attack high and Cat low. Wherever Rosa made a lightning fast thrust with her spear Cat was there to parry the counter-attack. Wherever Cat’s sword arced through the air Rosa was behind her, spear in hand, covering her back. They moved as a pair through the monsters, cutting through their ranks like a chainsaw.
By the time the siege was broken the pair of them were the center of attention. It didn’t help that they stood out among the weary faces and drab combat fatigues. Rosa in her bright bronze-gold armor, glowing spear, and red hair next to Cat in her silver knightly armor, short white cape, and arcane blue hair. The two of them cut noticeable figures against the almost omnipresent sandy brown.
A number of the soldiers had cheered as they saw the two of them joining the fight, and while they were veteran monster slayers, none of them had magic or a champion’s power on their side. Cat smiled as a number of them clapped her on the back, smiling as others eagerly plied the pair with questions.
“Are you new recruits?”
“Where’d you get that armor?”
“Is that spear really glowing?”
Even as she smiled, Cat couldn’t help but scan the crowd that soon began to form around them, looking for one face in particular.
“CAT!!” A voice called out from the crowd, one she didn’t recognize but at the same time could not have been anyone else. Pushing her way through the crowd, in full color for the first time she’d seen her, was Asha.
Asha panted as she pushed to the front of the crowd, clearly exhausted from battle, leaning on a bow as she looked at Cat.
“I-is…it can’t be. Is it really you?”
Cat grinned, before sheathing her sword and pulling her eagerly in for a hug.
“Told you I’d come find you,” She said quietly into her ear before pulling back. “We’re getting you out of here!”
“Cat…” Asha’s face fell. “You know we ca-“
“What the HELL is going on here!?” A voice cut through the muted cheers and chatter that had descended on the camp. Cat looked past Asha and saw a figure cutting through the crowd. Unlike Asha, who had needed to push and shove her way forward, the shouting redhead seemed to part the crowd before her.
Cat glanced at Rosa, then to the new girl. There was no doubt about it that the pair of them were identical in appearance for the most part, but now that she could see them standing across from one another she began to spot the differences.
Rosa seemed a bit taller, certainly more fit and well-built than her almost scrawny-looking twin. No doubt that had something to do with being a champion. Christie also had shorter hair, having cut it halfway down her neck, and her face appeared more haggard and, at the moment, full of fury as her eyes met Rosa’s.
“You!” The girl fumed. “I…How…” Christi struggled for words as she stared at Rosa with utmost fury. The crowd, which had parted into a wide circle surrounding Asha, Cat, Rosa, and Christie, now stared at the identical pair in mixed confusion and fear, falling quiet save for a few whispered murmurs.
Christie drew her swords, her breath heavy as she all but growled at Rosa.
“This time things will be different.”
Before Cat could say anything else, Rosa readied her spear.
“I couldn’t agree more.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=61&sl=937