The Three Sisters of Fate

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“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
“When the hurly-burly’s done,
“When the battle’s lost and won”.
That will be ere the set of sun.”
“Where’s the place?”
“Upon the heath”
“There to meet with Macbeth.”

(Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act I)

(Image source: Wikipedia)

Fate is a concept that has run a course through fiction, mythology, history, and philosophy since the early days of humanity, so it should be little surprise that it makes a prominent appearance in The Cities Eternal. The exact nature of fate, however, and the trio of women who appear to command it is left largely ambiguous, and deliberately so. In today’s post, however, we will examine the mythic origins of the three sisters and what they represent.

A trio of witches determining fate is a common theme in western myth and storytelling. The Greek Moirai, the Roman Parcae, the Norse Norns, and Shakespeare’s Wyrd Sisters are all variations on the same theme: a trio meant to represent past, present and future. The Sisters in The Cities Eternal are a deliberate amalgamation of their traits. They carry the properties and names of all three, for they are all three. We saw in The Wolves of Rome that some gods can change their behavior or appearance under different epithets. And more recently in Where All Roads Lead we saw that across pantheons even gods with common origins such as Ares and Mars can be very different. The trio, however, are specifically not gods. They are something older, more ephemeral, and altogether more powerful.

The names of the fates and the bodies of the witches can be seen more as vessels than true forms. Like an actor playing a role, when one wishes to confer with the being known as Atropos, then the younger sister inhabits that form and that pattern. It is the form most people know, but it is nothing but a mask for the tenders of fate to wear. The Younger sister might also take the name of Skuld, Morta, or simply the Grim Reaper.

And the sisters are not fate. A deliberate choice was to make the trio of sisters the menders and caretakers of the “threads” of fate rather than a representation of fate itself. Fate is a non-living but constantly shifting idea, best represented by the threads of a tapestry. The Elder Sister spins new threads and tends the threads that have already been woven. The Middle Sister ensures that everything is woven properly in place, measuring the lengths that will be needed. The Youngest sister plans the shape the tapestry will take, and cuts the threads once they have been put in place. Together they weave a tapestry of fate that dictates the rise and fall of people, nations, and worlds.

So who are the mythological figures from which these figures drew inspiration?

The most well-known are the Fates, also known as the Moirai, of Greek Mythology. Rather than past, present, and future explicitly, they were identified more as the ones who weaved, measured, and cut the threads representing the lives of gods, heroes, and mortals. As with similar figures they numbered three: Clotho, whose name meant “spinner”, who would spin the threads of fate from a distaff onto a spindle; Lachesis, whose name meant “allotter”, who would measure the length of the thread, the length representing their allotted lifetime; and Atropos, whose name meant “unturnable” who held the “Abhorred shears” to cut the thread of life when it reached its end. In a reverse of their Norse counterparts, Atropos is the eldest while Clotho is the youngest, as they are more representative of the three stages of life as opposed to the passage of time.

As with many figures of Greek mythology, these three had prominent Roman counterparts, known as the Parcae. Their roles and symbols are largely similar, with Clotho becoming Nona (the Ninth, as it was on the ninth day of life a Roman child was named and from that day their thread was woven), Lachesis became Decima (the Tenth), and perhaps most disturbingly Atropos became Morta (the Dead One).

The power of these figures varied across time. One of Zeus’ Epithets was “Master of Fate” and he was occasionally seen as able to command the Moirai to follow his will. On other occasions, however, even the gods are beholden to the fates chosen for them by the Moirai, Fate was a powerful force in Greek mythology that even the gods feared. This can be seen near the end of The Wolves of Rome, where Zeus implies that the fates have ceased to listen to him with the Days of Revelation, as our trio have their own business to conduct.

The Norse equivalent of the trio are the Norns. Classically they appeared as a trio: Urd (from the same word meaning “wyrd/fate”), the Eldest. Verdandi (Meaning “present/happening”), the Middle Sister, and Skuld (“debt/future”) the youngest. Unlike the Moirai, the trio did not have predefined roles save perhaps what can be gleaned from the etymology of their names. They work together, rather than separately, to divine the fates of men and the path the world would take. They draw knowledge from the Well of Fate and tend to the World Tree Yggdrassil. Another unusual feature of the Norns is that there are implied to be many, or at least they take different forms. They are often conflated with Norse sorceresses (Volvas) and Valkyries, and in the words of the dragon Fafnir in the Poetic Edda:

“Of many births

the Norns must be,

Nor one in race they were;

Some to gods, others

to elves are kin,

And Dvalin’s daughters some.”

This implies that Norns either appeared as, or occurred as gods such as the Aesir, giants,elves, and dwarves. In Norse mythology this may have been literal, with many Norns existing across the worlds. In The Cities Eternal the number stays at three, but those three can take any shape or form they desire, and are not as easily bound by things like time and causality.

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This image of the trio of witches who could determine the time of birth and death as well as the fates of nations, has been repeated in fantastic literature ever since the image first appeared in mythology, most prominently in the play Macbeth by original wordsmith William Shakespeare. There the “Weyward/Wyrd/Weird” Sisters acted as a warning and prophecy to the ambitious Thane Macbeth, a decidedly fantastic element in the tragedy.

Our trio in The Cities Eternal is at once possibly the most powerful and the most ephemeral. They are the tenders of fate, its guardians and its diviners, unreachable by all when they do not wish to be found. The Younger Sister, be she Atropos, Morta, or Skuld, is every bringer of death across cultures. She is the diviner of the future and the one who deals out death at the allotted time. Whether she can be bargained with is debatable, as her plans are entirely inscrutable. Does winning a game of chance against the Unturnable One mean you have truly added years to your allotted time, or was it always part of the plan, and you always had those years to begin with?

Only the Three Sisters can see the threads, and they aren’t telling.

Where All Roads Lead

Chapter 16

April 2nd, 2024

Where conventional medicine had thus far failed, they had turned to magic to try and discover the cause behind Hildegard’s mysterious illness. Thankfully, Cat and Turi were no longer the only ones looking out for her.With the return of part of the first Legion to Rome, Hanne had come home to help care for her adoptive daughter. With Albion still out of town, they had found the foremost experts in magical healing and curses that they could find.

Cat always hated letting strangers look over Hildegard. She disliked the doctors who had poked and prodded her to no avail. All of her tests said that physically she should be perfectly fine, but clearly there was something wrong. Now, Hildegard’s room was cramped with people gathered around her. Hands were waved, lights shimmered at their fingertips, and they traded comments with each other and with Hanne, leaving Catarina out to stew in worry.

“Well they were right in thinking it wasn’t mundane.” Doctor Abigail White (Technically the only M.D. among them) corrected her glasses as she stood up from where she had been kneeling over Hildegard. “I’m not sensing any damage for me to heal.”

“Then it is magic?” Hanne asked.

“Almost certainly” Another one of the mages said. Cat didn’t recognize her from around the city, but she worried her the most. She was dark-haired and dressed in a long cape, her name was apparently Sybilla, and she was currently under guard by Aurelio and others, who waited outside the door for them to finish. “And it’s malevolent magic on top of that. Otherwise it would be much easier to find.”

“Are you finding anything at all?” Hanne asked, and Cat could hear the note of frustration and desperation in her voice.

“I believe I am” Sybilla nodded “There is the trace remnant of something malevolent within her…what exactly it is or where it’s centered…I cannot say.”

“That seems more a notion than evidence of anything.” Hanne furrowed her brow.

“I can corroborate that” The third was younger than the rest, around Cat’s age and dressed not unlike a nun, a thick tome carried under her arm. She was from the Vatican, a student of Catholic ritual and exorcism named Stella Notaro. “I’m definitely getting results that show evidence of an evil presence in your daughter, General.”

“But can you do anything to help?” It was Cat who spoke up now, out of equal frustration and impatience.

All three “Doctors” exchanged glances before Abigail spoke up. “I’m afraid that without more to go on…there’s simply not all that much to be done.”

“Well you need to do something!” Cat shouted. It had been weeks, and no one had done so much as lift a finger to actually help. One after the other they had strolled in, said they couldn’t do anything, then strolled out. All the while Cat had been looking after her adoptive sister along with Turi.

“We’re not giving up” Abigail said “We have no intention of stopping. We just…need to find out what might be causing all of this. There are a number of possibilities, and they all need to be explored before we can take our next steps.”

“Stella nodded in agreement “If there is an evil spirit lurking in your sister, we promise that we will cast it out before things get any worse. But this is dangerous and difficult work. You know how it is, you can’t just snap your fingers and magic things better.”

Cat frowned, she did know how it was. She knew all of what they were saying was true, but it didn’t improve her mood in the least. It didn’t change the fundamental truth that there was nothing Cat could do to help Hildegard All she could do was sit and wait while these three continued their experimentation, trying to hide that they were likely just as ignorant as Cat was.

Cat stormed away from the others, ignoring Hanne’s calls as she grabbed her coat, flinging it over her shoulders as she headed out from the townhouse. Her footsteps were heavy on the stairs, causing the wood to creak and bend beneath her stomping. By the time she had reached the bottom, she had pulled the bluish-green jacket tightly around her, the hood up and scrunched around her face, and she left the building with nothing but a door slam in her wake.

Cat kicked a rock in front of her as she kept her eyes on the ground, not looking up, stuffing her hands in her pocket. Let someone come and bump into her. Then they’d know just a small fraction of what she was feeling! All of her trainings as a mage, all of the power she kept being told she had, everything about having a great future and destiny and she wasn’t able to help her sister!

It wasn’t fair.

There had to be something she could do. She kicked the rock far, watching it bounce off the concrete into the road, spinning on its side aimlessly as it tried to settle.

She felt a shoulder bump into hers, the other person not doing anything to soften the blow. Cat’s temper flared as she threw back her hood and turned to face whoever was so stupid enough to get in her way now, of all times.

“Yo.” Rosa said, chewing on a piece of gum. “What’s up?”

“What’s up?! I’ll tell you what’s up! You just bumped right into me, you jerk!”

“Eh, it’s no big deal.” The redhead shrugged. “Wanted to see if you were going to look up first. Kinda like chicken, heh.”

“You didn’t think of saying anything, no ‘Hey look out’?!”

Rosa drew herself to her full height as she shifted her weight to her back foot. “What’s your problem, Cat? We ain’t in the ring, you don’t need to bite my head off.”

“My problem is that I’m trying to get some peace and quiet and I run into you! My sister is dying and I know you don’t even care because that just means there will be no one to stop you from bragging that you’re unbeatable now! You don’t even care that she’s sick!”

“Nah, that’s not right.” Rosa said, her eyes narrowing. Her entire body seemed to tense up as Cat finished her rant. “I care about your sis. I hope she dies so she doesn’t have to listen to this bullshit.”

“How can you say th-!”

“Do you think I want to hear your whining instead? Jeez, Cat, could you be any more selfish? You have a family that’s still livin’ and you’re complaining and moaning more than anyone else in this city. How many of ‘em lost their sisters or mothers, meanwhile half the city is bending over backwards to find a cure for Hildegard ‘cause she’s Hanne’s daughter and you’re here, crying your head like a little baby. Grow up.”

“Grow up?! How can you say that to me?! You spend all your time bullying people on the field rather than helping anyone at all!”

“Whatever. You do whatever you want, Cat. I’m done talkin’ to you for now.” Rosa said, with a glare. She pulled the gum from her mouth and stuck it between her fingers, before flicking it at Cat’s shoes. “Later.”

Cat fumed as she shook her foot to knock the gum loose from her shoe. She didn’t have anything else to say to Rosa as the redhead walked away, her hands in her jean short pockets. All Cat knew was that Rosa was nothing but a complete and total jerk.

“That’s enough fresh air…and people…” She said to herself as she pulled her hood back over her jacket and turned around to start walking home. She saw the legs of people as she walked by, but nobody said a word to her and they all seemed to give her a wide berth. When she got back to the townhouse, she stormed past Hildegard’s room where Hanne was still sitting, heading to her own and shutting the door. As angry as she was, however, Cat shut the door quietly, so as not to disturb her sister.

She lay down on her bed and put her arm over her eyes as she tried to steady her breathing. She could feel it getting raspy and wheezing as her body wanted her to cry, but she refused to let the tears fall. Cat just needed to take her mind off of the situation with Hilde, off of this illness that wasn’t going away.

Cat opened the drawer to her nightstand and pulled out the special leather book. There was one person she could talk to, who always seemed to make her feel better. Cat flipped open the book to the last page and scribbled hello in big blocky letters.

C: HELLO!

A: Ah, hey there, Cat! What’s up? Why so shouty?

C: Does it really make the ping louder when I write big?

A: No, not really, but your picture grows a huge mouth! Haha, it’s like half the size of your face!

Cat couldn’t help but smile. She put the book on the mattress and rolled over onto her side to get more comfortable as she continued to write.

C: It’s been a long day here. And Rosa’s still a jerk.

A: Oh no, what did she do now?

C: She said she wished my sister was dead! I don’t know what her problem is.

A: I’m sure she didn’t mean it quite like that, but that’s still terrible!

C: Yeah, I can’t believe her.

A: It’s kind of funny. You have to deal with your red hothead and I have to deal with mine!

C: Who’s that?

A: Mm, she’s kind of a bully where I live. Well, at least to me.

C: You shouldn’t let bullies pick on you, Asha!

A: Hehe, I know, but it’s not that bad. She’s not mean, she’s just…blunt.

C: Still.

A: Ah, she’s coming over here.

C: Well, if she’s mean to you, I’ll give her a piece of my mind!

A: Hehe, thanks Cat, but I got it…

C: Are you sure? Hey, it looks like someone else is writing. This book is weird!

Christie: What are you doing over here? We’re supposed to be working!

A: Ah…Nothing, Christie…

Cat blinked a few times, as she saw text clearly being transcribed from the area around them. As far as she knew, the book only operated by written communication not verbal. Just how did Sheh make this book? She’d have to ask. Still, the other girl, this Christie, was off screen.

Christie: What’s that book?

A: I’m talking to my friend, Cat, the one I told you about?

Christie: This is that phone thing? Lemme see!

A: Umm, sure.

Christie: So what I just write? Hey, what’s that picture there?

Cat started to write “Heya, Christie” before the quill fell from her fingers in surprise. She let out a gasp as she stared at the picture of the red headed girl peering over Asha’s shoulder. The pony tail was shorter, her face a bit more tired and thin but still, it was unmistakable.
This girl was identical to Rosa.

 
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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=32&sl=227

Where All Roads Lead

The Cities Eternal: Barcelona Monster Hunter

May 21st, 2024

Some places in the world were safer than others. While most had fled to the countryside, others had held valiantly to the old cities and stood their ground against the hordes of undead and monsters that had come to usurp them. Few were as lucky as Rome as to have supernatural protection. Others lacked even the patronage of ancient gods, and fought with nothing more than human determination and the endless overpowering will to survive against overwhelming odds.

In the city of Barcelona, one such group of holdouts had fought tooth and nail to secure a small portion of a once-enormous city. Fewer than two hundred in number, it was still a small settlement, but it sold what it had dearly to the monsters that came each night. They controlled several city blocks of buildings around the famed Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia. This holy place was protected by fiercely pious warriors, all of whom would sooner die than see the cathedral fall. One such warrior was Wilhelmina Koenig,

Wilhelmina was not born in Barcelona, but she came here with her mentor and surrogate father Abraham. It had been Abraham who had helped the people secure the Cathedral from outward threat, carrying a seemingly uncanny knack for knowing how a monster could be killed. Despite his eccentricities and questionable faith, he was seen as a hero by many and beloved in the community.

It had struck them hard when they learned that Abraham, already an old man when he had arrives, was of failing health and Wilhelmina had become his caretaker.

Her patrol of the thin palisade wall finished, Wilhelmina returned to his workshop, and found him once again tinkering at his workbench rather than resting in bed.

“Master” She chided him as she stepped inside “You should be resting.”

“I should be dead, but I’m not.” Abraham snorted “I’ll be getting plenty of rest soon enough.”

“Too right.” Wilhelmina frowned. “But let’s try and push that day off, shall we?”

Thankfully he had little choice, as he had become bound to a wheelchair over the last two months, and she could simply take hold of it and wheel him away from his tinkering (Some manner of overly-complex crossbow by the look of it).

“I told you I don’t need the blasted chair!” He spat, struggling to rise out of it.

Abraham was a frail man, though he had once been much less so. The same disease that made his skin pale and thinned his hair had atrophied her master to a shadow of his former self. Even if he hadn’t been “muscular” in decades, he had once moved with vitality and vigor. He was an old man now, and looked it. His hair beneath his broad hat was silver, wispy, and thin. His face was covered in lines with deeply set eyes, a beak-like nose sat perched over an unkempt beard and mustache coupled with broad sideburns. He was wizened in every sense of the word, and dressed in a faded old trench coat that was patched and battle-worn. Less than a year ago he had moved with the energy of a man half his age, and he often bemoaned the fact that he was born five decades too early to be of any real help. Wilhelmina could not help but quietly agree, even as an old man he had saved the lives of every person left in Barcelona on multiple occasions. He was their finest protector, and now he was dying.

She had never understood why he had chosen her. She was reasonably fit for her age, but he had been quick to whip her into excellent shape and, more importantly, make a magnificent swordswoman out of her. On that last part he had made at least partial progress. Wilhelmina was, to his credit, the fastest blade in Barcelona, though he often claimed if he was fifty years younger he would have wiped the floor with her. Now all he could do was thwack her with his cane when she was out of form when he wasn’t doting on her like a daughter.

She was twenty-five now, and taller than average. Her long golden-blonde hair was held in a braided ponytail and she dressed in the reforged armor they could salvage for her, though she had sacrificed a lot of it for mobility over protection.

“You need rest, Master.” She insisted again, leading him towards his bedroom.

“The devil take that bed!” Abraham resisted, trying to dig his feet into the ground “Or better yet God, I don’t want to see that thing again in Hell.”

“Don’t talk like that.” Wilhelmina frowned.

“What I need is fresh air.” He said grumpily, crossing his arms “Take me outside, this damn workshop never did have any good ventilation.”

On that, at least, Wilhelmina could agree. So she relented and turned his chair around, wheeling him out into the street under the blanket of featureless grey clouds that covered the sky. At the sight of the sky and smell of fresh air, Abraham seemed to calm down a bit, resting in his chair and his tone softening when he spoke next, Wilhelmina guiding him down their usual path.

“Hey Wil,” he said, using his usual and exclusive nickname (as he had often said “Wilhelmina” was far too much of a mouthful to say in a fight.) “Have you given thought to running the old workshop?”

“Stop it” she said “And no, you know I have no mind for your contraptions. Just your library maybe.”

“Isn’t that the truth” Abraham chortled “You’ve got no mind for machines, Wil. At least you’re handy with a sword.”

“All thanks to you, Master.” She said.

“Speaking of which, about my sword…” he began, but something caught his attention as his eyes turned skyward, suddenly alert.

Another person would have written it off as the easy distraction of an older man; Wilhelmina knew Abraham better than that. She bent down, her eyes moving to his level as she scanned the same vista.

“What is it?” She asked, looking for some detail in the distant building or against the sky.

“Stop looking with your eyes, Wil” he said. “You’ve got about seventeen senses despite popular belief, start using them.

Wilhelmina took a deep breath, smelling and tasting the air as her eyes continued to work, her ears pricked both for sound and any sudden differences in temperature. The tells of monsters were numerous, and a skilled hunter knew them long before the creature revealed itself.

A slightly acrid burning smell came to her nose.

“The forge?” She asked.

“Do you see smoke rising from the forge?” Abraham asked sarcastically “I know I’m an old man and my vision’s going, but I don’t. Besides, that’s not burning wood and coal or molten metal.”

“What is it?” She asked, it smelled almost chemical.

“Combustive reaction from a sulfurous source” He said, before turning back to give her a concerned eye “Or in more poetic terms ‘Fire and brimstone’.”

“…We should raise the alarm then?” She asked.

“Yes we should raise the alarm, you halfwit!” Abraham roared, and Wilhelmina broke out into a jog, still pushing his chair. She didn’t mind the insult, she knew better than to try and reprimand him when he was like this. That was his tone and expression of crisis. Whatever was coming was more than just a strong monster, it was a city-ending threat.

“Master, what is it?” She asked hurriedly as she made her way towards the cathedral. Abraham, however, was silent for a moment as he listened and watched intently.

“I need to be sure” he said, his tone now far more serious, his voice quiet. “We need to be absolutely sure in this case.”

“Is it like nothing we’ve fought before?” she asked, his worry only increasing her own anxiety. She had never known Abraham as a man who knew fear.

“It’s not like anything anyone has ever fought in centuries.” He said “Get that bell rung! Leave me here you daft girl!”

Loathe to leave him like baggage, Wilhelmina finally released his chair and broke out in a sprint towards the cathedral doors. Most people in the sanctuary spent their days working out of the cathedral, and the watchman there snapped to attention as he saw Wilhelmina running to him.

“Sound the alarm!” She panted, bending over to catch her breath. Damn old man was still heavy.

“What is it?” The man asked, clearly concerned, but now wasting their time.

“Ring the damn bell!” She roared at him, and he skittered inside like a frightened rabbit at her command as she went to retrieve Abraham.

Before she could take more than a few footsteps, however, an ear-splitting roar unlike anything she had ever heard echoed across the entire city. Wilhelmina threw her hands over her ears, the deep bellowing noise echoing through the streets as people started running for cover.

Abraham, still down in the square below the cathedral, seemed not to have reacted, his eyes locked on the sky. Wilhelmina followed his gaze, there had been something in that roar, something powerful that resonated deeply in her bones. There was a familiarity to it, a horrible recognition almost like Déjà vu.

The sound of its wings came next, the great beating of leather wings on the sky, a second roar through hungry maw, and the smell of fire rising from its throat. Some part of Wilhelmina, a deep instinctual facet passed down from a long gone era recognized those cues. A realization that chilled her to her bones as surely as her knowledge of their inevitability. With the rise of monsters across the world, it was only a manner of time until the mightiest of them began to awaken from centuries of slumber.

She saw it in the sky next, the great looming shape, covered in crimson scales, swoop down upon the city overhead. It took another moment, frozen in fear, to recognize the reality of the beast that was upon them. Man’s greatest monster, a dragon.

This was no wyvern or petty drake, it was everything terrible about dragons given form. Immense in size, four legs with a pair of mighty beating wings  as it shot low in the sky over the city, bellowing again as people dove for cover. A streak of fire shot from its opened mouth, consuming several buildings in dancing red flames. The dragon wheeled in the sky, turning now towards the cathedral, the tallest point for miles around.

“Master!” Wilhelmina broke into a flat run, leaping down the stairs as she made her way towards him, but it was far too late. The dragon smashed against one of the cathedral spires, scattering stone across the plaza and square before it. Wilhelmian instinctively rolled and covered her head with her hands as debris rained down around her, larger sections of stone landing with a crash around her.

When it had ended, she rose to her feet and saw the square in ruin, toppled stone and architecture littering the shattered brick, a thin mist of dust hanging over everything. Hurrying down the steps, she picked through the rubble until she found Abraham, toppled from his ruined wheelchair and lying amidst a pile of broken stone, gagging and wheezing as blood dripped from his lips.
“Master…” She said, “Please, I need to get you out of here. Let me help you up.”

“No…” he managed to say through a tightened throat. “Listen…Wil. That dragon’ll…ah…kill’s all. Need to…challenge it.” He managed to speak through coughs and pained breaths.

“Challenge it?” Wilhelmina said in disbelief. “How?”

“The old way.” He said, and his good hand reached out to his ruined chair, pulling from it the sheathed sword he kept strapped to the back. “Just you and it.”

Wilhelmina stared at the sword.

“Master” she said, pleading “Let me get you to the cathedral.”

“Now!” he roared, thrusting the sword into her hands “Don’t make a dying man wait.”

Wilhelmina’s grip tightened on the sword. “Of course, Master.” She said, rising to her feet.
The dragon was still circling the city as she moved to a clear area of the square, calling out into the sky as the beast rained fire down onto another building.

“Heed me dragon!” She didn’t know what words to use, she was running on adrenaline now, and the sheer audacity of challenging a fire-breathing monster to a duel. “I, Wilhelmina Koenig of Barcelona, challenge you to single combat!”

At first she thought it did nothing, and she had wasted her breath shouting at a dumb lizard in the sky, but as she watched the dragon came about again, slowing in its descent as it came down towards her.

She braced herself, drawing the sword from its scabbard as the massive creature landed on the ground before her. It was easily over fifteen meters from horned snout to diamond tail, and it looked like it had risen from the pages of a fairy tale. Spikes ran down its spine and great leather wings rose from its back, its scales were crimson save for its golden underbelly, and it watched her with eyes that shone with power and intelligence.

The monster spoke.

“So the men of this era have not all become meek.” The dragon’s voice echoed in its depth, seeming to surround her. “But this is all they could muster? A single woman, playing at being a warrior, challenging a dragon to single combat?”

Wilhelmina grinded her teeth together, her fury rising as her fear ebbed.

“I challenged you, dragon!” She roared back at the monster before her. “So accept it or prove yourself a craven worm!” Somehow older-sounding words felt better. Likely Abraham would have chastised her for it.

“Craven!?” The dragon roared again, and Wilhelmina could feel the heat from its lungs like a blast furnace over her face. “Bold indeed for a pretend knight. Very well, then die with your honor intact.”

Fire followed burning air as Wilhelmina dove to the side just in time to dodge the jet of fire that flew over where she had been. Her hand tightened around her sword as she tumbled back to her feet.

Something in her body was changing, her muscles tightened as she moved almost unconsciously into position. It was as if a new set of instincts had come to bear, a second set of training long buried in memory. Her vision sharpened, mind clearing as she stared down her opponent. She wasn’t afraid anymore, and the madness of that alone shook her. Why wasn’t she afraid of this dragon?

The dragon charged at her, snapping with its massive jaw as Wilhelmina stepped to the side out of its reach, just in time for its razor-sharp claws to come swinging at her body. She dove again, rolling into a crouched position beneath the beast and thrust her sword upwards, directly between the armored plates of its underbelly.

The sword couldn’t cut deep, the dragon’s hide was too thick on its belly, but it could cut deep enough to cause it pain. The dragon roar and flapped its wings, sending her tumbling in a gust of wind as it moved back, blood pouring from its wound and now covering her blade.

“Crafty girl” It spat at her “But you won’t get so lucky again!”

Once more the dragon opened its great jaws, hot air rising from its bowels as it prepared its burning breath. Wilhelmina hardly even needed to think, she bent low and scooped up a fist-sized stone from the ground and, in one swift motion, hurtled it into the dragon’s throat.

It coughed and gagged as the stone lodged itself in the beast’s trachea, long enough of a distraction to halt its breath save for a few ragged licks of flame, and giving her time to speedily close the distance between them.

She took hold of one of the great horns that rose from above the monster’s brow, not to try and grapple it but to brace herself. The dragon reared back its serpentine neck, pulling her clear off of her feet and into the air, but her arm remained firmly wrapped around its horn, even as it tried vainly to snap at her with its jaws.

For a moment their eyes met and, as Wilhelmina brought her sword to the small undefended portion of the dragon’s throat, she knew she saw fear in its eyes. She didn’t know where to strike, but that same overpowering instinct guided her hand, and she was rewarded as she felt the sharp metal cut through soft flesh.

Blood sprayed across the plaza as the dragon crashed to the ground, twitching in its last death throes as Wilhelmina rose to her feet, arm and sword now soaked in hot dragon blood, still stunned and quivering as the adrenaline and possessed feeling began to fade away.

Another moment of disbelief and her mind filled with noise again. She rushed back to Abraham, lifting him into a sitting position as she cradled his head with one hand.

“Heh…not bad, Wil” Abraham breathed, clearly on his last breath.

Wilhelmina couldn’t find the right words to ask what she was feeling “But…why? How?”

“I chose you…Wil” He managed a crooked smile, his eyes dimming. “I knew you had it in ya, that old blood they fear.”

“What do you mean?” Wilhelmina asked desperately “What old blood? Abraham stay with me!”
Despite her pleas she could feel him going limp in her arms.

“Think I’ll take that rest now…he managed, he nodded groggily towards the cathedral, and Wilhelmina turned to see people beginning to come out of it, hesitantly moving towards the dead dragon.

“They’re under your protection now, dragonslayer.”

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
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The Wolves of Rome

Fate’s Pool

It was a gathering of three, as it always is. They arrived, one-by-one, in the wooded glade, as they always do. Their location didn’t matter, so long as it is near water and will have trees in a purer, more ancient part of the world.

The eldest had been the first to arrive. Though timeless and untouched by age, the difficulties of her duties had proven themselves on her features. Her hair had become somewhat more flecked with silver, her eyes wearier. She moved with an almost nervous energy, her arms crossed over her chest as she had waited for the others to arrive.

The middle sister was second to arrive. Punctual as the movement of the stars, she was never late nor early. Counter to her elder sister, she was seemingly unburdened by the weight of her tasks. If anything, the middle child was the happiest of the three, her clever smile growing to the edges of her lips.

The youngest is the last to arrive. Her face is like sunshine, a brilliant mask over a merciless and tireless interior. On her face is a warm smile promising comfort and kindness, but her eyes are far from kind. There is a cruel ambivalence in her visage, her burden the heaviest to bear.

“So here we are, now and again.” The Middle smiled as they once more drew into their circle. “We three, as we are and ever are. Let us hear our joys and worries now.”

“My worries, as you have called them, were endless.” The Eldest frowned. “People forgot. Their minds were withdrawn from the past we drew, so I have been drawing another from so much smoke and aether. Again, I have asked what sense is there when the future alters the past? Even the mortals have noticed.”

“Mortals will always notice things in small numbers.” The Youngest child smiled.

“What is it they are calling it?” The Middle asked. “The Cavallo-White Effect?”

“That is what they will call it.” The Youngest said. “They will not call it that for another year or so.”

“What does it matter what it was called?” The Eldest snapped. “It was pestilence upon my work!”

“I ask that you abide.” The Middle said in her calm diplomatic tone. “We are all struggling.”

“How has she struggled?” The eldest lost her temper, rounding on the Youngest. “She has been free to weave and wander, to play and toss the threads so loosely.”

The Youngest laughed an empty laugh. “I will suffer as I always have,” She said. “With dignity and grace. For while it will be your charge to measure the births and spin the threads for those who will tread the paths of history, I shall stand, shears in hand, to meet them at their end.”

The Eldest, though still in her petulant mood, silenced herself before the Middle spoke again.
“Still, we are making progress.” She said, gesturing to both of them. “The prophecies we spin from Fate are holding true. Rome is the center of mortal activity for the time.”

“As it will be.” Said the Youngest.

“As it was” Said the Eldest.

“But it is not all there is, is it now?” The Middle said. “We are beginning to see other lands with other threads of fate begin to rise alongside it.”

“Sicily…” The youngest marked them off, as if in order. “Germany, Japan, Aztlan, Carthage, Egypt. These will simply be a few of many.”

“Good, good.” The Middle smiled as the Eldest kept her sulking silence. “And how are our actors on this stage of Rome. Are their lines well-tended to?”

“The threads have been handled decently.” The Eldest spoke up. “The incongruities and oddities have been dealt with in large part. Several of them have been worked to their conclusion.”

“Already?” The Middle asked in false surprise. “We work quickly, sisters.”

“The Tale of Echo’s Curse has been concluded.” The Eldest said.

“Then it is time for young Nora to move to center stage in her own role.” The Middle smiled. “How is that coming along?”

“It will be in your domain momentarily.” The Youngest smiled mischievously. “The last details I will attend to will soon be falling into place.

Perhaps a thousand miles away, tugged perhaps by chance or the pull of fate, a girl rises from a weeks-long sleep. A girl named Lenore.

“Excellent.” The Middle said. “And fine time as well. And what of the youngest wolf of Rome? Is he being handled?”

“His work into the cult will continue some time yet.” The Youngest said. “Though he is moving to the wayside. The Hour of the Wolf will be over soon in Rome.” She added with an impish grin. The others did not share in her amusement.

Another thousand miles away, Giovanni looks wistfully out a window, imagining the fields and forests at his feet. The work he does now is better fit for human hands and human minds. The humans will need their protection for some time yet, but how much longer will they need their aid?

“And what of our little heroic upstart?” The Middle one finally asked. “How is she?”

“That will be your job.” The Youngest giggled. “We merely handle how she will be.”

“And how she was.” The Eldest added.

“Fine then.” The Middle huffed. “I can tell you that she is taking her first few steps.”

“As have many others.” The Eldest said. “We were mistaken before to put so much faith in mortal hands. Many have died.”

“As will many more.” The Youngest said. “But we will all know she is something special, though she will not accomplish much alone.”

“This is very true.” The Middle smile. “She needs accomplices.”

“Her adoptive Sister was a candidate.” The Eldest shrugged. “But she had her own tale to tell.”

“Then our work is obvious.” The Middle said. “With one potential hero in our hands, it is time we found others.”

“Heroes will be rare to find.” The Youngest replied. “It will be easier to find more specialized accomplices.”

“You have something in mind?” The Middle cocked her eyebrow.

“I will.” The Youngest said. “I will have many things in mind. Friend, lover, teacher, wanderer, all will find their way to her.”

“And to what end will all of this have been?” The Eldest asked.

“Now, now.” The Youngest wagged a finger. “That is not yours to know, only mine. Just as I will never cross into your realm. Once things cease to be “What will be” I shall never see them again.”

“Which was a troublesome distinction these past few months.” The Eldest frowned.

“Which will not be my problem.” The Youngest shrugged.

“Ahem!” The Middle brought their attention together. “Is there anything else?”

“Zeus was mad at us.” The Eldest said. “As we had ceased to pay him lip service as we so often did before. We failed to tell him how his once servile Moirai have become so unbound.”

“It is not the first time.” The Middle said. “And it shall not be the last.”

“And we know you have had your own dealings with Odin.” The Eldest glanced her way. “Though he has always been wise enough to know the Norns were never at his beck and call.”

“He is quite wise.” The Middle’s smile grew. “And we do have dealings in regards to the fates of one of his chosen.”

“That valkyrie, of course…” The Eldest furrowed her brow. “Has she not seen enough?”

“Which Valkyrie?” The Youngest glanced between them.

“You cannot know everything, dear sister.” The Middle smiled at her. “Some things are ours to decide.”

The Youngest frowned. There was very little she never saw, and she did not appreciate plans for the future to be hidden form her. Still, she held her own advantage, there were things she knew that they could not, and this bred plans of her own.

“Now I believe that is all.” The Eldest smiled at them as they rose once more.

“It was.” Agreed the Eldest.

“It will be all.” Said the Youngest.

Without any further words, each of them turned away and left in their own time. The Eldest was the first to remove herself as she had been the first to arrive, already weary of the sorting work she had to do. So many little threads to be realigned. The Middle followed her in turn. She had people to meet, and threads to nudge in the right direction. The Youngest left last, the heaviest burden hidden behind her laughing face. So many little threads to cut.

Their wheel was spinning quickly, and it would need all hands to tend to it.


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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 34

The Rangers were greeted at the gates of the Roman Sanctuary like conquering heroes. All but the most essential citizens of Rome had been given the afternoon off to cheer the brave Rangers as they entered the city. General Hanne led the way, a cart filled with the artifacts that were to be the city’s salvation trailing behind her. Though not all who had left had returned, the journey home had been easier. No ships had been sunk by ferocious sea serpents, and the cacaodaemons that lurked in the shadows of southern Italy seemed far less bold than they had been on the first journey south.

Another surprising addition that had caught the people of Rome with awe was a new face that had returned with the Rangers. With peace reigning in Syracuse, and at the word of his patron goddess, Salvatore had ridden to Rome astride Pegasus, trotting alongside Hildegard and Catarina, a development that many, Hildegard in particular, had been grateful for.

They were met by the Wolves of Rome and the Senate, who proclaimed the news of their victory publically to the cheering crowd and declared it a National Holiday. With the proclamation, the evening had burst into a night of drink and celebration as the Rangers told their tales of travel and monster-slaying, of dangerous lands and the amazing things they had seen. Wine flowed freely through the night and it soon became clear that none would be coming in to work bright and early in the morning the next day. Though the party ran long into the night, most knew that the work had only just begun, and the shakers and movers in Rome began to see to its safety.

———-

Angel had been the first to leave in the morning, carrying the lance-like artifacts that the Rangers had retrieved to Northern Italy. What magic she performed, or what principle these rods worked under, was inscrutable to all but her, and it took nearly three days to set them up in the appropriate position. When it was activated, however, the effects were immediate. Every spirit and mage in Rome, in all of Italy, felt like a weight had been lifted from their shoulders, the oppressive burden of Typhon and Nidhoggr lifted away, leaving only peace behind. Even for the most mundane of mortals the effects were clear within days. The risen dead, Nidhoggr’s minions and the most numerous threat in Rome seemed to have evaporated like mist, the Primordial’s magic cleansed from their forms so thoroughly not even bones remained. The Cacodaemons, while not eliminated outright, were so massively reduced in number that their predations became more a nuisance than a threat. According to Ettore Cavallo and Abigail White, their presence would likely never cease entirely so long as humans existed, but without the omnipresent dread inspired by the Primordials, their population was massively reduced. Still, even with the occasional threat of danger, all of Rome knew the shift when it happened. In all of Italy, humanity once more had the upper hand.

“Reclamation has begun!” Capitolina spoke before the gathered Rangers and recruits a day after the peninsula had been shielded. She stood without podium, standing like a statue in her battle armor before the gathered army, for it truly was an army now. Tales of the success of the Rangers had rallied the public behind them and recruitment numbers had exploded over the past few days, likely only to grow with time. What once had been twenty now numbered nearly one hundred. And it was with that, Capi had decided, that change must come to.

“We have banished the Primordial’s presence from Italy!” She said. “We have proven time and time again that this land is not at the mercy of tyrant gods and cruel spirits. It is humanity and Rome’s defenders that will decide its future! The shadow has been washed from our fair lands, and it is time that we took them back! Our homes and our fields! Our temples and our churches! Our forests and our shores! This is not a new Italy! It is not a new Rome! This is and always shall be our Eternal City! Across the Mediterranean, humanity has defied the Primordials, and Rome shall lead the way!”

She looked down at the recruits, seeing so many fresh and eager faces. Reclamation came first, and all of them were eager to help. More would be found in the city and beyond, enclaves of isolated survivors. Their ranks would swell with time, and what had once been survival would become flourishing existence. It would not last forever, however. Nidhoggr and Typhon would not easily take this slight. The fight for survival had ended, but war would follow soon. Rangers would not be enough.

“And you shall be the arm of this city!” Capitolina continued. “Its hand and its voice across Europe and beyond. You shall be the shield against the darkness, the tip of humanity’s spear! It is with this in mind that I, Lupa Capitolina, name you Rangers no longer. From this day onward you are Legio I Capitolina, Rome’s First and finest! And it shall be you, Legionnaires, who shall make our land safe and whole again!”

There was no salute yet among them, no military discipline, but they cheered in their own way across the field before her. Rangers no more, Capitolina smiled to see, but men and women of the Legions, the first of many.

———-

“I suppose you heard the speech?”

The next day, Lord Albion Nassar and Senator Patricia Bellos walked side-by-side through the capital. It had been Nassar who had quickened his step to reach her, much to her dissatisfaction.
“I did.” Patricia nodded politely. “She certainly knows how to rile the people. A legion, is it? It is rather catchy.”

“It’s dangerous.” Albion said. “The Rangers were always quasi-military, half-rescue half-warriors. To call them something as aggressive as a Legion…well, it paints her intentions.”

“And what do you suppose her intentions are?” Patricia asked.

“Capitolina is ancient Rome in lupine form, and what has ever been Rome’s intent?” Albion replied, gesturing with a wry smile at his lips. “She is a conqueror, Senator Bellos, and a soldier.”

“We knew an organized military would come eventually.” Patricia shrugged. “Besides, it’s clear she plans on Reclamation first. She has all of Italy to conquer before we need bother with concern.”

“Do you truly think it will stop there?” Albion said. “We know now we’re not the only political power in the world. We will need to deal with Syracuse somehow in the future.”

“Syracuse is an island far from here.” Patricia said. “Besides, they have no reason to dislike Rome. I heard your apprentice was instrumental in the regime change.”

She noticed a subtle smirk appear on his lips, slightly…yet noticeably…different than the one he had before. “Yes she is…quite interesting. Still, they are hardly our only potential rivals.”

Patricia gave him a curious look.

“These Primordials will not take well to being ejected from the country, and they will be far fiercer than any rival nation. I cannot help but wonder if Capitolina plans to go to war against monsters of seemingly infinite power who cannot truly die.”

“That won’t be hers to decide.” Patricia said. “Her term as interim Consul ends in three months.”

“Ah yes” Albion was definitely smiling now. “Word is you plan to run, Senator Bellos.”

“It would hardly be prudent or polite to bring it up.” She replied with her own enigmatic smile. “Particularly while the same has been said of you.”

“No reason to give voice to rumor so far from the end of Capitolina’s term.” Albion said, smile never wavering. “Though it shall be an interesting election.”
“Oh of that I have no doubt.”

———-
The days had become strange to Catarina. They were busy, her constant studying and training saw to that, and she collapsed into bed each night with scarcely enough energy to pet Basil as he curled up beside her.

Yet it somehow felt emptier after the Sicily Expedition. The adrenaline had died down and it seemed more business as usual, though there was hardly anything usual about it. For their unusual talents and abilities, Catarina, Hildegard, and Salvatore as well had been moved from the Legion proper into…well Hanne had described it more of a “Special Forces Unit.” With the standardization of their training, those with impressive ability needed a separate program to better fulfill their potential. Not to mention Cat’s magical training from both Lord Nassar and Scheherazade meant she hardly had the time to be a full-time legionnaire. Still, the whole thing made her feel less like Special Forces and more like a Superhero…not that she was complaining.

Scheherazade had made herself somewhat scarce on the return journey. Catarina doubted she liked being away from the library for long, but even taking that into consideration she was oddly reticent. The curious behavior persisted for more than a week before Cat finally received her answer.

She was on the training field, running through her forms in the hour she had before she needed to return to Lord Nassar’s estate. She’d gotten used to the weight of the training sword, and many of the movements were becoming natural now. Maybe she might even be able to take on Hildegard soon! The thought made her smile even as the reality still overshadowed her. She’d never seen Hildegard go all out in a duel; she still doubted how much of a chance she could stand.

Her reverie was interrupted by Scheherazade’s arrival in a brief shower of golden light. What made today peculiar, however, was that she was not alone. She was joined moments later by Angel, who flapped down beside her from the air, a long bundle wrapped in blue cloth held in her arms.

“I am glad to see you ever dedicated to improvement, my dear Catarina.” Scheherazade smiled warmly. “We have something of a gift for you.”

“A gift?” Catarina glanced from Scheherazade to Angel, and her breath caught in her throat.

Sensing her anticipation, Scheherazade smiled as she spoke again in her usual grandiose manner.

“Indeed, fair Catarina. Your actions alone, with every intent, helped a people escape the oppression of their tyrant rulers and establish a new fairer regime in its place. You have made allies out of those who could have been your enemies, and left power in the hands of those who could use it most responsibly. Certainly you had some urging and some help along the way…” She smiled somewhat self-indulgently. “But Miss Angel and I both agree it is the first step on what is likely to be a bright future, so we did a little work for you.” She gestured with the long pipe she carried to Angel, who dropped Scheherazade’s eloquence in favor of her usual deadpan.

“Your spirit, Scheherazade, managed to retrieve particularly fine meteoric iron from the forge of Vulcan.” The slender wolf said. “Along with the services the Rangers rendered in clearing it of monsters, Vulcan offered to use the metal to forge a weapon of prodigious strength, with your spirit naturally providing the necessary enchantments.”

Her expression softened somewhat, and Catarina could have sworn she saw a smile creeping at the edges of Angel’s lips.

“I was quite impressed by what I saw in Syracuse, Catarina. Your initiative and courage, while occasionally foolhardy, were nonetheless impressive.”

Catarina winced a little at the slight, but didn’t speak out.

“I said before that I would not entrust a gift of great power to someone incapable of handling it. You raised the valid point that true heroes rarely received their gifts at the end of their journey. For your actions and for the promise and potential that you carry, I offered a single feather to Vulcan in the forging of this…”

Angel held out her hands, the blue cloth falling away to reveal a sheathed blade. Shakily, Catarina reached out and took it into her hands. The craftsmanship was unparalleled, the pommel made of flawless silver in the pattern of feathered wings from the base to the crossguard. Where the blade met the hilt was a perfectly smooth oval gem the same color blue as Angel’s eyes that seemed to shine with its own light. The scabbard was made of rich brown leather embroidered as well with the images of wings in silver.

Unsheathing the blade revealed white metal that shimmered in the light, the sound of its unsheathing like a music note to Cat’s ears. There were no letters on the blade, no runes or inscriptions like Stahlzahn, but the blade seemed to speak for itself. Catarina weighed it in her hand, felt the lightness of it, but also the power it held in its potential. It felt like a channel for her magic, like a wand, in a way it almost seemed to communicate.

Catarina was stunned into silence for almost a minute, simply taking in the marvel and the beauty of the blade.

“Th-thank you!” She finally remembered to blurt out inelegantly, bowing at the waist to both of them. She struggled for words, eyes still on the sword. “I don’t know how I can…thank you so much.”

“Does it have a name?” Cat asked, after admiring it for a little longer.

“Not yet.” Scheherazade smiled. “You still need to give it one.”

“Ah…” Catarina needed to think. She had given imaginary swords names since she’d been old enough to swing a stick at imaginary dragons. But actually holding something like this, feeling the reality, it made the task all the more daunting.

“Ummm…” Darn, it she needed a name! Something fierce but not scary! Something meaningful but not cliché. All the best magic swords had good names to go along with it.

“Caeruleamor…” She said finally. “Blue Amor.”

Scheherazade smiled “A lovely name.” She said. Angel, at least, also seemed somewhat amused at the choice of name.

“And I think this sword and its wielder has a long road ahead of it.” Scheherazade smiled. “I look forward to writing it.”

Catarina smiled back at her. “Come on then, let’s go find Hildegard so I can show off! Thanks again, Miss Angel!”

Angel smiled truly this time, before taking off again as the other two left the field.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Lords of Creation

April 20th, 2023
Olympos, the seat of the Greek Gods.

Any mortal who climbs the peak would not find the grand palaces of the Olympians there, for the divine Olympos exists outside of space as most mortals understand it. It is a mountain peak that cannot be reached by mortals unless the gods decree it, and it is there that they hold their council.
It is a place of unparalleled beauty, grand palaces of gold, ivory, and cloud that are shaped into grand architecture beyond even the wisest mortal hands. It is a mountain beyond the “real mountain” in the same way a god is beyond a man.

It sits atop the highest peak, the Pantheon, where Lord of the Sky Zeus holds his power and his thoughts, above all other gods in the way the heaven is above the earth, incomparable and unquestionable in his authority.

At least in regards to the Greeks.

The image of Zeus is well known, yet it cannot be truly captured in image or likeness of stone or pen. He is powerfully built, more perfectly formed than any mortal born man. His body is built of vitality and virility, while his face displays wisdom in its creased brow and trimmed beard of grey beneath a tumbling head of silver hair. He sits on his throne, deep in thought, as the clouds of the heavens whirl around him, a monument to his own magnificence and power. From this throne he can hurl a lightning bolt across the Earth, and in ages past he did so often to let his will be known.
Zeus Olympios, King of the Gods, Master of the world.

His authority is unquestionable among the Olympians and thus there are few things more difficult for an incomparable being than to recognize an equal. Just as the sky is host to more than azure atmosphere, so did Zeus now wait in silence and in thought for the arrival of the Sun.

She is Isis Panbasilea, the All-Ruling Goddess, but she is also Ra.

With the death of Amon-Ra at the hands of Apep the Destroyer, the mantle of Ra and the crown of the sun had been left empty for another to take. Sobek had offered his strength and her son, Horus, had offered his power. Both were needed on the field in the battles to come. The mantle had to go to a ruler, a sovereign, and a Uniter. Thus it went to the Queen of Heaven. Isis.

As Isis, she had been a figure to respect in Olympos, a treasured and honored guest among the Olympians along with her brother-husband Osiris. Now she comes as Isis-Ra, the unquestioned ruler of their pantheon, and that made her an equal to Zeus in authority and in strength.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“I greet you, Zeus Olympios, Lord of this Land, with Honor and respect.” Isis-Ra’s voice was a curtain of soft demure elegance held over an iron core of power. Even before her ascension as Ra, she had been a figure to respect and, at times, to fear.

“You are greeted, Lady Isis-Ra Aigyptus, Queen of Egypt, as honored guest and ally in this court.” Zeus’ voice was stern and powerful, carrying with it an absolute authoritative note.
The formalities in their greetings were long and specific. Each acknowledged the sovereignty of the other in their lands. Isis-Ra offered deference to Zeus as lord of the venue, while Zeus did the same for Isis-Ra’s privilege as guest. Inter-Pantheon relations varied wildly in their forms, but the Greeks and Egyptians had long established theirs, and the meeting of two Pantheon lords was too delicate a matter to be treated lightly.

“You’ve been quiet these past few days, Zeus.” Isis-Ra was the first to drop formalities, as was her right as guest. Zeus, at least, was grateful for the opportunity. Their titles could be dropped for sake of ease, though Zeus knew better than most not to neglect the “Ra” in Isis’ name.

“The news grows no better the further outward we look for it.” Zeus said, hands gripping the arms of his throne. “All the pantheons we have heard from are in varying degrees of disarray. Of them, only we Olympians remain strong and steadfast.”

Isis frowned.

“Grim news indeed, but hardly surprising. If my people can be thrown from their lands so easily, I hardly imagine anyone is prospering. What of the northerners? These…Norsemen and women?”

At this, Zeus gained a look of decided disdain.

“I have spoken only briefly to Odin, their All-Father, when my eagles met his ravens in the skies to the north. The man has little grace in his authority. He seems to revel in speaking in riddles and tricks.”

“And what did you glean from him, Zeus?” Isis asked. Perhaps in better times she would indulge her host with platitudes and assurances, but these were not better times. She had little patience for his complaints.

“The Aesir are managing as they always have. Their realms are in complete disarray but it is almost as if they are reveling in it. They have always been hungrier for battle than us. I suppose now is their time.”

“One should never underestimate the Olympians thirst for blood, Zeus.” Isis-Ra smiled wickedly. “The records of your deeds and actions do not paint a pretty picture. Even mortals need not look far into the works of Homer to see what it is like when the Hellenic Gods wage war.”

“A squabble and a trifle.” Zeus shook off the comment with a wave of his great hand. “Regardless, the Aesir seek no allies and want for no help, at least so long as that pride holds.”

“Perhaps I should speak with them.” Isis-Ra said idly.“I have a penchant for wordplay and a cleverer tongue than most. Perhaps this Odin would enjoy my company.”

“There are few who wouldn’t.” Zeus smirked, and indulged his eyes in a long trek across Isis-Ra’s body.

The power of Isis-Ra could be compared only to her beauty. Her skin was a deep reddish tan, smooth like glass and accentuated by a river of long black hair crowned by a the radiant solar disk. Her eyes shined with a brilliant gold lined in elegant black above a narrow nose and long full lips. Her body, his eyes travelling down, was in the primacy of fertility, long flowing curves that accentuated her wide hips and full breasts, her silhouette only enhanced by the long slimming dress of red and white she wore. Beneath each arm waited the furled wings of a rainbow-feathered kite.

She was, even as Isis alone, a beauty on par with any goddess, and certainly, in Zeus’ eyes, past that of his own wife and queen. Had she been in his pantheon, Zeus would have bedded Isis long ago given even a modicum of a chance.

Isis-Ra could be indulgent to Zeus’ lingering eyes, but only for so long before her voice once more demanded his attention.

“While you may hold firm, Zeus, your stronghold is not so impregnable as to be negligent to its defense.” She said, irritation creeping into her voice. Trapped as her husband might be beyond the pale of death and in the sealed afterlife of Duat, Isis-Ra was still very much devoted wife and lover. “Do not be so quick to judge our strength while Typhon marches at your doorstep.”

At this, Zeus rose from his throne. For all her power, as lord of the Sky Zeus was still a head taller than Isis-Ra. The sun, even at its brightest, had always been a guest in the Halls of Heaven; it was even truer now.

“Typhon is merely a nuisance, and one I have dealt with before.” He said, his voice thundering even as he kept a level tone. “He offers no real threat to Olympos, especially as his mate Echidna still lies truly dead. His offspring are ill-bred and fragile now.”

Isis-Ra, however, remained undaunted. She raised her eyes to his, demanding him to treat with her as an equal, not a subject. Still, she kept her voice calm and respectful. She was, at the end of the day, still his guest. “You defeated him because that was the way the wind had turned in that time. Order was meant to usurp chaos and so the chaotic Primordials were defeated. Tiamat, Typhon, Apep, all of them and others were felled. But Zeus I should not have to remind you that the balance can always tip the other way. It is level now, but an ill-made choice can tip it once more in Chaos’ favor.”

“Do not be quick to lecture, Isis-Ra. We are your hosts after you failed to hold your own gates.”

“Proof enough as any that I know of what I speak.”She said, not rising to his bait. “Typhon is enraged but he is no fool. None of the Primordials are. All of us have every reason to believe he is seeking out a new mate fit to sire a new generation of monstrous offspring.”

“And they will be destroyed, regardless of their number or supposed strength.” Once more Zeus waved off the worry.

Isis-Ra, however, saw past the bravado in his voice. Zeus was self-assured, but not foolhardy.
“Something else is troubling you, Lord of the Sky.”She said, her tone shifting as she stepped closer to the throne. She was no longer playing the guest, but a confidante. “We are allies in this war. Share with me.”

“The fates are beyond reason.” Zeus spat. “Since time immemorial, they have obeyed me and now they spurn my word.”

The worry must have been clear on Isis-Ra’s face. The Moirai, the Fates, were the direct line between the gods and destiny. If they were ignoring Zeus, then terrible and truly unpredictable times were ahead. Few things were as dreadful to the gods as the thought of something completely and truly unknown.

“I suppose then,” Isis-Ra said carefully. “That this is out of our hands. We will fight for what is ours, but I am starting to doubt that this war will be won or lost by gods.”

Once more Zeus scoffed, but credibly so at the mere insinuation. “You would trust mortal hands with the fate of all creation?”

“I would not trust anything to mortal hands.” Isis-Ra corrected him. “But it seems likely that in this case our own hands might be tied.”

Zeus’ face fell into a mask of displeasure. “You have proof of this as well, I suppose?”
“I do.” Isis-Ra nodded, and before her, warped from the space between herself and Zeus, came the image of a city. It was one Zeus knew well, but not as Zues Olympios. It was a city built on seven hills, the Eternal City.

“Rome…” He said the name quietly. “Everyone has spoken much of Rome these days. My Queen was there just a few days ago on her own trivial business.”

“And it is where my Pharaoh is as well.” Isis-Ra said.“These people, these Romans, scarcely past recovery, have already done extraordinary things. They have defended their city time and again against the forces of the Primordials. They have broken into the former prison of Typhon, repelled the invasion of the Wolf and Sun Eater, and proven time and again that mortals, while reeling, have not fallen.”

“I suppose there is some pride to have in them.”Zeus said. “These mortal heroes have ever proven themselves tenacious, with nerve beyond their standing.”  

Zeus sat back down upon his throne, his brow furrowed in thought, but his grip not as tight on the arms. “My children have already taken an interest in the mortals. I did not condone…but I did not refuse my daughters this course either. Perhaps in time we will once more see the likes of the great men of antiquity, Achilles and Hectors of a new era.”

“A good deal to ask of them.” Isis-Ra smiled. “They are still young and vulnerable, they have much to rediscover, and I believe the Fates have much in store for them. Until then, at least, they have some form of protection.”

Once more the image shifted, replaced now with the lifelike picture of four wolves. “The people of Rome are still weak and prone to failure and corruption, but I think the Fates drew these wolves together for a reason.”

“Perhaps it is so.” Zeus nodded. “The wolves become the shepherds of a new and powerful flock…yes I could see the hand of Fate in this.”

“And why is that, Zeus?” Isis-Ra asked.

“Because an act of Fate is always identifiable by the clear hand of irony.” A great chuckle rumbled in his chest. “Yes, I suppose we should look more to these Romans, perhaps they are merely the first of many.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 33

April 18th, 2023
The sun was high in the sky as Echo slowly made her way to the central Roman Temple. The great complex Kebechet and Nora had designed was still being overseen by architects and city planners, so a former administrative building had been gutted and redesigned to act as a primary center for the Greco-Roman deities to be worshipped if they lacked a dedicated shrine of their own. A statue to Nike stood in front of what had once been a palace as if it were a guard. Though the oldest and most defined of the statues, even from the piazza below the other statues could be seen. Nora and Echo had agreed that summoning Hera in Zeus’ temple, given their request, might not lend the best impression.

Still Echo dragged her feet. So much of her wanted to run away, back to Nora’s home or to the greenhouse, even to the cave back in Greece, anywhere but in the presence of this terrible goddess again. She knew it couldn’t work, that Nora’s plan would fail and they’d be left with nothing. There was no point to this, so why try?

Echo swallowed involuntarily, trying to gulp down her fear with it. It might fail, but she could not live with herself if she didn’t at least try. Nora had done so much for her already, the least she could do was try.

“Hey there, Echo.”

Echo nearly jumped as a young woman took up step next to her. Her heart started beating again when she recognized the speaker as Thalia, Muse of Comedy.

“H-hey there, Echo.” She said with a hesitant smile.

“I heard what you and Nora were planning.” The Muse said, the sun-like grin never leaving her face. “I think it’s great, and quite brave.”

“Q-quite brave…” Echo said, more unsure of herself than she’d ever been, footsteps dragging across the ground.

Thalia, seeming to sense her worry, took her arm, pulling her along as they walked towards the temple. Echo could feel the comfort in the goddess’ grip, the kindness and the warmth she seemed to exude. No one could remain unhappy in Thalia’s presence for long.

“You’re not alone in this, you know?” Thalia smiled at her. “We’re all rooting for you. Me, Nora, not to mention all eight of my sisters, even Kebechet. All of the people at the greenhouse know too.”

“Kn-know too?” Echo stammered, and Thalia’s grin only broadened.

“Of course” She said. “All of us want to hear the real Echo again. Even Melpomene thinks your story doesn’t have to stay a tragedy forever. No reason things can’t get better.”

“Thinks can’t get better…” Echo said, looking downcast. Thalia, however, responded only by holding her tighter as they walked.

“They can, Echo, I promise that. We’re all pushing for you, but we need you to make those last few steps. You’ve come this far already.”

Echo looked up and saw the façade of the temple before her.

“Come this far already…” She said, and then looked to her side just as Thalia seemed to vanish into air, leaving her at the threshold with only the echo of laughter in her wake. Taking one last deep silent breath, Echo stepped into the temple.

The building was taken up primarily by a great hall with a central altar at the far end. Lining the sides were smaller alcoves for individual shrines and statues recovered from the city museums. By order of the Pontifex it had been cleared for the next hour, supposedly for maintenance. Echo knew, however, and the other gods understood as well, that the Queen of Heaven would not want an audience.

Nora was standing by the grand altar, dressed in the finest robes she had made for herself as Pontifex, a flowing gown of black and white patterns and blue stitching, mirroring her own dyed hair and her position as bridge between mortals as the gods. If there was anyone who could pull Hera down from Mount Olympus to Rome, it was Nora.

“Ready?” Nora asked as Echo approached, looking all the meeker and smaller.

“Ready.” Echo fretfully shook her head, but Nora put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get you started and then read off what we wrote, alright?”

“Alright…” Echo said hesitantly.

Nora turned back to the shrine, laden with images of cattle, peacocks, and bowls of pomegranates.

“So it’s taken some time and research.” Nora said “But I think the specific epithet we want is Hera Argeia. Gods tend to manifest under a bunch of different names and titles and while the spirit is still the same, the personality can…vary a bit.”

“Vary a bit…” Echo still didn’t entirely understand. She had only ever been Echo.

“Take Ares and Mars for example.” Nora said, still making sure everything on the altar was in the proper position. “Same god, entirely different personalities, all depends on the name.”

“All depends on the name.” Echo said, watching her work.

“Summoning Juno Capitolina wouldn’t be very helpful.” Nora said, turning to face Echo. “It wasn’t Juno that cursed you after all. We need a Greek.”

“We need a Greek.” Echo nodded as she took her place at Nora’s side, staring worriedly at the altar. The time had come.

“I call your name, Lady Hera Argeia, Queen of all Greece and all the Gods, Lady of the Mountain. I beseech that your spirit appear before us so we may speak low before you, pale-armed Queen of Olympos. Bring before us your grace so that we may speak, so humbly asks Pontifex Maximus of Rome.”

Nora’s words echoed through the empty hall, then seemed to hang in the air, reverberating through the silence like a low and steady hum. The sound hummed and shivered around them unnaturally. Something had heard the message.

Behind the altar, a throne seemed to trace itself into existence, a solid seat of shining white marble laced with glimmering gold that came into existence above the altar, putting both Nora and Echo well below the seated figure’s gaze.

The woman seated in the throne was truly larger than life. Three meters tall, her skin like polished ivory, and dressed in a long gown of blues and greens that clung to her divine figure. Her face was the very image of regency, stern and composed yet undeniably beautiful. A perfectly composed face of large brown eyes, a thin nose, and wine-colored lips. Her face was framed by tumbling waves of deep brown hair, held in a tall polos crown upon her head. Long chains and necklaces of gold hung from her neck and wrists, but they seemed merely to compliment the image of the woman, rather than enrich it, as no mortal gold could hope to match the beauty of the goddess herself. She sat loosely composed on the throne, one elbow resting on the arm of the seat as her chin rested upon her hand, her gaze passing from Nora to Echo.

Thalia’s divine aura was perceptible but almost pleasant; Nephthys’ had been like a windstorm that swept across the room. Hera, however, was on another level entirely. All of space and time seemed to warp around the woman’s presence, keeping everything in the reality of the hall focused upon her. Echo felt what little breath she had left flee her body entirely and even Nora seemed to shiver as the pressure of the goddess’ presence came down on them. Nora’s back bent low as she curtsied with due formality to Hera, and Echo mirrored her motion.

“Pontifex Maximus Nora Newstar.” Hera seemed to try out the name on her lips. The voice, the same cold voice as she’d heard so long ago, sent an unstoppable and pronounced shiver down Echo’s spine.

“An oddity that you ask me to come under this name. Would not Juno Lucina or Capitolina be more appropriate for our venue?”

“Under normal circumstances yes, Basileia.” Nora said, head still bowed. “I apologize for the oddity of the request, but I felt it appropriate given the nature of today’s matter.”

“And what is today’s matter?” Hera asked, clear impatience rising in her voice. Echo stared. Did Hera not notice her? Did she even remember? Or was she simply being deliberately ignored?

“The matter…” Nora said, rebounding as she rose and cleared her throat. “Is the matter of the nymph, Echo, who I have brought with me here today.”

“Echo.” Hera did not look her way. “Tell me, Pontifex, why you would mention the nymph’s name in my presence, let alone be so bold as to drag her before me? The matter was settled before even your ancestors could remember.”

“I…we came to right a wrong, my lady.” Nora said, her hand reaching out to pull Echo closer.

“A wrong? And who might it be that has wronged this senseless nymph?” The coldness in Hera’s eyes was unmistakable. She was daring Nora to question her, to say that she’d been wrong, any excuse to bring her wrath to bear. Echo knew that look all too well, the frozen calm before the storm. She looked to Nora, and her eyes widened at the sight. She, Nora, looked unafraid.

“I say, Lady Hera, with all respect I can muster, that you are wrong to continue Echo’s punishment.”

Hera sat up in her seat, the full weight of her divine essence focused on the pair of them.

“It is not your place, Pontifex, to declare the gods to be right or wrong. The mere thought is ludicrous. A mere mortal cannot judge a god.”

“It is my place…” Nora said. “To defend the people of this city from divine abuse. The people of Rome are your worshippers, not your cattle. Whatever punishment Echo deserved, regardless of her crime, is long since passed its rightful expiration. Do you intend to force an eternity of punishment for an ignorant mistake?”

“I will do as I please to those who have wronged me for as long as it amuses me.” Hera said. “I see no reason to recant my word. Is this ridiculous appeal your only case? Is it the only reason you have summoned me?”

“It is not our only statement.” Nora said. “Echo would like to offer her words.”

At this, Hera laughed. It was a sound that should have been pleasant, but it came to their ears like a winter wind, harsh and biting and without a trace of sympathy.

“I believe you will find Echo quite without words of her own. I daresay that was the point.” Hera smiled.

Nora merely responded by pulling out a sheet of paper. Starting from the top line, she began to read it under her breath and Echo, heart full of terror, repeated every word.

“Queen Hera” She repeated. “This alone should show the lengths to which I will go in order to speak for myself. On my knees and in my heart I offer no desire of anger nor retribution. I merely ask for a chance of renewal, for some quantity of mercy you might show, fairest of the gods.”

It had taken seven hours of tireless work, a blackboard, and a dictionary to write this brief appeal in Echo’s own words. She had been as precise as she could be, and it almost felt like she was truly speaking for herself, even if she was far too terrified to ever speak her mind like this without her curse forcing her.

“For millennia I have suffered silence and repetition, unable to speak as myself to those I hold closest. I have all but lost the memory of who I was or how I spoke. My own voice is now foreign to me and in becoming so I have lost most of who I was.”

Echo trembled as she spoke, Nora’s voice pausing at intervals to let her catch up.

“I ask not that you forgive the punishment you laid upon me. It is not the nature of god nor queen to recant upon their word. I ask only that you display your divine compassion in releasing me in turn. As your humble servant that is all I ask and all in this world I desire.”

Nora finished speaking and Echo shortly after her, leaving a new silence in the room as Hera considered her words. It was, she knew, their only gamble. Hera would never go back on her word, but she could amend it later. Echo’s curse could never be lifted, but she could be granted her voice again in a singular act of compassion.

“I am impressed, if nothing else, at the courage you display by wandering before my presence again, Echo.” Hera’s voice had not lost an ounce of its edge.“Brave…but foolish.”
Echo could feel her heart sink in her chest, terror and desperation filling every fiber of her being. Even knowing it beforehand, failing here was like being cursed all over again.

“I see no reason to waste my compassion on a lonely nymph. I have no responsibility to you, and no desire to change how you are.”

Echo’s head sank low in a half-bow of defeat.

Nora, however, stepped forward, earning an irate glare from the Queen of Gods.

“I have no patience for repeating myself, Pontifex.”She said. “The matter is settled.”

“I believe it is not, Basileia.” Nora said.

“The Egyptians might be fond of you, Newstar.”Hera’s voice remained at a queenly calm, though the fierceness of her gaze could not be mistaken. “But we are not so quick to lend credence to your self-import.”

Nora bowed deeply, but did not back away. “Then I ask, Hera Argeia, that you do not offer compassion to Echo.”

“…” The surprise in Hera’s face was visible, and it was exaggerated in the shock on Echo’s face.

“I ask instead that you, under the name of Juno Sospita, offer relief to one of your citizens so greatly in pain.”

Hera scoffed. “Come now, Pontifex. I tire of this. This nymph hails from Mount Cithaeron of Attica. She is no Roman worthy of my protection.”

“I humbly disagree, Juno the Savior.” Nora said. “Echo has lived in Rome for months; she has drunk and ate with its people; she has lived by my side; she has served its people and its government in its time of direst need. She has literally lain down her roots here, with no desire to return to Mount Cithaeron.”

“No desire to return to Mount Cithaeron!” Echo repeatedly loudly, nodding vehemently.

“This city has hosted foreigners since its founding, Regina.” Nora said, switching to the Latin.

“People from across the Mediterranean have made themselves Roman Citizens. Gods as well have come from distant shores and made homes for themselves here. As surely as I am, Echo is a Roman.”

“Echo is a Roman!” Echo said, stepping forwards to stand alongside Nora.

Hera looked from one to the other, the expression on her face one of mixed conflict and mild surprise. A Queen was never one to show her emotions vividly, but her silence spoke to what she was truly feeling. Her fingers tapped on the arm of her throne as she thought. Nora and Echo caught, waiting, in the silence.

“Oh very well.” Hera’s patience had run out before her temper. “You make a strong case, Pontifex, but more than that, I am impressed by your dedication to this careless nymph. It speaks well to your position and to your heart that you would fight for her and stand by her side with nothing to gain.”

Echo, standing close to Nora, could feel the breath of relief.

“I owe much to Echo, Regina, but I would stand here for the good of every Roman.”

Hera turned to Echo, and even as the malevolence left her gaze, Echo could not help but almost cower.

“Then for the sake of that dedication, and for the sake of all those under my protection, I lift from you, Echo, the curse that was placed upon you.”

Hera raised a hand, and Echo placed a hand to her throat as she felt like a vice had been loosed from her tongue.

“Go then” She said “And please do not bother me personally with every gripe and grievance. I am a busy goddess.” With that brief huff Hera vanished, throne and all.
Nora turned expectantly to Echo, a clear weight off of her shoulders at Hera’s departure.

“So…did it work?” Nora asked.

Echo blinked, looking back at her. Slowly, she opened her mouth.

“Thank you, Nora.”

Nora smiled, but before she could reply Echo pulled her into a tight embrace, lips pressed to hers as she kissed her forcefully on the lips, holding her there for nearly half a minute.

“I…wow…” Nora said, half in a daze as Echo smiled at her. “Heh well…I guess we have a lot to talk about.”

“I think we do.” Said Echo. “I want to tell you everything, Nora, and I plan to mean every word of it.”

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Mount Etna

April 15th, 2023
Mount Etna had once stood as a stately and quiet mountain in Sicily, a quiet monolith that looked out over the sea and the city of Catania. Most years since antiquity it was a silent behemoth that loomed like a slumbering giant on the island nation. On occasion, it unleashed the odd belch of fire, reminding the populace of the monster that lurked within its core, a beast with a hundred hungry maws full of ash, smoke, and molten rock.

The Mount Etna that stood since the Days of Revelation was a very different beast, a terrible hollow tombstone, a shattered prison and abandoned workshop. The snow at its peak had been replaced with bare scorched rock and the telltale marks of cataclysmic eruption that had ripped the mountain’s peak asunder. Smoke still rose from its peak, but it was not a column of ash, pumice, and fire. It was the wispy transparent ghost of a dying fire, like a candle just recently snuffed out. The beast had escaped its prison and the fire in the forge had gone out.

Catania, the city that reached almost to the mountain’s very slope, had been devastated. Half of it now found itself buried in ash from the initial pyroclastic devastation that had rolled in like a tidal wave. The buildings closest to the peak had been shattered entirely and the rest had been buried like the Pompeii of ancient Rome. Walking through the city was hazardous, and cloth masks were worn over the face as the legs of the Roman expedition shuffled through knee-deep drifts of white-grey ash. The ashfall had ended months ago, but with none around to clean it save the wind it was still piled high in some places, and could be dangerous to breathe in as it was kicked up in clouds around them as they moved. Safety goggles, pilfered from old chemistry labs, had been issued as standard equipment as well.

There was no safer and more direct approach to Etna. The roads of Catania were largely deserted and provided a straight path through the ash rather than struggling half-blind through the wilderness. The Rangers marched in a column through the city, eyes sharp for any sign of movement. Ash or not, this was their territory. They had been trained for months in urban combat, and a city to them was home. Breaths were shallow and eyes darting as they moved in a line through the grey city towards the black mountain.

The preparations and tension were well-warranted. Typhon had long since abandoned his prison, but he had left plenty of his ill-bred progeny behind.

A shadow moved through the air, half-hidden in the low cloud cover. Most of the Rangers, Hanne among them, would have preferred a clear day for the assault, but time was not on their side. Supplies were running low and they would need to return to Rome soon. Crossbows rose into the air, pointed skyward as they slowed their steps, eyes up as they waited for a sign of scaly skin or leathery wings.

There was a shriek that echoed through the air, coming down from the grey clouds before being cut off in a sudden harsh note. A moment later, a great black shape tumbled to the earth, crashing against the side of a building before tumbling down in a hail of dust and brick. The rangers moved forward and found the corpse of a dragon-like beast lying in a pile of rubble, wings torn by its descent and its head cleanly severed from its serpentine neck.

Hanne couldn’t help but smile as she called the Rangers back in line. It felt good to have air support at least.

Overhead, where the clouds gave way to blue sky, Hildegard and Turi, riding astride Pegasus, had been tasked with keeping the skies clear. From Etna’s smoking caldera had emerged all manner of scaly creatures on leathery wings to keep them occupied. These weren’t the cacodaemons of Rome, but to all eyes, flesh and blood creatures born in their draconic shape. Most were beastlike, occasionally venturing to the Rangers in curiosity, but largely leaving them be. Others, hoping for an easy meal, dove on them only to be met by the far swifter Pegasus and Hildegard’s lethal blade.

“Nice shot.” Turi smiled as Hildegard’s blade cut cleanly through the shrieking creature’s neck.

“What do you call these things again?” Hildegard asked, one arm still hooked tightly around his waist.

“We just call them drakes.” Turi shrugged “They’re not really monsters just…big scaly animals, they don’t usually eat people.”

“Is that all there is between us and Etna?” She asked, sharp eyes still scanning the sky.

“I wish.” Turi sighed, and Hildegard joined him. It could never be easy.

Their destination was visible even from miles away, a great gash rent into the base of the volcano, flanked by great statues that looked as if they had been buried for eons. It could be nothing but the entrance to Hephaestus’ forge in the heart of the volcano.

True to Turi’s word, the closer they drew to the volcano, the stronger the resistance became. The drakes were replaced by larger and fiercer draconic monsters, their skin all crackling fire and smoking brimstone. At the mountain’s base giants lurked, waiting to hurl stones wildly at the oncoming Rangers.

“Incoming! Three o’ clock high!” Hildegard shouted, and Pegasus’ wings flared as they banked hard right, just in time for Turi’s longer spear to impale a swooping drake in the chest, the metal spearhead driving deep into its burning heart. Ash and cinder exploded from the wound like blood as the hissing beast tumbled, smoking, to its death on the ground below. With no time to lose, Pegasus dove down towards the earth, two more flaming drakes close behind them, their bodies glowing and hissing as they passed through the wet clouds. Hildegard turned herself, clinging with one hand tight to Turi as the pair of them shot almost straight down. The drakes, black pinions of their batlike wings spread wide, were hurtling towards them. Aim would be everything.

Hildegard drew in her breath, it had been some time since she’d practiced magic like this, but it was just like riding a bike.

From her hand shot a dozen points of bright yellow light, whizzing through the air like firecrackers as they shot towards the closer of the two drakes. Several exploded on its face, tearing through ashen scale and cracked muscle as the rest tore holes in the great batlike wings, shredding them as they exploded in bursts of white light against the relatively thin membrane.

As they dove beneath the clouds, Turi kept Pegasus’ nose pointed firmly towards the ground, his wings folding in as they dropped like a meteor towards the earth. Hildegard had a moment to look down and see the state of the Rangers, pushing their advance towards the entrance to the great workshop as a small band of giants tried to stop them.

As they dived lower, almost coming to the tree line, Pegasus’ wings shot open, and for a moment, it felt as if Hildegard’s stomach was sent hurtling behind her as they pulled up from the steep dive, wind whipping at their faces as they recovered. One of the drakes recovered with them, its heavier body barely managing to avoid being dashed across the earth. The other one, its wings torn apart by Hildegard’s magic, was not so lucky, air whistling through the holes in its wings before it crashed into the ground, rolling into a crumpled heap of shattered bone and wing. One down, Hildegard thought to herself.

“Quick! Towards those giants!” She called to Turi, having to shout over the sound of whistling wind. Hildegard grit her teeth. Her clothes were soaked with a chill that reached her bones, her hand holding tight to Stahlzan with a vice-like grip. Her muscles raged, her teeth wanted to chatter from the cold, and her eyes were almost whipped shut by the wind that tore at her face and hair. Her mind, however, was as sharp as ever; this was her element.

“Towards the giants!?” Turi shouted back, incredulously.

“I have an idea.” Hildegard said, a grin cracking across her face. Turi looked like he was about to object, but held his tongue. If there was one thing he had learned to trust, it was Hildegard’s monster killing instincts.

Pegasus swooped in on the wind towards the giants. These beings truly lived up to the name. Easily seven meters at the shoulder and built like Neanderthals, their skin was covered in patches of volcanic ash and fire just like the drakes. Other parts of their body gave way to patches of scaly skin or horns upon their crown, all clear signs of more monstrous lineage.

Hildegard raised her sword high, turning it in the air until the shining silver blade caught the dim light of the sun. It wasn’t enough, but at just the right angle…

The closest giant turned towards them, distracted from its assault on the rangers by the bright shining light in the sky hurtling rapidly towards them. Hildegard glanced back and saw the drake still directly behind them, trying to close the gap to get in range of its blazing fire breath.
The next few moments happened like frames frozen in Hildegard’s mind. Timing was everything.

Reaching forward, she took hold of Pegasus’ reins with Turi, hands wrapping around his to guide them as she drew herself closer to him. For a moment, she felt both of them in sync, their breathing, muscles, and heartbeats moving together as he felt her plans through the slightest motions of her hands.

The giant reached with one great thick hand to the massive boulders of igneous stone at his feet. He moved slowly, like a massive tree in motion as his great form lifted the rock, weighing at least several tons, up into the air, arm pulling back like a pitcher winding up the throw. Hildegard held steady, flying straight for him, eyes focused on the great muscular arms, waiting for the muscles to release and the throw to release.

At the very last moment, Hildegard and Turi moved at once, pulling Pegasus’ reins hard to the right into a dive, the sudden turn almost throwing them both from his back as gravity roared in their ears. The boulder, released from the giant’s arm with all the force of a cannonball, whistled past with alarming closeness, and Hildegard could feel the whipping wind of its passage against her back.

The drake, however, had been too focused on its quarry. It had only begun to turn when the great stone collided with its form with enough force to tear it apart as it all but exploded on impact into a cloud of ash and blood.

Hildegard looked again to the giant, who was reaching slowly for another stone, failing to notice the small form at his heels.

Hanne, thankful for the distraction, had run ahead of the Ranger column, which was advancing slowly as they took cover from the giants’ assault. As the great giant had stared stupidly at his accidental strike, Hanne had drawn her blade, and by the time the giant noticed, it was far too late as the saber tore through his Achilles tendon, sending the giant to his knees with a crash that shook the earth. Hanne didn’t pause to revel in her victory, however; even on its knees a giant was still a giant. She had maybe seconds before she was caught in a grasp that could crush every bone in her body.

Sword in hand, she rushed forward past the giant’s legs. People tended to aim for the throat so often they forgot another key point of weakness, and considering giants were built like large humans…

Taking her sword in both hands, she plunged the blade into the giant’s inner thigh, and the burst of blood that greeted her told her she had successfully cut the giant’s femoral artery. It wasn’t instantly fatal, but the giant wouldn’t be moving out of this spot. By the time she had finished cutting the other leg, the giant now shaking in its rage and pain, much of Hanne’s jacket had been soaked in giant’s blood. She leaped away as the giant tried in vain to roll over and find her, tracking blood with each step.

Spurred on by Hildegard’s daring and their commander’s own giant-slaying prowess, the other Rangers had surged forth, leaving the giants daunted as they tried in vain to crush the smaller and more nimble humans. One of them swept his great hand over the ground, catching one of the rangers in his powerful grasp, only to drop her moments later as a half dozen crossbow bolts sank themselves into the tender flesh of his hand. Another giant reached for a massive boulder at his feet, only for swords to slash deep into his fingers.

One by one the giants fell and the drakes crashed to earth as the Rangers cut their way into the workshop, Pegasus landing at the entrance to let Hildegard to disembark and regroup with her adoptive mother.

“That was some excellent flying, Salvatore.” Hanne said as Hildegard slid off the horse.

“Thank you.” Turi smiled. “Even if Pegasus did most of the work.”

“And you handled yourself well, Hildegard.” Hanne patted her on the shoulder as they crossed the threshold into the workshop, flanked by a large contingent of Rangers.

“Do we know what we’re looking for?” Hildegard asked as they made their way inside.

“Angel drew us some sketches but that’s about it…” Hanne said.

The entrance hall soon gave way to the body of the forge, a great empty cavity opened up before them as they stepped into what had clearly once been a massive complex. All around them were the remains of workbenches, racks of tools fifty meters long, great cauldrons that had once held gallon upon gallon of molten metal, and anvils twice as tall as a man.

At the center of this divine architecture, the entire complex had been ripped open by Typhon’s release, leaving the already quite open forge hollow and open to the air as rays of light shone down through holes in the caldera, all of it lit by weak sunlight and the omnipresent crimson glow of the molten magma at the heart of the great rupture.

Blessedly, either by divine presence, fear of Typhon’s prison, or simple luck, the forge itself was empty and Hanne sent the Rangers out scouting for their prize as she observed what had become of the forge.

“As close as I can tell,” She said, standing near the ragged edge of the forge floor where it fell into the heart of the mountain. “Typhon’s prison was underneath this place, and when he broke out he took half the forge with him.”

Hildegard, looking around the great cavity, could see the half-ruined remains of rooms, sublevels, and massive equipment scattered across the inside walls of the hollowed out volcano. Below her, where the floor dropped away, was a great sea of magma marked only by the twisted remains of bars and rods of black metal, no doubt what remained of his prison. The cavity blasted into the forge was nearly a mile across, and given the splendor of the remains, the finely wrought divine architecture and the scale of the machinery, Hildegard could only guess what it must have been like in its prime.

“Captain!” One of the Rangers called out as he approached, something tall slung over his shoulder. “We think we found them.”

He presented to the pair of them what looked like a spear, nearly eight feet long, made of silvery metal. Across its surface were etched alien runes and long patterns of flowing wings and lightning bolts.

Hanne looked the spear over before pulling a piece of scrap paper form a pouch at her belt where Hildegard could see a finely rendered sketch of what looked almost precisely like the spear the man carried.

“How many did you find?” Hanne asked.

“Nearly thirty, captain.” The ranger said.

“Good.” Hanne smiled “Get the wagon, load them up, I want to be back on the coast by nightfall.”

The man saluted as the Rangers in the forge all rushed to join in the retrieval. Hanne took a moment to examine the forge a while longer, looking for anything valuable they could scavenge.
All told it wasn’t much. When the god of the forge had evacuated it was clear he took most of his toys with him. There were no magical armaments to speak of save for the spears, and the rest seemed to be mostly odds and ends. Lengths of wire, bars of metal, and a few half-finished projects and schematics. Hanne had all of it loaded up anyway. Knowledge was power, and the chance to clean out a god’s forge was one that didn’t come by often.

A cry from the entrance alerted her attention, and she ran forward just in time to see several Rangers, laden with pilfered equipment, running for the cover of the forge as a large shadow flew over the ground. Hanne swore under her breath as she ran forward, sword drawn. Another drake had come to make easy pickings while they were weighed down with spoils.

“Ready crossbows!” She shouted as she ran into the half-lit light of the clouded morning.

“Hildegard!” She whirled around, looking for the mage.

Her search was answered, however, as a barrage of fireballs erupted from the ground further down the slope, and she saw Hildegard, hand raised, at their source as the whizzing firecrackers of magical energy ripped across the drake’s body.

The creature whirled and screeched angrily, flapping wildly to maintain its altitude. Another moment later, its erratic movements were interrupted as what looked like a shining crystal lance shot from the ground and impaled the monster clean through the chest. As Hanne watched the beast fall, still screaming, toward the earth, she saw the spear catch the light and realized it wasn’t crystal.

It was ice.

Running at a full sprint down the slope for the entrance, Hanne saw Hildegard sitting on a rocky outcrop. Beside her, one arm wrapped around her shoulder, was Catarina.

“Look who I found.” Hildegard smiled as Hanne rushed to meet them, throwing caution to the winds as she pulled Cat into a tight embrace.

“I was only gone a few days.” Cat protested, but she returned the hug, wrapping her arms tightly around her adoptive mother.

“Sorry I missed the party.” Cat said when they finally relinquished one another. “I got held up by some stuff in Syracuse.”

“You’ll have to tell us all about it.” Hildegard smiled.

“It is quite a tale.” The familiar sly voice of Sheh moved between them as the tall light-eyed woman stepped from the shadows. For a moment, Hanne swore she saw something shiny and silver held in her hand before it was hidden in the folds of her dress.

“Then we’ll hear it on the ship ride home.” For the first time since arriving on Sicily, Hanne allowed herself a sigh of relief. Cat was safe and with her again, their mission was finished. All that remained was the journey back to Rome and to home.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 32

April 18th, 2023
The early morning mist had not yet begun to settle on the grass of the rolling hills. The still morning calm remained unbroken save for the light calls of the morning birds and the odd patch of sunlight that broke through the thin shield of clouds overhead. The fields of long grass surrounded them, broken only by the odd rocky outcropping and the distant tame forests of central Italy. To their south was the Lago di Bracciano, a vast flat surface of water that shone a flat blue-grey in the morning stillness.

Here, just past the crack of dawn, Capitolina Lupa and the Wolf of Gubbio waited for the coming storm. Both of them had abandoned human form. Capitolina was the larger of the two of them, a tall and powerful she-wolf of monstrous size, over four meters at the shoulder and covered in fine orange-red hair flecked with white and grey. She sat, seemingly idle, on her side, legs stretched out as her eyes stared fixedly at the North. To most she would seem entirely peaceful, but Giovanni’s finer senses could feel the tenseness in her body, see the flickering movements in her ears and the watchfulness in her eyes. She was as ready as he was.

Giovanni, conversely, made no attempts to hide his own tension. He was standing up, hackles slightly raised as he stared towards the north, the rays of sun in the eastern sky catching in his coal-black fur, matted and irregular where old scars ran across his flesh.

Both of them knew, from their lupine senses and a deeper more spiritual knowing, that this was the path by which the sons of Fenrir would come on their way to Rome. Both of them had protected Italy for centuries, millennia in Capitolina’s case, and today was no different. They had stood against mortal armies and lesser hostile spirits time and time again as Giovanni protected the faithful and Capitolina had defended her city, but neither of them had faced a foe like this. Gods had come and gods had gone in search of worshippers, but now two divine wolves were coming in search of vengeance, and the two of them were all that stood in their path.

Skoll and Hati. Giovanni had only recently learned the names. Sons of Fenrir the Devourer, grandsons of Loki the Norse trickster god. Between them they would devour the Sun and Moon, casting the world into darkness as their father devoured Odin, Lord of the Aesir.

In comparison, Giovanni the Wolf of Gubbio was noticeably lacking in titles.

In a straight fight Giovanni did not like their odds. They were all spirits, wolves more powerful and more intelligent than simple beasts, but not all spirits were created equal. Skoll and Hati were god-slaying beasts of legends. Giovanni had simply hounded a single village as a monster while Capitolina carried the strength of ancient Rome’s kings and armies. Strong to be sure, but not nearly so strong as the beings they were to face.

But what choice did they have?

“Here they come.” Capitolina said, eyes watchful of the horizon. Her senses were sharper than his, as it took another few minutes before his nose and eyes caught what hers had.

The sky to the north had begun to darken, thick clouds rolling in to obscure the sun as the moon retreated below the horizon. Sol and Mani, the Norse called them, while Giovanni and Capitolina preferred Sol and Luna. Both of them had fled at the sight of the wolves, far from home but forever at the heels of the celestial orbs. Giovanni felt a shiver run down his spine as his coarse hairs stood one end. He could not say his presence had ever caused a shift in the sky before.

Capitolina rose to her feet, tense but not as apprehensive as Giovanni. How many times before had the wolf of Rome defended her homeland from foreign armies, Giovanni wondered to himself; had she waited like this as Hannibal crossed the Alps or when the Visigoths marched to Rome? Had she waited Caesar’s returning legions with fangs bared or had she walked in secret beside him as he marched to Rome?

Giovanni smiled as much as his wolfish muzzle allowed. Knowing her, she had certainly sided with Caesar.

Giovanni had hunted foreign and pagan spirits in his time, remnants of old gods that had been found disenfranchised with the fall of Rome, but nothing like this. After the Days of Revelation, power was firmly in the hands of monstrous spirits such as this. He stood beside Capitolina, however, as Rome was theirs to protect.

The wolves appeared as if out of a thunderstorm; from roiling clouds and dark shadows they pulled themselves into being across the field from the Roman wolves, having seen their challenge and deemed it worthy of their attention.

True to their fame and their legend, the wolves that took shape across the hill were massive in size, dwarfing the Italian wolves who could already be considered monstrous in their own right. The wolves, identical in size and shape, stood at least seven meters at the shoulder, casting long dark shadows on the ground even in the pale cloudy light.

One of them, Giovanni guessed Skoll, was covered from snout to tail in blackened fur the color of burned wood save for his eyes which shone a very pale yellow, almost a blind white. The other, Hati, was so pale he appeared almost white, the tips of his hairs seeming to glow in the dark, and his eyes a deep and malevolent black. Both were identically powerful, their legs and shoulders bulging with muscle from their endless pursuit, their very beings radiating power not unlike that of the spirits who called themselves gods.

“It seems we’ve been challenged, brother.” The pale one, Hati, announced as they stepped towards them, great padded legs silent as they bent the grass beneath them. His voice was deep, an echoing base note as he announced their presence.

“Do the little wolves take offense that we have walked into their territory unannounced?” Skoll laughed darkly, a chuckle that sounded like rolling thunder, before speaking again, voice as deep as his brother’s. “Do they know who it is they face? Skoll and Hati Hróðvitnisson, sons of Giants, wolves, and gods. The Sun and Moon Eaters. We have business in the southern city you call Rome, and we have little patience for obstacles in our path.”

“That southern city is my city.” Capitolina announced herself, stepping forward to meet them, undaunted by their size. “I am Lupa Capitolina, the Wolf of Rome, mother to Romulus and Remus. This city and its lands are under my protection, and I will not let them be your hunting grounds.”
Hati cackled as she spoke. “Ah, see brother how the fertile southern lands make the people fat and the wolves small for want of hard prey.” He turned to Giovanni. “And who is this scrap of a wolf? Your mate?”

Giovanni bared his teeth, stepping forward to join Capi. “Hardly, you will find more than one wolf that defends this land. I am the Wolf of Gubbio, and I will not be intimidated by half-bred mongrel curs.”

That earned a snarl from both Skoll and Hati, and Giovanni was once more made aware of how much physically larger they were than he. “The pup speaks for a wolf twice his size.” Skoll mocked. “You think you can taste human blood and think yourself our equal?”

“I think I can disdain it and think myself your equal.”

“So this is what stands before us.” Hati said, examining them both. “A wolf who fancies himself a man, and a bitch who sides with them.”

Giovanni saw Capi’s fur rise as she let out a low snarl.

“We have business in your city.” Skoll said, his voice unamused. “We had worshippers who had pledged themselves to us, who proclaimed their allegiance and were butchered like sheep.”
“We know of your cult.” Giovanni said. “Those who called themselves the Hour of the Wolf. Unfortunately I have news for you, your entire cult was a farce.”

“What!?” Hati roared, and the clouds shook with his thunderous voice.

Giovanni held his ground. “Your cult was founded, raised, and groomed for slaughter by the machinations of another. They died as sheep because they were sheep. There is another power in Rome that used them purely for their blood and their belief.”

“You tell us this…” Skoll’s voice was calm compared to his brother’s fury, but no less dangerous. “And yet you stand in our way? Would you die for the sake of murderers of the foulest sort?”

“We stand here,” Capitolina said. “Because it is to Romans to decide how Romans are to be punished. It is not the land of Skoll and Hati, nor is it the land of the monster who murdered your cult. This is our land, and no one, be they god or monster, may lay claim to it without our consent.”

“Then you court destruction…” Came Hati’s retort. “For two small wolves to stand against any who they might offend.”

“Small perhaps…” A new voice joined in, a light feminine voice as a third wolf crested the hill behind Capitolina and Giovanni, their attention so focused northwards they had never looked south. “But certainly not two.”

Kebechet, almost unrecognizable in full canine form, stepped lightly to join them. Though the smallest of the three, she was more than a match for power, her lithe jackal body covered in sleek black fur that mirrored the hair of her human form.

“I asked you and Angel to look after Rome” Capitolina said, withholding the qualifying remark they all sensed ‘in case we didn’t make it back’.

“I intended to.” Kebechet said. “But I was reminded how important it is to look after one’s friends and family.”

“And how did you find us?” Giovanni asked.

“That was my doing.”

The fourth wolf did not so much rise over the hill as Kebechet had as simply appeared at Capitolina’s side, the air twisting and warping where she seemed to step into existence. If Kebechet in wolf form had been an oddity, seeing Angel in it was quite bizarre.

Her fur was black, like Kebechet’s, but lacked the shine, instead seeming to absorb the light around it, a deeper shade even than Skoll’s burnt hide. Her right foreleg and both hind legs were not flesh and blood, instead long artificial limbs of molded ebony and silver, moving as she did with a noticeable heaviness to them. Her eyes, contrasting the yellow of her companions, were still bright blue, and she maintained a pair of stunted vestigial wings folded on her back.

“It seems Angel chose quite a time to go against your orders, Capitolina.” Kebechet said with an audible smirk.

Capitolina shot a questioning look at Angel, who simply responded. “We are a pack, Capitolina, we stand together.”

“There you have it,” Capitolina said, turning once more to Skoll and Hati. “You face not two, but four.”

“Four it may be…” Hati growled. “Two lesser wolves, a weakling goddess, and a cripple. Indeed we are outnumbered as the does out number wolves.”

“Then you do a poor show of estimating your opponent.” Capitolina said. “I’ve seen a score of foreign gods march through my city and ensured they kept their place. Giovanni has defended his people and his faith relentlessly for eight centuries. Kebechet is no lesser a goddess for being from a foreign land, but your dismissal of Angel as a cripple was particularly poorly planned.”

Angel stepped forward, and Giovanni could see the glow in her eyes, the unearthly power that began to radiate from her as the loose stones scattered at her feet began to rise. The sky shifted again, the clouds parting as an open miasma of stars spread across the morning sky, obscuring the sun, moon, and all else as a river of countless stars filled the heavens.

“Skoll and Hati.” She breathed in power. “I watched you play in my sky, skipping and dancing at the heels of Sol and Mani like pups unable to catch your own tails. You are far from home, young wolves, and this land is not yours to hunt in.”

This display of power, it seemed, was enough to send both wolves a few steps back. Capitolina was quick to take notice.

“You’ll find all four of us are much harder to break than you might have thought.” Capi said. “Small perhaps but hardly young, and plenty fierce enough for both of you. This is not the Northern forests, these are not your sun and moon. We know there are monsters in Rome to be hunted and punished, but it is neither your fight nor your hunt. Rome will never be the playground of fickle gods, I can assure you of that.”

“And who are you…” Skoll spoke out, thunder in his growling voice “To assure such a thing?”
“We are the wolves of Rome.” Capitolina said, raising her fur to stand on end, to make herself appear as large as she could. Even with the difference in size, she still stared without fear at the two larger wolves. “It is our territory, our land, and while we do not rule it we will defend it from monsters like the ones that destroyed your hunt, and from the likes of you.”

Both wolves had their hackles raised, fangs bared. For a single electrifying moment Giovanni was sure they were going to charge. For all of Angel’s display and Capi’s words, he doubted they could best these wolves.

“See then that you thin your herd of predators.” Skoll growled, and Hati turned to his brother in disbelief.

“We are to leave them?” He asked, shocked.

“There is truth in their words, brother.” Skoll said, though he was clearly loathe to say it. “We are far from our hunting grounds, the Sun and Moon still flee us but they are not our usual quarry. Even the bravest wolf knows not to venture too boldly or too deep.”

He turned his pale eyes again on Capitolina. “But know this, this land is yours only so long as you can keep it. If these…fiends within your lands prove too much for you, then there is little stopping us from making this land ours as well.”

Skoll turned away, his brother grudgingly following him, and soon the pair had disappeared into the dark clouds once more, their footsteps thunder as they chased back through the sky into the north.

“I’ve been hearing the same threat for thousands of years.” Capitolina said, sounding rather unimpressed with their threat. “This will always be my city.”

“Our city now.” Giovanni said. He could feel his knees start to shake as the realization that they were still safe settled into his mind, but he found the strength to remain standing. “So long as we are needed to defend it.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

The Laughing Mask

April 15th, 2023
“And with that, I’m sorry to say our show is coming to a close.” Thalia spoke into the microphone as she checked the clock on the wall. “The time is seven o’ clock and the sun is just about down. That means it’s time for a few hours of music to lull all you sleepy hard workers off to bed. Today is Saturday meaning its classical aaaaall night, and thanks to the generous donation of Mister Antoni Caruso we have an entire evening of Holst lined up for you. I have a soft spot for the Jupiter piece in his Planets Suite, but there’s something for everybody there. So until tomorrow, this is your hostess Thalia signing off.”

With a flick of the switch Thalia turned off the microphone, giving a thumbs-up to one of her radio DJs to take over and flip through their records. She was a sweet girl but not much of a voice. Thalia had only just begun the search for new talent.

She stretched her neck and arms, the radio booth being a rather stifling place to sit for a few hours each day. As she stood up, she picked up tomorrow’s script that she had flipped through during their musical segments and prepared herself for another round of editing. Writers, that was another thing she needed, good writers. Her red pen flipped through the pages with an almost ferocious assault on the script. Some people simply did not get comedy. Timing, subject, clarity, and poise, good humor was more than a simply knock-knock joke. Why didn’t people seem to get that? Thankfully they had an expert in the field of comedy to see to their needs.

“Miss Thalia?”

Thalia glanced up to see her DJ speaking to her through the booth microphone. She must have announced and put on the music already.

“You um… have a visitor.”

Thalia perked up. A visitor? Most of their applicants went through a screening process, and interviews weren’t until tomorrow. Who was stopping by at this time? Curious, she grabbed the mic and flipped it to the channel to speak to her assistant.

“Who is it, Jodie?”

“Umm…Miss…Kebechet? Yes, you know…one of the wolves.”

Thalia’s face split into a grin running from ear to ear as she almost shouted over the mic. “Send her in! Honestly, silly girl, keeping an important guest like that waiting.” She added teasingly, spinning her chair (she had specifically asked for one with wheels) towards the door to face her guest.

Kebechet stepped in slowly, regarding the recently-assembled amalgam of scavenged machinery that Ilmarinen, bless his divine lovesick heart, had helped set up. There was a look of obvious apprehension on her face that Thalia expected from the start. Still, she had the result she had always hoped for: Kebechet had come to her rather than the reverse.

“Miss Thalia…” She began her greeting, but Thalia cut her off.

“Oh come now, Kebe, you can just call me Thalia.” She smiled before speaking into the microphone again. “Jodie I’ll be taking this into my office.”

She stood up from her chair, stepping towards Kebechet and leading her casually to her office with an arm around her waist and a carefree “Right this way.”

Kebechet, clearly caught off her guard, quietly complied.

Thalia’s office was precisely how she liked it, which was to say “meticulous chaos”. She could find precisely what she was looking for in a second from within her pile of papers, notes, and file upon file of sheet music. Her eldest sister hated it, and Thalia’s boyfriend did as well. Which meant no doubt Kebechet would cringe at the sight as well. Sure enough, even stepping into the somewhat cramped office was clearly uncomfortable for her, but she reluctantly took the seat Thalia offered to her after clearing it of loose Mozart.

“So how can I help you, Kebe?” Thalia smiled, taking a seat in her own rolling chair across from her.

“I…” Kebechet’s face grew flustered at the nickname; Thalia’s smile only grew. “…I wanted to be sure it was really…you who was running this station.”

“Great, isn’t it?” Thalia asked, gesturing to the building around her.

“Well um…yes.” Kebechet glanced around. “It is widely acclaimed.”

“Did you come for a job?” Thalia asked teasingly.

“N-no!” Kebechet objected before blushing again. “Er…I mean…no thank you.”

“Really? You have a lovely voice, Kebe. Your father agrees with me.”

“A-about my father…”

Thalia made something of a spectacle of making a drawn-out weary sigh. “Kebeee…” She said, stretching the vowel to its breaking point “You and Anubis need to clear the air already. You both know I’m not the problem between you two, especially since I’ve done nothing but try and bring you two back together.”

Kebechet’s eyes moved towards the floor “I know…”

Thalia gave her a comforting smile, reaching out to lift her face up towards her. “Look, I know it’s hard. I know we don’t…agree all the time, and it’s hard when your parent starts dating again. Your father and I make each other happy…but you’re part of his family too and I can’t just leave you out. I want us all to be happy together.”

“It’s not exactly easy…” Kebechet said, still trying hard to break eye contact. “We have our differences.”

“It’s true.” Thalia grinned. “But diversity is the spice of life. I mean, none of my sisters are alike and we get along…mostly. And Anubis and I are almost opposites but that’s really what works for us.”

Clearly struggling for an objection, Kebechet tried to change the subject as Thalia let her hand fall away. “Do any of the people here…”

“Know who I am?” Thalia smiled, finishing her sentence.

“…yes.”

“Nope” Thalia said. “Well…Ilmarinen does, but that hardly counts since no one knows who he is.”
“So no one…”

Thalia’s grin grew into her usual mischievous smile. She reached up with her fingers towards her face, and with a single motion pulled away a mask that simply appeared over her visage, a pale mask of alabaster carved with the exaggerated face of a laughing man. As she pulled the mask away, Kebechet could feel the rush of divine energy filling the room. It was not as overwhelming as her grandmother’s had been. It was much lower in intensity, warmer, and almost more human.

“No one knows that their radio station is run by the Muse of Comedy.” Thalia grinned. She was still dressed in her casual clothes, but her face and skin had the grace of a goddess in them. Her whole body seemed to glow with warm light, her eyes a sparkling blue-green that caught the light and glittered. Perched upon her sleek black hair was a crown of ivy leaves.

“Though if Ilmarinen is to be believed, word has gotten out that I’m dating your father.”

“Mmm…” Kebechet simply made a noise. “How long have you been here?” She asked.

“The whole time really.” Thalia shrugged. “I was working on another project first, but that’s largely taken care of itself.”

“Another project?” Kebechet asked.

Thalia’s smile grew.

“I must hand it to your pharaoh; she knows her way around a nymph.” She said. “I knew I could help Echo if I brought her to Rome, but really it’s all exceeded expectations. Do pass along my regards.”

Kebechet blinked in surprise. “W-wait…you were the goddess who brought Echo here?”

Thalia laughed. Here the goddess truly revealed herself, as Thalia’s laugh was nothing short of divine. It was enticing and enchanting, like the ringing of bells and the chirping of morning songbirds. At the sound of it, even Kebechet could not help but smile.

“Well it was a group effort really.” Thalia said, still giggling. “It was an idea my sisters and I hatched. Calliope thought it up, Clio and Urania tracked her down, and Erato was the one who suggested Rome…guess I see why now.” She added with a sly smirk.

“So why did you go?” Kebechet asked.

Because I love a happy ending.” Thalia said, her voice still almost giggling with every word. “It’s kind of my thing.”

“It’s hardly over yet.” Kebechet said, doing her best to force levity to the situation. It was very hard to keep any sort of somberness around the revealed Muse of Comedy. “They plan to confront Hera.”

“I’m sure it will work out.” Shrugged Thalia. “Your Pharaoh is strong, and Echo is a lot tougher than she looks.”

“That’s still quite optimistic of you.” Kebechet said.

“Huh,” Thalia picked up the mask, placing the caricature of the laughing face in front of her own. “If that’s surprising to you I must have switched my mask with Mels. Does this look like a frown to you?” She said, waving the mask in front of her face.

Kebechet could not help but giggle at the joke, keenly aware of Thalia smiling at her through the mask.

“Kebechet…” Thalia said, placing the mask on her desk as she spoke “Your father misses you. He wants to see you again.”

Kebechet sighed. “I…have my duties here. I am in the service of the Pharaoh and…to Rome.”
Thalia’s smile never wavered. “Well, we all have our work to do.”

“I can’t leave now.”

“Well, I’m hardly asking you to pack your bags.”Thalia said. “I tend to flit between Rome and Mount Olympus a few times a week, no reason you couldn’t join me.”

“I suppose” Kebechet said slowly.

“Come on, my Sisters are all dying to meet you, and I know you want to see Anubis just as badly as he wants to see you.”

“Mmm…” Kebechet remained quiet, but the subtle swishing of her tail betrayed her.

“Why did you stay in Rome, Thalia? Was it for me?” Kebechet asked.

“Partially.” Thalia admitted, with a small nod. “But it’s a bit more complicated than that. I didn’t need to start a radio station to check in on you.”

“Then why?”

“I’m Thalia, the Laughing Muse with the face of sunshine.” She said. “It’s my job to make people laugh, to make them happy, and to make them feel fulfilled at the end of the day. Comedy is a lot more than just telling a good joke after all.”

Thalia smiled knowingly at Kebechet. “Of course, you’re just as important as they are, and I think it’s my job to try and make you happy as well.”

“I see…” Kebechet said slowly, before looking back at Thalia, rewarding her with her own subdued smile. “I suppose…I can only be grateful for all you’ve done for this city.”

“I do my best.” Thalia tried to act somewhat humble, even as her grin remained.

“There is certainly no fault I can find in bringing happiness to the people” Kebechet said. “And given the popularity of the radio show…you are doing great work.”

“Awww thanks, Kebe!” Thalia smiled.

“And I suppose…” Kebechet began, her voice more hesitant. “It is not too much for me to come back to see my father…now and then.”

Thalia’s smile only grew wider. “I don’t think it will be too much of anything either.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa