The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 28

 

“So, when we got back to the city, Rosa, Torleif and I went to the training fields and met this new guy, Nicomede,” Cat said, cup of tea in her hand, sitting in the study of the Aldobrandini manor across from Gisela.

“Ah, yes, Nicomede, I’d received news of him,” Gisela said.

“What? How?” Cat asked suspiciously. “You’re not allowed to leave.”

“And I do not leave,” Gisela said. “Your friend, Alicia, passes news along when I manage to pull her into conversation.”

“Be nice to Alicia,” Cat gestured her half-full cup at Gisela, brow furrowed.

“I have no interest in manipulating her for some ulterior motive, I just like to get news.” Gisela said. “Going back to your story, I’m not surprised the northern champions are made of tougher stuff. They’ve had it much harder than you Romans.”

“I guess,” Cat said. “She’s still just a little kid though, and she was powerful but not…trained.”

“As is the case with an alarming number of you champions,” Gisela said smoothly, taking another drink. “Mmm good tea, my compliments to Scheherazade.”

“Well, I guess Rosa’s training with Capi nowadays, but what do you mean?” Cat asked. “Aurelio’s the best hunter in Rome!”

“Aurelio is still an amateur,” Gisela said coldly.

“He beat you,” Cat said.

“And I am one of the weakest and most bookish servants there is,” Gisela said. “Not all servants are created equal, and I am both far from my patron’s center of power and blessed with only the lightest of physical enhancements, and yet I very nearly beat Aurelio after soundly trouncing the homunculus.”

“Well, it’s not like there’s a place to train this stuff,” Cat said.

“Many abilities of a champion are easy to train, it simply requires the will and drive to surpass oneself. My compliments to Rosa for realizing this; have you been seeing improvement?”

“Well…not so much on the training field, we’re still about equal there,” Cat said, looking down into her tea. She remembered how Rosa had taken charge at Malcesine. Making and executing a plan on the fly as she’d helped lead the attack. “She’s gotten better at strategizing, I guess.”

“Understandable,” Gisela said. “The Wolf of Rome is much more conqueror than warrior, and I suspect she is trying to shift Rosa from a champion of Ares to a champion of Mars, a subtle yet distinctive difference.”

“So what do you think of Nicomede, from what you’ve heard?” Cat asked.

“What I’ve heard isn’t much,” Gisela said. “I can’t speak for his character or his fighting skills, but he is a man who lead a company of over a hundred through monster-ridden territory and over the Alps on the hope of finding allies. That takes a level of skill and a force of personality not to be underestimated.”

“Sure, but he said he should lead the attack on Nidhoggr!” Cat said, irritation slipping into her voice. “That’s so…”

“Presumptuous? Arrogant?” Gisela offered.

“Ya!” Cat said. “It’s so full of him to just try and take command like that.”

“Clearly it should be you,” Gisela said, her expression neutral.

Cat paused before another word could escape.

“…you’re testing me.”

“That is my job,” Gisela said dryly.

“Well…fine I’ll take the bait. Why shouldn’t I lead? You said it yourself, I’m the best-suited person there is to kill Nidhoggr.”

“Killing Nidhoggr and leading the force to do so are not necessarily the same task; in fact, it might be even more effective to have them separated.”

“It should be led by a Roman first of all,” Cat said.

“The legions certainly,” Gisela said. “But we are discussing the task force to kill Nidhoggr, a much smaller and more specialized group. One that, in all likelihood, will be a joint effort of many nations and free agents.”

“I feel like you’re just saying whatever will knock me down a peg,” Cat gritted her teeth. “Can you go even one conversation without deliberately being an ass?”

“Then allow me to be as blunt as possible,” Gisela said, lowering her tea. “I think you are unfit for command. You might have some ability to rally others to a cause but you do not understand how to inspire discipline.”

“Who would you pick?” Cat asked. “Just to get it out in the air.”

“Nicomede, once I had some time to evaluate his abilities,” Gisela said. “But his experience leading soldiers certainly outweighs yours. Rosaria is a good candidate as well.”

“Rosa? Seriously?” Cat asked. “Who else do you want to throw on the pile just to knock me down? Going to argue Torleif next?”

“Catarina this is hardly a personal attack,” Gisela scowled at her. “Nicomede has proven himself in at least one respect. And while Rosaria had…temperament issues from what I experienced, your reports and what little communication I am allowed paints someone who is rapidly maturing, not to mention that she is being trained by a wolf with access to several of history’s greatest military minds and centuries of experience.”

“I have Scheherazade,” Cat said. “And Albion training me as well. And I have you!”

“You have a font of knowledge certainly,” Gisela said. “But Scheherazade is first and foremost a storyteller. Her teachings require a narrative structure which, while useful, has its limits. Albion Nassar is teaching you magic, which you should do, but you and I have both agreed he is likely trying to manipulate you. As for me…well gods help you, you certainly do have me, and I’ll do all I can.”

“Why not Hildegard then?” Cat asked.

“Shall we go down the list?” Gisela asked sarcastically. “I haven’t exactly had the ability to psychoanalyze all of your friends and companions, so I need to make do on your stories, scattered reports, and what rare meetings I actually get. I believe either Rosaria or Nicomede would be most suited for the role.”

“Ugh, fine! Keep your opinions,” Cat stood up. “I’m heading back into town.”

“We still have progress to make,” Gisela said to her back as she turned from the room.

“I’ll be back tomorrow!” Cat shouted from the hall as she made for the door, making doubly sure the locks and seals on Gisela’s comfortable prison were in place before walking out the door.

Cat needed an actual friend she could talk to right now, and she kicked herself for having let Gisela drag her into a conversation like that. The dark-haired woman always looked to any opportunity to needle her. Why shouldn’t Cat lead a Nidhoggr-killing force? She was the one who had the best shot of killing Nidhoggr!

Fuming, Cat made her way back into the city, the sun settling into late afternoon as she wandered from the street into the tree-strewn greenery of the Roman Shrine Complex, soon following the sound of light humming on the wind to a young woman in robes of red and white sweeping the steps of the shrine.

“Hey, Megame,” Cat said, her voice coming out more tired than she meant it to.

“Welcome back, Cat-chan,” Megame smiled at her. “Can I get you anything, tea?”

“No, I’m fine,” Cat said. “Just someone to talk to.”

“Well, you always have me for that,” Megame smiled. “It’s what friends are for.”

“Just got in an argument with Gisela.”

“Ah it’s one of those days again. What about this time?”

“Commanding, and whoever’s going to be in charge of bringing down Nidhoggr.”

“Oh, I had a visitor about that the other day,” Megame smiled.

“Wait, who?” Cat asked.

“A young Grecian man, Nicomede. Very pretty and quite polite, bit of a charmer really,” Megame’s face reddened a little. “He was here looking for me, asking about the champions in the city interested in fighting Nidhoggr.”

“So he’s already getting started…He’s rushing pretty quickly.”

“Well, it was more asking for interest,” Megame said. “I told him to talk to you.”

“You did?” Cat asked.

“Of course,” Megame smiled. “You and Gisela are at the front of all this.”

“So what else did he say, or were you too busy swooning?” Cat said, shooting Megame a teasing smile.

“I don’t ‘swoon’, Cat-chan, at least not in public,” Megame smiled at her. “He told me a little about himself, asked about the shrine and Inari-sama, just small talk really. You should talk to him.”

“He told me he thinks he should lead an expedition to kill Nidhoggr.”

“Oh, I quite agree,” Megame said.

“Wait, what?” Cat practically did a double-take as she turned to look askance at Megame.

“Hmm?” Megame looked back at her. “He led a small army all the way here, he’s dedicated and powerful, and it’s not like he wants to lead the legions or anything.”

“But Megame, with what Gisela’s said and my sword don’t you think…”

“I think you are the best suited to kill Nidhoggr,” Megame nodded. “But Cat-chan, did you want to lead this expedition simply to be the leader of it, or do you believe you are the best suited for the role?”

“Er…” Cat paused before changing track. “Gisela also thinks Rosa could do it. Can you imagine that? Rosa?”

“Rosaria has been maturing a lot recently,” Megame said. “Even you’ve commented on it. She’s a lot less angry and violent than she was when I first arrived here. She even comes by now and then to talk, and she’s quite pleasant to chat with, if a bit…mm I think ‘brusque’ for my tastes?”

“Ya I guess she’s…matured a bit,” Cat remembered how Rosa had fought at Malcesine, and their conversations on the road as well. Compared to the angry redhead she’d met on the training fields months ago she was practically a new person. More restrained, kinder, smarter…

Megame seemed to notice something as she leaned in.

“I think, Cat-chan, you might have some other things to work out about yourself,” Megame smiled.

“Maybe I guess…”

There was a brief silence between them, Cat’s face slightly red as Megame simply smiled her usual serene smile, until a new voice interrupted them.

“Hey Megame, hey Cat.”

Cat turned to see Kara, Megame’s pale-skinned Valkyrie friend walking up to join them.

“Hey, Kara,” Cat nodded her as Megame greeted her with her usual upbeat. “Kara-chan.”

“We were just talking about Nicomede, you met him?” Cat asked.

“Oh, that womanly-looking guy Megame was swooning over the other day?” Kara asked.

“I do not swoon!”

“Ya, him,” Cat said, smiling as it was Megame’s turn to redden in the face.

“I saw him, haven’t chatted with him yet. And ya, shrine maiden, I’ve met a lot of maidens in my day and you swoon with the best of them.”

“Hmph!”

“Well what did you think of him?” Cat asked.

“I don’t go for guys prettier than me,” Kara said. “Just a personal policy.”

“I meant did he seem strong?”

“In what sense?” Kara asked. “I didn’t exactly arm wrestle the guy, but he had a pretty potent spiritual aura for a human. Comes with being a champion I guess.”

“R-right…” Cat had to remind herself now and then that Kara wasn’t human. Being a Valkyrie meant she was pure spirit. Stronger, faster, and much older than she looked. Gisela and Scheherazade had both warned her that underestimating a spirit’s power could get her killed, and that learning to fight the spirits Nidhoggr commanded was almost as crucial as learning to fight Nidhoggr itself.

“I think, Cat-chan, if you want a full measure of him, you should probably go talk to him again,” Megame said.

“Right…” Cat said. “I’ll try my best not to swoon.”

She smiled as Megame turned red again, and Kara gave her a light chuckle.

“I might head to the training fields after meeting Gisela tomorrow…” Cat said, thinking it over. “Actually…speaking of that…hey Kara?”

“Hmm?” Kara turned to look at her.

“You free for a little bit?”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Men of Thunder

 

“All I’m saying is that you Romans have had it a bit easy compared to the rest of the world,” Michail said, raising his glass to his lips to take another drink. “With this shield and all. The walk down south was like a picnic.”

“Watch it,” Lorenzo said. “That shield hasn’t been up all that long, and we had more than our fair share of problems before then. It’s one thing to move through the wilds, but in the center of a city, you’ve got nowhere to hide.”

“I get that, but still…”

Michail was one of the new Greeks that arrived under the command of Captain Nicomede, the Champion of Zeus. He was a bit wiry but pretty strongly built, and he still had his armor on though he left his shield by the door, as was standard policy in the local bars throughout Rome.

Lorenzo had been a Roman soldier since the first night of the Days of Revelation. He’d been there in the hectic first few weeks and had stayed during the mass exodus. He’d been a member of the Rangers, a legionnaire in Legio I Capitolina, and was on the short list for command of the rumored second legion.

Being friendly and good-natured soldiers who had met on the training fields, they did what most soldiers did in their free time, drink and talk up their respective service. In this case, both of them had noticed that only one free stool over was an attractive young woman, so they were being a bit louder than necessary.

“But you’ve never had to cross the Alps,” Michail said pointedly. “That’s another beast altogether.”

“From what I hear it’s not that bad, so long as you don’t try to bring elephants across,” Lorenzo smirked.

Nearby a brief exhale of breath disguising a chuckle from one stool over alerted them that the woman was listening in, though she kept her head down. She was tall, her brown hair tightly held with a few stray strands falling over her glasses, and an old tablet in her hands that she was quickly writing on, seemingly absorbed.

“And what horrors have you had to deal with, Roman?” Michail asked, still smiling.

“Well, a city full of people is like a dinner bell for monsters,” Lorenzo said. “Before the shield went up we had armies, and I do mean armies, of the undead along with a host of cacodaemons and monsters. I was in a party that killed a chimera once.”

“Oh ya? What kind of chimera?”

“Lion head. Impressive thing, at least until Hildegard shoved a sword through its brain.”

“Hildegard seems pretty popular,” Michail said. “And she’s not even a champion, right? One of those wizards?”

“Mages, we call them here,” Lorenzo said. “And yep, other than magic, she’s human to the root, just like her sister Cat.”

“Lot of women in charge here,” Michail smiled, his eyes sliding to the brunette nearby. “Must be something about Roman women.”

“I think it’s Capitolina, personally,” Lorenzo said. “Mother wolves bring out strong daughters. That said, your man isn’t exactly a masculine paragon, is he?”

“Who, Captain Nicomede?” Michail asked.

“Ya, that’s the one,” Lorenzo nodded.

“Heh, well there’s a bit of a saying going around. When it comes to Captain Nicomede, men want him and women want to be him.”

Lorenzo chuckled, before taking another swig of his drink.

“Truth be told, we didn’t have that high an opinion of him until the Alps,” Michail continued. “We thought he was a bit stuck up, but we ran with it because you just don’t turn down a blessing from Zeus, you know?”

“Alright, let’s have it then,” Lorenzo smiled.

 

The Alps were cold at high elevations, the nights were even colder.

A hundred men, all of them Greeks, all of them self-proclaimed soldiers, were huddled around each other as the sputtering light of their torches struggled in the howling wind and a frigid mix of rain and ice. It was mind-numbingly cold and they were all tired, but none of them dared to sleep.

They kept their shields and spears close, after hundreds of miles each man had become attached to his shield as if it were family. They were carefully maintained and cared for, as each of them had saved the life of its bearer on more than one occasion. All the shields bore the marks of the bearer’s home and city-state, as well as the unifying lightning bolt that tied them together as one unit, one team.

Their leader circled the perimeter of the dying light. Nicomede wasn’t particularly tall, and most of the men and a few of the women stood over him. But as they sat huddled around the dying fire, eyes looking out furtively into the night, Nicomede seemed to be two meters tall.

A shrill cry broke through the night, and they huddled closer, taking hold of spears and shields as they gathered around one another, eyes straining out into the darkness. Nicomede hefted his shield, pulling into line with them.

“Shields up!” he called out, and like a well-oiled machine they got into position, shields and spears rising into a bristling phalanx. Nicomede didn’t stand apart or behind, he was in the center and front of formation, shield and spear locked in with the rest as they pulled together.

As the monstrous cries echoed around them, Nicomede sent out the call and the edges of the phalanx pulled inwards until they stood in a solid circle with spears in all directions, a schiltron of shields and ready spears.

Slowly out of the darkness they appeared. Caocodaemons were the first, slipping out of the shadows with catlike bodies, moving slowly on silent paws with sharp fangs, their shadow bodies emaciated and their snouts filled with razor-sharp teeth.

“Hold yourselves!” Nicomede shouted as a shiver ran through the line. ”Remember that you are Zeus’ chosen, and that means tonight the monsters go hungry!”

Though the men were quiet, the shivering ceased. There was a sureness in their step as they kept their shields and spears raised. Michail had been next to Nicomede, partly covered by his shield, and had seen it all happen. He had watched as the monsters drew closer, and as something bigger began to edge out of the darkness just as the lights began to fade.

It was a lion, but like no lion he had ever seen. It was taller than horse at the shoulder, with fur the color of spun gold and a mane the color of bronze. Its eyes were red, and it had the oversized fangs of a sabertoothed cat that gleamed orange in the torchlight along with its iron-colored claws. It growled, and the deep throaty sound resonated through them, but Michail looked at Nicomede and the man didn’t even flinch.

“All of you!” Nicomede’s voice cut the wind and everyone could hear his voice. “You are in a shield wall; do you know what that means?”

Michail kept his shield raised, overlapping like scales with Nicomede’s shield and the shield of the man beside him.

“That means that you cover yourself and your brother or sister, and that they cover you!” Nicomede said. “No one stands apart and no one stands alone. I will stand in line beside each and every one of you, and I am not afraid. Do you think it’s because I’m Zeus’ Champion? Because I’m stronger or braver than you? No! It’s because when I stand in line I will fight to defend each and every one of you, and I know each and every one of you will fight to defend me!

“Do you see that lion? That monster that could kill any one of us on our own? Well he’s about to have a really bad night because if he wants one of us he’s going to get us all! So tell me, Lances! How many of you are ready to shove a spear up this monster’s ass!”

There was a resounding cry through the formation, and the men stamped their feet as one, spears steadied, as the cacodaemons backed off.

“I may be the champion of Zeus, but when I’m in the line, we stand together! So when you stand in a line with me, we’re all champions, and let me show you just how true that is!”

Thunder rolled in the dark sky above them, the moon was long since covered by the clouds and now a new roar echoed through the sky, drowning out the lion’s echoes.

A thunder clap echoed in their ears, rattling their bones as they held their ground, the air filled with blinding light and the smell of ozone. The formation haltered for a moment, but Nicomede held his ground, and Michail held beside him, and so long as one of them could hold position, they all could.

When they opened their eyes again, their shields crackled and sparked with life. Electricity flowed like water across their metal shields, flowing down the hafts of their spears until the blades danced with light. All of them could feel it, like fire in their blood as the divine lighting coursed through the formation.

Michail turned to look at Nicomede again. He had always looked a bit askance at him. Nicomede was a lightly built and very androgynous young man, one of the lightest and the slightest in the shield line. But in that moment, illuminated by fire light and lightning, Nicomede was the very image of a Greek statue, a Classical hero preserved in time from the age of myth, brought to life again.

The lion charged them, heading straight for Michail and Nicomede. Michail grit his teeth, all but feeling the hot breath of the monster. He wanted to flee, to crumple and run, but he had his brothers and sisters beside him, and Nicomede covering his side, and if he ran, he would abandon the man to his left. A shield wall, built around a man like Nicomede, could turn one man into a hundred.

Michail held, as did every man and woman around him. The formation tensed, readying for impact as the glow of lightning grew. The lion leapt, claws raised to crash down on them, and with a sound like a canon firing all the lighting built up around them was unleashed in a single devastating bolt from the tip of Nicomede’s spear. It was as if, as one, all of them had blasted the monster at once. And in an instant the lion was reduced from a gigantic monster into a smoking husk of dead flesh that crashed to the earth as the shield wall shouted in triumph.

“Alala!” Nicomede started the warcry, echoed en masse as the schiltron expanded outwards, spears thrusting forward to ward off the cacodaemons as the formation expanded. The closest were killed as spears thrust through their shadowy flesh, the rest retreated back into the shadows.

As the last of the cacodameons retreated the formation relaxes as Nicomede broke off, turning to face them, positively glowing as he stood proudly, the last of the divine lighting still clinging to his body.

“And that, brothers and sisters, is why Greece will win the day against the dark! And why we are the tip of the lance against evil! Not as one, but as a whole, together we will take this world back!”

 

 

“And we all cheered him on, of course,” Michail said. “Nicomede always knew how to fire up a crowd.”

“You should’ve been there with General Hanne on Sicily,” Lorenzo said. “Still…looking forward to see your man in action.”

On the bar before them a fresh pair of drinks were put down by the bartender.

“Compliments of the lady,” He said, gesturing to the sharply-dressed brunette with the tablet, who was now openly watching them.

Both of them raised her glasses to her as she turned to face them, legs crossed.

“Thank you,” Lorenzo smiled. “What’s the occasion?”

“That was a good story,” The woman said. “I was hoping a few drinks might help you tell more.”

“Well, I suppose I have a few in me,” Lorenzo smiled.

“And it was a long road to the Alps,” Michail said. “What’s your name, Miss…?”

“Calliope,” The woman smiled. “And I’m always listening for new stories.”

 

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 27

 

Noemi shivered from the chill of the sea air cutting through her wet clothes to the bone. Jonah had fetched her a blanket once she had been pulled aboard, a thin brown scratchy piece of cloth that did little to stop the wind. There was not a man about the deck, as it sailed onward through the night ocean, rocking gently on the waves. In fact, Noemi had yet to meet the captain aboard the Dutchman, or even another being besides Jonah. She could hear them though. Not words, or anything clear, but Noemi could hear the creaking of wood beneath feet, the shuttering of doors as they swung open and closed between the decks.

As she huddled there beneath her itchy blanket, one set of footsteps seemed louder. Noemi looked up to see Jonah approaching with a tin mug in his hand. Steam was wafting over his face, making his features seem shadowed, gaunt and almost translucent.

“Here,” he said, as he handed her the mug. She took it, holding it between her still chilled hands. She could feel the heat radiating from the mug to her hands, filled with a dark looking liquid. “We have some stores for passengers, found some coffee. Don’t know when it’s from but I thought you’d want it for warmth more than taste anyway.”

“Thanks,” Noemi said as she took a sip. It tasted…metallic and weak, water with only the barest hint of coffee beans. Still, the warm liquid did give her a pleasant feeling as she sat up. “So…The Dutchman. Like the famous one?”

“Indeed!” Jonah said, with an eager smile as he quickly squatted down on an empty crate across from her. Noemi got the feeling that he spent a lot of time talking to the air and didn’t get much opportunity to talk with a person face to face, as it were. Normally, she might have questioned his…reliability as a conversational partner, if it were not for her own tendency to talk to a goddess in her head.

“I had a hard time believing it myself when I was pulled aboard, with nobody in sight! I guess I first started realizing what had happened when I realized I hadn’t eaten in a couple of days, and wasn’t feeling hungry at all. You hear a lot about the hunger of the grave, but, well, yeah!”

Noemi didn’t say anything, letting his fast-paced words wash over her. She was talking to a ghost. The man in front of her looked as solid as any in the moonlight, but here he was freely admitting to his undead state of being. She sipped her coffee as she looked at him.

“So, uh, if there’s nobody but you on the ship, Jonah, how does it sail?”

“Oh, they’re here. They just…well, I’ve learned to hear them. And see them. I think it has something to do with just being dead long enough. I mean, this is a ghost ship, right? But…yeah.”

“Well, I mean, I can see you. How come I can’t see the captain?”

“Captain Van der Decken? Ah! Well, I’m not even sure if the ghost that’s the captain is even him anymore…but…I don’t know if it matters. I think at this point, the story is stronger than the spirit!”

“What do you mean, ‘stronger than the spirit’?”

“Well, there are many legends about the Dutchman, of course,” Jonah smiled. “But the one I was told was something like this…Once, many years ago, the master of the ship was Van der Decken himself, who sailed for the Dutch Crown. The seas in that day were filled with competition between England, the Netherlands, Spain, France…all the nations sought to race to find new lands, new markets.”

“Bet I knew a few people who would be mad you mentioned Spain but left out Portugal,” Noemi said. Right as she was starting to feel warm, she felt the cool air chill her to her bones again. The fog was starting to roll in, making it hard to see across the ocean. The stars were dimming through the haze. Noemi brought her legs up into her chest.

“Well, I wasn’t ever the best at geography, but anyway Captain Van der Decken sought glory on the seas, but how could he ever insure he was to be the first to find a new place? Some of the crew say he was a sorcerer, though the Captain hasn’t told me anything of the sort, but either way, one fateful night, aboard the deck of the ship, Davy Jones appeared to the Dutchman’s master.”

Noemi could swear she felt a hand brush along the back of her neck and it made her jump. Jonah just chuckled, earning him a glare from the redhead. “Go on. What did the devil want?”

“Don’t know if he’s the actual devil but it wouldn’t surprise me. Davy Jones promised Van der Decken fair winds for the rest of his days, safe sailing along all his routes, so long as he swore to never sail around the Cape,” Jonah said. “Ah, that’s Cape Horn, by the way.”

“Lemme guess,” Noemi said, her eyes growing heavy. She started to see shadows moving in the fog as it rolled lazily across the deck. Human figures that seemed to appear in the trick of the moonlight, in the corner of her eye, before vanishing when the clouds rolled over the moon. “He didn’t keep his end of the deal?”

“Ah, well, no. Captain Van der Decker sailed in defiance of Davy Jones around the Cape…Or he tried anyway! The winds turned against him as fog blocked his vision. By the time it cleared, he found his ship had been turned around! He tried again, only for the fog to send him back once more,” Jonah grinned, leaning forward, the moonlight making him glow a little as it pierced the fog. His features became lost in the gray haze as Noemi fought to stay awake. “The crew didn’t think too much of it until they tried to pull into a safe harbor to restock, only for the fog to pull them away once again!”

“Mmm, so that explains the fog, I guess,” Noemi said, readjusting herself as she finished off the thin coffee. “So you just…sail around?”

“Mmm,” At that question, Jonah’s smile wilted just a bit. “Well, I haven’t been here from that time, I came aboard after the end of the world and all that. But from what I understand, things that used to be trapped on the sea floor…aren’t.”

“What does that mean, aren’t?”

“It means they’re free, swimming about on the open waters, duh!” Jonah said, rolling his eyes.
“Anyway, being dead, us ghosts don’t have much to fear from things like sea monsters or storms or spirits.”

“Or Aztlan blood gods,” Noemi said slowly, her mind working through the possibilities.

“Exactly! But we are at the mercy of Davy Jones, who wasn’t too pleased with this jailbreak of all the monsters. So now, we’re basically his hatchet men. We get sent in to send anything that shouldn’t be sailing back to the sea floor…if we do it well enough, we can earn our freedom. I’ve seen…well, felt, some of the older spirits pass on and leave.”

“You get to leave the ship? Where do you go?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never heard from those who leave. They just sort of vanish.”

“Speaking of the crew,” Noemi asked. “How come I can talk to you and see you, but I can’t see them?”

“Ah, well! I’m actually a recent addition to the crew. The newest member! It’s why I’m the cabin boy, you see,” he said, perking back up again. “I was sailing off the coast of Massachusetts at the time when my ship went down.”

“Heh, you don’t sound like an American, at least not what I thought they sounded like!”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. I used to travel around a lot as a kid, so I probably picked up a strange accent. Anyway, I was drifting out at sea when I see this ship coming at me. I thought for sure I was saved but…well, it was empty! I heard the voices and they told me I was there to serve aboard the ship. All of us who are stuck aboard need to work.”

Noemi frowned. “It’s a magic ship, though. And does that mean I’m…”

“Hehe, no, you’re not dead. We don’t usually take passengers, you might be the first I’ve ever heard of! But I was told I was there to replace some of the crew that had been lost, gaining their freedom.”

“I see,” Noemi said. As they talked, the temperature dropped again, cutting right through the blanket. It wasn’t even the cool night air that she had felt off the coast of Brazil. This was bitter, freezing air. Her entire body started to shiver. “H-hey, why is it so cold all of a sudden?! And where is the fog going?”

“Ah, right…We’re at our next destination, the next sinking ship. Welcome to the coast of Scotland.”

“Scotland?!” Noemi jumped to her feet, running to the edge of the ship. The fog was starting to lift and she could see rocky shores and grassy hills in the distance. Not that she knew what Scotland looked like, but by all her accounts they shouldn’t have been anywhere near land for at least a week or two. “This ship can just teleport!?”

“I told you the fog kept us from finding safe port, right? Well…it also helps us travel to where we need to go.”

“We were just in Brazil!”

“And now we’re in Scotland,” Jonah said with a smile. “Magic ship, magic fog, I wasn’t just making it all up!”

He is not lying, Noemi.

She could hear the voice of Ophidia in her head, though it sounded much quieter, even for the usually stoic goddess.

“Ophidia?”

We’ve traveled very far from the center of my worship. There is little of my essence here, I do not even think I can manifest properly beside you, only as the small serpent.

“We were trying to get you more power, not less!”

At the moment, only your belief in me lets me exist at all. So please, champion. Noemi thought she could almost hear a chuckle inside her head, though it was rather dry. Don’t let your faith end, or I may be gone forever.

“It’s alright, I’ll get you stronger here, somehow. I just…I don’t like the idea of being on a ship with a bunch of ghosts without you here to keep them away from me.”

I feared that too, but I did not see many options available, so I did not wish to worry you. But as they have yet to try to possess you or affect your mind at all, I would be cautious but not overly worried.

“Gee, thanks…”

“There, do you see it Noemi?”

Jonah’s voice pulled her out of her own thoughts as he pointed across the deck, towards the dark night-time waters. The sea looked almost black as the starry night sky shone down upon it. Clouds rolled in front of the moon, hiding its light from the world.

The waves were rippling towards the Dutchman, which kept its course with its tattered sails down, rocking back and forth in the darkness as the fog rolled away from it. There was a single-person vessel darting through the waves, catching the wind and bouncing over the crests. Noemi heard splashing oars as her eyes were drawn away from the small vessel.

Behind the skiff were several longboats made of dark wood. Their prows were carved and shaped in the heads of dragons.

Ghostly hands propelled the ship forward, the strength of their arms pushing the oars through the sea.

Vikings. Ghost Vikings.

“What are we going to do?” Noemi said, looking over her shoulder to Jonah.

The cabin boy just shrugged. “The Dutchman does its job. Davy Jones is going to get his payment, one way or the other.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Sky Burial

 

It hadn’t been the worst way to die, all things considered.

Eli’s spirit looked over his fallen body where his allies had left it. With no recourse and little else to do, they had followed Constance’s instructions to leave his body for sky burial.

A knife to the throat had killed him relatively quickly. And while it was painful, it didn’t hold a candle to being torn apart by one of Shadiya’s monsters. That death in particular sent a shiver down his spine.

Still, he was grateful he was dead for the following ritual. Sky burial was relatively rare, reserved for the places where the ground was too hard for burial and plants too infrequent for a funeral pyre. Eli’s body would be left there, on the cold ground of a mountain outcrop outside of the city, and the birds would take his flesh away.

Eli, however, was unconcerned about his body’s fate. He knew what would be coming soon.

Before long, when the sun was still high above them, a scintillating ball of light seemed to float down from somewhere near the sun. It moved gently like a drifting feather towards his body before reforming itself, expanding and solidifying into human shape.

Within a few moments, the ball of light had formed into an image of Eli himself. This one, however, was far more radiant. He was dressed in white, his hair worn loosely, and a pair of long colorful wings were folded like a cape behind his back.

“And here we are again,” The other Eli, his Fravashi, said. “Have you learned anything this time?”

“I’ve learned what having my throat cut feels like,” Eli sighed. “And I could do without.”

His Fravashi frowned. “Not quite what I was hoping for.”

“I’ve already learned my lesson,” Eli said. “So I have to ask, what is this? Is it punishment?”

“Well, no, it’s not punishment,” The Fravashi said. “Not quite, anyway, though I understand it could feel like that. This is something a bit more…complicated.”

“Normally, I’m supposed to leave with you,” Eli said. “My Fravashi and I off to wherever we’re meant to go. But you just keep sending me back.”

“It’s not me that’s doing it,” Said the Fravashi. “I don’t like it much either but it’s-“

“It’s the way things are,” Eli sighed. “I know…we keep doing this again and again. I’m doing my best.”

“I know you are,” The Fravashi put a hand on his shoulder. “And I’m proud of the progress you’ve made. The pacifism, the calm-headedness. You’re doing really well.”

“And I keep coming back,” Eli said. “It’s not…pleasant. It’s not like you’d think eternal life would be.”

“Have you considered that you don’t want to come back might be one of the reasons you keep being returned?” The Fravashi asked. “This is a gift, Eli. You can keep doing good.”

“I’m not doing a whole lot of good,” Eli said. “Asha, Leyla, they’re both doing good. I’m trying to help but there isn’t a whole lot I can offer them. I don’t fight and I don’t know how to instigate a coup.”

“I can think of a few reasons why they might need you,” The Fravashi said. “They’re good people, some of the best I’ve ever seen. But they’re consorting with demons and could hurt a lot of people with what they’re doing, people who don’t deserve to be hurt.”

“So, you want me to do what? Tell them what I think is right and wrong?”

“Perhaps not in so many words,” The Fravashi smiled. “But be the anchor that keeps them tethered, your words can’t topple governments but it might keep two people on the righteous path when they’re prone to slip away.”

“I mean, I suppose I could.” Eli shrugged. “It’s the best I can do, I think…”

“Doing the best you can is the first step.”

“First step to what?”

“This power you have. I told you it wasn’t a punishment, even if you insist it is. It’s a means, a way for you to do some good in the world,” the Fravashi said.

“I try to do good, that’s what I’ve been saying,” Eli said, growing slightly irritated. “But I have nothing but this ability. I’m not like Asha or Leyla, I’m not a monster slayer or possessed by some potent spirit.”

“Most people aren’t,” The Fravashi said. “And coming back from the dead time and time again is nothing to sneer at.”

“All it does is make me less afraid of death. Possibly a little too much,” Eli said. “Did you see the way I tried to stop Freny?”

“That was brave…a little stupid too.”

“You’re telling me,” Eli sighed. “But you never answered my question earlier. If you’re not the one bringing me back, then who is?”

“You need to ask?” The Fravashi asked. “The Spirit has plans for you. I can’t say what they are, but your soul has been imbued with an aspect of Ameretat.”

“So, does that make me a…chosen champion, like the ones Asha talks about in Rome?”

“Not quite, I don’t think,” The Fravashi pondered. “Similar in concept I suppose but…distinct. You see, the Amesha Spentas are not gods in the sense that the Greeks and Romans believed. They are entities to be sure, and great ones, but they are merely pieces, divine sparks of the Spirit that are bound to universal principles. Yours is Ameretat.”

“Ameretat,” Eli repeated. “Immortality.”

“Perhaps more accurately perpetuity and renewal,” The Fravashi smiled. “When the destroyer crushed the first great plant, Ameretat spread its remains across the world from which all vegetation sprang. You will always come back, Eli, but you don’t always need to come back the same man.”

“So that’s what it is?” Eli asked. “A piece of a divine spirit working its way through me, that’s what keeps bringing me back.”

“That’s right,” The Fravashi said. “This isn’t penance. Only you can know when the crimes you committed are repaid, this is because the Spirit believes you can do great good in the world. Enough that he has sent you to travel with two more of his chosen.”

“Wait, two more?” Eli asked.

“A bearer of the Sacred Flame,” The Fravashi said. “Leyla is a blade against evil and has been for years. Asha is…well Asha is something altogether more special.”

“She’s unified with her Fravashi,” Eli said. “I can feel it in her. Every time I’m near her it’s like…being near you.”

“There’s more to it than that,” The Fravashi said. “Time and time again, she has been chosen. She’s a hero to be sure, but her unification with her Fravashi was merely a way to grant her power. Her goodness, her righteousness, and all her other aspects are born from her and made her an ideal candidate for another divine spark. The three of you carry the touch of the divine within you, and that is why you’ll find the right path, even beset as you are by demonic influence.”

“Well I suppose all I can do is try,” Eli sighed. “It is…the least I can do.”

“You’re still not convinced?”

“Oh no, I think you’re right,” Eli said. “But about this not being a punishment…maybe not, but I’m not going to stop treating it like one. I’ll do the right thing because it’s right, but also to try and fix the wrong I’ve done.”

“There is a lot of evil in the world, Eli,” The Fravashi said. “There’s more to it than just destroying that evil. You have to put some good back in it as well.”

“I took one very good thing out of it,” Eli sighed. “I’m not sure I can fill that void.”

“You can try,” The Fravashi said. “And in trying you’ll do things you never thought were possible.”

“Is it time?” Eli asked.

“Just about.”

 

It was evening on the mountainside where Eli’s body lay. The blood on his neck had dried and the wound had closed as his skin stitched itself together. The birds had avoided him, avoiding the entire mountain as if fearing to transgress. And in the fading light the skin of Eli’s body began to reflect an unnatural shine from the setting sun.

The blood stained on the rocks vanished, evaporating into the fading light until nothing remained. Slowly, as the first of the stars began to appear, Eli sat up from where his body had been laid and stretched his tired muscles.

He glanced around, as if still expecting the Fravashi to be standing over him, but he saw nothing, still alone on the mountainside. Dusting himself off, he turned back towards the city. It was time to get moving again.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 26

 

“And this source of yours is trustworthy?” Asha asked, the doubt clear in her voice as their small group maneuvered through the cramped streets of Damascus.

“Exceedingly,” Constance smiled. “In the sense that she will not go back on a deal she’s made. So, you can trust her to keep her word, at least.”

Asha rolled her eyes, but Leyla put a hand on her shoulder.

“Look,” he said. “I don’t like this either but in the world in the state it is, there is a kind of…honor among thieves I guess you could call it.”

“Is that right?” Asha asked.

“Well sure, you keep stabbing people in the back, you’re going to wind up alone,” Leyla said. “If it were just the end of the world that might not be that bad, but in a world full of monsters you need people, and for that you need a level of trust.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Ahsa said.

The four of them were heading towards a meeting point Constance had spoken of. At first, they had been furious upon realizing that Constance had snuck off almost as soon as they had entered the city, but she seemed to be perfectly willing to stay close to them since her return, although she was insistent upon the meeting with her apparent ‘contact’.

“We’re still being played,” Leyla said, a sentiment Hazif (who was keeping watch back at their rented apartment) had shared. “It’s obvious Constance lead us here just to meet this contact.

“Probably,” Eli nodded. “But it seems a lot of trouble just to backstab us somehow.”

“Well, she was the most likely candidate for a good contact,” Constance said. “I had several others who are less reliable, but I think you’ll be impressed when you meet her.”

“Pretty high bar you’re setting there,” Asha said. “Hope they meet expectations.”

Constance smiled her familiar crooked grin. “She always, at the very least, exceeds expectations.”

The four of them arrived at a small single-room building off the main roads made of mud brick with a number of holes in its poorly tiled roof. They entered, Asha taking the lead, to find the space almost entirely empty save for a few decrepit barrels, sacks, and refuse along the walls. The space was dark even in the midday light, lit only by the streams of sunlight that came down through the dozen or so fist-sized holes in the ceiling.

For a moment, Asha thought they were the first to arrive before movement at the far end of the large room caught her eye. A short figure slid from atop a barrel where they had been waiting and came into view, walking beneath one of the rays of light to reveal themselves.

Asha started, mouth opening in surprise as she recognized the crimson-haired beggar that she had given her bread to the day before.

“You…” she managed, still startled as the girl spoke.

“Thank you for meeting with us,” The girl said, and Asha noticed her voice was strong and clear for a relatively slender beggar girl, resounding with authority.

“Us?” Asha asked.

“Our contact has a certain manner of speech,” Constance smiled, stepping to Asha’s side. “But she is alone, as Leyla can confirm.”

“I’ll do a round,” Leyla said, already walking to make sure no one else was joining them. “But ya, it all looks clear from here.”

“Right,” Asha nodded. “I’m Asha, this is Leyla and Eli, and from what we’ve heard you already know Constance.”

“We do, unfortunately,” The woman gained a scowl that gave Asha a brief chuckle. She would have been more worried if the contact and Constance got along.

“You may call us Rachel, if it suits you.”

“That will work fine, Rachel,” Asha said. “Constance said you had a proposition for us, or at least an idea.”

“We do,” Rachel nodded. “We want the same thing. We wish to see the current regime in Babylon fall, preferably without complete destabilization or destruction of the city.”

“Right, we want that obviously enough,” Asha said. “Queen Shadiya is a monster…literally. But why are you invested in it?”

“We have several reasons to be interested,” Rachel said. “Though it is good that you asked. It seems Constance was correct when she said you weren’t fools. Shadiya is a narcissist and power-hungry, a dangerous combination in anyone and terrifying in her. When her power in Babylon is absolute she will spread, and without a doubt, Damascus will be her first major target.”

“And you’re invested in Damascus.”

“We are invested in the region, but Damascus makes a convenient center,” Rachel nodded. “Though we are limited in our ability to learn more about Shadiya.”

“We have plenty of information,” Asha said. “Though not as much as we’d like. But who are you? All I know about you is that you at least pretended to be a beggar on the street.”

“We are…something like you,” Rachel said. “Man and spirit bound together to one form, embracing to be something greater. As per our position…well, for now we are a capable informant and broker of information. Given time, we plan to be much more.”

Asha frowned a bit.

“I’ve spent a lot of time,” she said. “Cutting deals with people who are pretty far from what I considered trustworthy.”

“You will find, Asha, the only people willing to risk their necks for you are those who have something to gain. Altruism is rare in a world past the Days of Revelation, but ambition…ambition is plentiful.”

“I’m just worried,” Asha said. “How far compromise after compromise will take me.”

“If you are lucky and if you are smart, it will take you to a free and independent Babylon.”

“Alright then, Rachel,” Asha said. “What can you offer me that no one else in this city can?”

“A plan,” Rachel said. “We can offer you a plan to overthrow Shadiya, or at least the first half of one.”

“Well…” Asha said, a bit surprised. “That’s…not a bad start. Is it a feasible plan?”

“Doable,” Rachel said. “Albeit difficult. Though far less difficult and far less dangerous than attempting open rebellion.”

“What is it?” Asha asked.

“Before I tell you, I want certain provisions in place,” Rachel said. “This is a deal after all, not a gift.”

“Alright,” Asha said somewhat more bitterly. “What are your demands?”

“Whether you want it to or not, if this mission is successful it will leave you with a great deal of power in Babylon. You can choose to do as you will, but I insist that subverting Damscus’ independence cannot be among your decisions. Babylon will, with luck, continue to stand. And Damascus will stand separately as well.”

“Understandable,” Asha said. “But I wasn’t about to go and declare myself a conqueror. I’ll do my best to make sure Shadiya’s successor government isn’t either.”

“There is also a suggestion we would like to address,” Rachel said.

“Alright, and what’s that?”

“Simply put, we plan to do quite a bit to help you, and even if it is in our personal interest to do so, generous favors should generally be reciprocated.”

“Ah, I see how it is,” Asha nodded. “You want us on call in case you ever need help with something.”

“I’m not sure I like that,” Eli said. “Owed favors rarely seem to go well.”

“That at least is not a demand,” Rachel said. “If we suggested something truly heinous, you are of course free to refuse.”

“I have a feeling we wouldn’t,” Asha scowled a bit. “But these seem relatively fair. Let’s hear this plan of yours and I’ll decide with the others if we plan to go through with it.”

“To supplant Shadiya’s reign over the city you will need more than a replacement government. She is a figurehead with a strong cult of personality, she is an icon of the city and is binding her identity to its existence. It’s dictator 101. If we wish to remove her, we will need to find a figurehead to supplant her.”

“What kind of figurehead?” Asha asked. “One of us?”

“Oh no,” Rachel shook her head. “Your group are ground-level insurgents. Even with all of your powers you will be…at the level of humans in their eyes. And we of course cannot take the position, as we are foreign and relatively unknown.”

“What then?” Asha asked. “Or who?”

“Like any good conqueror, Shadiya wishes to make herself a God-King,” said Rachel. “Her government can be supplanted by people, but her cult must be overthrown by the divine.”

“So, what then, a god?” Asha asked.

“A god,” Rachel nodded. “And there happens to be an entire pantheon in the region waiting to gain a foothold in their ancient lands. One, in particular, is of interest to me and is eager to bring herself into the city.”

“And who might that be?” Asha asked.

“Like most high-level deities she has many names,” Rachel said. “Innanna, Astarte, Astaroth are all examples you might have heard. But we will be evoking her best-known nomen: Ishtar.”

“Ishtar?” Eli asked. “The love goddess?”

“Love and war in equal measure, we assure you,” Rachel said. “And while she is not the pinnacle of her pantheon she is incredibly influential and has a penchant for interfering with mortals. We believe she is most suitable for the role.”

“So, we start a cult,” Asha said. “Along with a revolution.”

“Getting Ishtar’s involvement is our first step, let’s begin there,” Rachel said. “Her answer will determine the course of this coup you wish to attempt. Then we can-“

She was cut off as Leyla, who had been patrolling the building’s perimeter, burst inside.

“Run!” He shouted. “We have incoming!”

“In Damascus?” Rachel asked. “Impossible, URIEL wouldn’t da-“

Her words were interrupted as something smashed down through the ceiling into the center of the room in a cloud of dust and shattered tile. As the dust floated downward, a lone figure hurtled from within at Asha at tremendous speed, giving her barely enough time to draw her knife and catch a long sword blade of black metal against the flat of her knife.

Staring through the dust, eyes shining as she tried to clearly saw the face of the attacker, she caught a brief look at long black hair, red eyes, and a pair of curved horns before it slipped back into the dust cloud.

Asha pulled back, putting distance between herself and the cloud of smoky dust as she looked to see the others. A sudden burst of fire ripped through the room, incinerating much of the dust cloud as Asha saw Rachel, her hands filled with fire, staring down her attacker.

It wasn’t just her hands either, Rachel’s crimson hair was flaming at the tips, and her eyes were burning the same bright orange as the flames.

“So Shadiya sent her dog,” Rachel growled. “Then she has saved us the trouble of tracking you down.”

The attacker’s appearance was clearer now. It was a woman, tall and statuesque compared to the rest of them with chalk-white skin and loose black hair that hung down her back. She was dressed in relatively modern clothing, all carefully preserved, and all of it in black. The horns rising from the sides of her head were long curved, and pointed straight up, and a sinewy scale-covered black tail curled from the base of her spine. All told, the woman looked more draconic than demonic, and in her clawed scaly hands was a long sword with a black blade and serrations on the inside edge.

As she became clearer, Asha recognized the silhouette, the same one Eli had pointed out to her on the day they met: Shadiya’s enforcer, Freny.

There was a brief pause in the air, and in an instant Freny charged Asha, keeping low and whirling about her as she tried to find a weakness with numerous quick jabs. Asha noticed she was also carefully moving to keep Asha between Rachel and herself.

Leyla charged soon after, his sword appearing in a flash of fire in his hands as he swung at Freny, his blade striking against hers as Freny deflected Asha’s knife strikes. Asha pulled back as Leyla fully engaged Freny, hoping to draw her bow in time, but Freny spotted her, and was quick to begin a retreat. Taking hold of Leyla’s arm she hurtled him at Asha with superhuman strength before charging for the wall, dodging more bolts of fire from Rachel’s hands.

Before she reached the wall, Eli moved to intercept her, trying to get between her and an exit.

“Eli, move!” Asha shouted, but too late. Freny was quick on her feet and her sword was quicker. There was a splash of red as her blade cut through Eli’s throat and she continued her charge, a single powerful kicking carrying her through the brick wall and into the street, vanishing into dust and leaving Eli’s fallen body in her wake.

“Eli!” Asha and Leyla rushed to him as Rachel kept a distance, the fire on her subdued. Carefully Asha picked up his body, but saw that the light had already faded from his eyes.

“I-It’ll be alright, right?” Leyla asked nervously. “he came back before, right?”

“Yes but…it’s not like he told me how! Does he just…snap back to it?”

“With that wound, I certainly hope not.” Constance said.

“Well we need to do something for him!” Asha shouted at her.

“We will do what custom demands,” Constance said. “Sky burial.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Wolf Pilgrim

 

It was pre-dawn as Giovanni began to make his way from the Capitoline Hill to the city’s edge. The eastern sky was only just beginning to pink near the horizon, and most of the stars were still bright and clear overhead. He was plainly dressed as ever in a monk’s robe with an old wooden walking stick in hand, even if he didn’t need it.

“You’re really sure about this?” Capitolina asked, walking at his side. “You only just got back.”

“Our journey north is what gave me the idea,” Giovanni said/ “And I’ve been too long in this city. I’m not like you or Kebechet, Capitolina, I need the wilds.”

“When will you be back? We need you at the Vatican,” There was clear concern in her eyes, her ears drooping slightly.

“A few months, most likely,” Giovanni said. “I’ve got a long way to go.”

“And you’re going alone?” Capi asked. “Even for a wolf that’s not the safest journey.”

“I will manage, Capitolina. You can stop being a mother wolf,” He smiled gently as he saw her fluster. “But yes, if Torleif is right, then there is at least one Catholic holdout in Spain, and they deserve to hear from the Vatican. We’ve been without contact with the rest of the faith outside of Italy for too long.”

“So long as you come back,” Capi said. “Rome needs you.”

“I will be back,” he said. “Thank you, Capitolina.”

“Travel safely, Giovanni.”

 

Giovanni made his way alone to the edge of the city. It was a long road ahead, but at the same time he was slightly relieved to have a direction and purpose again. It was a stark contrast to his almost stifling city life.

“Mister Giovanni!”

He paused, looking over his shoulder as he saw Stella, still bleary-eyed with a heavy pack over her shoulders, running to meet him.

“Stella, what are you doing…” Giovanni started, before he recognized the pack as the one she had used to carry her camping gear with her to the Alps. “Stella you’re not-“

“With all due respect, Mister Giovanni,” Stella cut him off for the first time. “It’s barely four in the morning, I’ve not yet had my tea, and I’m coming with you.”

“Stella, I’m going on a pilgrimage, it’s an important and personal-“

“Personal journey of self-discovery, yes I know. And I also know you better than that, Mister Giovanni.”

“Do you now?”

“I know you need others,” Stella said. “You’re a wolf, just like a person, a social creature. More than that, you need a friend.”

“So that’s why you’re going with me?” He asked. “To be my sounding board? My company?”

“No, I’m going because I’m your friend,” Stella smiled. “Besides, you’re not the only one whose been cooped up in Rome for too long.”

“It’ll be a dangerous trip,” Giovanni said. “We’re going beyond the Alps, into Nidhoggr’s territory.”

“I survived the Days of Revelation,” Stella said. “And that was before I became an approved exorcist. I have faith in my abilities and yours, Mister Giovanni, and that faith will be our shield.”

Giovanni sighed but couldn’t help but feel a smile tug at his lips.

“Very well, Stella, you may come with me. It would be an odd thing for a wolf to go alone on a pilgrimage anyway. But we need to get a move on.”

Stella smiled back at him. “Of course. Where is our first destination?”

“Assisi, about two days walk,” Giovanni said. “There is an old friend I would like to meet there.”

 

The days passed quickly between them on the road. Though hesitant at first, Giovanni quickly grew to enjoy Stella’s presence on the journey. He didn’t have as much time for quiet introspection, but the days were long and there was only so much meditation a wolf like him could stand. Stella turned out to be a marvelous traveling companion, talkative but not chatty, quick but not over-eager, and sunny without being grating.

Stella had grown more comfortable with his massive lupine form, no longer intimidated by the enormous heavily-scarred and dark-furred wolf. Indeed, several times on warmer nights she fell asleep curled up against his fur near the fire. Giovanni had always held a close bond with the other wolves of Rome, the bonds between a pack. But Stella, he had come to realize, was the first honest human friend he had known in centuries.

Assisi was one of the larger Italian cities. It had an active population of over a thousand people, much of the surrounding countryside filled with farmland, and the view of the city from the hills around was dominated by their the city’s large basilica, a massive stone complex of Romanesque and gothic architecture.

“It almost looks like a fortress,” Stella remarked as Giovanni pointed it out.

“That likely helped it survive,” Giovanni said. “Strong stone walls to keep the dead at bay.”

“Faith might be a good shield, but strong stone walls never hurt,” Stella said with a smile as they continued on into the town.

Giovanni was a known figure in Assisi. He had been one of the first from Rome to arrive here and had come several times in the past, so it was with smiles and nods of polite reverence that the city’s religious elite welcomed him and Stella into the city, provided them with lodging, and lead them to the Basilica to leave Giovanni to his devices. Though Stella was with him, this was, after all, to be a private audience.

“They seem quite fond of you here,” Stella said.

“Well, I helped a fair bit in the reconstruction. I convinced the Vatican of the importance of this place and made sure they diverted some of their resources here.”

“I can imagine why,” Stella said as they walked through the nave of the basilica towards the double staircase leading down into the crypts. “Would you like to be alone?”

Giovanni considered it. “…No,” he decided on. “I would like your company here as well.”

Together they descended into the quiet stone crypts of the basilica, alone for the time as they stepped down into the candle-lit hallway of stone. Giovanni knew the way from here, having walked it many times before as Stella followed him to his destination.

They soon came to an altar placed before a tomb made in a very plain style of old Romanesque stone. Within was a plain stone coffin tied with iron above a placard reading:

 

  1. Francesco
    1182-1226

 

“Hello, old friend,” Giovanni smiles as he approached the altar. “Though I suppose I’m the old one now…eight centuries, has it really been that long?”

Many memories across hundreds of years could fade, but some stuck out despite the passing of even the greatest spans of time. Capitolina said she could remember clear as day finding the young babies Romulus and Remus, as well as Julius Caesar’s taking of Rome. Kebechet recalled vividly her youth with her father, Anubis, despite being many thousands of years old, and he had no idea what kind of memories Angel possessed. But Giovanni still had, clear in his mind, the image of the first man he had considered his friend. Saint Francis was already old then, haggard and plagued constantly by the claws of disease. But there was an indefinable kindness to him, a radiance that almost seemed to set him apart from other men. He could still hear his voice, tired but full of life.

“Brother Wolf,” Francis had called him, entreating him to stay his claws and teeth from the people of Gubbio, to hold back his hunger-driven wrath and in turn be offered forgiveness. Francis had made a promise to him then, and asked that he make one in turn.

“I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”

“I’ve kept that promise, as best I can, my friend,” Giovanni said. “Against my better wishes I have had to fight against man, spirit, monster, and wolf. I have not taken a living soul since I made that promise to you, and all the harm that I’ve done was in the defense of these people that you loved, and that I have loved as well.”

Gently he moved past the altar, placing his hand upon the cold worn stone.

“They cared for me then, and in their time of need I came to care for them. Now I’m here to renew that promise I made to you. The people have forgiven me, but I still owe to you and to them my protection and my faith. Not only for their forgiveness, but for you and in thanks for what you’ve done. Eight hundred years and still I cannot hope to match the good you’ve done, for all the good I do was brought to them by you, when you placed a hand on mine and brought me to them as an ally.”

Giovanni bowed his head and turned as Stella took his place, leaving her to pray quietly at the altar as he moved back towards the stairs. She met him a few minutes later, a smile on her face.

“Did I ever tell you about Jacoba dei Settasoli?” Giovanni asked as they ascended the stairs.

“I…don’t believe so?” Stella said.

“Did you see the small urn by the crypt?”

“Yes.”

“Those are her remains. She was a stalwart follower of St. Francis, so beloved that she earned the nickname ‘Brother Jacoba’ among many. She was even allowed into the friary when Francis was on his deathbed when women were forbidden from such things.”

“She must have been quite a woman then,” Stella said.

“She was. She was a friend and stalwart supporter of St. Francis, and supported him and his followers whenever they were in Rome, using her privilege and abilities to look after those less fortunate.”

“Did you meet her?”

“Oh no,” Giovanni shook his head. “Unfortunately, she stayed in Rome for the most part. But she’s the kind of person that I’ve always tried to look for. Not everyone can be a saint, Stella, and not everyone can be a pilgrim, priest, or monk. But everyone, high and low, should do what they can to look after those souls less fortunate, and to care for them is to enrich one’s own soul.”

“So that’s why you’re on this pilgrimage then?” Stella asked.

“Partially,” Giovanni said. “I want to find those fine and generous souls who manage to remain such even through the harshest times. Even those who aren’t among the faithful must be seen to. I was a wolf, after all, simply an animal when Francis took pity upon me and saved me from my own evil. While I seek the other sanctuaries of faith in Europe first and foremost, this journey will be…perhaps a bit like Torleif’s, I suspect.”

“Like hers?” Stella looked at him curiously.

“She was seeking warriors, right? The strongest and bravest, the mighty and the dragonslayers. Well I’d like to find some of the kindest and the most charitable, the most virtuous in these trying times.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 25

 

The returning trip to Rome took longer than the trip there had. While their group had been quick by themselves, they were now joined by a number of refugees and a few representatives of the half-ruined Malcesine. While many had stayed behind to rebuild their town, a number had decided to travel with the safety of their newfound saviors back to Rome to try their fortunes. They were regular people, and as such set the pace with Stella compared to the seemingly endless endurance of champions, mages, and wolves. Cat didn’t mind it for the most part, but not all of their newfound company was pleased with the pace.

“Oh my goooood you all walk so sloooooow.” Torleif complained, doing her best to be the vanguard even though she had no idea where they were going.

“Hey you’re free to run ahead, short stuff.” Rosa said, spear slung over her shoulder. “Rome can’t be that hard to find, riiiight?” she added with a flashing grin.

Torleif scrunched up her face with petulance. “I’m not that short! B-besides I’m twelve! I’ll grow into it!”

“Well you’re tough enough I won’t make fun of you for being twelve.” Rosa said, but she held out her spear level with her shoulder, which left it nearly a full thirty centimeters above Torleif’s head. “But you are still really short.”

“Do you want me to get my hammer!?”

“How are you supposed to hit me with it when your arms are waaaay over there?”

Cat sighed as she watched them. After an initial scuffle on their first day of the journey this had become the routine for Torleif and Rosa. She appreciated that it kept Torleif from complaining about being bored. The journey home felt a lot longer than the way there, even if it was only extended by a day or so. Cat couldn’t help but think of what was waiting for her, not only her usual lessons but the inevitable fallout of the trip. If the Alpine settlements were in this kind of shape action would be necessary.

A tug at her sleeve pulled her out of her thoughts, and she looked to see Torleif tugging at her sleeve.

“Hey Blue, how many champions are in Rome?”

“Oh, ummm well there’s Rosa, my sister’s boyfriend Turi is champion of Athena, Aurelio is champion of Diana, there’s umm…oh right, my friend Megame is champion of Inari I think, and Gisela is champion of Itzpapalotl.”

“There’s Evangeline and Sybilla too.” Rosa said “For Hephaestus and Huldra.”

“More than I’ve seen anywhere else…”

“Have you met a lot of champions?” Cat tried to keep her tone serious, but part of her still couldn’t help but see Torleif as a child. The temper and somewhat oversized clothes didn’t help, making the diminutive redhead look even smaller than she was.

“Not many…” Torleif said “Though I met a few people who are pretty tough on their own…oh! There was this one time in Barcelona…”

 

Torleif was a curious guest to have along. She was as easily distracted and prone to error as any twelve year old, but when she moved she did so with impressive purpose. She was physically the strongest person Cat had ever seen, her small arms even able to best Rosa in terms of raw strength, and her small frame made her impressively quick on her feet and difficult to take hold of. Cat, Torleif, and Hilde had taken to sparring in the afternoons when the rest of the group was resting. Beyond even her strength, however, Torleif seemed possessed of singular purpose, consumed by a mission she’d been given and never straying from her path.

The days came and went, and eventually the group found themselves once more walking the familiar hills on the outskirts of the city of Rome. Much of what had once been ruined city had been reclaimed by nature or by human hands to be cleared for farming, trees and grass taking what had once been concrete and asphalt.

“So that’s Rome, huh?” Torleif asked.

“That’s it” Cat smiled “Finally there.”

“Finally…”

“So you wanted to see the Thor worshippers, right?” Cat asked. “They can probably get you set up with a place to stay as well.”

“Well ya a bit…” Thor said “But I mostly came for people.”

“People?”

“Yep! I’m going to find a bunch of people like you guys, and we’re going to kill Nidhoggr!”

“Ummm…” Cat wasn’t sure where to begin “W-well you came to the right city, I guess.”

“Well I knew Rome was the right city!”

“How’d you know that?” Rosa asked.

“Some birds told me.” Torleif replied happily.

“Well…killing Nidhoggr is something we’re all trying to do as well” Cat said somewhat sheepishly “Good to have some help.”

“Ya I’m going to smash that stupid lizard’s face in!” Torleif grinned “Er…with help. I was told I can’t do it on my own.”

“Well that’s the truth” Cat sighed “This girl…Gisela, keeps telling me the same thing. She also said to keep an eye out for other people who could help take down Nidhoggr.”

“Well I’m one of the best for the job!” Torleif jabbed her thumb at her chest. “Where do I find you guys anyway, like if I want to meet you?”

“Training field works” Rosa said “It’s on the way.”

“I’d join you three” Hildegard said “But I need to check in with Turi so I should be off…ah yes, there’s my ride.”

From the city they could see a small shape appear in the sky, growing steadily larger until the familiar outline of Pegasus flew down to meet them.

“Glad to see everyone’s back safe and sound.” Turi said as he brought Pegasus down to trot along the ground before helping Hildegard onto the saddle with him “And do I have a story for you.”

“Can’t wait to hear it” Hildegard smiled, kissing him on the cheek as she wrapped her arms around her waist. “Cat I’ll see you at dinner tonight, and I’ll see you two on the training field.” She pointed to Rosa and Torleif, who was staring with her mouth partially open at the winged horse as they began to leave.

“Ya Turi’s pretty cool” Cat smiled at Torleif, remembering very well her own astonishment when she had first met Pegasus.

“J-just a horse…” Torleif said “My hammer’s cooler.”

The group divided as they moved itn othe city proper. Giovanni went to the Vatican as Stella led the dignitaries and refugees to the city center to be processed, and soon the three of them were taking a brief tour of the city for Torleif’s benefit, showing her a number of places she might like to visit.

“And here’s the best pasta place in Rome.” Cat said, pointing it out as they walked.

“You’re full of it! Castella’s is waay better.” Rosa said.

“Castella’s is super greasy! It’s like it’s not even food anymore!”

“You’re just a vegetarian.”

“I am not!”

Torleif stayed largely quiet, her head on a swivel as she took in the sights and listened to their friendly bickering going back and forth until something caught her eye.

“Ooh is that the training field?”

“Hmm?” Cat looked up “Oh hey, we’re already here, ya this is it.”

What had once been little more than a yard had been expanded and redressed into a training field fit for a legion. Large areas of dirt and grass were marked off for sparring matches and drilling exercises. Equipment sheds and tools stood in every corner with racks of training and martial weapons, even a few stands had been erected near some of the sparring rings for observation lessons and competitions.

“This is awesome!” Torleif shouted, rushing forward quickly enough that Rosa and Cat needed to work to keep pace.

As they entered the field, however, they could see that most of the people were gathered together in one of the rings. Looking closer, Cat didn’t recognize a lot of them, many were wearing legionnaire armor, but just as many were dressed in a kind of uniform she didn’t recognize, a pile of round shields resting in a pile nearby or carried in their hands.

Torleif tore off to explore the field as Rosa and Cat moved towards the group.

“What’s going on here!” Rosa shouted into them before moving directly into the face of the closest unfamiliar soldier “Who the hell are you?”

“I umm we’re…” Cat had to hand it to Rosa, that red-eyed stare was intimidating when she needed it to be.

“Afternoon! No need to get ornery, they’re with me.” A voice spoke up from within the crowd, and a number of people parted to reveal the speaker.

They were about Cat’s height, possibly a little taller and with a similar slender build, dressed in an ornate Greek-styled linothorax over a white tunic and short black skirt with matching bronze greaves and wristguards. Cat blinked for a moment in confusion, the voice sounded slightly masculine but it still took her a moment to realize that the skirted figure in front of her was a boy, though certainly a very androgynous one with narrow shoulders and slender hips. His hair was a light sort of chestnut brown kept in a long braided ponytail, and he had a short spear in one hand with a round shield similar to the others slung over his back.

“Sorry if we’re interrupting your field time” he said “We’re-“

“Greek…” Rosa interrupted him, more in surprise than irritation.

“Well yes we’re…hey, someone else from the homeland!” He grinned, walking forward to take her hand eagerly, placing his other on her shoulder. “So is this where our missing champion wound up?”

“Missing?” Rosa asked him dubiously.

“I had word that the champion of Ares was abroad” he said.

“Word from who? And who are you?” Cat spoke up next as he released Rosa.

“Ah of course, where are my manners? My name is Nicomede, I’m the leader of this contingent, the Spears of Olympia, and champion of Zeus, King of the Gods.”

“Zeus really?” Cat asked “That’s…pretty high profile. What are you doing all the way out here in Rome?”

“Same reason as a lot of other people, I imagine.” He said “We came to find the source of this destruction from the north and put an end to it.”

“Me too!” They were interrupted by the arrival of Torleif, who had come to investigate. “I’m Torleif! Champion of Thor!”

Nicomede smiled “Another champion of a thunder god? My you have a lot in this city.”

“Seem to get more every day…” Rosa said “I’m Rosaria.”

“I’m Catarina” Cat nodded, shaking his hand.

“Ah! Catarina and Rosaria, you two are apparently really popular on these fields.” He smiled “The legionnaires here won’t stop boasting about you two and your sister.”

“Heh, well we do our best” Cat smiled “But f you have soldiers like this, you could be leading the charge yourselves.”

“Well, truth be told this is kind of…all we have.” Nicomede admitted sheepishly “Greece right now is still a bit of a mess, more a collection of city-states than a country, especially compared to a city like Rome. This must be the biggest city in the world right now.”

“I’m not sure about that, but we do have a lot” Cat said.

“So my spears and I came to help how we could” Nicomede said “And from what we’ve been hearing, the endless waves of the dead come form this Norse dragon right.”

“Well…it’s not really as simple as a dragon” Cat said “There’s a lot more to it than that.”

“Wemight not be Roman, and we’re not about to renounce our Greek heritage, but if you Romans need a little aid taking this dragon down, then I’m willing and able to lead that charge.”

“Er wait…lead?” Cat asked.

“Well we can discuss that” Nicomede smiled.

“Duh! Cause I’m leading it!” Torleif grinned “I’ll be leading the charge to take down that snake!”

“Er…”

Cat sighed as she looked between Rosa, Torleif, and Nicomede. Gisela had said that she should try to gather everyone she could, but this almost seemed more trouble than it was worth.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Things Taken, Things Found

 

Tegwen walked across the lowland hills with the practiced ease of someone used to a life on foot. The ground here was hilly and occasionally marked with boulders and crags, but it wasn’t overly dangerous as far as terrain went, so there was little stopping her as she made her way across the land, simply needing to keep a weather eye out for anything that could be lurking behind the rocks or over the next hill.

She had her modest supplies and gear in a travelling pack over her shoulders and she moved at a brisk pace with a folded map in one hand and a cracked compass in the other. One problem with steep rolling hills was the ease with which one could get lost in them. With an irritated glance, she looked back down at her compass, shaking it gently as it spun wildly this way and that.

“Now that’s not right…” Tegwen said. “Even magic doesn’t stop compasses from working. That’s just physics…”

“Caw?”

Tegwen glanced up, and she saw a crow looking back at her from a small pile of boulders, head cocked as it regarded her with black eyes.

“Well, yes,” Tegwen nodded to the crow. “Magic can’t just arbitrarily shift the poles. Compasses only change due to spatial distortions, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t wander onto another world.”

The crow fluffed its wings before cawing loudly at her again.

“I’m not in another world, am I…?” Tegwen asked, but the crow, being a crow, remained silent.

Tegwen shook her head. “Nope, still on earth and you’re just a crow. Shoo!”

She shook her walking stick at the crow, which remained where it was. Rolling her eyes, she continued past the crow, climbing the closest hill in order to try and gain a better view of the area, still puzzling over the strange actions of her compass. When she crested the hill, however, she saw that it leveled out into a broad flat plain of knee-high green grass. The sky overhead was a uniform pale grey that caused shadows to vanish.

Spread out before her across the field were dozens to perhaps hundreds of piles of stacked stones, cairns of all shapes and sizes scattered for a kilometer around before her. Between them, rising from the earth, were scores of spears and swords, all of them rusted past the point of usefulness and all of them with their points buried in the earth so that they stood upright among the cairn, many adorned with helms on their shafts and pommels.

The world seemed quiet as Tegwen stepped forward among the cairns, no birds or insects sang despite it being midday, and the wind had died completely where before it had been relatively constant. Almost unconsciously Tegwen pulled her traveling cloak inward around her shoulders as if bundling against an unfelt cold.

A sudden movement caught her eye, and she froze in place as she saw a black shape move among the cairns. She relaxed somewhat when she saw it was another crow, the sizable bird hopping with an inelegant flap atop a close by cairn.

This one did not caw, however, it merely looked at her, head tilting this way and that as if observing her with curiosity. Taking the time to look around, Tegwen realized it wasn’t alone, and that dozens more crows were gathered in the plain around her, all of them sitting on sword crossguards, helmets, or stone piles as they regarded the strange new intruder.

Her sense of disquiet returning, Tegwen hurried forward, hoping to clear this strange and unnerving plain before things got any stranger. Tegwen might have prided herself on her dispassion, curiosity, and fearlessness in the pursuit of knowledge but she was also not a fool. There were countless things in this world she was simply not skilled or powerful enough to deal with. Of course, she wanted to know what was going on here, to find the answers behind her compass and these strange cairns and their corvid guardians, but Tegwen knew best when to let sleeping dragons lie; one thing at a time after all.

She was halfway across when the first sounds came to her ears. They were undoubtedly crows, but unlike the others they had broken the eerie silence and were now making a raucous sort of cacophony nearby. Weighing her fear against her curiosity, Tegwen turned to find the source of the noise and soon caught sight of three crows battling over something atop a stone slab.

Unlike the numerous cairns, the slab was a single massive piece of rock laid long like a fallen standing stone. Atop it, the three crows battled and squawked over an object which glimmered gold even in the pale light. Spotting the shine, her inquisitive mind sent spinning at the sight of it, Tegwen rushed forward to investigate.

“Shoo! Shoo! Get off that!” She shouted, yelling as she swung her heavy walking stick to get the crows to abandon their treasure. The trio cawed at her angrily before settling on nearby stones or debris, watching like the others as Tegwen marveled at the object.

It was a long gleaming rod of gold with a flared head, like a scepter though a more modest one. Picking it up with a gloved hand, Tegwen could tell it really was solid gold. The shaft of the rod was engraved with images of wings and feathers, while the finial at the tip lacked any sign of eagles or a cross, instead holding a fist-sized stone as black and shiny as obsidian wrapped in gold bindings. Still, the thing was no doubt worth a fortune, though Tegwen had little intention of selling it. This was a pristine artifact found within the center of a mysterious and clearly supernatural battlefield graveyard, she couldn’t possibly sell it without examining it first!

It was then that she realized that she had just taken an artifact from the center of a mysterious and clearly supernatural battlefield graveyard. Tegwen stood stock still for a moment before breaking out into a sprint, running as fast as she could towards the edge of the plain and the relative safety of the hills.

All around her the crows had gone from silent to a discordant symphony of angry caws, staring at her with large eyes as they shrieked, all the while the witch-hatted supernaturalist ran with all the speed her legs could muster.

“Nope, nopenopenopenopenopenopenope,” She repeated over and over again as she ran, the scepter still clutched in one hand with her walking stick in the other as she ran.

It only took a minute or so for her to clear the edge of the plain and rush back down the slope into a winding hillscape not unlike what she had been in before, prize still in hand. She only began to slow down, however, after she had rushed another kilometer or so from the plateau, leaving it far behind her.

Her run brought her to a river, and it was at the edge of the water that she finally came to a halt, her breath coming in heavy pants as she bent over, dropping her staff and the scepter as she rested her hands on her knees and took a moment to recover her thoughts.

“My, seems you ran quite a long ways.”

Tegwen’s head flew up as she looked for the source of the voice. Sitting on a stone rising from the water was an intensely beautiful woman. Wait….intensely beautiful? Tegwen checked her brain for a moment to make sure she was still heterosexual. Her mind replied back with a shrug. The woman was certainly not human, even at a glance. Her ears were lightly pointed at the tips, her eyes a bright sea-green, her dress was long and thin and looked to be almost made of drops of crystal water, and her hair was strikingly blue.

“Uuugh”, Tegwen went back to leaning over, still panting from her flight. “Sorry, could you just…give me a minute. That was a hard run. Ergh, thought I was in better shape than this…”

“I erm…” The spirit looked perplexed at her. “H-how about you go back to looking at me?”

“I will, I will, just one minute,” Tegwen said, picking the scepter up off the ground. “I just…whew, probably beat a personal record there. Damn, should’ve timed it…”

“Are you quite done?” The spirit asked.

“Ya, ya good to go,” Tegwen nodded, standing back up straight.

“Then how about we start over” The spirit’s smile grew wide, almost predatory as she set her eyes on Tegwen’s, and instantly she felt a pull like a lure of sensuality tugging the back of her mind.

“Oh, neat,” Tegwen smiled. “This is some kind of mental seduction, right? Like you’re luring me in? That combined with the whole water thing and…oh you’re a Morgen!”

The Morgen blinked, taken aback. “Umm…yes, now if you could go back to being seduced?”

“Oh, don’t worry I’m totally there,” Tegwen said, her hands no longer under her command as she unclasped her cloak. “I just kind of have a multi-track mind so I…heeeey, spirits don’t usually have a no-strings attached seduction thing do they?”

“Umm…yes, we do,” The Morgen nodded hurriedly. “Seriously just come on in, no repercussions.”

“No, no that doesn’t sound right…” Tegwen shook her head, even as she continued to unbutton her shirt. “Wait a minute…Morgens were like sirens! And sirens kill people!”

“No, no! That’s all propaganda, honest,” The Morgen said hurriedly. “Now if you could just get in the water…”

“Mmm…I think…I’m going to have to pass,” Tegwen’s hands froze as she began fortifying her mental resistance.

The Morgen rolled her eyes. “Oh, for the love of…” In one swift motion, she lunged from the water, tackling Tegwen to the ground as her teeth grew sharp and long like a shark’s.

In a panic and only half-thinking, Tegwen held the scepter up to defend herself, holding it sideways in her hand and pressing it to the biting Morgen’s throat to keep her jaws at bay.

“H-hey!” Tegwen shouted, pressing her head to the ground to avoid her lashing jaws. “N-no hurting me! That’s not allowed!”

There was a shift in the air, as if something imperceptible but all-encompassing had suddenly changed, as if the air had changed taste or the weather had shifted in an instant, even though all the world seemed the same.

The Morgen ceased her biting, pulling her head back as she seemed to recoil in sudden pain and horror, flinching as she raised an arm towards Tegwen.

“W-what did you do to me!?” She demanded as Tegwen rose, confused, to her feet.

“Ummm, I didn’t do anything…” Tegwen said before glancing at the scepter in her hands. The black stone at the tip seemed to be shining, though not in any way Tegwen could adequately describe. It was if it was shining black, emitting a kind of shadowy un-light around it, though the effect was fading rapidly. Tegwen took rapid mental notes even as the Morgen cowered in fear.

“But it made you stop,” Tegwen said. “So that kind of works for me.”

“That’s because I can’t hurt you!” The Morgen shouted. “Oh no…do you know what you’ve done!?”

“No, not even a little,” Tegwen shook her head.

“You’ve lain out a geas over me!” She shouted. “H-how did you even manage that!?”

“I guess this helped me do it.” Tegwen said, eyeing the scepter.

“A geas is a taboo of fate itself, you idiot human!”

“Hey, that hurts,” Tegwen said, she liked to think that was pretty bright.

Instantly the Morgen shuddered, as if lashed with pain “Ah! Sorry! I didn’t mean for that! Wh-what I mean to say…is that a geas is like a curse or a doom…it’s a command that can’t be broken governed by the laws of fate…humans aren’t supposed to meddle in that kind of thing…”

“Oh, right,” Tegwen nodded. “Like how Macbeth was fated never to be killed by a ‘man of woman born’, that kind of thing right?”

“I-I guess?” The Morgen said. “I don’t know who Macbeth is. But that sounds right.”

“Well if that’s the case then the geas is…oh, you’re fated never to hurt me now? Neat. Well that fixes my problem.”

“It’s not that simple!” The Morgen objected. “You worded it too broadly! I can’t just not hurt you…I need to do my best not to let other things hurt you!”

“Oh true…” Tegwen nodded. “Hurting by inaction still counts. Wow fate’s a real stickler about the wording…”

“No, you are” Morgen said. “The geas works by your command not fate you…where did you get that thing?”

“Spooky graveyard up the hill,” Tegwen jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Like a kilometer that way.”

“There’s no graveyard over there…”

“That explains a bit,” Tegwen said, checking her compass quickly and seeing it was working again. “Say…what’s your name anyway?”

The Morgen looked at her with a mix of confusion and irritation. “Why do you want to know?”

“Well if you’re unable to let me come to harm, then naturally you’re coming with me, right?” Tegwen asked.

“I…”

“So what’s your name? I’m Tegwen.”

“…Meredydd,” The Morgen said. “That’s my name, Meredydd, A-and who said I was traveling with you?”

“Well I’m not staying here,” Tegwen said as she picked up her walking stick and started to ford the river. “Besides, it’ll be nice to have company on the road. I’m sure you’ll come to like it eventually.”

Meredydd made no move at first, but soon she followed Tegwen into the river, crossing it with the ease of a water spirit.

“So you’re a kind of…explorer?” She asked.

“Of a sort,” Tegwen said. “But it’ll be nice to be traveling as two instead of one.”

A caw behind her made Tegwen flinch, and she looked back to see a trio of crows seated upon the branch of a nearby tree, all three of them with her eyes on her.

“Well…” She said. “Maybe more than two.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 24

 

The sea seemed to be never ending to Noemi. It reached out to endless horizons that curved off into limitless expanse. Having spent so much time running through the jungle, with its low branches and overgrown vines, where you could never see further than a few feet ahead before the view was blocked off or the light grew dark, the sea seemed a lot more…open. She had come to be known for standing on the deck, just letting the fresh ocean air breeze across her face and hair.

Sometimes the blue skies turned grey, dark clouds rolling across them and blocking the sun. Other times, they turned black, flashing lightning across the sky. At night, they lit up with the red and orange of the setting sun. The merchants always seemed happy when the sun went down, as the day’s work came to a close. The morning sun was treated with a lot less joy, especially compared to the joy Ophidia showed for it.

The goddess would often whisper in Noemi’s thoughts, far more than she did when she had Junko by her side. It seemed Ophidia felt just as cooped up on the sea as Noemi did, reaching out through their connection to talk and question Noemi about her plans.

As my champion, you should be working to increase my power, Noemi, by increasing the number of worshippers I have. For instance, there are a number of people aboard this ship…

“I’m not going to recruit a bunch of pirates to a cult, Ophidia,” Noemi hissed through her teeth, trying not to attract too much attention as she pulled the ropes to the sails, trying to catch the winds Ophidia was providing.

And why will you not?

“Because they’re pirates! Yeah, I know they said they’re honest traders, but I looked at the maps, we’ve been avoiding ‘safe’ ports in favor of heading to smaller, harder to get to docks. They’re pirates!”

They are still potential worshippers.

“Look, when we get to Hispaniola, I will set about getting us a permanent spot to build a shrine, and we’ll go from there. Though I don’t know how pious people will see me. I guess I can be a salesman easily enough…”

“CAPTAIN!” A voice shouted from above. Noemi looked up at the crow’s nest, a feature on ships that had come back into style as radar and global positioning systems became…less reliable. Noemi had been talking with the sailors about it. Many of them just scratched their heads, seeming to have forgotten the big metal behemoths that had sailed the seas just a few years prior. For many, the only way to sail the sea seemed to be with…well…sails.

“Land ho!” The lookout screamed, pointing somewhere off in the direction. The crew cheered, and Noemi could not blame them. After all, while she certainly preferred the sea to being cooped up in an Aztlan cage, it had been some time since they had seen land, and that had been a small island, barely even a waystation. To hit true, solid land, with actual ports and cities would be a relief after so much time spent on this ship.

“That’s funny,” the captain said, staring out through his spyglass towards where the lookout was gesturing. “Looks like there’s some fog rolling out from the coast.”

“Fog?” Noemi asked, leaning against the edge of the railing. It was still too far off to see anything but water on the horizon. The blue skies were a bit grayer than normal, considering there didn’t seem to be a storm coming. The wind Ophidia had created was still pushing them along at a good pace.

“We’ll just need to be careful as we approach, to avoid hitting a reef or getting stuck in the shallows,” the captain said, folding his spyglass and slipping it away. “In the meantime, boys, half-sails, we don’t want to come upon the beach too quickly, now.”

“Aye, captain!” a dozen voices called out in response, Noemi’s among them.

“Ophidia, can you slow the winds down a bit?” Noemi whispered under her breath.

It is not as if I am simply adjusting a dial, Noemi. But I will pull back my efforts and conserve my power. We do not know if this is truly Hispaniola.

“Well, we’ll find out soon enough,” Noemi said, as she started to pull the sails shut. She could barely feel the ship slowing beneath her feet. It was hard to tell at times if they were truly moving or simply drifting in place.

All the crew were bustling on board the deck, preparing for the promised land they were approaching. Crates needed to be fastened once more, sails tied, ropes secured. No one wanted to find themselves crashed upon the rocky shores.

As the sun began its descent from the zenith towards the western horizon, land could be seen from the deck of the ship by the naked eye. More accurately, the fog could be seen rolling across the sea, slowly crawling out to greet the ship. Noemi heard more than a little murmuring from the crew as they sailed towards the low gray cloud.

“Don’t like the feel of this,” one pirate said. “They say monsters lurk in the fog. Even fire don’t do much good inside of it.”

“Fire does alright,” another replied. “The problem ain’t the fire, it’s that you stand out like, well, a beacon if you’re carryin’ a torch. They’ll see you before you see them.”

“Enough chatter, men,” the captain said, silencing them all with a quick word. “Pilot says this is where Hispaniola should be. We might have been workin’ against the winds all this trip, but we should be coming up to a port soon enough, so eyes sharp.”

“Even through the fog, cap’n?”

“Aye, through the fog,” the captain said.  “There won’t be any Aztlan here, but for all we know, them stories of New Orleans and their Loa might have spread to here. Or even worse things. Get the guns ready for anything.”

Noemi continued at her post, watching the others prepare the ship for any hazards they might face. She prayed silently in her heart that it would turn out to be just fog. She had had enough to do with spirits and magic for a while. It would be refreshing to just have a weather phenomenon that wasn’t cause for magical alarm. Her hands pulled at the ropes, even as she heard the hissing of Ophidia’s tongue in her ears.

You should keep your wits about, Noemi. I do not like the way this looks.

“Well, fog does make sailing harder,” Noemi said, light heartedly.

The crew moved with relative silence, talking to one another, but the celebration that had come when they had heard of land had died down quickly. Noemi could feel it too, that slight tingle in the back of her neck that told her they were sailing into trouble. Still, their supplies were running low and the pilot assured them all, this was Hispaniola.

They sailed on, the wind dying down as the afternoon turned into evening. The fog rolled over them as they rocked along the waves, carried into the cloud. The air turned cold and wet and dark. Shadows seemed to be moving about the ship. Noemi held her hand in front of her face, moving it far away to see just how thick the fog was. Her hand grew shadowed as she moved it out, clear as she moved it in. The other people on the deck moved like grey silhouettes, those bearing torches standing out among the darkness.

“Captain!” The lookout cried again, from his perch up above. “Incoming vessels…Can’t make out who they are! Towards the bow!”

Noemi squinted as she looked out into the fog. She could just make out two large shadowy shapes moving towards them along the water, in no real hurry. The ships were smaller than the pirate vessel, though sleeker. Noemi could tell they weren’t meant to carry much storage, which mean they were unlikely to be pirates. Unfortunately, that only narrowed out one threat.

The men moved to the bow to stare, even as the captain barked orders for them to stay at their posts. The ships, a pair of sloops with gray sails to better meld with the fog, appeared from the haze. The figures on the deck were hard to make out, with ashen skin and drab clothing. It was as if the mist had given shape to people made of the same gray cloud.

The captain stepped beside Noemi as she stared down. One of the sloops sailed close to the pirate ship. As it drew near, Noemi could see the people aboard the ship were not…human. They looked human, in many ways, but their skin was a pallid white; their eyes were dark and empty. Gaunt figured, their hair clung to their skin like slimy leeches.

One of the figures spoke up to the deck of the ship, its voice sounding at once both faraway and right beside Noemi’s ear.

“Yo ho, children of day,” the voice said. Noemi’s spine stiffened involuntarily, but she felt Ophidia’s presence fill her heart, keeping her from freezing. Most of the crew were not so lucky. “Welcome to the waters of the night. The Lost Fleet welcomes you to your new service.”

Noemi’s hand fell to her machete as she drew it. The men were staring down, almost as if in a trance. She didn’t know what this Lost Fleet was, but it didn’t sound like anything she wanted to do. No, if the ship was going to be commandeered by some ghost pirate or naval fleet, she would find her own way to the shore, if it came to that. The other sailors looked to each other, muttering and asking one another what should be done. The ghostly captain’s voice drifted along the wind up to the ship once again.

“Of course, for those who choose to resist their fate…the ocean will welcome you, to the lands where the sun reaches not. Your worldly goods belong to the Fleet, with or without you.”

“Come on, men!” The captain bellowed. “If’n both options be death, then let us at least sink their ships before they can sink ours!”

“But captain…how do you shoot a ghost?”

“They may be ghosts but their ships are still wood! Guns at the ready!”

“Yes, captain!”

Noemi joined the chorus, even as she subtly made her way to the rowboat. She knew she wasn’t the only one who would have thought of such a plan, and there were only so many boats aboard the ship. She saw the crew move through the fog, many heading below the decks to pack gunpowder into the cannons.

“Captain…” The lookout’s voice rang out once again. “There’s another ship coming, port side.”

Noemi looked over the edge of the railing. Sure enough, there was a third ship sailing through the fog, though this one seemed far away. She heard movement on the sloop below them. The ghosts were rushing about, pulling their ghastly sails away, loading their cannons.

“I don’t think it’s a friend of theirs, captain,” Noemi said, with a grin.

“It might not be a friend of ghosts, but that doesn’t mean it’s a friend of ours! Raise the sails, men, we’re making a run for it!”

Noemi could barely tell what was happening in the confusion that followed. People rushed to and fro, pulling on ropes and adjusting the rudder, heading down below the decks. The sloops seemed to be preparing to flee as well, though their sailors were still brandishing their swords and pistols at the pirates.

“Captain, I don’t think…”

She heard the sound of the cannons before she got the sentence out. The sloops might have been running, but if they couldn’t have the ship, they would make sure their rival didn’t. Noemi gripped the railing as the cannonballs tore through the hull, rocking the ship.

“Return fire!” the captain ordered, firing their own broadsides back at the sloops. Noemi’s struggled to keep her feet as the ship moved back and forth from the force of the cannons. She could fight in the streets, in the jungle. There was always a place to run or jump, a solid piece of ground to land on. Here, there was nothing as she nearly slipped.

The second volley was too much for her. As the wood splintered in the explosion, Noemi found herself flying backwards off the ship, the railing snapping behind her.

“Caaaaptaaaain!” She cried out as she grabbed fruitlessly at the air, the pirates’ growing smaller and smaller until they were barely larger than toy soldiers to her eyes. Noemi crashed into the water back first. The first thing she noticed was the cold as the ocean water chilled her to her bone. The second thing was the pain the impact had upon her spine. Had she not been blessed by Ophidia, Noemi would have probably died, joining countless others on the ocean floor.

She pushed the water back, swimming furiously for the light of the surface. With her first gasp of breath, she screamed in pain. The second breath she called out to the pirates.

“Captaaain! Come back! Don’t leave me like that!”

They are not coming, Noemi.

“Well someone has to! Ghosts! Hey! I want to join your fleet!” Noemi waved her arms, trying to get the ghosts attentions. It failed. The sloops were sailing away just as her ride was. “Someone, please! Anyone! Come back!”

Noemi.

“Please, I don’t want to die here, in the water! Someone help me!”

Noemi. The ship is coming closer.

“The ship, what shi-“ Noemi said as she spun around in the cold salty water, her face going pale. The ship that had scared the ghosts was sailing towards her. Even from a distance, she could tell it was big. Bigger than the pirate ship she had been sailing with. Its hull was made of black wood, covered with slimy green rime. The water around it seemed to glow from an unseen light source. Its sails were tatters, holes letting the last light of the sun shine through, though it didn’t seem to affect its movement. In fact, it was traveling with far greater speed than Noemi expected.

She treaded water for a bit as the large vessel sailed towards her. Noemi was about to call up, waving her arms when a rope ladder was dropped down the side. Thankful just to get out of the icy water, Noemi grabbed hold of the ladder and started climbing her way up, shivering the whole time. The rope was slimy and slippery, though she could feel Ophidia curling around her shoulder and neck beneath her shirt as she pulled herself up, giving her the balance needed to keep from falling.

After the longest climb of her life, Noemi finally pulled herself aboard the ship, gasping for breath as she collapsed into a shivering soaking pile upon the deck. She looked up to see a pair of boots. Slowly, she raised her eyes. A man was standing above her, looking down at her with a smirk upon his face.

“Well, now, isn’t this a surprise. You made the climb still living,” the man said, laughing. Noemi just collapsed again, exhausted from the effort. The last thing she remembered hearing before drifting off was his laughing voice telling her one more thing, something that chilled her more than the water did.

“The name’s Jonah. Welcome aboard The Flying Dutchman.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Inner Demons

 

The young red-haired girl took the bread cautiously from Asha’s hand. She glanced furtively around to make sure none of the other beggars were watching as she hid it quickly in the folds of her ragged cloak, nodding in a silent thanks to Asha. She remained quiet, watching the girl leave as her companions admonished her for giving out bread to the poor in Damascus. It was smart criticism; there were many who weren’t starving nearly as much as she was still out begging on the streets. Though the fact that Asha had singled her out told the girl a lot about her. It told her that Asha was kind, generous, and had a sense for things she still did not quite grasp completely.

A few minutes later she stood up and moved quickly into the closest alley, going from a quick walk into a run when she cleared the busier streets, still clutching the bread wrapped in her cloak with one hand as she moved at speed through the cramped, filthy, and labyrinthine alleyways of Damascus. Her feet were bare, and the hard gravel, ruined asphalt, and bare stone was rough on her calloused feet, but she fought through it. A person couldn’t afford to stop or be cornered in this kind of place or else…

She turned into another narrow alley and saw two larger men standing at the opposite end. Cursing inwardly she turned to run back, only to see another man blocking the entrance to the alley.

All three of them began to move in, boxing her in as she searched frantically for an escape. The walls were easily ten meters high on either side with nothing to climb. The sides of the alley were lines with trash and other refuse, but it wasn’t enough to hide in and there was no point in trying.

She felt the one behind her take hold of her cloak, pulling it back to slide her hood from her head as the other two pulled in.

“Well, what cute little thing’s fallen into our net this time?” The biggest, seemingly the leader asked, placing a large dirt-calloused hand on her red-haired head. She knocked his hand away, but could feel how much more strength he had in that arm than she had in hers.

“Now see, that’s not very nice of you,” The thug only grinned at her stubbornness. “If you’re going to be like that then we’re just going to have to be rougher about this, aren’t we? Wouldn’t you rather this go easily?”

The girl took in a deep breath, if worst came to worst…

She felt one of them place a rough hand on her shoulder as the others checked her hands, one of them holding up the bread she had been given.

“Aw, she even brought us a little gift on the side,” The leader said. “How thoughtful.”

“That belongs to u…to me,” The girl said sharply, amber eyes flashing.

“No, see I don’t think you get it,” The thug said. “You might be new to this part of the city, but you’re in my territory. I’m like…well I’m like a king here, like what they’ve got in Babylon.”

“Ain’t the king in Babylon a chick?” One of his crew spoke up.

“Shut it, you idiot. It’s the idea. Point is, everything belongs to the king, so if he wants your bread, your stuff, or your body, then you give it up. Got it?”

The girl spat at his feet. “You are nothing but street slime. Render unto us that which is ours.”

The faces of the other brutes fell into almost exaggerated grimaces, but the leader seemed to keep a calm expression, even as his hand curled into a large fist.

“See, that was rather rude. And when you’re rude to a king, then you get punished. Some kings chopped off hands as punishment, but I’ll just settle for giving you a beating before taking what’s mine.”

His fist came down in a hard swing towards her head, but even before it struck her skin his entire arm seemed to erupt into flames.

As he stared at his hand in silent shock the fire dimmed, and they could only stare at the remains of his arm. Nothing of his lower arm past the elbow remained save for empty air and the ashen memory of bone near the scorched stump. A silence hung in the air for a half a moment as his face changed slowly from stunned confusion, to anguish and a scream began to erupt from his lungs.

Fire filled the alley, an inferno that burned brilliant red as it flew in a great conflagration almost to the rooftops before dying out just as quickly. A sudden burst of light and heat that many in the surrounding streets simply shrugged off as one of the city’s many oddities.

The girl fled from the alley again, bread in hand, leaving nothing in her wake save for the outlines of three men left in the scorched building walls and the faint smell of burning rubbish.

She managed to reach her hideout without further molestation, tucking herself into a small lean-to built into the side of a building, empty save for her sleeping mat and what few odds and ends that she kept around. Taking one last furtive glance around, she took a large bite out of the bread and chewed it, thoughts heavy  as she tried to make the taste of the bread last as long as it could, chewing it well past the point of necessity as she felt the stomach-filling food dissolve between her tooth.

Damascus was free of three rotten souls, she didn’t particularly mind her actions. What irritated her was that it needed to happen at all. If too many incidents like that happened around her people might start asking questions and she would need to relocate to another district of the city. At least this time she didn’t appear to have left any witnesses…

A sharp knock on top of her shelter sent warnings through her body as she sprang to alertness. She swallowed the bread, tucking the rest of it away as she nervously opened the small curtain that marked the entrance.

Standing before the lean-to, alone in the narrow courtyard, was a single woman dressed all in black traveling clothes. Her skin was an unnaturally pale white and her hair a void-like black above scintillating green eyes, a crooked smile set upon her face.

“You,” The girl’s face set into a harsh scowl. “What are you doing here? We thought you were URIEL’s lab rat?”

“Now that’s unkind,” the woman said. “And here I was overjoyed to see you. May I come in or would I be intruding, your majesty?”

The last words were delivered with a powerful air of mockery and sarcasm which the girl did not appreciate. But nevertheless she pulled herself back into her shelter, giving the pale woman the room to slip inside.

“Oh, this is lovely,” She smiled. “So what name are you going by now, is it still Rachel?”

“Rachel is our name,” she said stubbornly. “And it’s staying that way.”

“Tsk, that won’t do, you’ll need at least two,” the woman said.

“And you?” Rachel asked. “What moniker do you have now, is it still Dantalion?”

“No, that one fell out of favor a long time ago; I go by Constance now. Constance U. Smith.”

“’U?’” Rachel raised an eyebrow. “What does the ‘U’ stand…ah, irrelevant. We don’t care to know. It’s an appropriately ironic name we suppose, ‘Constance’. Why are you here?”

“To check in, of course. I was quite surprised to see you, though I was less surprised that you failed to greet me, even if it does sting a bit. I thought we were friends.”

“You are a heretic and a troublemaker,” Rachel said, eyes narrowed.

“Now that hurts, right here,” Constance mocked pain and placed her hand over her chest.

“You have no heart,” Rachel spat.

“Well that makes one of us,” Constance’s smile came back. “Truth be told I came on behalf of someone else.”

“The girl,” Rachel nodded, picking up the remaining bread. “And her companions.”

“That’s right. I’m surprised none of them sensed you, you must be keeping all that power tucked away quite deep.”

“What do they want?” Rachel asked impatiently.

“They want to overthrow the Queen of Babylon,” Constance smiled.

Rachel stopped chewing her bread for a moment as she eyed Constance.

“We do not like getting humans caught up in our plans,” Rachel said, stuffing the bread back into her mouth, swallowing the last of it before speaking. “We really don’t like getting strange spirit-hybrids caught up in it.”

“Why? Do you dislike the company?” Constance asked, and Rachel shot her a venomous look.

“The way I see it,” Constance continued. “All you wanted was Shadiya out of the way, and these people can accomplish it, given the proper resources and contacts. You didn’t want Babylon, you just want Shadiya and URIEL to crumble. Then you can move forward with…whatever plan it is you have, and I can move forward with mine.”

“It is that last part we take umbrage with,” Rachel said. “We know you well enough to know how untrustworthy you are.”

“Why do people keep saying that?” Constance asked. “I am perfectly trustworthy, I have never gone back on my word, as well you know. If anyone’s untrustworthy it’s you humans.”

“If there is one thing to be relied upon,” Rachel said. “It is your utter and all-consuming ignorance of how humans operate.”

“Ignorant and proud!” Constance’s grin grew.

“Ignorant maybe, but we know you well enough to not be fooled. You want something out of this, and we are always concerned about the desires of heretics.”

“Oh, I desire many things, quite a few of them heretical to certain minds,” Constance said. “But what I desire right now, and what concerns you, is a free and independent Babylon…as well as a crown upon your kingly head.”

Rachel paused in her thinking. She could see the lure before her, knew how well Constance had baited it. This was the easiest and most transparent kind of trap…or it would be for the malevolent. Constance might be a demon, but even demons were only malevolent around half the time and Constance…Constance was strange even by demonic standards, even before URIEL had performed its experiments and done strange things to an already strange mind.

“We will make no deals and strike no bargains…at least not yet,” Rachel settled on finally. “But we are curious about this group. They have an air of fate about them.”

“Oh yes, they’re all quite entangled in the fate of Babylon and this region as a whole. The girl, Asha, has been touched by the Lady of the Future herself,” Constance nodded. “They are the metaphysical envy of those who wish to influence the future of this land.”

Rachel sighed. This was too good an opportunity to pass up, and both of them knew it. She had been handed the solution to many of her problems, she simply objected to the messenger. Still, Constance was a nuisance and a rogue element, not necessarily her enemy.

“Fine,” Rachel said. “We will seek them out on my own and in my own time. And if things go well, we might even see fit to…give you our thanks.”

“That would be lovely,” Constance’s crooked grin never faltered. “It’s been centuries since anyone ever thanked me for anything.”

“And we shall see if you deserve a king’s gratitude,” Rachel growled.

“Indeed, we will, though that also depends on you becoming a king,” Constance said. “At least you have the diction down to an extent.”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “That’s enough. Begone from our sight.”

“A simple goodbye will suffice,” Constance gave her one last teasing grin as she slipped like a shadow out from the shelter.

Rachel sighed as she laid back on her sleeping mat. Constance might be more trouble than she’s worth, but it was true that she never lied and that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And much as she’d like to believe otherwise, Rachel only had a single lifetime to set her plan in motion.

This would have to do.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa