The Snake and the Mirror

From Distant Shores

 

The clouds began to part, the bright sun shining down as the Flying Dutchman passed over the waters of the world, finding itself once more in the brilliant blue waters of the Caribbean, far from the cold waters of the battle against the Naglfar. The dragons had departed and the ghost ships had returned to the bottom of the sea where they belonged, now only the Dutchman remained.

Jormungandr had not reappeared since it had sunk beneath the water, the great black ship Naglfar held in its jaws. Though according to Ophidia, it had sent its approving rumbles through the water, and the great serpent was going back to sleep until the days of Ragnarok truly arrived.

“A bit ominous” Noemi had said as the Dutchman made sail. Ophidia had retaken her humanoid form, now a full head taller than Noemi, dressed in a long cape of brilliant white scales matched by her feathered white hair.

“It is the way of things, Noemi. Some things must happen as is Fate’s design.”

“Maybe” Noemi said “What about Tezcatlipoca’s empire? Was that meant to happen?”

Ophidia’s brow furrowed. “You know that is something I cannot answer.”

“Yeah I know.” Noemi nodded “But I’m not going to worry about fate, about the things that do and don’t have to be. Come hell or high water I’m going to topple a God-King.”

“And you know I shall be with you all the way” Ophidia said.

 

The mist streamed from the Dutchman’s hull, dissipating in the warm air as it evaporated in the sun, leaving the ghostly ship to sail across the clear water as the sea around them gained more clarity. In the distance, they could see the familiar shape of the shore rising from the seas.

“Here we are” Jonah announced as he walked along the deck “Right where I picked you up, not too much worse for wear.”

“I appreciate the ride, Captain.” Noemi smiled.

“Pleasure’s mine” Jonah said, smiling back.

“Any chance we’ll see you again?”

“Probably shouldn’t hope to” Jonah said “I still have a job to do and if you find the Flying Dutchman in your wake it’s likely not a good omen.”

“Fair enough” Noemi nodded.

“That said…” Jonah added “There’s a lot of ghost pirates in these waters, it’ll take some efforts to clear them all out, might be sticking to the Caribbean for a while. Though as the new captain of the Flying Dutchman I’ll have to meet a few of my fellow marine dignitaries.”

“Like who?” Noemi asked.

“Oh you know, Atlantis and the like. They need to be kept abreast of the supernatural critters wandering the seas.”

Noemi stared at him for a long second, a hardened look on her face.

“…you’re pulling my leg aren’t you?”

“Not at all!” Jonah said hurriedly “I really do need to stop by Atlantis!”

“Is it full of, like, mermaids?” Noemi asked.

“No…well not entirely.” Jonah said “The natives aren’t but there’s a lot of-”

“Trust me, Captain, wooing a mermaid ain’t worth the effort.” They were interrupted by Ronny’s arrival on deck. “ ‘Sides all the best parts are fish.”

“Is that right?” Jonah asked, turning to her “No point chasing mermaids then?”

“None.” Ronny said, hands on her hips.

“Well then maybe I’ll have better luck with elves.” Jonah said, casually turning as he walked towards the helm.

“O-oi!” Ronny shouted after him “What’s that supposed to…rrr…” She finished with a growl as he walked off.

“Heh, so where are you headed, Dread Pirate Ronny?” Noemi asked.

“I think I’ll stay aboard the Dutchman for a while.” Ronny said “Jonah’s an immortal ghost now, and still more man then spirit. He’ll need company other than the dead.”

“Oho” Noemi grinned “Want to share your company with him, all through those cold ocean nights?”

Ronny’s face turned a delightful shade of red as she rounded on Noemi “Watch it Red, I’m just doing what’s best for the sea. Dutchman’s no good if its captain is half-addled and stir-crazy.”

“Agreed” Noemi said before adding with a warm smile “Take care of him, Ronny.”

“Aye I will, and what about yourself, Red? Gonna kill yourself a God-King?”

“It’s on my to-do list.” Noemi nodded “First things first I need to start spreading Ophidia’s cult back to the mainland. Need some divine power to fill the vacuum once Tezcatlipoca’s conquered.”

“No easy thing.” Ronny said “But you did pretty respectably here on deck. I’m not one for gods general, but I have faith in you, and the snake-feather lady.”

“Heh, thanks, Ronny.”

“Thank you, Rhonwen.” Ophidia appeared beside them, half-causing Ronny to jump.

“Eesh…well, anyone who can scare the undergarments of Morgan le Fay is not to be trifled with in my book. That Western god doesn’t know what’s going to hit him.”

“Agreed” Noemi said.

 

It was late afternoon and a small rowboat from the shore had come to pick up Noemi. When it was close enough to see in detail, she was delighted to see that there was no rower, merely Junko resting as the boat propelled itself towards the Dutchman, pushed along by the water spirit.

With a single spirited leap Junko had moved up over the gunwale to join them.

“Afternoon, Boss” She did a mock salute as she greeted Noemi before a smile of relief broke across her face. “Glad to see you’re okay.”

“It’ll make a hell of a story, Junko.” Noemi smiled “Let me say my farewells and we can ship off.”

Noemi gave her farewells to Ronny, teasing the elf one last time before moving to the helm. Jonah was there, leaning on the wheel as she approached.

“Guess this is where I get off.” Noemi said “Thanks for everything, Jonah.”

“Ah before you go, Noemi.” He said, rising from the wheel “There is…one last thing I  wanted to tell you.”

“Oh?” Noemi looked at him, curious.

“The girl you were looking for. You said her name was…Gisela?”

“Yeah, Gisela Silva.” Noemi said. “Why?”

“Well here’s the thing…I know most of what Davy Jones knows. I know the name of every ship, monster, and lost soul at the bottom of the sea…but I also know the people who escaped him. A few years ago, there was a girl who was thrown overboard in these waters during a pirate attack and should have been claimed by him, another drowned soul to be sorted to the afterlife by the sea…but she was snatched up by something else.”

“…what are you saying, Jonah?”

“I’m saying Gisela Silva is alive, or at the very least she didn’t drown at sea.” Jonah said “And she’s under the protection of…something. Probably a local god.”

“Do you know where she is?” Noemi spoke rapidly, closing the distance between them, her hands shaking in her gloves. “Do you know if she’s alright?”

“N-not specifically!” Jonah said hurriedly “S-somewhere in Europe. She managed to cross the Atlantic, and then crossed Gibraltar later…”

“Europe…” Noemi stared for a moment towards the horizon before her face split into a smile. “Mmm…so she made it.”

“Wait…you’re alright with this?” Jonah asked.

“I am” Noemi smiled “I…I know that she escaped, and that’s enough for me…thank you, Jonah.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t bring it up sooner.” He said “I wasn’t sure how you’d react…though I will say I’m a bit surprised. That said…If she’s anything like you, I think she’ll be fine.”

Noemi smiled and pulled him in for a tight hug.

“Safe travels, Captain.” She said.

“And to you, Noemi.”

 

Noemi spent most of the trip to shore and the evening going over the details of the battle. The people in the shore, the members of Ophidia’s growing cult and the townsfolk all staunchly opposed to Aztlan’s spread were delighted to see the return of Noemi and their white-haired goddess. Until long after the sun had set, Noemi was enthralling them with the story of the battle between the ocean’s greatest magic ships, the thundering guns of the Flying Dutchman against the chains and iron hull of the Naglfar, the arrival of the host of dragons, Ophidia’s defeat of the powerful witch, and the World Serpent delivering the blow that sank the Naglfar.

The moon was high in the sky and most of the people had gone to bed when Noemi found herself on the shoe, the water painted silver by the moon and stars as she looked out towards the sea.

“You were right, that’s quite a tale, boss.” Junko said, slipping from the shadows to stand beside her.

“All true, swear on my life.” Noemi smiled. “How’ve things been here?”

“Dull in comparison” Junko sighed “A few attempted raids, none succeeded, and the jungle spirits are making sure Aztlan can’t figure out where this place is. Most of the incidents have been dumb luck on their part. Made a few pirate friends as well, not all the seas are safe for red sails anymore.”

“Good” Noemi nodded. “We’ll need all the help we can get.”

“…Hey boss?”

“Yeah, Junko?”

“I overheard what you and Jonah were talking about.” She said “About your friend, Gisela.”

“Mmm…”

“I thought you’d be gearing up to sail across the Atlantic to find her again.” Junko said “Isn’t she what all this is for?”

“Not really.” Noemi said “All this…this is for you, for the people here, for everyone Aztlan has victimized and sacrificed. It’s for Ophidia, and it’s for Anton. I can’t…keep running after every stray rumor I hear about Gisela. All I know is she’s in Europe and even then that’s only a maybe.”

“Right…”

“Did I ever tell you what Tezcatlipoca said to us?” Noemi asked “At the end, when she let us escape?”

“Not really.

“She told us that she wanted us to run. That she wanted us to run as fast and as far as we could, to spread fear of him to every corner of the continent, telling us that no matter where we went or where we hid, the Night Wind would be at our backs.”

“Ah…” Junko fell silent.

“And I realized…that’s what I’ve been doing.” Noemi said “not exactly, I haven’t been running from Tess all this time per se…but I have been running. I’ve been running from my fear, from the things I had to do, and most of all I was just running after Gisela…hell I might have just been running after the ghost of her, the part of her I wanted to remember.”

“And now?” Junko asked.

“Now I’m not running” Noemi smiled “I’m digging my heels into the sand and staring Tess in the eye. I’m not scared of her warriors or her pirates or the Night Wind.”

“And that is why I know you will succeed, Noemi”

From out of the woods the great serpentine form of Ophidia slithered into view, abandoning human shape to take on her aspect as a colossal feathered serpent.

“Because I know you will not crumble You are the pillar upon which my power was built.”

“Thanks, Ophidia” Noemi smiled.

“Hey boss” Junko said “How do you think she’s doing? Gisela, I mean. Jonah said she had something looking out for her.”

“Well…while I hope she’s got a good god on her side like I do” Noemi said “I know Gisela…better than that I think I know who she can be…I like to think she’s not running anymore either. In fact, I’m sure she isn’t.”

Noemi put her hands on her hips, looking out across the sea “She’s my sidekick, I know what she’s made of, and I know that I’m going to see her again one day.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The Snake and the Mirror

The Rising Dawn

 

“What do you have to show me?” Asha walked with Varia and Leyla through the streets of Babylon, towards where one of the broadcast towers had been torn down. Over the past week, although there was still chaos in the upper echelons, something resembling normalcy had begun to set in.

Signs of the end of Shadiya’s reign were everywhere. The great paintings and murals depicting her benevolent image were being torn down, most of the monsters had fled or been forcibly evicted with the remains of URIEL either captured or exiled as well. The Palace was now being called the City Capitol, and there, hundreds of people gathered each day to debate the future of the city. It was a mess, and one Asha had to help arbitrate, but the city would not be ruled by a supernatural dictator.

“This,” Varia said as they cleared a temporary fence surrounding the tower. “This is how Shadiya’s towers were compelling the monsters.”

Each of the broadcast towers had been topped by a large iron dome, and the dome of this one had been sundered open when it fell. Asha visibly shuddered as she looked at what had spilled out of it and into the streets. It looked more than a little like an enormous brain, slimy and revolting as it lay half-spilled out of its metal shield.

“The hell is it?” Asha asked, not wanting to step closer.

“If I had to guess…this was either a more horrible brood of hers, or another misbegotten URIEL experiment.”

“Disgusting,” Leyla said. “We’ll have to bring all the towers down. Burn it all.”

“Agreed,” Varia said. “One more task for the list.”

Asha sighed. “It gets longer every day. And we’re not making much progress in forming a government.”

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Leyla said. “Didn’t you say it took Rome months?”

“Something like that…” Asha nodded. “But we still have one big problem.”

“Agreed,” Varia said. “Though I might have a solution; shall we go see her?”

“Let’s,” Asha nodded.

Together the three of them made their way deeper through the city, closing the covered fence surrounding the tower until it could be dealt with. They walked to a small building near the palace that Asha and the others had been using as a place to stay, away from the crowds of the Capitol and the rising prominence of the Ishtar Cult’s temples. Most importantly, it was a place with a small secure vault in the basement where a person could be hidden away.

Inside were Eli and Hazif, chatting as they sat beside the window.

“Welcome back, boss,” Eli said as they entered. Hazif merely greeted them with a polite nod.

“Your darling busy, Hazif?” Leyla smiled.

“She’s downstairs,” Hazif shrugged it off. “Though you might want to call her off because the ghost has been pestering her.”

Asha sighed. “Of course she has.”

Asha pulled a rug aside, revealing a small trapdoor with an embedded lock. Unlocking it with a key from her belt, she slipped inside first with Leyla and Varia close behind her.

The trapdoor led down into a cellar, one part of which had been sealed off with a wall and sturdy door to isolate it completely. Standing guard at the door were Constance, floating a little off the ground, and Freny, who seemed at the very edge of her temper.

Given her company, Asha could hardly blame her.

“Freny, you’re relieved,” Asha said. “Hazif is upstairs.”

Freny didn’t need telling twice, brushing quickly past them and all but launching herself up the stairs both to meet Hazif and get away from Constance.

“What have you been doing to her, demon?” Asha said, putting her hands on her hips.

“Absolutely nothing,” Constance smiled.

“Which is also what you were doing when we were saving the city,” Asha growled.

“Be honest with yourself, would you really want me around?” Constance smiled. “I’m good at some things, coup d’états are not on that list.”

“I don’t like having you around at all,” Asha said. “But I also don’t like not knowing where you are.”

“Perhaps that won’t be your problem for very long,” Constance’ smile never wavered.

Asha decided not to take her rise and instead went to the door, unlocking the heavy steel lock as she swung it open.

The room was outfitted much like a prison cell, nothing but a bed, sink, and small toilet without windows or any real distraction. Sitting on the bed, hands on her knees, was Shadiya, or at least what was left of her.

Shadiya looked at Asha inquisitively, with none of the malice that had filled her in their battle at the palace.

“Oh, you’re back,” She said innocently. “I didn’t know I would have visitors today.”

“I see,” Varia said, stepping past Asha to get closer to her. “And you’re saying she remembers nothing? Are you sure it isn’t a ruse?”

Asha moved forward, gently but firmly taking hold of Shadiya’s wrist.

“Do you know who you are?” Asha asked.

“No, I told you already I don’t,” Shadiya said, and Asha didn’t feel so much as a tingle run through her fingers.

“She’s not lying,” Asha said.

“There are more tests I’d like to run,” Varia said. “But if that is the case, then my only guess is that when you purged Tiamat from her spirit, it had some unintended side-effects on her mind. The URIEL conditioning on her must have been rigorous. This is likely what they wanted Shadiya to be, powerful yet suggestible, her old life entirely erased. But Tiamat slithered into that blank slate and made something monstrous.

“Umm…excuse me,” Shadiya said softly. “Can either of you tell me who I am? Am I supposed to just sit here?”

“We’re…working on that,” Asha said, and with a gesture she led the two of them back out of the cell, sealing it and Shadiya behind the door.

“So, we don’t have many options,” Asha said. “People are asking what happened to Shadiya. They want a corpse, though a few just want her back in power.”

“Not surprising,” Varia said. “She’s the only stable thing a lot of them have known the past few years.”

“Eli said if that this truly is all that’s left of her, then executing her does no one any good,” Leyla said. “And I agree. We needed Shadiya overthrown; we don’t need a new city built on the image of her severed head.”

“I’ve stalled the people all I can,” Asha said. “Soon enough, I’ll have to tell them what happened.”

“You could lie,” Varia said. “Say she died in your attack on the palace and was incinerated. How many people know she’s here?”

“Only a handful,” Asha said. “And I…I don’t know, maybe someone could do it but I’m not about to tell that kind of lie, especially not when Shadiya is right here in the city.”

“My, my, such a web you’ve made for yourself,” Constance smiled. “See? Isn’t constantly telling the truth so inconvenient?”

“Shut it,” Asha growled. “What are your thoughts, Doctor?”

Varia sighed, hands on her hips. “Keeping her alive in the city is a problem unless you plan to announce what you’re doing. And if you do that she’ll only become a martyr for the people who still want her in power. And as this entire revolution was built upon destroying her image as a leader, you can’t very well make her your puppet, easy as it might be now.”

“If we did that we’d just be URIEL all over again,” Leyla said.

“There is an alternative,” Varia said, putting her hand to her chin.

“And that is?” Asha asked.

“Exile,” Varia said. “Whether public or just to cover the lie that’s said, banish her from the city, make sure she never returns and she’s going somewhere far away.”

“How can we do that?” Asha asked. “She’s not self-sufficient enough to survive out there. It’d just be a death sentence, sending her out to die of exposure while risking she might be seen or wander back.”

Varia shook her head. “Not if you sent her with someone to look after her, someone you trust who is going far away, with no intention of coming back.”

“…Ah,” Asha said. “Right…”

“Mind filling me in?” Leyla asked.

“I plan to leave Babylon within a fortnight,” Varia said. “I’m going to Rome.”

“Rome is a long way,” Leyla said. “And there’s a lot of evil between there and here.”

“I might look like a lab rat, but I can take care of myself,” Varia said. “Besides, Shadiya might not know her own strength right now, but I have no doubt there’s still a lot of power in there.”

“You’d be willing to do that?” Asha asked. “She’s not going to be easy to look after, and if she relapses…”

“I still remember most of URIEL’s old trigger phrases. I’ll run some tests over the next week or so like I said, but I should be able to have some contingencies. I don’t plan to walk into the desert unarmed in any sense of the word.”

“Alright, but I want to be present for all of these tests,” Asha said.

“Of course,” Varia said. “Good to have a living lie detector…but if she really is a lost soul erased under URIEL’s condition, then maybe this time I have the chance to put it right.”

“Then that’ll be our plan for now,” Asha said.

Later that evening found Asha on the building’s second floor balcony, looking out over the city.

“Surprised you’re not in your book with Cat,” Leyla said as he moved behind her, sliding a hand around her waist. “You two have been talking nonstop recently.”

“Heh, I wish,” Asha smiled. “We just exorcized the ghost of a Primordial, Cat took on a live one by herself.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Leyla said. “We got away with some pretty amazing things there. And we have a city to keep from tearing itself open.”

“I’m worried about it,” Asha sighed. “What if we just wind up with another dictator?”

“If we do,” Leyla said. “Then it’ll at least be a dictator that the people chose, and we can deal with that if we need to. Besides, the city is getting proper divine patrons now. I hear there are shrines of Marduk and Ea being built now, people won’t need a human figure to worship like they worshipped Shadiya.”

Asha leaned on the railing of the balcony. “I suppose…though I don’t think either of us are really cut out for this kind of political work.”

“We’ll just get the ball rolling,” Leyla said. “Make sure it’s safe, make sure it’s a city that helps its people and becomes a proper sanctuary…then you and I can go back out into the desert, hunting monsters.”

“Well we have the others along as well now,” Asha smiled. “I bet Freny would like the hunting life.”

“No doubt,” Leyla nodded, pulling her in closer. “But no matter what, no matter where we go, there’s always going to be you and me, got it?”

Asha smiled, leaning into him. “Heh, that is at least one good thing that came out of this, isn’t it? You know Cat won’t stop teasing me about it.”

“Isn’t Cat dating someone herself now?”

“Mmhmm, her friend Rosa.”

“Well give her hell about that,” Leyla smiled.

“Already do,” Asha said, grinning. “She’s really easy to tease, just like you.”

“I’m not THAT easy to tease.”

“Oh, you absolutely are,” Asha smiled. “But that’s half of why I keep you around.”

“I think I liked you more when you were in that glass box.”

Asha chuckled as she leaned against him. “So…any idea where we’re going next?”

“Not a clue,” Leyla said. “But it’s a big world. I’m sure we’ll find something.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 55

 

The great arm of Nidhoggr, as thick around as the largest tree, slammed into the hard earth of the Brocken, sending up a shower of snow and loose stone as the long black claws dug into the earth. Cat rolled across the ground, missing the blow by precious little space as she quickly got back on her feet just in time to see the undulating coils of Nidhoggr’s seemingly endless tail lashing at her like an immense whip. Cat ducked low, the tail’s diseased flesh passing over her with terrifying force. Her sword lashed up, barely grazing the rapidly moving flesh, but even that was enough to send another scorching cut across its flesh, the wound burning with blue flame as it ate at Nidhoggr’s flesh.

Cat straightened herself back up as Nidhoggr pulled back its head, lungs swelling as its mouth and throat filled with corrosive gas. She raised her hand, concentrating as a great shield of wind and frost formed before her, thick layers of colorless ice spreading like a spiderweb just as the powerful jet of hellish gas collided with it, eating through the first few layers as it spread across the mountaintop.

With a thrust of her palm, the ice shield shattered into a floating field of razor ice, and with another gesture all of it launched at Nidhoggr as a swirling wind of mist cleared the poison from the mountaintop. The ice couldn’t do real damage to the dragon, but it still winced as it cut at its eyes and gave Cat the time she needed to close the distance between them.

Nidhoggr braced itself on the ground, head darting down to snap at Cat, but she was quicker than she looked, magic flowing into her feet and legs as Nidhoggr snapped at empty air. The dragon recoiled, but not quickly enough to stop Cat from rending a long diagonal gash across its armored chest. Ceruleamor, shining with power, cut easily through bone and armored scale as it tore at the very spirit of the dragon.

Nidhoggr roared in mixed pain and fury, and Cat had to lunge to the side to avoid being crushed as Nidhoggr’s claw tore at the ground where she’d been standing.

“That all you have, dragon!?” Cat jeered, watching her feet as she tried to keep herself aware of Nidhoggr’s entire gigantic sinewy body. Speed was the key here. Cat didn’t think she could kill Nidhoggr by swinging her sword. She needed to keep the dragon occupied, keep its mind on her, and try to weaken it as much as she could before the spell took hold. She couldn’t match it in strength or endurance, so Cat needed to use her size and her agility to her advantage.

As Nidhoggr pulled back, a new ugly black scar still sizzling on its chest, Cat readied herself for the next blow. Nidhoggr’s tail seemed like it was kilometers long at times, and Cat had to be careful it didn’t come from behind and catch her off guard. She turned, just in time to see it sliding across the ground at her, leaving a trail of thrown earth and ice in its wake.

Cat had only seconds to react, leaping over the tail with an impossible jump, leaving a small crater of ice behind. She was vulnerable in mid-air, however, and Nidhoggr’s tail coiled like a spring before lashing at her again, hitting her with a glancing blow that threw her across the mountaintop until she smashed painfully onto the ground.

A glancing blow from Nidhoggr’s tail was like a glancing blow from a speeding train, and Cat was thankful none of her limbs were broken as she scurried back to her feet. Her entire left side was in pain now, and the wind had been knocked out of her entirely, but she was still standing. Her armor, Megame’s charms, and the reinforcing power of magic would hold her together.

For a time.

Cat rolled her shoulders, trying to ignore the painful stretching of her muscles. She was being worn down. Nidhoggr hadn’t managed to hit her but avoiding the dragon while trying to get her own blows in was taking its toll. Sooner or later she was going to slip up or Nidhoggr was going to get lucky. She just hoped she could stall that moment for as long as possible.

 

The sparrow stands against the storm

The fish against the deluge

No foe or battle to be won

Fate and Time itself thine enemy

 

Nidhoggr was talking. Good. Every moment it was talking was another moment its jaws weren’t snapping for her.

“I don’t see fate or time in front of me!” Cat shouted back. “All I see is a big ugly dragon that’s already half dead! Did you expect me to surrender, Nidhoggr!?”

Nidhoggr charged her, throwing its vast weight forward in her direction. Cat froze up, looking for a way out as the entire bulk of the massive dragon came at her, wings whipping up a whirlwind as its great claws smashed into the earth.

Cat couldn’t run to her sides and there was no turning around. Seeing her only chance, Cat charged the massive dragon in turn, raising her sword as the distance between them evaporated. She ran headlong towards the dragon’s jaws, which opened to reveal its many rows of teeth and void-like throat beyond as it opened wide to swallow her whole. Cat breathed in deep, steadying herself, and in one swift motion the ground beneath her feet turned to ice and she slid by a hairsbreadth out of the path of Nidhoggr’s great jaws, rushing past its neck as it tried to bring itself to a halt. Cat’s sword flashed, the blade cutting into the skin of its long neck as the massive claw came rushing at her. Ducking low, she charged and slid against the icy ground just out of the grasp of its clawed fingers. The massive dragon wheeled around, trying to encircle Cat within its bulk. As its hand dug into the ground to maneuver itself, Cat lashed out again, the sword cleaving through one of its massive fingers, thick around as Cat’s chest as the dragon roared with pain, ripping its hand free and leaving itself unsteady.

Cat had an advantage now, and she charged for the monster’s chest. If it had a heart, she intended to find it. As she closed the distance, however, Nidhoggr’s other claw came lashing around, and Cat had barely enough time to throw herself out of its path as it tore through the air. Not quick enough, she saw, as the edge of the iron-black claw still cut through her side, sending her off her feet and into the air, a trail of blood in her wake until she slammed into the hard earth.

This time she really felt it. The cut in her side was like daggers of ice slicing through her body, sending a numbness into her side that slowed her right arm. Cat stumbled to her feet, disoriented and breathless just in time to see the massive tail of Nidhoggr whipping at her again. Cat barely had the time to throw up her arms defensively as it slammed into her with bone-crushing force.

Again she was thrown across the ground like a ragdoll, her head spinning as her entire body shuddered with spasms of pain.

Come on, Cat told herself. Can’t stop, keep moving.

Cat all but threw herself forwards just as Nidhoggr’s disfigured hand slammed down again where she’d been, stumbling as her feet resisted her ever command and her sword hung limply at her hand. She glanced at her injured side and saw Evangeline’s fine chain work had been sundered as if it hadn’t even been there, the links and padded armor beneath stained red.

She was already bleeding from a multitude of cuts, several of them across her face as she pushed her hair back into place and her hand came back bloody.

If Nidhoggr got in more hits like that she was finished, it was as simple as that. She already should have been dead several times over, only alive by the grace of several brands of magic. Cat wasn’t sure how long it could hold up.

Nidhoggr drew itself up to full height again, staring down at the battered Catarina with the utmost contempt. Cat stared back at it, refusing to look away from its burning blue eyes. She knew why it hated her. This serpent, this great force beyond even the gods was being forced to fight at her level. It was like a human being brought down to the level of an ant or an amoeba, and worst of all, Cat had the audacity to simply not die as all else before it did.

Nidhoggr was a vicious, cruel serpent of endless malice, and now a world’s worth of hatred was focused entirely upon her. She wasn’t sure how long she could stand against it.

Cat couldn’t let the dragon take the initiative like that again. Even as her legs protested, even as she felt like a dagger was being shoved in her side with each breath, Cat charged Nidhoggr. The dragon readied itself, head bending low like a waiting serpent as its tail coiled and readied itself. As she ran, Cat threw her hand out over the snow on the ground and in the air, her well of magic getting dangerously low as it began to whirl around her. With one swift gesture, the small whirlwind of snow condensed and evaporated into a billowing cloud of steam that filled the mountaintop in an obscuring fog as she dodged swiftly to the side and ran for one of Nidhoggr’s legs. She was small, and Nidhoggr was big enough she could still see it moving as a great shape in the steam.

All at once, the dragon uncurled itself, tail lashing through the air as it flapped its enormous skeletal wings. Cat had to stop her charge and brace herself as wind whipped past her face and easily dissipated the cloud of steam until it spotted her. Cat lunged for its leg, and with a great slash cut deep into the massive trunk of its arm, almost the depth of her hilt as Ceruleamor cut cleanly through the Primordial flesh.

Nidhoggr whipped its arm away, nearly knocking Cat over with the force as it raised it into the air with a great draconic roar of pain, vile black ichor seeping like a slow waterfall from the burning wound.

Cat took the moment to look up at the sky, hoping to see some change, but there was nothing, just the same roiling black clouds.

 

Wretched thing of brief design

Less than maggots upon the bones of Ymir

You strike at the hand that binds

Lash at the wind that will tear all aside

 

“Yes I will!” Cat roared back at it. “I’m going to keep fighting, we’re all going to keep fighting to the very end because that’s who we are! That’s what we are! And I’m never going to let anyone forget, Nidhoggr, that I made a great Primordial, the Serpent of Yggdrassil, mad at a single little girl with a sword!”

Nidhoggr opened its jaws and bellowed with a roar that shook the world itself to its foundations, the Brocken quaking and cracking under her feet as Cat threw her hands as best she could over her ears.

Since time immemorial, since the forging of the realms, there was one thing Nidhoggr hated above all else, and that was being mocked. Since the creation of the World Tree until its final escape the serpent had withstood an endless s verbal abuse from Ratatoskr and the Eagle. Now it was free, the king of all serpents, the harbinger of Ragnarok, and it was still being mocked by the most base and temporary creature in all the realms. A single human being.

All pretense of power and ego was gone as Nidhoggr attacked Cat with all its fury, matching the viciousness of when it had torn the great Eagle apart. It would rip the girl apart and devour her bones, let her spend eternity in its gut with all the forsworn and forsaken. If it had to tear the mountains to the root, if it had to wipe all life from this country, from this continent, it would rip everything from that jeering voice until there was nothing left but screams.

In that moment, when Nidhoggr’s roar of fury finished and its attack began, something shifted. Every living thing, everything with a soul be it human, spirit, or divine felt something deep in the very undercurrent of reality twist and then snap, like a thread they had all been following was suddenly cut loose. Nidhoggr paused, almost frozen in time as it felt the shift. Many were merely curious, most humans would shrug it off, but to a creature so bound to fate as Nidhoggr, the shift, like a rip in reality, was something much more dangerous.

A great arch appeared over the mountain, a parabola that rose over it so high that the top seemed to scrape against the sky. One side of the great arch burned with ceaseless flame, a great orange that ripped from peak to horizon. The other side was brilliant white, an endless frost storm of scintillating glass-like ice that rose and roiled until it met the fire at the peak of the arch. Where the two side of the arch met, a great burst of brilliant white light appeared. The meeting point of frost and fire and as the light grew brighter, the empty arch swiftly turned into a doorway.

The sky held within the arch vanished, held within the two great arms was a vast howling void. Cat could barely stand to look at it, like staring into the yawning void of deep space or the darkest ocean. But there was no bottom, no stars, nothing but this great arch of fire and frost that held an empty void within.

Nidhoggr stared into the void, great eyes burning before it rounded on Cat again.

 

What have you done

 

“Distracted you mostly,” Cat smiled defiantly, readying her sword.

Once more Nidhoggr’s jaws opened and a torrent of decaying gas was unleashed from its throat onto Catarina. Before she could respond, she felt hands on her shoulders pull her back as people ran up behind her. She saw a large round shield rise in the path of the dragon’s breath, scattering its decay across the sky.

“Close one, Cat,” Nicomede smiled at her, bracing himself as he kept the shield raised between them as others rushed to Cat’s side.

“Cat-chan! Let me see that…” Megame hurried to kneel beside Cat, her hand pressing against Cat’s injured side. Cat winced at the pain, but in moments it began to fade rapidly as Megame chanted quietly under her breath.

Something flew past them from behind, hurtling through the air until it collided with thunderous force with Nidhoggr’s skull, causing its foul breath to halt as it recoiled.

“Take that you stupid dragon!” Torleif shouted, calling her hammer back to her hand.

As Megame’s charms worked, spirits of healing and wholeness weaving Cat’s wounds together, she felt more pairs of hands lift her to her feet.

“Well done, Catarina,” Gisela said, pulling up her one side. “You’re making a good habit of surprising me.”

“Cat…” Rosa’s voice on her other side was quiet. “You’re okay. We’re here now.”

Cat could see none of them were in perfect shape. The attack outside the field Huldra had made must have been fierce. They all sported numerous cuts and bruises, both bleeding and a number healed over from where Megame’s magic had worked.

“I’ll manage,” Cat said. “But we’re not done yet. Where’s-?”

“Nidhoggr!”

A great wolf leaped into view to stand beside them, fur black as the night sky with three mechanical limbs of obsidian, ebony, and silver. Angel’s shining blue lupine eyes stared at the dragon as it recovered itself. Nidhoggr stared back at the wolf, and Cat could almost see the recognition in its eyes.

“We’re sending you back!” Angel’s howling voice cut through the wind. “Back into the darkness. Into the pit. To the hell where you belong!”

 

A shattered corpse of great Tree’s Crown

A mired thing of metal and wolf

An abomination stands before

The dead walk to challenge its destroyer

 

Cat could almost hear the mocking in Nidhoggr’s voice as Angel shivered. Last time Angel had fought Nidhoggr, the dragon had torn her literally to pieces. This time, however, the dragon wasn’t at full strength and Angel wasn’t fighting alone.

“Everyone!” Rosa shouted. “Form up! We move together!”

The six of them and Angel pulled together, weapons in hand as Nidhoggr readied itself, head rising like a cobra as it regarded them, clawed fingers digging into the ground.

“Charge!” Cat shouted. “Push it back!”

All of them moved together. Cat, Rosa, Nicomede, and Megame took the front as Torleif and Gisela moved to either flank. Angel, the great wolf taking long running strides, swiftly over took them and charged headlong to engage the dragon directly. In one swift leap, her jaws closed on Nidhoggr’s shoulder where its sinewy neck met its body, claws both wolf and machine rending at its flesh, leaving the same trails of blue fire as Cat’s sword as Nidhoggr roared in pain.

The dragon tried to shake off Angel as it’s jaws struck down on the four of them at the front. Moments before its teeth struck, Megame raised both hands, Ofuda charm in hand.

“Blind, Amaterasu-Omikami!” She shouted, and from her hands a great chrysanthemum of pure sunlight appeared like a shield before them, blinding the serpent as its eyes were overwhelmed by divine sunlight.

As one, Nicomede and Rosa charged forwards, their spears bristling with lightning and burning with crimson energy as they were driven into the roof of Nidhoggr’s gaping jaws, the divine metal digging deep as Nidhoggr released a deep hiss of hatred that seemed to scorch the air itself.

Cat dove between them, vigor renewed as she drove her sword up into monster’s throat as a geyser of acidic black blood spewed across the ground from where her sword cut deep.

The three of them pulled their weapons free as Nidhoggr reared its head back, wounds still bleeding as it screamed. As it did, however, Cat saw the slim shaft of a black arrow fly towards it, burying itself in Nidhoggr’s eye before exploding into a mist of razor-winged butterflies that clouded Nidhoggr’s head as it snapped uselessly at the air, blinded and retching in pain as the butterflies sliced at its sores and open wounds.

Mere moments later, thunder echoed across the mountaintop, clouds flashing with light as Torleif unleashed a massive thunder bolt of pure white light that seemed to consume Nidhoggr’s massive head, arcs of electricity melting flash away as more and more pitted and rotting skull was revealed.

The face of Nidhoggr, now more skeletal, pale, and broken than before roared in fury, one of its eyes still burning with fiendish blue energy as it stared down at the humans.

Angel released her grip on its shoulder, but as the focus of the dragon weakened, the great wolf threw all of her massive weight against it as she buried her fangs in the base of its massive throat.

“This is how your invasion ends, Nidhoggr!” Even as Angel’s jaws cut into Nidhoggr’s throat, spilling its vile black blood, Angel’s voice came through clear. “I should have stopped you back then! I should have been stronger, but now I correct my mistake!”

Step by agonizing step, the great wolf pushed the colossal bulk of the dragon into the portal. Out of the inky void, great tree branches like clawing hands rose up, taking hold of both dragon and wolf they began to drag them downwards.

“This will be my penance. The price of my failure. Our eternity together at the roots of the world, Nidhoggr!”

Cat and the others ran to catch up with Angel, and Cat could see it was taking every ounce of Angel’s waning Primordial energy to force Nidhoggr back. She was going to spend it all, the very last of her being to ensure Nidhoggr’s imprisonment, even if it meant her own.

Nidhoggr was beyond words, roaring with draconic figure as its fangs sank into Angel’s back, tearing at the wolf’s withering wings as it tried desperately to free itself. Soon the bulk of its body and its wings were in the portal, being sucked down into an abyss far below the realms.

“Angel!” Cat’s legs were pumping across the stone-strewn hill, the others behind her as she tried desperately to catch up. “Angel don’t do it!”

With one last mighty heave the wolf pushed through the portal, vanishing into the great void as it dragged Nidhoggr with it. All of them stopped, staring as Angel vanished and Nidhoggr struggled to keep hold, one great claw, wounded by Catarina, and its head the only thing still left in Midgard as it struggled to break free. As it struggled against the earth for purchase, Cat could see the rift was beginning to shrink. In mere moments it would close entirely. And Nidhoggr had to be completely past the threshold for the imprisonment to last.

 

By no force will I be stopped

Not by Fallen Eagle or Rising Wolf

The end of Midgard the fate woven for me

 

The dragon let out a long spiteful roar as it worked to drag itself free, inching slowly out of the portal.

 

This is my Destiny!

 

In a single shining moment, everything became clear to Cat. The world seemed to become silent save for the pumping of her heart as her mind was cleared of fog and she realized what all of this, her journey, the path she had walked was leading towards. The last few steps from Rome to her destiny.

Before any of the others could react, before any of them could reach out to stop her, Cat charged.

She ran, feet heavy, one step at a time straight towards Nidhoggr’s snapping jaws. Her ears were ringing, she could hear the others calling behind her, could hear their footfalls trying to catch up, but none of it passed further than her ears. This was it, the last decision, and Cat was going to see it through.

With one great shouting charge Cat leaped as Nidhoggr’s great jaws opened and rammed her sword to the hilt straight into the beast’s upper jaw, blade slamming into the dragon’ brain as she buried it to the very hilt.

Nidhoggr spasmed, its injured claw releasing the earth, and in one great push the first Primordial, the Serpent of Yggdrassil, was pulled into the void of the Ginnungagap Rift, and Cat along with it.

 

She couldn’t see anything. Cat couldn’t see a thing save for brief flashes of movement in the total darkness. The rift cut through space and time, a portal from Midgard to the very depths of the World Tree that ripped through fate itself. There was no light here, only the sense of falling eternally, the screams of Nidhoggr that echoed past her, and the feeling of warm tears running across her face as they blew back in the wind.

Cat braced her foot against the roof Nidhoggr’s mouth and pulled herself free until she was falling alone through the great abyss.

This was it. She knew it. She didn’t know if she died on impact at the other end of the Ginnungagap Rift or if she would be trapped forever in Helheim with Angel and Nidhoggr. It didn’t matter. She’d done it. She saved the world.

Cat closed her eyes briefly against the darkness, letting herself fall as the tears flowed freely.

“Sorry everyone,” She said quietly, voice lost in the howling wind. “I did my best. I really did…”

She opened her eyes again, turning to look blearily into the wind as she looked into the abyss below. At first, there was only darkness. She could sense the mass of Nidhoggr falling with it, and hear its echoing roars but she couldn’t even see the great bulk of the dragon in the total darkness. She stared a moment longer, ready to close her eyes again and wait for the fall to end, but in that last moment, something appeared, half-real and half-illusion.

A light in the darkness.

In mere moments it grew and grew as it flew towards Cat, and she had the wind knocked out of her as something…no, someone collided with her. Arms wrapped around her as hands took tight hold, and in the darkness Cat could see shining blue eyes looking back at her.

“Catarina!” Angel was in human form again as she clung to her, and Cat couldn’t help but hug her back. Even as she stared, however, the light faded from Angel’s eyes. In the waning light Cat could see the wings on her back were now gone. There was nothing left of the Primoridal, the Eagle, only a broken wolf.

Cat pressed her head to Angel’s chest as the tears ran freely, the two of them falling together.

Angel wasn’t a lost Primordial, nor was she a broken wolf. She was a Wolf of Rome, Cat’s friend, a part of whom she’d carried all this way.

A part of her.

Cat’s eyes went wide. Her hand was still on Ceruleamor. She pulled her arm in, the blade pulled between them so both of them could see the sword.

And the shining blue gem in its hilt, still glistening with remnant energy of the great Primordial.

Angel’s eyes went wide with realization.

“Catarina!” Cat could barely hear Angel’s voice. “That’s your sword! I gave you that power as a gift!”

“I’m giving it back!” Cat shouted so she could be heard. “Take it! All of it!”

Angel’s hands closed around Cat’s, both of them holding the sword tightly. The light from the sword began to fade, the blade losing its sheen as the blue gem went dull. As the light left the sword, however, Angel’s eyes burned with power.

Once again, Angel wrapped her arms around Cat, taking tight hold of her, and in a burst of blue energy that filled the endless void of the rift, a pair of wings bloomed from Angel’s back, bristling with starlight.

Cat clung to Angel as tightly as she could as the wind slowed, Angel’s wings braking their fall before Cat’s heart began to drum even faster. They weren’t falling anymore. They were rising now.

Angel’s wings pumped the air as they flew upwards, the screams of Nidhoggr fading behind them as the tiniest speck of light appeared above. The rift on the Midgard side, the portal they had come through was now far too small for the great dragon. But it might, she prayed, still be just large enough.

The wind whipped at her face, but Angel didn’t slow down. Great eagle’s wings pumping the sky until, with one last great burst of speed they flew back through the portal as it closed tight behind them and into the free bright air of the world.

 

They hung there in the pale grey sky for a moment, marveling in the light of even a cloudy sky before they fell again to earth, Angel rolling off of Cat as she pulled herself to her feet, heart thundering in her chest as she looked up and saw the others, Rosaria at the front, tears running down her face.

Before she could do anything, before she could even speak, Rosa threw herself against Cat with enough force to knock her back down other knees.

“You idiot!!” Cat had never seen Rosa like this, red-faced and crying freely as her hands dug into Cat’s shoulder. “You ran ahead without…I thought you’d…”

Cat smiled, feeling her own tears sliding down her face. Without even thinking, she put her hands on Rosa’s hot cheeks, pulled her in and kissed her.

They stayed like that for a moment before Cat released her, red-faced as she looked into Rosa’s eyes. “Sorry,” she said. “For making you worry.”

Slowly, they got back to their feet and Cat hurried to Angel, who had managed to sit up. Angel’s jacket was gone, leaving her in a torn undershirt that revealed the metal and silver prosthetic of her arm. Her wolf ears and tail were still there, but her back was now entirely bare. That last flight had consumed all of her remaining energy. The Eagle was no more. All that was left was Angel.

“Catarina…” She said quietly. “I’m sorry…there’s nothing left for your sword, I-“

Cat hugged her, getting back on her knees as she threw her arms around Angel’s shoulders.

“It’s just a sword, Angel,” Cat said. “You saved me.”

“I….right,” Angel said quietly, and she felt Angel’s hands tentatively wrap around her to return the embrace.

“No hug for us?” Torleif said, doing her best to sound annoyed even though Cat could see the clear tear stains on her face.

“Hehe, come here, Torleif,” Cat smield, and Torleif ran forward to embrace her as the others gathered around.

Cat stood up, releasing Torleif as Megame hugged her tightly from behind, Nicomede putting a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“You had us all terrified!” Megame shouted. “Don’t ever scare us like that again!”

“You did amazing, Cat,” Nicomede smiled. “This is…beyond just being a hero.”

“He’s right,” Cat turned to see Gisela facing her. “You have…Catarina you have done what I always thought impossible. I’m…” For the first time, Cat could see Gisela struggling for words. She couldn’t help but grin as she pulled herself free from them.

“This wasn’t just me,” Cat said. “All of you I’m…we did this. Together. It’s over.”

Rosa smiled, pulling the small communicator out of her ear as she handed it to Cat. “Yours probably got fried by Nidhoggr and being in that rift,” Rosa smiled. “There are a few people who want to hear from you I think. It’s open to all channels.”

Cat put the communicator in her ears and could hear the nervous back and forth of dozens of people across the lines as they tried to discern what was happening. The monsters were in disarray everywhere, retreating.

“Everyone,” Cat said, and all the lines went quiet.

“This is Catarina Aldobrandini. Nidhoggr has been imprisoned in its realm.”

Instantly the voices returned, highest among them were Hildegard and Hanne calling to her.

“Cat! Are you alright! What happened!?”

“Catarina! The report! Is it over?”

“The battle’s over,” Cat could feel the tears running down her face again.

“We won.”

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Atop the Bald Mountain

 

Cat could feel the slope of the mountain rising under her feet as they moved as swiftly as they could up the long slope of the Brocken. Their earlier strike might have cleared the skies, but more monsters were rushing down from the peak to meet them and slow their progress down.

Nicomede lunged in front of Cat, shield raised as it deflected a series of serrated spines thrown from the back of a tiger-sized beast that snarled at them. Rosa and Torleif rushed ahead, flanking it from either side as it was caught between Rosa’s raised spear and Torleif’s hammer.

“Dammit, there’s a lot of these things!” Rosa spat, pulling her spear free from the fallen monster’s hide. “Angel! Any chance you can go full wolf and give us a lift?”

“For Catarina possibly,” Angel said. “But not all six of you…”

“We can’t afford to be separated,” Gisela said. “If Catarina and Angel were caught off-guard alone…”

“I know, I know!” Rosa said, interrupting her. “But we need to keep moving and we’re not gaining enough ground!”

“Do you guys hear that?” Nicomede asked, fingers tightening on his spear as the rest of them fell quiet. Something very large was crashing towards them, tearing through the forest of the mountain’s lower slope as it ripped trees and bushes aside.

“Something big!” Torleif said, readying her hammer.

“Defensive positions around Cat!” Rosa said, halting the charge as they maneuvered themselves into a circle around Cat.

Cat still had her sword in hand, ready for anything as the crashing came closer. Nicomede was at the front, shield raised as they waited for whatever was plunging through the trees at them. As it got closer, Cat began to make out the shape of something huge, easily the size of an elephant, covered in brown fur as it charged straight at them.

“Wait…” Rosa paused, spear still leveled. “Is that a…”

Megame blinked in surprise. “It looks like…”

“Big Squirrel!” Torleif shouted as a monstrous squirrel appeared before the group, halting its charge and falling back on its rear haunches as it cleared the last trees before them, just out of range. It looked down at them with inquisitive black eyes, more curious than monstrous.

“Ratatoskr!” To all of their surprise it was Angel who shouted as she rushed forward, throwing her arms wide as she attempted to embrace the colossal squirrel, her arms simply lost in the fur of its belly.

“You know this thing, Angel?” Cat asked, hurrying past the others to stand next to her.

“Ratatoskr…” Angel said. “Is my oldest friend…I knew him from when I was the Eagle…I’m so grateful you’re alright.”

“Eagle shine,” The voice of the monstrous squirrel was soft and high with clear affection. “The heavens so dim for your absence.”

“What’s he doing here?” Rosa asked.

“Witches from across the Realm send words of hope,” Ratatoskr said.

“That must mean they’re in position. Mmm you always were such a good messenger,” Angel smiled, stroking the fur above his nose. Ratatoskr responded with a few soft chirps as his massive nose nuzzled into her hand.

“Well that’s good but we’re still at least a few kilometers from the top,” Rosa said.

“The one called Ratatoskr can carry more than mere messages,” The squirrel chirped proudly at them.

“Is…are you offering a ride?” Rosa asked, and Ratatoskr nodded as it lowered itself onto the ground.

“I’ve never ridden a giant squirrel before!” Torleif said eagerly, climbing atop Ratatoskr’s great back with help from Rosa.

“I think this is a first for all of us…” Nicomede said with some apprehension.

“We’ll take what we can get,” Rosa said as the seven of them climbed aboard.

“Thank you, Ratatoskr,” Angel said. “As soon as we’re at the peak, retreat. I don’t want to put you in Nidhoggr’s path a second time…I’ve missed you.”

“I missed you too, Eagle sky.”

“They call me Angel now, Ratatoskr.”

“A good name for winged one, Angel below is as angel above.”

“Everyone safely aboard?” Rosa asked.

The rest of them nodded, holding onto each other and great tufts of fur.

With the final assent, Ratatoskr took off into the forest, great shoulders and claws breaking through the trees as the rest of them bent low, clinging to his back as branches whipped past them overhead. He started slow, but like a locomotive he quickly picked up speed as he ran with immense speed up the mountain, fording creeks and ravines without pause as he skillfully wove towards the peak.

Cat clung on as hard as she could, hands on Ratatoskr’s fur as she kept her head low, feeling the wind whip at her hair.

“You know!” Nicomede shouted over the wind. “You think something like this would be weird! Riding a giant squirrel to fight a dragon, it’s almost too…fairy-tale-ish to believe, right?!”

“Cat and I fought monsters with an army of ghosts!” Rosa shouted back. “This feels about right.”

“Yeah I had a talk with the World Serpent while a god lived in my body!” Torleif shouted. “Everything else is just…less weird!?”

“I played card games with Death!” Megame said. “This is very nice in comparison!”

“I’d rather not talk about it,” Gisela said. “But believe me it can always get stranger!”

All of them shared a brief, almost disbelieving laugh. Cat couldn’t help but join them. All of them, Angel, Nicomede, Megame, Torleif, Gisela, Rosa, and Cat, all of the had seen impossible things and taken part in what once would have been miracles. To whatever end, they had all come together from across the world to this instant, on the slopes of the Bald Mountain, to do what no one thought could be done.

Cat remembered her last conversation with Asha. Today was not the last day, she was going to look forward to tomorrow, and all of them would be together without the shadow of the dragon hanging over their every waking moment. This would not be the end of their seven winding paths.

“We’re almost there!” Gisela shouted. “We’ve fallen out of range of Evangeline’s communicators.”

“The magic here would probably garble it all up anyway,” Nicomede said. “Right now, keep all focus on getting Cat to Nidhoggr and make sure the plan goes into motion!”

Finally, Ratatoskr breached the treeline, and they could see the rocky slope that led to the low flat top of the bald mountain. The grey stone here was flecked with brown dying grass and traces of snow that grew thicker towards the peak. The sky overhead was dark, a roiling mass of thunderheads and black clouds that churned like smoke. Shortly before the peak Ratatoskr ground to a halt and the seven of them disembarked.

“Thank you, my friend,” Angel said, stroking his nose. “Now get far…if all goes well we will speak again.”

“Take care, my Eagle Angel,” Ratatoskr said. “It has been nice to hear your voice again.”

“Mmm, if you would…” Angel said quietly. “I have one last message…to a dear friend of mine in Rome. Should the worst happen.”

“Of course.”

As Angel whispered into Ratatoskr’s ear, the six other Champions and Catarina huddled together as they looked towards the peak.

“Do we know if everything’s in place?” Cat asked.

“It is indeed, Catarina.”

The air beside them shimmered as Huldra stepped seemingly from nowhere to stand beside them.

“Ah, Huldra you made it,” Cat smiled, a bit relieved to see her there in person.

As I said I would,” Huldra nodded. “Though it will not be without difficulties. My sisters and I will need to isolate the peak of the mountain and I will be the …lynchpin so to speak. The spell will take some time to prepare and I will be vulnerable.”

“And something will have to keep Nidhoggr busy inside…” Cat said.

“So we’ll need to split the group…” Rosa said, clear annoyance in her voice. “Nico, you and I will go with Cat and-“

“No,” Cat interrupted her firmly.

“What?” Rosa looked at her. “Cat, if you think-“

“You two would be at a huge disadvantage,” Cat said. “Neither of you can really hurt Nidhoggr, and we don’t know how well Nico’s shield will hold up, or for how long. You two would be nothing but bait.”

“I’m not sending you against Nidhoggr alone, Cat!” Rosa said. “If we have to be bait then everyone’s prepared to-“

“I’m not!” Cat said. “Too many people died getting us here! I’m not prepared to let people die just to keep Nidhoggr’s attention off of me! Especially not you!”

Cat turned to Huldra. “How long will the spell take?”

“A few minutes,” Huldra said.

Not long, Cat knew, but an eternity when fighting a dragon.

“And then?”

“And then we will have but a few moments to drive Nidhoggr through the portal.”

Cat turned back to Rosa. “This is how it was always going to be. Me and Nidhoggr.”

Rosa looked at her, her face a mingled mix of anger, fear, and anxiety.

“I…”

“I can do this, Rosa,” Cat said. She looked to the others, all of them looked back at her… Torleif was trying to put on a brave face but she could see the worry and fear beneath. Gisela and Angel were inscrutable, but both of their faces were set in determination.

“I can do this,” She said to them. “You’ve all carried me this far…let me do this.”

“I trust you, Cat.” Nicomede had an expression of resolute duty.

“Before anything…be safe, Cat-chan. We’ll be with you as soon as we can,” Megame said.

“Y-you can do it!” Torleif tried to put on her bravest face. “You’re way cooler than that Barcelona dragonslayer!”

“I believe in you,” Gisela said.

Cat looked at Angel, who nodded in reply.

“You’ve been carrying part of me with you for years,” Angel said, gesturing to Cat’s sword. “But it wasn’t my feather that took you this far. I am at your side when you need me, Catarina.”

“Thank you…all of you,” Cat said, before turning back to Rosa.

Rosa put a hand on her shoulder before pulling her in close for a tight embrace.

“The second that spell is ready,” Rosa said. “I’ll be with you just…please hold out until then.”

“You too,” Cat said. She wanted to add more, to say something more. But what was between them had already been said, and she could tell as she felt Rosa’s fingers on her back that the feeling between them was the same.

“We will begin when you cross the threshold,” Huldra said.

Cat nodded and began to climb towards the flat peak of the Brocken. She checked her gear as she walked. Her arms, shins, and chest were covered in layers of banded armor made by Evangeline. Under the plates, a number of Megame’s Omamori had been fitted to add additional layers of healing and protection. She lacked a helmet, but her blue hair had been cut to just above shoulder length and pulled back to avoid it getting in her eyes. She’d need all her senses and she doubted a helmet would do much against a dragon. She had a short blue cape that fell from her shoulders to her waist, as she preferred. Capes were heroic after all. Her sword, Ceruleamor, was at her hip, and she drew it as she took the last few steps towards the mountain peak.

As the ground leveled out beneath her feet, she could feel a change in the air. It was as if she had crossed a threshold, no doubt the line of Huldra’s spell. On the mountain peak everything was quiet, there were no sounds of battles or monsters or even the wind, just quiet as she trudged across the snowy ground.

It was almost exactly like her dream those many months ago, the last time she had faced Nidhoggr. A flat-topped mountain without vegetation, just a flat space of grasses and odd rocks covered in a layer of quieting snow. There were some differences that still stood out. The sky above her was the same rolling thunder grey, and nearby were the fallen ruins of the Sender Brocken radio tower were spread, half-tumbled down the mountainside.

Cat’s breath came in long steady breaths as her eyes scanned the mountaintop, her breathing visible as puffs of mist in the cold air. As she looked it began to snow gently across the mountain.

 

The Daughter of Embla comes again

Fresh-faced and high footed

Thinking rising thoughts of her kin

Who think themselves the masters of Midgard

 

Cat couldn’t stop the shiver that ran down her spine, sword hand tightening on its grip as she looked for the source. Nidhoggr’s voice was the same as she remembered, made much worse by the horrible vividness of reality. It was a great booming roar, mixed together by the countless screaming dead that lined the dragon’s throat. This wasn’t a dream anymore.

Above her the sky began to rend itself. The clouds bulged downwards, swelling as they were engorged with a great undulating shape that pushed them towards the ground. Before touching the snow-covered grounds the clouds split, disgorging their terrible contents as Nidhoggr ripped through the last barrier into the living world.

It was as massive as she remembered, if not more so, its great coiling lengths spreading across the top of the mountain. It moved and coiled like a python, muscular body covered in diseased scales and open sores that covered its bulk and revealed the scabby musculature and pale bone within. Cat couldn’t say for certain how many legs it had, but two great forearms spread from its chest to maneuver itself, and a pair of enormous wings spread from its back so large they almost seemed to encompass the sky.

Her eyes, however, were drawn to its face. The Nidhoggr had the terrible triangular face of the fiercest dragons, its great brows framed in long spiked horns the color of bone, its entire visage covered in skin stretched so thinly it seemed to tear where the horns broke through. Its eyes like those of all the countless dead it raised burned with cold blue light. The same fierce light burned in its throat, wisps of smoky light trailing through jagged teeth as it moved, and from within the endless void of its throat the screams of the dead still echoed.

Cat raised her sword as she stared into Nidhoggr’s face. The dragon could have taken a bus between its jaws. It seemed bigger now, more terrible than it had ever been in the dream.

Cat was terrified, more scared than she’d ever been. Her entire body shivered as the dragon stared down at her with the same contemptuous apathy she might give an ant. She was nothing to the dragon, a rock hurtled against the whirlwind of eternity. She was a tiny, fleeting thing made of bone and sinew. The dragon was eternal, invincible, a malevolent part of the universe given form.

Cat was afraid, but she did not turn, she did not run. She held her ground and kept her sword raised.

“Nidhoggr!” Her voice broke and shook as she shouted at the dragon. “I…we have come to put an end to this!”

 

It speaks of the end

It thinks it understands time

The twists and knots that course between

Moment and eternity

 

Nidhoggr drew forward, and with every great footfall the ground beneath her feet shook. She could see the way its coiling tail moved to surround her, keeping her fenced in.

My return to Midgard

As sure a thing as the rising of the sun

No man nor witch nor god can hope to halt

That is, that was, and that which shall be again

 

Cat ground her teeth, pointing her sword at Nidhoggr.

“Maybe it will be someday, Nidhoggr,” she shouted. “But not today!”

Nidhoggr drew its head low, and now more than ever Cat could sense that it was staring at her dead in the eyes. She felt her blood run cold, a shiver running through her body and soul. For a second, her mind went blank, overwhelmed by raw terror as this presence, this being beyond even a god’s comprehension, truly looked to see what she was made of.

 

This lesser thing of smoke and driftwood

Bound together by dreams and threads of fate

Would see itself speak of higher things

What is the name of its fathers

What is the name of its óðr

 

It took a moment for Cat to realize that the dragon was asking for her name.

“My name is Catarina Aldobrandini!” Cat shouted at the top of her lungs. “And I’ll be sure to make it a name you remember for eternity, snake!”

 

Then yours shall be the first corpse I feast upon in Midgard

Catarina Aldobrandini

 

Nidhoggr reared back its head on its great sinewy neck and roared with a sound that seemed to part the sky itself. Cat threw her hands to her ears as the bellowing noise ripped through the sky over the mountain, shadowed by the countless screams unleashed from tis throat. The dragon raised one great clawed hand and brought it smashing down to the earth in a storm of lifted snow, the ground shuddering so greatly Cat was nearly thrown to her feet before recovering herself.

No more stalling; that was a challenge to battle. After one lest deep breath Cat charged forward, sword raised as she ran headlong for Nidhoggr.

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2018, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 52

 

Cat never knew that a thousand men could be so quiet. The legion’s marching column was slumped low, armed and equipped as they waited for their orders. The sky overhead was slate grey, time marked only by the brief showers of light rain.

Rosa’s group was at the head of the line, the other champions and ‘empowered’ warriors scattered throughout the line. At the moment, they were in a shallow gulley that had once been a road. Trees grew tall and thick on either side of them, seeming to lean in over the road and block out the pale sky.

Hanne moved to the head of the column, leaning in to meet Cat and Rosa.

“You know the plan?” She asked, and both of them nodded.

“You move forward, we’ll be behind you but you need to keep ahead. Keep in contact, Hildegard and Turi will mark your progress.”

“Understood,” Rosa said. Hanne leaned in, pulling Cat towards her by the shoulder and kissing her on the forehead. “I don’t like this plan. I don’t like putting you in harm’s way, Catarina.”

“I can do this,” Cat said, and she felt Rosa clap her on the back.

“We’ll get her to the top,” Rosa smiled. “We’re all in this together.”

“Right,” Hanne nodded. “Then…good luck, God bless you all. Now forward!”

The six of them, Cat, Rosa, Torleif, Gisela, Megame, and Nicomede, rushed ahead down the road side by side. All of them could feel the gentle slope in the land and they knew this was it. The final climb up the bald mountain.

“Second Legion!” Cat heard Hanne’s voice echoing behind them. “Split column! Pull forward! March!”

The plan was in motion. There might be just shy a thousand legionnaires, but a block column wouldn’t hold against an army of monsters. They needed to fight smart, and that meant dispersing into smaller more mobile groups. The legion, like a synchronized machine, split itself into its Centuriae before those split again. Groups consisting of two contubernium spread out in all directions, each consisting of around twenty men trained to fight together and coordinate with other groups.

That was the key, Hanne had told them. To be quick, to be mobile, and to keep in constant communication. Fortifying positions against dragons and giants was a futile effort at best.

Cat glanced up as she heard the sound of great wings beating and saw Pegasus fly through the air above, the winged horse carrying Hilde and Turi ahead of the Legions to scout the enemy as they approached. All around them Cat could see the legionnaires running; occasionally she spotted someone she knew, a champion leading them or a familiar face from the field. All of them were putting everything on the line to get them here, to put her on top of the mountain.

The forest was too thick and the Brocken too low to see the mountain peak itself, but Cat could still feel it looming over her like a shroud. Her feet felt heavy, and she began to lose pace a little with Rosa. She hadn’t magically reinforced herself yet, keeping everything in reserve until the final battle.

“Cat-chan,” Cat felt Megame grab her hand, and she passed a small scroll of paper into her fingers. Just by grasping it, Cat felt rejuvenated, her body growing lighter as she quickly caught back up to Rosa. Looking at her hand, she could see it was one of Megame’s charms, the Omamori. Megame had worked for hours each day writing more of them, the names of dozens of kami written across them. Renewed and rejuvenated, Cat could easily match pace with the champions.

“Town ahead,” Nicomede called. He kept the vanguard, his shield on his arm, as he spotted for them.

“That would be Schierke,” Gisela said, bow over her shoulder. “We’re about seven kilometers out.”

Gisela placed a hand to her ear, and when she spoke next all of them could hear her voice echoed in their ears. “Salvatore, how does Schierke look?”

“Not good,” All of them could hear Turi. Most of the champions, Guardsmen, and Cat had been given a small artifact worn in the ear. It was more or less a microphone and speaker powered by magic courtesy of Evangeline.

“There’s a lot of movement between the buildings and…ah damn, movement up high. They’re coming off the mountain.”

All of them glanced up save for Nicomede who kept his eyes forward, at the edge of the sky. From the north, they could see shapes moving against the clouds, great wings flapping as they swiftly drew closer.

“Salvatore, Report!” Hanne ordered over the line.

“Drakes, lesser dragons, all kinds of demons with wings. Can we get some arrow cover if we pull back?”

“Negative, Turi, we’re still moving forward. You’ll be on your own. Don’t get in too deep.”

“Salvatore,” Gisela said. “Keep in line of sight of us. I can offer some supporting fire.”

“Don’t fall behind, Gisela,” Rosa said. “We need to keep moving”

“I won’t,” Gisela said.

“Much obliged, Gisela,” Turi said, and they could see Pegasus swoop in low towards them again.

The air was beginning to fill with noise. Growls and distant roars rolled in from the trees. Shrieks from the drakes and flying monsters echoed through the skies as they drew closer.

“Rosa!” Torleif said, needing to pump her legs extra hard to keep pace with them. “When can we do Hammer, Lance, and Sword?”

“We need to get closer,” Rosa said. “We need a lot of clearance and we need to be in the thick of it.”

“The other end of Schierke will do,” Gisela said. “Otherwise debris can be an issue.”

“Can I just say we never practiced that?” Nicomede asked. “And didn’t Hanne say something about “Too much risk”?”

“Today is kind of a high-risk high-reward kind of day,” Rosa said. “Megame, you in?”

“I-I think it can work!” Megame said.

“Up above!” Gisela shouted, and all of them could see as the first of the massive drakes came down on them. Cat remembered them from Sicily, enormous winged wyverns, smaller than dragons but nearly the size of a small plane they could easily lay waste to entire teams.

Gisela paused for only the briefest moment, bracing herself as she drew her bow. In a flash of the arm she drew and nocked an arrow, pulled it back, and released it, burying the onyx-black shaft in the drake’s heart to leave it to spasm wildly before it fell from the air. She didn’t waste a moment, however, hurrying to keep pace with them.

They saw another fly towards the legion, only to be intercepted by the flash of white that was Pegasus, Salvatore’s spear slashing across its wing and sending it flailing to the ground. No sooner had that one fallen, however, then had two more taken its place, hurtling through the air in pursuit of Pegasus. The drakes were quick, but the winged horse was quicker, darting gracefully this way and that as Turi tried to lure more of the winged monsters away from the vulnerable ground forces as he brought them out of sight over the trees.

“Aaah, damn this red one is quick,” Turi said. “Need some help from the ground.”

“Pull west, Turi,” Aurelio’s voice came over the line. “I’ve got an arrow for it.”

Cat heard a roar that was suddenly snuffed out, and the trees beside the road burst outwards as the body of a massive red drake crashed into the street before them, a long silver arrowshaft embedded in its throat.

The six of them ran past it, undaunted as they rushed down the street towards Schierke. The woods on either side of them opened as the first buildings came into view. But with them came the full weight of their resistance. The town was crawling with a menagerie of beasts. Great black-furred wolves stood on the rooftops, giants strode among the trees, and massive serpents slithered along the streets.

“Slow here,” Rosa said. “Wait for the signal from the legions.”

Together, the six of them slowed, Nicomede at the front flanked by Rosa and Torleif with Cat, Gisela, and Megame in the rear.

There was a brief moment of quiet, a silence over the town as more and more pairs of monstrous eyes fell upon them. No birds, no leaves, not even the wind could be heard as they stood, creeping forward towards the town.

A roar unlike any Cat had heard outside her nightmares echoed down the nightmares. It was a single bellowing bestial roar, yet at the same time there was an unnatural reverberation, a sound echoed by a thousand screaming voices. The unmistakable roar of Nidhoggr.

The battle had begun.

The monsters charged, the closest rushing towards their position. From the trees and ridges around them another shout reverberated, this one coming on the lips of a thousand legionnaires as the first of the groups broke the treeline from all directions.

This had been the plan. Attack from all direction, pull their attention away from a single point and keep moving to give Cat and Rosa’s squad the mobility they needed to keep going forward. The monsters charged in all directions, engaging whatever group was closest to them as the chaos began to descend. Cat saw a group of Roman soldiers leap to either side as a giant ran through them, getting back to their feet with spears in hand as they stabbed at its legs. On her other side, she saw the glittering brass of Evangeline’s largest automaton leading another group, raising its enchanted shield against the corrosive breath of a massive wyrm.

“Now! Charge!” Rosa shouted, and the six of them broke forward to meet the charging monsters.

A great wolf lunged at them, only for its skull to be shattered by Torleif’s hammer loosed from her hand, the weapon circling back in an arc to return to its wielder. A massive boar with quills like stone and eyes of fire bullrushed them, only to be stopped dead in its tracks by Nicomede’s shield, his lance and Rosa’s spear extinguishing its eyes as the tips drove through its head.

They never paused for longer than a second, doing all they could to keep their momentum going as they ran through the ruined streets of Schierke. Houses had been collapsed by monsters and overgrown with dark forest, and each shadow seemed to hide some new horror that leapt at them.

Cat’s sword cut clean through what could only described as an enormous burrowing worm that had broken through the hardened earth, splattering the ground with its vile black ichor while the blade itself remained shining silver. A beast that looked half-man half-bat leapt from a nearby rooftop down on them, only to be vaporized by a lance of sunlight summoned from one of Megame’s charms.

“Keep moving!” Rosa shouted, spear glittering as it cut through a line of skeletal footsoldiers. “Don’t stop for anything!”

Screams broke through the air, mixing with the shouts and roars, and Cat turned to see Roman soldiers dashed across the trees as the tail of a lesser dragon tossed them like so much straw. Cat reflexively moved towards them, only for Gisela to grab her shoulder.

“Keep moving,” Gisela said, and while she had her usual hard-eyed expression, her words weren’t malicious. “We need to keep moving, Cat.”

“R-right…” Cat said. All of them were fighting to kill Nidhoggr, to get her to the top of the mountain. People were dying for it.

Cat broke into a flat run again, the others moving with her.

Street by street, they moved through Schierke, fighting for every alley and lane as they moved. The air above them was thick with drakes, too many for Turi and Pegasus alone to deal with as they began to swoop down upon the Legionnaires.

“Turi, the twenty-seventh is being torn apart! We need those drakes off of them!” Hanne shouted over the line.

“Can’t shake them all, General!” Turi shouted. “Too many up here.”

“Permission to pull a Michael Maneuver, General?” Hildegard asked over the line.

There was a brief pause before Hanne replied. “Affirmative, Hildegard.”

Cat could almost hear Hildegard giggle over the line. “This is my stop, Turi. Bank here.”

Overhead she could see Pegasus bank hard to its right, wings nearly vertical as Hildegard leapt from its back. In a flash of light, a pair of burning wings erupted from Hildegard’s back and she fell like a meteor onto the closest drake. Cat could see the lick of flame where Stahlzan cut through its neck, decapitating the monster as Hildegard flew to the next one.

She flew to the ground in a long sweeping arc, cleaving through no fewer than twelve drakes before swooping out of sight to relieve the men on the ground.

“There’s a lot of them in the sky…” Torleif said, trailing off.

“We’re almost there,” Gisela said. “The next road leads onto the Goetheweg. We can follow those trails up the mountain to the Brocken’s peak.”

“Right…” Rosa glanced briefly around, spotting a field that was empty save for the ruins of what had been a small mountain resort.

“This’ll do!” From the field they could see the rest of the town down the slope. The air was a mess of drakes and flying monsters, and the ground itself seemed to move and shift with the number of beasts that filled them. Cat stared, the legion couldn’t last long like this.

“Nico! Brace your spear in the ground! Torleif, one hand on his spear, one hand on your hammer. Megame, charm in both hands, one on the hammer one on the spear! Gisela, Cat! You two and I keep them covered!”

No sooner had she said that then a giant lumbered into the field from the trees nearby. Gisela nocked another arrow, aiming down the shaft before letting it fly, the arrow embedding itself in the thick skin of the giant’s neck. It stumbled briefly, but only seemed to get angry as it broke into a lumbering run, ground quaking beneath it.

As Cat ran with Rosa to intercept it, she could see Nicomede, Torleif, and Megame get into position. The tip of Nicomede’s spear was pointed into the sky at an angle, grasped by both Torleif and Megame, who were both holding Torleif’s hammer in their other hands. A scroll ran from Megame’s right hand to her left, covered in a long string of calligraphy. Cat had asked what kami’s name could possibly be that long, and Megame had told her that when calling on the power of one of the great Okami, one needed to include a lot of titles.

Cat ran ahead of Rosa straight for the giant as more arrows landed in its face and chest, blinding it with pain and blood as it charged wildly. A path of frost formed between its legs and Cat ducked low as she fell into a slide, gliding down the line of ice and between the giant’s legs, her sword swinging in a broad slash as she cut clean through the giant’s hamstrings. Instantly it fell to its knees, only for its stomach to fall squarely on the tip of Rosa’s spear, letting a fountain of blood fall from its abdomen. Rosa pulled her spear back, only to swing it around in a long arc to cut through the giant’s neck, letting it fall to the ground.

“Good job, Cat,” she smiled at her.

“Team effort,” Cat smiled back before looking at the other trio, still gathered in a circle. The spear, hammer, and scroll had all begun to glow with white light, Torleif and Nicomede with their eyes closed in an expression of deep concentration, Megame chanting under her breath.

The sky overhead darkened, the clouds growing black as the first echoes of thunder rolled across the sky.

“Turi,” Rosa said over the line. “Get down low, clear out of the sky. Now!”

Hammer, Lance, and Sword. That was what Megame had called it when she’d proposed the idea. The first maneuver that truly combined the power of not only multiple champions, but the power of a trio of gods from across pantheons, all with similar domains. The light between them grew and grew, blinding all else until it was difficult to even look at them. The sky itself seemed to quake, the air growing thick with static and the scent of ozone until, finally, in a single terrible flash the sky itself seemed to tear apart.

First came the Hammer, the thunder, a wave of colorless force that ripped through the air over the town of Schierke like a windborn tsunami, flattening the tops of trees and ripping up monster and drake alike in its wake with a sound that could shatter glass. Through the deafening roar, one could almost hear the roaring battle cry of Thor as the thunder of Mjolnir smashed through the sky.

Then came the Lance, and here Cat had to shut her eyes as the sky itself seemed to be replaced with pure white light. A lightningbolt unlike any seen on Earth since prehistory cracked across the sky, branching like a massive tree in a thousand different directions, impaling every monster left in the sky and scores more on the ground in spears of electricity that shuddered and flashed, missing the human legionnaires unscathed but thoroughly unnerved as the air itself came alive with the wrath of Zeus, his divinely-forged thunderbolts seeking out every target in sight.

Finally came the Sword, a single razor-edged wind that cut from heaven to earth, splitting the great clouds open to banish the darkness and cut through the last remaining monsters out in the open in a single mighty slash, the leaves and grass itself for a kilometer around cut through by the finest edge, wielded by the greatest Okami of the Summer Storm Susanoo-no-Mikoto.

As the sun shone down from the rend in the heavens, the trio collapsed to their knees, gasping for breath.  A champion was strong, blessed by their gods, but the three of them together had just called on the full strength of three of the greatest Storm gods on earth. Hurriedly, Rosa, Gisela, and Cat moved to help them up, Cat getting Megame back to her feet.

“I-I think Susanoo-sama enjoyed that,” Megame smiled wearily. “A chance to show off to these foreign Okami.”

“Well, Zeus said I earned a favor, and he needed to make sure that the King of the Gods was still known this far north,” Nicomede smiled, a hint of pride in his voice.

“That was so COOL!!” Torleif shouted, all but leaping back to her feet. “Did you see Thor!? He was all ‘KRACKA-BOOM!!”

Cat smiled, her eyes moving out over the town. The legion had won a reprieve. While that had been only a small fraction of Nidhoggr’s army, it had cleared the town, and that gave the legion a terrain advantage. Now the streets, alleys, and buildings of Shierke were theirs to hold and fight from.

Gisela and Megame had conspired the maneuver together. Megame had long supported cross-pantheon cooperation, and it had been Gisela who had seen the synchronicity. Thor, Zeus, and Susanoo were all storm gods, and more than that they were all renowned dragon-killers. Even an army of monsters would be laid low by a strike delivered by all of them combined.

Cat had wished that the gods themselves could have fought on their side, but Nora and Gisela had warned against it back in Rome. If the Gods were fighting here on foot, then the battle would operate on an entirely different level. The legion and Cat would have been ants beneath the feet of gods and monsters.

“Alright dust off you three,” Rosa said. “Good job, but we’ve still got half a mountain to climb.”

“Three kilometers,” Gisela said.

“Right,” Cat nodded, and she led the charge this time, hurrying uphill from the field.

As they moved towards the trees, marking the edge of the town and the beginning of the wild mountain, the air before them seemed to warp and shift. As if from nothing itself, a massive wolf appeared before them. Rather than a snarling coarse-furred monster, however, this one had a noble countenance. A pair of vestigial wings sprouted form its back of sleek midnight black fur, and three of its legs had been replaced by artificial limbs of black metal and silver into the shape of a wolf’s slender legs. Most of all, however, Cat recognized the familiar bright blue eyes, the same color as the jewel in her sword’s pommel.

“Angel!” Cat smiled, running up to her.

“The Witches are ready,” Angel said, shrinking in a flash back down to her humanoid form.

“And so are we,” Rosa said.

Angel turned northwards, towards the distant peak of the Brocken.

“Then the mountain, and Nidhoggr, awaits.”

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 51

 

The battle against the ghostly Vikings had been short, far shorter than Noemi had expected.

With their sail raised, their cries of the Naglfar carried across the sea, the Vikings had looked ready to commandeer the Dutchman for their black fleet. Noemi was not sure how one ghost ship could truly conquer another, yet Jonah seemed to take it seriously enough, sharing the captain’s orders to the two corporeal crewmates.

Cannon balls and fiery arrows lit up the foggy sea, the flames reflected on the tranquil water below. Loki’s men sailed beside the Dutchman, throwing down planks as they charged across to board the man-o-war. Clad in furs, wielding rusted blades that glowed with a spectral aura around them, the Norse dead were merciless in their assault, shouting in their ancient tongue at Noemi and Ronny.

A machete in one hand, her pistol in another, Noemi had stood on the deck, fighting the Vikings as they came, but it wasn’t long before the three of them were surrounded.

“Looks like this might be the end,” Jonah said with an almost calm fatalism.

“Easy for you to say!” Noemi shouted, parrying a longsword with her machete, before firing an enchanted bullet into the chest of a ghost. “You’re already dead!”

“What even happens if they take the ship, cabin boy?” Ronny asked, ducking beneath a high swinging strike.

“We will probably be compelled to serve Loki as we now serve Davy Jones,” Jonah said.

“I survived too much against Tess to let a god like Loki be my end!” Noemi said, trying to appear bold. Even so, the situation looked bad. While the ghosts of the Dutchman were fighting unseen, there were so many Vikings, more than could fit on a normal longboat.

The waves began to rise higher and higher as the din of the battle echoed through the ocean. The white foam crashed down, spraying all over the deck. Noemi hardly heard the rumbling until she noticed a shadow moving beneath the water.

From beneath the waves, Jormungandr raised its head above the water, its teeth long, sharp, and dripping with venom as it roared. It rolled and tightened its coils beneath the Viking ships, reducing them to splinters floating on the merciless ocean, the souls of their crews weighed down to sink to the Locker below.

Those Northmen ghosts aboard the Dutchman could only watch in awe and terror as the storm clouds rolled back to reveal the Feathered Serpent descending upon them, her form far more monstrous than when Noemi had seen her last. It felt like years to human since she had laid eyes upon her patron. Ophidia let out a screeching call as she crashed upon the deck of the Dutchman, her presence condemning the unwanted ghosts to the sea and Jormungandr’s waiting, ravenous maw.

Noemi blinked twice as she lowered her weapon. Ophidia stood before her, though the term ‘hovered’ seemed more appropriate. Her long white hair appeared more as a cowl of feathers; scales ran along her limbs and a pair of wide downy wings were displayed proudly. Ophidia stared down at Noemi through red, slitted eyes.

“It seems you had fun while I was away, Noemi.”

“I don’t know if I’d call it ‘fun’! But your timing was pretty good,” Noemi said, stepping forward. Her nerves started to calm. After all, it was still Ophidia who stood before her. “You look…ah, different?”

“Mm, yes. One moment,” The goddess spoke, as her feathers began to fall from her hair and wings. They were caught in the wind swirling around Ophidia, as they quickly took the form of her cloak once more, her skin becoming smooth as satin as her scales disappeared. Soon, she looked exactly the same as she had before she departed with the World Serpent. “Does that make you feel more at ease?”

“Yeah, that’s much less intimidating,” Noemi said with a smile. “Thanks.”

“Of course.”

Human Noemi.

The entire ship rocked violently as the voice of the World Serpent blew across the ocean like a storm. Noemi put her hands over her ears as she turned to stare up at Jormungandr, the sea snake looking down at the Dutchman with gem-like eyes.

“Y-yes? No need to be quite so loud. I can hear you better when you’re smaller, you know!”

The World Serpent blinked, letting out a low hiss. The waters began to churn beneath the ship. Ronny grabbed onto a rope to avoid being knocked about.

“What are you doing, Red?” She whispered under her breath, looking nervously up at Jormungandr. “Don’t piss her off when she’s that big!”

“That’s my point. If you want to talk, Jormungandr, then give us the respect of not having to cover our ears just to hear you speak!”

Jormungandr snorted, though it didn’t lash out at the Dutchman. Slowly, the great wyrm began to shrink, down to the size of the ship itself. Though still far larger than any of the people aboard the man-o-war, the ship rocked more peacefully beside it. The serpent’s tail flicked, spraying water back and forth, splashing the elf and Noemi with the salty fishy taste of the sea.

Noemi thought it petty, but decided it best to keep that thought to herself.

“Now…what is it you wish to say, Jormungandr?”

Who are they who sail against the Dutchman?

“Not sure honestly. Well, I can tell they’re Vikings, but I don’t know their names. They came out of the mist, screaming for the Naglfar.”

“I already tried to tell ‘em how this was a sign of Ragnarok, Jor!” Ronny shouted up, her hands cupped around her lips to amplify. “Looks like I was right!”

It is not yet time!

The World Serpent rumbled in fury as the earth began to shake again, the water turning as the storm clouds gathered around the great wyrm’s head. Venom splashed like giant drops, causing the sea to boil where they fell, before washing away. The snake’s jeweled eyes burned with a rage. It flicked its tongue out, hissing furiously.

The Naglfar should not yet be built. It is ahead of the schedule. It is not time for this world to come to an end.

“Yeah, but you know who is probably to blame for that, right, Jormungandr?” Ronny said with an amused grin, her fear having fallen away quickly. “The one who spits at fate, and I’m not talking about Odin.”

It can only be my father’s hand behind this.

“Bingo. I mean, it’s Loki’s ship after all!”

“I don’t know what game your father is playing, great serpent,” Jonah said, stepping forward, looking up at the snake with the same exasperated frustration that he often spared Ronny. “But the Dutchman won’t serve him.”

No. That cannot pass. The Naglfar must be destroyed before it sails proper.

“You know where it is?” Noemi asked.

I do not. My father has hidden it from my sight, constructing it in a secret dock or else I would sense it. If the souls from Helheim are sailing into Midgard, then it must be close to completion.

“So…what, we follow the ghosts? I don’t think they are going to tell us where they’re sailing,” Noemi said.

“No, but I believe it may be possible for us to follow the same channels as them. This ship is one of the wayward dead, even if it’s not in service to the same forces.”

“We don’t really have a pilot who can track spirits or ghosts. It’s not like just because I’m a ghost, I know the way, and the ship won’t sail off its course unless I manually do it,” Jonah said.

“Mm, is this what you want to do, Ophidia?” Noemi asked.

“It is important, not only for my debt to Jormungandr, but to all. After all, this is a threat greater than even Aztlan.”

Noemi nodded, as she turned to Jonah. “So are you willing to let the ship be commandeered for this?”

Jonah’s lips pursed as he thought for a moment, before sighing. “Putting aside the problem I just mentioned, yes. I can’t imagine Davy Jones wants the world to end.”

Sail the Dutchman to the North. Find the Naglfar. It will be at the center of this spectral fleet.

“What will you be doing, Scaly One?” Ronny asked.

I will be preparing for the inevitable engagement. Gathering the forces of the great wyrms and serpents. We will be there to stop my father’s madness.

“Am I to go with you? Or stay aboard the Dutchman.”

You shall stay, Feathered One. You will hear my voice as I prepare.

“What can I do, Jor?” Noemi asked, looking at her cutlass and pistol. She wasn’t an elf like Ronny, able to slip in and out of a story to play whatever role was most apt. Nor was she a ghost like Jonah, a face to an entire crew of souls manning one of the most powerful ship of the damned in the world. Even with her divine powers, she was still Noemi. She was one person, and never had she really felt more out of her league than here.

Jormungandr lowered her head, her eyes piercing through the mortal. Noemi didn’t shy away or turn her head, but staring into Jormungandr’s gaze always reminded Noemi of how small she was.

I have no task for you, champion. There is little one mortal can do in the plans of Fate, yet at times…I have found them deserving of my notice.

Noemi frowned at that, looking away as her cheeks flushed red. She knew Jormungandr was simply stating the truth, yet the serpent’s words were…blunt. It seemed even the world serpent took notice now, as it slowly rose its head back, speaking in a warmer tone.

Yet you work to stop Ragnarok, and in that task, even a single hand is invaluable. Take pride in that.

“R-right, well…I do want to help. Because like everyone’s saying, this affects us all. Not just the Dutchman, Ophidia’s cult, or the people oppressed by Aztlan, but all of us.”

Noemi turned to Jonah, a smile on her face as she holstered her gun. Even if she felt small, it was all about putting on a show. Sometimes, that’s all others needed.

“You need a pilot? Well, I can take you to a place where I think we can find someone able to track down the trail of spirits. It will just be a quick pit stop to get an extra set of hands.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Obsidian Lights

 

Gisela glanced at the candle still burning on the collapsible desk she worked on. The wick was down to very last strands and the wax was now more puddle than candle. Rosa liked to joke it was her ‘midnight candle’ and Gisela had been burning it for weeks. Gisela hadn’t mentioned how right she was.

It was part of being a Champion. Two hours of sleep every three days was the most Gisela could get away with while still remaining completely functional.

“…”

Gisela shook her head. It was too early in the morning to consider the ramifications of treating her body and mind like machines, and she had too much work to do. She’d wasted many long nights psychoanalyzing herself. When all this was over, she could publish a book on it.

By Gisela’s reckoning, it was about three hours past midnight. A few hours had passed since Evangeline’s reckless tampering with the runestones had woken up half the camp. No doubt Evangeline would eventually come to her for translation help. Evangeline was smart, a better engineer than Gisela could ever conceivably be, but tongues were not among her many gifts.

Gisela’s finger continued down the page of the book as her eyes wandered from line to line. It was Old Norse, very old considering it was still in the original Runic script. She’d told Catarina that her patron, Itzpapalotl, had given her the ability to read and understand every language ever known by humans. This was not technically the truth in two respects. Gisela could not literally ‘read’ the Runic script in front of her, and not all the languages she knew were made by humans.

What Gisela could do, her primary gift, was the ability to siphon literal and contextual information directly from any words or written script. It was, in Itzpapalotl’s words, the “Language of the Gods”. What Gisela could do wasn’t reading, it was so much more useful than that. By simply seeing the line of runes before her, Gisela’s mind could understand not only their literal meaning but the intent of the author, a key difference that gave her invaluable insight. Language is ninety-percent context, and what she could do was the dream of centuries of archaeologists and philologists: The ability to peer into the mind of the speaker or writer and understand not only what they said, but what they meant.

The book she read was fascinating in and of itself, a transcription taken from the personal memoirs of a member of the Byzantine Varangian Guard, supposedly of tales passed down through his mother’s line from a people unidentified save for being some elusive ‘other’, which Gisela believed to be some kind of fae or pre-historical autocthonous being. What was written, however, was more troubling than fascinating.

It had much to say on the primeval entities of the Norse World, on the frost giant Ymir (not only deceased but blessedly dismembered like its Mesoamerican cousin Cipactli), and on Jormungandr, the World Serpent. Jormungandr’s description had been surprisingly placid, she (Gisela noted the specificity of femininity) was seen as like the Spine of the World, part of Midgard and its life-cycle. Though Thor and Jormungandr would destroy one another come Ragnarok, this was seen as more necessity than malice, the world must die to live again. But of the most terrible dragons, the document saved its vitriol for Nidhoggr. While Jormungandr was part of the world and its fate, Nidhoggr was the “Great Other”, an alien force form the depths of Helheim that will rend through the borders of the Realms in an act of utmost chaotic destruction.

Gisela put the book down. Reading for hours about the destruction of civilizations was not going to be of any help. As she shut the cover of the book, hand sliding over the aged leather, the candle in front of her shuddered.

Gisela’s eyes narrowed. The flame’s movement was not in time with her shutting of the book. It was an innocuous detail, and one that she would have been certain to notice.

“So you’re here,” She said quietly to the shadows, and the shadows smiled at her.

Itzpapalotl wasn’t strong enough to take full form around her anymore, but she didn’t need to. A cold wind rattled through the tent, extinguishing the candle and filling the air with the sound of hissing snakes and rattling bones. Gisela turned and stared into the darkness, the only light coming from the muted starlight that peered through the slight opening in the tent. She stared, and a pair of stars stared back at her.

“You’ve been at this some time and yet nothing has helped, has it?”

The voice shivered through the air, as if carried on ice into her ears, the same rattling sword-breath she’d become familiar with.

“It doesn’t need to help,” Gisela said. “Any knowledge on these creatures is invaluable.”

“And they keep saying the same thing. Cut and run, flee while you can. The end is nigh.”

Gisela ground her teeth together. She hated when Itzpapalotl decided to ‘test’ her.

“I don’t need a plan or a stratagem from some old text. We have a plan. It will work.”

Itzpapalotl’s laughter filled the tent. The book flipped open, pages shuffling wildly back and forth.

“A plan? A witch’s word, the promise of a powerless Primordial, and a foolish little girl with more idealism than sense. Tell me, child, you’re so clever with numbers and facts, what do you think about the odds.”

Gisela scowled. She knew the odds, but she didn’t like being mocked.

“Have you told Catarina how much like the others she is?” Itzpapalotl’s voice ran down her spine like cold water. “Like the hopeful boys and girls in Morocco, France, Portugal and Algiers. All of them so like Catarina, all of them dead now. The soil of the Old World is rich with the blood of dead heroes, is it not?”

Gisela stood up.

“You,” She hissed. “Are my shadow, my patron, my cross to carry around with me, but I will not have you insult the people around me.”

“Oho, what’s this?” Itzpapalotl laughed. “Empathy? Caring? You defend the people you once groomed like lambs for slaughter. Tell me have you forgotten so quickly the reason you shut all that away, forgot how to care and to feel to simply keep yourself sane?”

Gisela’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you dare…”

“You weren’t the only ones watching those memories again,” She laughed. “I was right there with you. It was, after all, my eyes through which we saw them. From the beginning I was watching you, your shadow as you said. I know what you are, Gisela, and I know that when the time comes, you always choose to run.”

Gisela took a long deep breath. “You’re right…I know you’re right.”

Itzpapalotl remained silent, expecting more. Gisela obliged her.

“I ran from my home, from my fear. I ran from Tezcatlipoca and from all the monsters he sent after me…I ran from Noemi, I ran from the continent just to get away. I ran from death right into your arms and when I found others…people who could help, people who could make a difference, I ran from them. I ran from the potential because I was afraid of failing, and they all failed perhaps in part because of it.”

Gisela stood her ground, staring at the rogue stars peering at her through the night air,

“But I will tell you the same thing I will tell Tezcatlipoca. I’m not running anymore.”

“And where did this newfound courage come from?” Itzpapalotl asked, the mocking jeer still in its voice. “Do you have that much confidence in your plans? Are you this assured of the odds?”

“It’s not about the odds, it’s not about the plan. It’s about faith,” Gisela said plainly. Itzpapalotl laughed again. This time Gisela did not flinch.

“Faith? Where is your faith, Gisela? When have you ever had faith in anyone or anything?”

“I had…I have faith in Noemi,” Gisela said. The name itself hurt to say, but she pushed on. “But more than anything now I have faith in Catarina where I never thought I would.”

“And what makes her so different? What makes this child worthy of your faith?”

“Nothing at all,” Gisela said. “She’s no more special than anyone else could be. Sure she has magic, but so do I and so do others. Nothing sets her above the heroes I met before, or any other legionnaire in this camp…”

“Then what is it?”

“She isn’t worthy of my faith,” Gisela said. “That’s not how faith works…how it should work. I have faith in her because I want to, because what hope does she have if I don’t? And…because she has faith in me.”

“Does she now?”

“She believed me, heard what I had to say, brought me with her, took me into her home. Begrudgingly yes, more often reluctantly than not…but she has only ever been kind, kinder than I ever deserved. She has faith in me not to run when she needs me, and I need to honor that faith.”

“So what does this mean?” Itzpapalot said, her tone becoming calmer, more quiet. “When the moment comes to choose, when you find that threshold of no return?”

“I’m all in,” Gisela said. “No more running, no more hiding. No more hating myself for being a coward. I’ll be with Catarina, and we’ll succeed together, or we’ll all die together.”

“How bold…I must say, child, you are not the drowning girl I pulled up from the embrace of the deeps.”

“You saw to that,” Gisela said. “When you scorched my mind and set me on this path.”

“I did do that,” Gisela could hear the smile even if she couldn’t see it. “But that made you a machine, my harbinger of destruction. Something has changed in you since you failed to conquer Rome.”

Itzpapalotl did always have to phrase it in the most demeaning way.

“No, I think that Catarina has done something to you. She’s affected you far more than you’ve changed her.”

“Perhaps that’s for the best,” Gisela said. “If she were more like me she’d be a terrible hero.”

Itzpapalotl chuckled, less coldly this time. “That would be true, my child. Though I wonder if you plan to take that role yourself one day.”

“I’m not preoccupied with ‘one day’ at the moment,” Gisela said. “I have a world to save tomorrow.”

The tent seemed to empty, the shadows falling away and the candle lighting itself once more. The stars past the tent fold faded into the darkness, and Gisela felt distinctly alone again. She stayed standing a few minutes longer before taking her seat again, hands resting on the pages of the book she had been scouring, but her eyes staring into the tent wall before her.

Itzpapalotl was never truly gone, she knew that. It was true Gisela did not often have her full attention; no doubt she had plenty to do in her homeland where she belonged. Still, even when she was alone like this she knew that the Obsidian Butterfly’s presence was never too far away, lingering in a shadow somewhere.

Gisela stared at the smoldering remnants of the candle, the light starting to fade as the last of the wick began to burn away.

“She would be proud of you.”

Gisela sat bolt upright. The voice had been right in her ear, like a whisper over her shoulder, but it hadn’t been the cold mirthless voice of Itzpapalotl she knew. It had seemed warmer, kinder, spoken through human lips rather than the pointed teeth of the hollowed skeletal face. Gisela stared into the darkness for a long time, but nothing moved, and no new voice came.

Unsure what it meant, Gisela leaned down onto to the desk, head resting on her folded arms as she pushed the book away. She didn’t need the sleep, but tomorrow would be a long day.

 

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 50

 

By necessity, the Cult of Ishtar lacked a real hierarchy and power structure. The more people knew about such a hierarchy, the easier it would be to bring down. As a result, it had been separated into semi-distinct cells with Asha and Leyla as the only common element between them. A plan to bring down Shadiya, however, would require large-scale coordination and thus they needed to start planning with everyone they knew.

They were in one of the more well-to-do estates in Babylon, on the second floor of a manor with a view overlooking the Tigris and a garden of arid plants. In the distance, far too close for comfort, was the palace of Shadiya, an intimidating ziggurat of sandstone, glass, and semi-precious stones that rose in the center of the city.

Asha had gathered all of her companions from Babylon and Damscus, as well as a small crowd of new Ishtar cultists. The manor was owned by one of their wealthier patrons, who had the means to get a large number in one place somewhat surreptitiously.

“First and foremost,” Asha said. “We all want Shadiya overthrown, but no one wants innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Shadiya in control of her brood is dangerous but out of control, it’s not much better and there are very few people on our side qualified to kill monsters.”

There was a general murmur of assent throughout the group. Plenty were willing to fight guards or URIEL, if it came to that, but very few were willing to take on Shadiya’s brood.

“With that in mind,” Leyla spoke up next. “We think we’ve managed to come up with a workable solution. Have you seen those towers erected through the city, like telephone lines?”

He gestured out the window, and from their view they could see several such towers rising throughout the city.

“Those expand her area of control. They allow her to establish her will over the minds of monsters. If they’re destroyed, so is her control.”

“That was our first plan,” Asha said. “But you can see the obvious downsides.”

“Without control,” one man said. “We just have an army of monsters loose in the city…who are now OUT of control.”

“Bingo,” Asha nodded. “And that’s just as bad if not worse, even if we had everyone out trying to fight them.”

Varia stepped forward now. After escaping from beneath the city sewers, she’d had a chance to clean up, dressed down in a number of shawls to avoid being recognized. “While we have reason to believe the monsters would turn on their URIEL handlers, after that we would still have that problem to deal with. So instead we worked out a new solution, and a new plan.”

“The job all of you will have,” Asha said. “Is that in two days’ time, you are going to go out and try to get every single person off the street you can. We’re going to do this at night to make it easier, but everyone on the streets is potentially in danger.”

“Sure but…what’s this plan?” One asked from the crowd.

“Leyla and I are going to assault Shadiya’s Palace,” Asha said. “Head on. At the same time, Constance, Hazif, and Varia will target the broadcast towers, and this is where the plan gets really brilliant.”

“We’re not going to tear down the signal, we’re going to amplify it,” Varia smiled. “Imagine Shadiya’s voice is like a radio in their heads telling them what to do. We’re not going to shut it off, we’re going to turn it up so loud they can’t even register anything but intolerable noise.”

“Turn up the volume until they can’t take it anymore,” Asha said. “Rather than guiding them those monsters are going to run just to escape the pain of the noise. Hopefully right out of the city.”

“Will that really work?” One woman stepped forward, one Asha recognized as being from one of the larger Ishtar cults. “Just turn up the volume? They’d still be able to hear the orders right?”

“I’m familiar with the method they used,” Varia said. “I’ve seen it put in action before. This kind of…telepathy you could say…requires very fine control and a consistent signal controlled with a delicate touch. Too little and it’s only subliminal, hardly altering the mind at all. Too much and it’s like…well imagine sensory overload delivered directly to your brain. You can’t shut your eyes or put your hands over your ears. It’d be intensely painful and even a monster would flee.”

“And who are you?” The cult leader’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve never seen you around before and it seems like you know quite a bit. Maybe too much.”

“She’s someone we-“ Asha began but Varia cut her off.

“I know the system because I helped pioneer its use,” Varia said plainly. “I am a former URIEL scientist, and I’m not asking for your forgiveness or sympathy, just your cooperation.”

Murmurs and objections rose up among the crowd as people seemed to divide themselves. Asha sighed; she knew this would be coming if Varia’s identity got out.

“I know people are worried,” Asha said.

“We don’t know if we can trust her!” The cultist said. “Who knows what experiment’s she’s done!?”

“I tested her,” Asha said, showing her hand. “Held her by the skin and asked all kinds of questions on if she’d betray us. Dr. Archeille has no intention of betraying us. She’ll follow the plan to the best of her abilities.”

“She’s right,” Varia nodded. “As for what I’ve done…some may have been unethical, but I’ve always tried to act within the strictest morality my work could allow.”

There were still a number of disgruntled murmurs, but for the most part the crowd went silent.

“But that’s the plan,” Asha said. “The signal will be disrupted, Leyla and I will engage Shadiya at roughly the same time so she can’t fix the problem. At the same time, I’ll need all of you and your groups out on the streets pulling people out of harm’s way. On top of that, the URIEL soldiers won’t be fleeing either.”

“We don’t want you engaging them either,” Leyla said. “URIEL soldiers are heavily armed and better coordinated. What we need to know is where they hunker down while they try to recover.”

“They’re on their last legs,” Varia said. “Most of their command structure other than Shadiya have been exiled or murdered. Given a chance, and shown that her rule is broken, they’ll surrender or flee. Try to corner them, however, and they will try to shoot their way out. We don’t need that kind of conflict.”

As Leyla began to work with the crowd, pointing out where they would need to patrol on a map of the city, Asha pulled Varia aside.

“You didn’t have to tell them who you were,” Asha said. “That…complicates things.”

“You proved I’m trustworthy,” Varia said. “That should be all they need to cooperate.”

“For this mission maybe,” Asha said. “But we can’t have you going through a lie detector for everything. If you want a future working in this city, people will need to trust you a little more.”

Varia smiled. “So your plan was to get them to trust me by deceiving them.”

“I, er…” Asha pursed her lips.

“It’s a non-issue either way,” Varia shrugged. “I have no intention of remaining in this city. I’ll be leaving.”

“Leaving?” Asha asked. “Where? Damascus?”

“Farther, I expect,” Varia said. “There’s someone I need to find that I’ve been worried about for years now.”

“You never really told me,” Asha said. “What you did before the days of Revelation with URIEL. Obviously you weren’t brought on when they were building Shadiya.”

Varia sighed. “I was brought in on what I thought was a research project, purely theoretical but before I knew it my ‘theory’ had become exceedingly ‘practical’ and I was delving into the murky ethics of human cloning.”

“Cloning?” Asha asked. “Like making copies of people in pods?”

“Well…not pods,” Varia said. “But yes, I was involved in a clandestine cloning project studying the effects of reproducing ancient mage bloodlines via cloning. As the work continued, however, the work began to…stray from what I could comfortably be do.”

“What kind of work was it?” Asha asked, leading her further away from the crowd and into a hall where they could be alone.

“Three subjects…no, three young girls were cloned from the same DNA. I just wanted to see the effects and pitched fostering them among the staff, but the project lead…Dr. Joachim, was insistent they stay isolated from the staff and most interactions other than with each other. He claimed it was for their protection and while I…agreed at first due to their inherent genetic instability and lack of immunity to modern disease…things became worse.”

Asha listened quietly as Varia leaned against the wall, staring down at the tiled floor.

“They began undergoing behavioral conditioning…and I mean intense conditioning. After that was the additional gene therapy and…the project was getting out of control. I didn’t think we should have cloned them in the first place but when that was too late…I wanted to treat them like people…when I had the chance, I treated them like my own daughters. But by the time they were in their teens, it was clear URIEL’s only plans for them were to turn them into weapons. Clandestine soldiers for a war we weren’t even fighting yet.”

“You could have left,” Asha said. “At a lot of points.”

“I was under heavy security scrutiny. Finding a job would have been nigh-impossible,” Varia said. “But more than that…you have to understand how much these girls meant to me. By the time they were six they saw me as…well not as much of a mother as I wanted to be but…they were everything. And I wasn’t about to leave them.”

“So what did you do? If anything?” Asha asked, folding her arms.

“I arranged the conditions for them to escape,” Varia said. “Not all at once and not in any way that could be traced but…well Dr. Joachim knew it was me. That is when my employment turned from ‘non-disclosure’ into ‘compulsory’. I didn’t receive any further work until the Shadiya project after the Days of Revelation. I was just kept in one URIEL cell after another, a prisoner or a slave depending on how kind they were being.”

“So that’s who you want to find,” Asha said. “The girls?”

“I know, it’s not much, in all likelihood they’re not even alive. But if Shadiya is brought down…well URIEL isn’t holding me anymore.”

Asha stood silently for a moment, thinking things over. She wasn’t sure how much of what Varia was telling her was true. She could have found out but that likely would have said more about Asha than Varia if she had tried to force her hand.

“What were their names?” Asha asked finally. “The girls.”

“All of them were codenamed Eleanor. One through three,” Varia said. “It was my idea to give them nicknames they adopted. The eldest was Lenore, the youngest Ellen, and the middle one was Nora.”

“Nora…” Asha said the name, tapping her head. “That…something about that is familiar.”

“I mean it’s not uncommon,” Varia shrugs. “I know it’s not much to go on.”

“R-right well…” Asha shook her head. “If we make it through this…and that’s a pretty big if, then I wish you good luck.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Marks that Bind

 

It was late at night in the Second Legion camp. Most people were asleep, while a decent contingent of the guard stayed on the walls to keep back the monsters. Evangeline, however, was taking a little time for herself. Though she’d gotten by on her bad leg without issue before, the long days of hard marching were taking their toll. She used her automatons as a leg brace to keep pace with the others, but after a day of that it had chafed fiercely, and she was relieved when they set up camp.

Their camp was in a large clearing in the forest. Hanne had taken it as simple good luck and set up camp there immediately. It was built on a hill that gave them a commanding view of the surrounding forests and even a hint of the Brocken in the distance. Evangeline, however, was convinced it was no simple hill, and had decided after night fell to investigate on her own.

Atop the hill, in the center of the camp not far from the command tent, was a loose gathering of large boulders. Most of them were very long and stood up on their narrower sides as if raised like standing stones. Even the shortest of them easily dwarfed her, and they had caught her eye the moment she walked into camp. Hildegard and Angel had both insisted the hill was safe and without any trace of excess magic, but Evangeline wasn’t so sure.

She was investigating the stones, tapping the hard rock with her cane when she heard steps coming up the hill behind her.

“Poking around with rocks now, Evangeline?” She recognized Rosa’s voice, not even needing to turn around.

“That’s right,” Evangeline said. “Rocks are interesting.”

There was a pause before Rosa spoke again, and Evangeline kept at her work.

“…what kind of rock is it?”

“Granite,” Evangeline said idly, still tapping away.

“Uh huh…” Rosa’s voice trailed off, but Evangeline didn’t hear her leave. It was clear she wanted to talk about something. By now, Rosa knew her well enough to know that Evangeline was listening, but she wasn’t going to turn around when she was already so engrossed in her work.

“Do you have a minute to…?”

“By all means, talk away,” Evangeline said, hand sliding over the smooth stone. Too smooth.

“I was just wondering…you’ve…heard about me and Cat, right?”

“You two do have such a sense of timing,” Evangeline clucked her tongue. “Choosing to tie this romantic knot of yours on the veritable eve of battle.”

Evangeline smiled, she could almost hear Rosa bristling from the way her weight shifted her armor.

“H=hey it was Cat’s fault we-“

“I think it’s cute, Rosa,” Evangeline interrupted her. “Everyone does. Besides, late or not it’s better to get it out before the big battle. So don’t worry about it.”

Her cane made a looud tink sound as it struck the stone at an angle.

“Now that’s odd…”

“It’s just…well I was anxious about Cat because she was acting all weird. I get that it’s because she was worried about bringing it up, but now I’m worried because-“

“Because you’re worried about her even more,” Evangeline interrupted her again. “Because now she’s not just your friend and comrade, but your girlfriend…I think I hit the mark,” Evangeline was half-talking to Rosa and half-trying to focus on the stone. There was something under here.

“Yeah…” Rosa muttered. “Like I don’t regret it, but now I’m all…”

“We’re all worried, Rosa,” Evangeline said. “Cat has family and friends here. We all want her safe,” Her eyes were still locked on the stone. She flipped the cane in her hand, grasping the worn wood near the base as she weighed the heavy handle on the far end. With a flick of her thumb she tripped a hidden level and heard a soft metallic whir go through the device. At the head of the cane, a small glass sphere containing a modicum of divine lightning was slotted onto place.

“I know, I know it’s just…this is kind of different now. Like, I should be looking out for her more. I don’t know, maybe I should go talk to her…”

“Cat’s sleeping and you’re overthinking things,” Evangeline’s automatons moved to her bad leg, bracing it in place. This was going to take some effort.

“Wow, Evangeline,” Irritation was growing in Rosa’s voice. “Could you at least humor me for a second before cutting me off? It’s not easy for me to talk about this kind of-“

“One second, sorry.”

Evangeline swung her cane like a sledgehammer, the metal head contacting the hard stone with enough force to shatter the glass sphere. There was a flash of light and a sound like a thunderclap rolling through the camp. Evangeline saw a number of people sticking their heads out of their tents to investigate, and she waved her cane apologetically.

“Sorry!” She shouted. “Nothing to worry about! I promise!”

“Jesus, give me some warning next time!” Evangeline turned to Rosa for the first time and saw her gingerly rubbing her ears with her palms.

“Sorry,” Evangeline said. “Running tests.”

“Could you spare me like, I don’t know, ten seconds of your time?”

“Shall I time you?” Evangeline asked sarcastically, rebalancing herself on her cane. “Look, Rosa, I understand but you’re…well you’re blowing this a bit out of proportion.”

Rosa’s face reddened both in embarrassment and irritation. Evangeline could see why Cat found her cute.

“I’m worried about her!”

“Good,” Evangeline said. “Being worried is a good thing.”

“Wha-what do you mean?” Rosa asked.

“Come look at this,” Evangeline gestured for Rosa to come close to the stone. Hesitantly at first the redhead walked over to stand next to her.

On the surface of the old granite, lines of light were beginning to wind themselves across the stone surface. Slowly they moved and intersected, forming into runic inscriptions and stylized art, flawless in detail and shining with power.

“What is this?” Rosa asked.

“A runestone. They’re pretty rare this far south,” Evangeline said. “But there are a few you can find if you know how to see through the magic.”

“Runestone?”

Evangeline nodded. “Normally they’re just carved rocks people put up to commemorate lost relatives or boast about their own accomplishments. But stones like these are something special. You see here?”

Evangeline gestured to parts of the runestone all but covered in shining runic script over geometric lines that almost appeared to be schematics. Evangeline traced some of the lines with her fingers, following the patterns.

“These were put up by dwarves as a method of recording and communication. A bit harder to find than human replications, but all the better for it. I can only imagine the kind of knowledge these things had.”

“Uh huh…” Rosa looked over the lines, but the meaning of them was lost on her. “So, what was with all the thunder and lightning?”

“Oh that?” Evangeline shrugged. “Well, dwarves don’t sell their secrets cheaply. They usually demand unfair or unreasonable trades for their work. So, of course, if they write down their designs, there’s going to be a lot of security around it. I just had to bust open the lock a little.”

“Doubt they’d like that,” Rosa said, Evangeline shrugged.

“Assuming the dwarf that wrote that is still alive, he can take it up with me and my boss.”

“Right…so, looking to see if you can work some Norse dwarf metalsmithing into all that divine engineering you do?”

“Couldn’t hurt,” Evangeline smiled. “Shame I don’t have time to implement anything I learn before the battle…”

With a flick of her hand she released some of her skittering automatons onto the runestone, letting them crawl over its surface and record whatever they could. She couldn’t very well take the stone with her later.

“Mmm…but getting back on my point,” Rosa started to say.

“I don’t think you’ll have any problems, Rosa,” Evangeline said.

“What do you mean?”

Evangeline smiled. “I mean that of course you’re worried. A lot of people are, and not just for Cat…but I also know you. I helped fortify your spear after all.”

“Well true…”

“And remember what we did? How we narrowed its focus and the concepts worked within the metal of your spear?”

“Yeah, we made it less about just killing and more about protecting.”

“We did,” Evangeline said. “And we chose that because you wanted to protect Rome and the people in it you cared about. You’re the kind of person, Rosa, who never fights better than when they’re protecting something they care about…and you’ve never had the chance to fight for someone you cared about more than Catarina.”

“Mmm…” Rosa fell into a n uncomfortable silence, and Evangeline walked from the stone as her automatons continued their work, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

“You told me about your sister, Rosa…I can’t imagine how hard carrying those memories must be for you. The two of you struggled so hard to survive…but you never got the chance to do what you wanted, to fight for her and to protect her from else.”

“No…” Rosa said. “I never got to…”

“You’re not going to fail Catarina like you failed her,” Evangeline said. “No one is.”

“Mmmm…thanks, Evangeline,” Rosa said. “Just…needed to hear it and there wasn’t…it’s hard to talk about with the team, especially Cat.”

“I understand,” Evangeline nodded. “You need to look strong and fearless as the commander, especially with Cat as scared as she is. You’re all too tight knit for you to appear scared.”

“That’s…that’s more or less it, yeah,” Rosa nodded.

“All of us are scared, Rosa. For our own reasons and for the same reason in that we’re all about to go fighting a gigantic chaos dragon. Who wouldn’t be scared, seriously?”

“I don’t know how Cat’s even still moving,” Rosa said. “I’m…I worry. This is a lot for her. Too much for anyone really.”

“Catarina is like no one else I’ve ever met,” Evangeline said. “And you really should feel lucky someone like her loves someone like you.”

“Heh, well…I do feel pretty lucky,” Rosa turned a bit red in the face.

“She relies on all of us, but you most of all,” Evangeline said. “She knows you’re scared…but so long as she sees you pushing forward and braving through it, she’ll be able to as well.”

“I guess that’s what we’re all doing,” Rosa said. “Just putting on a brave face so the rest of us can do the same.”

“That’s what being brave is,” Evangeline said. “No one here is stupid enough to think that none of us are afraid. Everyone is scared and everyone knows it…but we’re all scared together and we all march together. Like links in chain armor one pulls along the other and they pull along others, and the first was pulled along by someone else. There’s no start, no lead, just a little collective bravery form all of us is what keeps this army marching. You and Catarina inspire one another, keep each other going, and it’s the same for the rest of the team.”

“Heh, you give pretty good speeches,” Rosa gave a weary smile.

“Just one on one.” Evangeline returned her smile. “I’m terrible at public speaking really, way too casual.”

“So who keeps you marching?” Rosa asked.

“You have to ask?” Evangeline said. “All of you, of course.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 49

 

The days were growing shorter and darker as the Second Legion continued its hard march north. It was autumn and they knew the days would be growing colder, but it was quickly becoming clear that this would be the coldest and darkest winter in centuries. Every day the sky was hidden by thick dark grey clouds and every night they could barely even make out the moon. Gisela called it the start of the Fimbulwinter, another sign that they were running out of time. If Nidhoggr wasn’t destroyed then this winter would last for years.

The raids were growing worse as well. The daytime was relatively peaceful, and the legion made good progress as they forded rivers and marched through fields and forests. At night, however, the beasts that were gathering at Nidhoggr’s summons surrounded their camp. They had wooden walls, a palisade of sharpened stakes they could set up each evening like one of Caesar’s own legions, but they weren’t fighting off barbarian hordes in the darkness. Each night they would come under attack as monsters and cacodaemons crawled out from the shadows of the night. Cat and the other mages and champions patrolled when they could at night, but they needed to sleep as well, and the camp was large. Every night, the monsters grew bolder and they would lose people, people from Rome or beyond who would not be going back home. The closer they got to Nidhoggr’s infernal gathering point, the higher the casualties rose.

Cat felt her sword slice through the throat of a monstrous wolf. It had been trying to claw over the wall, and with a running leap, it might have made it. It was easily the size of Giovanni in his full form, but far more vicious in appearance with oversized teeth and claws. Black blood spilled across the floor of the guard tower as it slumped down the wall into the ditch below among its brethren. Cat let out a sigh of exhaustion, leaning on the edge of the tower’s railing as she looked out across the wall. Lit by torchlight were scores of monstrous bodies, the corpses of failed attacks against the palisade in dozens of different forms. Legionnaires patrolled the wall with long spears and stood at the guard towers like hers to repel any attack. But now, in the shadow of their enemy, the attacks were relentless. Cat looked northward, and while she couldn’t see it through the thick trees, she could sense the Brocken ahead of them, the Bald Mountain looming on the horizon.

It was October 29th; they were running out of time.

“Cat,” Cat turned and saw Nicomede climbing up the guard tower to meet her.

“Midnight already?” Cat asked, stretching her sore arms.

“Comes quickly, I know,” Nicomede said, looking over the wall to the fallen bodies of monsters below. “I’ve never seen it this bad…”

“Do you need help?” Cat asked.

Nicomede smiled at her. “I’ll manage just fine, Cat. You need rest. Go and get some sleep.”

“Right…” Cat nodded. Leaving him as she wearily climbed down to the camp and walking towards her tent.

She was tired, that much couldn’t be denied. Her limbs ached and she wanted nothing more than to sleep to take the edge off of the worst of it. But just because she was physical fatigued didn’t mean she could easily find peace enough to sleep.

She wandered into her tent and lied down on the cot and old bedroll. The night was cold, and they were lucky to have enough blankets to go around, but Cat was still shivering as she stared upwards at the roof of her tent.

The sounds of monsters being killed at the walls was muffled here, but she could still hear the howling coming up from the woods beyond their camp, and the quiet sense of dread that hung over everyone and everything.

Cat wanted to sleep, knew she needed to, but she couldn’t.

“Having difficulties, my dear Catarina?”

Cat stood up on her cot and turned to see Scheherazade sitting next to her, lounging in a large and opulent armchair as she watched Catarina.

“Schehera?” Cat asked blearily. “I thought you were going to stay in Rome?”

“I go where you go, Catarina. You did summon me after all. I just thought it best to lay low, so you could save your strength.”

“Ah,” Cat said. “Then why did you…show up?”

“It’s clear you weren’t going to be sleeping easily,” She said. “I thought I might be of help.”

“Do you have a sleeping potion or something?” Cat asked.

“Not quite.” With a wave of her hand, the cot had become an opulent bed of soft down and warm blankets.

Cat almost sank into the comfortable bed. It was too soft to be believed and she wanted nothing more than to spend all night in it. But it wouldn’t make sleep any easier.

“Mmm, it’s not the cot…though this is nice,” Cat said.

Scheherazade moved, the armchair vanishing as she took a seat on the bed next to Catarina. “I didn’t think it would be. Talk to me, Catarina.”

“I just…it’s everything,” Cat said. “I don’t…I don’t even know if I’ll be alive in two days. I’ve got this whole huge battle and, like, I know what they say, that you never know when you’ll wander out and get hit by a bus but…I could die…and the odds aren’t that much in my favor and there’s…”

“There’s Rosaria,” Scheherazade said.

“Yeah,” Cat nodded. “What if I died? Ugh I should have waited. What that would do to her?”

“Shhhhh,” Scheherazade reached down to stroke her hair. “Rosa knows what’s at stake, and I saw your little confession, she wasn’t about to stop because of that.”

“Oh Gods you saw that?” Cat pulled her head under the covers, face red.

“I’m afraid so, Catarina. Though it really as quite endearing.”

“Mmm…did you think I did the right thing?”

“Catarina, I have never seen you do something more right,” Scheherazade said.

“Do you have any advice, Schehera?” Cat asked. “Just…I need something that will help.”

“I can’t imagine the anxiety you’re feeling, the worry, the fear…but Catarina…is there anything on your path that you regret? It was a long road that brought you here, and you made many decisions to stay on this path, even when you knew where it might lead you.”

Cat was silent for a long time as she thought over Schehera’s words. Was there anything that she had regretted?

Three years ago, she had left her family estate after hiding inside for three weeks. She had chosen to venture out into Rome in search of food. There she’d meth Hildegard, and from there she’d met Hanne, Capitolina, Schehera, and Angel. She’d decided to train, to become a combat mage like Hildegard so that she could be like a knight, like a hero.

That had led her to Sicily, to Vittorio and Lana, the first real people she’d really helped save. She hadn’t done all that much, she wasn’t the hero of that story, but she had helped and it had earned her the sword she still carried with her, the sword she had insisted be made from the feather of a Primordial, the one weapon that could defeat Nidhoggr.

Training with that sword, to be the best fighter she could, had led her to meet Rosa. Scheherazade had brought her in touch with Asha, and through them Cat had learned how much it truly meant to her to help people. She’d helped inspire Asha to be a hero and helped Rosa overcome her grief to be…well to be the person Cat fell in love with.

Cat squirmed under her sheets. She didn’t regret any of it. Sure, she’d acted a bit like a kid now and then with her head in the clouds, but she’d still been learning. She could have turned back at any time. She could have been a more traditional mage and stayed safe in Rome with Albion. She could have accepted Angel’s warning and found another magic focus for her sword. She could have taken Gisela’s warning to heart and abandoned her quest, given up on being a hero and all the danger that entailed.

“No,” Cat said slowly, looking up at the ceiling of the tent. “I don’t…I don’t regret any of it, Schehera. Not a single choice, and not a single moment. I’m anxious, I’m terrified, more scared than I’ve ever been but…there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now. There’s no choice that I would change. This is where my road was always going to lead, I think.”

“I knew it would,” Schehera said. “From the day I met you I knew that this is where you’d be. The sword of humanity against the darkness. It’s where you belong, and I know you’ll do marvelous things, Catarina.”

“Mmm…” Cat felt her anxiety wane a little under Schehera’s gaze, but she still felt it, that same fear clawing at her heart.

“Hey Schehera,” Cat said. “Can you tell me a story? Just…any story?”

Scheherazade smiled, her very essence seeming to glow. “That, my dear Catarina, is one thing I can absolutely do.”

Scheherazade started telling her a story, not a grand or epic story, but a small story. It concerned a farmer, his son, and a magic sheep. Cat wasn’t paying attention to the details, it could have been any story really. She was just lost in Scheherazade’s soft and comforting voice.

Before the story could end, Scheherazade smoothly worked it into the beginning of another one, never letting the conclusion come so Cat could keep listening to her voice. It wasn’t a story Cat knew, but not one so gripping that she hung on every word. It was a story that was comfortable and quiet, one you tell to a child who doesn’t need excitement, just one that needs to fall asleep.

One story wove into another, and then another, the narrative gliding like a river through the tent as it suffused it with a sense of peace. In the tent, at that moment, everything worked out just fine and all the characters were happy.

Before long, Cat had drifted off to sleep, and Scheherazade smiled quietly at the irony. Long ago, a woman with nothing but stories and her voice had kept a brutal king awake for a thousand and one nights. Now, she had brought a hero to sleep in just a few minutes. Perhaps she really wasn’t as good as the real thing, but she had been exactly what Catarina needed.

“And then,” Scheherazade said, watching the soundly sleeping Catarina. “They all lived happily ever after.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa