The Snake and the Mirror

Spear of Conviction

 

Rosa stood perched on the balance beam, legs moving smoothly across the narrow beam as she went through her forms, spear in her hands as she moved this way and that, walking along the hand-width span like a cat as she maneuvered herself with almost inhuman grace and balance.

To move like this took more than focus and poise. Balance, Capi had always stressed, took more than just physical dexterity. A mental balance must be maintained as well, a level of harmony and calm even at the most taxing times.

Rosa kicked off the beam into a sudden backflip and landed, flawlessly, on the balls of her feet before dismounting back to the hard-packed ground of the training field. Her audience, consisting of Evangeline and Capitolina, watched with impressed expressions, Evangeline even going so far as to give her quiet applause.

“Impressive,” The tall blonde champion said, putting her hands back down to rest on her cane. “I can’t imagine the tumble if I tried that.”

“Well, I owe at least a bit of it to you,” Rosa said, flashing her a grin. “The new spear feels perfect. I could balance it on a dime.”

“Oh, it’s hardly new” Evangeline waved it off. “Just a little improved. I appreciate the compliment nonetheless.”

“You’re making good progress for a pup,” Capi said. “Maybe you’ll be able to beat me in a duel soon.”

“Maybe,” Rosa nodded. “But I’m focused on Nicomede right now.”

“Ah yes the young Champion of Zeus,” Evangeline nodded. “He stopped by my workshop yesterday.”

“Is that right?” Rosa asked, taking a drink from her water bottle “What’d he have to say?”

“He wanted an inspection of his equipment,” Evangeline said. “Much like you he was aware of my prowess and asked for improvements.”

“Mind giving me a few pointers?” Rosa asked. “I could do with more info on his shield.”

“Of course,” Evangeline said. “After all I told him everything about your spear and armor.”

“Evangeline!” Rosa scoffed. “Come on, I was trusting you here!”

“Duel aside, you are still teammates,” Evangeline maintained her serene smile. “I have no reason to keep secrets between you, in fact it would be foolish of me not to share the information.”

“I guess…” Rosa almost growled. “Fine, what can you give me on his gear?”

“His most impressive asset is his shield,” Evangeline said. “Not even Catarina’s sword could pierce it. It is a piece of Zeus’ will given form and a physical manifestation of order. Your spear won’t even leave a scratch.”

“Off to a great start,” Rosa sighed. “What else?”

“His spear is like a lightning rod for divine energy,” Evangeline continued. “I actually built a slightly cruder version a while back. Just by channeling spiritual power through it he can generate lightning bolts.”

“Better and better,” Rosa grumbled. “So I can’t afford to draw back to far or he’ll fry me.”

“Don’t underestimate your own resilience, Rosa,” Evangeline continued. “I’ve improved your armor significantly. I wouldn’t recommend seeing how many lightning bolts you can take to the face, but you’re far from defenseless. Your spear is much stronger as well. It’s heavier and a bit shorter, which should give you better maneuvering room.”

“Right,” Rosa nodded, trying to work out the best strategy. “Keeping him close will minimize his advantages, but I need to look out for that shield. Might be made for defense but that’s not all a shield can do.”

“Smart pup,” Capi’s tail was wagging slightly as she stepped forward. “You’re actually learning to think through a problem rather than just take it head on.”

“Well, I can’t afford to fall asleep on this one,” Rosa said. “Nico’s tough and I know he won’t be holding back.”

“Not likely,” Evangeline said. “He mentioned he would be training long hours just like you. I think he’s a little intimidated.”

“Works for me,” Rosa said. “Though I’d prefer he didn’t take me seriously so I could get him off-guard.”

“Unfortunately, I think he’s very on-guard when it comes to you,” Evangeline said. “He might even be a little attracted to you.”

Rosa snorted before taking another drink. “He’s not my type.”

“Could always try to use your feminine wiles to distract him,” Evangeline teased and Rosa rolled her eyes.

“Ya, do me up in a chainmail bikini, that’ll work out great.”

“Well if you insist.”

“Get off it,” Rosa prodded the blunt end of her spear towards her. “Come on, we’ll take a break from the physical exercise. Today is running scenarios, right Capi?”

“That’s right,” Capi said, leading her off the field towards the benches.

“Scenarios?” Evangeline asked.

“Yeah, sort of basic ‘what-if’ questions to try and test me under pressure,” Rosa said. “Good for thinking on the fly.

“Alright,” Capi said. “Hmmm…you’re team leader. Your team is in hostile territory two kilometers ahead of the safe lines. You are attacked by a pack of cacodaemons, Gisela is wounded and unable to walk, your objective is ahead of you but she will likely die if you don’t bring her back to the lines.”

“Gisela’s too useful to let die for one objective unless it’s Nidhoggr itself,” Rosa said. “Send Nicomede and Megame to escort her back to camp. Cat, Torleif, and I can push ahead and pull back if the objective is infeasible at half-strength.”

“Okay,” Capi nods. “You push ahead but you hear over the radio that Nicomede and the others are held up close to the Legion lines. Calling the legion forward can put a lot of men at risk.”

“I pull back then,” Rosa said. “Like I said, Gisela’s too valuable to lose.”

“Have you quantified that?” Evangeline said. “Would there be teammates you’re willing to lose?”

Rosa’s face gained a strained expression. “Well I don’t like to think about it but…I mean, obviously all of us are valuable and I’d do everything I can to make sure everyone makes it. But Cat is the lynchpin of this whole mission and Gisela has a lot of information on the Primordials. Our priority would be to make sure both of them make it, no matter what.”

“Being squad leader is a lot more than ordering people around,” Capi said. “These are the kinds of decisions a commander has to make.”

“I couldn’t do it,” Evangeline said. “I prefer my stresses to end with my machines.”

“Well, it’s not like I want to be in charge just to…be in charge,” Rosa said. “Like…just think about the others on the team. Torleif’s a kid, a super strong kid but she’s still just a kid. Megame is way too kind-hearted and caring. Could you imagine her trying to make a decision like that, or telling one person they need to die for the mission to succeed?”

“She does seem very kind,” Evangeline said. “I could see where that might make things more…difficult.”

“Then there’s Gisela who…well I mean I think she’s alright. A bit of a bitch but alright. I’d never trust her as a leader though, I’d think she was always going to sacrifice me to serve some hidden agenda. She’s smart and she might know more than any of us about Nidhoggr but…I don’t trust her that much.”

“And she was an enemy of the city,” Capi said. “The Legions wouldn’t follow her, if they didn’t just want her head outright.”

“And then there’s Cat,” Rosa said. “And she…has enough to worry about.”

“Ooh now there’s a what-if scenario,” Evangeline smiled.

“Hmm?”

“Alright, now bear with me…what would you do if Catarina turned traitor?”

“Wait, what!?”

“Well maybe not traitor…” Evangeline thought it over. “What if she refused to go on, and wanted to turn back, and was threatening desertion?”

“I…that’s just…” Rosa glanced at Capi, who kept her silence, waiting for Rosa to respond.

“That’s ridiculous!”

“It is only a what-if scenario. You should consider everything, no?”

“Well, I’m not about to consider being assaulted by an army of pink hippos, and I’m sure not about to consider something like Cat abandoning the mission.”

“Is it really that strange?” Evangeline asked. “It’s a terrifying prospect, and she is just a person.”

“Sure, with anyone else, I might be with you,” Rosa said. “But Cat…look, I know Cat. I work with her every day and we went on that mission to Syria together.”

“And?” Evangeline asked.

“And Cat’s…well she’s not the kind of person to back out of a process. Even if she’s scared and I know she’s scared, it’s stupidly obvious. But she won’t complain, she won’t try to back out. Cat’s going to see this through to the end and that’s the end of it.”

“But what if…?”

“Fine! If Cat gives up for some reason I’ll drag her there myself! Happy?”

“Mmmm, satisfied,” Evangeline smiled. “I will settle for satisfied.”

“Fine,” Rosa rolled her eyes. “I’m going to go hit the showers.”

Without another word she slung her spear over her shoulder and began to stalk towards the showers, only to notice Capi catching up to her.

“You shouldn’t let a scenario bother you that much.”

“It was a dumb question,” Rosa said.

“I found it quite interesting…well, your response at least.”

“How’s that?” Rosa asked, stopping at the entrance to the showers to talk.

“It reminded me of how short and aggressive you got when I used to talk to you,” Capi said. “When I asked you questions about who you were or what your past was like.”

“Because you were annoying too,” Rosa folded her arms. “You pestered me for days!”

“But this time you didn’t get protective of your secrets or your past, you were being protective of Catarina.”

“So what?” Rosa asked. “Doesn’t change that it was a dumb question.”

“Why it matters,” Capi said patiently. “Is because I’ve never seen you aggressively rush to defend someone else like that. You were defensive about your past because it mattered a lot to you.”

“I think you’re reading waaay too much into this,” Rosa rolled her eyes. “Maybe you should stick to the wolf stuff instead of psychoanalyzing me.”

“If I’d done that, you’d probably still be out in the mountains hunting manticores,” Capi smiled.

“Well what’s your point then? Or are you just going to tease around it all day.”

“I think the reason you’re so quick to defend Cat is because she’s an important part of your life now.”

“Of course, she’s important.” Rosa said. “We hang out every day, we train together, and we’re working together on this mission.”

“That could be said of Hildegard,” Capi said. “And me too, in a way.”

“And I’d react in the same way.”

“Would you?”

“Oh, come on,” Rosa rolled her eyes. “What do you want me to say, Capi? Why do you always need to give me the runaround like this?”

“I just think, from all I’ve heard and everything you’ve said,” Capi was still smiling. “That Cat is a bit more special to you than others. You certainly know her better than most.”

“I just know her well because she’s dumb like that,” Rosa said. “Hard to forget her biggest fault.”

“And that’s why? That’s the only reason?”

Rosa folded her arms, staring down Capi for a moment. “…seriously Capi, why are you bugging me about this?”

Capi smiled, her tail listing from side to side. “Because,” she said. “I want to make sure that you go off to war without regrets, and that if you have anything you want to say to Cat, you say it.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 36

 

Noemi blinked as she looked over the railing of the ship. The air felt warmer than it had for weeks, the sun basking against the blue water, its reflections and rays shimmering out to reach the Dutchman’s sides. In the distance, she could see trees and sandy beaches, where the white waves lapped against them gently.

The navigational charts confirmed their position with the help of a sextant and some quick calculations, though it only told Noemi they were in the right general latitude for the Caribbean. Still, the Dutchman could drop them anywhere in the world, it would only make sense for her to drop them where they were going.

“I think that’s it. We made it! Can you bring us ashore, Jonah?”

The cabin boy shook his head. “’Fraid not, Noemi. The Dutchman can’t touch shore. We can get you close enough that you can get there on your own but it’s not my call.”

“Right…I guess ghost ships have all their own strange rules. Well, anything you can do for us is appreciated! Ophidia, you don’t mind swimming, right?” Noemi said with a grin. It was a silly question, and she knew it. After all, the spirit could just travel invisible above the water; she did not need to physically exert herself to reach the shore.

“I suppose,” Ophidia said, without much enthusiasm. She had been a bit distant ever since the meeting with Jormungandr. Noemi couldn’t help but frown. She really did want to help Ophidia get stronger but…She couldn’t just give up. Not now, not when she had come so far.

“Don’t worry, Ophidia,” Noemi said, forcing a smile to cover her own feelings. “We’ll both get stronger here, and from there, kick Tess’s butt!”

“We would have a far greater chance of that had we accepted the World Serpent’s offer, Noemi. But it is done. We shall go ashore.”

“Mmm…” Noemi fell silent. She couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t come across as patronizing and if there was one thing she did not wish to do, it was patronize her spirit, her own patron, the goddess to whom she owed so much…Her smile wilted as she looked away, unable to face Ophidia. She had made a promise to Ophidia, it was true, but she had made a promise to others as well.

The ship lurched to a stop in the water, the sails still blowing but the hull not traveling any further.

“Looks like we’ve hit our stop, Red!” Ronny shouted down from the lookout, before swinging down to the deck below. “Think ya can swim the rest of the way?”

“I was always a good swimmer, Ronny, and I’ve got stronger legs now. I’ll be fine,” Noemi said, hugging the elf farewell. “Guess this is goodbye. As much as I like you both, I don’t mean any offense when I say…I don’t hope to see this ship for a long time!”

Jonah grinned as he shook her hand, before finding himself pulled into a hug as well. “The feeling is mutual, Noemi. Though given the rate of piracy in the seas these days, well…Just keep safe.”

“Hey!” Ronny said, folding her arms across her chest as she glared at Jonah. “There’s nothing wrong with being a pirate!”

“Please,” Jonah said. “Even the devil himself would call pirates scum.”

“Better a pirate than having to serve the devil, like you do, Cabin Boy!”

“Says the elf serving aboard the Dutchman.”

“Yeah, by choice.”

“Alright, alright,” Noemi said, cutting them off before they could get into the debate for what felt like the thousandth time. “I don’t think you have to worry about me, Jonah. I don’t have any intention of becoming a pirate any time soon, and I’m looking forward to having dry land under my feet again.”

“You’ll miss your sea legs eventually, Red. Happens to us all,” Ronny said with a smile. “Now get going, I’m not through with making Cabin Boy take back his words!”

Jonah shook his head, pushing the shorter elf woman to the side gently, his hand pressing against her forehead as he stepped forward.

“Hey!”

“Farewell then, Noemi,” he said, “You too, Ophidia. It was a pleasure having you both aboard.”

Noemi flashed him a smile as she placed one foot on the railing, before taking a deep breath and diving into the sea below. The water felt cool and refreshing on her skin, already recovering from the stale air that hung around the Dutchman at all times. While she had gotten used to it, she had never truly forgotten it was a ship for the dead.

As she started to swim towards the island, she could feel the power of Ophidia flowing through her arms, legs, her entire body really, making the travel over the waves far quicker and easier than it would have been had she not been so blessed. Before too long, she could feel the wet sand beneath her feet, her toes sinking into the soft sand as she stumbled her way upon the beach.

The rainforest seemed to begin almost where the beach ended, sand turning into grass almost before her eyes. She wasn’t sure if that was the work of spirits or natural, but compared to the sandy well-lit beach, the jungle looked dark and uninviting. She remembered the last time she had been running through a rainforest. Noemi was sure that Gisela would have remembered as well.

“Most likely she would have come in on a ship, right? A normal ship. One that could dock at a port. Let’s walk along the beach and see what we can find.”

“Mm, Noemi, I do not wish to…distress you…but the odds of your friend having come to this very island by chance are…low,” Ophidia said, softly, her hands gently resting on Noemi’s shoulders.

“Yeah…but…still! There’s maybe a town or village somewhere, right? It’s not like Jormungandr would send us to a place where we were going to be stranded! …Would she?”

“I cannot say I fully knows the mind of the World Serpent, Noemi. Still,” Ophidia said, her eyes glowing. “The whispers of the snakes on this island say there is a settlement of humans. Apparently, it is a good source for mice.”

“Great! Let’s head that way!”

They walked along the beach, as the sun started its lazy descent towards the horizon, turning the blue water dark with reds and purples. Before night had come upon them completely, however, Ophidia’s ears perked up.

“Ahead of us is the village, Noemi. It seems to…be a fishing village, by the smell.”

“Mm, makes sense if it’s this close to the coast! Though it makes me wonder if there is something wrong with the rainforest.”

“I do not know. The snakes seem to think the rainforest is quite perfect the way it is, but what is safe for a snake may not be safe for you.”

“Right…”

The village was just that, a small collection of houses made from the reeds and woods, built on stilts to avoid the seasonal flooding. Noemi approached the settlement cautiously, keeping guard for any sign of the Jaguar about. It would be just perfect for her to have finally reached her destination, only to have to start running again immediately.

No. We’re done with running, remember?

Noemi clenched her fist as she nodded to herself. That’s right. They were going to find Gisela! …And work on Ophidia’s cult. That was important and she couldn’t forget about doing that. If Gisela wasn’t here, then…Well, Noemi figured she would just have to give up hope. She would have no lead and searching the entire Caribbean seemed an almost futile quest.

Her bare feet crunched against the shells and dried seaweed upon the beach as she made her way to the more grassy and rocky village. The islanders looked at her with curiosity as she stumbled forward, her legs still forgetting the ground beneath them was solid at times.

“Ah…hello?” Noemi said, she didn’t know what language they spoke here, but she figured between the three she knew, she had a good chance of at least being somewhat understood. “I’m looking for an inn…”

“Follow the path,” one of them said, pointing down the dirt path that led to the center of the village. “Travelers often stay at Nicolas’ home. It’s the largest in the village.”

“Thanks!” Noemi said, with a smile, as she continued her trek through the village. The people all watched her, their eyes following her as she stumbled forward.

“Err…Ophidia, do I look different or something?”

“Indeed. I have taken the liberty of manifesting partly through your form. You look human but it is clear you are a chosen champion.”

“O-oh, what if they are in service to Tess?!”

“They are not. If they were, I would have sensed the scent of the Jaguar. But it will serve you well to be known as a champion to establish a cult among the people.”

“Mrrr…I will, but I want to at least rest first. I don’t know the last time I had a proper bed. Between the jungles and the ships, I’ve been sleeping on cots at best!”

Noemi was speaking quietly, under her breath, as she pushed open the door to what she presumed was Nicolas’ inn. It was certainly the largest house and had a door with a sign saying “Welcome”. There was nobody there.

Noemi looked around for a bell or something, but before she could find it, she heard footsteps coming down the stairs.

“Ah…more visitors? It is rare for Nicolas to get so many in such short time!”

“Err, do you not get a lot of traffic to this island?” Noemi asked.

“Not much, no, but a boat arrived a few days before. Most times, they simply come to trade and sail off again. We have little to raid…I often host the officers aboard their ships, as a sign of hospitality!” He puffed up with pride as he spoke. “…But then another ship arrived not long after, and one of their people stayed behind. A black haired girl…”

Noemi’s ears picked up immediately. It couldn’t possibly be…

“Where was this girl from?”

“Ah, she said she was from Brazil. Said she was running away from the trouble that had come to them,” he shook his head. “That’s what happens when you have too many people living in one place. I remember reading about it, before the jungle pushed back against us. Swallowed whole cities…I can only imagine what it did on the mainland!”

“This girl…Where did she go!?”

“Mm? Ah…into the jungle. I warned her of the dangers but…she insisted. Anyway, I still have a room available! You’d be sharing with some of the first ship’s crew of…Ah! Miss?”

Noemi didn’t even wait before she had turned and ran out the door, towards the dark jungle.

I had thought you wanted a bed, Noemi.

“I did but…You heard what he said!”

Noemi…the jungle is full of many powerful spirits. They lurk in the shadows and the danger is great. This is…Foolish.

“I don’t care! …I’m not running away this time, Ophidia. I’m running towards something. I don’t care how good she’s gotten, I’ll be able to find her trail. I’m not leaving my sidekick behind again.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Hunted

 

The spreading jungle of central America seemed to be made of endless teeth, claws, and hungry maws as branches and weeds and vines whipped at Gisela and Noemi. Cat watched, a spectral figure in the memory with the Gisela she knew at her side as the younger one fled with Noemi through the dense foliage.

“Every day the jungle spread,” Gisela said. “The influence of spirits growing stronger every day, it made our going harder and gave speed to our enemies.”

“How long did you run for?” Cat asked, watching as they barely paused to catch their breath, even as it was clear both were being run ragged, Gisela especially so.

“I do not remember. Days, weeks, the nights and days blurred together.”

Even as the pair stopped briefly, catching their breaths, the echoing shriek of a jaguar’s roar echoed through the foliage around them and they set off again as fast as they could.

“This wasn’t a chase,” Gisela continued. “We were being hunted like animals. To be captured and sacrificed upon that same bloodstained altar.”

Cat moved closer to the past Gisela. The girl was a mess. Even beyond her torn clothes, gasping breath, and emaciated looks, there was a strangeness in her eyes. Her gaze was long, piercing while staring at nothing in particular.

“It’s what they call a thousand-yard stare,” Gisela said.

Cat saw Noemi help Gisela along, putting a hand on her shoulder as she urged her forwards. The younger Gisela shuddered, but kept moving.

“Noemi kept you going,” Cat said. “Through all of it.”

“I was broken, Catarina,” Gisela said. “Noemi was the only thing keeping those ragged pieces together before they broke apart entirely.”

“Was there anyone willing to help you?” Cat asked. “They can’t all have been…in league with Tess.”

“We tried.”

Gisela waved her hand and the memory shifted. The sky turned black as day turned to night then lit up as it became day again. With each passing day the toll on the fugitives became greater. Gisela showed Cats snippets of visions, of moving through isolated villages and farms, looking for a place to stay or someone to give them sanctuary.

Most of them turned the pair away, offering food or drink but no shelter, giving offerings through barely-opened doors before the doors were swiftly slammed shut again. Many of them gave nothing.

Noemi slammed her fist against the door, wood shaking under her mingled desperation and rage.

“Open up dammit!” She called into the locked and shuttered house. “We just need…somewhere to sleep…”

“Noemi…” Gisela put a tired hand on her shoulder. “Come on…we need to keep moving. We’ll find something…the next town is further away from the city.”

Noemi let out a long, ragged sigh, leaning her head and arm against the doorframe.

“Right,” She said, picking herself back up. “We need to keep moving forward. No matter what. Think you can keep up, sidekick?”

“Yeah…” Gisela managed a tired smile. “I…I’ll manage somehow.”

The two of them set off back towards the edge of the jungle.

“You both kept each other going,” Cat said, watching them leave the isolated farm behind. “I guess Anton was right. Noemi needed you as much as you needed her.”

“I didn’t believe it at the time,” Gisela said. “But looking back…the more obvious it became.”

“But there’s still a lot more to this story,” Cat said. “Show me more.”

Gisela let out a weary sigh. “Very well. Not much point dwelling here, I suppose.”

Once more the sky darkened and the scene shifted again. The pair of them were deep in the thick trees and underbrush of a dense subtropical jungle, Noemi taking the lead and trying to move through it with a scavenged machete in hand.

“Get off the road…” She panted between swings. “And they’ll be less likely to follow. Come on, Gisela,” She helped Gisela over a fallen log carefully, maneuvering around plants where they could so as to not risk leaving a trail.

The going was slow, and they were clearly exhausted. The burden seemed to lift from them, however, as they came across a vast open clearing. An area of low soft ferns that opened to the bright sky with a small creek running through the center.

Noemi hurried forward with Gisela close behind and the pair of them eagerly drank their fill in the crystal water running through the clearing. Gasping between mouthfuls of sweet water as they fell to their knees.

“What is this place?” Gisela finally asked, glancing around at the openness of the clearing, the tree line appearing to have simply stopped there for no apparent reason.

“Not sure…” Noemi said, joining her in glancing around as she looked for some answer. Her eyes went wide, and at the same time Cat realized why.

The clearing was silent. No birds, no insects, no hollering animal calls or any sound at all save the soft rustling of the wind.

“There’s a spirit here…” Noemi’s voice fell low. “Stay still and quiet…maybe we can convince it to help us.”

“You think that’s possible?” Gisela asked, but Noemi gave her a worried look.

“I’m not sure but…be prepared to run.”

Noemi’s eyes glanced this way and that, searching for any sign of the spirit. Her eyes caught a flicker of movement, a ruffling of feathers, and that’s when she saw the vast hawk that loomed at the edge of the clearing, so large it could easily have been mistaken for part of the tree, and its perch upon the branches seemed almost comical.

Noemi kept to her knees, gesturing to Gisela which direction to face as she bent herself low before the massive hawk spirit.

“Great spirit!” Noemi said. “We apologize for the intrusion into this clearing. We were lost and thirsty and wished only to survive.

“Impudent lesser creatures,” The voice of the hawk boomed across the clearing, it spread its enormous wings and swooped down to the ground, standing far taller than a man and looking enormous, even on the ground. “Give me reason I should not skin you alive.”

Cat saw the sword-like talons of the great hawk, easily big enough to eviscerate a horse, let alone a human. It was clearly no idle threat.

“Oh, great spirit,” Noemi bowed her head lower and Gisela did the same. “We did not seek to offend or to intrude. Let us pass by, and we will speak nothing of this place or this encounter.”

The hawk regarded them, staring down its long sharp beak at them before bending closer.

“I smell the hunt on you,” The hawk said. “I will spare your lives only because the jaws of another predator seek you.”

The hawk stood up tall again. “I will tell the great Jaguar of your presence here, and then perhaps I shall be rewarded.”

Once more the hawk spread its wings as the eyes of Noemi and Gisela went wide with fear.

“Run fast little mortals, your flight continues.”

With a great flap of its wings, kicking up dust and fern leaves the hawk took to the skies and Noemi was instantly on her feet.

“Dammit!” Noemi kicked at the closest fern, uprooting it entirely. “Just once! Just once, can’t we get a goddamn break?!”

“Noemi…” Gisela said quietly. “We need to start running…”

Noemi let out a long groan. “I know Gisela just…ugh five goddamn minutes!”

“Once we get far enough…” Gisela said, her voice still meek. “Far enough to be out of its influence…”

“Is there anywhere far enough!?” Noemi shouted, Gisela visibly shrinking. “You heard Tess on that temple! Where can we run? Where is there she won’t hunt us!?”

“I umm…err…” Gisela was visibly shaking, withering under Noemi’s anger. “What if we…left the continent?”

“Eh?” Noemi’s anger had begun to simmer as she calmed down.

“Take a boat,” Gisela said more hurriedly. “Sail somewhere far away. To America, or Argentina, or even Europe! Somewhere not even Tess can reach us…”

“That’s a long way to go, Gisela…” Noemi said. “Do you think we can…”

“We need to try!” Gisela said, grabbing Noemi’s arm. “More than that, more than anything…we can’t give up now!”

Noemi hesitated for a moment before nodded, the weary smile returning to her face. “You’re right. Once we run far enough we won’t have to run anymore.”

Together the two of them set off into the jungle again as the sky turned black once more.

“So that was our plan,” The older Gisela spoke to Cat. “Reach the shore, charter a ship, and sail somewhere. Anywhere that Tezcatlipoca could not follow.”

“Is that how you got to Europe?” Cat asked. “…wait, that doesn’t explain how you met Itzpapalotl.”

“There is a little more to the story,” Gisela said. “Two more scenes yet to show you.”

 

The jungle appeared once more, and Cat watched as Gisela and Noemi ran through it, hurrying through the underbrush with all the speed they could manage. Behind them, the shouts of hunters as they were pursued relentlessly, both of them clearly on the ragged edge of their stamina.

Noemi paused briefly, turning as she drew her pistol from her belt and fired at the closest hunter, who fell backwards as the shot drove through his chest and Noemi took off again.

As they ran past the trunk of a massive tree, Noemi pulled Gisela behind it as they waited, quiet, as the other hunters came to their fallen companion.

“Gisela, sidekick,” Noemi’s voice was a whisper as she put her hands on Gisela’s shoulders. “We’re not going to get much farther.”

“No. Nonono…” Gisela said desperately. “Noemi we’re so close…”

Noemi pointed to the east, away from the setting sun. “That way, on the south road, is a smaller fishing village. They might be able to get you further down the coast where you can charter a bigger ship.”

“Wait…” Gisela said. “Just me? No…Noemi no…”

“I’m heading north,” Noemi said. “There’s a bigger port there, the hunters will think I’m heading there. I can lead most of them off of you.”

“Noemi…” Gisela said quietly, but she could tell arguing wouldn’t get her anywhere.

The time had come for them to part.

Gisela leaned forward and embraced Noemi, who quietly stroked her hair before kissing the top of her head.

“Keep running, Gisela,” She said. “Until you don’t need to run anymore.”

Noemi pulled away from her and rushed out from their cover, firing wildly at the hunters to draw them as she ran in the opposite direction, leading them on in pursuit until she disappeared into the foliage.

Gisela stood still for one long horrible moment before ducking low and rushing away from the tree towards the southeast. The jungle seemed to consume her as she disappeared, moving quickly and quietly, and the memory faded away.

“What could I have done,” Gisela said to Cat as the memory ended. “What other choice did I have but to do as she’d asked and run?”

“She saved your life,” Cat said.

“At the price of her own.”

“Well…do you know that or…?”

“It’s been years, Catarina,” Gisela said. “Long years, and I don’t trust that kind of hope anymore. I have my mission. Defeat the Primordials and kill Tezcatlipoca.”

“Well…” Cat tried to think of something comforting to say. “At least…at least you’ll never forget her.”

“No, I won’t.” Gisela said. “And I did as she asked. I ran. I ran across oceans and continents. But now I’m not running anymore.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 35

It was going to be an awkward kind of day, Asha decided. Though if she had allowed herself to dwell on it even a little longer, she knew that it would have been much stranger than just ‘awkward’. It wasn’t helped by feeling like she was in a doctor’s office, stripped to her underwear and waiting atop the cold stone bench that marked their ‘altar’ to Ishtar. She sat on the edge, legs hanging off as her fingers nervously drummed the rim of the altar. The base had been surrounded by Ishtar’s preferred food, spices, and incense offerings while the top had been left bare to ‘give them room’ as Constance had so delicately put it. The room itself was a windowless underground stone chamber lit with torches that cast everything in a hazy amber glow.

At Rachel’s recommendation, she had stopped holding back her spiritual energy as well. Her long wings of gold and blue lay behind her, draped across the altar, and the power coursing through her manifested as a soft glow on her exposed skin and a shine in her eyes. She’d been more self-conscious about her appearance over the last few hours than she had been in the last two years, constantly adjusting her hair and re-checking her appearance in the polished bronze shield that lay against the side of the altar. The waiting was the worst part, how long was he going to take?

No sooner had she thought that than did the door open up as Leyla half-stepped in, still clearly talking to someone on the other side, likely Constance.

“Yes I know…I know…oh just…just get out! No opening the door until we say so.”

With a sigh, Leyla stepped inside, shutting the door behind him and triple-checking to ensure it was locked before looking up to see Asha sitting on the altar. The changes of expression on his face were certainly something to see. First was surprise, a widening of the eyes and half-gape that marked a pleasant shock rather than horror. Then came the embarrassment, rushing in like the tide as his face turned red and his eyes flickered in the predictable paths of trying to look up and down her body while trying to look away at the same time. All the while, underpinning this flood of emotion, were the subtle changes in stance and movement of the lips that marked arousal.

Asha could identify it not because she was a particularly skilled face-reader, but because she was feeling the exact same thing. Leyla had a tendency not to flaunt his body too much, wearing long and loose-fitting clothing ideal for desert travel. She’d seen him shirtless now and then but, given the context and that he was stripped to his underwear, now she saw him in a completely different light.

Leyla had always had an androgynous face, and now she could see that extended to the rest of him, from his narrow shoulders to his slender waist. She could see the sharp build of his body despite the slimness. He was lithe but not thin, as monster hunting had a way of toning the body.

Leyla was no doubt seeing the same thing in her. Asha didn’t have the most impressive curves, but broad hips and a toned stomach that gave definition to her waist were quick to draw his eyes to her deep tan skin before they traveled further upwards.

“Umm…” Leyla was the first to manage to break the silence. “You look…really good.”

“Likewise,” It was a lame line and both of them knew it. But they needed to lift the awkward mood somehow. It wasn’t that Asha didn’t want to be here in this situation with Leyla. Rather the context was making it far more awkward than the prospect of the act itself.

Leyla took a seat beside her on the altar, both staring forward at the door as they struggled to find a way to start, to say something that might break the tension.

“So what was Constance trying to do?” Asha asked.

“Giving me tips,” Leyla screwed up his mouth in a sort of half-smirk. “I told her I wasn’t new at this.”

“Wait…you’ve done it…in that body?” Asha glanced at him.

“Let’s not go there,” Leyla said. “But short answer is yes.”

“Oh…” Color rushed to her face as Asha’s self-consciousness returned. “I’m…completely new at this.”

“Oh…ooh,” Leyla was about as red as she likely was. “Wow and I’ve just been assuming and…seriously, never? You must have had a boyfriend.”

“Nope,” Asha said.

“Girlfriend…you know, other than Cat?”

Asha punched him in the shoulder, but she felt the burden ease up as he chuckled.

“No but seriously, a girl as beautiful as you,” Leyla continued. “I can understand waiting around for…well ‘it’. But it’s just been you?”

“No one,” Asha said, though she could hear her heart thumping in her chest now as she dangled on the words, head ablaze as she considered the ramifications of adding ‘except you’. Was she ready for that? Were they ready for that?

Her fingers curled around the edge of the altar. The anticipation, the knowledge of why they were there causing her heartbeat to accelerate until it was like thunder in her brain, making her thoughts hazy and indistinct as they fluttered half-formed between what was, what could be, and what would be.

As she stared off in no particular direction, she was pulled suddenly from her fevered reverie by the feelings of his hands on her shoulders. Suddenly she was looking at him, her eyes staring into his as her wings flapped to life.

“I think…” Leyla said, his words slow and deliberate. “…that there isn’t much point in just waiting.”

“Y-yeah…” Asha managed to stammer before Leyla pushed forward and, faster than she could blink, she felt his lips pressed to hers.

She was so focused, so consumed by the feeling of him kissing her she didn’t notice he was gently moving her onto her back until she felt her skin and the soft feathers at the base of her wings pressed against the cold stone. All she could focus on was the shape of his lips and the warm wet feeling of his tongue.

He pulled his head back, only far enough to speak, and Asha moved her arm to catch his long dark hair in her hand as she ran it across the back of his head.

“Are you ready?” He may have taken the lead, but Asha could see the intense nervousness running through Leyla’s body, his hands trembling even as they caressed her shoulders.

“Yeah,” Asha said, this time with more assurance. She wanted to feel his lips gain, to feel all of him against her.

The one word was all it took for him to lean back in, and this time she could feel his chest pressed against hers as his hands set to work on what little she still wore. She realized then just how warm he was, his very skin hot against hers as the power of the fire spirit burned within him. It was like being embraced by a furnace, but rather than push him away, Asha only wanted to feel more of it.

Her hands moved through his hair and across his back, feeling the heat rising off of him as his lips moved from hers to her cheek and down her neck, leaving her mouth free to release its gentle gasps. Leyla was leading, doing most of the work as he positioned them, his hands running from her shoulders to her waist too tantalizingly far up her hips, but if he had any complaints he didn’t voice them between his own rapid breaths.

It should have been uncomfortable, even painful. The two of them were positioned awkwardly atop the hard stone altar, neither experienced and one not experienced at all, guided only by their instincts and what little they knew. But something inhuman burned in both of them, that rush of spiritual energy that was ignited as their hearts raced and their spirits burned drove out any memory of pain or discomfort as they were lost in each other.

Asha didn’t know how long they had been going. She hadn’t bothered trying to keep track of time or anything except Leyla and what he was making her feel. He may have started but she was soon more than eager to give back in their flurry. And by the time one had finished the other pushed them forward with hurried movement and whispered words until they had lost all sense of when they had started or when they planned to end.

It took only a glance, however, only an aside glance from Asha to bring that tumultuous feeling crashing down on them. As she saw that in their lustful haze neither of them had realized they were being watched.

“Oh, don’t mind me,” A woman sat in a small but elegant throne across the room from them, facing their altar. “Please, continue.”

Both of them sat bolt upright, a movement that, in retrospect, was not well planned as Leyla winced sharply in pain and a riveting shudder ran up Asha’s spine. She had been on top at this point, and her wings were still fluttering hazily as they extricated themselves from one another with awkward pauses and murmured apologies until they were sitting on the edge of the altar.

The woman, or rather the goddess, facing them was astonishing to behold. She was a love goddess after all, and her beauty was unrivaled by anything Asha had ever seen. Her skin was a deep brown, her hair the black of fertile river soil, and her eyes a glistening golden color. She was dressed in fine robes that spoke of divine royalty, capped by a crown of molded gold centered with an eight-pointed star.

She might not have been tall, she did not tower over them like a giant upon a vast throne, however, there was a deeper allure to her. Every facet of her being seemed to exist to be her pleasure. From the silky shine of her hair, to the graceful movement of her slender legs and the glittering of her golden eyes, she was everything that Asha had ever wanted.

Asha’s head was already in a haze of confusion, lust, and slightly awkward shame, but seeing this love goddess before her sent her emotions on a spiraling journey to nowhere. Simply looking at her was enough to make Asha want to push Leyla back down onto his back, and a glance was all it took for her to tell Leyla felt the same. His arousal was, after all, much more obvious.

“L-Lady Ishtar,” Asha bowed her head deeply. “We’re honored by your presence.”

“I should imagine so. I have neither the time nor the inclination to visit every amorous pair in Damascus. Both of you should be more than honored to simply have me in your presence. If anything, I should have you on your knees.”

If Asha had been blushing before her face was burning now. She had hoped the goddess would announce herself first rather than sit around invisibly to…watch.

“Now, as you seem insistent upon interrupting such a lovely show,” Ishtar said. “Why is it you two have taken all this effort to summon me?”

 

Her voice, which had been a velvet waterfall of sweet and tantalizing words, suddenly grew sharp. It was, Asha felt, like a sword pulled from an ornate sheath.

Asha swallowed her nervousness. Now was not the time to stumble over her words. Still, giving a speech to a goddess was nerve-wracking under ideal conditions, and now she was nude and very…distracted.

“Lady Ishtar, we wish to create a cult for you in the city of Babylon.”

“Ah, Babylon…” The goddess said wistfully. “The old lands…While I am intrigued by the idea, it begs the question…why? You mortals so rarely do anything for each other, let alone the gods. At least not without persuasion.”

Asha swallowed a groan, this goddess was relentless. Leyla, however, was there to pick up the slack.

“Because the city is currently ruled by a tyrant,” he said. “One who considers herself and rules like a god-queen. We felt a real goddess, particularly one of your aspects and…popularity, would be a far better figure around which to rally the city.”

“Because everyone wants a sex goddess,” Ishtar’s smile grew even more predatory. “And because you need a war goddess. Is that right?”

“Bluntly put…yes,” Asha bowed her head.

Ishtar took a while to answer. Quite a while, Asha realized, her thighs and hands fidgeting nervously as she felt her heart shiver with each breath.

“I am amused,” Ishtar smiled. “Such an earnest display just to curry a little favor with me. I suppose you have tickled my better nature.  Of course, favor swiftly earned is favor swiftly lost. If I am displeased by this cult, or by your representations of me, then I will as soon flay you alive as I might bless you.”

She never stopped smiling as she spoke, that was perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it all. Ishtar walked along that fine line between beautiful and dangerous.

“For now though I am amused. Continue to amuse me, make me satisfied by your performance in this cult, and you shall reap the crop of my favor in Babylon.”

She smiled at them with a touch of cruel mischievousness. “I’m glad I could bring you two a little closer together.”

Both of them bowed their heads deeply.

“Thank you, Lady Ishtar” They said together.

“Do not waste this rare opportunity. For your own sake…” She gave them one last smile before vanishing, the divine essence that had seeped in with her vanishing in a rush as well until Leyla and Asha were quite sure they were alone again.

They had Ishtar’s cooperation, they had both agreed that it was all they needed before they opened the door and joined the others to give them the news. Together, they passed a single glance to the door.

Leyla grabbed her shoulders and pushed her back down against the altar. Hard. But not as hard as she had wanted him to. She looked up at him, a grin spreading across her face. Neither of them needed to express a word. The love goddess had left, but her influence hadn’t.

The others could wait for a few hours.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Duel of Witches

 

Surveillance duty, Ceridwen decided, was tremendously dull.

The other witches of the gathering, Huldra, Hecate, and the rest of the malevolent brood, had oh so kindly decided that Ceridwen would be in charge of watching over the fledgling witch-girl Tegwen due to their relatively close proximity. Ceridwen, being a patient and humble soul, had kindly agreed out of the kindness of her heart (and so as not to earn the wrath of as many witches as could be stuffed into a chicken-footed house). With every passing day, however, she was regretting her decision more and more.

Tegwen was a strange girl, which was unsurprising, but the manner of her strangeness was entirely alien to a classic witch like Ceridwen. She talked and talked and talked, more to herself than to her odd new companion, about things that made little sense to her. She liked to stare at mushrooms and trap small animals to study. She didn’t make potions from their body parts or chant spells as she worked. She simply sampled and observed and recorded and moved on.

And it was all so boring.

Tegwen’s companion at least proved to be somewhat more interesting. She was a Morgen, a fiendish little water spirit who went by the name of Meredydd that had been bound to Tegwen’s command. Ceridwen almost pitied the aquatic maneater; the witch at least could leave Tegwen now and then to get away from her incessant babbling. She wouldn’t be surprised if Tegwen talked in her sleep.

Still, the method by which Tegwen had taken control of Meredydd was some small source of interest. Ceridwen had been away when Tegwen had acquired her magic scepter, a device Ceridwen could not identify or scry the source to. It was a black hole in her knowledge, which was a worrying sign considering Ceridwen prided herself on her almost total knowledge of everything in Wales. The discovery of the artifact had also been a little too convenient. In the single hour Ceridwen had been forced to leave, Tegwen had found the thing and bound Meredydd to her service. Ceridwen, like most True Witches, did not believe in coincidences, and she’d kept a sharper eye on Tegwen ever since.

At the moment she was about a mile away from Tegwen, watching her through a scrying bowl placed on a lone treestump, filled with water that projected the hazy image of Tegwen into the air so Ceridwen could watch her actions. Ceridwen herself was knitting, one of eighteen hobbies she had picked up to pass the time, one eye always on the fledgling as she stooped down low to look at yet another ‘fascinating’ bit of fungus. This girl is going to be intolerable when she becomes a True Witch, Ceridwen thought idly to herself before letting out a sharp laugh.

All True Witches were intolerable to be around in one way or another.

“Find something amusing, Mother of Awen?”

Ceridwen’s knitting needles vanished as her eyes darted around for the source of the voice. Appearing through the trees and into the clearing was another woman, dressed in robes of silver and black with a raised hood that failed to hide her curled red hair or shimmering green eyes. Ceridwen’s brow furrowed; it was precisely the face she knew would someday show up.

“Morgan le Fay,” Ceridwen’s voice was only a bit higher than a growl. “What brings you to darken my doorstep today?”

“Oh you know, just shopping around, looking for that special something that will put a little more ‘oomph’ into my spellwork. You know, something like a unicorn’s tears, or hair from a toad…or the soul of a fledgling True Witch.”

“I’m afraid we’re fresh out of all those things,” Ceridwen said. “The third one in particular has already been bought.”

“You’ll find me quite persistent, Ceridwen,” Morgan said. “Now you and I have gotten along rather swimmingly in the past, why can’t we just keep that going?”

“Swimmingly?” Ceridwen scoffed. “As I recall the last time we met you referred to my son as an ‘ill-begotten ape’.”

“Well in my defense,” Morgan said, though even when trying to be placating her voice all but dripped with malevolence. “Your son was a brutally ugly man, even you can’t deny that.”

“At least he is my trueborn son, and though he might have had a demon’s face he had a poet’s soul. Not to mention it saved him from a violent death at the Battle of Camlann. Now tell me, Morgan, can any of that be said for your own misbegotten spawn? My womb at least produced something other than destruction and death.”

There were very few souls who had seen Morgan’s façade break, even if it was nothing more than eye that twitched with fury, fewer still had lived to describe it.

“I see then you will not be moved on this, Ceridwen,” Morgan said, her voice as steady as it was dangerous.

“True Witches are like cats, Morgan,” Ceridwen said. “We only move when we want to.”

“Then do the smart thing and decide to move before we see just how many ways there are to skin a cat,” There was fire in Morgan’s eyes, and Ceridwen rose to her feet.

“What will it be then, Morgan? Are we going to go about this like primitive mages and fling fire at each other until half of Britain is ablaze? I trust you’re at least a little more sophisticated than that.”

“Two of our kind haven’t had a duel for over a thousand years,” Morgan said. “Not since I defeated Nimue, rather handily I might add. And she had all of Merlin’s power at her disposal, what do you have?”

“I have a challenge for you,” Ceridwen said. “We shall play the second-oldest game. The Game of Shapes.”

Morgan eyed her testily. Ceridwen was well-known for being one of the finest shapeshifters of their unofficial coven, but Morgan was proud, and more than that she was angry. If she took the bait…

“Very well,” Morgan said. “A Game of Shapes, until the loser forfeits or is killed.”

“The winner stays,” Ceridwen said. “And the loser shall leave the fledgling be forever, at least until she takes full form.”

“Agreed,” Morgan said. “Challenger takes first form.”

“Very well,” Ceridwen said, dismissing her scrying bowl as she smoothed out of her robes. “Then it’s your move, Morgan.”

Morgan pulled down her hood as she whipped her robes around herself, her long furred cloak growing and covering until it wrapped around her entirely, her form shifting from a statuesque woman into that of an enormous brown bear.

“King of the forest lands am I, greatest and most ferocious of mundane beasts,” Morgan the Bear roared.

Ceridwen smiled, she loved it when they went big. Instantly she began to shrink, smaller and smaller as her form twisted, her robes expanding around her into a pair of gossamer wings.

“Big and fierce with sharp teeth and claws,” Ceridwen the Horse Fly smiled. “But what claws and teeth can save you from a thing you cannot catch?”

The small fly whipped around the bears head, biting painfully at the sensitive skin of its inner ear and the wet lids of its eyes. All Morgan could do was swat wildly through the air before her face twisted once again.

Morgan became small again, though not quite as small as Ceridwen. She became a sparrow, swift and powerful as her blade-like wings cut through the air in pursuit of the succulent fly. But Ceridwen knew birds far better than Morgan did, and in a moment’s notice the form of the fly had changed into that of the fearsome shrike.

With a single swoop the shrike had the sparrow in its claws, and impaled it upon the thorns of a nearby bush. But Morgan was as clever as she was resilient. The sparrow’s form melted away as vines of holly grew upon the bush, great spears of thorny wood shooting from the branches to impale the shrike in turn. But Ceridwen knew birds, and the shrike had nothing to fear from thorns as her form darted gracefully between the branches. Idly she pecked at the hardening holly wood. Morgan would need to do better.

Irritated, the holly receded, and from the bush burst forth the great green mouths of some foreign carnivorous plant. Ceridwen darted away but she had little fear; exoticism would not save Morgan. Ceridwen decided to have a little fun at her expense and, in the blink of an eye, became a cow, munching idly on the leaves of the carnivorous plant.

Neither of them kept the form for long, Ceridwen knew that many things could kill a cow, and Morgan was likely to pick one of them. She was proven right as Morgan turned into a wolf and Ceridwen in turn took the form of a large stag, antlers at full size.

“You would bring a deer to battle a wolf?” Morgan snarled.

“What is the wolf without its pack, Morgan?” Ceridwen shot back. “The lone wolf is a failure, in concept if not in idiom.”

Morgan charged, fangs bared, and Ceridwen moved to meet her, antlers slamming against the hide of the wolf and goring the soft hide before sending Morgan flying with a swing of her brawny neck.

“Perhaps you overreached yourself,” Ceridwen said. “There are none better than me at the Game of Shapes, save perhaps some Classical god.”

“Then perhaps it is best to default to your earlier suggestion,” Morgan briefly reverted to her human shape, robes tattered where the thorns and antlers had impaled her various shapes, but only for an instant before her form seemed to dissolve once more.

“Fire.”

Morgan’s very being became a pillar of uncontrolled whirling fire, flames blazing out in all directions as Ceridwen rushed away, taking the form of a falcon to escape the onrushing blaze. She could have taken the form of a river or a waterfall to crush the spout of fire, but Morgan had cheated, pouring her energy into this pillar of flame to create something magical from outside reality, a storm of magic fire no mortal fire could extinguish.

Inwardly Ceridwen cursed. Morgan had cheated.

She was pushed back, forced to retreat for the time being as the fire singed her feathers. She would need to find the others and come back to face Morgan. If the Queen of Air and Darkness was willing to throw this much power around, Ceridwen wanted back up. Loathe to leave her charge but seeing no other option, Ceridwen fled.

When Morgan was sure the other witch had truly fled she retook her human form, brushing the soot from her robe as she stepped through the once-lively clearing, now scorched utterly to ruined ash.

Quiet as a shadow she moved through the forest, drawing closer and closer to Tegwen like a wolf stalking its prey. The Morgen spirit would be easy enough to destroy, and the fledgling was still unaware of the extent of her powers. It would not be hard to trap her and then…

Morgan stopped dead in her tracks. Tegwen was in view, clear as day as she stood by a river, refilling her canteen as Meredydd rested in the cool waters. Neither of them had noticed Morgan’s presence.

But something else had.

In the trees around her, so numerous she had at first mistaken them for leaves, were hundreds upon hundreds of crows. All of them stared with black eyes down at Morgan in watchful silence, waiting, daring her to strike.

Morgan swore inwardly, not daring to make a sound in the face of such a show of force. Ceridwen, she had assumed, was Tegwen’s only protection, surely the only one the other witches would have sent. But this…this was something beyond her power to deal with right now. She had beaten Ceridwen, but now she needed to retreat as well.

With one last spiteful glance at Tegwen, Morgan le Fay retreated silently back into the woods and out of sight.

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 34

 

It was around mid-morning when Cat made her way up the steps of the Capitoline Plaza. While the center of Roman life had moved from the plaza that had once been the humble sanctuary, this was still to many the heart of Rome after the Days of Revelation, not the least because it was still the home of the Capitoline Wolf and her extraordinary pack. Capi had requested Cat personally come meet her there, and by the sound of it she hadn’t been alone in receiving the invitation.

Not wanting to be late, she went up the stairs two at a time before entering the large wooden doors into the dimmer building proper, up another flight of stairs, counting off the rooms, and she found the place where they were supposed to meet. She recognized it as one of the early meeting rooms of the fledgling senate. Now far too small to accommodate them, it was built like a small theatre fit for around thirty people, though now only a small group had gathered there.

On the lecture stage stood Capitolina, the Wolf of Rome, as well as Angel. At least Angel was standing; Capitolina had elected to sit on the edge of the stage, far more relaxed in posture than the stiff-backed winged wolf. Standing before the stage was a gathering of champions, Cat realized with a start.

Rosa was of course easy to spot, being the tallest and with bright red hair. Beside her was her fellow Greek, Nicomede, for once without his signature Hellenic armor. Standing close (but not too close) to him, was Megame, wearing her finest robes of bright red and white, and next to her, electing to sit in a chair, was Torleif.

Cat almost did a double-take as she recognized the last person in the small audience: At her arrival, Gisela turned to look at her. In a flash of alarm Cat thought she had escaped somehow before she reined her panic in. Capitolina was able to access the protective spells on her house. She had doubtless let Gisela out.

“Catarina,” Capi smiled as she entered, bright orange tail waving happily from side to side. “Thanks for joining us.”

“Sure…” Cat said as she moved to join the others, standing at Rosa’s side. “What’s this about?”

“We were waiting for you before we began,” Angel said in her usual flat tone.

“Sorry,” Cat said sheepishly. “Sheh kept me a bit late.”

“No problem,” Capi smiled. “The rest only just arrived anyway.”

Capi hopped to her feet. While her human form was a bit short, the elevation of the stage and her natural spiritual presence made her seem much larger.

“So you probably gathered why I brought you all here,” Capi smiled. “You see, there’s been a lot of talk about making a strike on Nidhoggr. It’s time we made part of it official.”

Cat glanced at the others, and could see the mix of excitement on the faces of Rosa, Nicomede, and Torleif combined with the hesitation of Gisela and Megame. Cat felt a growing sense of anxiety and unease welling up inside her. The encounter with Nidhoggr’s shade was still heavy on her mind, but she still felt that surge of the old exhilaration, the call to adventure.

“As some of you may be aware,” Angel said, picking up for Capi. “Catarina’s sword is one of the few known weapons that can wound a Primordial.”

“Wait seriously!?” Torleif made the loudest response. “What about my hammer!?”

“Your hammer is a potent artifact,” Angel’s expression remained unmoved. “And your patron, Thor, has an affinity for dragon-slaying. But there is nothing of your weapon that could be as critically wounding to a Primordial as Catarina’s sword. The same goes to the rest of you.” Angel’s eyes moved down the line of champions. “All of you have blessings, weapons, or abilities that make you more than a match for most monsters. But Nidhoggr is no mere dragon; it is our duty to get Catarina and her sword as close to Nidhoggr as we can.”

Gisela, to Cat’s surprise, was the first one to speak. “While I’m usually in support of this kind of action, we don’t have a solid plan to imprison Nidhoggr.”

“Because we can just kill the big lizard!” Torleif said before glancing around at the quiet room. “…Right?”

“No, we cannot,” Gisela said. “Nidhoggr cannot truly die, even by something like Catarina’s sword. It needs to be bound, imprisoned, or made dormant.”

“We are still discussing that piece of the operation,” Angel said. “But it is best to prepare any such team while we prepare the plan.”

“So we are putting a team together?” Nicomede said. “The tip of the spear?”

“That’s right,” Capi smiled, taking over again. “The legions will get us north, liberating what isolated settlements we can and crossing the distance between the Alps and Nidhoggr. But from there, once Nidhoggr’s forces are engaged, Cat alone might not be able to make it to Nidhoggr. The dragon will have surrounded itself with powerful monsters, both those under its sway and those simply drawn to its chaotic energies.”

“So, our job is to kill everything between Cat and Nidhoggr,” Rosa said. “makes sense, but there are a bunch of champions you’re forgetting.”

“We might not be able to afford bringing the Night Guard with us,” Capi said. “With all of you and a large legion outside of Italy, we may need them to fill in. Salvatore will be operating as a messenger and working with Hildegard to coordinate the battlefront. The legion will need champions fighting with them as well, after all.”

“You keep mentioning a legion,” Cat said. “Is the first Legion leaving Italy?”

At this, Capi’s smile grew a little broader. “Not quite. He hasn’t announced it yet, but Consul Nassar has pushed forward the legislation necessary to assemble a second legion. It will be the Second Legion that you’ll march with.”

“Alright, then we’re a team,” Rosa said. “That means we need to start training to be coordinated, particularly when it comes to killing monsters.”

“What about Gisela?” Cat asked before glancing at her. “Sorry but…it might be safer to keep you at the house.”

“While I had hoped to prove my good intentions by now,” Gisela said. “I am sure the binding charms can be extended over one of the yards of your estate. We can train there if I need to remain isolated.”

“I think that’s for the best,” Capi said. “For Rome’s protection and for yours.”

“Ugh,” Rosa groaned. “Cat’s mansion is like two and a half hours walk away.”

“I’ll have Alicia set up some more rooms,” Cat huffed, crossing her arms. “You can stay the night on training days. So quit complaining.”

“You put that maid through so much trouble,” Rosa grinned.

“She’s not my maid,” Cat shot back.

“Regardless,” Gisela spoke up, interrupting them. “This group needs a leader.”

“Do we really?” Megame asked, speaking up. “There aren’t many of us. Couldn’t we just…talk things out?”

“Gisela’s right,” Rosa said. “It’s good cooperating when we’re laying down plans. But on the field, in the thick of it, we need a coordinator and a team leader to keep us all going.”

“I have my biases,” Capi smiled. “But I’m going to leave the decision to all of you. You know each other pretty well for the most part, and I think it’s important for a team like this to make that decision themselves. So I guess…who wants the job?”

Cat’s heart skipped a beat. This was her chance to seize control, to be the lead as she took charge against Nidhoggr. That was part of being a hero, right? To be Jason among the Argonauts. But even as she thought about it she felt her rising heart falter. Gisela might have been an ass, but she had made a point. Did Cat want to be leader because she would be the best for the job, or just because she wanted to be seen as the first? She was their chief weapon against Nidhoggr, that needed to be her focus above all else. Could she fight the dragon knowing their lives were directly in her hands, or could she trust someone else to lead while she put everything into battling the dragon?

“I don’t think I’m quite right for leadership,” Megame said. “But thank you for inviting me to join such an auspicious team.”

“I have no right to be a leader of this group,” Gisela said. “I daresay most people here don’t even like me, I imagine there would be a mutiny as soon as I suggested the idea.”

“I should be leader!” Torleif stood up on her chair to be more or less equal in height to the others. “I’m the strongest here and I’ve got more experience of the North!”

There were a couple of nervous glances and a lot of silence. No one wanted to discourage Torleif’s enthusiasm, but she was still a child. Strong enough to fight maybe, but not to lead. Gisela seemed about to speak, no doubt bluntly, but Rosa cut her off with a more placating response.

“You’re right, you have the most experience, short stuff,” Rosa said. “But leader means more than killing the most monsters. Sometimes you even need to be in the back to coordinate people. Plus you need to act as a guide, reading maps and making sure you’re going the right way.”

Any of them could have corrected her that Torleif could simply delegate navigation to someone else, but no one was willing to. Cat and Rosa, at least, knew from her stories that Torleif had a terrible sense of direction.

“Oh…” Torleif’s face seemed to falter. “Mmm…nevermind. Didn’t really want it anyway.”

“That leaves Nicomede, Rosaria, and Catarina.” Capi said.

“I…” Cat spoke up. “…step down.”

There were a few surprised glances her way, Gisela not among them.

“I think it’s best if I keep all my focus on Nidhoggr,” Cat said. “I’m not sure I can manage that and the team at the same time.”

“Good call,” Rosa said, and Cat was surprised to hear the sincerity in her voice, without a hint of sarcasm. “Giant-ass chaos dragon is enough to worry about, we can take care of the rest.”

While Cat did feel a bit crestfallen over giving up the position, at the same time she felt relieved. It felt right, to give one of them command.

“Well I think we’ve wound up where we knew we would,” Nicomede said. “I know I haven’t been here long, but I want to get to know you all better. I have experience leading men through monster-riddled lands, and my patron is chief among the gods. I’d be honored to take the lead, if you all will allow it.”

“You’re good, Nico, I’ll give you that,” Rosa said. “But I know this group, I know monsters, and most of all I know Cat. I’ve been studying strategy and group tactics with Capi, and I’ve been working with the legions for months. You might be good, and you belong on this team, but I’m putting my hand forward to lead it.”

“So…how do we solve this?” Megame spoke up. “Do we vote or…?”

“I have an idea,” Nicomede smiled. “How about a duel, Miss Kokinos? A test of martial skill to see which of us is better?”

“I-I don’t really think violence is necessary,” Megame said. “Surely we can just talk it out.”

“Best to let them,” Gisela said. “Warriors will be warriors, besides a duel can tell much more than who is simply stronger.”

“Do it!” Torleif cheered. “You two fighting would be awesome! I get to fight the winner!”

“Hmmm…agreed,” Rosa said, holding out a hand. “A duel, in…let’s say five days time, to see which of us is leader of this team.”

“Done,” Nicomede took her hand. “Seems I need to double my training.”

“Likewise,” The eager grin never left Rosa’s face, and Cat realized it was distinct from the bloodthirsty smirk or raging scowl that she used to see on Rosa. This expression was more confident, and balanced. It was also, Cat realized, much more attractive on her features.

As the group began to disperse, Cat moved to Rosa. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” She asked “I mean…”

“Please, Cat,” Rosa smiled. “I’ve been fighting you and Hilde for, like, a year. Nico’s tough, and his men love him, but he hasn’t seen the likes of me.”

“Heh, I don’t think anyone has,” Cat smiled. “Knock him out.”

“My pleasure, Cat,” Rosa said. “My pleasure.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

What’s in a Troll?

Last week’s chapter “Winged Victory” contained a new monster for Hildegard to square off against: the humble troll.

Theodor_Kittelsen_-_Skogtroll,_1906_(Forest_Troll)

Skogtroll (Forest Troll), by Theodor Kittelsen, 1906.

 

Trolls are something of an oddity in terms of folkloric creatures. No other race perhaps save fairies have had a broader spectrum in terms of reinterpretation when it comes to fantasy literature. TvTropes even has a page dedicated to this pheonemenon that’s worth looking through. Tolkien’s trolls, for example, were massive brutish creatures sometimes capable of speech, that sometimes turned to stone in the light of the sun, and were (by some interpretations) made as a crude parody of the Ents. Contrast to the trolls of the Warcraft Universe, who are the tall voodoo-practicing remnants of an ancient Mayan-esque empire and speak with distinct Jamaican accents. This is taken to perhaps its most extreme in the “Troll Market” of Guillermo del Toro’s film Hellboy II: The Golden Army where dozens of varieties of bizarre and almost alien trolls are on display.

TrollMarket

Source: Hellboy II

But where do trolls come from? That’s something of a tricky question.

The word ‘troll’ derives from a proto-Fermanic word of unknown origin, but generally encompasses the same theme across northern languages, that of a semi-mystical ‘fiend’. It is a general term used across several mythologies and folkloric traditions, meaning it’s not possible to codify a single set definition of ‘troll’. In Norse Mythology, “troll” was considered more or less a cognate of ‘jotnar’ or ‘giant’.

Later Scandinavian folklore had their own variant of trolls, and likely a more familiar one. These were older, pseudo-natural beings that lurked in dark forests and under ancient bridges to menace the heroes of tails. They are in many ways the generic ‘bad guy’ for the hero to defeat, and were frightened off by lightning (possibly a Norse holdover) or the presence of the sun. It is possible that “troll” was introduced by Norse settlers, expanded and then later re-narrowed to fit various folkloric templates.

The trolls in The Cities Eternal are, in this case, being used as a general bad guy monster as they’ve been portrayed for centuries. They’re more cunning than a beast but still far less than human, and with a tendency to carry off or eat humans. As the serials has long stressed the possibility of multiple interpretations of one story living side by side, it can be safely assumed that these are far from the only trolls of this world.

The Snake and the Mirror

The Shield and Spear

 

The broad map of Europe loomed large before Roman Consul Albion Nassar.  Massive maps covered most of the table before him and were covered in scrawls and markings displaying the supposed movements and strongholds of Nidhoggr’s monstrous hordes. Here and there were marked the bastions of civilization, the holdouts their scouts and refugee reports had told them were still standing even outside of Angel’s protective shield. All combined, it painted a bleak picture of the European continent. Outside of Italy, the world was a dark place.

“You’ve been pouring over these for some time,” The soft, sultry voice of Circe caught his attention. The goddess, in the disguise of his adviser, leaned over the table, seated lightly on its edge. “It almost makes a woman jealous.”

“Not even half the world could take my attention from you,” Albion smiled, but his eyes still scanned the map. “But it demands Rome’s attention.”

“And are you Rome now?” Circe asked. “I thought you were simply its Consul.”

Albion pulled his eyes away, letting them rest on Circe’s impressive form.

“For all intents and purposes,” Albion said. “While it’s my job to guide Rome on its course, it is also my job to keep you entertained. As we decided.”

“It is indeed,” Circe smiled. “Especially seeing as you promised me your student, but I find her attention divided between myself and two other teachers.”

“I never promised exclusive rights,” Albion corrected her, and he saw Circe’s eyes flash dangerously. “But every day new mages come to Rome from near and far. Soon you’ll have an entire generation to train.”

“All well and good,” Circe said. “But how do you plan to entertain me?”

“By putting a city at our disposal,” Albion said. “The greatest city in the world, as I promised.”

“Perhaps one of the greatest,” Circe chided him, but the danger had left her voice. “My vision extends further than yours. But…Rome is adequate.”

“And Rome is growing,” Albion said. “And I think it is time we pushed north. Beyond the field.”

Circe waited a moment before speaking, her eyes looking him over with curiosity. “Why?” She finally asked. “What is in the north save death?”

“Opportunity,” Albion said. “For those bold enough to take it.”

“Ah, so you would gamble the future of Rome,” Circe said. “And here I thought you were so careful.”

“I gamble now and then,” Albion smiled. “Like when I took a gamble to visit an island that shouldn’t exist, to find a witch who turns all visitors into beasts.”

“I don’t always like being toyed with,” Circe said. “What game are you playing, Albion?”

“History is like a wave,” Albion said. “Events that sweep in one after another. And you can either lead the charge, riding the crest of events forward or languish in its wake until the next wave washes you away.”

“A colorful simile,” Circe smiled. “But elaborate.”

“Nidhoggr,” Albion said. “The dragon is Rome’s next great obstacle. It keeps us trapped within Angel’s shield but, more importantly from what I have gathered it is a kind of…cosmic lynchpin.”

“The keystone of chaos,” Circe nodded. “The dragon’s escape enabled the escape and resurrection of the others and tipped the scales of fate towards chaos.”

“If the dragon falls the scale tips the other way, or at least begins to,” Albion said. “And much of western Europe is freed from its influence.”

“And much of western Europe is indebted to Rome,” Circe said, seeing the intent behind his words. “Rome with its heroes and its resources.”

“And with its legions,” Albion finished for her.

“Last I checked Rome had only one legion,” Circe said. “But who is this hero, Catarina?”

“Catarina is a foolish girl with delusions of grandeur and a magic sword,” Albion said. “But she seems to be beloved by fate.”

“It’s always best to be wary of people who are,” Circe said. “But I suppose I sense that…air about her. Not unlike clever Odysseus, though not half as clever and not a tenth as handsome.”

“Nor as duplicitous,” Albion said. This was another of Circe’s games. She enjoyed trying to make him jealous of her legendary exes. Albion knew the dance by now, he needed to dismiss them and bring up their worst properties, but still give Circe the inkling that he was slightly jealous. It was a tentative line to walk.

“But Catarina is still a single small foolish girl as you so accurately stated,” Circe continued, apparently satisfied. “Beloved or not, she isn’t capable of much alone.”

“If we truly want to make an attack on Nidhoggr,” Albion said. “Then Catarina is the bleeding edge of the spear, the diamond point around which the weapon is built. But the edge of the spear without the spear is just a shred of sharp metal.”

“So you build an army to support her?” Circe asked.

“An army to secure our way to the dragon,” Albion said. “Catarina has already been assembling a…team of sorts.”

“The champions your city seems to attract like flies,” Circe nodded. “And backing them?”

Albion moved from the table, going to the window that looked out over the plaza. “The city’s population has more than quadrupled this past year. People pour in from all directions. Legio I Capitolina was meant to be the shield, the force that unites Italy and brings it under the banner of Rome while keeping the monsters at bay.”

“So rather than a shield you want a spear, naturally,” Circe followed him, moving into his shadow. “A second legion?”

“An offensive force, quick and capable.”

“The spear in the darkness,” Circe placed her hands on his shoulders. “Do you intend to be Caesar, Albion?”

Albion could tell she wasn’t just talking about the first Caesar. She was testing his motives.

“Caesar had nations to subdue and half a continent to conquer,” Albion said. “I just have to kill a dragon.”

“I feel you might be exaggerating the simplicity,” Circe said. “But I will grant you this, Albion. You are bold. But I have to ask…why now? Why Rome? Why you?”

“Why?” Albion asked.

“Rome is secure, more so than it has been in years,” Circe said. “You have brought it together and now that you’re consul, you can develop it into greater and greater success. Infrastructure, social development, training. There are less risky paths to success. Gain the ire of the dragon any more than you have and you risk everything. Why must Rome lead the charge?”

“You seem almost hesitant,” Albion turned to smile at her. “I thought you liked a bit of boldness?”

“A little perhaps, in fair measure,” Circe said. “But there is a line between boldness and hubris.”

“Rome is strong,” Albion said. “You can tease other great cities all you like but I have every reason to believe we’re unparalleled on the continent. Nidhoggr must fall, and in all likelihood it must fall first. The conclusion is obvious: Rome must be the nation to do it.”

“Then onto my next question,” Circe said. “Why you, at this moment?”

“I’ve been reading through the Pontifex’s library, and whatever I can pull from the Vatican archives now that the wolf isn’t there to play gatekeeper. Everything points in the same direction, that fate has an inertia of its own.”

“Fate’s inertia?” Circe smiled enigmatically. “Now you have my curiosity.”

“I’m not egotistical enough to try to explain fate to a goddess,” Albion said.

“As well you shouldn’t,” Circe said. “But we think of it in…different terms than you funny little mortals. You always have such interesting ways of seeing things, sometimes interesting enough to catch us by surprise.”

“Well, at the risk of offending you, I’ll give it a try,” Albion smiled, leaning back against her. “The Days of Revelation threw the balance between order and chaos into disarray. Where once order had reigned, chaos sprang forth.”

“And now chaos reigns,” Circe said. “As it did in the days before Zeus.”

“Does it though?” Albion said. “Rome exists, as well as other pockets of stability. Chaos has the advantage, but I’d say the balance is in a state of…flux. If we do nothing then chaos will win, given time. One by one the sanctuaries and cities and holdouts will be stomped out until civilization is crushed entirely. When humans are nothing but clever beasts that hide from the shadows, then it will be as it was before Zeus.”

“A fair assessment,” Circe said.

“That’s the inertia I’m talking about,” Albion said. “The Days of Revelation, combined with the horrors of the spirit year broke the back of the entire world, it was the catalyst that began to tip the scales towards chaos. But the scales are still sliding, the balance is changing and more liable to shift. It could be decades, centuries, before we get another chance like this. Nidhoggr grows stronger faster than we do. Hit back now, when the scales are still tipping, and the blow will be that much more powerful.”

“So that’s the choice as you see it?” Circe asked. She didn’t seem surprised or curious, merely trying to weasel out his objectives.

“It is,” Albion said. “Can Rome survive as the influence and forces of the Primordials grow every year? The question, as I see it, is not if we should strike now, but can we afford to wait?”

Circe was quiet for a time as Albion went back to looking out the window, her arms over his shoulders as she rested against him.

“It is a dangerous plan.”

“Is that hesitation I sense in the goddess?”

“Not for my sake,” Circe scoffed. “But Rome amuses me, and you threaten to send everything you promised me to ruin.”

“I think there might be more to this than that,” Albion said. “You are many things, Circe, but bold might not be one of them.”

“Tread carefully,” Circe’s words were sweet as honey, but there was a very serious edge to them. Albion was closer to death right now, in her arms, than he had been in months. “You are dangerously close to insulting a goddess. Perhaps your barking should be just that.”

“As I said, my love, you are many things. Beautiful and intelligent beyond measure, as cunning as you are fair, and as pleasurable as the sun. But you are a goddess who seemed content to spend eternity on an island all but alone until I came to convince you otherwise.”

“Go on,” Her voice was still hard, but Albion was still alive. That was progress.

“Rome threatens to become your island,” Albion continued. “Bigger certainly, and more populous. But it’s just a bigger island. One nation, cut off from the world, with you at the top. It’s an improvement certainly, Romans are more entertaining than beasts, but if we hide away, and let the wave of history pass us by, then we become just a larger version of Aiaia as the world moves on, for good or ill.”

Albion waited, his eyes staring dead ahead through the window, watching Circe’s reflection in the smooth glass tinted blue by the sky. He saw her sparkling golden eyes, her head moving closer as her arms wrapped around his neck. Gently, teasingly, she gently nibbled at his ear, teeth sliding over it as she bit him with just enough force to bring a wince out of him.

“Mmm, you’re lucky you’re handsome,” Circe said. “And quite talented…in many respects,” She added with a teasing flourish to her words as she pulled away from him.

“Talent is nothing if you don’t work at it,” Albion smiled as he turned to face her. “And neither is luck.”

“So tell me, Lord Nassar,” Circe adopted the speaking habits of his assistant. “What is your grand plan?” She leaned back against the table, hands resting on the edge as she stared him down with smoldering eyes over the slim glasses that appeared on her face.

“First we announce our plan to the senate and whip them into action,” Albion crossed the room to her, placing his hands past hers as he pushed her against the table.

“Then we found our second legion,” He kissed her, passionately as he pushed her hard against the table, enough to send her falling onto her back.

“And then?” Circe asked him, her eyes burning as the top buttons of her dress shirt undid themselves.

“And then we kill a dragon,” Albion said, moving his arms to rest them over his shoulders. “But let’s focus on the present shall we, Lutetiana?”

“Let’s, Lord Nassar.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 33

 

“Are we there yet?” Noemi sighed, looking out over the rails of the ship. Jonah was busy as usual, and the elf Rhonwen, or as they had taken to calling her, Ronny, seemed to be unusually hard at work, moving about the ship with the natural grace of a veteran sailor. It had been a few days since they had picked up Ronny and Noemi had requested to be let off in the Caribbean. Since then they had seen a number of ports but none even close to the Caribbean Sea. A number of souls had been gathered floating above the water, their spirits quickly vanishing to join the rest of the invisible crew.

“How come they don’t become cabin boys like you?” She had asked Jonah on night, after discovering they had arrived with the fog in the South China Sea. They had discovered a group of six sailors sitting on their floating planks of wood, what remained of their ship. They had said something in their native tongue, but Noemi couldn’t piece it together, and then they vanished, fading out of her sight.

“Mm, probably because you and Ronny are anchoring me?” Jonah had said. “I’m not too sure myself. Not that I mind. It’s nice being…me.”

After the South China Sea they had sailed around the Horn of Africa, only to arrive in the Mediterranean off the coast of Tripoli. Noemi had started using an old set of star maps just to get a sense of where the ship was taking them. When she had last checked the sky, it had placed her somewhere in the North Sea, off the coast of Norway. Quite a ways away from the Caribbean.

“Look, I don’t know what to tell you,” Jonah said, handing her a broom to sweep the deck clear of dust. It seemed that no matter how often it was swept, the Dutchman had a perpetual layer of dust and dirt clinging to her. Noemi figured it was part of the atmosphere. “It’s really hard to predict where we are heading next.”

“Yeah, but there has to be someone in the Caribbean that is dying at sea, right? I mean, how come we can’t go to them first!”

“I don’t think we actually operate on a linear timeline…” Jonah had said, giving her a shrug. “If we did, then I imagine there’d be a lot of ghosts we just don’t get. But if we just appear a couple of hours after their death, it gives them enough time to start to realize their situation.”

“Wait…if time’s not linear, then could we go back to the past!?”

“In theory,” Jonah said, very slowly. “But we have no way of knowing what time it is exactly, just by the stars. Besides, how would you even know if it would apply to you? Even if I’m right, I don’t know what happens to living people when they leave the Dutchman. Maybe you just rejoin time in the point you’re supposed to.”

“Mm, I guess that’s true. It’s not a safe bet…”

“Not at all.”

“Hey, you two, stop talking, the water is getting rough!” Ronny shouted from her perch up above. The elf grabbed the rope and slid down to the deck to join them, her tricorn hat staying on her hair despite the strong winds. “Saw something big moving beneath the water. We may have trouble.”

“Big? How big?” Noemi asked. Was it possible there was another sunken man of war ghost ship sailing around? “Is it a ship?”

“Bigger!” Ronny exclaimed, pointing up excitedly. “Get the guns ready!”

“Why, what did you se—” Jonah started to ask, before there was the sound of breaking water, the soft light of twilight going dark as something large reared itself above the ocean. “…Oh. To the guns!”

Noemi ran as quickly as she could across the decks, throwing the broom to the ground as she started shoving gunpowder into the cannons. The boat was raised high into the air by the force of the waves, tipping dangerously to both sides. Looking over her shoulder, Noemi could see that the creature was a large serpent, easily five times the size of the Dutchman.

Her face went white, the powder she was scooping with her hands falling like sand between her fingertips. She stared wide eyes at the serpent as it pushed itself out of the water, passing over the ship with seeming no end as it crashed beneath the waves on the other side. It was wider than the ship, blocking out the stars above her as its dark shape flew above.

The water splashed aboard the deck with enough force to send Noemi flying backwards. She scrambled to catch her footing as the ship was bumped fiercely from beneath.

“I have you, Noemi,” the soft yet firm voice of Ophidia said, as Noemi felt herself being wrapped up in the Feathered Serpent’s arms. Ophidia was staring down towards the bottom of the ship with a worried look on her face.

“What, what is that!?”

“It is the World Serpent…”

“The what?!”

Ophidia didn’t answer, instead just wrapping herself around Noemi even tighter, her arms looking more like a bird’s wings than a human’s arms as she cocooned the red head. Noemi didn’t resist, her heart racing.

“It’s coming from below!” Ronny shouted, over the rush of the wind. Noemi couldn’t do anything, couldn’t move. She felt the ship begin to…sink? No…that wasn’t right…

It was like the ship was falling. She heard the rushing of water pouring down a hole in the world itself, as if the ocean had simply parted over a great abyss. They were falling and the stars were getting farther away above the. Noemi screamed, her cries of terror muffled by Ophidia’s chest as the Goddess buried the mortal’s face in her bosom, like a mother would a child.

The world was dark as the stars went out. It took Noemi a second to process why that was. The giant snake had swallowed them whole, gulping down the sea water with them. They were in the belly of the beast, or more accurately, the mouth of it.

Jonah said nothing, though Noemi could see there was enough life left in the ghost that even he was uncertain of what would await him. Ronny was screaming at him to do something, get the Dutchman to sail away, but they had no “jump”, not that Noemi had seen.

“Is…Is this where it ends? After all that, I get swallowed by a monster?”

“…Do not despair, Noemi. We have not reached our end yet. I am here with you. Though even at the height of my power, I do not know if I had the strength to fight the World Serpent.”

“So that’s it. We’re going to die here?”

“We are still here. Have faith, Noemi.”

The words were said in a calming tone, but that was hardly enough to overcome the fear that washed over Noemi as the ship was bounced and jostled inside the monster’s mouth. She waited with baited breath for the next drop down, when the serpent would throw its head back and send them to its endless gullet.

“There’s light!” Ronny shouted, pointing franticly. “Ah! Cabin boy! Make your ghosts push us or something!”

“This is a man of war, Ronny, you know damn well there are no sails!”

“Do something, cabin boy!”

“It appears that there is not much that is needed of us,” Ophidia said calmly, raising her voice to catch the attention of the other two. “It seems that the World Serpent is doing it for us.”

Indeed, it was. The boat began to slide towards the light. Noemi briefly wondered if that was the end, whatever fate awaited those who died. It would be fitting, dying aboard the ship of the dead, skipping right to the end. Maybe she had actually been dead the whole time. Maybe Tess had won and this was all in her head.

There was a grumble as the ship sailed out of the largest cave Noemi had ever seen, the stalactites were sharp and dripped with venom that hit the deck with the force of a wave. As the ship pulled outside of the cave, Noemi realized with a sinking stomach that it wasn’t a cave at all.

It was the mouth of the World Serpent.

Slowly, the giant beast began to shrink as it circled the ship, its body coiling out of the water, every movement causing giant waves that rocked the ship. After a while, it was merely twice the size of the Dutchman…Or around there anyway. Noemi could not see all of its body at once.

It swayed its head from side to side, eying them with slit jewel-like eyes. A forked tongue flicked itself in the air.

You are bad food.

“Err…Yes! Very bad!” Ronny shouted up, cowering behind a box. “Elves don’t taste good, I promise.”

“I think it means because of all the ghosts, actually,” Noemi said, still shaking. Ophidia had relaxed her grip around her, but the Feathered Serpent still held the champion in her arms.

The snake turned her face a few degrees, to look directly at Noemi, the great yellow eye looming large over her, the tongue flicking again in her direction.

Red headed…

Noemi could swear the snake said something else, but it was lost in a hiss, as the force of the sound caused the wind to nearly send Noemi flying out to see in the gusts. Ophidia strengthened her grip on the girl’s shoulders.

She is my chosen one, World Serpent. You will not hurt her so long as I am here.

“Y-yeah, what she said. Don’t hurt Ophidia though!”

The World Serpent dove back beneath the water, before breaching on the other side of the ship, its tail pushing the Dutchman out of the water into the air. The World Serpent, Jormungandr, stared intently at it with a worrying concentration. After a while, they heard it speak again in a rumbling hiss that shook the ship.

Feathered One, you are far from home. But beneath the feathers I can see you’re like me… but much too small. I can make you bigger.

“Bigger? Like…Like you can make Ophidia stronger?” Noemi said, her voice rising to be heard above the winds.

Yes. Serpents and dragons, I seek. You will come with me, and I will make you bigger. I know the seas the skies and the ancient places. Where gods grow wise and serpents grow large.

Go with the Jormungandr? Noemi wasn’t so sure she liked that. After all, the World Serpent was probably like the Dutchman in that they couldn’t tell it where to go. It would go where it pleased. But it could offer Ophidia power, making the goddess stronger. Or would it just make the goddess more like…itself? Noemi wasn’t sure.

“What is this deal?”

You will come with me, I will make the Feathered One more than she has ever been.

“It would be of great use to us both, Noemi, if I were to gain power. To grow “bigger” as the World Serpent speaks,” Ophidia said. “In the end the choice is yours, as my champion, but I would not mind to accept this offer.”

Noemi frowned as she rubbed her temples. This wasn’t what she had planned or imagined at all when she had set out on this journey. Then again, how many times had she almost died already, just from being out at sea? And before that, while running from the cult? She wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Ophidia, who knows how many times over. She owed the Feathered Serpent.

But when she closed her eyes, she saw the chubby face of her sidekick, of Gisela, waiting with worry in some jail cell, or lost and not knowing where to go in the world. They had said they were going to meet in the Caribbean. She had to at least make it there. Besides, while Jormungandr offered them quick power, wasn’t the World Serpent usually an enemy of humanity or something? Noemi was sure she had read that Jormungandr was a monster, not a hero. A cult in the Caribbean would be stable and closer to Ophidia’s home. It would be a solid place to start.

“Sorry, Ophidia, but I think we should stick with the plan and head to the Caribbean. It’s closer to Aztlan, and so it will be easier to get a cult going there then…well, here. The whole point is to go home eventually after all.”

Disappointing, yet there are things you can do while you are still small. If you wish to be bigger, the World Serpent will hear it. I am always listening.

Jormungandr turned on its side, crashing back into the water as it started to swim away from the Dutchman, its coils porpoising across the ocean surface. The four sailors aboard the Dutchman watched her go.

“Haaa, that was too close!” Ronny said, clinging to Jonah’s arm. “Never take us that close to her again, cabin boy!”

Jonah pushed the elf off of him in annoyance. “It wasn’t like I had a choice, pirate. Now get off me! We have work to do.”

Ophidia looked at Noemi with a questioning glance, and for a second, Noemi felt guilt and regret. She considered calling out to the retreating serpent to say she changed her mind. “There will be time to take her upon her offer, Ophidia. But like she said, there are things we can still do while we’re ‘small’.”

“It is as you think is best, champion,” Ophidia said, but her voice lacked much enthusiasm. Still, as she looked out at the sun rising across the ocean, her eyes started to light up. “I do believe the World Serpent has yet still aided us. Perhaps unintentionally. I would check the maps while there is still time to see the stars…but I believe we may be where we sought to go.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Goddess of Victory

 

T24.1Nike

Nike holding lyre, Athenian red-figure lekythos C5th B.C., Blanton Museum of Art

 

Last chapter brought the previously introduced goddess, Nike, to the forefront. But who is Nike? Most people know of her through the modern shoe company giant that bears her name, and it’s not surprising that a company wishing to associate itself with athleticism and success would name themselves after a goddess who personified victory itself.

According to Hesiod’s Theogeny Nike is the daughter of titans. Specifically the titans Pallas (not to be confused with Athena’s epithet, Pallas Athena), and Styx (not to be confused with the river). Styx the goddess is the divine form of the legendary river, a nymph and titan said to live near the entrance to Hades. She is quite significant as it was she, according to Hesiod, who was the first titan to side with Zeus during the Titanomachy, the War against the Titans. It was for this reason that her name became the name that all gods swear upon.

It is unclear what side of the war against the titans that Nike’s father Pallas found himself on. According to the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, he was slain by the goddess Athena, and his skin became her enchanted armor (Making their cooperation in the chapter Flying Solo rather awkward). However, this is likely a conflation of the Titanomachy and the later Gigantomachy (War against the Giants) as most sources say Athena had not yet been born in the War against the Titans.

Regardless, Styx’s four children all fought on the side of Zeus and the Olympians. They were Zelos (“Zeal”), Bia (“Force”), Kratos (“Strength”), and Nike (“Victory”). Nike was most closely associated with the Olympians Zeus, as his charioteer, and with Athena, reflected in her first appearance i nthe serial. She is depicted with any number of items representing victory, such as a palm branch, a lyre for celebrating, and a sash or wreath to give to a victor. In The Cities Eternal, Nike avails herself of armor and a spear, as victory over Typhon and the Primordials has not yet been achieved.

800px-Victoire_de_Samothrace_-_vue_de_trois-quart_gauche,_gros_plan_de_la_statue_(2)

Winged Victory of Samothrace

Perhaps her most notable aspect are her wings. In virtually all depictions Nike is a winged goddess, giving her an appearance not unlike later depictions of angels. Indeed, it is possible that the first depictions of winged angels from Byzantium drew their inspiration from Nike and her Roman equivalent, Victoria.

Nike in The Cities Eternal is a subordinate goddess to the Olympians but still a formidable figure. Just as she did during the Titanomachy, she is prepared to fight with the Olympians to bring order back to a world in chaos. She might not have as much power to bestow as Ares, Hephaestus, or Zeus, but her new champion is far from an amateur.