The Snake and the Mirror

The Road Together

 

Megame packed up her remaining gear as the campsite was disassembled and stored in the Legion’s wagon train. Dawn had broken on a cool grey-skied day and there was a sense of anxiety rising through the camp. The last day had come; tonight, they were going to war.

The siege of monsters had broken off slightly before dawn, but even now the scouts were moving in groups to push back the ones straying too near the legions, but they were growing more numerous, and there were no doubt countless more were waiting for them ahead.

Megame was dressed in her familiar traveling clothes. They’d once been her ceremonial Miko clothing, but the sleeves and pants had been tied off at her elbows and knees, and they were reinforced with padding and a number of patches from where they’d been torn. They were what she’d worn from Japan to Rome, and they had a sense of comfort and familiarity to them. She was travelling again, and while she had Cat and the other champions for company, something about this trip had felt different, lonelier.

“You’re looking pretty down there, Shrine Maiden.”

Megame blinked, looking up from where she was working to see a familiar pale-skinned girl watching her, leaning slightly to the side with a subdued smile on her face.

“Kara!”

“Hey the-woah now!” Kara nearly fell over as Megame hugged her.

“What are you doing here?” Megame asked. “I thought you were staying behind!”

“Well, I figured if you all really did have a plan, it’d involve the kind of thing that’d get my patron’s panties in a real big twist. Decided I might as well be on standby if that’s the case.”

“And she’s not the only one,” Megame looked down and saw a red-furred fox circling around Kara’s legs. In less than a moment, Hachi’s familiar form as a fox woman was leaning on Kara’s shoulder from behind.

“I did say I’d escort and protect you, Megame. I need to keep my promise.”

Megame beamed before embracing them both. “But…weren’t you supposed to be with the Night Guard?”

“Rome can get by on a skeleton crew for a few weeks,” Hachi said. “Most of us are catching up along the supply train. Aurelio, Sybilla, Cade, Kira and Elisa will be here before dusk. Mary, Constantin and Aelia are in Rome, but they’re rooting for you every step of the way.”

“I…” Megame was lost for words, instead choosing to hug them both again. Hachi smiled, Kara just looked a bit exasperated, but Megame could see the smile tugging at her lips. “Thank you both…”

“We all have your back, and Catarina’s,” Hachi smiled. “I might want to protect you, but I think you’ve long outgrown that. But anyone who can get here to fight will be coming.”

Megame remembered the card she had drawn in her game with Skuld, a card that showed the people Megame now knew to be Cat, Rosa, Torleif, Gisela, and Kara walking alongside her. She wasn’t sure if fate was on their side, but she knew now more than ever that this is where she needed to be.

 

*****

 

Angel stood at the edge of the camp, eyes locked on the horizon. With what little remained of her sight, she could clearly see the Brocken. She could see the monsters gathering at its base, the air around it filled with drakes and lesser dragons while the mountain itself was untouched. They were waiting, all of them, for the coming of their master. Before the next dawn had come, Nidhoggr would fully manifest upon the Earth. If they failed, the sun might never rise again.

“Can’t say I’m surprised to see you like this.”

It wasn’t often that Angel was caught off-guard, though it had been happening more and more recently. She turned around, her vision re-focusing, and she saw Giovanni in his human form looking at her.

“Giovanni…” She said. When had he gotten here? When was the last time she had checked on him? Angel felt her stomach twist as she realized just how short her range had become.

“I just came in this morning,” He said. “A bit hard to convince some of these soldiers I wasn’t one of these monsters.”

“I thought you were in Barcelona…”

“I figured that if you would be trying anything it would be today, Stella and I managed to secure…quicker transportation.”

“Stella is here as well?”

“She’s taking a few minutes to lie down. Riding dragonback was…less than kind to her.”

“Dragonback…”

Giovanni smiled. “It’s been an…interesting pilgrimage, but I’m here to help Rome.”

“Ah…thank you, Giovanni,” Angel inclined her head.

“Mmm…I know you would prefer Capitolina to be here as well,” There was nothing resentful in his voice, he was simply stating an observation, and not an inaccurate one.

“That’s not…” Angel tried to articulate a response before trailing off.

“Don’t worry about it,” Giovanni said. “I wish she was as well. It’s a shame the Wolf of Rome cannot leave Rome, but she’ll be waiting eagerly for our return, both of us.”

“If I am being honest, Giovanni,” Angel said. “I came here…not expecting to return.”

“I had a feeling you didn’t,” Giovanni said. “Did you even give Capitolina a proper goodbye?”

“Well I…”

“Not to be presumptuous, Angel, but I think you didn’t. Someone like you…you’ve never had to say goodbye to anyone.”

“I erm…” Angel fidgeted a bit at the question. Giovanni smiled, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“As someone who has had to say goodbye…if you didn’t do it properly, then that’s all the more reason to make sure you come back. If not for yourself, then for Capitolina.”

It was likely the first time Giovanni had physically touched her. Angel winced a bit, but quickly recovered, and soon found she enjoyed the warmth flowing from his hand into her.

“I suppose…that is a good reason, Giovanni. Thank you.”

 

*****

 

While the legion was setting up camp, Torleif rested idly against the large runestone in the center of camp, getting a little extra sleep after her shift but before they began to march again. She had though it would be a quick catnap, not long enough to sleep deeply or dream, but almost as soon as her eyes were closed she drifted off into a dream.

She was standing alone in a misty field, the world falling away into fog around her. She couldn’t see anything through the fog, but ringing in her ears was the distant sound of a battle being fought. Metal rang and shouts echoed through the fog in all directions. She couldn’t tell who was fighting or what, but there was battle all around her.

A flash of light, a booming roar of thunder and Torleif was knocked off her feet, falling onto her rear as a massive figure appeared from the darkness and the fog. He was a colossal burly man, dressed in leather armor and a long cloak, his hands clad in huge gauntlets and a similarly thick belt around his waist. Slung at his hips was a hammer unlike any other, built like a sledgehammer with a handle that was much too short. His head was a mess of brilliant red hair, a thick beard growing from his broad chin and a veritable mane falling down his back.

“Little thunder all it take to knock you over, girl?” The man, no, the god said. “Thought you were made of tougher stuff than that!”

Torleif scowled, rising to her feet

“You caught me off-guard is all! I’m ready to fight!”

“Ha!” the god laughed. “That’s more like it! You going to kill dragons, little girl?”

“Lots of dragons! Lots of giants and monsters too!”

“Damn right you will! Toss those giants right off Midgard!”

“I will!” Torleif nodded fervently. “But uh…who are you?”

At this, the red-haired god broke into a fit of laughter. “Who am I!? I suppose it might be hard to remember; I looked more like you for a little while there.”

Torleif’s eyes grew wide. “W-wait…Thor!?”

“Now she recognizes me,” Thor smiled. “That’s right, the one true God of Thunder, I suppose it’s time we were properly introduced.”

“Uh…” Torleif wasn’t sure how she should respond. Was she supposed to bow? Curtsy? Torleif wasn’t good at either of those things.

Her train of thought was interrupted by a gruff slap on the back.

“Wanted to make sure you were on the right track. The Old Man said to check up on you, but I know you’re tougher than any other little girl. I knew you’d do fine on your own.”

“Y-yeah…” Torleif mumbled. “Umm…Mister Thor?”

“Mister, am I? That’s a new one. What is it?”

“Will you…be helping me-er…helping us tonight?”

“Little girl, I’ve been helping you the whole time,” Thor grinned. “But if you need that extra bit of godly kick well…any time you point that hammer I gave you and call the lightning down, I’ll make sure whatever it’s pointed at gets an extra swing from Mjolnir.”

Torleif’s face split into a grin. “You got it, uh…boss!”

“The All-Father likes to say every man has a day that he’s tested…little girls included.” Thor said, placing a massive hand on Torleif’s shoulder, nearly causing her knees to buckle.

“He’s wrong though. Sure, he’s right about most things but he’s wrong there. Every day is a test, it’s a test to be stronger, to swing harder, and to fight better than the day before. Today’s going to be a big day, a fated day, but it’s not the last day. Today, Torleif, is the day to swing that hammer harder than you’ve ever swung before. Got it?”

“G-got it!” Torleif nodded, and received a back-breaking slap on her shoulder.

“’Atta girl, then show those Romans what a Norse champion can do!”

 

Torleif snapped awake from her reverie, eyes looking out as the camp was packed away, head still resting against the cold stone of the runes. She let out a long sigh, reaching to the handle of her hammer for comfort. She’d do it, she’d fight harder than she ever had before. That didn’t mean she wasn’t still afraid. Thor had a lot of confidence in her, and they might have “shared” her body for a while, but he never really got to know her. The growing anxiety in her stomach remained.

Torleif glanced to her side, and noticed a tall white flower poking up from the ground next to her. That was odd, as there were almost no flowers left this time of year, and more than that it looked…oddly familiar. Looking closer, she could see that inside one of the soft white petals was what looked like writing.

Torleif leaned in, not wanting to pluck the flower, gently taking hold of the petal to read. Sure enough it was writing, as if the words had grown in pigment along the petals themselves.

Torleif,

I’m sorry I can’t be there in person, but a battlefield isn’t much of a place for a nymph. I know I said goodbye before you left, but I want to let you know that Nora and I, and everyone else, are all rooting for you. Messages are hard to send your way by the normal method, so I hope this reaches you, I think I can still feel your presence, and I suppose hope is all we have. I just want you to know that when you come back there will always be a place for you here.

Love,
Echo

Torleif felt her face burning as she read the message. Miss Echo was the nicest person Torleif had probably ever met, and had sent a flower just for her. Not a message for Cat or the Legion or anyone else, just her. Thor might have been her patron, but Echo was her friend.

Torleif gently plucked the flower from the ground and slid the stem under her hairband, letting the flower sit in her hair just as it did in Echo’s. Somehow, its presence alone made some of the mounting anxiety slip away.

 

*****

 

A lumbering reptilian beast moved its way slowly through the dark German forest, great claws cutting into the earth with each heavy footfall. It was a massive beast, made of strong muscle and hard scale, impervious to most attacks, it had confidence in its strength and in its armor. It was going to Nidhoggr, to destroy these humans from whom it had nothing to fear.

So little fear in fact, it never saw the silver arrow until it was struck in the eye.

Aurelio watched the monster fall, slinging his bow over his shoulder when the twitching ceased.

“Good shot,” Elisa said, watching from his side, her own footfalls through the forest as swift and silent as his.

“You doubted me,” Aurelio said, a satisfied smile on his face.

“Never,” Elisa scoffed.

“Then why was your hand on your sword.”

“Safety first.”

“Sure, that’s the reason.”

“Now, now, keep flirting like that and a girl will get jealous,” Their repartee was interrupted by the arrival of Sybilla, floating down beside them as her feet delicately touched the ground.

“Hardly,” Elisa said. “Simply banter.”

“I wonder if you banter like that with the werewolf recruit,” Sybilla smiled. It had been quite some time since Aurelio had seen Elisa’s face actually redden like it did at her words.

“How’s the west side of the supply lines?” Aurelio asked Sybilla.

“All clear for now,” Sybilla said. “But they won’t stop coming for long.”

“We’ll do what we can but we need to keep moving,” Aurelio said. “We only have a day to catch up to the Legion and we’re still kilometers behind.”

“Agreed,” Elisa said. “Best to take advantage of the morning hours while we have them. Any word from Hachi?”

“She’s reached the legion along with Kara,” Sybilla said. The Witchbreed had been using her magic to keep in contact, allowing communication almost as swiftly as Evangeline’s magic communicators, but those were few and far between.

“Cade and Kira are still a bit behind, but they’re more suited for rearguard duty.”

“Yes, neither of them are champions or possess military training,” Elisa said. “But they chose to come anyway.”

“We all did,” Aurelio said. “Aelia, Constantin, Mary, and the rest can look after Rome while we’re gone…but this battle needs all hands available so that there will be a Rome to come back to.”

“We know, Hunter, that’s why we’re here,” Sybilla smiled, moving to his side as she slid her arm around his.

“Right…” Aurelio said a bit sheepishly. “Guess I’m just telling myself because if I doubted it for a moment I’d run screaming in the other direction…after grabbing you of course,” He added as Sybilla gave him a firm squeeze of the arm.

“You’d better,” She smiled. “But I don’t think any of us are going anywhere but forward.”

“Agreed,” Elisa said, leading the way as the three of them moved through the woods. “And once we get there, we put our monster-slaying skills to the test.”

“These legionnaires are good, but with a lot of champions tied up helping Cat, they’ll need every extra bit of help they can,” Aurelio said. “Turi and Hildegard will be at the front as well as Evangeline but…well I think we can help a little.”

“Last I recall, we were the ones on the frontlines during the Battle of the Black Sun,” Sybilla smiled. “And I think the Night Guard has only gotten better at our job.”

“Agreed,” Aurelio said, pulling her in closer. “Time to show we’re all in, and we’re not backing down.”

 

*****

 

Scheherazade had left sometime during the night, and so Cat was alone when she woke up in her tent and had begun packing.

Today was the day.

As she put her pack together, she felt a familiar weight at the bottom. She glanced around, making sure she had a little time to spare before opening it and pulling out the thick magic tome she’d brought with her all the way from Rome.

It was a longshot, but Cat decided she wanted to make sure at least one last message got through.

“Hey Asha,” Cat scribbled onto the blank page, not expecting a reply at this hour. To her surprise, it took less than a minute before she saw “Hey Cat” appear on the page along with a sketch of Asha’s face.

Cat smiled as her pen hit the paper again.

C: Today’s the day.

A: You and me both.

C: Wish I could be with you.

A: I wish I could be there! But we’re a long way apart, even for a magic carpet.

C: Guess I can only say good luck then.

A: Heh, I know you can beat that dragon, Cat.

Cat paused, wondering if she should ask the question that was prickling at her mind, wondering if she even wanted it answered.

C: Hey Asha?

A; Yeah, Cat?

C: What was it like dying?

There was a pause before her reply, Asha’s illustrated face switching to an expression of concern.

A; Cat, don’t think like that.

C: I just want to know.

A: I’m not really the person to ask. I’m not exactly a normal case.

C: What can you tell me?

A: …I don’t remember much. I didn’t go…pleasantly. Starvation sucks something awful but…Cat you can’t be afraid of it. Whether the gods are right or not, whether there’s something after or not…there’s really just two things I want you to think about. What happens today, and when you’re going to write to me next. None of us stick around forever, not even a weird old ghost like me. So just do that for me, worry about today sure, but worry about tomorrow too. Cause there’s going to be a tomorrow, and I know you’re going to see it.

C: Thanks Asha. I just want you to know you’re a great friend. I’m glad I got this book.

A: Hey so am I! I’d still be at The Line if you hadn’t! The question is am I your BEST friend?

Cat couldn’t help but smile.

C: That’s proooobably Hildegard.

A: Your adoptive sister can’t be your best friend!

C: Mmm Megame then.

A: No fair I’ve known you way longer!

C: By like five months! Fine, Rosa then.

A; Pfft, she’s allowed to kiss you, no fair. I’d be your best friend if I could sneak over and slip my tongue in your mouth whenever I wanted.

C: Asha!

A: Not to mention where her hands are probably wandering.

C: ASHA!

A: See, this is why I’m your best friend.

C: This is why you totally aren’t!

A: Hehe, we can settle this later. Go kill a dragon, hero.

C: Go save a kingdom, hero.

 

Cat smiled as she closed the book, her mood significantly improved. She’d had a chance to talk with all of them. Asha, Schehera, there was Hilde and Hanne of course but they were with her. And of course…

“Hey, it’s about time to go,” Rosa said, tapping her on the shoulder.

“Right!” Cat said, slipping the book back into her bag. Rosa spotted it as Cat shut her bag.

“Get a chance to talk with Asha?”

“Yeah,” Cat nodded. “Heh…seems like yesterday we were on that magic carpet together.”

“It does…though a lot’s different.”

“A lot is going to be different tomorrow too,” Cat said. “But…different for the better.”

“I have no doubt,” Rosa said, smiling as she leaned in to give Cat a quick kiss on the cheek. “Now come on, it’s time to go. Everyone’s waiting.”

“Everyone?” Cat asked sarcastically.

“Just about,” Rosa smiled.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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