April 9th, 2024
“Rosa!” Cat shouted, rushing to try to get between them. “You can’t be serious about this!”
“Out of the way, Cat.” Rosa said. Her face was deathly serious, but Cat noticed it didn’t have the same rage that twisted her twin’s face. Rosa’s expression was resolute, not furious.
“I’m not going to let you fight her.” Cat said.
“Cat,” Rosa’s voice retained an almost chilling calm. “Christie deserves this.”
“Rosa…” Cat said worriedly as she felt Asha’s hand on her shoulder, pulling her back.
“I don’t need pity.” Christie spat. “Not from anyone, and especially not YOU!”
Rosa sighed, readying her spear. “Do what you have to,” She said. “But you’ll need to take it. I will never pity you, Christie.”
The sound of her name sent the girl into a roaring rage as she charged forward, swords flashing through the air as she attacked Rosa. For a moment, Cat stared at Rosa’s calm form and wondered if the girl was even going to fight back.
At the last second, the shaft of Rosa’s spear flashed bronze as it parried the strike of her first blade, then again as it blocked the second. Cat blinked in surprise at the sudden display as Christie swung again and Rosa deftly blocked. This wasn’t the Rosa Cat had fought before. She was being entirely passive and reactive. There was no aggression in her strikes. If she had been fighting Cat, she would have used all of these openings to press the attack again, but Rosa was doing nothing but let Christie attack.
Cat wasn’t the only one to notice as Christie pulled back after another unsuccessful assault.
“Fight back!” She shouted, swords raised. “Fight back dammit! Like you did back then!!”
Rosa narrowed her eyes as her fingers gripped the spear. “Fine,” she said, readying herself.
Once more Christie charged, but this time Rosa wasn’t on the defensive. Cat had fought with Rosa so often now that she could almost see the moves before they came as Rosa ruthlessly exploited her openings. Cat flinched as Christie’s left arm swung wide, a mistake Cat had made on more than one occasion and Rosa punished Christie in exactly the same way, the base of her spear slamming into her defenseless arm as she took a short swing to attack Christie’s core.
It did not take an expert to see Christie was outmatched. She had learned how to fight monsters but not how to duel, while Rosa had excelled in both. She didn’t use her champion’s strength or the glowing red light of her spear, instead she used nothing but her own skill and speed to out play her twin at every step. Three times she could have landed fatal blows, and three times she relented.
“Stop it!” Christie shouted at her, tears starting to run down her face in anger and humiliation. “Stop mocking me!”
Christie’s hands tightened on her swords as she rubbed her eyes with her sleeve. “Did you come all the way here just to humiliate me!? You leap over my wall, show off your prizes, then try and prove you’re better than me! Well just stop it! Go for the throat! I don’t care, it’s not like you can kill me a second time!!”
A hushed silence had descended upon the group as Rosa lifted her spear, planting the base in the ground as she held it her side.
“I never came here to do any of that.” Rosa said, and her hand released her spear, letting it fall to the ground and vanish in a burst of red light. “I could never do it a second time.”
Christie’s face twisted in fury as she charged her again, swords raised, as Rosa did nothing to stop her.
Cat, realizing Rosa was not preparing to defend herself, ran forward, preparing to use a spell, but by the time she could it was too late. For a second her heart felt like ice in her chest as she saw Christie’s swords flash in the desert sun, drops of red blood scattered in the sands behind Rosa.
Rosa, however, did not fall. She simply stood, and as she looked closer Cat could see that rather than pierce her chest Christie’s swords had merely grazed her sides, leaving nothing but a pair of superficial cuts as she stood before Rosa.
“Why…” Christie stammered for words. “Why can’t I…”
Rosa ignored the cuts and the swords, embracing her sister.
“I …I should have won that time,” Christie stammered. “You left yourself open.”
“You couldn’t do it,” Rosa said. “I shouldn’t have been able to…and now I know I’ll never be able to do it again.”
“I hate it here, Rosa,” Christie said quietly. “I want things to be the way they used to be.”
“I don’t think we can have that anymore,” Rosa said, and for the first time Cat heard just how alike their voices were. “And I think it’s my fault.”
Cat felt tears welling in her eyes, but as she looked around the crowd something unusual caught her eye.
A figure moved effortlessly though the crowd, dressed in a long black hooded cloak that was drawn up despite the heat. The crowd seemed to part for them unconsciously, and no one passed the figure so much as a glance as it moved out of the crowd and into the open circle. Cat looked to Asha, but even Asha seemed to fail to notice the figure.
Suddenly a strange sort of transformation seemed to come over the area around her. The light brown sand and fortress walls were bleached into a pale white as color seemed to be drawn out of the blue sky, leaving it a pallid grey despite the lack of clouds. Everything around her seemed to be losing color, sound becoming muted and the very world itself appearing to become old and desaturated, as if the life was being sucked out of everything around her.
The figure moved towards Rosa and Christie, still wrapped in their embrace, and Cat tried to step forward to intercept them. She found, however, that her feet were all but stuck to the ground, and trying to push forward was like trying to run through knee-deep mud.
As Cat struggled to move, the figure turned to her, and Cat saw a brief flash of a feminine face behind the hood, a smiling youth with bright blonde hair and indescribable eyes before she turned away again. The figure’s hand rose to touch Christie’s hair, and from the back of her neck seemed to draw a single long hair away. As Cat looked closer, still trying to run despite feeling utterly stuck, she saw that it was no hair, but a long line of thread running from Christie’s neck.
With her free hand, from within her robes, the figure drew a pair of long scissors. They seemed entirely mundane, if somewhat old, but something in their design made a shiver of fear run down Cat’s back.
“No!” Cat tried to shout. “Stop! Someone! Can’t anybody see her!?” But her words were caught in her throat as surely as her legs were stuck.
With a single snip of the scissors the thread was cut, and Christie simply vanished from where she had stood, leaving Rosa’s arms empty as the figure began to leave, time seemingly frozen around her.
“STOP!!” This time Cat’s voice echoed across the frozen world. Her hand clasped the hilt of her sword, and it was as if the blade had rejuvenated her, her legs able to move through this frozen and colorless scene.
“Bring her back!” Cat shouted at the figure who had stopped in place and turned to face her.
The figure drew back her hood, revealing the face of a beautiful young woman, a face hardly any older than Cat’s, though her eyes told a very different story. She was at once quite young and impossibly ancient, and though she could move freely, Catarina almost stopped in place again. The woman smiled at her, but it was a smile that did not reach her eyes.
“It seems you’ll never be without that bold streak,” The woman said, her voice light and airy. “I have no doubt it will come in handy, Catarina Aldobrandini.”
Cat shivered at the sound of her name, as if someone had just stepped over her grave.
“W-Who are you!?” She demanded, trying to come off as bravely as possible. “Where did you send Christie!?”
“Somewhere from where she will never return,” The woman said. “She will be going to those far distant shores beyond the pale. To the undiscovered country. You’ll have no need to fret, Catarina, it will happen to all mortals, even you.”
Cat felt her blood run cold as she repeated. “W-Who are you?”
“That which will be,” The woman said simply. “And that which has yet to be.”
She stepped towards Catarina, and she felt her entire body freeze in terror. This wasn’t like normal fear, the kind she felt when facing monsters, warriors, and sorcerer kings. It was a primal sort of fear that chilled her heart and caused her thoughts to fly into alarm. There was nothing she wanted more than for that woman to be as far from her as possible.
“Are you…Death?” Cat was almost afraid to ask.
The woman smiled. “I can be, if it will suit you.”
“You won’t bring her back, will you?” Catarina asked.
“No I will not.” Death said. “No one will ever come back.”
“What about all these other people?” Cat asked. “These other people at the Line? Are you just going to leave them here forever? What about Asha?”
“This stop-gap measure will prove insufficient, I admit.” Death said. “An ugly solution to a snarl in the threads, but the solution will finally mature in short order.”
“Solution?” Cat asked slowly.
“The Serpent and the Dragon cannot be allowed to collude,” Death said. “The Line will serve as the solution for only so long, a Guardian must be found.”
“Guardian?” Cat asked. “Like…me?”
Death smiled. “There will be more than one hero in the world, Catarina.”
Death turned back to the crowd of warrior-ghosts around them. With a flick of her hand, threads began to appear, like the silk of a spider’s web, from all around them and centering her hand, more than a hundred threads converging on a single point.
Death’s scissors were a blur.
One by one the threads were cut, each one causing another of the gathered crowd to vanish. Soon only Cat, Death, Asha, and Rosa remained. At Asha’s thread, Death seemed to pause before putting her scissors away. The world began to become saturated with color once more, and time began to flow into place.
For a moment, Rosa stared into her empty hands where her sister had been, staying perfectly silent as Cat watched the tears begin to flow down her face.
Death ignored her, moving instead to where Asha stood, frozen in place as she stared at where her fellows at the wall had been, before finally facing the figure standing before her. Her face went pale, and Cat wondered if she saw something different under the woman’s hood.
“I think it’s time,” Death said. “That you remembered who you are.”
Somewhere, a thousand miles away, a nameless winged spirit paused mid-step.
“Notice something?” Leyla asked idly, chewing on his lunch as they walked across the desert soil.
“It’s time,” The girl said, staring into the sky. “I know where I’m supposed to be.”
“Well let’s get goi-“ Leyla began to say as the girl spread her wings. “…oh.”
The girl turned to look back at Leyla. “Do not fear. Your mission is a righteous one, and I intend to help you fight it.”
Leyla smiled. “’Bout to say, don’t just leave me out here all alone in the desert.”
“I will see you again.” The girl nodded as she prepared to take flight.
“One last thing,” Leyla asked, stopping her just before launch. “Do you remember your name?”
“I do,” The Fravashi nodded. “Asha.”
Like a bolt from the heavens, a pillar of light descended from the sky down on Asha, so bright that Cat had to look away to avoid being blinded by the light. When it finally began to fade, allowing Cat to look past her arms, she saw Asha still standing there, her body alight, and a pair of wings sprouting from her back.
“What…” Cat began to say. “What just happened?”
“When a person dies, their Urvan, their soul, will return to their Fravashi with all their memories and experience, recombining with all the power of a guardian spirit.” Death said. “Or at least a few believe it to be so.”
“I’m…still here?” Asha said slowly, looking around as if in disbelief.
“You will have some time yet,” Death said. “But you will have work to do.”
Asha turned to Cat, disbelief still on her face. “Cat, I…”
Cat interrupted her with a running hug, embracing the girl tightly.
“Just promise you’ll keep writing,” She said. “Keep that book with you.”
“I will,” Asha smiled, hugging her back.
“You two lovebirds done yet?” Rosa was wiping her eyes with her arm, trying to gather herself. Cat could see she was still a bit shaken, but at the same time something about her seemed more whole than Cat had ever seen.
“Heh, ya,” Cat smiled, slowly releasing Asha before patting her on the shoulder.
“Do good work, hero,” She smiled at her. “I’ll want updates!”
“You too,” Asha smiled back, wings fluttering. “Don’t get too caught up being hero of Rome to check in.”
The woman, Death, drew a pocket watch from her robes. “I believe it will be time for all of us to depart,” she said. “There is an appointment I will need to make.”
Without a word, Death had vanished back into the infinite nothing form which she had come. Rosa retrieved the carpet and some supplies and loaded them on.
“Think you can make it where you’re going on your own?” Cat asked.
“I’ll manage” Asha fluttered her new wings.
“You could always come with us to Rome,” Cat offered. “Just for a bit.”
“Thanks but…” Asha said. “I’ve got work to do, and someone’s waiting for me.”
Cat handed Asha her copy of the enchanted book. “Keep writing,” she said.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=62&sl=532