The Snake and the Mirror

Wings of Victory

 

Hildegard was on the hunt again.

Ever since recovering from her illness, she had been eager to throw herself back out into the field and do what she did best: monster hunting. The city was full of champions, mages, and skilled warriors now, a far cry from the terrified rabble Hildegard had worked to train a year ago. Yet among them all, Hildegard was still the greatest monster-killer, save perhaps for Aurelio with all of his divine gifts and hunting prowess. But Hildegard wasn’t in this for the competition. She did it to safeguard mankind, to protect the innocent, and to feel the thrill of the hunt.

She was pursuing a pack of trolls through the rolling Italian hills. They were from the far north and hadn’t been much more than a nuisance until recently. They had attacked a young girl in one of Rome’s protectorate settlements, and they had passed from bothersome to dangerous. It was time for extermination.

She rode on the back of her favored horse, one of the few in Rome though they were working to breed more. She had a spear in hand and Stahlzan sheathed at her hip as she chased the pack of trolls across the countryside. She could see them ahead of her, running like a pack of bent hairy apes towards the closest treeline. Hildegard urged her steed onwards, grip tightening on her spear. While she often wished she had Turi and Pegasus with her, she enjoyed fighting on her own terms.

By the time the trolls had escaped into the trees, Hildegard had closed much of the distance between them. She was forced to slow as she urged the horse into the forest, but she could hear their grunting breaths and the heavy footfalls in their wake. She kept her ears pricked for the slightest sound. Trolls weren’t very bright, but they could be craftier than the average wolf. Traps and ambushes were not beyond their power.

Eventually Hildegard dismounted. She could move better on foot when the forest became this dense, and she left her horse to head back to the forest’s edge as she charged deeper into the woods, spear in hand. She might not be a champion, but she was a mage, and the mana in the air reinforced her body to the point that she was almost tireless, easily outpacing the lurching run of the trolls as she continued to close the ground between them. She heard them up ahead, hooting and grunting as they fled to whatever hole they called home.

Suddenly they went silent, and Hildegard found herself at the base of a tall ridge. Before her a cavern opened into almost impenetrable darkness, a narrow cave entrance that was no doubt the den of the trolls.

Hildegard stabbed her spear into the ground, leaving it there as she moved to the cave entrance. She wouldn’t have the room to use it well in there. As she stepped inside and the darkness began to envelop her, she drew Stahlzan from its sheath and as the blade came free it burst into flames, throwing flickering orange light across the walls and down the cavern before her.

The cave went deeper than she thought, and she could still no longer hear the trolls. She paused, considering turning back but decided to keep going forward. This was far from her first hunt in close quarters, and there was no telling where the trolls would go if she retreated.

Trolls were a nasty breed of monster, though they came in a number of varieties. Their human-like appearance, their ability to speak, and their somewhat comical features could make a person underestimate them. But Hildegard had encountered them before, and trolls were only human in shape. They were man-eaters and child-snatchers, and the only thing worse than being killed by a troll was being captured by one. Some were turned to stone at the touch of sunlight, but these ones were hardier, so Hildegard was going to teach them that they might not fear the sun, but they had plenty of reason to fear fire.

She walked forward into the growing silence, keeping her sword raised as she took one quiet step after another. She was lightly armored, mostly on her wrists, legs, and shoulders, most of her body covered in a thick coat of padded leather. It kept her light while protecting her more vulnerable points, and she was glad for it as she kept checking behind her to ensure she wasn’t being followed.

The cave continued deeper, far further than any Italian cave should have. It expanded out until it was a vast cavern, the narrow path she was on expanding and twisting upon itself as other paths led up the walls and off into shadowed corners. All of this was pitch black, lit only by the glow of her sword. A sharp breath and a hurried word expanded the flame until it was shining like a bonfire before her, the flame grew hotter, burning blue as it held to the blade.

She caught the first glimmer of dark eyes as they reflected the orange light, then another set, then another. Hildegard felt her heart sink in her throat as she realized she was surrounded by dozens of trolls. The ones that she had chased had led her back to their den and directly into a trap.

“Back!” Hildegard shouted and she waved her sword before her. The trolls withdrew from the blade, but others moved forward before she whirled around and drove them back as well. They were ugly creatures with large dark eyes and oversized warty noses over thick lips and worn teeth. Their hair was long, filthy, and shaggy, and hung like curtains from their brows. Many wore rudimentary clothing, but little else and none carried any weapon more advanced than a stone to throw. But they had numbers, vast numbers that Hildegard didn’t even know the upper limits of. Eventually they would get bold.

As she looked around, eyes trying to find any better ground to fight on, she spotted more and more signs of the troll den. Cages hung from the ceiling, big and strong enough to hold a man or woman, and bones littered the ground, not all of them from beasts. Simple huts made from grasses, bone, and sticks were here and there, and from all of these places more dark eyes stared. The air was thick here and the smell of filth and sweat and other vile things was almost overpowering.

Hildegard felt panic beginning to claw at the corners of her mind but she pushed it back. She had grown wild, confident, and more outgoing with the Days of Revelation, but at times like this she needed to fall back on her training. Her old training. The Jazheils had trained her how to funnel fear, how to control oneself, and to turn killing into instinct. Her mind cleared, her heartbeat steadied, and her eyes dilated as the flame on her sword grew more focused.

Hildegard struck first. She chose the direction that she’d come from and charged, bringing her blade in a long sweeping arc so that it cut through the first troll in a single elegant motion, cleaving him from stomach to shoulder as the fire left cinders in its stinking hair. The movements of her blade left a trail of fire in its wake, illuminating the cave as she kept moving forward, never falling back as she pushed into the troll ranks. They were numerous but disorganized, throwing themselves at her from all directions. Hildegard fought back with sword, boot and fist as she pushed her way towards the entrance.

Every time she turned one would leap at her from behind, forcing her to turn and kick with enough force to shatter its teeth as her blade thrust through the thick hide of another one. The place was soon rank with the stench of troll blood and viscera as Hildegard cut through one after another, her sword and arms red up to her elbows, save for the blade where the blood was boiled away by the licking flames. But for every one she killed more would take their place. Several climbed the walls to try and leap on her from above, and while most missed, one managed to smash into her back and force her briefly to her knees.

All of them leaped on her, beating their fists against her back and grabbing her feet to gnaw at her armored boots. She felt several take hold of her arm, trying to pin her as they piled atop her. Hildegard felt the panic creeping back in as she struggled to pull herself free. The trolls were strong, binding her limbs as they gnawed and clawed and tugged at her armor, clothes, and hair. One of them smashed its fist against the side of her head. Hard. And her vision swam as she tried to reorient herself. She swung her sword hand wildly, but pinned as she was she could do little more than scratch them, even as she kept a death grip on her sword.

She was on her knees, writhing in pain as the oversized troll hands grabbed at her armor and her body, ready to tear her apart or force her in a cage or heaven knew what else to her. She needed to get clear, to break free of their grip for a fraction of a second. There was one thing, but it had been a long time since she had called on magecraft like that. Cat was better suited for the flashy elemental magic than she was. If she overdid it, it could overtax her body to the point of leaving her defenseless.

Summoning that much fire from her body could mean death.

“It will mean Victory.”

A new warmth filled her body, like a presence that coursed through her blood. The pain dulled, her vision sharpened, and in an instant, everything became clearer.

She breathed in mana from the air, feeling it empty as it all flowed into her like a whirlpool. She kept going, waiting until her body was brimming with power, her skin and eyes almost aglow with energy as she focused it inside her, holding it back until the very last moment when it would burst free in all directions.

“Burn!”

Fire filled the cavern, a whirling conflagration that filled the entire space like a tornado of light, heat, and ash as it burned the hair and skin and flesh from every troll around her. Hildegard felt the hands grasping her disintegrate as the fire burned from her skin and armor.

As the fire began to clear she shakily rose to her feet, finding herself in the middle of a scorched cavern. The floor all around her had been scorched perfectly black, and the walls closest to her were similarly burned save for the silhouettes of trolls that had been obliterated where the fires had burned their hottest. Hildegard should have been exhausted, on her knees in pain, but she felt…fine. Stronger in fact than she had in years as the fear and doubt was washed away.

From the ruins of the cavern, a few scorched trolls peered out, their dark eyes now filled with fear. Hildegard looked down at herself. Much of her coat and armor had been scorched black, and her hands, eyes, and hair still looked as if they were still on fire, glowing like cinders as licks of flame rose from her. Hildegard’s grip tightened on her sword. It was time to finish the job.

The sun was beginning to set as she eventually managed to pull herself from the cavern and into the relative brightness of the forest, eyes straining as she walked free, assured that not a single troll had been left behind. She blinked blearily but gratefully at the bright sun, letting out a long sigh of relief.

“The hardest-fought victories are the ones we cherish most, don’t you think?”

The sun grew brighter, so bright Hildegard had to throw her hand over her eyes. When the light that seeped through her fingers faded, she lowered her hand and saw a figure standing…no, floating before her.

She was taller than Hildegard by quite a bit, and Hilde was far from short. She was dressed in Hellenic armor made of brilliant gold over a pure white tunic and skirt. Her hair, from what Hilde could see, was similarly gold and she wore a shining helmet that she lifted to let it rest on her brow, revealing an almost angelic face.

An appearance reinforced by the massive avian wings that spread from her shoulders.

“Hildegard Jazheil,” The woman spoke, and Hilde realized she was in the presence of a goddess. “I see promise in you. Others seek warriors, hunters, and leaders and find subjects of their own but in you I see something unique, that will to struggle on, to fight for victory.”

Hildegard fell to one knee, not sure on the protocol. “Wh-who are you?” She stammered, eyes lost in the goddess’ radiance.

“My name is Nike, Goddess of Victory,” she said. “And I wish to name you my champion.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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