The Snake and the Mirror

Men of Thunder

 

“All I’m saying is that you Romans have had it a bit easy compared to the rest of the world,” Michail said, raising his glass to his lips to take another drink. “With this shield and all. The walk down south was like a picnic.”

“Watch it,” Lorenzo said. “That shield hasn’t been up all that long, and we had more than our fair share of problems before then. It’s one thing to move through the wilds, but in the center of a city, you’ve got nowhere to hide.”

“I get that, but still…”

Michail was one of the new Greeks that arrived under the command of Captain Nicomede, the Champion of Zeus. He was a bit wiry but pretty strongly built, and he still had his armor on though he left his shield by the door, as was standard policy in the local bars throughout Rome.

Lorenzo had been a Roman soldier since the first night of the Days of Revelation. He’d been there in the hectic first few weeks and had stayed during the mass exodus. He’d been a member of the Rangers, a legionnaire in Legio I Capitolina, and was on the short list for command of the rumored second legion.

Being friendly and good-natured soldiers who had met on the training fields, they did what most soldiers did in their free time, drink and talk up their respective service. In this case, both of them had noticed that only one free stool over was an attractive young woman, so they were being a bit louder than necessary.

“But you’ve never had to cross the Alps,” Michail said pointedly. “That’s another beast altogether.”

“From what I hear it’s not that bad, so long as you don’t try to bring elephants across,” Lorenzo smirked.

Nearby a brief exhale of breath disguising a chuckle from one stool over alerted them that the woman was listening in, though she kept her head down. She was tall, her brown hair tightly held with a few stray strands falling over her glasses, and an old tablet in her hands that she was quickly writing on, seemingly absorbed.

“And what horrors have you had to deal with, Roman?” Michail asked, still smiling.

“Well, a city full of people is like a dinner bell for monsters,” Lorenzo said. “Before the shield went up we had armies, and I do mean armies, of the undead along with a host of cacodaemons and monsters. I was in a party that killed a chimera once.”

“Oh ya? What kind of chimera?”

“Lion head. Impressive thing, at least until Hildegard shoved a sword through its brain.”

“Hildegard seems pretty popular,” Michail said. “And she’s not even a champion, right? One of those wizards?”

“Mages, we call them here,” Lorenzo said. “And yep, other than magic, she’s human to the root, just like her sister Cat.”

“Lot of women in charge here,” Michail smiled, his eyes sliding to the brunette nearby. “Must be something about Roman women.”

“I think it’s Capitolina, personally,” Lorenzo said. “Mother wolves bring out strong daughters. That said, your man isn’t exactly a masculine paragon, is he?”

“Who, Captain Nicomede?” Michail asked.

“Ya, that’s the one,” Lorenzo nodded.

“Heh, well there’s a bit of a saying going around. When it comes to Captain Nicomede, men want him and women want to be him.”

Lorenzo chuckled, before taking another swig of his drink.

“Truth be told, we didn’t have that high an opinion of him until the Alps,” Michail continued. “We thought he was a bit stuck up, but we ran with it because you just don’t turn down a blessing from Zeus, you know?”

“Alright, let’s have it then,” Lorenzo smiled.

 

The Alps were cold at high elevations, the nights were even colder.

A hundred men, all of them Greeks, all of them self-proclaimed soldiers, were huddled around each other as the sputtering light of their torches struggled in the howling wind and a frigid mix of rain and ice. It was mind-numbingly cold and they were all tired, but none of them dared to sleep.

They kept their shields and spears close, after hundreds of miles each man had become attached to his shield as if it were family. They were carefully maintained and cared for, as each of them had saved the life of its bearer on more than one occasion. All the shields bore the marks of the bearer’s home and city-state, as well as the unifying lightning bolt that tied them together as one unit, one team.

Their leader circled the perimeter of the dying light. Nicomede wasn’t particularly tall, and most of the men and a few of the women stood over him. But as they sat huddled around the dying fire, eyes looking out furtively into the night, Nicomede seemed to be two meters tall.

A shrill cry broke through the night, and they huddled closer, taking hold of spears and shields as they gathered around one another, eyes straining out into the darkness. Nicomede hefted his shield, pulling into line with them.

“Shields up!” he called out, and like a well-oiled machine they got into position, shields and spears rising into a bristling phalanx. Nicomede didn’t stand apart or behind, he was in the center and front of formation, shield and spear locked in with the rest as they pulled together.

As the monstrous cries echoed around them, Nicomede sent out the call and the edges of the phalanx pulled inwards until they stood in a solid circle with spears in all directions, a schiltron of shields and ready spears.

Slowly out of the darkness they appeared. Caocodaemons were the first, slipping out of the shadows with catlike bodies, moving slowly on silent paws with sharp fangs, their shadow bodies emaciated and their snouts filled with razor-sharp teeth.

“Hold yourselves!” Nicomede shouted as a shiver ran through the line. ”Remember that you are Zeus’ chosen, and that means tonight the monsters go hungry!”

Though the men were quiet, the shivering ceased. There was a sureness in their step as they kept their shields and spears raised. Michail had been next to Nicomede, partly covered by his shield, and had seen it all happen. He had watched as the monsters drew closer, and as something bigger began to edge out of the darkness just as the lights began to fade.

It was a lion, but like no lion he had ever seen. It was taller than horse at the shoulder, with fur the color of spun gold and a mane the color of bronze. Its eyes were red, and it had the oversized fangs of a sabertoothed cat that gleamed orange in the torchlight along with its iron-colored claws. It growled, and the deep throaty sound resonated through them, but Michail looked at Nicomede and the man didn’t even flinch.

“All of you!” Nicomede’s voice cut the wind and everyone could hear his voice. “You are in a shield wall; do you know what that means?”

Michail kept his shield raised, overlapping like scales with Nicomede’s shield and the shield of the man beside him.

“That means that you cover yourself and your brother or sister, and that they cover you!” Nicomede said. “No one stands apart and no one stands alone. I will stand in line beside each and every one of you, and I am not afraid. Do you think it’s because I’m Zeus’ Champion? Because I’m stronger or braver than you? No! It’s because when I stand in line I will fight to defend each and every one of you, and I know each and every one of you will fight to defend me!

“Do you see that lion? That monster that could kill any one of us on our own? Well he’s about to have a really bad night because if he wants one of us he’s going to get us all! So tell me, Lances! How many of you are ready to shove a spear up this monster’s ass!”

There was a resounding cry through the formation, and the men stamped their feet as one, spears steadied, as the cacodaemons backed off.

“I may be the champion of Zeus, but when I’m in the line, we stand together! So when you stand in a line with me, we’re all champions, and let me show you just how true that is!”

Thunder rolled in the dark sky above them, the moon was long since covered by the clouds and now a new roar echoed through the sky, drowning out the lion’s echoes.

A thunder clap echoed in their ears, rattling their bones as they held their ground, the air filled with blinding light and the smell of ozone. The formation haltered for a moment, but Nicomede held his ground, and Michail held beside him, and so long as one of them could hold position, they all could.

When they opened their eyes again, their shields crackled and sparked with life. Electricity flowed like water across their metal shields, flowing down the hafts of their spears until the blades danced with light. All of them could feel it, like fire in their blood as the divine lighting coursed through the formation.

Michail turned to look at Nicomede again. He had always looked a bit askance at him. Nicomede was a lightly built and very androgynous young man, one of the lightest and the slightest in the shield line. But in that moment, illuminated by fire light and lightning, Nicomede was the very image of a Greek statue, a Classical hero preserved in time from the age of myth, brought to life again.

The lion charged them, heading straight for Michail and Nicomede. Michail grit his teeth, all but feeling the hot breath of the monster. He wanted to flee, to crumple and run, but he had his brothers and sisters beside him, and Nicomede covering his side, and if he ran, he would abandon the man to his left. A shield wall, built around a man like Nicomede, could turn one man into a hundred.

Michail held, as did every man and woman around him. The formation tensed, readying for impact as the glow of lightning grew. The lion leapt, claws raised to crash down on them, and with a sound like a canon firing all the lighting built up around them was unleashed in a single devastating bolt from the tip of Nicomede’s spear. It was as if, as one, all of them had blasted the monster at once. And in an instant the lion was reduced from a gigantic monster into a smoking husk of dead flesh that crashed to the earth as the shield wall shouted in triumph.

“Alala!” Nicomede started the warcry, echoed en masse as the schiltron expanded outwards, spears thrusting forward to ward off the cacodaemons as the formation expanded. The closest were killed as spears thrust through their shadowy flesh, the rest retreated back into the shadows.

As the last of the cacodameons retreated the formation relaxes as Nicomede broke off, turning to face them, positively glowing as he stood proudly, the last of the divine lighting still clinging to his body.

“And that, brothers and sisters, is why Greece will win the day against the dark! And why we are the tip of the lance against evil! Not as one, but as a whole, together we will take this world back!”

 

 

“And we all cheered him on, of course,” Michail said. “Nicomede always knew how to fire up a crowd.”

“You should’ve been there with General Hanne on Sicily,” Lorenzo said. “Still…looking forward to see your man in action.”

On the bar before them a fresh pair of drinks were put down by the bartender.

“Compliments of the lady,” He said, gesturing to the sharply-dressed brunette with the tablet, who was now openly watching them.

Both of them raised her glasses to her as she turned to face them, legs crossed.

“Thank you,” Lorenzo smiled. “What’s the occasion?”

“That was a good story,” The woman said. “I was hoping a few drinks might help you tell more.”

“Well, I suppose I have a few in me,” Lorenzo smiled.

“And it was a long road to the Alps,” Michail said. “What’s your name, Miss…?”

“Calliope,” The woman smiled. “And I’m always listening for new stories.”

 

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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