The Snake and the Mirror

Witch’s Gambit

 

The sky wept rain in great sheets as grey clouds rolled across the sky. At a place where the lashing seas met the high cliffs there seemed to be no peaceful spot to take refuge from the storm and waves and danger of falling rocks. Any mortal human would be tucked away safely in their homes, away from the roaring waters and the driving rain.

There was, however, one figure that made its way across the rocky coast. At the base of the cliffs, on a narrow path of stone cut into the rain-soaked rock, walked a lone person wrapped in a thick oiled coat who made their way slowly across the path of stones and gravel. Ahead of them, cascading down the high cliffs, was a waterfall, a great curtain of white that mixed with the rain and sent a mist of water through the damp air, making the rocks of the path slick and dangerous.

This place was treacherous to reach, and more treacherous to stay, as it had once been the hideaway of the most infamous of the northern gods. They were the Falls of Franangr, the secret home of an ancient trickster.

Behind the falls stood a short round tower, built from the stone of the cliffs themselves, and abandoned for many years. Nearby, beside the roaring waterfall, was a great stone slab exposed to the elements. The slab was pockmarked with holes and pits where acidic venom had dripped across it, but the snake that had produced this venom was gone, as was the god once bound upon the slab. Franangr’s Falls was an empty place, or so the world had been led to believe.

The figure reached out a hand, and felt the illusion around them. The air was thick with magic that could trick all but the most keen-eyed god, or someone with power that not even fate could define.

The figure knew illusion when she felt it. She was a master of them, after all.

With a swipe of the hand the illusion shattered like broken glass, falling like droplets of the waterfall as it disintegrated. What had once been an abandoned and stone-cold tower was now occupied, with the four-facing windows aglow with light from within. The owner no doubt sensed the illusion being broken. The figure didn’t mind, she preferred being announced anyway.

As she stepped towards the tower door, another wave of the hand blew it open. From within the door burst hundreds upon hundreds of bald-faced emaciated hawks, a storm of birds that rushed the figure with claws raised and sharp beaks ready to tear through skin and flesh and bone. A wailing screech from a hundred hungry voices wailed alongside the roar of the waterfall.

As the cloud of birds came down upon her, a flash of red light burst from the base of the canyon, and the flock of ravenous hawks dispersed as a swarm of harmless gnats.

“I didn’t come for your tricks, giant-son,” The figure’s voice was cold as she spoke to the tower’s open door. “I’ve little patience for it, and I come to talk.”

The door remained ajar, a warm light shining from within, and the figure took this as a gesture of welcome.

As she stepped inside the warm light vanished, replaced once more with the cold darkness of an empty tower. The fire and warmth had been simply another illusion wrapped around the tower.

“This seems excessive, even for you,” the figure said. “But magic never was your strong suit. It was a waste to lay magic traps when you knew what might be coming.”

The figure clapped her hands together, and a dozen more traps that lay in wait were obliterated by a pulse of magic power.

“Who did you have to cajole to lay those runes?” She asked the darkness. “Your own abilities never extended far beyond your own shapeshifting and cunning, Loki.”

“I suppose I must have underestimated my guest,” Came the reply.

Out of the darkness stepped a tall figure. Though short by divine standards, the god Loki was still easily nine feet tall if he wished it, and his thin and lanky form towered over the human-sized figure.

“When a witch comes calling I expect a little reverence.”

“That’s because,” the witch replied, pulling back her hood to reveal a head of voluminous red hair and sparkling green eyes. “You’ve never met a witch like me. Name me, giant-son. You know the names of all your visitors.”

Loki’s face twisted into a grin that seemed far too wide for his jaw.

“Morgan le Fay, it is a rare pleasure.”

“The pleasure belongs to neither of us,” Morgan said. “You don’t wish me here and I don’t wish to be here.”

“A rare kind of meeting then,” Loki said. “When both guest and host despise one another seemingly in equal measure.”

“Rare but necessary,” Morgan said. “I would have words.”

“You’ve had quite a few already,” Loki said. “I hope you have better ones.”

“You and I share a common predicament.”

“There is nothing common about either of us, though there is plenty vulgar about you.”

Morgan’s eye twitched, but she didn’t stop. “We’re both being hounded by our fellows, Loki. The Asgardians hunt you like game.”

“The Aesir are rather preoccupied, as are the Vanir,” Loki grinned.

“Then why is it, Loki, that you are hiding here at the edge of the world? I may not be a god but I know how to spot a cowering rat.”

A strange sort of expression came over Loki’s face, it was as if he wore an ugly scowl and a grin at the same time. As perplexing as it was unpleasant.

“Just as you run and hide from your trollops-in-arms.”

“Neither running nor hiding,” Morgan said coldly. “I simply saw no need to go to their little get-together at the Russian crone’s fowl shack.”

Despite himself Loki let out a cackle at the pun. “Very well, two fleeing cowards who are neither fleeing nor cowards. What of it?”

“The Aesir believe you to have thrown in your lot with the Dragon of Yggdrassil, yes?”

“I surely do not know what the Aesir think,” Loki said. “Though that sounds ludicrous enough for them to believe it.”

“My point is we all know you have a role to play,” Morgan said. “The Dragon will come to Midgard in time. That cannot be stopped. And when it does it will herald Ragnarok. The horns will blow and there’s a ship you must attend to.”

Loki scowled. “I’ve played that role. I’d rather not do so again. Repetition can be rather dull.”

“The Three have seen it. It will be so.”

“Those three see a lot of things,” Loki shrugged. “And you’re certainly one to talk of destiny and fate, witch-woman.”

“All the more reason to want my help,” Morgan said. “The Naglfar is one of the largest and mightiest ships to ever sail. Its presence all but makes certain dominion the seas.”

“If you have the mind to steer it,” Loki said. “And that ship only sails one place, and only at the end of days.”

“As you put forward, Loki, I am hardly one to be bothered with Fate when it doesn’t suit me.”

“So if you want to start the events of Ragnarok, just to get your hands on a ship?” Loki asked, scarred lips curling into a smile. “Bold if nothing else, Le Fay.”

“It’s far from just a ship,” Morgan said. “The Ocean is home to many ancient sources of power. She who commands the seas commands the forces of the world.”

“But you need a god to get that ship,” Loki smiled.

“Indeed, a very specific one,” Morgan said. “You, Loki, are destined to steer the Naglfar. But with a True Witch like myself aboard, then there are many destinations other than Muspellheim that you can sail to. Leave Surtr and his brood to rot while you and I take what we will from the seas.”

“Name a few of these destinations then, Witch,” Loki said. “Where would you demand Loki sail you like some humble steersman?”

“Oh, to many places. To the Mediterranean seas where we could make dealings with the ancient Typhon for access to his vaunted seas. To the far western shores where blood gods prey on their mortal worshippers and command powers even wise Odin knows little of. Or if riches be your pleasure, then the treasure troves of Atlantis and Thule would be wide open to the captains of the Naglfar.”

“Captains? A tempting offer, witch. Though I am no humble sea god to be satisfied with dominion of the waves.”

“Command of the seas breeds command of the land,” Morgan said. “More than trade, more than power. There are ancient forces lost beneath the waves. In the dark places where the water runs cold with the blood of Primordial beings. In the deep-down blackness where your world-spanning child sleeps. Powers that, with my aid, you can pull free from the web of fate and use to put down the gods that hunt and imprison you.”

“Mmm, I appreciate your rather wild ambition, Witch,” Loki said. “But I know better than most the price when one tries to meddle with fate. As should you.”

Morgan scowled. “Then cower in your cave if you must, giant-son. I have other threads to weave and other fires to burn.”

“Hold yourself, Witch,” Loki said, raising a hand. “I think an arrangement can be made. But there are measures that must be taken. The Naglfar is far from ready to sail.”

“There are times when the aid of a witch can be invaluable,” Morgan said. “If we strike an accord my magic will aid in the ship’s construction, as well as make it mightier than it ever could have been.”

“So I set sail on the Naglfar,” Loki said. “And then you and I shall jointly lead it to glory and the ruin of our enemies, it sounds almost too good to be true, particularly given your reputation, witch.”

“A reputation we share,” Morgan replied scathingly. “We are united in our mutual dishonesty,”

Loki let out a short cruel barking laugh. “Well said, Le Fay. Very well, let us see what amusement we can make together,” He held out his hand, and even before she took it Morgan could feel the bonds of the oath tying them together.

Both of them knew perfectly well the nature of the other. Loki the Trickster, the Liar, the Son of Giants and Father of Beasts. Morgan le Fay the Deceiver, the Wicked Enchantress, the Queen of Air and Darkness. These were not the names and epithets of trusted partners and comrades.

But Morgan had not spoken entirely in jest. It was a careful and tenuous arrangement, one bound together in whatever loose threads of Fate the Norns had overlooked. But both were so perfectly aware of each other’s nature, so understanding of their opposing treachery, that from it could arise a macabre sort of understanding. Betrayal was coming, from both sides inevitably. But they both knew well enough that it would come after what they wanted was achieved. Even if it was not a partnership to last it was one to be feared. For the Naglfar would sail and Midgard would burn before the strikes of betrayal were made.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 20

October 3rd, 2024

 

“This is bad,” Leyla said for perhaps the fourth time. “This is bad, really, really bad.”

“I get it,” Asha said. “This is bad. I agree.”

The pair of them, along with Eli, were standing on opposite sides of a transparent wall to a self-confessed demon, who was trapped in a chamber of reinforced glass-like plastic.

“As I said,” The demon spoke again. “I prefer the name Constance, not ‘bad’ if you please.”

Its voice came through a speaker in the wall allowing them to hear while preventing any noise or movement of air from escaping the chamber. It was androgynous in appearance, neither male nor female, with chalk-white skin and jet black hair that hung in short curls around its neck and head with straight bangs over emerald green eyes. The straightjacket it wore kept its arms pinned around its sides and back, and it sat loosely cross-legged on the floor.

“Shut up!” Leyla snapped at Constance. “We’re not talking to you.”

“No, we’re not,” Asha nodded. “But what are we doing with…it?”

“Destroy it obviously,” Leyla said. “It admitted to being a demon, after all. What else is there to do with it?”

“We just need to figure out how,” Asha said.

“Now, now, rather hasty discussion, isn’t this?” Constance asked. “Come I can be quite agreeable, even in appearance. Let’s clarify our pronouns, shall we?”

Even as she watched, Asha could see Constance’s outline shifting. Between the blinks of her eyes the demon turned from almost rigidly androgynous into definitively female. The demon’s waist shrunk as its hips expanded, the face rounding and the eyes tilting, the flat chest swelling into prominent breasts as the arms thinned.

“I imagine most of you find this form more agreeable,” Constance smiled, “At least one and a half of you do. Which is good enough for me.”

“Wait…” Leyla blinked. “One and a half?”

“Oh yes,” Constance’s smile never faded. “I can recognize the powers burning in your souls from here. Call it a gift. Let’s see…” It, or perhaps she, gestured with her head towards Asha “Reunified Fravashi empowered by a Zoroastrian spirit of no mean power…” She looked to Eli. “A similarly empowered Zoroastrian mortal, though much more subdued in power and in purpose…” finally she looked to Leyla. “And here we have two people in one shell, plus one spirit makes three, Must get crowded in that head of yours.”

“That does it,” Leyla growled. “Let’s find a way to open this fish tank and burn this demon.”

“Hold just a moment,” Constance said. “Let us all think rationally for a moment, shall we? If I am so wonderfully gifted to dissect the three of you on sight, imagine what I can do regarding your enemies.

“Don’t listen to it,” Leyla said. “Demons are masters of temptation. All they want is your soul.”

“Says who?” Constance scoffed. “I could not care less what you do with your soul. It seems demons have a rather poor reputation here.”

“Hmmm…” Asha thought. “Back in Rome, Cat talks about how all spirits are called ‘daemons’ with evil ones being called cacodaemons.”

The demon laughed, a cold and humorless tone that bounced off the chamber wall and caused the speaker to quickly garble into distorted static.

“I am no cacodaemon, daeva, or dragon. What I am is something you very clearly have little experience with.”

“Then how about you tell us?” Asha asked. “Precisely what you are.”

“Asha, it will only lie,” Leyla said. “It will say anything to get out of that cage and turn on us. We can’t humor it.”

“I’ll be able to tell if its lying,” Asha said. “It can lie to the humans who contained it, and to you two maybe, but not to me. If it’s lying, then you can use that sacred flame to turn it to ash.”

“I doubt that will work,” Constance shrugged. “But you could give it a try. As for your questions, by all means, ask away. If you’re intent on killing me either way I’ve no reason to lie.”

“We’ll see,” Asha said. “If you’re not actively malevolent, but not a cacodaemon or eudaemon, what are you?”

“I call myself demon because that is what I have been called,” Constance says. “Like all things I define myself by how I am observed to be. But I am of a different brand than your gods and nature spirits. I am a piece of that roiling chaos from which this and all universes were born, living contradiction of order and chaos in corporeal form.”

“So you’re what…neutral? “Asha asked skeptically, senses ready to detect any trace of falsehood.

“More like a living contradiction,” Constance smiled.

“So you’re as much nature spirit as a Primordial?” Eli spoke next.

“And equal parts neither,” Constance nodded. “At the creation of all things, when order was born in chaos across dozens of cosmologies, my kind were born. We are far from all-powerful, not comparable to Primordials or even petty gods, but we like to keep to ourselves, and we like mortals most of all.”

“Because you can trick and tempt them,” Leyla frowned.

“Because they are like us,” Constance said. “The people who trapped me here called me demon, but I can be as much angel as I am demon, dependent on who is asking and what I want.”

“And what do you want?” Asha asked. “Remember to speak truthfully.”

“Short term same as you,” Constance said. “Get out of here and deprive those URIEL scientists of their research power. Long term…well, any number of possibilities, but I’m inclined towards chaos at the moment, particularly pointed at Shadiya’s government.”

“Why,” Asha asked. “Why attack Shadiya’s government?”

“Well, for one they are sort of keeping me prisoner,” Constance gestured around with her shoulders. “That’s reason enough right there.”

“But that’s not all,” Asha frowned. “Not enough reason to trust you.”

“You don’t need to trust me, just agree with me,” Constance smiled. “We both want Shadiya removed and power restored to the people. I can give you more than you can imagine. Knowledge about Shadiya and URIEL, contacts in Damascus. I could be an invaluable resource to you.”

“I think,” Eli said, frowning. “That is the very definition of a Faustian bargain.”

“Clock’s ticking,” Constance smiled, and as she did, the alarms from the door outside grew louder. Reinforcements were on their way.

“How do you know about us wanting aid from Damascus?” Asha demanded.

“Inductive reasoning,” Constance said. “You’ll need outside help. The only viable solution for hundreds of miles if Damascus. Though you’ll find that difficult. If it’s anything like it was three months ago there’s quite a power struggle going on there…of course, all this is academic if I remain in this ‘fish tank’ as you called it.”

Asha ground her teeth and turned to Leyla. “We have three options. Listen to it and let it help, kill it, or leave it to URIEL.”

“Well, we’re not leaving it,” Leyla said. “That we can’t allow.”

“Do we even know if we can destroy it?” Eli asked.

“If it’s evil, infernal, or comes from any dark place the sacred flame will burn her to the core,” Leyla said, drawing his sword. “I say we finish it. I’d rather have nothing than have its aid.”

“And if the sacred flame doesn’t burn me?” Constance asked. “What will you do then?”

“Then we’re going to have to make some difficult decisions,” Asha said, going to the controls and pulling the lever covered in red markings warning them not to pull if the case was occupied.

With a great hiss of stale cool air rushing into the room the walls of the chamber slid upwards into the ceiling, leaving Constance sitting alone a raised dais which Leyla stepped up onto, burning sword in hand.

“Any last words, demon?” Leyla asked, raising the sword.

“Fire away,” Constance said smoothly. As Leyla’s sword came down on her neck, Constance didn’t even flinch, and the blade seemed to glide smoothly through the skin and flesh of the demon’s neck, not leaving so much as a scratch behind save for the sound of rushing air.

“What the…” Leyla pulled his sword back before taking several more wild swings at Constance, each time the blade simply passing through her body as if she was a ghost.

“As expected…” Constance sounded almost disappointed. “Your blade kills all manner of evil, as it was designed by spirits of good. I think it’s time the three of you learned to broaden your horizons.”

Constance stepped past Leyla, dropping down onto the floor. “Thankfully I don’t take offense to futile attempts on my life…not that it matters, our little spiritual conflict runs both ways.”

Constance swung around with inhuman speed, raising a clawed foot in a kick that would have smashed directly into Leyla’s skull, but instead her foot simply passed clean through.

“All of you are defined by spirits existing within you, untouchable to something like me. Even most humans are beyond my direct interference.”

“It seems we need to rethink our options,” Eli said.

“Before that,” Asha said. “We need to escape.” She reached out and grabbed Constance by the coat, satisfied that her clothes at least could be grasped. “And you’re not leaving our sight.”

“As you wish,” Constance smiled. “Lead on.”

The three, now four of them, ran back the way they came, Asha and Leyla using their combined powers to burst through any doors that remained in their way, and felling the guards that chose to stand and fight. After a frantic and wild half hour, all four of them managed to break through a rear door of the facility and escape into the moonlit night.

As they rushed down a side alley to catch their breaths, Asha squeezed her fingers to ensure that she still had a tight hold on Constance.

“Don’t worry,” the demon smiled. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Neither are we if we don’t keep moving,” Leyla said, his voice going quiet as they heard dozens of monstrous howls echo through the night. “What if they can sense that thing?”

“You can’t even touch me with a sword, you think they can smell me?” Constance asked, amused.

“I don’t know what the hell you are,” Leyla growled.

“He’s right,” Asha said. “Come on, let’s keep moving.”

The four of them stole away into the darkened city as the streets began to fill with armed guards and hunting monsters. Though Eli needed help, the three of them could move with inhuman alacrity, jumping to rooftops or ducking into side streets to dodge patrols as they moved slowly and cautiously through the night, eventually reaching their small rented apartment and sneaking in through the window.

“Safe for now,” Leyla said. “But we can’t risk a raid like that for a while. Security will be insane.”

“A fine time to go to Damascus then,” Constance smiled.

“What are we going to do with…it?” Leyla asked.

“Oh come now, I changed myself to feminine form for all of you,” Constance scowled. “Calling me ‘it’ feels so…dehumanizing.”

Leyla let out a short bark of laughter. “I say we just keep trying until we find a way to kill this thing.”

“I want Hazif to see Constance first,” Asha said. “He said he was half-demon, it’s a start. No doubt he’ll be here tomorrow to confirm we caused all this chaos outside.”

“In the meantime,” Constance smiled. “We can discuss…arrangements.”

“No,” Asha said. “We are not cutting a deal with you. That is where I’m drawing the line.”

“Asha…” Eli started, but Asha cut him off.

“No, Eli. I know we need to make compromises and we can’t always do right when we’re trying to take a city, but I’m not going to cut bargains with a…being I don’t fully understand.”

“My, seems you’re all smarter than I gave you credit for,” Constance said. “Very well, no deal, but I will offer my services for…consultation.”

“We’ll see,” Asha growled. “For now, you’re not a partner, consultant, or even help. You’re a prisoner until we have reason to say otherwise. Got it?”

“Got it,” Constance smiled. “Prisoner or not, I can already tell this is going to be a very interesting experience.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

 

Memory of Butterflies

October 9th, 2024

 

Mariposa Huerta slid off of her bike as she reached her destination. She resettled the broad hat on her hair and got her clothes unwrinkled from where the warm wind had whipped at them. She wanted to look halfway decent, but in truth she was stalling for time. She had ridden about an hour outside the city center to come to her destination, the large gate of an old and opulent estate that was locked tight, not just with steel locks and bars, but with a more arcane kind of protection.

The name on the side of the gate was engraved “ALDOBRANDINI”.

Mariposa had been told to wait outside the gate and someone would come to fetch her. So she stood there feeling slightly foolish as she looked through the gates towards the distant manor on the hilltop. Her heart fluttered in her chest as she saw the shape of someone coming down the hill. She was …nervous she settled on the word, though simply nervous didn’t seem to cover the level of fear and anxiety that sill squirmed like slugs in her belly. She hadn’t wanted to come here, she wanted to be anywhere else, but she needed to be here. Mariposa needed to put her fears to rest.

The young woman who came to greet her was about her age, with tied back blonde hair and bright blue eyes.

“Morning,” she smiled “You must be Mariposa, Cat told me about you…er, Miss Aldobrandini told me.”

“That’s right,” Mariposa nodded nervously. “I’m here to…” She found herself having trouble even choking up the words.

“Don’t worry, I know,” The woman smiled. “My name’s Alicia, part-time caretaker.”

“Nice to meet you,” Mariposa, and she stepped inside as Alicia swung the gates open for her, stepping out of the way as Alicia moved to lock them again. Together, the pair of them began making their way back up the hill.

“Sorry if the place is still in a bit of a state,” Alicia said. “Definitely not a job one woman can do part-time by herself.”

“I-it’s fine,” Mariposa said. “It’s a very nice place.”

“We try to keep it that way,” Alicia said. “The garden is a mess though, and we’ve had to board up a lot of old wings to focus on getting the necessaries up and running.”

“Right…” Mariposa trailed off. She appreciated what Alicia was doing, trying to distract her from why she was here. But nothing she said would calm her nerves.

“So…” Mariposa began, speaking slowly as if choosing her words with utmost care. “What is she…like?”

“She’s a bit of an enigma, and I think she likes it that way,” Alicia said, instantly picking up on who Mariposa meant. “She can be a bit patronizing, sometimes to the point of being an ass, but I don’t think she’s outright…malevolent. Cat doesn’t seem to think so at least.”

“So she’s not…cruel?”

Alicia shook her head. “I wouldn’t say so. I think she’s…seen a lot. From what I’ve picked up, the things she’s been through it’s…hardened her. It’s like she’s made of stone now. But she’s still human…heck, I think she even still has a sense of humor, if a bit of a black one.”

“That’s something,” Mariposa said, and she felt Alicia put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“It’ll be fine,” she said. “I think if she’d be open and honest with anyone, it’d be you.”

“Well…I guess we’ll have to see,” Mariposa said. “Where is she?”

“She wanted to meet you in the sitting room,” Alicia said, opening the front door and guiding her into the manor. “Can I get you two anything? Tea? Coffee?”

“No,” Mariposa shook her head. “I’ll come find you when…when we’re done.”

“Sure thing,” Alicia said. “I’ll be nearby so don’t hesitate to call.”

Mariposa nodded, and Alicia left her by the entry into the sitting room. Taking one last deep breath, Mariposa steeled herself and stepped inside.

The main sitting room of the Aldobrandini manor was built around a massive stone mantle carved into the fashion of Greek pillars. The walls were covered in portraits of past generations, both realist and abstract. Large statues stood in the corners of the room, cast in darkness in the limited light. The thick curtains of the large windows had been mostly drawn, allowing only a thin channel of white light to shine in from the morning sun outside casting most of the room into a serene sort of half-light.

Sitting in a high-backed leather chair was the woman, Gisela Silva. She was finely dressed in a clean white buttoned shirt that was loosely undone at the top. Beneath that was a slimming skirt of deep violet worn over black stockings and similarly shining black shoes. Her dark hair hung loosely over her shoulders and reached mostly down her back. Her eyes remained focused on Mariposa as she entered, a distinct and shimmering violet color.

“Good morning,” Gisela inclined her head politely before gesturing to a chair across from her, which Mariposa took nervously. “I’m Gisela Silva.”

“Mariposa Huerta,” she inclined her head in turn. “Thank you for meeting me.”

“Of course,” Gisela nodded, her face was inscrutable, her tone utterly flat. “I believe I know why you’re here; you were the vessel for the will of Itzpapalotl during the Battle of the Black Sun.”

“And before,” Mariposa said. “I was like a…sound piece for her.”

“So then it’s only natural,” Gisela said. “That you come to me to ensure that it won’t happen again.”

“More than that,” Mariposa said. “I still have…nightmares. She’s still in my dreams.”

“Hmm,” Gisela looked her over carefully.

“I need to know where she is,” Mariposa spoke more quickly. “I need to make sure that wherever she is and whatever she’s doing…I’m not involved anymore.”

“You’re no reason to fear,” Gisela said calmly. “The Butterfly Shroud is broken and with it her power in Rome.”

“But she wasn’t just a goddess to me. She was in my head, controlling me…”

Mariposa shivered. She could still remember the fear, the frequent night terrors, the long gaps in her memory. The times when a foreign goddess had used her body like a puppet, commanding her without her even being aware. At times it had been like going mad.

“She was not possessing you like some sort of demon,” Gisela said. “You were not even her champion. You were…enchanted by her, ensorcelled by some dark blood magic.”

“But I still need to know,” Mariposa pressed. “Now and forever, is she out of my head?”

Gisela stared into her eyes, and for a moment Mariposa swore she saw a glow behind them, a shining in the vivid violet of Gisela’s eyes.

“Whatever spell she put you under, whatever power she had over you is gone,” Gisela said. “She can no longer command you to act or enter your dreams and visions. You are no longer her mouthpiece.”

Mariposa felt some bit of relief wash over her, but it wasn’t as much as she had hoped. In the back of her mind, in the corners of her anxieties, she knew she would always fear that Gisela was wrong.

“And the nightmares?” Mariposa asked.

“The natural result of going through such trauma,” Gisela said. “Becoming the tool of a goddess, particularly one as cruel as she can be, is going to leave scars on your mind and soul.”

“I sort of figured that…” Mariposa said, eyes moving downwards.

“As for the goddess herself,” Gisela continued, causing Mariposa to glance back up. “Her power is broken, so all of her influence in this country is now tied to me. I am her sole able representative. She lacks the power to take hold of you again, and it would be much more difficult to do a second time even if she could.”

“Do you see her?” Mariposa asked. “Is she…around?”

“Rarely,” Gisela said. “She prefers not to be seen more often than not. But there are…reminders, signals of her passing, making sure I remember who it is that holds my contract.”

“Why are you her champion?” Mariposa asked. “A goddess like Itzpapalotl is…”

“That is a long story,” Gisela said. “One I have neither the time nor inclination to tell you. Rest assured it was an act made in desperation, one made to save my own life. I sold my soul to the Obsidian Butterfly and became her herald as a result.”

“Miss Aldobrandini said you were helping her,” Mariposa said.

“Itzpapalotl plays a very long and strange game,” Gisela said. “Whether training Catarina to defeat Primordials is in her interest or not I cannot say. This could be my quiet rebellion or it could be playing directly into her hands.”

“Then why do you do it, if you can’t be sure?” Mariposa asked.

“Because there is always more to things than there appears,” Gisela said. “The gods wear many masks, many of them innocent and many of them cruel. The balance between order and chaos can alter the face that they wear. What I can hope…All I can hope, is that what I choose to do is right, and in this case I believe it is. The right choice for me, for Catarina, for Rome, and for the world.”

“I see…” Mariposa nodded. She looked at Gisela, regarding her for a moment.

The woman could be intimidating to look at to be sure. She had an expression of utter determination on her face that seemed to override everything else. But Mariposa could have sworn she saw more behind it.

When Itzpapalotl had been using her, stealing her body for hours at a time or compelling her to sing the song of calling for her monstrous star-children, it had been a like a living nightmare for her. The goddess’ presence tainted everything it touched, the traces of the Obsidian Butterfly always visible in the corner of her eye and audible in a range just outside her hearing. It was like being spied on and hunted at all times by a monstrous force you could never hope to confront.

Mariposa had lived with that feeling for nearly three months, ever since her night terrors had begun and up until the Battle of the Black Sun. But looking at Gisela now, she realized the young woman had been living with the goddess’ presence for years. Every step across continents had been haunted by Itzpapalotl, her rattling sword-breath and the great flapping of heavy black butterfly wings hounding her every move. Gisela had known precisely what had stalked her, and could do nothing about it.

“Thank you,” Mariposa said. “You’ve been very…reassuring.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Gisela said, and she did seem to be sincere about it at least, though her expression hardly changed.

Mariposa rose to her feet, before walking to Gisela and offering a hand. Gisela rose as well and politely shook it, and Mariposa quelled a shiver at the coolness of her touch. She really did seem almost made of stone.

“I hope this will help you recover,” Gisela said. “I will not attempt to justify my patron’s callousness. It was cruel what was done to you.”

“Thank you,” Mariposa nodded, but even as she did she couldn’t help but wonder if anyone else hoped for a similar recovery for Gisela, or at least freedom from Itzpapalotl’s presence. Could a deal with a god be broken? Could the god themselves be changed?

Mariposa was a radio singer, it’s who she is and what she was good at. She planned to return to work soon and sing with her own voice, not with Itzpapalotl’s. It was not her place to question if Gisela could change her patron’s nature, or at the very least be freed from her constant presence.

As she left the sitting room, Alicia coming to meet her and guide her out, all she could hope for was that Gisela could find similar relief and reassurance. Or at least hope that she could find a bit of peace to hold onto.

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 19

October 9th, 2024

The day of election had finally come to Rome. Amidst gathered crowds and held breaths, the Roman Senate cast their votes for who would be the next Consul, the one who would take over after Capitolina’s temporary rule had ended and would guide the Senate and with it Rome.

Catarina, begin Albion’s apprentice, had been invited to join the gathered crowd within the Senate chamber, and there she watched as the senators cast their vote and formally announced that Albion Nassar would be the next Consul of Rome. There was a great deal of applauding and cheering, even from his opposition, and Cat saw Senator Patricia Bellos clap politely along with them. While he wasn’t a king, and the Consul was meant to guide the Senate rather than command it, Albion was now undoubtedly the most powerful man in Rome.

Cat listened to his speech from the balcony seats of the Senate chamber with Rosa seated next to her. Though uninterested in politics, she had come on Capitolina’s request and was sitting through it with a bored expression on her face. It was a good speech, to be sure, but Cat’s mind was focused elsewhere. She thought of the Dragon of the World Tree, gaining its strength in the North. She thought of the people who might be able to help her reach it. And she thought of the jaguar spirits that haunted the distant forests of Central America. As her eyes wandered over the senate chambers, she caught sight of Albion’s assistant, Lutetiana, seated near the front. Popular rumor had it that Albion was dating her, or at least sleeping with her. Cat wasn’t sure whether it was true or not, but more and more something about the silver-haired mage set her on edge.

After his speech was done and another round of applause filled the Senate chambers the crowd rose to disperse.

“Come on,” Cat said to Rosa. “Let me congratulate him and we can get going.”

“Finally,” Rosa groaned. “This went on waaaay too long.”

“Hey, it’s an important event,” Cat scowled. “Not every day we get a new Consul.”

“I guess,” Rosa shrugged. “Come on, let’s get going.”

“Alright, alright,” Cat rolled her eyes as she went down to congratulate him.

She managed to work her way through a crowd to reach Albion, shaking his head and giving him a polite ‘congratulations’.

“Ah, Catarina, I’m glad I caught you,” He said, smiling at her. “I want to see you in my office in an hour, if you’re available.”

“I…of course,” Cat nodded. “I’ll be there.”

Despite Rosa’s protestation an hour later she was in Albion’s office, which was already being cleared as he began his move to the Consul’s chamber. Still they were alone when he sat at his desk and offered her a seat opposite himself.

“What did you need me for?” Catarina asked, curious as she took the seat.

“I may have won my position but I need to act quickly upon it if I wish to make an impression. To that end I am putting together a diplomatic expedition, and I want you to be a part of it.”

“An expedition?” Cat asked. “To where?”

“To the Alps,” Albion said. “Not too terribly far but important nonetheless. They form the bulwark against northern monsters and having their settlements join Rome will be a key part to securing the borders of the field.”

“I see,” Cat said. “But why would I be part of it? I don’t have diplomatic training…”

“No, and you will not be the expeditionary lead,” Albion said. “However, you are my apprentice, as well as a skilled mage and something of a celebrity. Your presence will add weight to the arrangements.”

“Who else is going?” Cat asked, still caught up in her surprise.

“Your friend, Ms. Kokinos, and your adoptive sister, Ms. Jazheil, will be there for protection. The chief Diplomat will be Giovanni and his secretary, Ms. Notaros.

“Kokinos…” Cat looked at him before realizing. “Oooh Rosa, right. Okay.”

“I’ll have a detailed outline for the expedition for you within two days, you’ll leave within the week,” Albion continued. “We can’t afford to wait around.”

“R-right,” Cat nodded hurriedly. “Thank you and…ah congratulations again.”

“Thank you, Catarina, you are dismissed,” Albion said, waving her off, and Cat got to her feet before bowing her head and exiting.

“Well, that didn’t take too long,” Rosa said, meeting her outside. “What’s up?”

“Think we’re going on a mission soon,” Cat grinned. “Diplomacy work in the Alps.”

“Not exactly my strongest skill,” Rosa frowned.

“Well, I think we’re mostly there for protection and prestige,” Said Cat. “But I need to tell Hanne and Schehera…oh! And Gisela as well, probably.”

“Ah right your creepy prisoner teacher,” Rosa said. “Gotta say you visiting her for advice has this creepy Silence of the Lambs feel to it, you know?”

“Not really,” Cat frowned. “Is that a reference to something?”

“Forget it,” Rosa said, waving it off. “Whatever, is she teaching you how to kill Nidhoggr?”

“Well…in her way I guess,” Cat struggled with a way to describe it.

“Well if you’re going to see your creepy teacher you’re not coming back in time for combat training,” Rosa frowned.

“Ya…sorry about that,” Cat said.

“Well that just means I’m going with you.”

“Wait what?” Cat stared at her.

“You heard me,” Rosa said. “I’m not letting you ditch me, so I’m going too.”

“B-but I’m going to my house…”

“Ya so? You let Gisela in didn’t you? If you say I’m not welcome I might just start taking offense.”

“Ergh it’s not like…ugh fine, whatever you can come,” Cat put her palm to her forehead. “Come on, it’s a long walk.”

 

Together the pair of them set off towards the edge of Rome, taking nearly two hours on foot to reach the front gate of the Aldobrandini household, and they were well into conversation by the time they arrived.

“Look, all I’m saying is you need to be more aware of your limited range,” said Cat. “A spear isn’t a sword so stop treating it like one.”

“That’s because you don’t know a damn thing about spears,” said Rosa. “I’m plenty aware of my range, I just need to work not to trip over you. I need some maneuvering room.”

“If I moved any further away I’d be leaving huge gaps for Hilde to exploit.”

“If you got any closer I’d have you buy me dinner first, seriously it’s too close.”

“It is not, you’re just not used to fighting in a group.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

“Well like I said you…ah, here we are,” Cat said as she worked to unlock the gates, the key tied to the numerous magic wards protecting the front entrance as well as the physical lock.

As they stepped inside, Cat turned to lock the gate closed again as Rosa walked forward to view the manor atop the hill, giving an impressed whistle.

“Wow, you were more loaded than I thought, Cat,” She said.

“I’m not,” Cat blushed. “My family was, not that it means much anymore.”

“It means you’ve got this huge mansion,” said Rosa. “Seriously this is the kind of house that other rich people envy.”

“Oh, shut up and come on…” Cat said.

“Why don’t you live here again?” Rosa asked. “Hanne’s house is tiny, bet here you could give everyone their own wing.”

“Shut uuuup.”

“Seriously did you guys have servants?”

Cat clamped her mouth shut, keeping her eyes pointed forwards as they walked up the hill.

“You guys totally had servants. Wow, are you doing auditions for a new maid?”

“That’s not…you’re way off…”

“Cause I would totally do it if you paid me to live here on the side. Hell, I’d wear the frilly dress and everything.”

Cat paused mid-stride as the image filled her mind, but she pushed onwards as she tried to shake it from her thoughts.

“There were no frills! And I’m not hiring you to be a maid!” Cat shouted.

“I get it. Position filled,” Rosa sighed sarcastically

“You are just the worst sometimes…”

“Eh, you just need to lighten up,” Rosa shrugged as they stepped inside the manor. “So where’ve you got her locked up? The dungeon?”

“We don’t have a dungeon,” Cat sighed. “Gisela is probably in the study.”

“Well lead on, I’d probably get lost looking for it,” Rosa said, falling in behind her.

“I can only hope,” Cat said.

“See? That’s the spirit. No fun if I’m the only one giving,” Smiled Rosa.

Sure enough, they found Gisela in what was once her father’s study, which had been converted into a makeshift library while Gisela sorted through boxes of books and tomes. Cat made sure to check that the wards were still active before stepping inside.

“Glad to see you’re still here,” Cat announced herself as she stepped in. Gisela didn’t look up from where she was sorting piles of books.

“Welcome back, Catarina, I didn’t expect to see you until Friday. Some news with the election?”

“Albion won,” Cat said.

“Of course he did,” nodded Gisela. “And you brought a guest I see.”

“Ya, Rosa insisted on coming,” Cat rolled her eyes. “But I came to talk to you. Albion’s putting an expedition together that he wants me to be a part of.”

“Military? Diplomatic? Exploratory?” Gisela asked.

“Umm he said diplomatic,” said Cat.

“Who else is going?” Gisela never missed a beat as she asked questions.

“He wants me, Rosa, Hilde, Gio, and Gio’s secretary, I think.”

Gisela snorted softly. “Definitely at least some military component. That’s a show of force right there.”

“I mean…ya probably,” Cat frowned. “Point is I’m going so I’ll be missing some of your lessons.”

“Oh, I all but insist that you go,” Gisela said, finally looking up from her books.

“Wait…you do?” Cat asked, nonplussed.

“Of course,” Gisela nodded. “I think it will be an excellent experience for you.”

“Well…alright then,” Cat said, before she could ask more, Rosa stepped into the study.

“So you’re the prisoner then, Gisela right?”

“That would be correct,” Gisela turned to her, regarding her with cold eyes.

“I’ve been wanting to get a look at you ever since I heard you almost beat Aurelio,” Rosa said. “I’m not too impressed.”

“Think what you will,” Gisela shrugged. “I’m not particularly inspired to impress you.”

“Well as one champion to another I make it a point of comparing,” Rosa said. “Need to make sure I’m not being showed up, after all.”

“Well let me put those fears to rest, as a champion you’re still an amateur.”

Rosa’s brow furrowed. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” Gisela said. “You wield power like a child with a baseball bat.”

“Er…come on now…” Cat said. “Not in the study.”

“No, by all means this will suffice,” Gisela said. “Come, Champion of Ares, try to strike me.”

Rosa had moved forward before Cat could stop her, moving skillfully through the book tiles as she all but charged Gisela, fingers curling into fists.

“Dammit…” Cat sighed. “If you two break anything…”

Rosa threw the first punch, not with much weight or power as she tested Gisela’s speed, and Cat could only watch as Gisela not only deflected her fist skillfully, but with what looked like ease. Rosa drew back before pushing for another assault, her fists moving like a deft pugilist as she tried to strike at Gisela, but Gisela moved with a grace that seemed almost unnatural, deflecting every one of Rosa’s strikes. She wasn’t blocking them, it was clear from her movements and posture that she lacked the raw strength to intercept a direct hit, but with a blend of martial arts and divine speed she had made herself nearly untouchable.

“Damn, you’re quick.” Rosa pulled back, and Cat was shocked to see a smile on her face, “Like fighting an eel.”

“You’re trained at least,” Gisela said, flexing her hands. “Better than Aurelio certainly, though you lack focus and finesse.”

Rosa seemed about to charge again, but reined herself in as she uncurled her hands. “Heh well…if I tried to get any more focus, I think we’d wreck the place. Cat wouldn’t let me hear the end of it.”

“You bet I wouldn’t,” Cat crossed her arms stubbornly.

“Heh, well your creepy teacher isn’t half bad,” Rosa smirked.

“Likewise…call me, impressed, Champion of Ares.”

“Call me Rosa,” she said. “And I’m going to call you Gisela since I’m not about to try to pronounce your patrons name.”

“Itzpapalotl,” Gisela said. “It sounds like it’s spelled…but very well.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The White Serpent

October 6th, 2024

“So you’re a…champion was it?” Noemi asked as the small group worked slowly to cut a trail through the overgrown jungle. “A champion to a god?”

“That’s right,” Anton said, leading them with his bow slung over his shoulder and machete in hand. He and Noemi were at the front, while Tess and Gisela followed in the rear. As they walked, the four of them were followed by the invisible spirits of Catarina and the older Gisela, watching the memories pass.

“So I guess there are champions everywhere, huh?” Cat said, walking a bit behind them.

“As far as I have seen, though to varying degrees,” Gisela said. “Not all pantheons embrace such a system, or they do so differently.”

Cat watched as Anton helped the younger Gisela over a large fallen log. “He seems nice.”

“Anton was a good man,” Gisela said simply.

Noemi spoke up again as silence descended on the group.

“So how does someone go about becoming a god’s champion?” She asked.

“Well it’s not like I applied for it,” Anton smiled. “I was chosen, for my skill and for my character, so I was told.”

“That’s amazing…” The younger Gisela said quietly, reverence and admiration in her eyes. “You actually spoke to a god. Did it come in person? Or through visions and stuff like that?”

“Oh, it was in person,” Anton chuckled. “And let me tell you I have never been more terrified in all my life. A great white-scaled serpent with massive wings that filled the sky. It was as big as a mountain and spoke with a voice that shook the trees.”

“Wow…” Gisela said, trembling at the mere thought of it. “Did you see it too, Tess?”

“No,” The younger girl shook her head. “It was a little before we met.”

“Anyway,” Anton continued, pausing as he made another slash through the brush. “The Feathered Serpent came to me and he said that the world was out of balance. Chaos reigned over order and with every passing day things would grow worse if a balance was not restored.”

“And humans are supposed to be able to help with that?” Noemi asked. “Seems a bit optimistic, most of us are just trying to survive.”

“I thought the same way,” said Anton. “But it only takes something small, a little action, for the consequences to ripple outwards. That’s how he explained it to me at least.”

“So what do you do?” Noemi asked. “Just go around doing good deeds and helping people?”

“More or less,” Anton grinned. “Like umm…like Batman I guess.”

“No way, Batman doesn’t use a bow,” said Noemi. “You’re more like umm…”

“Like Green Arrow,” Gisela spoke up. “He used a bow!”

“Sure, Green Arrow then,” Noemi grinned.

Tess gave Gisela a confused look, but Gisela just turned a bit red and went quiet. Outside of their perception, Cat grinned slyly at the older Gisela.

“I didn’t know you read comic books.”

“I used to in my spare time. I had a lot of spare time,” Gisela said flatly.

“You nerd,” Cat teased her.

 

“So when did you meet Tess?” The younger Gisela asked, suddenly self-conscious of her reference.

“Oh, a few days later,” He said. “I saved her from the claws of a monstrous jaguar spirit.”

“I just wish you had killed it…” Tess said quietly.

Gisela shivered. “Y-you didn’t?”

Anton shook his head gravely. “No, only wounded the damn thing. Cowardly cat has been stalking us ever since.”

Gisela paled as she whirled her head around, as if expecting to see the face of an enormous jaguar watching her through the trees.

“I wouldn’t worry right now,” Anton said. “It doesn’t attack during the day, and the damn thing’s too frightened to make a direct attack. But when night comes we’ll need to be on our guard.”

Noemi paused to let Gisela catch up before giving her a comforting pat on the shoulder.

“Don’t worry,” she said quietly. “I’m not about to let some big dumb jungle cat scare my sidekick.”

Though still clearly frightened, Gisela nodded, somewhat reassured.

“The thing is evil…” Tess said, her hands folding over her chest defensively. “Just wish it would go away n’ die already.”

“I don’t think it’s evil,” Anton said. “It’s a spirit, but it’s still an animal. It’s just doing what feels natural to it.”

“Well, what’s natural to it is evil to me,” Tess grumbled.

“I don’t think we humans ever cared all that much about the natural order,” Noemi said. “Seems to me, if we’ve got a giant jaguar following us, safest thing to do is bring it down.”

“Well I’m not about to object,” said Anton. “No sense letting yourself be hunted for any kind of greater good, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. I doubt anything out there in the dark actually thinks of itself as evil.”

“Not about to debate philosophy,” Noemi said. “But I’m a pretty straightforward girl. If it wants you dead for any reason other than food or self-defense, it’s evil.”

“Well, let us hope the lines remain that clear,” Anton said. “The definitions of right and wrong seem to change quickly around here these days.”

 

As the memory sped ahead, the day began to darken into night and the group decided to start setting up camp. They had two tents and Anton and Noemi decided to take turns standing watch. Noemi took the first shift as the sun began to set, walking a distant perimeter around the camp as the shadows grew longer and darker with the setting sun.

Tess worked to make their meal (Canned beans salvaged from a town along with whatever small darting mammals and lizards were unlucky enough to cross their path) as Anton sat beside Gisela to check his enchanted bow for any damage.

“Noemi seems very protective of you,” Anton said idly as he worked. “Reminds me of Tess and myself.”

“She is…” Gisela nodded. “But I worry I’m just…slowing her down I guess.”

“Ah…” Anton went quiet for a moment before putting his bow to the side. “I wouldn’t worry too hard about it.”

Gisela looked at him. “But I’m dragging her down, she could do so much more without me.”

“Do so much more what?” Anton asked. “She could maybe walk a bit further each day, maybe forage less…but to what end. According to the both of you, you weren’t traveling anywhere in particular, just looking for somewhere safe.”

“Well, yes, but…” Gisela began to say before Anton interjected.

“Yes, but nothing, Gisela. I know Noemi’s type. She was out there looking for a cause, a goal, and she found you. I’ve seen the way she looks at you, the kindness in her voice and her eyes. She’s a woman with an objective now, to protect you. She may not need you in order to survive, like you need her. But Noemi needed someone like you to keep going, to have something to fight for and protect.”

“Is that why you travel with Tess?” Gisela asked quietly, trying to to raise her voice enough for Tess to hear.

“Eh, not quite,” Anton said. “Like I said I try to restore order where I can. But when I found Tess and that jaguar got away…well I couldn’t just leave her behind, could I? The thing is hunting her, and until it dies, Tess travels with me.”

“I see…” Gisela said. “So I’m Noemi’s…her what, objective?”

“No, no,” Anton chuckled slightly. “You’re her friend, Gisela. And by the look of things she didn’t have many.”

“You know…” Gisela almost leaped out of her seat as Noemi’s voice came from right behind her. “It’s rude to talk about people behind their back.”

“Eep!” Gisela squirmed as she turned to face Noemi “W-we were just…umm…”

Noemi, however, was just grinning, and with a gentle hand she took Gisela’s head and kissed her on the forehead. “You’re overthinking things, Gisela,” she said. “I stick with you because you’re my sidekick. Got it?”

“Umm…ya.” Gisela nodded a bit sheepishly.

“Good,” Noemi ruffled her hair before wandering back to patrol the camp, calling over her shoulder. “And bring me some of those beans when you’re done!”

Gisela nodded before turning back to Anton. “So do we have a destination now?” She asked.

“We do,” Anton said. “We’re heading to Mexico City. Tess says she had family there, and the rumor on the wind is that it’s one of the few safe refuges left.”

“That’s…quite far,” Said Gisela.

“No where’s too far if it can be reached on foot,” Anton said. “Besides, we’re getting farther each day.”

“We are?” Gisela asked.

“Of course, “Anton smiled. “I can see you improve with each passing day. You’re going farther without resting, eating better, and you look healthier too.”

Gisela reddened at the flattery. “Th-thanks. I just do it so I don’t weigh Gisela down too much.”

“You know she feels the same way?” Anton said. “She does her best to make sure she doesn’t let you down.”

“I doubt that…” Gisela said. “She just seems to be able to…do things so easily.”

“That means she’s just good at hiding it,” Anton grinned. “Though we should hush up if we don’t want to feel her boot against our heads.”

“Right,” Gisela smiled.

Before long their meager was ready and Noemi was called in to join them for eating. As they chatted and laughed the sun finally sank entirely below the horizon. When their dinner was finished, Anton took over on watch as Noemi and Gisela prepared their tents for the night. Gisela watched curiously as Noemi laid out a small cloth to begin cleaning her revolver.

“Hey Noemi,” Gisela said. “Do you think these things will protect us from things like spirits?”

“I dunno,” Noemi shrugged. “I wish I could say things like the bullets are tipped with silver and filled with holy water, or that the grip is made from sacred holly…but it’s just an antique I picked up.”

“So, it might not work at all against spirits…” Gisela said quietly. “It barely worked on that frog.”

“You know,” Noemi worked nimbly as she cleaned each part. “I’ve been thinking about it. And Anton’s bow is just wood and string, right? The shafts are just wood and feather too, with obsidian arrowheads I think.”

“But it’s magic,” Gisela said. “It was given to him by a god.”

Noemi started re-assembling her revolver. “And that’s the important part, isn’t it? That it was made by a god. Did it have to be a bow? An old weapon? Could it have just given him a gun if the blessing was the same?”

“I’m not sure if it works like that…” Gisela said.

“Maybe not,” Noemi said. “But at the end of the day, his magic bow works because Quetzacoatl said it would. And the only reason that matters is because people believe in Quetzacoatl.”

“Well…yes I get that,” Gisela nodded. “But what does that mean for your gun?”

“It means that while it might not amount to much,” Noemi said. “I believe my gun will work. I have that faith in my weapon and in myself against spirits. Now I’m not much compared to a god. But I like to think it will help that little bit.”

“Mmm…” Gisela watched in silence as Noemi reassembled the revolver, spun the chamber and made sure everything was in place, and then reloaded it.

“Do you believe in me?” Noemi asked.

“…I do,” Gisela nodded after a brief moment’s pause. “I’m not sure I would if it was anyone else but…I believe in you.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 18

October 5th, 2024

Noemi wasn’t quite sure how many days passed beneath the thick canopy of the rainforest before the trees started to thin out, the stars peeking through the leaves above. She counted days by meals and breaks from their trekking. When they came to rest, Noemi would try to have Junko teach her what she knew. Sometimes this took the form of combat training. Though she still favored her guns, often starting every morning with practice drawing them with ever increasing celerity, Noemi was getting better at close combat, especially with her ability to duck and roll out of the way of Junko’s strikes.

Other times, particularly after very strenuous patches of terrain, the lessons would take the form of guided meditation, where Noemi was expected to yield control to the spirits all around her. These lessons were more difficult. As she followed Junko’s instructions, Noemi could feel the spirits flittering about her, pushing against her consciousness, her ego. Try as she might, Noemi still struggled opening herself. In fact, the more she tried to open herself to the spirits, the more it seemed to drive them away.

The only spirit she found herself able to open to was, naturally, Ophidia. In fact, Noemi had noticed the snake goddess had been spending an increasing amount of time manifested beside them during their journey through the wilderness, her white dress staying immaculately clean as she seemed to glide over the brush beneath her feet. Noemi took it as a sign that Ophidia had grown stronger just through the act of having a champion. She still envied the winged serpent for looking so put together, so composed, so…beautiful in the hot, sticky, sweaty jungle. It’s not fair, she thought to herself as she pulled the strands of red hair that clung to her forehead.

As the forest started to thin, Noemi could feel her nerves jittering. The rainforest had provided thick cover for the three of them. While it wasn’t impossible for Aztlaners to track them, it was possible to be only a few yards away from an Aztlan patrol and neither group would be the wiser. Approaching the coast, that thick cover would be lost.

“Ophidia,” Noemi said, during one of their lunch breaks, as she turned a lizard over a small spit she had put together. The food pickings had been lean, which had been another sign, Junko had said, that they were approaching civilization once again. “Do you think you can send a snake or two ahead to scout for us? Find out what we’re walking into first?”

“I believe that to be a sensible precaution.” The goddess nodded slowly, stroking the head of one of her tiny feathered serpents, its wings fluttering as it hissed, pleased. She spoke in her serpentine tongue, a series of hisses that Noemi could only vaguely catch if she put her mind to it. She hadn’t asked Ophidia why she was able to understand it, figuring it was part of the benefits of being the goddess’ champion.

The snake slithered down Ophidia’s arm as the goddess knelt down, touching one finger to the earth as the white snake crawled down, its wings folding in to blend with the white feathery scales. As the light danced across its body, it started to turn from green to white.

“Now we wait,” Noemi said, pulling the lizard out of the fire.

“Heh, if I didn’t know better, boss, I’d say you’re just trying to extend our rest time,” Junko teased. Noemi had gotten better at telling when the ninja was smiling even underneath her mask.

“It’s not my fault both of you have insane stamina! Back when it was just me and Gisela, I was the one who had to slow my pace!”

“As my champion, Noemi, you should have stamina to rival any mortal,” Ophidia said. Noemi couldn’t tell if it was just a statement or an admonishment.

“Yeah, well, we are making progress every day. I might be able to push my muscles more, but it’s still not an easy trek. And Junko is hardly ‘mortal’!”

“Hey, I’m as human as you, boss,” Junko said. “But it’s fine, just admit we’re taking a longer rest today.”

“Hmph,” Noemi grunted, taking a big bite of the lizard as she chewed its tough flesh. It had the texture of the driest jerky she had ever eaten. The saddest thing, she felt, was that it wasn’t the worst thing she had eaten over the last few weeks. She had grown accustomed to it. “Trust me, with the prospect of a good meal ahead of us, I’d be whipping you two to get you moving.”

“Oh, how tyrannical, boss,” Junko laughed.

“Shut up and eat your lizard,” Noemi grumbled, smiling.

Lunch was over quick. Rather than sit and do nothing, the trio continued to walk in the direction the snake had slithered off to, as it would have little trouble finding its way back to its goddess. Sure enough, mid-afternoon, Ophidia stopped walking, standing straight and tall.

“Are you alright, Ophidia?” Noemi asked.

“I am fine, Noemi,” the goddess said, reaching her long arms up to a branch hanging down under the weight of vines. “Our scout has returned.”

The snake, still mimicking the colors of the leaves and vines, quickly slid around her wrist, making its way up her arm, its tongue flicking out its message to Ophidia. Noemi could hear nothing but one word: Aztlan.

“Eh?! Aztlan?! What did he say?” Noemi said, her hand falling to the gun at her side.

Ophidia frowned, but ignored Noemi, asking the snake several questions in their secret language. The snake bobbed and weave its head as its wings fluttered agitatedly. Ophidia ran a finger down its spine, soothing it, before turning back to her two companions.

“It seems that the closest inhabited has fallen to Aztlan occupation. Their flags were flying over the harbor.”

“They’re here already? But…but…we should be on the other side of the jungle!”

“Don’t forget, we were traveling on foot, boss,” Junko chimed in. “They have ships. They’ve probably got all the Gulf and most of the Caribbean coast under their patrol.”

“If that’s the case,” Noemi said, rubbing her temples as she thought. “Then we’re going to need a plan to get into the city. If they’re already here, then you’re probably right, Junko. I doubt we’ll have much luck with other cities along the coast. But I can’t just waltz in there. Even if they don’t recognize me, I’m sure they have their priests there to sniff out Ophidia. We need a plan.”

As Noemi fell silent, the only sounds were the noises of the rainforest. Junko and Noemi both seemed deep in thought, while Ophidia merely watched with an almost passive expression on her face.

Junko was the first to speak. “There are some spirits that we could use to…obfuscate our entrance. It would require us to enter the city under the cover of darkness, but we could move unseen.”

“Won’t that draw the attention of the priests though?” Noemi asked.

“Not necessarily. Their priests may sense the spirits themselves, but their magical aura would be masking our own. But…it will require you to let yourself become one with the darkness. Consider it your final test, boss.”

Noemi felt a shiver go down her spine. This was it. “I guess there is not much of a choice, is there? I either do this or it ends here.”

Junko nodded. Ophidia just gave one of her impossible smiles. Noemi sighed. “Alright…then we wait for darkness. Let’s scout ourselves in the meantime. If you hear ANYONE, hide, understand?”

“You don’t need to tell me twice, boss.”

“Good.” Noemi said, as she watched Junko meld into the shadows of the tree. It was as if the other girl had just vanished right before her eyes. Noemi sighed again. “It’s probably best if you dematerialize as well, Ophidia…”

It has already been done, Noemi.

“Alright. Let’s go see how bad the situation really is…”

 

It turned out, Noemi decided, that the situation was far worse than she had originally imagined. As she had approached the forest line, she had seen the port down below. A wall had been erected around the city, partly woven from the trees themselves by various jungle spirits. The road led to a single gate, which was well patrolled.

Worse, from her position above the valley, she could see a few ships sitting in the harbor, their cannons turned inward. Noemi had not been able to make out their flags, but Ophidia had confirmed they bore the symbols of the Jaguar. It seemed that the harbor truly was under occupation, which meant that it was unlikely any ships would be allowed to leave without an Aztlan search.

As the sun set behind the trees, Junko caught up with Noemi. The ninja appeared out of thin air, as if the shadows themselves pulled back like a cloak to reveal her presence. “It’s not going to be easy to get you onto a ship, boss.”

“I sort of figured that from the Aztlan warships in the harbor,” Noemi grumbled, not even jumping as Junko materialized next to her.

“It’s more than that. All the ships in the harbor have been ‘claimed’ by Aztlan as their property. I managed to find a sailor angry enough to spill the beans. If any of them try to leave, Aztlan will kill them.”

Noemi didn’t even try to hold back her frustration as she groaned loudly. “Well, let’s just get into the city first, then we’ll worry about how to get a ship out.”

“As you wish, boss. Do you need help with the spirits?”

“I think I’ve got this. Be like the shadows, right? Wear them like a second skin.”

Junko chuckled. “Something like that.”

“Well, it’s now or never,” Noemi said. Junko nodded and started doing her katas. Noemi followed suit. The practice they had done meant she no longer had to watch the shorter girl as she went through the motions. Even though Junko was silent, Noemi could hear her voice echoing in her head from their previous lessons.

See the spirits around you. The space between you and them is in your mind. There is no space. There is no you, no them. Let your mind expand out, let the spirits envelop you.

Noemi could feel the spirits around her, swirling like an eddy around her form. There is no form. She could feel them washing over her, curious about this creature that called out to them. They were spirits of darkness, shadows, not real things in their own right. Certainly not real like Ophidia was. Noemi could see the white fire of her patron burning brightly in the distance. It helped give shape to the shadows that circled her, drawing ever closer.

They flew through her. They were inside her, their feelings hers. She was one of them. She could feel her form losing its weight, her skin losing its solidity.

Noemi walked forward through the air, carried by the spirits of wind. The ground whizzed beneath her as she raced across the sky, a shadowy wisp in the dark night. She could feel Junko beside her.

The guards were below her, the gate sealed shut. With the spirits help, it seemed so simply a task to jump over the walls, the spirits of the ground pushing her up as she kicked off the earth. She thought she saw Junko’s shadow merge with the shadow of an owl as it flew across the wall, carrying the ninja into the city proper.

It was exhilarating. Noemi had never felt such power. Nothing could hurt her in this state. The shadows surrounded her, making her insubstantial. She could go anywhere without being seen, run without being caught. The shadows swirled ever faster as her mind raced with the possibilities. Noemi hardly even noticed as her shadow started to lose its shape, unraveling into the darkness from which the spirits came.

Noemi thought she heard Junko calling out to her, but the other girl’s voice was far away. It was probably unimportant. Being a shadow was so freeing. She was having too much fun for such things.

She could see the light of Ophidia’s flame approaching her. Noemi raised her hand to her eyes as the fire blazed around her. Her translucent hand started to get its color back as the flames washed over her, the darkness forced back. Noemi couldn’t hold onto the shadows as they fled her, falling to the ground as her body was given its shape back. She shuttered, pulling herself to her knees. She suddenly felt truly nauseous.

“Boss, are you okay?! I thought we had lost you!” Junko said, helping Noemi to her feet slowly.

“I-I’m fine…What happened?”

“You were losing yourself to the spirits, becoming one of them. I tried calling you back but you were already so far away. If Oph…the goddess hadn’t been there, you might have been gone forever.”

Noemi groaned as her head spun. “She was so bright…I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had-“

She didn’t get to finish her statement, as the bells in the city started to ring. Her stomach fell as her skin turned white. The alarm was sounding, the guards were going to come for them and arrest them. They had come so far only for it to end now.

“Junko, get your sword ready,” she hissed, pulling out her gun. “If we’re going down, we’re going down fighting.”

“Boss, I don’t think it’s us!” Junko said, covering her ears as the shouts and bells were drowned out by the sound of a cannon firing. “The town is under attack!”

Noemi pulled herself up, her gun still drawn as she looked down the streets. The people were running for cover, slamming the doors to their houses shut behind them. Guards were moving through the streets, shouting to one another orders and warnings. Turning down to the harbor, Noemi could see several corsair ships darting between the larger Aztlan warships. Two were moving towards the docks so their crew could begin looting the city.

The merchants that had been kept in the bay by the warships were taking advantage of the confusion to run for it while Aztlan was unable to enforce their claims. They were starting to scuttle out to the open sea, heading for the Caribbean. More and more were pulling up anchors and pushing off, making it even harder for the large Aztlan ships to successfully engage the smaller corsairs.

“I need to get on one of those ships!” Noemi shouted to Junko over the confusion. She turned and started running, grabbing Junko by the hand and pulling her after her. “Come on, let’s get on board!”

“Sorry, boss, but this is where I say my goodbyes,” Junko said, letting her hand fall limply from Noemi’s grasp.

“What?” Noemi said, spinning on her heels.

“I’ve got business on the mainland still. I was just helping you get to the port and to the boats. I’m not leaving.”

“But Junko, Ophidia and I could use your help!”

“Sorry, boss…” Junko said sadly. “But I’ve got to stay. Maybe when you come back, Aztlan will have already fallen if the resistance can get their act together. But if we don’t see each other again…”

Noemi shook her head, cutting Junko off. “No, stop. We will. There are too many people I owe a bullet to the head to not come back.” Noemi threw her arms around Junko and pulled her in for a hug. “You stay safe, ninja. You better believe I’m going to look you up when I return.”

“Ah…heh…I wouldn’t think anything else, boss. But I think you have a ship to catch.”

“Yeah…” Noemi said, pulling herself off Junko. She gave the ninja a quick nod before turning back towards the sea and running headfirst into the chaos of the pirate attack. As she watched Noemi run, Junko could almost see the spirits clearing a path for the red head champion.

Junko sheathed her sword only once Noemi was lost to her sight, before disappearing into the shadows. “See ya later, boss.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Return to Sicily

October 4th, 2024

What was a quiet day in Rome would be celebrated as a day of victory in the nearby island of Sicily. More than a year after the overthrow of the mage-kings that had ruled with an iron fist, the people of Sicily cheered and feasted as it was announced the last giant on the island had been killed. Throughout the city of Syracuse there was singing, drinking, and partying as the news reached them and the celebrations swung into full swing.

Emidio Cattaneo made his way through the city streets, trying to keep himself out of the direct line of celebration as he moved to the Palace of Law, formerly the Mage King’s Palace and still one of Syracuse’s many fine structures. He still caught a fair bit of attention, formally dressed as he was in half a suit of armor with a long blue cape over his shoulders, his helmet carried under his arm. He was a soldier after all, and one expected to be appropriately formal.

Emidio was a captain of the Sicilian Guard, the people with the training and skill needed to hunt Sicily’s remaining monsters. He was still young, being in his early 20s, and built like a footballer with broad shoulders and a strong chest. His hair was cut short at the beginning of their giant-slaying campaign, and so it had grown longer and begun to grow down his neck.

His armor was a mix of reclaimed museum pieces, roughly-forged steel, and his own additions of leather and wool. Experience had been a strong teacher when it came to arms and armor, and the people under his command were similarly dressed in an eclectic mix of workable armor. After all, a full suit of plate was not going to protect you from the fist of an angry giant. Normally he carried a spear at his side and a round shield slung over his shoulder, but today he was down to the sword carried at his belt. He wasn’t going to war, after all, though it somehow felt the same.

Even as Emidio was surrounded by cheers and celebrations, the raucous crowd throwing flowers at him and trying to pull him in for drinks and food, Emidio felt uneasy. He had a meeting today, an audience with the Tagus no less. It was not an event to be taken lightly.

He ascended the steps of the Palace of Law easily enough, passing nods to the guards who were on duty, many of whom he knew personally, as they let him into the hall. At the center of the somewhat austere palace was the Tagus. Though he was technically only the head of the new council of magistrates, many on the island treated him like a king. He was a hero of the revolution after all, the destroyer of the Dragon, the last mage King of Syracuse.

Tagus Vittorio regarded Emidio as he approached. The man was young for his position, but in the way he held himself and viewed the room around him, Emidio could feel an almost absolute authority emanating from him. At his side was General-Captain Brigida, leader of the home guard and another hero of the revolution. Filling the hall around them, all keeping a reverent distance from the Tagus, were the other captains and magistrates gathered for the celebration. Many of them had their eyes on Emidio as he approached the Tagus’ seat, walking with his back held straight in a steady walk as he approached.

“Tagus,” He announced himself, bowing at the waist as he stood before his seat.

“Speak, Captain,” Vittorio said. His voice was less authoritative and commanding than Emidio had expected. It had weight, ce’rtainly, but it belied his age.

“I have come to announce that the last known giant in Sicily is dead,” Emidio rose and stated proudly, not only for the Tagus but for the entire gathered assembly. “It was slain two days ago by men under my command. We may now live without fear of more giants coming down from the mountain.”

There was a round of applause through the room, and the Tagus rose to take Emidio’s hand.

“Very well done, Captain,” He said. “You and your men are to enjoy the celebration, by order of the magistrates of Syracuse.”

“It will be my pleasure, Tagus, Emidio said with a smile, taking Vittorio’s hand to shake.

Soon the hall had descended into idle conversation as the other captains and magistrates chatted amongst themselves. Although the food presented to them was of the finest quality, the celebrating here was more subdued, and part of Emidio wished to simply join his friends in the party outside the palace. He was only recently promoted, after all, and didn’t know any of the magisters or captains beyond reputation. The Tagus had turned to speak to Brigida on his other side, so Emidio walked into the crowd, awkwardly standing by himself save for the occasional kind regard or word of thanks from the magisters he passed.

“A fine accomplishment, well done,” Came a smooth feminine voice from behind him. He turned and came face-to-face with a very attractive woman looking him over. Her dress was a deep series of grays and mauves, her hair dark, and her eyes a shimmering and unnatural pink-violet color.

“Thank you,” Emidio said. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

“You may call me Cornelia,” She said, and Emidio tried to not let his surprise appear on his face.

Cornelia “Gorgon’s Eyes” Fausti was a…colorful figure in the news. She was a mage, one of the last few remaining mages in the government, and was infamous both for being such and for being a turncoat. She had passed information to the resistance shortly before the revolution at the promise of amnesty and a place in the new government. Her reward for betraying the government had been a cushy job as a city magistrate, free from the persecution of mages rampant in the city.

“A pleasure, Magister,” Emidio bowed his head.

“Now, now, I said to call me Cornelia,” She stepped closer. “So tell me about these giants? How big do they get?”

“Anywhere from five to ten meters tall,” Emidio said. “Most of the biggest were killed during the Roman invasion of Etna.”

“Ah yes, the Romans,” Cornelia said. “They certainly do know how to make an entrance.”

“Well, they say that Roman girl played a large role in defeating the Dragon,” Emidio said. “But I was outside the city when that happened.”

“I’ve heard similar stories,” Cornelia said. “But only the Tagus and a few others know what really happened. We seem to be on decent terms with Rome at least.”

“Well, I always thought it was foolish to make human enemies when there are monsters at the gates.”

“Oh? But what about the revolution then?”

“Well…that was different of course,” Already he was beginning to dislike talking to Cornelia. He felt like he was being cornered. “All I know is Rome never gave us a reason to fight them.”

“Word has it they took artifacts from Moutn Etna,” Cornelia said. “Certainly a…provocative move.”

“It’s not like we controlled Etna anyway,” Emidio shrugged.

“I suppose not,” Cornelia was swift to change tack. “So tell me, are the giants truly gone? I mean they came out of nowhere, couldn’t they do the same again?”

“Hypothetically maybe,” Emidio said. “I don’t pretend to understand where giants came from. But the reason they were such a menace is because they became holed up in large numbers in their giant camps. One or two wandering giants is a nuisance, and one that’s not too hard to get rid of if you know what you’re doing.”

“Interesting,” Cornelia said. “Quite a confident statement.”

“Well we’ve gotten…very good at giant slaying,” Already Emidio was glancing around, looking for an excuse to get away. He disliked how close she was standing, and the color of her eyes was…unnerving.

As he glanced around, he saw a younger woman, dressed in a long blue dress, empty glass in hand as she stood slightly apart from the crowd with a bored expression on her face. As he watched, a pair of laughing men walked past her, one casually knocking into her with enough force to knock the glass from her hand and send it shattering across the ground. A few heads turned at the sound of breaking glass, but they soon all quickly turned away as the woman bent down to begin scooping the shattered remnants together.

“Umm…p-pardon me,” Emidio said as he turned from Cornelia and walked towards the young woman, though he could still feel her piercing eyes on his back. He thought for a moment about confronting the pair, but judging by the bored expression on the woman’s face, she wouldn’t be the type to appreciate the gesture. Instead, he bent down to help her pick up the glass.

“Please stop,” She said, her voice wasn’t pleading, more annoyed. “Believe me, it’s for your own good.”

“Well, guess that’s my problem then,” Emidio said before offering her a smile. “I’m not the one making a scene.”

He’d meant it sarcastically, and while she passed him an annoyed glance there was the slightest tug of a smile at her lips, enough to tell him she at least got the humor. He didn’t stop helping her until the glass was gathered and a servant had come up to help them dispose of it.

“Now, trust me,” She said, wiping down her dress where it had been near the floor. “It’s much more advantageous to be seen with snake eyes over there than with me.”

“Well, I’ll take your word for it, but I’d rather not,” Emidio said. “Snake Eyes is right…”

“Ya, woman’s a gorgon in more ways than one,” The woman said before looking him over. “Oh, you’re the new captain, the giant-slayer.”

“People keep saying that,” Emidio said. “But I didn’t kill the last giant. That was a friend of mine, one of my lieutenants. He’s probably outside partying.”

“Then he’s getting what he deserves,” She said. “Much more fun out there.”

“Seems to be,” Emidio said before extending a hand. “Emidio,” He introduced himself. “I never caught your name.”

“Believe me you have,” She said. “Just not from me.”

“Well…still I’d like to know,” He said.

The woman sighed. “Lana. My name is Lana Drago.”

“…Ah,” Emidio went quiet. “The…”

“The Daughter of the Dragon, yes,” Lana said. “You’re free to return to the crowd before they find you tainted by association.”

Emidio frowned. “Look, I don’t intend to make a habit of coming here that often.”

“Lucky you,” said Lana. “Some of us have to be here, whether they like it or not.”

“I’m surprised you’re here at all,” Emidio said. “Given the Tagus…”

“Tagus Vittorio killed my father,” Lana said. “he also killed a cruel despot and a tyrant. I’m not here for that. I’m here for the mages of Sicily.”

“The mages?” Emidio asked.

“Yes, believe it or not, when my father died the mages didn’t all just vanish into the night. Dozens were killed in a pogrom, regardless of allegiance. The rest of them, myself included, are Sicily’s newest ‘untouchables’.”

“Well…” Emidio was out of his depth here. He didn’t know much about mages or politics, and now he found himself in a quagmire of both. “Maybe they…”

“Maybe they deserve to be marginalized after treating non-mages that way?” Lana asked venomously. Emidio wasn’t sure if he wanted to be talking with her or with Cornelia less. He decided to stick it out here. Lana at least appeared to be genuine.

“N-no I wouldn’t say that,” Emidio sighed. “I don’t have a low opinion of mages.”

“Let me guess,” Lana said. “Not all mages are bad, some of them like Cornelia sold out their fellows for the new regime. Is that it?”

“No,” Emidio spoke more stubbornly this time. “I don’t have a low opinion of mages because a mage saved my life.”

Lana opened her motuh to speak before closing it again. “…Can’t say I’ve heard that before.”

“Well…I’ll be honest, they weren’t Sicilian,” he said. “It was when the revolution was underway. I was far outside the city, pinned down and trapped by two giants and their pet drake, normally they would have turned me into a smear along the countryside but…out of nowhere came this woman. She didn’t even seem real at the time, all armor and whirling cape and she came down from the sky no less.”

“Seriously?” Lana asked. “Was this a mage or an angel?”

“Well, she did have the flaming sword,” Emidio smiled. “I’ve never seen someone move like she did. She was just human but she carved through all three monsters like she’d trained for it. She helped me onto my feet and introduced herself. She was Hildegard Jazheil, a battle mage from Rome.”

“Ah yes…one of the Roman mages,” Lana nodded. “I met her sister.”

“Well, until that point I’d only heard stories of mages killing citizens and setting themselves up as tyrants. But Hildegard showed me Rome’s army…and it was a real army, of normal people with swords and shields, and she wasn’t ruling them, she was an auxiliary. It was the first time I saw mages and non-mages working together and it worked…amazingly well. I don’t say this often, but the Romans broke the back of the giants in Sicily. If they hadn’t sieged Etna we’d have been fighting off giants for four more years.”

“So you’d say it was effective.”

“It was nothing short of amazing,” Emidio said. “And…well I won’t lie I admired her for more than fighting skill but you tell me you think mages and non-mages can work together, I’ll say I agree every day. I’d walk into battle with a mage, because I’ve seen how well it can work.”

“Well,” Lana said. “You and I might have a lot to talk about, Captain Emidio.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 17

October 3rd, 2024

“So what exactly are we doing here again?” Asha asked as she huddled at the edge of a walled compound beside Eli and Leyla.

“I told you,” Eli said quietly. “I think there’s something…bad going on around here.”

The incredulity on Leyla’s face needed to be seen to be believed.

“Bad?” He repeated. “Ya, I can think of about two hundred things off hand that are bad about this entire godforsaken city. You want to be a little more specific?”

Leyla turned to look at Asha. “Where did you find this guy again?”

“Just…trust him,” Asha said. “But please, Eli, if you can be a bit more specific?”

“It’s like…this bad tingling on the back of my neck. I don’t get it often,” Eli said. “Maybe you can feel it too, Asha?”

“Hmmm…”

Asha concentrated, closing her eyes as she tried to feel the power in the gentle air around her. She still needed to be cautious. As Leyla had warned her countless times there was too much at risk to brazenly use her powers in the open. But this, at least, should be enough to see if she could feel what Eli felt.

Asha shivered as something chilled in the air. It was not something that could be adequately described by her normal senses, but it was like the smell of rot and burning copper, or the sight of an optical illusion the brain was constantly trying to define. It was disorienting and unpleasant, a feeling a bit like vertigo.

“Yes, he’s right…there’s something nearby,” Asha said. “And it’s not one of Shadiya’s.”

“Well then, I guess we have our work cut out for us,” Leyla sighed. “You any good in a fight, Eli?”

“No,” Eli shook his head nervously. “Not at all.”

“Then you stay back,” He ordered. “Follow us and let us do the fighting, if things get hairy you get down. Got it?”

“Understood,” He nodded rapidly.

“What’s the plan?” Asha asked, to which Leyla only grinned.

“Give ‘em the usual? It’s been a while since we stormed a monster hole.”

“We should probably try to be a little subtle,” Asha frowned. “Stealthier than the usual.”

“Fine,” Leyla rolled his eyes. “Just keep that bow ready.”

“Y-you’re just going to kill these people?” Eli asked nervously.

Leyla frowned. “Eli, get a pair of eyes, will you? Do you know what this place is?”

“Well…no, not really. But-“

“But nothing,” Leyla cut him off. “Take a second look.”

Eli peeked through the gate into the compound. Past the wall was a large low building sprawled over the yard, surrounded by a few smaller satellite buildings. The structures were all unmarked and deliberately non-descript, though clearly not a residence. The windows were small with all curtains drawn, and the entire place was regularly patrolled by men in black uniforms, the silver letters “URIEL” emblazoned on their backs.

“O-oh…” said Eli. “I see what you mean.”

“Not even getting into how many people URIEL operatives have killed,” Leyla said, pulling his sheathed sword from his back. “Anything they’re hiding under that level of security can’t be good.”

“So what’s the plan?” Eli asked.

“You stay here for now,” Asha said. “Leyla and I will clear the yard and open the gate for you. If something goes wrong, you run like hell, okay? No trying to be a hero.”

“Right. Of course,” Eli nodded. “…good luck.”

Leyla smiled. “Ready Asha?”

“Ready,” Asha nodded.

“Then get to it.”

With ease Asha scaled the three-meter wall, not even needing her wings as she boosted herself to the top. In a second her bow was in her hand as an arrow materialized along the bow string. In one swift motion, she drew it back and released, and across the yard from her a URIEL patrolman fell silently to the ground.

One by one more arrows flew out across the yard like quiet birds. Asha’s eyes flying over the open space for any trace of movement. Another guard fell, his companion reeling wildly, mouth opening to yell, only for a second arrow to fly through his throat and send him falling limply to the ground.

“Well done,” Leyla hopped onto the wall beside her before sliding down, drawing his sword. “I’ll clean up, you let him in.”

As Leyla disappeared into the darkness, Asha quietly slid the gate open enough for Eli to slip through. He looked at the fallen bodies of the guards nervously as he walked in.

“Was all of this really necessary.”

“Look, now is not the time,” Asha said. “When you’re on the mission you keep your head straight and forward. Understood?”

“Yes,” Eli nodded more firmly as he straightened himself up.

A minute later Leyla returned, wiping down the blade of his sword.

“Two in the back,” Leyla said. “Clear now.”

“Good,” Asha nodded. “But if they have this much tech then there are probably cameras too. Which means we don’t have much time.”

The three of them rushed the front door, Eli slightly behind the other two as they threw the double doors open. Hardly a few seconds later a low alarm began to blare inside the building, echoing down the clean white halls as the sounds of warnings and rushing feet filled the area.

“Seems we’re doing this the hard way,” Leyla smiled, the sword in his hands bursting into flames.

Asha sighed. “We always seem to.”

The time for subtlety had ended. As guards rounded the corner, guns raised, a pair of massive blue-gold wings sprouted from Asha’s back, her entire body glowing with an aura of white light. Beside her, the flames of Leyla’s sword had spread to wreathe his entire body.

The guards opened fire, only for their bullets to be harmlessly deflected to the sides by Asha’s divine aura or destroyed against Leyla’s burning skin. Physics had little to do with it, the power of modern weapons waned against the supernatural, and Asha and Leyla were far from ordinary humans.

The URIEL guards apparently knew this as well, as they abandoned their guns and rifles for long combat knives and reinforced metal clubs as the ones in the back radio’d in for backup against the new intruders. In a staggered wave, they charged the group.

The first of them hit the ground in moments as Asha raised her bow and her arm flew over the string, each arrow felling one of the guards while Leyla got close enough to engage. The guards were skilled with knives, but Leyla was much faster, much stronger, and had the advantage in reach not to mention simply getting close to him was like grabbing hold of a bonfire.

The guards fell back and retreated, giving the pair of them a minute to catch their breath as Eli caught up to them.

“Here,” Leyla handed him one of the knives, but Eli didn’t take it from his fire-wreathed hand.

“What? The fire won’t burn you,” She said.

“It’s not that…” Eli said. “I’m sorry but…I’m a pacifist.”

“…oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!” Leyla put his hand to his forehead. “Seriously just…oh forget it. Don’t fall behind!”

The three of them set off again deeper into the facility. Around each corner was another group of guards, all of whom had quickly abandoned their guns as word got out and assaulted them in close quarters combat. Asha tried to be selective with her targets, only shooting with her arrows the ones that charged them while allowing those retreating to flee.

Among the running guards the spotted a scrawny-looking man dressed in a white lab coat trying to get the black-suited patrolmen to defend him as they left him behind. Before he got far, Leyla had him by the collar, burning the white lab coat though leaving his flesh unharmed, though proximity to his intense heat could not have been comfortable.

“Seems we caught a lab rat,” Leyla said. “Good.”

“I won’t tell you anything!” The scientist shouted, even as his eyes went wide with fear at the sight of the pair of them. “Not a thing!”

“Look,” Asha sighed. “We don’t want to hurt you…well we kind of do but we’re better than that. We just want you to tell us what’s at the bottom of this place. What are you people studying?”

“This is a biomedical institute!” The scientist shouted.

“He’s lying,” Asha said. “Crank up the heat.”

She could see the man sweat as the burning aura around Leyla intensified. If it weren’t for his control over the raging fire spirit within him, the scientist likely would have been reduced to a scorched skeleton.

“I-I don’t know!” He shouted, straining to pull himself away. “They wouldn’t tell me where the research samples came from!”

“What samples?” Leyla asked. “What were you studying?”

“I just said I don’t know!” He shouted. “But…b-but I know…it wasn’t human.”

“Where is it being kept?” Asha said. “Tell us and you walk out.”

“Lowest levels!” He said. “B-behind a bunch of vaults. No one can open it without clearance.”

“And no one,” Leyla said. “Is precisely who you saw tonight. Got it?”

The scientist nodded, still clearly terrified.

Leyla dropped him unceremoniously and they moved on at speed, keeping a quick pace to avoid getting pinned down. Ahead of them, the doors for an emergency staircase marked a way down, and with a single might kick Asha knocked it off its hinges, sending the heavy metal door tumbling down the stairs with the three of them just behind.

The facility went deeper than they had expected. There were more than eight levels to the stair system, and the last three were blocked off by reinforced doorways demanding clearance codes and other security measures. But a combination of superheated air and resonating divine energy was enough to blow out most of the security barriers, though it left a long rail behind them.

“We need to be out of here and quick,” said Leyla. “Or else they’re going to trap us down here.”

“Yes,” Asha nodded. “And I already hated being underground.”

“Makes two of us,” said Leyla.

They at last came to the very bottom of the emergency stairwell, and as they blasted the door in they found a vault door waiting for them. Unlike the others this was no simple door with locks and hinges, but built like a reinforced bank vault over two meters in height.

“Wow…” Asha said. “Think we can break it?”

“Only one way I see to find out.”

Both of them pressed their hands to the cold steel of the vault door. Slowly a low whirr began to build that was almost imperceptible among the sirens and the flashing lights that rumbled through the metal under their fingers. The great riveted seems of the vault door began to glow, the metal vibrating as the massive internal mechanisms were shaken apart, softened by the glowing heat to break and snap as the pair of them poured more and more power into the destabilizing bank vault.

Finally, with a loud snap of metal and thud of broken parts falling free the vault door swung partially open, enough for the three of them to slip inside.

Behind the vault door was a large circular chamber. The walls were covered in all manner of advanced-looking scientific equipment and long tubes and wires hung down from every surface to cover the floors.

At the center of the room was a large circular chamber of glass or transparent plastic, brightly lit from above with nothing in it save for a stark white floor and a single figure seated in the center. As Leyla and Asha went up to the edge of the chamber, the figure raised its head to look at them.

The second its pale green eyes met Asha’s she felt something violent and sharp run through her essence. It was like staring at something every facet of her being wished to reject, which made it all the stranger that the figure looked almost perfectly mundane. They were thin-faced, androgynous with chalk white skin and black hair, dressed in what looked like a white straightjacket. But there was no odd detail, no monstrous feature to them.

Asha turned to look at the others, and could see the mixed horror and confusion on their faces.

“What…is it?” Asha asked.

The figure’s mouth opened, and a voice came through from a speaker in the room to let them hear.

“I am what you might call a demon,” They said. “My name is Constance U. Smith. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Blood Gods

October 2nd, 2024

“So we’re viewing another memory?” Cat asked, walking alongside Gisela like an apparition.

They were following the two figures of the younger Gisela and her new companion, Noemi.

“Yes, though this is a few weeks separated from what we last saw,” Nodded Gisela. “Noemi and I had been travelling together for some time at this point.”

As they watched, following silently down the thick jungle trail, Noemi stepped lightly onto the high top of a fallen log before turning back to the younger Gisela.

“Come on, sidekick! Can’t fall too far behind now.”

Cat couldn’t help but smirk as she passed her Gisela a sidelong glance. “Sidekick? Really?”

Gisela chose not to get riled. “It was a term of endearment. We both knew I was nowhere near her level, so she took the role of my mentor.”

Cat kept grinning as they followed, but she never stopped watching how the pair in the memory moved.

The past few weeks had not been kind on Gisela. The once somewhat bigger girl had burned off a lot of her excess curve and not in a healthy fashion. Her face looked fairly gaunt and her limbs were thin from a mixture of stress, constant dirty travel, lack of sleep, and borderline starvation. It was a look Cat was thankful she had never worn, but one she’d seen many times over the past few years on the faces of tired refugees seeking shelter. And it only made it harder to watch knowing that from what she knew of Gisela there would be no reprieve. There was no Rome to find here.

Noemi and Gisela stopped for a brief break in a clearing, with Noemi dividing up their rations in the form of an old piece of jerky and a mouthful of water which Gisela hastily devoured. Noemi was more restrained, seeming to savor the water and chew thoughtfully on the dried meat as she looked over a water-stained and torn old highway map.

“We shouldn’t be far now,” Noemi said, glancing around at their surroundings. Beneath their feet was the remnants of an old paved road or highway, but beyond a couple of meters of clearance the trees and undergrowth had grown so thick and so rapidly that it was almost impenetrable. Even walking a little ways beyond the safety of a trail could easily make someone hopelessly lost.

“If I’m reading this map right, there’s a town just a kilometer ahead.”

“And if you’re not right?” Asked Gisela wearily.

“Well, “Noemi smiled ruefully. “That’s part of what makes it an adventure. Now come on, packs up and we can move out, sidekick.”

Gisela groaned but did as she was told, pulling her pack onto her shoulders as she got back on her feet to walk with Noemi further down the path. It seemed this time at least Noemi had been right, as the path soon opened up into a view of a small village amongst copses of trees, with large ones even sprouting up from within houses as their canopies spread over shattered roofs. It was certainly the remains of a small town, but it also seemed completely uninhabited.

“Tch, another ghost town…” Noemi muttered. “Where is everyone…did they all leave? Spirits couldn’t have kidnapped them all somewhere…could they?”

Gisela stuck close to Noemi, looking nervously around as the taller girl muttered to herself in contemplation.

“I-if there’s no one around…” Gisela said. “M-maybe we should move on.”

“Not yet,” Noemi shook her head. “Come on, we need to search these houses and gather anything we can.”

Cautiously the pair began to move through the derelict houses, searching them one by one for food, fresh water, or anything else that might make their survival a little easier. There was precious little to find, however, and the best they did were a few tins of forgotten food, some clothes to be torn up for bandages or extra layers, and a well that had long since gone dry.

What they did find, however, was evidence of what had happened to the towns occupants. Doors on most of the houses had been violently kicked in, Furniture everywhere was tossed aside and broken. There were signs of violent struggle everywhere from shattered windows to bullet holes in the walls. And all of them pointed to a mass of people being dragged or forced at a march out of town by someone else.

“Who did this…?” Gisela asked quietly.

Noemi, however, was walking to the town square. The remains of a ruined church stood at the front of the square. A fire had destroyed it down to the scorched bones of its beams and a single remaining wall. Painted on the wall itself with tar black paint was a large circle, nondescript and entirely black save for what looked like a crudely drawn clawed foot at its base.

“I don’t know…” Noemi said. “But it wasn’t spirits. This was done by people.”

“Why though…” Gisela said. “This is us versus them. Spirits are the enemy, not people.”

“People are always going to be the enemy of people,” Noemi sighed. “And as for why…I think this symbol might have something to do with it.”

“Do you know what it means?” Gisela asked.

“No,” Noemi shook her head. “But…if you’re at war with spirits…then it might be tempting to throw your lot in with the biggest spirits around.”

“Biggest spirits?” Gisela asked.

“The kind of things we’d call gods,” Noemi nodded. “Worship for protection…or maybe they want more than worship…”

Noemi’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of large boots passing through rubble. Gisela whipped her head to look around but Noemi was quicker, drawing her quickly into the scorched ruins of the church to find cover as a group of people rounded the corner into the square.

Cat watched the group approach, and it was one of the strangest looking groups she’d ever seen. They were a mix of men and women, all tall and tense, though with the haggard look of survival on their faces. They were dressed in a mix of camouflage and old world combat fatigues with thick hiking boots. But many of them had been decorated with extra and bizarre flare, on some were large pieces and pelts of jaguar fur, with spot-like markings all over their gear and massive cat skulls or sharpened teeth adorning their helmets and necklaces. Others were bedecked in long brown eagle feathers, tied to their ornaments and clothes to resemble wings and dark plumage. About half of them were carrying guns with bags of ammunition around their waists. The others were carrying spears or what looked to be long maces or axes with heads and edges of hewn obsidian.

“We already came back to check on this place,” One of them complained loudly. “There’s nothing left and the longer we stay the further the prey gets away.”

“There were reports of people of interest in the area,” Another said. “Two of them alone. We bring them in we get rewarded like kings.”

Gisela shivered, a low whine of fear rising from her lungs before being sharply stifled by Noemi’s hand.

“Alright, spread out but stay in twos,” one of them called. “Not about to be caught off-guard again!”

Slowly the group scattered in pairs, with one gun and one spear to a pair as they picked their way through the town ruins. One group moved closer to the church, not noticing them as Noemi slowly drew her revolver from its holster, trying to line up the best shot she could. As she adjusted her position, however, her foot caught on a piece of wood that slid across the ground, loudly enough to catch the attention of the two armed patrollers as it scraped across the dusty tile.

“Hey, you hear that?” One asked.

“It’s a rundown old church, things falling apart.”

“Ya but we should…you know check it out, right?”

“Look, I think this was a waste of time to begin with. If we check a building every time a rat farts in it we’re never going to leave.”

“Ya but…what if it’s something?”

The patroller sighed. “Fine, will it get you to shut up?”

“Ya, I just wanna do a quick check.”

“Fine, let’s do a quick check.”

Cat saw the young Gisela shiver as they stepped closer, boots crunching over ashen wood as they neared closer and closer to their hiding spots, Noemi tensely clutching her revolver as she prepared to leap from cover and fire, knowing that it would bring the whole group down on them.

“Hey,” One of the patrollers called. “Do you-“

His words were cut short as the brief whistle of an arrow sang through the air, and in an instant the long shaft of a white-feathered arrow was rising from the man’s neck as he fell to the ground.

“Huh? Wha-What the-!” The second man turned just in time to see his companion fall, but before he could even raise his gun another arrow caught him full in the chest and dropped him to the ground.

Noemi and Gisela both poked their head out from cover, and heard shouting from elsewhere in town. Several of the patrollers were running back, though not all of them as others left their partners behind where they’d presumably fallen. Several more of them were felled by white arrows before they could regroup, and in desperation the last of them ran for the church in a blind panic for cover. As they approached, however, Noemi stood up, brandishing her revolver as three loud bangs echoed through the ruined town and she shot each of them in turn, one after the other.

“Who’s out there!?” Noemi shouted, chambering the next round.

For a moment things were silent before a figure emerged from the town. This one was entirely unlike the patrollers, dressed in plain but rugged street clothes. His long bow was slung over his shoulder along with a quiver of white-feathered arrows. Despite his dark tanner skin, his hair was a feathered platinum blonde, almost white to the point it looked dyed. As he came into view, another figure ran up to join him, a young girl looking around fourteen, meekly hiding at his side and with no weapons in hand.

Noemi didn’t lower her revolver.

“Who are you? Why did you kill them?”

“My name is Anton,” The man said, his hands raised to show he came in peace. “I killed them because they are raiders, kidnappers, and murderers.”

“Well we already know you’re one of those things,” Noemi said.

“As are you,” Anton nodded. “I didn’t kill those last three.”

“Who’s that?” Noemi gestured with her head to the girl.

“This is Tess, she’s my charge. We mean no harm.”

“…My name’s Noemi,” she said, finally holstering the gun, but not clipping it shut. “I’m travelling with someone as well.”

With a nod, Gisela came nervously out of cover to join them.

“Th-that was some amazing…arrow-shooting.” Gisela said, trying to calm the tension in the air. “Really!”

“Thanks,” Anton smiled warmly. “It was one of many gifts I received from my patron.”

“Patron?” Noemi asked nervously. “You work for someone.”

“More like…something,” Anton said. “I serve a god, one of the great spirits of this land, and one who battles against atrocities like this. Many spirits are demanding blood as payment for protection, but my patron is far more benevolent.”

“And which spirit is that?” Noemi asked, and Catarina saw the fingers of her gun hand twitch.

“I serve the feathered serpent, Quetzacoatl,” He said. “And I work to protect those who senselessly endanger the people of this country in the name of sacrifices to other gods.”

“Well, I guess we agree on that,” Noemi said. “Any problems with us joining in?”

“None at all,” Anton smiled as the two groups moved together.

“H-hello,” Gisela smiled nervously to Tess. “I’m Gisela.”

“I’m Tess,” The younger girl smiled back cheerily, she was round faced and bright eyed with short and wild dark hair, dressed in a yellow blouse with tan traveling pants.

As Cat and the older Gisela watched them go, Cat turned to her. “Seems the group got a bit bigger, that must have helped, right?”

Gisela didn’t answer, and Cat saw she was staring with a hard intensity at the group, her eyes particularly lingering on the two girls in the back. On her and on Tess.

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 16

October 1st, 2024

“You’ll be staying here for now,” Cat said to Gisela, her hands on her hips and a frown on her face.

“I must say this is quite a bit lovelier than what I had expected,” Gisela said, eyes looking around the sitting room as they entered.

“It’s my family’s ancestral home, of course it’s nice,” Cat said, moving her arms to fold them over her chest. “But don’t get comfy. This place was warded to the gills by a half-dozen mages, including Albion Nassar so you’re not setting a foot off this property.”

“I’ve no intention to,” Gisela said. “And I will say…thank you, Catarina.”

Cat blinked, taken aback “Er…for what?”

“You didn’t have to do this. I could still be in my cell, and there was no reason to offer the Aldobrandini manor as a place to stay.”

“It was open,” Cat tried to shrug it off. “And the place is much more magically secure than most. You couldn’t escape or get where you weren’t wanted even if you tried.”

“I imagine a number of rooms are off-limits,” Gisela said. “Fair enough, I have no reason to try and test my boundaries. I’m in this city for you, after all.”

“Right, me,” Cat said, still a little apprehensive. “We can do our training here as well. Do Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays work?”

“My schedule is overwhelmingly free,” Gisela said. “I’m sure we can make that work.”

“Good,” Cat took a seat on the couch and Gisela moved to sit gently in an armchair across from her, legs folded and hands in her lap.

The difficulty of finding a place for Gisela had not been easy to overcome. There were not only her own abilities to take into consideration, but also the response of any neighbors she might have. Rome was a crowded city and while Gisela’s face was not well-known, if who she was and where she was living got out there could be a riot. She had needed to be sent somewhere isolated, somewhere that could be easily wrapped in a network of wards and blessings that even Gisela, with her god-given gifts, would not be able to escape. So, it had been Catarina who had offered her home. It had a multitude of spare rooms and with a reason to visit, Cat could have a reason to begin cleaning the old place up with Alice’s help.

Of course, exile in a comfortable manor was not Gisela’s only punishment. Her training of Catarina was considered part of her community service, but on top of that Pontifex Nora had requested the use of her knowledge and her lingual skills as well. Already piles of boxes full of books were filling the entrance hall of the Aldobrandini Manor. Nora had been amassing an enormous library of all the books she could fine on ancient lore, religious cults and practices, and most things with any hint of the occult. After being scanned to ensure they didn’t contain any actual magic, they were packed up and shipped for Gisela to read and interpret, as well as aid Nora in creating a new system for organization. It was a light punishment as far as Cat was concerned, but as Gisela had pointed out she had committed no real crime in Rome other than assaulting Aurelio and Elisa. The blame for the Battle of Black Sun feel squarely on her patron, Itzpapalotl and her mad cultists. Most of the cultists had been executed or imprisoned with much more stringent punishments, and without her worshippers the goddess herself had all but vanished from Rome.

“So about the training,” Cat said. “I take it you’re going to show me more of those memories of yours later?”

“When I get my thoughts in order, yes,” Gisela nodded. “These are memories I have tried very hard not to think about for the past. They take some time to get in order and ensure I haven’t…altered them.”

“So…this girl,” Cat said after a brief pause. “Noemi…your memory ended right after you met her.”

“It did…it’s difficult to think about,” Gisela said. “I needed time just…even imagining her face was hard for me.”

“She was important to you, huh?”

“She was…important, yes,” Gisela said. “As were all the others you’ll see in my memories.”

“You can just tell me,” Cat said. “If it’s that hard and if we need to focus elsewhere.”

“No,” Gisela shook her head. “There’s more reason to it than just needing to get things off my chest or show you what matters to me. It is important that you know what you’re facing out there, beyond Nidhoggr. There are other things in this new world that demand a hero’s attentions. I want you to do again what you did when you faced Nidhoggr. To see what evil is and stare it in the eye.”

Cat shivered, her mind going back to those massive pale blue eyes of Nidhoggr staring through her body and into her soul. “Alright, I get it,” Cat said. “But what else will we be doing.”

“Well it is a good thing that the Pontifex sent us so much reading material,” Gisela said. “While I’m doing my duty translating, I will be creating summaries and translations for you to read and giving you lessons on their content. As has been said before, the most important thing is to know thy enemy.”

“Right,” Cat nodded. “But there can’t be that much literature on Nidhoggr, can there?”

“Not as much as I’d like specifically,” Gisela said. “But we will be looking at all Primordials. Typhon, Apep, Tiamat, Nidhoggr, and several others. They are all the same class of being and share common traits, so that is what you will be studying.”

“Alright,” Cat nodded. “What else?”

“Small-scale battlefield tactics,” Gisela said. “You’re good with a sword from what I hear and I imagine Miss Jazheil is teaching you more. But you will need to learn how and where to apply that strength.”

“I don’t think I follow,” Cat said.

“Alright let me put it this way,” Gisela said patiently. “You, right now, are a knife. You are a well-forged and impressive weapon. But having a good knife does not win a knife fight. You need to know when and where to thrust, otherwise no matter how good your knife is you’ll only ever scratch their arm when you need to get that first and most strike to the heart.”

“Ah…” Cat nodded. “So knowing how best to move on a battlefield?”

“Yes, and not just you,” Gisela said. “The destruction of a Primordial in the field will require armies, and you will need close allies.”

“Well I can rely on Hilde,” Cat said. “And Rosa I guess.”

“Not just people strong in a fight. You need skilled people to get as broad a range of assets as you possibly can.”

“Right,” Cat nodded. “A wide skillset for any situation.”

‘Good, you’re catching on,” Gisela said. “Start taking those considerations into account, as well as the fact that anyone who joins you will likely die in the effort.”

“Right…” Cat frowned. Gisela had a way of sobering any kind of heroic buzz, even though she knew it wasn’t unfounded. While the thought of gathering her friends and family in an attack on Nidhoggr was spirit-lifting, she knew that recruiting them for that would both be pulling them away from Rome’s primary army, and putting their lives at extreme risk. It was not something to be taken lightly.

“You will also need to learn how to endure more than just physical pain,” Gisela said. “Nidhoggr will attack you on all fronts, body, mind, and soul. It will inflict pain upon your spirit and lash your mind with fear. This isn’t rosy language either, Nidhoggr is a Primordial and has access to a deeper form of magic than most mages can even approximate. Able to directly and deliberately tap into your human primal fears.”

“What do you mean primal fear?” Cat asked, recalling just how much her encounter with Nidhoggr had shaken her over the past few months.

“Primordials are chaos, but that doesn’t quite do them justice,” Gisela said. “When the chaos serpents were overthrown by the gods, cast beneath the world by the great powers of the pantheon, it was symbolic of the conquest of civilization. Zeus is the fledgling Greek states that rose up out of the ash and smoke of the Primordial’s reign. Do you think it was simply the symptoms of their coming that caused civilization to collapse? The relationship is a symbiotic one. When the gods and man are triumphant, the Primordials are imprisoned and we exist in a relatively enlightened time of civilization.

But when the Primordials rule, as they rule now, that is when you can see them for what they are. They are the darkness that humans banished with fire. The fear of the night and the predator, the tooth, the claw, the hunter. So long as they control the world, so long as that chaos reigns, there will be nothing but war, darkness, and death as humans and gods do what they can to cling for survival.”

“Jeez, I get it, the pressure’s on,” Cat groaned. “I already knew my odds were long in trying to beat an unkillable dragon monster from before the dawn of time, but could you soften the blow a little?”

“No,” Gisela said. “Because I’m not choosing you for your personality or your skills. If I needed that I’d just kill Nidhoggr myself. No, I’m choosing you because your existence and a potential hero gives you a substantial handicap in this race. I’m not starting at zero with you.”

“You say that,” Cat said. “But are you really sure I’m even a hero you’re looking for? That I have this ‘aspect’ of me as you like to call it?”

“No, I’m not sure,” Gisela said bluntly. “In fact, I’m only around forty percent sure I’m right with you.”

“Wow, you’re terrible at reassuring people.”

“That’s the game we’re playing, Catarina,” Gisela said. “If you go in there thinking you’re going to succeed because you’re a hero then a hundred to one says Nidhoggr turns you to dust before you even get in sight of it. These are the highest stakes in human history. Get with the picture.”

“Ya well,” Cat grumbled. “Stop treating me like a child who doesn’t get it and start treating me like a goddamn adult. Maybe then we’ll get something done.”

“Alright then,” Gisela said. “Then think of this less like a class lesson and more like survival training. Start planning your resources and think…and I mean really think about what you’re doing and what you can use to your advantage. You don’t get marks for a passing grade, and I’ll need you to be an adult and take initiative on this. Everything you do, everything you learn, everything at your disposal must be assessed in this context ‘Can this help me against Nidhoggr?’”

“Right,” Cat nodded. Much as she disliked Gisela, she knew there was some truth to it. She had been regarding Gisela like one of her teachers, like Albion or Schehera or Hilde, when that wasn’t really her job. Gisela was more like a boot camp instructor, making her assess her way of thinking and how to achieve a singular goal. It was less about passing on knowledge and more preparing Cat for what was to come.

“Though I do want to clear one thing up,” Cat said. “You’re a guest in my house. Ya, you’re my mentor and instructor when it comes to killing Primordials…but you’re also a guest living under my hospitality.”

“Of course,” Gisela nodded simply. “During meals and other such time, I will be the pinnacle of politeness. I’m not unaccustomed to etiquette, as you can imagine.”

“Fine,” Cat said grumpily, wanting more than ever to find someone actually enjoyable to talk to. “Maybe with that in mind we won’t wind up killing each other within a week.”

“One can only hope,” Gisela said.

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa