The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 40

 

It was growing cooler by the day, a fact only made clearer by the crisp emptiness of the Piedmont sky in northern Italy. The Alps here dominated the horizon, rising in the north, a visual reminder of the great barrier that separated Italy from the devastation throughout Europe. Here, the long fields of wild grass were interrupted by a forest of white tents, marked here and there by red banners bearing a new sigil. Legio I Capitolina had become famous for carrying the image of a wolf throughout Italy. This camp, however, and its two thousand legionnaires carried the image of an eagle, the sigil of Legio II Aquila.

It had been several months since the official formation of the second legion and the famous duel between Rosaria and Nicomede that had ended with Rosa’s victory. The legion had been armed, armored, trained by the top warriors from the first legion, and then sent north to a forward camp in the foothills of the Alps to begin preparations for what was becoming known as the “Dragon Offensive”. While the soldiers were put through constant drills, tested against captive monsters, and instructed how to deal with the horrors they might face in the north, the ‘Forward Offensive Team’ as they had been named were doing training of their own, though among the soldiers of the second legion they had earned a slightly mocking nickname: “The Champion Unit”.

Cat’s sword struck the hard metal of Rosa’s spear shaft as the redhead easily brought it up in defense before lashing back with a vicious counter. Cat backstepped out of range before rushing forward again, keeping her eyes trained on Rosa as she covered her free hand with ice, holding it back before lashing out with a sudden flurry of blinding ice crystals. As Rosa tried to rub them from her eyes with her arm cat pushed forward, only to be stopped as something hooked around her collar from behind. Cat felt herself pulled from her feet and thrown bodily away from Rosa, landing in a roll as Rosa recovered.

“Got your back, Rosa!” Torleif grinned, standing firmly planted from where she’d thrown Cat, Rosa moving beside her with spear in hand.

“Good save, kid,” Rosa grinned as Cat rolled back to her feet, looking around for her own backup.

“Megame, you were supposed to keep her busy!” Cat shouted as the shrine maiden hurried to her side.

“Sorry!” Megame apologized profusely. “She’s really small and hard to keep a hold of!”

“Don’t call me small!” Torleif hurled her hammer at the pair of them and Megame rushed forward, hands glowing like the sun as a person-sized shield of cascading light formed in front of her, deflecting the hammer with enough force to send Megame grinding a few inches back as Torleif’s hammer spun wildly off-course into the air.

“Rush her!” Cat said, knowing they only had seconds before Torleif remembered to recall her hammer. The pair of them charged forward, Rosa moving to intercept them as Torleif hung back a few steps. Cat engaged Rosa, sword meeting her spear as Megame darted off to the side to flank her, only to be caught by Torleif who lunged at her, still unarmed but using her immense strength to send the shrine maiden bowling over.

As Cat and Rosa resumed their duel, Cat caught a sight of something out of the corner of her eye. From half the field away she saw Gisela, bow drawn, leveling an arrow directly for her. Cat prepared to dodge, disengaging from Rosa, only for Nicomede to rush between her and Gisela, followed a moment later by the sound of an arrow being deflected from a shield.

“Thanks Nico!” Cat said, pushing her advantage on Rosa as Nicomede covered her flank. Torleif reached out a hand as she entangled herself from Megame, calling her hammer back to her hand, only for Megame to roll forward, summoning a shield as the hammer was deflected again.

“Stop that!” Torleif shouted, rushing to retrieve it by hand when Megame to grab her heel. Torleif was strong but still light, and tumbled easily onto her front where she had trouble getting leverage.

Megame drew another one of her charms from her sleeve, slamming it into the ground as the grass and roots began to coil around Torleif’s arms and torso, binding her in place.

“Just stay right there for a moment,” Megame said, moving back to Rosa as the glowing light on her hands reformed into claws of sunlight spreading from her fingers.

Cat lunged for another attack, only to be knocked off balance as Nicomede was pushed roughly against her side. Gisela had abandoned using her bow from a distance, slamming herself hard enough against his shield to send him backing into Cat. Rosa seized the moment, spear thrusting forward only for Nicomede to pivot to face her, deflecting it with his shield as Cat rushed past him to engage Gisela at close range.

Cat’s sword flashed as it swung against the black bludgeon that Gisela’s bow had changed shape into. Gisela lashed out with a sweeping kick, only to find her leg caught in a patch of growing ice over the ground as Cat pushed forward, hammering at her defenses with her sword as she forced Gisela back on the defensive. Megame and Nicomede were both on Rosa, forcing her to back up as they tried to attack her from either side.

A blast of lightning from down the field signaled Torleif freeing herself from Megame’s trap, recalling her hammer to her hand as she rushed in to back up Rosa. Nicomede stepped in to block a hammer blow meant for Megame, sending both of them crashing backwards as the force of it sent him sprawling over her.

“Sorry…” Ha managed, a bit flustered as he pulled himself off the shrine maiden and helped her to her feet. The shift in combat had slowed Cat’s assault, enough for Gisela to regain her footing and her speed as she began her counterattack. Her bludgeon and legs slamming against Cat every chance they took as Cat was forced to draw more of her magic from her ice and into her body to match Gisela’s champion speed. As Megame and Nicomede re-engaged Rosa and Torleif, Cat could see what Gisela was doing. She was pulling Cat away, trying to keep her focus away from the others, as she had with Nicomede, but if Cat backed up now Gisela’s counter-attack would likely put her out of commission entirely.

“Nico!” Cat shouted. “Shield!”

Without even a question, Nico released his shield and tossed it to Cat who caught it loosely in one hand. Without strapping it on she didn’t have all its utility, but she could do enough. Maneuvering around Gisela she lunged forward, shield raised, as she forced Gisela backwards towards the group. Gisela managed to pull away from the charge but Cat continued forward until she was engaged with Rosa again, bringing the six of them together into chaotic melee.

A small crowd had gathered to watch the display of skill, magic, and divine power as the two teams sparred relentlessly, weapons colliding and magic flashing as they broke apart and reformed again and again. They would have continued longer, perhaps as long as they could, if it hadn’t been for a sharp voice cutting through the air.

“Time!”

All six of them pulled back, magic fading and weapons lowering as Hildegard walked onto the field. While already impressive, her ascension to being Nike’s champion had made her a radiant presence on the field. The color of her hair and skin seemed more vivid, and she seemed surrounded with an eternal kind of glow, particularly in her eyes. It made her stand out even before she manifested Nike’s wings during battle.

“We almost had them!” Cat objected, even as she sheathed her sword.

“Pfft, you wish,” Rosa said. “Nice try though.”

“I was pulling a lot of those hammer blows!” Torleif said. “If I went all out we would have won in the first minute!”

“We were all holding back,” Megame said. “We are friends after all.”

“That’s half the reason I told you not to perform these split-team matches.” Hildegard said, arms folded. “It only teaches you how to fight each other and coordinate half the team, not to mention you won’t be holding back against Nidhoggr’s forces.”

“It’s not like we can train against monsters,” Rosa said. “We’ve thinned them out all over this area and the captive ones don’t last long enough against the six of us. Besides we switch off teams to learn how to coordinate.”

“And yet you and Cat always seem to end up on opposite sides,” Hildegard said, a frown still across her face.

“Alright, alright, point taken,” Rosa said, turning to the rest of them. “Team dismissed! Training’s done for the morning.”

As the group began to disperse Cat walked up to Rosa, keeping pace with her as they moved off the field.

“Wanna go out for lunch?” Cat asked to which Rosa shrugged.

“Sure.”

“Something on your mind?” Cat asked as she moved them towards the mess tent.

“Just thinking through that fight, seeing a few issues.”

“I think I know what you mean,” Cat said. “Torleif forgets she can summon her hammer to her half the time.”

“Well yeah, but other than that…” Rosa said. “Gisela’s still not working well in a team. Nicomede has trouble holding ground with his shield up when he’s one on one.”

“We’ll be fine,” Cat smiled. “We’ve got a tough commander to whip us into shape after all.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Rosa smirked. “It’s still a pain when you’re that commander.”

Together the pair of them got some food from where it was being handed out and took a seat at a makeshift table under the sky.

“But what about you?” Rosa asked.

“Huh? Me?” Cat looked back at her curiously.

“You’ve been acting weird,” Rosa said. “A bit fidgety. Plus I keep baiting you into one-on-one and you keep falling for it.”

“Well that…” Cat went off, burying her food in her mouth to stifle the silence. She had managed an excuse by the time she was finished swallowing.

“Just nerves I guess.”

“If you say so,” Rosa said. “I mean I get it, but it’s not your normal way of dealing with stress, you know?”

“Not normal?”

“Well, sure,” Rosa said. “Normally when you’re stressed you get angry, or frustrated, or something Nowadays you seem…I dunno, scared of us.”

“Uh…”

Cat seriously hoped Rosa wasn’t looking too closely at her. They’d all been travelling together and working as a team for months. It had meant Cat was with Rosa pretty much every hour of the day, and all of that exposure had only confirmed what she’d been worried about for several months now.

Rosa, Cat had realized, was tough, effective, kind, and a bit of an ass in a likable way. She was also incredibly attractive, and had the body of an Amazon. It hadn’t taken long for Cat to realize that she’d fallen head over heels for the stubborn redhead.

This had been revelation enough. Cat had become aware she preferred women to men when she’d been quite young. She’d always been the knight saving damsel in her imagination after all; and that damsel had never been a man. She’d stifled a lot of that when she was younger, as it was a mage’s duty to continue the bloodline, though with the Days of Revelation that restriction had been lifted for the most part. But she had never in her life ever been attracted to a specific person like this.

Alicia and Asha might have been cute, but Alicia was straight and Asha now had her own…slightly confusing thing going with Leyla, and neither of them had stoked a fire in her quite like Rosa had. Cat spent months in between hating Rosa for making things complicated and wanting to throw herself at her. The only result of that conflict had been a lot of awkward pauses at meals and in conversation that Rosa seemed either to ignore or get confused by. Cat didn’t even know what Rosa’s preferences were; she couldn’t tell whether her aggressive flirting with Nicomede and Evangeline was legitimate or just teasing, and she wasn’t sure how to bring it up without potentially damaging the friendship they had. It hadn’t been an easy friendship to build to begin with.

“So uh…” Cat began. “Sorry just…a lot of pressure, you know. How about Nicomede? He still doing fine with the team?”

“Hmm? Nico’s fine as ever. What’s up with you, Cat?”

“Ah well…” Cat steeled herself. “It’s just, uh…”

“Catarina.”

Cat nearly jumped in her seat as she turned to see Angel stepping towards her. The winged wolf had traded out her more casual attire for a somewhat more armored appearance, complete with silver helm with holes for her long wolfish ears.

“Ah! Come on…Angel, what is it?”

“You are about to have a visitor, I did not want them to catch you off-guard.”

“Too late for that,” Rosa chuckled as Cat’s face burned.

“Who is it?” Cat asked, defeated.

I do hope I’m not interrupting anything important.”

Cat blinked as she recognized the source of the familiar voice. A tall willowy woman in long dark robes and unnaturally bright teal eyes and hair. Huldra, the witch she had met in the dream battle against Nidhoggr stepped forward to join them, standing at Angel’s side.

“I have some news that might be of interest.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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