The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 22

 

The diplomatic mission to the Alps had been rather hastily organized. It had seemed like a whirlwind for Cat to prepare everything, meet with the others, get packed, and start on their travels across Italy. It didn’t help that this would be her first long-term trip out of Rome since her escapade off to Gaza earlier that year. Rosa and Hildegard, more used to week-long monster-hunting sorties, were more casual about packing and also much quicker about it, admonishing Cat on some of her choices, particularly the book she used to communicate with Asha, which was light for its size but still quite bulky.

“Don’t worry about it,” Asha’s smiling face came over the page the last time they had chatted. “Have fun on this mission, I want stories when you’re back. Things here are getting a bit…interesting anyway.”

The other oddity in their mission had been Giovanni. Unlike the more casual approach of Hildegard and Rosa, Giovanni was decidedly strict in their traveling schedule and in protocol for when they would arrive in the small settlement of Malcesine where they were expected. All of this had been recorded and announced meticulously by his assistant, Stella.

Stella was a bit of an odd girl, but the two of them had quickly hit it off. She dressed almost exclusively in the long dress of a nun minus the distinctive habit, though Stella said she had ceased her training in order to explore other career opportunities. She seemed quite devoted to Giovanni in a way Cat thought at first might indicate a crush on him, but it became quickly apparent that Stella was, oddly enough, possibly the Catholic wolf’s only honest human friend. And it was a position Stella clearly took quite seriously.

So it was the five of them had left the city of Rome with modest fanfare and set off into the rolling hills of Northern Italy.

“So what exactly is my job when we get there?” Cat had asked early into their first day.

“Well, you’re something of a celebrity in Rome,” Giovanni had said. “But not terribly well-known outside of it. You, Miss Kokinos, and Miss Jazheil will be there to show the relative strength of Rome, the unity between its government and its mages, as well as the benefits of being a divine champion. So for the most part we’ll need you to be presentable, charming, and talkative. More than anything else we need to sell Rome as a safe haven, and having approachable and kind representatives is key.”

“Be pretty and charming,” Rosa said derisively. “I’ll keep my mouth shut, got it.”

“If we’re looking for pretty and charming with you, we might be out of luck,” Cat teased her before turning back to Giovanni. “But ya, I got it, Albion makes me do a lot of ‘stand there and look pretty’ at Mage’s Guild meetings.”

“Well, you’re all hardly just wall decoration,” Giovanni said. “Stella and I will be speaking to their leaders in terms of negotiations, but you three will be interacting with the average folk. Offer to help out a little, show you care about more than killing monsters. A little Samaritan work can go a long way.”

“You got it,” Cat smiled. All told it sounded like a fine expedition, and a relaxing detour from her almost exhausting schedule in Rome, where she had to run between Schehera, Hilde, Gisela, and Lutetiana for lessons on top of extra training with Rosa and meeting Alicia to talk about house repair.

The trip took ten days of walking, fairly tirelessly too. Cat and Hilde were both mages, with bodies reinforced beyond the average human’s, Giovanni was a centuries-old wolf and Rosa was a particularly tough champion, which meant that Stella, the only mundane human among them, set a somewhat slower pace. She was, however, quite apologetic and held out particularly well, and Cat didn’t mind, enjoying the more leisurely pace and occasional breaks to marvel at the sight of the country around them.

So much of Italy had returned to a primordial undisturbed naturalism. Ancient forests spread for miles amidst rolling hills of high grasses under the clear blue sky. All was made lovelier by Stella, as she played a skilled recorder and would often play for all of them into the night under an almost endless starry expanse of sky.

They carried two tents, with Cat and Rosa in one, Hildegard and Stella in another, and Giovanni preferring to sleep in the woods. Cat wasn’t sure if she was just getting more used to it, but Rosa’s company was more…enjoyable than she had thought possible. With little to do but talk on their long treks through the countryside, Rosa exposed more of a casual side to her that Cat had only started to discover. A more subdued Rosa than the one that carried her spear in hand, Cat didn’t mind her company nearly as much as she thought she would.

Eventually the hills gave way to the rocky foothills of the alps, marking them as drawing closer to Malcesine on the shores of Lake Garda. They had decided to be more well-dressed on their arrival. Cat had combed her short hair and worn her relatively simple silver armor over her surcoat and pants with her white cape around her shoulders. Hildegard was dressed more ceremonially than her usual monster-hunting gear, wearing a long coat marked with the Jazheil family crest and her sword, Stahlzan at her hip. Rosa, naturally, wore her champion armor complete with her sharp spear over her shoulder and her long red hair somewhat tamed into a ponytail. Giovanni and Stella had foregone any finer clothes, though Stella was wearing her best robe and had tended to her hair somewhat for appearance if not for vanity.

It was early afternoon, and the sky had darkened with heavy clouds when Hildegard made the motion for the group to stop.

“Something wrong?” Cat asked, moving forward to stand beside her.

“Smoke,” Hildegard said, and a moment later Cat could pick up the very faint scent of burning wood.

“We’re not far,” Giovanni said. “The town should be visible over the next hill.”

Hurrying forward, the five of them crested the hill, a new sense of dread filling them as they reached the top and looked out over the landscape.

Lake Garda was a dark slate grey beneath the heavy clouds that had come rolling in form the north. The town of Malcesine was a collection of buildings populated by several hundred all surrounded by a palisade wall of wooden stakes, using the wall, rocky terrain, and the natural border of the lake for protection these past few years. Today, however, smoke was rising from the town as fires burned in several spots across it, and from here, about a half-mile out, they could hear the soft din of battle and screams mixed with monstrous roars.

None of them needed to be spurred on, and they broke into a flat run towards the city as one, Cat Hilde and Rosa naturally gaining ground more quickly than Stella and Giovanni who remained in human form behind her.

“We need to clear the town!” Hildegard said hurriedly as they ran.

“Move in from the west,” Rosa said. “You can see two main streets running the length up the coast. Hilde, strike left to the coast; Cat and I will stick to the right. Reconvene at the East then work backwards, clear what you can and send people back out behind us!”

“Got it,” Hilde said. “Good plan.”

“R-right.” Cat nodded hurriedly. When had Rosa learned to take charge like that?

As they neared the gates of the palisade they saw the large wooden door had been blown open with tremendous force, flattening whom or whatever had been behind it. The road leading into town split, with the right road leading up along the coast along the wall and the other going lower to run by the coast of the lake. Without hesitation, Hildegard started down the left road before calling back to them. “Stay sharp, and stick close together!”

“Ready, Cat?” Rosa asked, holding her spear ready.

“Ready!” Cat nodded, heart racing as she drew Ceruleamor from its sheath.

It didn’t take long for them to find the source of the damage. The town wasn’t just under attack, it was overrun. People screamed and ran through the streets, pursued by the hordes of the wandering dead. Cat shivered as she recognized them. Tall skeletons, fleshless and scorched, bound together with magic as their eyes burned with the same eldritch blue light she had seen in Nidhoggr’s eyes. These ones held swords and primitive spears, and moved with more strength and assuredness than the shambling monsters Cat remembered.

The skeletons weren’t alone, however. She could see the great dark shapes of true monsters tearing through the town amidst the smoke and fire. The air was thick with the din of roars, screams, and the crumbling of stone along with crackling fire. Cat barely even knew where to start, looking this way and that in the unraveling chaos as she clutched her sword in her hands.

“Focus, Cat!” Rosa shouted, and instantly Cat’s mind snapped to work. Together the two of them charged in at full speed, heading towards the closest skeletons that were menacing a few of the locals barricaded in their homes. Rosa’s spear easily cut their legs out from under them, her armored boot coming down to smash their skulls in. When Cat’s sword cut through their bones, however, Ceruleamor seemed to shine with white light as the Primordial magic binding the bones together was undone, and the skeleton crumpled into ash.

With a divinely-empowered kick, Rosa smashed the front door in, shouting in and ordering the people cowering inside.

“Everyone out!” She roared. “Town’s on fire and this door won’t stop a monster! West gate’s secure! Go!”

People rushed past her out the way they came as Cat kept Rosa’s back clear.

“Come on!” She shouted back at her. “There’s a lot more people here!”

The pair of them kept going, keeping close together as they worked down the street, going from one side to the other as they tore through the skeletal ranks. Rosa’s spear was a golden flash as it lashed like a venomous serpent from one rushing skeleton to the next. Cat always managing to keep pace with Rosa, her own sword whipping through to strike at everything within range, leaving a path of dust and ash in her wake.

The pair of them had been training to fight together for months, and their progress showed as they tore through the gangs of undead. They kept close, never pulling out of the other’s range as they moved from one group to the next, shouting warnings and movements to one another as they kept pace. Even as they worked, however, it was clear the town was coming apart at the seams. A building before them seemed to explode into the streets, forcing both of them to their knees, arms raised to block the storm of dust and debris as an enormous manticore burst forth from within, red scales blazing in the fire light and its claws and monstrous inhuman jaws red with blood.

“Go for the tail,” Rosa said, lifting her spear. “I’ll keep it preoccupied.”

“Right,” Cat nodded, dodging off to the side as Rosa darted forward. The manticore braced itself, scorpion-like tail striking down at Rosa repeatedly. She was quick, however, and Cat couldn’t help but notice she was starting to move like Hildegard. No excess of energy or motion, moving just enough to dodge the whipping spined tail, eyes keenly searching for an opening, spear kept up on the defensive, moving lightly on her feet.

“Come on, ugly,” Rosa said, dodging another strike as the manticore batted its wings on fury. “Keep those eyes on me, you hell-faced oversized bat.”

The manticore prepared to charge her, iron-colored claws raking the dirt, but before it could move Cat was behind it, her sword singing through the air before chopping clean through the manticore’s tail near the base, severing it entirely as the manticore let out a roar of confusion in pain. Before it could whirl back on her, Rosa charged forward, burying her spear deep in the gaping maw of the creature before ripping it free as the manticore fell into its death throes.

The pair of them exchanged brief grins before readying themselves to keep moving. Before they had even made it a few steps, however, an enormous serpent-like creature burst from an alley. It had once been a pale white color, its body undulating like a snake or some obscene worm as its body was covered in scorching and consuming flame. As it pulled itself from the alley, the pair of them saw Hildegard lunge forward in pursuit, sword blazing with fire in her hands as she wove her ways through the lashing coils, blade leaving shallow cuts along its foul glistening ide from where explosions of flame burst forth.

“Cat!” Hilde shouted, spotting the pair of them. “Ice this thing’s head!”

Cat didn’t need telling twice, rushing forward as Rosa ran alongside to cover her. Cat raised a hand, and the gibbering eyeless maw of the worm began to crack and blister as crystals of ice began to spread relentlessly across its flabby skin. As the beast struggled, flesh cracking and flaking away as the ice cut deep, Hildegard made a last running jump, kicking off the monster’s flesh as the fiery glow around her sword expanded into an inferno. In one great swing she brought it down, shattering the monster’s head in an explosion of frozen meat before landing gracefully on both feet.

“Whew, thanks,” She smiled at them. “Damn things are tricky, cut them in half and you’ll just wind up dealing with two. How’s it looking on this side?”

“We killed a manticore and got a few people out,” Cat said. “There are probably more monsters still but-“

She was cut off at the last second as Hilde grabbed her by the shoulder and threw her aside, a moment later the space between them erupted in flames, throwing them all bodily into the air and Cat felt herself roll as she hit the ground hard.

Cat blinked rapidly to try and clear her vision. Her ears whined at her in shock as her body resisted her orders to move, everything briefly numb. When she did finally roll herself over, she saw their attack land lightly on the ground from where the rooftop perch where it had made its attack.

It was an enormous wolf, easily matching Giovanni or Capitolina at their full size. Its body was covered in spiny black fur formed from pure shadow, and spots of cinder, ash, and erupting fire marked its skin, its eyes and mouth blazed with the same terrible orange flame as it rounded on her, Cat struggling to pull herself up to her feet.

Her hands tightened reflexively, but in a moment of terror she realized the explosion had knocked the sword from her hand. She whipped her head around, searching for its familiar blue gleam, but the wolf took that instant to charge, mouth opening into a too-wide snarl as it lunged at her, teeth bared to rip her limb from limb.

There was a sound like a thunderclap, nearly deafening Cat a second time, and the wolf that had charged her was sent crashing off to the side as if it had been hit by a freight train.

Cat stared at the fallen creature’s body. Where its head had been was now nothing but a crater of shattered stone and the monster’s black gore exploded outward around a shining silver object. Looking closer, Cat could see it was a hammer, a massive block-headed warhammer with a shaft much too short and a rune shining white with power glowing on its side.

As she stared, the hammer loosed itself from where it had embedded itself in the ground, flying with a whoosh under its own power past her again and, as Cat watched, into the gloved hand of a small girl.

“Is that all it took to knock you guys off kilter?” The red-haired little girl demanded, hefting her hammer as she scowled at Cat. “Are you guys from Rome?”

“Y-ya…” Cat said, still in shock.

“Well then get off your ass and get to work!” She bellowed with more force than Cat would have thought possible. “Let’s see what Romans are made of!”

Cat’s mind snapped back to the alert, and after a second of searching, she saw Ceruleamor glistening in the ash where it had flown from her hand, picking it up, she looked around and saw Hildegard and Rosa helping each other to their feet, both of them looking shaken but otherwise fine.

The sounds and noises of destruction, however, had called down a veritable army of the skeletons on them, nearly a hundred from all over town had come at the sound of the roars and explosions and Cat backed up towards the other three as they began to circle, the girl beside her.

“Who are you?” Cat asked. “And where’d you get that hammer.”

“I’m Torleif!” The girl said proudly. “Champion of Thor!”

“I’m Cat,” she nodded in reply, sword raised.

“Scared of some bones, Cat?” Even as Torleif spoke Cat could see her eyes glancing this way and that. Even for the four of them, from sheer numbers and positioning, the skeletons were posing a real threat.

A howl burst through the town, and some of the skeletons in the back turned in time to see an enormous black wolf, hide scarred and eyes a fierce gleaming yellow, crush the closest ones under its paws, jaws grabbing the closest one and swinging it until its bones flew apart.

Cat saw Torleif lifting her hammer for another throw, but grabbed her wrist.

“That one’s with us,” she smiled.

“Fine,” Torleif said. “Leggo of my wrist…”

As Cat watched Giovanni in full form, she saw someone else slide off his back. Stella, rather than hide behind the massive wolf, rushed towards the closest skeleton, parrying a wild swing with a sword of her own before her hand shot out to take hold of its forehead. Cat couldn’t hear the words she mumbled, but in a second the skeleton’s eyes turned to smoke and its entire body crumbled into a pile of bones.

“Let’s not leave it to them!” Hildegard shouted. “Exploit the opening, go!”

Cat and Rosa rushed forward as Hildegard kept their flanks secure, the pair of them rushing the crowd of skeletons where Giovanni and Stella were fighting to make a gap in the ring around them.

“H-hey, wait!” Torleif hurried after them, moving at impressive speed despite her short legs as she caught up to them. “I’m here to!”

“Then start killing monsters, kid!” Rosa said, the arc of her spear cutting down two skeletons in one swing.

Cat saw Torleif’s brow furrowed, and above them the roiling clouds echoed with thunder. She raised her hammer skyward, lightning beginning to dance from her wrist to the hammer’s oversized metal head.

In one motion, Torleif brought her hammer down, and a bolt of lightning shot forth like a geyser, ripping through a score of undead and leaving only ashen bone in their wake.

“Don’t call me a kid!” Torleif shouted pointedly at Rosa, hammer still sparking with stray flecks of lightning.

“…point taken.” Rosa said.

The six of them broke through the line of skeletons, escaping being surrounded as they worked in tandem. With their backs relatively secure they could work more easily, Hildegard’s burning sword and Torleif’s hammer kept their sides clear, the pair of them able to destroy large swathes of the undead on their own. Cat and Rosa held the front, working together to keep the line held as more of the skeletons pressed in around them. Giovanni and Stella held the rear, destroying any that got past the others and making sure any survivors made it out.

It was nearly two hours before the town was finally clear, and by the end all of them were visibly exhausted, most of them leaning on walls or weapons while Torleif simply flopped back on her rear.

The town had been evacuated, with many thankfully having hidden before the attack began, and while Giovanni and Stella tended to the wounded and met with the town leaders, the four warriors took a few minutes to recover.

“So,” Cat looked at Torleif. “Got a better opinion of Romans now?”

Torleif’s tired face broke into a smile. “Mmm, I guess you’re not tooootally soft,” She said.

“So what’s the champion of Thor doing down here?” Rosa asked.

“I’m going to Rome,” Torleif said. “And it looks like I finally found the way.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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