The Snake and the Mirror

Flying Solo

 

While Hildegard, Cat, and Rosa were away on their diplomatic mission, it had fallen to Salvatore to take care of the numerous monstrous threats that still lingered at the wild fringes of Italy. The speed of Pegasus combined with his and Hildegard’s skill as monster slayers meant that they could be wherever they might be needed with great speed and could deal with anything they found there.

This time however Salvatore, or Turi as he preferred to be known, was on his own and keenly aware of it. He kept a tight hold on Pegasus’ reins as the winged horse swooped through the clear Italian sky over forests and low hills. It was a routine mission, he told himself for the hundredth time; it was just an oversized lizard, nothing more, barely even beyond the cacodaemon stage. Rosa, Aurelio, Evangeline, and all the other champions he had met had slain more terrifying monsters than that, and he was champion of Athena, She Who Fights in Front, and he wasn’t allowed to disgrace his patron goddess with cowardice.

The green hills eventually gave way to azure coast, and Turi brought Pegasus low to fly over the narrow strip of sandy beach that divided land and sea. He picked up his spear from where it had been resting on the side of his saddle, keeping its familiar weight in hand as his eyes scanned the short and cave-riddled cliffs that rose here and there along the beachhead. Whatever he was looking for was hiding somewhere out here…

Pegasus’ snorting alerted him before his eyes caught it. He brought Pegasus lower to the ground, great white wingbeats kicking up sand as the horse hovered over the beach before a particularly large cave entrance, the interior filled with impermeable shadow. Turi’s fingers tensed around the spear, working to keep his breathing steady as his heart hammered in his chest.

There’s nothing to be nervous of, he reminded himself. Just because your monster-slaying girlfriend isn’t here doesn’t mean you can’t handle this yourself.

From within the cave something stirred. The first thing he saw were its eyes. Shining yellow that seemed to glow with their own malevolent power. Then more of it appeared, a massive snake-like head ridged with spines and with a cruel mouth filled with sharp fangs. As the long neck slid free from the shadows, the first of four massive clawed feet moved forward into the sunlight.

Soon all of it was visible, a massive serpentine monster looking like an anaconda mixed with some horrible dinosaur, covered in sharp spines and glistening black scales. It had only one long neck, but it was undeniably a hydra.

Turi gulped, glad Hildegard wasn’t there to see how nervous he was, but also wishing she was there to lighten the situation somewhat. He liked to think he was brave, but Hildegard seemed to be fearless. He had asked her before if there was anything she was afraid of. She had told him the three things she was afraid of, and a hydra wasn’t on the list.

The beast was over seven meters long from nose to tail, and powerfully built with a thick body and muscled legs ending in many-fingered hands each tipped in a razor-like claw. It eyed him, head swaying slowly from side to side as its serpent tongue flicked out to taste the air.

Turi rapidly went over everything he knew about hydras. He was smart enough to not try to chop its head off. That couldn’t possibly end well. He’d never fought one with Hilde, but Evangeline said she had fought one once, and had killed it by hurtling a lightning bolt through its chest. Turi, unfortunately, would have to make do with a spear.

He whistled to Pegasus and the great winged horse flapped forward, moving with speed as it rose into the air and began to circle the hydra like a vulture. Turi watched how its head moved, how it kept its gaze fixed on Pegasus as it sluggishly tried to turn along with their great wheeling circles.

That’s good, he thought. Eyes on the horse, not the guy on its back.

Turi had no divine weapons like Aurelio or Rosa, and he didn’t have any supernatural skills like Evangeline or Megame. What Turi had was aptitude, the ability to plan and recover, but more than anything else, he had Pegasus. The horse was as smart as a man and particularly agile. He also had a keen sense for working out Turi’s plans at the same time as his rider, and always knew what his cues and signals meant.

Turi whistled again and down Pegasus dove. The hydra braced itself and pulled its head back before lunging forward to snap at Pegasus with its powerful jaws. The horse, however, remained just out of his reach, and Turi’s spear lashed out to cut a long gash along the Hydra’s flank.

The hydra screamed in pain and Turi felt a rush of success swell through him as Pegasus pulled away. It wasn’t a mortal wound, but it was effective and if he stuck to this plan…

A sizzling sound called his attention, and as he looked at his spear the rush died in his chest as terror filled him. The blade of his spear was gone, and nearly half of the wooden haft was being eaten away by what looked like boiling black acid. Turi threw what remained of his spear away before it could eat any closer to his hand as he swore loudly. He’d forgotten another key weapon of the hydra: Poison blood. He’d thought it meant simply venom, or some kind of contact poison, but it apparently had the strength to melt metal and wood.

He was unarmed save a knife he kept for emergencies. But he wasn’t about to try that against a hydra, particularly considering that a cut with a knife would let the acidic blood spill across his hand.

As his mind raced, Turi thought of the first thing Hildegard had told him she was afraid of: Being unarmed and unable to fight. It had seemed silly at first. Even unarmed, Hildegard was one of the most dangerous people he knew, a master of several brutal martial arts. And he was still far from unarmed. He had Pegasus, and he had his wit. This fight wasn’t over yet.

 

***

 

“Seems your boy is in a little bit of trouble.”

Far away, atop divine Olympos, two goddesses watched Turi and Pegasus battle the hydra through a well of clear water, able to see the events unfurling from hundreds of miles away as it was reflected on the water’s surface. The one who had spoken was tall, fair, blonde, and beautiful beyond measure. Her hair fell in bright golden curls about her shoulders beneath a circlet of gold and above staggeringly green eyes. She was dressed finely in earthy tones of green and brown beneath a cloak of falcon feathers, all embellished with gold finery that paled before the necklace she wore looped around her neck. It was a marvel of jewelry that did not outshine her beauty, but served only to enhance it beyond even divine levels. Wearing it, she went from stunning to a fair rival of Aphrodite herself.

Her counterpart, though lovely as well, was far more conservatively dressed. She wore a long robe of white brought in and clasped by relatively modest adornment and completed by an ornate golden breastplate. On her brow over her light chestnut hair rested a gold helmet that could be brought down over her face at a moment’s notice. Her favored spear and shield rested nearby, always within arm’s reach, and she surveyed Turi’s battle with large silver-grey eyes.

The fearsome grey-eyed goddess was Athena, Turi’s patron, and her guest was from a land far beyond Olympos.

“I did not choose him to be a fighter, Lady Freyja,” Athena said, giving her only a passing glance. “I chose him for his affinity for horses and for his wits. When it comes to problem solving, he will often surprise with his cleverness.”

The smiling blonde goddess, Freyja, smiled as she leaned in closer. “Well then let’s see just how clever he is.”

 

***

Turi had lured the hydra into a forest near the coast, taking it from where its size gave it a natural advantage. He brought Pegasus in low over a clearing and dismounted before sending him back into the air. The forest slowed the hydra but also limited Pegasus’ abilities, but Turi had a plan, one he needed to work quickly to set into motion.

All the while he could hear the hydra rattling through the trees. Branches and narrow trunks snapping beneath its bulk and its powerful legs. A deep resounding hiss echoing from its monstrous lungs. Turi swallowed his fear, ignoring the hammering in his heart as he set off into the woods, gathering what loose dry wood he could pick up off the ground as he ran, looking for a suitable bit of bramble.

He remembered the second thing Hilde had told him she was afraid of. The only monster she feared was not a hydra or a werewolf or even a mighty dragon. What Hildegard feared was a vampire sorceress by the name of Jezerette Al-Sonara, a monster in human skin who had nearly killed Hildegard once when she was sixteen, and a second time earlier this year when a dark contagion she had left behind nearly destroyed Hildegard’s body from the inside out. The thought of a creature like Jezerette, and worse still the lingering fear that the monster might still be alive, had always sent shivers down his spine.

This creature was not Jezerette Al-Sonara; it was a hydra, a kitten in comparison. It didn’t deserve a champion’s fear. That thought kept Turi going as he set about making his trap.

 

***

“Resourceful at the very least,” Frejya smiled as she watched him work. “He clearly has a plan.”

“All good warriors do,” Athena said. “I admire the work Capitolina has done with Ares’ champion, but she’s still a wild fighter, uncontrolled and too bloodthirsty.”

“Can’t say I disapprove of that, though I do disapprove of your other war god,” Freyja said. “I find you far better company, Lady Athena.”

“Likewise,” Athena smiled.

“Mmm, he’s cute too,” Freyja licked her lips hungrily. “Do you think his lover would mind if I-“

“I’d avoid it,” Athena said curtly, doing her best to retain her now somewhat more strained smile. She did honestly like Freyja. The Norse goddess was bold, powerful, and beautiful. Much like herself in many ways. But she was also a goddess of love and sexuality which, given Athena’s own staunch chastity, did leave them occasionally at odds, as accommodating as Athena tried to be.

“As you like,” Freyja sighed, though she quickly gained a mischievous smile. “So when he and this Hildegard girl are together do you ever look in and-“

“A-absolutely not!” Athena cracked at that, even as she knew Freyja was mostly teasing her, leaving her red-faced and irritated. The last time someone had tried to embarrassed Athena like that she had turned them into a spider. Freyja was only lucky she was a goddess, and one Athena needed.

“Naturally, my apologies,” Freyja smiled. “But I am curious what his plan is.”

“I think I know,” Athena said, looking back to the water. “But we will have to see.”

 

***

 

Turi breathed a sigh of relief as he stumbled across a wide briar thicket, a mess of thorns, vines, and brambles that could put a halt to any attempt to traverse it. There was no way a human could move through it, but he could only hope it would slow down a hydra.

Slowly he began to move around it, trying to put the bulk of the thorny brambles between the hydra and himself before dropping the armload of old dead wood he had picked up along the way. As he piled it together, he took one stick and began to bang it loudly against the tree, letting the hollow wooden sound echo outwards.

“Come on!” He shouted into the woods. “Come on, you damned ugly snake!”

He heard a distinctive rumbling hiss and the crashing through the underbrush as the hydra changed course to move towards him. He pulled a small firestarter from his pocket and set to work lighting a fire on the dried wood he had carried. Swearing as the first few flames petered out as soon as they appeared.

The ground shook as they hydra approached, and as he dared a single glance up he could see its great snake head staring at him from across the briar patch. Slowly it took a step into the brambles, gaze never leaving him.

Turi forced his gaze back down as he set to work, trying to control his breathing as it came in short terrified pants. The hydra was only getting closer and his plan was a long shot. It was natural to be terrified, if that hydra got within striking distance then he was without weapons and without Pegasus in these woods.

The earth quaked as the hydra took another step and the firestarter fumbled in his hands.

He took a long breath, remembering Hilde’s presence. Her arms around his waist when they flew together, the feeling of her hands guiding his when they trained. They had been lying together outside under the stars when she had told him the thing that frightened her the most, when she had been perfectly beautiful beneath the moonlight.

“And I suppose…the thing I’m most afraid of,” She’d said. “Well…that’s pretty simple. It’s not being able to protect the people that matter to me. Before Mother, I didn’t have anyone to worry about except myself. But now I have her, I have Cat, and I have you, Turi. I…I guess I’m scared of the thought of losing you, of not being there when you need me.”

Turi had promised her then that she’d never lose him. That he’d always be at her side when they needed one another. He wasn’t about to die out here and let her live through her worst fear. Athena and Hildegard had both come to be such a large part of his life, and he didn’t plan to let either of them down today.

With a plume of orange flame, several of the larger sticks caught fire and Turi grabbed them where he could before tossing them into the thick briar patch, filled with dry thorns and thin leaves. The hydra was almost upon him, but its feet were caught in the groping vines, and it thrashed a bit as it tried to pull itself nearer, ignoring the smoke as it began to rise around it.

There was only one thing left. The thorns wouldn’t hold back a hydra for long, but he had one last trick. A sharp whistle called Pegasus back to the clearing, the winged horse swooping behind the hydra and with several mighty wingbeats it blew a harsh steady wind into the thicket.

The dry vegetation and rushing wind combined to send the flames up into a conflagration, great licking flames soon rising up around the hydra as the monster began to suffocate in the rising pillar of smoke, snapping wildly in the air as Turi ran from the thicket.

 

***

 

Freyja and Athena watched as flames consumed the hydra. Trapped in the thicket and soon caught in the center of a spreading inferno, the monster burned alive as Turi made his quick escape, meeting Pegasus in a clearing before flying to survey the monster’s drawn-out death.

“A very clever boy,” Freyja smiled. “You must be proud.”

“I am…satisfied,” Athena said, though a smile tugged at her lips.

“Well, I have to say you’ve won me over,” Freyja said. “You say you have a more modest champion and yet here he has slain a monster with nothing but his wits. You may consider me fully intrigued in the idea of a champion.”

“I’m glad I could convince you,” Athena said. “They really can make all the difference in…ah, we have company.”

Another goddess entered the chamber. This one was slightly shorter than the others, and though she was often armed and armored she had eschewed them both to meet them, choosing a relatively simply long white dress, though she was always marked by the large white wings which spread from her back, and the golden hair that was bound tight around her head.

“Nike, good of you to join us, and aptly timed,” Athena said before gesturing to Freyja. “Lady Freyja, this is Nike, Lady of Victory. Nike, this is Lady Freyja of the Vanir, from the North.”

“An honor,” Nike bowed her head.

“Likewise, a pleasure,” Freyja returned the gesture.

“I’ve come with a report,” Nike said. “The Roman delegation has defeated the monsters threatening Malcesine. No casualties among the group, though they met a figure that might interest you, Lady Freyja.”

“Thank you, Nike, but you didn’t need to trouble yourself,” Athena said. “We would have seen to it shortly.”

“I was watching on my own,” Nike said. “I must say, I am quite impressed by the girl Hildegard, your champion’s lover, Lady Athena.”

“She is quite impressive,” Athena nodded.

“Is there a reason you chose someone like Salvatore over her?” Nike asked. “She seems an ideal candidate to be a champion.”

“I chose Salvatore for his wits, his aptitude for learning, and his equestrian abilities,” Athena said. “Though Hildegard is quite able, she is not quite as quick-witted, and mages do not always make compatible champions.”

“Hmmm…” Nike nodded but she seemed lost in thought, as if considering other matters.

“Well let’s see to this other battle,” Freyja said. “I’m curious and I do love a proper battle over a monster hunt.”

“Ah, of course,” Nike snapped back to attention. “This you’ll find to be both. Though this figure…Lady Freyja do you know of a mortal named Torleif?”

Freyja paused mid-stride and blinked before breaking out into a spontaneous fit of laughter.

“Is…something funny?” Nike asked Athena, who could only give a confused shrug.

“Oh, Odin, you conniving bastard,” Freyja grinned as she recovered from her laugh. “Just what have you been planning with that girl?”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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