The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 44

 

“Talk” Asha slammed the man against the alley wall, hand pressed against his chesr as she stared him down.

“N-no.” The man tried to summon up what resistance he had. He was taller than Asha, but not by much. “The things they’d do to me if I talked…”

Leyla’s sword pierced the wall beside his chest, blade shimmering with heat.

“And the things we’ll do if you don’t?” He asked, eyeing him carefully.

It was a bluff on their part, if a dangerous one. Asha and Leyla had both been pretty strict on that point to Hazif and Freny. They were rebels and they had to fight, but they weren’t torturers, they wouldn’t sink to URIEL’s level.

The man was a mid-level employee at a nearby facility they had been tracking. They had hoped they might glean something from his walking route, but they’d been disappointed. Now, with their gestating cult in very dire straits it was time to start playing more dangerously. Hitting URIEL where they were weak, and even possibly uncovering some fo their secrets, was too valuable of an opportunity to slip by.

Asha pushed her hand hard against his chest, fingers spreading as spiritual energy coursed through her body beneath her skin. For him, it would have felt very hot, not enough to burn but enough to start making him sweat.

“I don’t believe you.” He said “If you were going to torture me you wouldn’t do it in some alley where I could scream for help.”

“Scream and the guards come down on us.” Leyla said.

“Yes, both of us.” The man pushed against her hand, even as he flinched at the heat. “And that’s worse for you than it is for me.

“Look” Asha said “We know you work with URIEL, we know there’s a lot of traffic and shipping into that facility. We’re not looking to hurt anyone.”

“You’ve killed a lot of soldiers” He spat back.

“Yes, we have.” Leyla said “Men armed with guns while we acted in self-defense, who serve a tyrannical empress. We just need to get inside, after that we’ll make our own way. It won’t be the first time.”

“Wait…” The man’s face went from confusion to revelation “You’re the ones who attacked the SV-facility a few months ago?”

“Uh…” Leyla paused as Asha shot him an angry glance. That had likely been where they had found Freny, but letting the man know only made him more of a witness.

“No no that’s brilliant!” The man’s face lit up “I thought you were just thieves or terrorists or something…well, I guess you’re both, but my friend Faraj was one of the scientists there. He said you got them to leave unharmed…Though he said you burned through his lab coat!”

“Yeah that was us…” Asha nodded “We’re not really in the business of killing civilians and unarmed scientists.”

“Who are you then?” He asked “There’s a thousand rumors going around but no one really knows for sure…”

“Well we’ve kind of needed to keep anonymity” Asha said before shaking her head “Back on the matter, we want into that facility.”

“Well I can’t give you my access codes or anything, they’ll know it was me.” He said.

“Make it work” Leyla said “Honestly this is a formality. Force us and we’ll go through the front door.”

The man gulped, clearly straining for an answer. “…early morning, 3AM or so, minimal staff on-site and I could…leave a few perimeter doors open after my shift ends. If you time it right you might be able to slip in without much fuss.”

“Tempting as that sounds” Leyla said “It seems a little too much like a trap.”

“No I swear! It’s not a trap” He said, and Asha couldn’t sense a lie in his words.

“He’s not lying” Asha said “But that was a pretty quick reversal.”

“It’s about more than just my neck” He said “There are a lot of people I work with…good people, some of them working against their will…They’re unhappy but alive, and I wouldn’t sell them out to some bombers or terrorists…but you spared Faraj’s life…and I hope you’ll spare theirs as well.”

“If they’re unarmed and they stay out of our way” Asha said “Then we’re not going to hurt them. But hat about your work? And the URIEL Loyalists?”

The man’s face hardened “Damn them…you think it’s sinister up here o nthe surface? The things they’re doing down there…it’s inhuman, there’s no other word for it. If I had a choice I’d…Can I just ask one thing?”

“We’re listening” Leyla said.

“When you leave, if everyone is out, burn the place down. I don’t want any trace of it left and…well it’s a bit self-serving but it would cover any evidence I leave of helping you as well.”

“I think we can manage that.” Asha said “Although…if there’s more that you’d like to do against URIEL, or you need to go underground, then I know a goddess that might interest you.”

 

It was late at night when they reconvened near the URIEL facility. Much like the last one the building was fairly mundane at the surface, the only sign of anything odd being the sizable perimeter wall surrounding it. They met about a block down the road, but rather than bring Eli along this time they had more potent reinforcements.

“I’m not followed” Freny huffed as Asha checked the corner of the street again.

“You think it’s wise to bring her?” Leyla asked, glancing at Freny “She’s going to be recognized.”

“Hazif’s fault for mentioning it in front of her” Asha grumbled. The second Freny had learned there was going to be a fight she had demanded to be a part of it. She might have been on their side, but she still had a bloodthirsty streak.

“We’ll just have to keep our eyes on her and make sure she doesn’t get too much publicity.”

“Alright…” Lela sighed before handing Freny a long scarf to tie around her face, though with her long horns and whipping scaled tail it seemed almost a pointless gesture.

Together, moving quickly and quietly, they headed towards the facility wall. As they got close, however, Freny suddenly stiffened visibly, halting in her tracks.

“What’s wrong?” Asha hissed, eyes darting around out of fear they’d be spotted early.

“This place…” Freny said quietly “This place. This place. This place…”

“Freny” Asha took firm hold of her shoulder, bringing her back to clarity. Freny shivered her eyes narrowing as her face set into a scowl.

“Are we killing?” She asked, pointed teeth bared.

“If they try to attack.” Asha said “If they don’t, then don’t attack.”

“Hate this place.”

“We’re going to burn it down” Leyla said “All of it, to ash. But first we need to get inside.”

Freny growled again but nodded her head in assent. Together the three of them moved back quickly to the perimeter wall.

The man had told them about a maintenance door on the west wall that was normally locked tight but lacked a guard. They found ti without arousing suspicion and Asha tested the handle, finding the door was unlocked.

“Good man” Asha smiled, but Leyla remained alert.

“It could still be a trap.” He said “be ready”

The maintenance door led into a shaft that, if the man was to be believed, would lead them directly into the facility without having to cross the yard that was strewn with guard. Of course, normally the maintenance hall had its own security but they were trusting their new friend had fulfilled his part of the bargain and seen to it.

True to his word, they found a ladder that led down into a darkened hallway that pointed them towards the facility. Once inside, he had warned, they’d largely be on their own. He lacked the clearance and the courage to try and disengage as much security as he could, and t might have tipped the guards off ahead of time. He had predicted that the second they managed to get to the lower levels the guards would come running.

The long hall from the maintenance office into the facility ended in a steel door that Asha also found to be unlocked. She opened it slowly, poking her head out to find a crisp sterile-looking white lab that was blessedly empty. Most researchers, he had said, would have gone home by now. Many of those who remained were never allowed to leave.

Leyla led them through the halls, sword in hand, as Freny brought up the rear and Asha moved between them, all of them with eyes and ears ready to catch the first sound of interception.

The sound of boots came from around the corner as a security guard rounded it. Asha could seen the startled confusion in his eyes before his body tensed, muscles moving to lift his weapon.

“Freeze!” He shouted, rifle rising to point at them, but Asha was quicker. In one swift blue or motion she moved past Leyla, drawing an arrow before releasing it. The man was falling with an arrow in his chest before he even knew what happened.

“Move” Asha said “The clock just started ticking.”

The man had said the stairwells to lower levels were in the southwest corner, and once again he was proven right as Freny forced open the sealed iron door with draconic strength, revealing the concrete stairwell spiraling before them. As the door was forced, however, alarms began to blaze throughout the facility.

The three of them threw themselves down the stairs, rushing from landing to landing to get to the bottom-most level where URIEL’s dirtiest secrets would be hiding. As they moved deeper, Freny’s movements became steadily more erratic, shivers running up and down her body.

“Hate this place…” She kept repeating over and over, and Asha placed a hand on her shoulder, trying to use her power to calm the dragon woman down. She wasn’t sure if it worked, but Freny did seem to calm visibly at her touch.

The door at the bottom of the stairwell was larger and thicker than the others had been.

“Give me a moment.” Leyla said and he moved his hands over the frame, pressing his palms against where the lock sealed the door and where the hidden hinges were as heat emanated from his skin, enough to soften steel.

He stood back, parts of the door glowing softly orange, before turning to Freny.

“Your show, Freny.”

Freny growled, teeth bared and tail whipping from side to side as she charged the door. There was a sound of wrenching metal as her clawed gauntlets stabbed into the reinforced steel and the door buckled before her before being ripped free from its hinges with a screeching groan of rent metal.

“Good job” Asha said, hurrying through after as she looked around “What in God’s name…”

The halls above had been spotless and sterile, a hall like any advanced research laboratory. Here, however, the halls were darker, lit only by harsh LEDs that bruned in the ceiling. The walls were covered with a tangle of cables and wires that covered every scrap of wall not covered in switches and dials that served some unknown purpose.

The hall branched out into several others, all of them similarly strange as they hurried to find something they could use, or at the very least a place to set their fire. Coming through another door, they found a large bunker that was clearly meant to serve as a dormitory.

A number of scientists, casually dressed in civilian clothes or lab coats stared as the trio entered. The alarms were still blaring outside and several were brandishing rudimentary clubs or fire axes.

“They’re here!” One of them hurried forward, brandishing his axe. “The intruders! They’re here to kill us all!”

“We’re not!” Asha said hurriedly “Just here to stop…whatever’s happening down here.”

“Monsters” Freny spoke next “They make monsters…”

Freny’s eyes were looking over them, narrowed and almost burning with hatred as she stared them down.

“Our work is important! We do the Queen’s bidding and we’ll be rewarded! That’s what she said!” the man shouted, still brandishing his axe dangerously.

“Asif, calm down.” A woman behind the axe-wielding man stepped up to him, placing a hand on his shoulder “I’m sure we can just…talk this…”

In one sudden motion she grabbed the back of his head and slammed it into the nearest deck, causing the man to crumple to the ground.

“Idiot” She muttered before looking up at the three of them. “And a zealot. The rest of us are more than happy to leave if you’re offering escape.”

“Umm…” Asha glanced between the fallen man and the woman “And who are you?”

“Varia Archeille, formerly willingly of URIEL. Now, I would like to leave if at all possible.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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The Snake and the Mirror

Witch Hunter

 

Huldra sighed as she sealed the portal behind her, leaving the camp of Legio II Aquila behind as she stepped onto the old creaking floorboards of Baba Yaga’s chicken-footed hut.

“Treating my lovely home like a damnable train station,” The Russian crone muttered as she eyed Huldra. “Were you at least successful?”

“They know the plan,” Huldra nodded. “I fear for Catarina though.”

“Fear for us first,” Baba said. “The powers you want to harness…that spell could unravel half of creation if you’re not careful.”

“It’s the only plan we have,” Huldra took a seat in an old moth-eaten armchair. “The Ginnungagap Rift spell…it is probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”

“Second craziest,” Baba Yaga shrugged. “First was letting that damn dragon out of its hole…oh don’t look at me like that you hag, you brought it up.”

Huldra settled her gaze back at the floor. “We’ll be on the run after this, no more big coven meetings for us for some time, centuries maybe.”

“All the better for it,” She shrugged, hunched over her cooking pot. “We witches aren’t the cooperative type normally, and when we do work together we start suggesting ideas like poking holes in reality. A penchant for toying with fate or not, that’s dangerous work.”

“Maybe you have a point,” Huldra sighed, sinking into the chair. “Though there is one thing still to worry over.”

“Our little fledgeling,” Baba Yaga never raised her eyes from her cauldron. “I half-expected you to whip Ceridwen with a switch when she came back and said she’d given her up to le Fay.”

“But she was fine,” Huldra said. “We took five witches to check on her and all signs point to her being perfectly fine. Morgan is playing a strange game.”

“It wasn’t her,” Baba said. “Morgan would have snatched that girl up like a hawk takes a rabbit if she had even half a chance. No, something stopped her.”

“You kept insisting on that and we saw no evidence,” Huldra said, fingers rubbing her forehead.

“Hecate agreed with me!” Baba rapped a wooden spoon on the rim of the cauldron. “There was something wrong about it. Something’s clinging to that girl and I don’t want a part of it, especially if it scared off a creature like le Fay.”

“A creature who has not shown her face for months,” Huldra said. “She’s gone to ground again and I don’t like it…she’s being far too silent for my tastes. She’s up to something.”

“She’s a True Witch, we’re all up to something,” Baba clicked her tongue.

“You know what I mean,” Huldra shot her a glance. “I want to know where she is and what she’s doing.”

Baba Yaga’s hand tightened on her spoon. “You know that’s just what the problem is, don’t you?”

“Excuse me?” Huldra sat up.

“You need to have your spoon in every pot, even if they’re not yours! You’re what the humans these days call a…a…”

“Control freak?” Huldra offered as Baba chewed on her tongue.

“That’s the word!” She snarled. “You need to have your nose and your hand in everything you do! Don’t think I haven’t noticed you checking in on all the other Witches while you think Hecate and I aren’t looking!”

“I’m coordinating,” Huldra said.

“We’re witches, we don’t coordinate well,” Nana’s crone face was twisted into an ugly leer. It would have been terrifying to just about any mortal on Earth. “Not to mention it led to-“

“Don’t you dare!” Huldra snapped but Baba Yaga continued.

“Possessed or not, do you think you would have delved so deep into Nidhoggr’s prison if you didn’t have your titanic ego and curiosity to satisfy? It might have been Nidhoggr’s evil that made you break the lock, but it was your desire to know, to learn everything about that forbidden power that sent you down there.”

Huldra rose to her feet, and somewhere outside the bird-footed house the thunder rolled.

“Watch yourself,” Baba had her spoon pointed at Huldra as if it were some terrible wand. Given the caliber of witch she was, it might as well have been. “Remember where you are, then remember who I am before you open your mouth.”

Huldra took a moment, drawing in a long breath before she spoke again.

“My apologies, Baba…you know how highly I think of you.”

“Oh, I know, though a reminder now and then couldn’t hurt,” She settled back at her cauldron.

Huldra moved to the door. “I’m going to find Morgan and what she’s up to. I’ll want assistance.”

“Ceridwen is free” Baba said, her tone still calm. “Anansi and Hecate too, though you’ll never find the latter if you go looking.”

“Believe me I know better,” Huldra said. “Alright, Anansi and Ceridwen then. That should be enough. Nimue? Where is she?”

“Who knows,” Baba shrugged.

Huldra frowned. She would have preferred Morgan’s opposite if there was the possibility of a confrontation.

“Thank you, as ever, for the hospitality, Baba,” She bowed her head.

“If you’re off to trounce that red-haired rat, give her a kick for me.”

“Of course,” Huldra smiled before exiting the shack into the cool Russian evening and vanishing into thin air.

Ceridwen was the easier to find. She was still on guard duty for Tegwen, now with explicit instructions to never leave Tegwen out of her sight.

“Nothing’s happened!” She all but shouted as Huldra arrived. “Honestly you’re worse than my mother!”

“I’m not here about Tegwen. I’m recruiting you,” She said sharply.

“Oh heavens, what now?” Ceridwen asked.

“We’re going to track down Morgan le Fay,” Huldra said. “And find exactly what she’s up to.”

“Well…I won’t mind a little muscle,” Ceridwen said. “You were missed last time I met her.”

“Not just us,” Huldra said. “You’re the second of three. Come on.”

Her voice was sharp and curt as she opened another portal in the air, standing wide enough for both of them to step through.

They stepped out into what seemed like an ocean of green. Vegetation and foliage stretched out around them in a curtain of emerald in a thousand different shades.

“Gods, it is hot!” Ceridwen groaned as she stepped through. “Where is this? The sun?”

“Ghana,” Huldra said sharply. “And we won’t be around long. I’m recruiting Anansi as well.”

“Oh!” Ceridwen perked up immediately, and Huldra noticed her heavier outer robes vanishing as her neckline plunged. “Lead on then.”

“Oh honestly…” Huldra rolled her eyes as she set out into the jungle.

“Anansi!” She called out among the trees. “It’s Huldra!”

“Aaah, a pleasure for such fine witches to come by for a chat.”

The shadows over them moved, and Huldra watched as the rough silhouette of something large with eight long legs crept through the foliage above them.

“And a shapeshifter to boot,” Ceridwen smiled, muttering to herself.

Huldra never got a complete look at the spider, but as it moved to a tree, a man in more familiar form dropped down to the ground. He looked as he had at their first meeting, a tall man of wiry shape but toned build with deep black skin and glittering eyes dressed in a loose robe of silver thread.

“One could say, Lady Ceridwen,” He smiled at her, her image reflected in his eyes eight times over. “That I am merely a spider in the shape of a man.”

Ceridwen smiled, eyes aflutter as Huldra stepped forward.

“Anansi, I could use your assistance,” She said, her tone politer than it had been with Ceridwen.

“I have little that needs my direct attention,” He said, “What did you require?”

“Morgan le Fay,” Huldra said. “I want to find her and learn precisely what she’s up to.”

“Ah, I’ve heard much more of this ‘Morgan’ than I have seen. Is that what she’s going by now? Or is it Morgause? I’ve been devouring your Arthurian stories since last you spoke of her.”

“Syncretization makes answering that question more confusing than it’s worth,” Huldra said. “Morgan le Fay, semi-human sorceress, enemy of Camelot, mother of Mordred, the Queen of Air and Darkness. All caught up?”

“That will suffice,” Anansi smiled. “I am interested in seeing the witch behind the story…why not? I will aid you. It should make for another interesting story to tell.”

“Thank you, Anansi,” Huldra smiled.

“Alright, problem number one.” Ceridwen said “Finding Morgan, how do we do it?”

“That won’t be too hard. It’s a lot like tracking game.”

“Find the trail,” Anansi smiled. “Witches follow familiar trods, after all.”

“Precisely. I’ve been keeping a close eye on everybody partially to track movement. If Morgan is plotting something, she’ll be orbiting wherever her plan is centered. Like an animal returning to their den, she’ll keep going back to that one place along familiar trails, even if she has to cut across worlds to do it.

Huldra dug deep, feeling the paths that her portals took, the hidden ways and cuts through time and space that witches of her caliber used to travel from one point on the World Tree to another, feeling them out like the tunnels of insects gnawed through wood, dirt, and stone until she found what she was looking for. A trail, well-used but unaccounted for, among the many that the other witches had left behind.

“Either I found where she’s been going,” Huldra said. “Or some other witch has been scurrying about the eastern waters of the North Sea.”

“That’s rather remote…” Ceridwen said. “Even for her that’s far from home.”

“Precisely where you’d go if you don’t want to be found,” Huldra said. “Come, let’s see what our wayward sister is doing.”

With a wave of her hand she opened a door in the air, a portal between their spot and wherever it was that Morgan was setting up shop. Without hesitation she stepped through.

Cold. The sudden shift from the tropical climate to the freezing north was powerful, and Huldra worked to summon a cloak about her shoulders. When she tried, however, she felt her shoulders still bare and the feeling of heavy iron shackles on her wrists.

“What is-!” Before she could finish the sentence, she felt herself drawn away from where she stood like a fish caught on a line. In a single instant she was dragged across a cold stone floor and into a bare cage of cold iron.

Huldra whirled around, and saw two other cages next to hers holding Anansi and Ceridwen.

“It seems…” Anansi’s voice was calm. “We were expected.”

They were in a colossal cave, a massive stone vault that served as a natural harbor to the North Sea. She could see the entrance open into the cold grey sky, wind whipping at the dark water. Their cages were placed on a natural sort of pier, a ragged stone floor rising out of the water.

“Well there it is, the witch was right. This little trap caught the intruding mice right up.”

A cold voice echoed around them, a cackle barely restrained by his words.

“Who goes there!?” Ceridwen shouted, but Huldra knew the voice. Her brow furrowed, teeth grinding as she stared at the tall figure stepping out of the darkness.

“Loki,” Huldra hissed.

Loki blinked in surprise before his grin split even wider.

“Well if it isn’t Frau Holda,” He said. “I daresay if you’d sent ahead, I would have sent finer arrangements. Spikes perhaps.”

“What is the meaning of this trap, Loki!?” She demanded.

“Insurance,” Loki shrugged. “Morgan insisted, and I quite agreed, that should you witches come sneaking along we should be prepared to…keep you out of the game for a while.”

He gestured idly to the cages.

“Keep us from what?” Ceridwen asked, but Huldra was already scanning the cave.

It was dark and difficult to see with only the distant light of the cave-harbor mouth, but in the water she began to make out the outline of something enormous. The wind whistled against the stone, but beneath it she could hear the sound of nails being hammered and building being done.

Loki. A ship. The eastern edge of the North Sea.

“You’re building the Naglfar,” Huldra looked at him, aghast. “Loki, you know what that will mean.”

“Better than most,” Loki’s expression soured. “But I have some insurance this time. And you being out of the picture just puts the odds more in my favor.”

“Did Morgan put you up to this!?” Huldra demanded. Loki’s fist smashed against the bars of the cage, hard enough to rattle the iron and throw her onto her back.

“I do not take orders from that witch!” He snarled before turning his back on them and storming away.

“The Naglfar sails!”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 43

 

“Ah, Huldra…” Cat said. “Er…Lady Huldra…Miss Huldra?”

She wasn’t quite sure how to handle the honorifics, but Huldra brushed it off.

“Huldra will do fine, Catarina,” She said, nodding politely, the divine aura soon fading from her voice. “I came to discuss this campaign you’re marching on.”

“Oh!” Cat stood up. “Of course.”

“So this is the Dream Witch?” Rosa asked, standing up as well as she looked Huldra up and down.

“That I am,” Huldra said. “And you are…?”

“Rosaria Kokinos,” Rosa said. “Champion of Ares.”

“Ah, the Greek war god,” Huldra said. “Well then, you will likely find this of interest as well.”

“Do you have a way to kill Nidhoggr?” Rosa asked. “That’s kind of priority number one.”

“Nidhoggr can’t be killed, can he?” Cat said. “At least that’s what Gisela keeps insisting.”

“They are correct,” Huldra said. “Nothing in any of the worlds can kill Nidhoggr forever. It is a part of the World Tree as surely as root and crown.”

“Then I take it you have another kind of plan?” Rosa asked.

“Trap it,” Huldra said. “As Angel has doubtless told you, Nidhoggr may yet be trapped within the realm of Helheim where it had been sealed since the dawn of time.”

“Angel mentioned it might be possible,” Cat said. “I was hoping we’d find a solution before we reached Nidhoggr.”

“You have,” Huldra smiled. “Because my…compatriots and I have been working tirelessly on a solution.”

“Compatriots?” Rosa asked. “Like other witches?”

“Just like,” Huldra said. “Some of the most powerful True Witches on the planet have been looking for a solution. And we have found one.”

“Excellent,” Rosa smiled. “What is it? Like a dragon-sized bear trap?”

“Something a touch more…arcane,” Huldra said. “A very complicated spell that should do just what we need.”

“A spell?” Cat asked. “Something I could have just looked up in a book?”

Huldra smiled slyly. “This kind of spell, if it was ever put to word, was written in tongues unspoken since before men were made from mud and driftwood.  A hundred mortal mages couldn’t make it work.”

“What does it do exactly?” Cat asked. “You have me curious now.”

“A good quality in any mage…in appropriate quantities,” Huldra said. “Allow me to illustrate.”

Before her, scrawled like images in the air, formed the illusion of an ash tree, no taller than she was. Worlds like spheres circled through its branches and along its trunk.

“This is Yggdrassil…as close as it can be approximated in three dimensions at any rate. The worlds twist among its roots and branches in their cosmic dance. At least…that is how it should be.”

She flicked her hand, and the worlds fell out of orbit, twisting wildly along the tree as great rents and savage claw marks appeared along the trunk, the crown shattering and scattering stars.

“This is the trail of destruction left by Nidhoggr as it tore across the world tree. It has sunk its claws deep, drawn ancient magic from the storied wood until it was as eternal as the tree itself, a creature bound forever by fate.”

“All of this doesn’t sound very helpful,” Rosa said, but Huldra silenced her with a look as Cat listened quietly.

“Nidhoggr, the Realms, the Tree. These concepts are tied too closely together for us to force fate against Nidhoggr. No force in the cosmos has a stronger connection the World Tree than Nidhoggr, save perhaps for Angel when she was at full strength. The key, then, is to sever Nidhoggr’s connection the World Tree while simultaneously cutting the walls between worlds.”

“And that can be done?” Cat asked.

“We were not sure at first, but we believe it to be so,” Huldra nodded. “Before the World Tree, before the nine realms, there were only two realms: Muspellheim, the land of fire, and Niflheim, the land of frost. Between them was the infinite primordial void, a chasm called Ginungagaap.”

“I think I read about that,” Cat said. “Gisela had it in one of her books. That’s where the Primordial giant, Ymir lived, right, the one whose body became the realms?”

Huldra smiled. “You are a scholar.”

Cat smiled, face reddening a bit.

“I realized, with Hecate’s assistance, that if you recreated those conditions…If, for a moment, it was on Earth as it was at the beginning of creation, then Nidhoggr would briefly become unbound by fate. The borders between worlds would evaporate, and the dragon could be thrust back into its ancient prison.”

“That sounds…dangerous,” Cat said. “A piece of infinite void on Earth?”

“A tiny portion,” Huldra said. “Like a pinhole in the fabric of reality…though up close even a pinhole can be dramatic I suppose. But it is hardly a threat to creation at large.”

“How long could this…hole into the void be open for?” Rosa asked. “What’s our window?”

“It would last moments, mere seconds at most,” Huldra said. “As they say nature abhors a vacuum, and Fate despises primordial chaos. For that brief window, we would be unmaking fate entirely, unraveling the threads in the most destructive manner possible. The retribution of the Three will be swift and terrible.”

“The Three?” Cat asked.

“The keepers of Fate,” Huldra said. “Past, Present, and Future. I daresay after this is over, my sisters and I will need to scatter to the winds to avoid them. This is not the sort of trick that gives you a second chance. In that brief moment, on that battlefield with Nidhoggr, we will not just be unmaking creation, we will be ripping a hole in time, fate, and destiny. This is not action taken lightly, and there will be ramifications.”

“Something this drastic…” Cat thought it over. “There are other Primordials…we can’t keep doing something like this, can we?”

Huldra shook her head. “No…but order and chaos…there is a balance to these things. If Nidhoggr is defeated the scales will be tipped back towards order, the inertia of destiny will be on your side. Here, you’re working against fate itself. All signs point to the end of the world, the dissolution of reality as you know it.”

Cat took a long breath, sitting back in her chair as she stared into the grass.

It was an easy thing to say you were saving the world. Heroes do it all the time in the stories. But the stories never talked about this kind of burden, this kind of anxiety and stress. She was eighteen years old…how did the fate of civilization wind up in her hands? And now…Gisela had said she might be a hero, an archetype to do impossible things, but if Huldra was right then fate was against her.

How do you get a happy ending when the story is trying to end in despair?

“Hey…Cat,” Rosa was looking at her, concern on her face.

“If I may,” Huldra spoke. “Catarina…I would like to speak with you alone.”

“S-sure…” Cat nodded before turning to Rosa. “I’ll be…back in a few.”

“Yeah…” Rosa nodded back. “We’ll talk later.”

“Right…”

Quietly, Huldra led Catarina away from them and away from the camp until they were out of earshot of any listeners.

“I am sorry, Catarina.”

“Sorry?” Cat asked, looking at her.

“I released Nidhoggr. Whether of my own volition or not…I bear some responsibility to the world as it is now and to you.”

“Ah…” Cat said. “Well…thanks for that…er…the apology I mean.”

“I know, it isn’t much,” Huldra placed a hand on her shoulder. “But Catarina…I am going to make right what I set wrong. No matter the cost, I will be with you to whatever end.”

“Mmm…” Cat’s mind was hardly there, still stuck on what was to come. “What will I need to do for this spell?”

“That is what I wished to discuss,” Huldra said. “The spell will open the door, tear a rift in reality, through which you can send Nidhoggr…but he must be pushed through by force. That dragon will not willingly go to its doom. I can open the door but you must force it through.”

“Which means I still need to beat Nidhoggr,” Cat said. “Somehow…”

“I’m afraid so.” Huldra said. “My sisters and I will be preparing the spell with Angel’s assistance.”

“Angel?” Cat asked.

“We need a Primordial’s energy to call on such power. Only a being whose essence was intermingled with Primordial chaos can help generate a spell to make it again.”

“Ah right…” Cat nodded. “So I guess it will just be me and Nidhoggr.”

“Catarina,” Huldra’s fingers tightened on her shoulder as she bent to look into her eyes. “I want you to remember this, above all else. You are not alone. Your companions, your allies, an army at your back. All of us are with you, all of us are trying to help you succeed.”

“But in the end, it’s me,” Cat said. “I need to push Nidhoggr through that door.”

“Each and every one of us will be pushing with you,” Huldra said.

“I just…” Cat shivered, feeling the weight pressing down on her. “I’m scared…I’m really just…terrified. Of the dragon, of fighting it…but most of all I’m scared of failing, I mean…I’m just a girl! I have a nice sword and some armor but Nidhoggr is this gigantic…chaos…worm thing! I can’t cut holes in a cosmic tree! I can’t fight cosmic eagles and I don’t live forever! It’s just…I’m like this little breeze…I got lucky and I knocked some leaves over…I blew away a shadow but it’s just…one breeze against a storm and I’m going to break if I even get near it…”

Huldra listened quietly, even as Cat stammered, tears welling in her eyes.

“Catarina…” When she spoke, the cadence was kind and soft. Like Hanne’s voice, or Schehera’s, or her mother’s.

“I understand…they’ve told you they believe in you, that you have all the traits of a hero, but you just don’t feel it. You just feel like a person…like you always have. Nothing’s different or special, not in comparison to something like this. Is that right?”

Cat nodded quietly, red-faced and embarrassed to be losing it in front of a Witch-Goddess.

“I’m a witch, Catarina, and a good one. I don’t put stock in heroes and my very existence toys with the fabric of stories and fate…so I don’t believe in you because you’re a hero. I believe in you because you’re strong. Because you faced Nidhoggr’s shadow without turning back to save the ones you’ve cared for, and now they follow you to face the real thing. I have faith in you because I believe in you, child, and not in heroes. And I’ve been around long enough to know that while the storm wreaks havoc, given time and circumstance it’s the little breeze that tears the mountains down.”

After a long deep breath Cat managed to pull herself together.

“I…thanks…Huldra.”

Huldra gave her a gentle smile. “Thank you, Catarina. It is only because of you that what we do is possible. But I’m not alone in believing in you. See to everyone with you, let them know how you feel and I know they will remind you that even to the very end you will not stand alone.”

“Right…I will, yes,” Cat nodded. “There’s some…important things I think I need to say.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Meeting at the Well

 

It had taken some searching for Megame to find the old well. A marching legion was always in need of water and every little bit helped. The well was the old kind you’d find in stories, a cylinder of stones rising from the ground in a forest clearing, overgrown with vines and roots with a shaft that cut deep into the dark earth. There was an old length of rope Megame tested for strength before typing it to her pail and lowering it down into the well below.

“Evening, young Miss.”

Megame nearly jumped as an old man emerged from the trees. She hadn’t seen or heard him as she’d approached, and she hurriedly withdrew the pail, bowing her head.

“I’m sorry, sir. Is this your well? I didn’t mean to use it without permission.”

The old man raised a wrinkled hand with skin like gnarled bark. “Think nothing of it, this water is for all who would drink from it. I only ask you be thankful, not all wells are this free to be drunk from.”

Megame watched the old man closely. His face was much like his hands, wizened and leathery from years on the road and under the sun. He had a cloth running across his face and over his nose to cover one of his eyes and his silver hair had receded entirely under the broad brim of his hat. His shoulders were wrapped in an old traveling cloak that was a weathered and dusty grey.

“Thank you,” Megame bowed again before lowering the pail into the well once more.

“You’re a very polite girl,” the old man said. “What’s your name?”

“Megame Kamigawa,” she said, nodding her head. “That’s very kind of you to say, Mister…”

“Jafnar, you can call me,” the old man said.

“Mister Jafnar,” she nodded. To her surprise she still hadn’t heard the splash of water; the well must have been very deep. “It’s odd seeing someone alone out here. These lands are dangerous.”

“Dangerous to some,” Jafnar said. “Not to all, and I’m not the only one alone at this well.”

“Ah, I’m traveling with an army,” Megame said. “The second Roman Legion. If you like, you can join the Legion’s supply train for a while. We’ve met a lot of people on the road north.”

Jafnar laughed. “Ha! The problem with marching with armies is they tend to march to war. I think, in the long run, my route may be safer. Besides, I’m going south.”

“South?” Megame asked. “Well…it is safer, but where south? Italy?”

“Greece, they call it,” Jafnar said.

“Greece is a very long way…” Megame said.

“My legs are good,” Jafnar said. “I have my walking stick…somewhere. And besides, I have a meeting in Greece I really shouldn’t miss.”

Megame glanced around, and saw an old stick lying against the side of the well. She paused. Had the stick always been there? Had Jafnar placed it there when she hadn’t been looking?

Megame picked it up. “Is this your…”

Light flashed in her mind’s eye. Power like electricity running under her skin ran through her fingers to her shoulder, causing her hair to stand on end. As she looked at it, the old staff of gnarled wood gleamed with power, runes across its surface. At the same instant it was a spear, long and glistening with power, blood like crimson paint across its blade and almost halfway down its haft. In that mere second, the stick, staff, and spear were one, all overlaid in the vision of her eyes and her mind.

“Ah, there it is, thank you,” Jafnar casually took the staff from her, and the power and visions faded instantly.

“Y-you’re welcome…” Megame paused, before shaking her head and continuing to lower the pail into the deep, deep well.

“It’s nice isn’t it?” He said. “Wish I could say I made it myself.”

“It is a nice…walking stick,” Megame said. “Is it umm-“

Before she could think up a more polite way of asking if his staff was magic, Jafnar spoke over her.

“You know, this reminds me of another time I was at a well,” He said, idly musing with the tone of an old man recalling the distant past.

“Met another woman there, one far less polite than you.”

“A-another woman?” Megame’s eyes were still on the staff, mind only half paying attention to his story.

“She was a pretty thing. Lithe and blonde in her absolute prime…she seemed like the very image of youth…and yet at the same time she was the oldest thing I had ever seen.”

Megame froze, hands still on the rope just as she felt the pail finally hit water.

A picture formed in her mind’s eye. A young woman with long curly blonde hair and rosy cheeks on flawless young skin. A woman with eyes that seemed to swallow all light, eyes older than the stars.

“I…I believe I’ve met someone similar,” Megame said, trying to keep her tone calm as she lowered the pail into the invisible pool of water far beneath the well.

“It’s not something one forgets,” Jafnar said. “To see something so eternal look so young. All the potential and possibility of the unlived future wrapped up in a beautiful girl. The future given form. I looked at this girl and I saw beauty, but when I looked into her eyes I saw the end of all things.”

“Skuld,” Megame said. “That’s what she said her name was.”

Jafnar smiled. “One of many she possesses, the youngest or the eldest of the Three.”

Megame looked up at the old man. “Apologies, Mister Jafnar but…who are you?”

“I’ll forgive your lack of wit,” he smirked. “On the fact that you’re still something of a foreigner, Kamigawa. I too have many names. As many, I am sure, as your Sun, Moon, and Storm gods. To poets, I am the Father of Songs; to travelers, I am The Wanderer, and to soldiers I am the God of Battle, the Barrow Lord. Though I think you’ve heard my name on the lips of one dear to you.”

“Someone dear to me?” Megame asked, when she was struck by a sudden realization. It was an epiphany sparked by a memory, a casual chat with Kara some months ago.

“My old boss?” Kara had said. “Guys a bit of a miscreant when he’s not all geared up for battle, if I’m being honest. Tends to dress himself up and pretend to be someone else, or no one at all. He’s got some tells though, so it’s not too hard to spot him if you know what to look for.”

There were some things that spirits, even gods could not hide. Just as Hachi and Capitolina always had the ears and tail of a fox or wolf, there were some qualities with inertia that could not be hidden save by the greatest shapeshifters. Kara had told her how to spot the lord of the Valkyries. An old man, cloaked with a broad hat, a walking stick, but most of all a missing eye. For the eye had been the price he’d paid for knowledge, and no shape he took could regain that lost sight.

“Odin Okami-sama…”Megame said quietly, before falling quickly to her knees, hands releasing the rope and pail to fall into the well.

Odin’s hand lashed out, snatching the rope with lightning speed.

“That would have been an inconvenience,” he said. “Okami-sama was it? I’ll need to add that to the list. Now get up.”

Megame slowly rose to her feet, sheepishly taking the rope and pulling up the heavy pail of water.

“Sorry…” She said, trying not to make eye contact.

‘You fret on things too much,” Odin said. “Politeness is well and good but it can be a pain. Your Japanese gods must be a pain to deal with.”

“There is just…a formality to things,” Megame said. “I’m not sure how to react with foreign gods sometimes…”

“I did catch you off-guard there a bit,” Odin grinned. “Don’t fret with it, I’ve fooled much brighter and much braver than you.”

Megame hid a grimace. She was pretty sure she’d just been insulted.

“If you are Odin-sama,” Megame said. “Then you would have known who I was before you met me.”

“Yes, but it’s important for you to introduce yourself. Plus it ruins the game if I let it slip who I am too early.”

“If I may ask, why did you come to see me?” Megame asked. “Surely Torleif or…”

“It was a fun little detour, hardly anything world-shaking,” Odin shrugged. “I’m not here to impart advice or give a warning. I think it would be a bit late for the latter at any rate…no I dropped by on my way to Greece to meet you in particular.”

“Me?” Megame asked.

“You, Megame kamigawa, Player of Games,” Odin smiled. “Like it or not you have a reputation now, and a name.”

“Player of Games…” Megame frowned. “I’m not sure I like it, it makes me sound like a video game addict.”

“Ha!” Odin roared with laughter. “You think I like half the names people have thrust on me? Sorry to say, little foreigner, once you challenge a great Norn to the Game of Fate you start having a reputation. I wanted to see if the girl lived up to the reputation.”

“I imagine I’m shorter than you imagined,” Megame said.

“No, all you small humans look about the same size to me,” Odin grinned. “But I’m curious about something else.”

“Something else?” Megame asked.

“Skuld was kind when she challenged you,” Odin said. “You won back all the stakes you placed. Small as it might be to me, a girl’s life is the highest stakes you can offer. When I played the Game of Fate I won the vision I wanted, but I paid a price as well.”

Odin gestured to his missing eye. “And in my fate, deep in the well of Mimir, I saw Ragnarok. Tell me, Player of Games, what did you see? What was in those cards that brought you out to Nidhoggr’s country?”

“I saw people coming together,” Megame said. “I saw myself and others bound together to fight the evil in these lands. Even if they didn’t know me back then…I knew I’d meet them, and they’d need my help.”

“I suppose I’m doing the same,” Odin smiled wryly. “The Norns are quiet but my vision still extends far. I had a dream, of a raven meeting an eagle atop a great mountain lit by a golden sun. So while I had hoped to stay on the battlefield of my homeland, I knew I was needed elsewhere.”

“I feel it would be arrogant of me to compare my problems to those of a great spirit,” Megame said.

Odin laughed again as Megame finally pulled the water from the well. “It’s not you humans who are like gods,” he said. “It is too often we gods are like you. I think, however, it’s time I kept moving.”

Megame bowed deeply at the waist. “It has been an honor to meet you, Odin Okami-sama.”

“Keep following that path you saw, Player of Games,” Odin said, drawing his cloak about himself as he moved back into the forest. “But never forget that sometimes knowledge has a price.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 42

Noemi woke up early in the morning, sunlight peeking through the corners of her windows, as she had more often as of late. With a yawn and a stretch, she slid out of her bed, grabbing her snake amulet and placing it around her neck. Engraved in the center was the symbol of the Feathered Serpent, Ophidia’s ancient cult. She stumbled out of her bedroom into the common room, where Junko was already eating breakfast.

“Morning, boss,” Junko said, holding out a cup of tea for the still groggy red head. Noemi took it gratefully as she settled down at the table.

Things had settled into a sort of normalcy on the island after Noemi and Junko had led the spirits of the jungle back to the village. Riled up as they were, it didn’t take long to overwhelm the Jaguar priest and with the Tess’s cult cowed and captured, the village had been more than willing to put the would-be-conquerors on a merchant ship bound for the mainland.

 

“Aztlan will not take this lightly,” Nicholas, one of the locals, had said. The people of the village were gathered by the docks, watching the sails of the trading vessel disappear into the horizon.

Noemi nodded her head, her eye steeled. “No, they won’t. Especially with Tess…Tezcatlipoca knowing I’m here. But she’s not stupid. This island isn’t worth much to her besides…indulgences. I have a plan.”

 

They would need protection, from the naval fleet of Aztlan and marauding pirates. Lucky for them, their port was a waypoint on one of the larger Caribbean trade routes. Whenever a ship came to dock at port, Noemi greeted them personally, wearing the amulets of the serpent she had made. Ophidia had often stood by her side, in as much divine splendor as she could muster.

Noemi, as representative of the Cult of the Feathered Serpent and with growing influence among the village, often bore with her contracts with her cult’s seal, as well as Nicholas’ signature, offering preferred prices on food and water to restock their hulls. In return, those who bore the letters would offer their protection of the port, keeping the waters around it free of Aztlan ships. While at first, most were skittish, it didn’t take too long before Noemi found captains who hated Aztlan with a fiery passion. Former pirates and exiled merchants gladly offered their protection as privateers, to strike back at the hated power. Soon, there was always at least one ship or so near the small port. While Aztlan had sent raiders from time to time, they found the village far better protected than they had expected and eventually, as Noemi had predicted, the Aztlan sails were rarely seen.

As the people felt more secure, thanks to her efforts, more and more of them started wearing the amulets as well. Noemi led the rituals as Ophidia directed, often just prayers over an offering of some small mammal they had hunted. Ophidia would stand beside her, ready to accept the prayer, before taking to the skies in her Winged Serpent form, the offering in her mouth.

“Do you actually eat the offerings?” Noemi had asked.

“I do. While a simple vole or mouse would not do anything for a spirit, these are offerings. They serve as almost…vessels for the spiritual energy that the prayers give me. Eating these is similar to you eating your dinner. It provides me sustenance.”

“So you literally eat them…like tear them apart and chew?”

“Well, it is the quickest way of breaking them down.”

Things had been going well for Noemi, enough that she had finally started to be able to walk through the town openly without looking over her shoulder constantly. The cult of the Feathered Serpent had gotten a solid foothold and, with Junko’s help, had earned the trust and allegiance of the many minor spirits in the jungle around the village.

“Mm, what’s on your mind, boss?” Junko asked, taking Noemi out of her thoughts.

“Ah, I was just thinking of how Ophidia’s cult is really starting to get some momentum. The people seem so much happier than when we got here. Ophidia has really helped them prosper.”

“Well, you as well. You’re a natural cult leader, boss,” Junko teased, taking a bite of her breakfast plantain.

“Ugh, when you say it like that…” Noemi muttered. “But there’s more food and water than ever, they’ve had great weather, and we’re starting to make real friends with the privateers.”

“The privateers I think are mostly from your efforts, Noemi,” Junko said. “Though it’s amazing this little merchant’s alliance you’ve got assembled, loose as it is.”

“When enough people hate Aztlan,” Noemi said. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as they say.”

“So what’s on your plate today, boss?” Junko asked.

“Going on a fishing trip. The villagers asked for Ophidia to bless the voyage and it’s been a while since I’ve been on the water. I figured I’d join them, Ophidia can fly around a bit, and we’ll come back with a lot of fish.”

“Sounds pretty easy.”

“Should be. What are you doing today?”

“Mm, probably going to explore the jungle some more. Do some survival training,” Junko shrugged.

“I’ve got dinner taken care of, so just enjoy yourself then,” Noemi said with a smile as she finished her tea, grabbing her coat as she stepped out of Nicholas’ home. The innkeeper and sort of mayor had generously offered to house them again, though without any fee, though Noemi and Junko still did what they could to keep his pantry full.

“Later, boss!”

As Noemi headed to the port, she saw Ophidia ahead of her, flying among the clouds in her spirit serpent form. Once, she had been able to fit around Noemi’s shoulder or her arm, now the goddess was almost large enough that Noemi could imagine herself riding on her back. She grinned, not sure how Ophidia would take to the idea, but it would certainly put a fear of them into the heart of any Aztlan patrol or raiding ship they came across.

The fishermen were standing at the edge of the pier, in one of the larger fishing vessels the village had. The children had gathered around, pointing and laughing with joy as Ophidia looped about the sky before diving down, transforming into her human shape. Noemi respectfully bowed to the goddess, as the villagers all rubbed their amulets.

“Ready, Ophidia? Are the winds fair?”

“They are. The sea is calm and the clouds have been sent away. We should have a prosperous yield.”

The villagers all said the prayers and sang her praises, Noemi smiling as she stepped aboard the fishing ship. “Whenever you’re ready, boys!”

The winds were at their backs, filling their sails as they set off from the village, though the mountains of the island were always there on the horizon. Noemi found it easy to slip back onto her sea legs as she walked along the rocking ship, helping out where she could despite the insistence of the fishermen.

“Please, priestess, allow us,” one of the fisherman said, as Noemi moved to help haul the net out of the water.

“Hah! This isn’t the first time I’ve been on a ship, you know!” Noemi said, with good cheer as she tugged on the ropes. “It feels wrong to not be busy and moving about!”

The sun rose across the sea as they continued to slowly drift over the low waves, pulling in yield after yield of fish. The fishermen were laughing and singing, as Ophidia stepped lightly on board, watching with satisfied eyes. Those who felt her gaze upon them said a quick word of praise, rubbing the amulets, before continuing about their work.

Around noon, Noemi felt a cool wind blowing from the east. It bit right through her clothes, sending shivers down her spine. “E-eh? Ophidia?”

…I can see a shadow beneath the water, Noemi.

Noemi took a deep breath to steady her nerves. “Captain, that strange wind…I believe we should turn back.”

“A-aye,” the captain stuttered. The men had suddenly lost their good cheer. “Make for port, men! We have enough fish for weeks!”

With the order given, the fishermen got to work, trying to turn the ship around, sailing now against the cold wind. It began to howl, rocking the ship to the side as the waves started to pick up.

“This is no ordinary wind!” the captain shouted over the gusts.

“No kidding!” Noemi shouted back. “Ophidia, what is…Aah!”

Before the goddess could even reply, Noemi saw the prow of a ship climbing its way to the top of the waves, rotted wood dripping with briny waters. As the waves rolled forward, more of the ship rose, its white, cut sails bearing no markings, but Noemi needed none to know this ship. Her face went white.

“The Dutchman,” she whispered, staring in wide eyes at the familiar man-o-war. It couldn’t be her time already, could it? This was to be an easy voyage. After all that, a simple fishing trip was to be her end?

The men were all whispering, frozen in fear. Noemi hoped they’d stay like that a little longer, though she could feel the tension boiling beneath their white faces. Eventually terror would drive them to panic, and once the first lost it, all hell would break loose.

Noemi gritted her teeth as she stepped to the prow of her ship.

“Jonah! This better be some kind of joke, do you hear me?! There’s no way it’s our time!”

“Hehe, now that’s the kind of spirit I wish all captains showed when we arrive!” A giggling feminine voice said, right below Noemi. The red head blinked, and looked down. There, hanging off a rope attached to the bow, was an elf in a tricorn hat, smiling up at her.

“Ronny?”

“The one and only! We’re not here for your people, Red, we’re here for you!”

“I-It can’t be, I…how?!”

“Nah, not like that. Cabin Boy needs to talk to you. Almost makes me jealous, but he says it’s the captain’s orders.”

Noemi looked over her shoulder at the faces of the fishermen. Terror had given way to confusion, though their eyes were still flecked with fear. Ophidia stood before them and stepped towards Noemi, nodding.

“…Prepare me a boat, men. The Dutchman isn’t going to take me forever. Still, get yourselves back to port.”

“Yes, priestess!” They said, springing back into action as a rowboat was lowered into the water, Noemi climbing down the ladder to it. Ronny shrugged her shoulders as she saw Noemi rowing away and let go of her rope, falling back into the water and swimming to the rowboat.

“So you’re a priestess now, huh? Guess you got that cult going after all!”

“Yeah, Ophidia is doing a lot better now. She’s definitely…grown as well.”

“Well, Jonah has a few things he wants to discuss. Figure he can explain it better.”

Ronny chattered away as the two of them rowed to the Dutchman, catching Noemi up on what had been going on in the ship, most of it focused on Jonah. By the time they had made their way to the other ship, Noemi was sure the pretty elf was obsessed with the “useless, bossy cabin boy” she was complaining so much about.

Climbing the ladder to the deck, Noemi could feel the unnatural chill settle over her again. She had almost forgotten what it felt like, having spent so much time in the warmth of the sun. Jonah was waiting for her on the deck.

“Good to see you again, Noemi.”

“Sooner than I thought. What’s up?”

“Mm, we’ve been having a lot of trouble with ghost ships. A lot more have been rising up lately, especially in the waters of the North. We’ve been fighting nonstop since we dropped you off.”

“Eh? You don’t think that I have anything to do with that do you? How could I-“

“No, no, it’s not that you’re the cause! It’s just, uh, we’re looking for more help. Want to join back up with our crew?”

Noemi stared at him in confusion for a moment before her eyes went wide. She raised her hands in front of her shaking them emphatically. “Wait, wait, wait…you want me to just pack up everything to sail around on the Dutchman again? But, that’s…It’s a ship of the dead!”

“Please, Noemi…I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t of the utmost seriousness. I know what it must be like for one of the living to sail with us…”

“Besides, what of Ophidia? We just got her cult started and…”

“Actually, I believe it is wise for us to go.”

Noemi jumped as she heard Ophidia’s voice behind her. The feathered goddess stood aboard the deck, looking at Noemi with determined eyes.

“…Wait, what?”

“I have gained much strength thanks to your efforts, Noemi. Enough that I can now be both here on the ship with you and on the island, with the cult. You have done well as my priestess, but I need you as my champion once more and I wish to speak with Jormungandr once again. Junko has a way with spirits and while she may not be as much of a leader, I will help her keep the villagers faithful in your absence.”

Noemi folded her arms, giving the goddess a determined stare back, ready to refuse. Still, Ophidia’s words made sense. This was a chance to get her more power, as the World Serpent had offered.

“Fine. I’ll help, but on one condition, Jonah,” she said, turning to the cabin boy. “When I need your help against Aztlan, the Dutchman helps. Deal?”

Jonah sighed. “I suppose I’ll…bring it to the captain.”

“And I want to stop at the village first. I owe it to them to explain it.”

Ophidia tilted her head. “Shall I tell them now? They are starting to gather at the port.”

“Just tell them I’ll be back! Besides…I need to say goodbye to Junko. I’m not going to leave her behind, just like that.”

“I already heard, boss,” Junko’s voice said, making Noemi jump.

“Eh!? Junko?”

“Ophidia’s been filling me in. I get it. I’ll do what I can while you’re away,” Junko said, a spirit of her appearing before Ophidia, dwarfed by the tall goddess.

“Mm…Do you think you can handle it, Junko?”

“It’s fine, just make sure you don’t leave us here for too long, boss. I don’t know how to bully the merchants as well as you.”

“You’ll do okay, I think, Junko,” Noemi said with a smile. “I guess…This is a temporary goodbye.”

“I’ll see you when you’re back, boss!”

“See you, sidekick…”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Wolf and the Dragon

 

It had been too long since Giovanni had seen the coast. While Barcelona had a fine coast line, he had traveled a little outside the city on Wilhelmina’s recommendation to a nearby village. Stella was staying in the city, enjoying the pleasure of civilization after a long pilgrimage.

The village was a small one, not unlike the village they had saved in North Italy, a collection of new smaller buildings within a palisade on the coast of the sea, making their living off of fishing and trade with nearby Barcelona. He kept his scarf on, keeping his ears out of sight as he greeted the locals, who welcomed him with polite greetings as he admired the serene midday coastline.

“Afternoon, sir.”

He turned and saw an old man sitting a chair down on a nearby pier, nodding to him politely.

“Afternoon,” Giovanni nodded his head politely.

“You a pilgrim? You look the type,” The man said idly, setting up his fishing rod. “Not to prod or be impolite, just an observation.”

“I am,” Giovanni nodded. “I was told this was a nice stretch of coast.”

“Oh, it’s about the finest you’ll see,” The man nodded. “I was just curious if you were a pilgrim or one of those ‘dragon slayers’ you hear about.”

“Dragon slayers?” Giovanni asked. “You mean Wilhelmina?”

“Ah, no, Miss Koenig’s got enough on her plate to deal with. But this village is popular with every man and boy who can pick up a sword and fancies themselves a monster-killer. Most of them we send home.”

“Why would they think that…is there a dragon around here?” Giovanni asked, slightly nervously, but the man just chuckled.

“Ah, well if you believe the stories there certainly is, but those are just stories. No great fire-breathing lizard’s ever come down on this town. It’s just fire up in the hills outside of town is all. Gas fissures some think.”

“I..see…” Giovanni said.

“Well, if you want to see for yourself by all means,” The fisherman nodded. “It’s not particularly dangerous hills, no more than any other place.”

“Any other place that might have a dragon?” Giovanni said.

The man laughed. “Ah, intrigued you, have I?”

“More like concerned.” Giovanni said. “Dragons are monsters of the devil.”

“Well,” The man said. “If that’s the case, someone should probably check in on what that old dragon is scheming.”

He finished with a hearty chuckle as Giovanni frowned.

“Ah well, if it’s that serious to you, one of those would-be knights came through earlier and was pointed to the hills. At the very least, you can probably go make sure she doesn’t stick her head in a fissure looking for dragons.”

“I…think I might,” Giovanni said. “Which way did she go?”

“Up north, over the road there,” The man pointed out of town. “Go quick enough and I’m sure you can catch her. People dressed in armor tend to make a lot of noise, so they shouldn’t be hard to find.”

“I will,” Giovanni inclined his head politely. “Thank you for your time.”

“Oh no, by all means,” the man waved it off. “Come back around afterwards. You’ve not lived till you’ve had some of the fresh catch here.”

Giovanni wasn’t normally one for fish, but his stomach rumbled at the thought.

“I’ll be sure to,” he said, before going off in the direction the man had pointed out.

As soon as he was out of sight of the town Giovanni shifted forms. He could track and move more easily as a wolf than as a man, and it wasn’t long before he had what was probably the trail. The scent of a young woman dressed all in metal was easy to find, and soon he was fast after her.

Giovanni wasn’t sure if he entirely believed the man about the dragon, but he wanted more answers and a ‘would be knight’ as the man put it would likely have them, or if they were as young and foolish as the man had implied, he could keep them from getting lost or injuring themselves.

As he drew closer to the source of the scent, he shifted once more into human form, making sure his scarf and robe were in place to cover his more wolfish aspects. Still on her trail, it wasn’t long until he heard the sound of an armored warrior moving through the brush.

“Hello there,” He called into the trees ahead of him and the sound came to a halt. Giovanni moved towards where it had been, letting himself clearly be heard as he moved.

She was pretty young, as the man had said, but not very. She was probably in her late-twenties. She was dressed mostly in reproduction armor that still looked at least marginally effective, and she had her brown hair tied up tightly at the back of her head.

“Who are you?” She asked somewhat nervously, hand moving to the hilt of her sheathed sword.

“Just a traveling monk,” Giovanni said. “No one of particular concern.”

“I see…” The woman’s hand fell to her waist. “My name is Isabella, and yours?”

“Giovanni,” he said. “I heard you were out hunting dragons.”

“I am,” she nodded. “The fact that there is a dragon in these hills is known far and wide.”

“All the better that a warrior like yourself is here.”

“Perhaps,” Isabella said. “The stories here are rather strange.”

“A man in the village said that there is no dragon,” said Giovanni. “That it was simply gas fissures and an overactive imagination.”

“And did you believe him?”

“It sounds reasonable…but in a world like ours, it’s never wise to discount hat it might really be dragons,” Said Giovanni. “If anything, it might be even stranger if there were no dragon.”

“Oh, there is a dragon in these hills,” Isabella said. “But it’s an unusual one for certain. Local stories say it’s a peaceful dragon, doing nothing and harming nobody.”

Giovanni scoffed. “Now that I find even harder to believe than there being no dragon at all.”

Isabella smiled. “Is that right? A peaceful dragon just seems too odd?”

“Dragons are the minions of evil,” Giovanni said. “From Saint Martha to Saint George, dragons are vicious and all-devouring beasts born from evil itself. I would think that would be obvious so close to Barcelona, where one can meet an actual noble dragon slayer.”

“Aaah, yes, Wilhelmina, the late Abraham’s young student.”

“She doesn’t seem much younger than yourself,” Giovanni said.

“True, I suppose, and she did kill an evil dragon. But was the killing of the dragon the only righteous thing that Saint George did?”

“Well of course not,” Giovanni said. “He was a saint and a martyr, one who lived and died for virtue and faith. When he slew the dragon, he saved the town and the woman meant as a sacrifice.”

“So was the dragon slain for being evil, or being a dragon?”

“I don’t see much difference,” Giovanni said. “Dragons are evil.”

“I hear rumors,” Isabella said. “And stories of dragons in the far east who are benevolent spirits of rivers and sky.”

“True or not, we’re not in the far east,” Giovanni noted. “All dragons here, going back to antiquity, are monsters to be slain.”

Isabella smiled. “Slain by knights and heroes and thunder gods, no?”

“That seems to be the way of it,” Giovanni said.

“But it doesn’t quite answer my original question,” Isabella continued. “If the dragon had not eaten villagers or demanded sacrifice, would Saint George have had reason to kill it?”

“That seems an odd question,” Giovanni said. “Like if it is still a bird if it does not fly.”

“Penguins don’t fly.”

“That’s not my point,” Giovanni growled.

“Nor do ostriches,” Isabella smiled. “My point is, monk, that judging a thing by its nature is rarely so cut and dry. Have you heard of the story of the Wolf of Gubbio?”

Giovanni flinched. Had she sensed something? Seen something like a slip of his ears? How could she have known who he was just from that…unless Wilhelmina had told someone…

Giovanni grew nervous, but he tried not to let it show.

“I believe I have yes.”

“In that story there is a wolf, a man-eater, who feasts upon a village and its livestock. Instead of a knight come to slay it, a holy man converts it instead into a pious wolf.”

“Yes, but before that holy man came, it was an evil wolf,” Giovanni said. “It did not know the grace of God or the meaning in its actions, it only knew how to kill and destroy.”

“But the wolf overcame its nature, could not a dragon do the same?”

“There is Saint Martha’s story,” Giovanni said. “She pacified the Tarasque and led it to the city where it was killed by the frightened villagers. But all of these stories require outside intervention for mere beasts of evil to be elevated to such a place.”

“Dragons aren’t beasts,” Isabella said. “They are quite intelligent, some more intelligent than men. Even if they are born with a predisposition towards evil, would they be incapable of becoming good? Is it sinful for a dragon to even attempt it?”

Giovanni opened his mouth to speak but paused, thinking on it. They continued walking together, Giovanni slightly behind her, as he thought over her words.

He had been a simple wolf. Powerful and dangerous yes but lacking in intelligence. Kebechet had been born with the intellect of a goddess and Capitolina had evolved as spirits do through the cultivation of her own personality cult in Rome. Giovanni’s intelligence had come all at once at the hands of his best friend and the touch of God.

If a dragon truly was as smart as a man, and it felt an earnest need to repent, could he criticize it? A dragon had no eternal soul to be saved, it is true, but neither did he. Giovanni did not think he would be rewarded for his virtue, but he felt that, blessed as he was with a man’s intellect, he owed it to himself to try. Could a dragon be any different?

“I suppose…it would be possible,” Giovanni said. “If the dragon wished it…truly wished it in their heart to do good and be virtuous in the eyes of God, I could say no word against it.”

He looked at her curiously as he spoke, brow furrowed. “Though for a dragon slayer, you seem much more an advocate than anything.”

Isabella smiled warmly at him. “Because I wished to see what measure of person such a deceptive pilgrim could be, Brother Wolf.”

Giovanni pulled back, ears falling flat against his head as he bared his teeth. Isabella just continued smiling at him, but beneath the armor and the light perfume he could smell something that had been carefully hidden suddenly blossoming to the forefront, a distinct scent that made the hairs of his tail stand straight.

Fire and brimstone.

“You…” Giovanni said. “You’re the dragon of these hills.”

“That I am, pardon the deception,” She bowed cordially. “Though my name is Isabella, that part is no lie.”

“Does Wilhelmina know?” Giovanni asked. “That you…”

“That I exist?” Isabella said. “She’s quite aware. I’m the reason she sent you here in fact. She wanted to know if a figure such as yourself could see the reason in what she does letting me stay in my lands.”

“You…you’re attempting to be a pious dragon?” Giovanni said.

“I am,” Isabella said. “I see no reason for bloodshed between myself and Wilhelmina. If we were to come to blows the only outcome would be bloody for both of us, and I now serve a…much higher purpose, just as you do.”

“And what purpose is that?” Giovanni asked.

“I serve to test all these knights and dragon slayers,” Isabella said.

“A test?”

“You see, after Wilhelmina killed her dragon, people came from far and wide to prove that their settlement could do it just as well as Barcelona. All of these young men and women flushed with pride went out seeking monsters to kill to prove themselves, seeking to be Wilhelmina’s equal.”

“Not because the monsters were evil…” Giovanni nodded as she spoke. “But to try and improve their own standing.”

“The sin of pride,” Isabella said. “I would not have it in these people of faith. If they came to hunt me, and I found a knight of noble bearing who feared for their homeland and their faith, I would reassure them and send them on their way to protect their homes instead of venturing on some fool’s errand.”

“And if they were proud warriors who cared more for bloodshed than faith?” Giovanni asked.

Isabella smiled, perhaps a bit too toothily. “I am still a dragon, after all.”

“I suppose you have me trapped then,” Giovanni smiled. “While I don’t approve of that, I did say I could not speak out against you.”

“You vowed to your friend to never kill a man,” Isabella said. “I made no such promise after all.”

“Then perhaps,” Giovanni said. “You and I might find much to talk about.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

 

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 41

 

A new phenomenon had spread through the city of Babylon like wildfire. From the highest to the lowest, rumors had started to rise of a new cult, a new power, a new lady to worship. For most, they were easily brushed aside. Rumors like this sprang up all the time. Other cities might need their demons or their gods, but the people of Babylon had Lady Shadiya. What more did they need? Others tried to justify their interest. This new goddess, it was said, was the goddess of beauty and of war. Who was more beautiful than Shadiya? Who was more powerful than Shadiya? It stood to reason that Shadiya was an agent of this goddess’ will, and thus there was nothing wrong with showing interest. Still, they kept this growing faith to themselves, meeting secretly at dusk in the hidden spaces where the cult had started to grow.

To URIEL and other forces of the regime, it seemed more like a plague. The new cult, worshipping what they had thought to be the defunct goddess Ishtar, was spreading faster than they could purge it. The cult was organized and developed, using changing password, semi-independent cells, and a constant rotation of temporary worshipping places to keep the hounds forever just behind their heels.

Keeping things that way was Asha’s job. She’d spent the past few months working with Freny and Hazif to determine the best methods for keeping them underground, even in the very heart of enemy territory. She was grateful she had a spirit’s resilience, as she’d often gone days without sleep making sure everyone knew where they needed to go and keeping URIEL and Shadiya’s monsters off their trail.

Freny had proved herself even more valuable than they had hoped. She was their spy and their first contact when it came to determining how to react to URIEL’s movements, allowing them to keep always one step ahead of the monstrous tyrant.

“Asha.”

She had been walking down the street, eyes alert but mind lost in thought as she traveled from one task to another, always a little on edge. She whirled around and saw Hazif behind her.

“Hazif?” She asked, but he didn’t stop, pulling her along as the two of them walked down the street at a quick pace.

“Not here,” he said. “It’s bad.”

Asha nodded, going quiet as she followed him with hurried footsteps, fast enough to be quick but not so fast they’d draw attention. Together the two of them walked to an old and shabby looking apartment building and unlocked the door. Through the front room and into an old storage closet they moved, glancing around to make sure curious eyes weren’t following them. Inside the closet, hidden under a false floor mat, was a trapdoor which led into their most recent hideout.

“Welcome back you two,” Leyla said, waiting for them in the small space.

It wasn’t much bigger than their first shrine to Ishtar. It was an old room of carved stone about five meters across in all directions. They wished they could build lavish temples and grand altars to Ishtar, but for the time being, these guerilla temples would have to do. Ishtar wasn’t complaining…much. She turned up her nose at most offerings but it was clear she appreciated the recent explosion in worshipers.

Leyla was alone in the room, which meant Freny, Eli, and Constance were out somewhere else. Asha frowned; she preferred knowing where Constance was at all times.

Leyla stepped forward, pulling Asha in for a quick and affectionate kiss on the cheek before they both turned to Hazif.

“So, what’s the problem?” Asha asked, leaning against Leyla.

“One of ours has been captured,” Hazif said.

The silence was so stiff and so sudden they could have heard a pin drop.

“You’re sure?” Asha asked. “A hundred percent?”

“This is from Freny,” Hazif said. “She’ll be out and keeping her head down for a while since suspicions of a leak are high, but she managed to get word to me.”

“Freny hasn’t been wrong yet…” Leyla said, the worry clear in his voice.

“Then we have to go under the assumption it’s true,” Asha said, voice hardening. “Do we know who it was? Any chance it was Eli?”

“No, I managed to reach Eli an hour ago,” Hazi said. “It’s not one of the higher-ups, just a new guy who got careless…or someone who tried to turn us in.”

“If he or she was that desperate…” Asha said. “But we can’t deal with motive right now.”

“You’re right,” Leyla nodded. “We need to figure out exactly who they were and what they know.”

“The answer to that is ‘too much’,” Hazif said. “We need to spread word to lay low and abandon all sites now.”

“That’s extreme,” Asha said. “If we drop everything now it could take another month to put it back together. It would almost be like they destroyed it to begin with.”

“But the people will be alive,” Leyla said. “It’s hard but…we need to play it safe.”

Asha let out a sigh. A month of work at least, gone. “Alright…spread the word. We’ll-“

She was cut out by the muffled sound of a door being slammed open above them, shouts and screams as heavy boots moved into the apartment above the dimly-lit stone chamber.

“Damn,” Hazif said. “We’re out of time.”

“Are we secure down here?” Leyla asked.

“Not even a little,” Asha said. “They probably have some kind of monster to sniff us out.”

“Then we need to break out swinging,” Leyla said.

“Great,” Hazif muttered. “I’ll just go ahead and die then while you two bravely charge in weapons drawn.”

“Just stay close and we’ll be fine,” Asha said. “We’ve managed to cover for Eli, haven’t we?”

Leyla moved to the trap door, quietly unlatching it as Asha moved to the entrance, letting her essence spread as wings formed on her back.

She waited, poised to jump beneath the hatch as she heard the noise of guards and their chained beasts move through the building above them, followed by the slow creak as someone opened the supply closet. She stood there, one hand against the trapdoor until she felt it depress slightly, the weight of something standing atop it.

Summoning her energy and putting her arms above her head, she launched herself into the air with enough force to slam the trapdoor from its hinges and barrel into the closet, smashing whatever had been standing on it against the ceiling. The inhuman squeal and the sudden scrabbling of claws told her it was one of their monstrous hunting beasts, and Asha wasted no time crushing it against the ceiling.

A URIEL guardsman stood in the doorway, dumbstruck for the briefest second before raising the rifle in his hands. A single hard boot to the chest sent him flying across the hall and crumpling against the wall.

“Let’s go!” Asha shouted down the hall before rushing out of the closet.

Leyla was the first behind her, his flaming sword in hand as he ran into the fray. The sounds of crashing had called in the other troopers, and Leyla and Asha knew they couldn’t get bogged down in an extended engagement. Instead they worked together, pushing towards the back door with Hazif close behind them. Leyla was the close-combat specialist and took the front, his curved sword cutting through anything that got close enough. Asha moved behind Hazif, taking up the rear and using her bow at close range to take down anything in sight.

The backdoor led out into a narrow alley, and waiting for them were three more URIEL troopers and a monster bred for siege. It was huge, barely able to fit in the alley and looked like a stocky two-headed minotaur with scaly skin and sharp teeth. The troopers drew swords, clearly believing Asha and Leyla were spirits or just trying to avoid friendly fire. They were piled tight in the alley, the monster down one end and the troops down the other. Without sparing a word Asha and Leyla split, Leyla rushing for the troopers as Asha struck at the monster.

The barrel-sized fists of the monstrous creature both came down with enough force to shatter pavement. Asha flapped her wings, flying back as she drew her bow, arrow flying to stab through the monster’s chest.

The beast seemed to hardly notice, trying to snatch her out of the air with surprising speed. Asha needed to keep low to avoid being spotted across the city, swerving low to slip through his fingers before pulling back another arrow to fire into his neck.

The second arrow dug deep, calling up a torrent of black blood that sent the beast into a rage, fists swinging wildly as they gouged great holes in the buildings in either side of the alley, scaled hands tearing easily through brick and stone. Spirit or not, Asha had no wish to see what they could do to her.

With the beast enraged, Asha knew she needed to end this quickly. It charged forward, putting Leyla and the other troopers at risk of being trampled. Asha drew back one more arrow, aiming carefully before it flew from the bowstring and dug deep into one of the creature’s four eyes. One head went slack, as did an entire half of its body. The beast toppled, one leg and arm still thrashing as it tried to right itself with only half its body. Another carefully drawn arrow, and Asha put the monster out of its misery just as Leyla had finished the troopers with his sword.

“Well, now that you’ve both shown off,” Hazif said. “Let’s leave.”

“Just stay close,” Asha rolled her eyes, grabbing Hazif by the sleeve as they sped off into the town, the sounds of battle no doubt bringing half the city’s guard down on them.

Both Asha and Leyla were quick to conceal their weapons and pull their essence, trying to blend in among the crowds as the streets swarmed with troopers and beasts, all of them rushing this way and that in a flood like they’d never seen before. People were being pushed off the street and ordered home as a new crackdown began.

It was around dusk when the fires began burning.

“That was the base beneath third street,” Hazif said, watching the light and smoke of a massive building fire rise into the air. “They’re finding more and more of them.”

“Maybe they’re not bothering with capture anymore,” Asha said. “Either it means they think they found them all or they want to intimidate us into staying quiet.”

“They haven’t found us all,” Leyla said. He’d been talking to a young man in a long robe, who hurried off into the darkness as Leyla turned to them. “I’ve got word of another cell making it out. That’s…more than two-thirds of known associates accounted for. This could have been much worse.”

“That’s almost a third unaccounted for,” Asha said. “And a very angry goddess when she learns most of her shrines have burned down.”

“This is the price of rebellion,” Hazif said. “I told you since the start to expect something like this.”

“If we’re going to be a rebellion,” Asha said. “Then it’s time to start acting instead of just waiting and reacting. This hit us badly, and the next one could hit even harder.”

“What would you do then?” Hazif asked. “Challenge Shadiya to single combat?”

“No,” Asha shook her head. “Not yet…but it’s time we started showing URIEL that we’re not going anywhere.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The snake and the Mirror

The Wolf and the Dragonslayer

 

“This must be the Barcelona settlement,” Giovanni said as they approached the tall reinforced palisade before them. All around them were the crumbling remains of old Barcelona. The city, like so many others, was a shadow of its former size and population, but behind the walls he could see more buildings in good repair, smoke from cooking and forging fires, and the high spires of Barcelona cathedral.

“At long last,” Stella breathed a sigh of relief. The journey through the wilds of Europe had been tougher on Stella than it was on him. They had spent weeks at a time camping quietly in the dark woods, hiding from the monsters and living dead that stalked the continent. Occasionally they happened on a friendly settlement, but more often than not they were sent away without food or rest, the people fearful of what outsiders could bring.

Giovanni had taken to disguising himself somewhat. His head was wrapped in a long scarf to disguise his ears, while his tail was hidden in the long monk’s robes he still wore. Stella still wore a nun’s coif but she had traded much of her other clothing out for more comfortable traveling clothes. They walked together as they approached the gate, watching the motion of the guards who stood by the door. The gates were open, but the pair of them were stopped as they approached with a lifted hand from the guard.

“You two. You’re not from the city,” He said.

“How could you know that?” Stella asked. “There must be several hundred people here.”

“Near a thousand,” The guard said. “But not many of them go in and out during the day, and I’ve a keen eye for foreigners.”

“What my friend means,” Giovanni said, stepping forward. “Is that we are from foreign lands, we are tired and seeking respite from the road.”

“Travelers are welcome in Barcelona, of course,” The guard said. “What good people of God would we be if we turned the needy aside? We only ask you go through a simple search procedure. Shapeshifters and strange folk have been a problem for us in the past.”

Stella gave Giovanni a nervous glance, but he simply nodded.

“So long as such a search does not compromise the dignity of my friend here,” He said. “What does it entail?”

“Nothing invasive,” The guard said waving it off. “We have dogs that can sniff out spirits and devils. Nothing gets past them.”

“I imagine not,” Giovanni said. “We will gladly submit.”

They were ushered inside to a guard house near the gate. There another man brought out a pair of hounds on short leashes to inspect them.

They sniffed over Stella, one growling slightly before they were pulled back.

“Don’t worry,” the guard laughed it off. “Most people coming in stink of spirits from the outside. If they were barking, we’d have a problem.”

“O-of course,” Stella nodded as Giovanni stepped forward.

The dogs approached him, and while they set into the same growl, before they could start barking, Giovanni locked eyes with them. Instantly, the dogs were cowed, whimpering and backing off as the wolf put them in place.

“Huh…never seen ‘em do that before,” The guard said.

“Should I be worried?” Giovanni asked, pulling his eyes off of them.

“Doubt it, these boys’d bark at a dragon if they caught one. You’re free to pass.”

“Thank you,” Giovanni bowed his head as he ushered Stella into the city.

“How did you do that?” Stella asked.

“I did nothing,” Giovanni said. “But there is an order to things, and to be a wolf among hounds is to be a king among men.”

“If you say so…” Stella said. “Where are we going?”

“To find a place to stay and some food,” Giovanni said. “Then I plan to find the woman Torleif spoke of.”

“I’d like to meet her,” Stella said. “But if you don’t mind, I think I’ll find a place to take a bath after we get some food.”

“As you wish,” Giovanni said.

They found a nearby inn that had an open room. Giovanni had brought some gold and scavenged supplies along for bartering, and they were given a clean room with two beds for a decent prize, though Giovanni was quick to deny any assertion they’d be sharing a bed. After that they bought a quick lunch at a market which Stella clearly relished. Giovanni had never gained a taste for cooked food, but for Stella’s happiness, he didn’t say anything. After lunch they split ways, Stella going to look for a bathhouse or something similar while Giovanni walked to the cathedral.

There were a number of people milling in and out of the cathedral, chatting and walking as they moved over the steps and into the square beyond. Among them, Giovanni caught sight of a tall woman with braided blonde hair and a set of armor, a sword carried at her hip. More than sight, however, he could smell her. All wolves had a keen sense of smell, but a wolf like Giovanni could catch the scent of things beyond the mortal spectrum. There was something to this woman he couldn’t explain, she smelled like fresh-spun cloth and bright rays of light, but there was another undertone, the distinct scent of blood.

He moved up to her, head bowed as he approached. She was greeting and making brief small talk with many of the people, but he noticed how she held herself stiffly, keeping herself separated as if leaning slightly away from them, creating a noticeable gap in the crowd where she stood.

“Excuse me,” Giovanni said as he approached. “Would you be the woman they call Wilhelmina Koenig?”

The woman looked at him, eyes moving quickly up and down his body before she nodded. “That’s right, are you new to the city?”

“I am,” Giovanni nodded. “I am simply a pilgrim traveling the land where I can along with my companion. I have heard stories of you and I was wondering if I might have a word?”

Wilhelmina looked him over, a second longer than he was comfortable with, and he wondered if she could sense something off about him.

“Of course,” She said. “Right this way.”

She led him quickly away from the grand front entrance of the cathedral, leading him to one of the smaller side entrances, stepping inside as she held the door open for him.

Giovanni could smell a trap, but not a violent one. Stepping into the cathedral, Giovanni would feel compelled to remove the scarf over his head. It was a simple trap, and one he could have easily ignored, but he decided to take a risk.

Slowly, Giovanni stepped inside as he removed the headscarf, revealing his pointed black lupin ears.

Wilhelmina’s eyes widened a little, but her expression otherwise remained set, confirming his suspicions that she had sensed something off about him.

“Will you let me speak?” Giovanni asked as Wilhelmina followed him into the cathedral.

“For now,” Wilhelmina said curtly. “You didn’t try to assassinate me and you didn’t burst into flames when you stepped inside.”

“I was more concerned about covering my head than bursting into flames,” Giovanni said.

“A man should not cover his head in church,” Wilhelmina said. “A wolf wouldn’t need to.”

“But then I would be betraying that I am not a man,” Giovanni said.

“Or just not a particularly observant one,” Wilhelmina countered. “Better to be seen as impious than a wolf.”

“I disagree,” Giovanni said. “But allow me to introduce myself. I am called the Wolf of Gubbio, now I go by Giovanni.”

“Gubbio?” Wilhelmina blinked in surprise. “Saint Francis’s wolf? You’re a long way from home.”

“Very far. My companion and I were on a pilgrimage of sorts. I wanted to find the other bastions of Christendom in Europe.”

“Well, you’ve found one at least,” Wilhelmina said. “And a large one, I like to think…truth be told contact outside the walls has been pretty slim.”

“It’s the largest west of Rome I’ve yet found,” Giovanni said. “But I haven’t traveled too far north.”

“Few have,” Wilhelmina said. “But I doubt you just wandered blindly. How did you find this city?”

“Well, that’s largely because of you,” Giovanni said. “I heard about you and this city from a girl called Torleif.”

“Torleif?” Wilhelmina’s eyes went wide before her face settled into a smile. “I’m glad to hear she reached Rome. I was worried sending a girl alone on her own. Even a girl…like that.”

“She is…a character,” Giovanni settled on. “But she did make it, eventually. Hardly worse for wear,”

“And what stories did she have about Barcelona?” Wilhelmina asked. “She was a lively little girl, with a pagan streak to boot. I want to make sure she’s not badmouthing this city to the rest of the world.”

“Far from it,” Giovanni smiled. “She seemed almost enamored. She wouldn’t stop talking about the woman in Barcelona, dressed like a knight and slaying dragons.”

“I only ever slew the one dragon,” Wilhelmina said. “And it was a narrow thing. Something I’d prefer…never be repeated.”

Her face gained a somewhat strained expression, and Giovanni gave her a quiet moment to recover herself.

“A good part of the sanctuary was destroyed in the attack,” She said. “We lost a few people. Too many.”

“But the dragon is dead,” Giovanni said. “…right?”

“Very dead,” Wilhelmina said.

“It is a noble thing you did then,” Giovanni said. “Dragons are the servants of the devil, and they spread destruction wherever they go.”

“It was a task. I did nothing more than what was necessary…”

“Slaying dragons is something for heroes and saints,” Giovanni said. “It’s not something to be brushed off.”

“I am not brushing it off…I’m just not one to elevate myself,” Wilhelmina said. “TO the people I might be a hero…and I’m no saint…but I did it because if I didn’t, a lot more people would die. The city would be destroyed and…Because it was my master’s last command.”

“Mmm…you are very humble,” Giovanni said. “But I won’t press the matter further. Tell me, are you getting by well in the city?’

“We are doing well, and growing,” Wilhelmina said, clearly a little relieved to change the subject. “We’re looking at solutions to expand the wall soon, it’s getting a little cramped in the city.”

“That’s good…” Giovanni said. “I received word from Rome a little while ago…the people there are preparing a strike on Nidhoggr.”

“Ah, the chaos dragon. Torleif told me about it…in her way,” Wilhelmina said. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure we can spare…”

“Ah no, I wasn’t looking for recruitment,” Giovanni shook his head. “More…I was hopeful. If Nidhoggr is defeated…Rome will look to expand its trade network beyond the Alps.”

“Rome is very far away,” Wilhelmina said. “That’s quite a proposal.”

“Ah but we’re bound by things stronger than geography. Tell me, is there an active archbishop in the city?”

“In Barcelona? Of course.”

“Then I would like to speak to him,” Giovanni said. “It’s time the faith was brought together and made whole again.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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

The Snake and the Mirror

The End of the Road

 

“All aboard!” The ship captain’s voice rang out over the small docks as the last of the sailors brought their cargo aboard. It was a decent-sized sailboat, much of the cabin emptied out to make room for cargo and supplies, one of countless ships like it that ran much needed goods from island to island throughout the Caribbean and beyond.

“Excuse me?” A small voice caught the captain’s attention, and he turned to see a frail-looking young woman standing on the docks. She was in a pitiful state, half-starved, bruised, and clothes that looked like they’d been dragged through jungle mud for ten miles or more. Her black hair was barely restrained in a ragged braid and one of the lenses of her glasses was missing, leaving an empty frame.

“We’re casting off now, Miss,” the captain said. “Nothing left to trade. We’ll be back in three weeks’ time if the weather’s good.”

“Ah, that’s just it…I was hoping to buy some space on your boat,” She was shaking almost like a leaf, but her voice remained somewhat steady.

“Ah, a passenger then. I think we might make a little room if the price is right.”

The girl fumbled through her pack and at her pockets for a brief moment, clearly not the type to have much. Eventually, she unhooked her belt and offered up a thin rapier kept on a sheath to him.

“Even if it’s not much for monster-killing,” the girl said. “It’s made of high-quality steel. I’m sure someone can find a good use for it.”

The captain looked them over, first the sword, then the girl.

“It’ll do. Climb aboard then we set sail within the hour.”

Relief broke across the girl’s face as she bowed her head. “Thank you, sir.”

The captain took the blade from her, carrying it over his shoulder. “Just try not to get underfoot, Miss…what’s your name then anyway?”

“Gisela,” She said. “Gisela Silva.”

 

As a ghost in her memory, Cat watched as the younger Gisela climbed quickly aboard the ship, trying to keep a low profile as she scurried to the stuffed cabin below. Always trying to keep from getting in the way of the sailors as they began preparations to cast off.

“So, this is how you left the mainland?” Cat asked the apparition of the older Gisela beside her. “Got on a boat and sailed off?”

“It is what we had agreed on,” Gisela said.

“You could have tried going back for her,” Cat said. “I would have tried…”

“What would that have gotten me, Catarina?” Gisela asked. “Noemi sacrificed herself so I could escape. Trying to rescue her would have been insulting everything she tried to give me.”

“You don’t know she died,” Cat said. “You might have been able to-“

“Look at what I was, Catarina,” Gisela cut her off, gesturing to the girl on the boat. “I could barely keep myself standing. I hadn’t had any real food in days and I’d been on the run for weeks. All I could have done was get myself captured and killed. Sometimes staying alive is all you can afford to do.”

Cat fell silent as she continued to watch the ship being readied, sails unfurling as they cast off from the dock, carrying their cargo out towards the sea.

“So where are you going?” Cat asked.

“The ship was sailing for Cuba,” Gisela said. “I would have taken it anywhere, so long as it was far away.”

They stood on the dock, watching the ship move out of the harbor under a clear sky.

“You know…” Cat said, watching the ship leave. “I’ve been wondering about a few of these memories.”

“Hmm?” Gisela gave her a questioning glance.

“There seems to be a lot of things you couldn’t have seen or been a part of like…you’re below decks on the ship right now, right? How do we know what the sky looked like, or the view from the docks?”

Gisela remained still, but Cat could have sworn she saw a smile tug at the edges of her lips.

“Smart. I’m glad you’ve started noticing that.”

“Well, I noticed it for a while,” Cat said. “I just assumed you were embellishing a little.”

“I wish it was as plain as that,” Gisela said. “This is the last memory I have for you, and soon it will all be made clear.”

“Seriously, the last?” Cat asked in surprise.

“One more,” Gisela said. “On the ship.”

Once more the memory began to change, the white fog rolled around before clearing again. Cat found herself standing on the deck of the boat, almost feeling the cool ocean breeze as it rolled over them, carrying swiftly across the sparkling blue Caribbean waters.

“It’s pretty at least,” Cat said, looking out towards the horizon.

“It is,” Gisela nodded. “This is a beautiful part of the world…I’d like to see it again.”

“Get away from all us annoying Europeans,” Cat grinned. “I can see the appeal.”

Looking out towards the horizon, Cat watched the distant clouds rolling over the western sky, dyed gold and crimson by the lowering sun. Cat narrowed her eyes a little, watching what seemed like tiny spikes on the water, black against the red sky. As she watched, they began to grow larger, rising higher slowly into the sky like the fins of approaching sharks.

“Are those…”

“Sails off stern!” The call went off across the ship as people rose to the alert. One lanky shirtless sailor brought his binoculars to his face, looking out towards the horizon.

Cat looked at Gisela, whose face was once more fallen into stony silence.

“Red sails!” The man cried out, voice cracking slightly.

Cat saw the color drain from the captain’s face. The younger Gisela slowly crawled up from the hold, her eyes haggard as terror began to grip her face.

“Full sail!” The captain roared. “We have the wind with us! “

“Those ships are far away…” Cat said. “It’ll take a while for them to catch you, right?”

“Under normal circumstance it might take days,” Gisela said, her expression hardening. “But these are not normal waters, and those are Aztlan blood pirates.”

She glanced at the horizon, watching the sun begin to set. “Something darker than sails propels those ships, and wherever they appear the Night Wind rolls in across the waves.”

Even as she spoke, the sails of their boat seemed to collapse, caving in as the wind turned in an instant, slowing them as the ship began to lose its cutting momentum. The sails of the ships behind them, however, still seemed full, and they were gaining rapidly.”

“Pirates?” Cat asked. “They’re here to loot the ship?”

“It’s not just the cargo,” Gisela said. “Aztlan blood pirates are…efficient. They’ll take the cargo for bounty, they’ll take the supplies to keep raiding, they’ll take the ship to join their fleet, and they’ll take the crew for the blood that flows through their veins.”

Cat swallowed as she watched the sails, bright red against the sky, cut through the wind to bear down on them.

“So, what do you do against pirates like that?”

The ship’s captain rallied the men. Those who weren’t busy navigating or working the sails drew knives, guns, and sharpened boathooks into their hands. Even Gisela was pulled forward, the captain thrusting her sword into her hands.

The clouds had followed the Aztlan ships, rolling overhead like a massive stone-grey wave across the sky. Both of the pirate vessels outsized the small cargo ship, and Cat could see magic fires burning on their decks in vivid blues and greens as they drew closer, casting the silhouettes of their crews into strange dark light.

The young Gisela braced herself on the lines of the ship, sword in one hand as she watched in terror as the twin ships overtook their own, one on either side.

For a moment there was silence as the crews traded hateful glance, before it was broken by a shrieking war cry. Dozens of raiders and soldiers leapt or swung across the gap between ships and the deck erupted into melee. The young Gisela tried to run where she could, ducking, rolling, and clawing away from the swinging weapons and shrieks of fury and pain as combat broke across the length of the ship.

“I think I knew this was it,” Gisela said, watching her younger self struggle. “Nowhere to run or hide, no one left to save me, and I didn’t even have the strength or courage to fight.”

The younger Gisela moved towards the bow, only to be grabbed forcefully by the collar by one of the Aztlan soldiers. As she struggled weakly to break free, hitting his arm with the pommel of her sword, both of them were thrown off balance as the warrior was tackled by one of the sailors, sending him to the deck as Gisela stumbled off the boat and into the cool darkening waters.

Gisela gasped and spluttered, choking on the rush of salt water as her arms thrashed. Her arms began pulling her through the water as her feet kicked furiously, carrying her away from the dueling ships as fire was launched from the deck of the Aztlan raiders, burning through the sailors of the small trading ship.

Barely managing to tread water, limbs still weak, Gisela watched as the fires burned through the sails and cargo was hauled up from the captured ship.

“Nowhere to go, no one to help,” Gisela said as they watched from the water. “What can anyone do but sink?”

Cat watched with growing pity, like something was squeezing her heart as the young Gisela thrashed at the water as long as she could. Whether it was exhaustion or simple despair she couldn’t tell, but the fire left Gisela’s eyes and without even a splash of water she sank beneath the waves.

Cat’s ghostly form sank beneath the waves with her, watching Gisela sink into the darkening clear water. Suddenly, in the quiet water, another shift seemed to occur. She saw the front of Gisela’s shirt pull suddenly upwards, as if an invisible hand had taken tight hold of it and yanked upwards.

The young Gisela’s eyes opened in surprise, bright and surprised, her glasses having been knocked off her face as something began to tug her back towards the surface.

“Rise, child.”

Cat shivered, a cold voice echoing through the water as she saw the ghostly shape of something move around Gisela, a shimmer in the light like a heatwave under water.

“The cold lord of the ocean depths will have many souls this night, I would not give him yours.”

Gisela was still rising slowly, too slowly, as the force pulling her upwards seemed to weaken with her weight. It seemed almost as if Gisela wanted herself to sink. The forms in the water grew more solid, tendrils of air that slithered like serpents, weaving and binding until they coalesced into the shape of a skeletal clawed hand. Once more the voice echoed through the water, a sharp hissing voice that echoed from behind sharp teeth.

“All the ocean can give you is death, child. Take my hand, bind your soul to mien and I can give you a future. Power, strength, and the knowledge fit to reshape the world as you always wished it to be. All you must do is take my hand.”

Gisela’s mouth opened, bubbles rising through the water as she coughed and gagged in panic. Cat saw the despair in her eyes, the terror coursing through her before with a slow grasp she took tight hold of the ghostly hand and let herself be pulled upwards once again before she finally broke the surface. Cat rose with her, seeing her gasping for breath as she was kept afloat.

The choppy water had grown still, the clouds had cleared and all sign of the ships had vanished leaving only the mirror-calm sea and the stars overhead. A shape moved in the darkness, the night sky shifting and warping as a new dark form came into being.

For an instant it seemed human, Cat swear she saw the silhouette of a tall woman appear before that was wrapped in layer after layer of rippling feathered cloth. Within the cloth, pale bones took form, assembling into the shape of a great robe-dressed skeleton. Its body was bedecked with jewels and gold which, upon closer inspection, was comprised of slithering hissing serpents with glimmering scales. Massive wings, dark wings of an obsidian butterfly, filled the sky and blotted out the stars. The great skull-head, filled with needle-like teeth and covered in wiry hair, stared at her with empty eyes that burned with starlight.

“Do you accept my gift, child?” The terrible goddess asked. “I have watched you from afar for some time. I have seen you run, struggle, and crawl. Your will is strong, the will to live stronger than all. Will you take life before death?”

“I-I do!” Gisela gasped. “Please!”

“Then take my many gifts child,” It reached out and placed a bony sharpened fingerbone against her forehead. “And do what you must to save this world with the power of Itzpapalotl, the Obsidian Butterfly.”

Cat watched Gisela’s eyes go wide, her body stiffening before beginning to shudder, her pupils dilating before beginning to shiver.

The older Gisela moved to Cat. “This is how I learned what I know now,” Gisela said. “It was delivered to me in pure form at the hands of a goddess. But few of the gods here are kind.”

Gisela screamed, eyes wide as Itzpapalotl kept her finger pressed against her skull, unable to escape or seek relief or do anything but scream in pain as ancient knowledge was decanted into her mind. With nothing around save for the water, Gisela’s screams seemed to echo for miles around.

“It was like having my mind rewritten with a dagger,” Gisela said. “New knowledge roughly hewn over the old. A million words in a thousand tongues, all with dozens of meanings all of which I was made to know.”

Eventually the screaming of the younger Gisela began to fade, still floating in the cold water. Cat leaned in, and could see a change had come over the young girl. She still didn’t look quite like the Gisela she knew, Still a bit too young, too unhealthy, and too afraid. But she now saw the familiar glimmer of violet in her eyes.

A piece of wooden flotsam floated by which Gisela swiftly and desperately took hold of, fingers curling around the damp wood.

“Now then, Champion,” Itzpapalotl said. “Do you know what you must do?”

Gisela looked up at the goddess, and now for the first time Cat saw the familiar hard-eyed expression on her face.

“I do.”

If the terrible skull face of the goddess could smile, it did.

“Good. Then start moving, the world awaits.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa