The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 31

 

It was about midmorning when Cat arrived on the training field. Rosa was already there as usual. Cat was pretty certain she got up extra early every day just to beat Cat there so she could tease her for being late. That said, Cat had come with company, and she wasn’t planning on taking Rosa on today.

“Brought a friend I see,” Rosa nodded to the new arrivals, leaning on her spear.

“Hey,” Kara waved casually. “Cat invited me.”

“I wanted to try to do some training against spirits,” Cat said. “That’s most of what we’ll be fighting in the north, isn’t it? Spirits and monsters. I can learn a lot training with you and Hilde, but I can’t learn everything.”

“Well this ought to be entertaining at least,” Rosa said. “And we might get an audience. Nicomede and Hildegard tend to roll in pretty soon.”

“I’m not here to show off,” Kara shrugged.

“Then why did you bring the shrine maiden?” Rosa asked, glancing over her shoulder, and the two turned to see Megame hurrying towards them.

“What’s up, shrine maiden?” Kara asked, surprise creeping into her voice.

“I came to watch, of course,” Megame smiled. “I don’t often get to see Kara-chan fight.”

“Wait, Megame, who are you going to be rooting for?” Cat asked, arms folding over her chest.

“Oh, I don’t think I’m going to take sides,” Megame said. “But I’ll wish you both luck!”

“Well that’s something…” Cat said. “Alright…to start, I want to see what a spirit can do barehanded. Just a friendly spar for now, no weapons.”

“How friendly?” Kara asked. “I need to know how much to keep back.”

“I don’t want you holding back at all,” Cat said. “I know I won’t be.”

Rosa whistled “This out to be good,” before leading Megame back to the nearby seats to watch.

Cat started doing some light stretching, focusing her magic to course through her as she reinforced her body, thin sheets of ice creeping harmlessly over her skin as she prepared herself. Kara simply rolled her shoulders before stripping off her jacket, her white skin almost glowing against the black tank top underneath. As she swung her arms, the glowing only grew more pronounced, her shining blue eyes burning brighter as well, and with a single stretch of the back a pair of large black wings sprouted from her shoulder blades.

“Well, then,” Kara’s tone was still deadpan. “Ready when you are.”

Cat surged forward, her eyes on Kara’s hands as she brought her fists up. She started with a quick jab towards her shoulder, testing her to see just how quick the Valkyrie was. Kara’s hand came up to block her jab like a blur. It was a loose hit, easy to deflect, but Kara’s open palm stopped her fist cold. There wasn’t even a hint of give, it was as if Cat had just punched a solid wall. Stepping back, Cat threw a few more strikes at Kara, each one stopped or deftly dodged as Kara started pushing her advantage. Cat threw another punch, realizing too late she had overcommitted, her arm moving too far and giving Kara all the opportunity she needed. The Valkyrie seized her wrist, locking her arm with one hand as the other swung in to land a blow to her stomach with Cat barely managing to avoid a devastating gut punch.

Even in a grazing blow, Kara’s fist hit like a sledgehammer, a force entirely disproportionate with the speed and mass of the blow. Cat felt her feet briefly leave the ground as Kara’s blow struck and the air left her lungs in a single wrenching gasp. Kara pulled her arm back for another blow, but Cat managed to twist her trapped arm free and back out of her range, her breath still coming in heaves as she worked to keep herself on her feet.

“Thing you need to remember about spirits,” Kara said, lightly swinging her arms to loosen them. “You’re not fighting flesh and blood. These aren’t human arms or human fists. We’re not bound by your physics or your logic. We can go a lot longer and we can hit a lot harder than you can, magic or no magic.”

“Right…” Cat managed to get back on her feet, the pain fading as ice moved over the sensitive flesh. She focused more magic into her fists, hardening and strengthening them. Kara might not be made of flesh and blood, but she WAS made of magic, which was close enough.

“Alright,” Cat said. “Round two, let’s go.”

The two moved in closer, Cat being more cautious as she watched the way Kara moved. Though her expression never changed, the skill and experience was clear in the way she held her body. Kara was never uncertain, never twitchy, watching Cat closely with that same half-bored expression as her piercing blue eyes watched every twitch of muscle across Cat’s body.

Cat started with a few light jabs, easily deflected by Kara as Cat pushed it into a full offensive attack, trying to keep her on the back foot as she tried to wiggle a hit through. Kara’s hands moved like blurs, slapping aside each new jab as it came, her feet dancing out of the way as Cat tried to sweep them out from under her. Though she wasn’t getting through, Cat never gave Kara the time to counter-attack, but it was a delicate balance. If she was too slow then Kara could squeeze in far more devastating blows of her own, but if she over-committed…

Cat threw another punch, realizing too late where Kara’s hands were. In one swift motion Kara had her arm in a lock, and Cat had to pivot and brace her feet to keep herself from being completely thrown onto the ground as she worked to twist herself out of Kara’s grip, only for the Valkyrie to hook her leg in Cat’s and pull hard as she moved to counter her, sending Cat onto her back.

“Better that time,” Kara said. “At least you’re thinking it through.”

“Ya well,” Cat dusted herself off. “That didn’t have to do with you being a spirit so much as me being an idiot.”

“I’ll say,” Rosa grinned. “Come on, Cat. How many times have I caught you with that move?”

“Alright,” Kara said. “Round three and I’ll give you a few more pointers. There’s more to fighting spirits than you might think.”

Cat surged forward again, repeating her method of going on the offensive, though careful to leave herself options if Kara tried to catch her in a lock again. Her reinforced hands hammered against Kara’s arms, hoping to wear her down, but part of her suspected that Kara’s stamina was virtually endless. In a test of endurance, the Valkyrie would be able to outlast her several times over.

She’s not flesh and blood, Cat reminded herself, she doesn’t work on the same principles.

As the two fought, Megame began passing around a thermos of tea for the other spectators, and Kara’s head turned on a swivel after deflecting another blow.

“Hey Megame, what flavor is that?”

Cat almost couldn’t believe it as Kara looked entirely away from the fight, hands still raised but her focus turned elsewhere. Cat launched a hard jab straight for her more exposed shoulder, only to see Kara’s hand shoot up to grab her fist in her palm.

“It’s called Chun Mee, Echo Kami-san gave me some,” Megame smiled.

“Smells good,” Kara still wasn’t looking at her, even as she turned her body to coolly deflect Cat’s next blow. “I’ll have some after this.”

Cat barely saw Kara’s fist blur as it struck her in the chest in a hard counter, sending her feet scuffling back as the breath was forced from her lungs, sucking for air.

“H-How did you…” Cat wheezed as Kara’s hands went to her sides.

“Next tip, Cat. See these?” She used her pointer and middle finger to point to her own eyes “These are for magic and decoration. Most spirits have three-sixty degree vision in any kind of mundane conditions. I could have been blindfolded in a blackout and I can still see you coming, especially with your fists glowing like a lighthouse to my senses. If you want to distract, trick, or blind a spirit, you need to appeal to their nature, or find something magic.”

“Got it…” Cat mumbled as she stood back up. “So, I’d need to, like, put a magic blindfold on you?”

“I prefer putting blindfolds on others, but hey buy me dinner and we’ll talk,” Kara smiled.

“I…w-wait, what?” Cat tried to say, but as soon as her hands were raised Kara was on her and Cat was forced onto the defensive.

Fighting Kara was a lot like fighting Rosa. Being a champion of Ares meant that Rosa usually had the edge in terms of raw physical strength, so Cat was forced to rely on dodges, parries, and deflection to fight defensively without exhausting herself. Fighting Kara, however, was like fighting a freight train that kept coming back. Each new blow forced Cat another step back as she rapidly gave up ground.

‘Come on,” Kara said. “You’re not going to beat Nidhoggr like this. That dragon is going to wear you down then crush you like an ant!”

“I know!” Cat growled, but try as she might she couldn’t find a hole in Kara’s offense. Nothing she could attack easily or safely exploit. If she wanted to beat Kara, to beat anything on this level, she was going to need to take risks.

Cat measured the pattern of her blows, waiting until her arm was forward before launching her counter-attack. It was an all-or-nothing gambit. Either she would seize the advantage or Kara would punish her brutally for it. Cat felt Kara’s fist slam into her side, but she turned enough to let it graze her, wincing at the pain but following through on her own strike. Moving her legs quickly under her, she seized Kara’s arm and twisted herself around to try for a throw over her shoulder. Kara moved with her, trying to twist out of the lock until they both fell into a grapple.

Cat had less than a second before Kara’s monstrous strength forced her to submit, and in that moment, she converted all of the pent up magical energy in her hands and arms into a burst of ice and snow, a dazzling explosion of white that blinded spirit and human alike. Cat launched herself forward, trying to use weight to her advantage as she and Kara went crashing to the ground. On her back, Kara lost most of the advantage her strength gave her, and Cat took it for all it was worth.

After another fifteen seconds of rolling struggle, Cat finally managed to pin Kara down.

“Whew,” Cat breathed. “Call it! I just pinned a Valkyrie.”

“Not bad,” Kara said, rolling back onto her feet when Cat released her. “Glad to see you’re willing to take risks. Learning something too.”

“Woo! Well done, Cat-chan!” Megame shouted from the benches. A small crowd had gathered to watch, most curious to see the newcomer taking on Catarina. Nicomede among them, clapping politely along with the others.

“We can take five,” Kara said, stretching her arms. “Or you can get back to practicing with Red over there.”

Cat nodded. “She’s probably pretty angry about having to sit out anyway.”

Walking back to the edge of the ring, Cat happily took some water as she went to meet with Rosa and Nicomede.

“Heh, not bad, Cat.” Rosa said “Looks a lot like when I train with Capi. Have to learn to fight spirits somehow.”

“I’m a bit envious,” Nicomede added. “Both of you have the chance to spar with friendly spirits. In Greece, if you wanted to fight spirits you better have thirty men with you.”

“I’m not about to wrestle a chimera or anything,” Cat said. “But it is helpful. What brings you to the field?”

“I like to get here before the others,” Nicomede said. “We have training in a half hour and it sets a good example.”

“Good thing too, I wanted to talk to both of you,” Rosa said, looking from Nicomede to Cat. “And Megame could probably hear it too.”

“What’s up?” Cat looked at her curiously, Rosa’s tone was more serious than usual.

“Capi said that the Consul’s started pushing for an attack plan,” Rosa said. “Seems we might be getting our wish sooner than expected. Within a couple of months we might be moving North.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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