The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 52

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t,” Gisela said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I-I think it can work!” Megame said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle had begun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good job, Cat,” she smiled at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three kilometers,” Gisela said.

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

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

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

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

“And so are we,” Rosa said.

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

“Then the mountain, and Nidhoggr, awaits.”

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 46

 

With every passing day the column of the second legion pushed northwards into Europe, over the alps and into what had been Austria and Germany. Now it was wilderness, wild and untamed with rolling hills fertile grasslands and ever-present forests closing in around them as they cut a trail north.

Their scouts, Hildegard and Turi in particular, kept an eye on the movement of monsters and wild spirits in the area. Those that didn’t try to ambush the Legion (which were swiftly repelled) were soon all seen to be traveling straight north deeper into Germany.

“They’re heading to something,” Hanne said, looking over the map as the legion commanders, Hildegard, Cat, Rosa, Angel, and Gisela all crowded around the command table, a snaking red line marking their passage thus far.

“Agreed,” Hildegard said. “This isn’t coincidence, any monster or spirit that I’ve scouted that was too far out to catch the Legion’s scent has been going in roughly the same direction.”

“Nidhoggr is calling them,” Angel said. “It is attempting to force itself fully into Midgard and wants an army there to greet it. When the Primordial manifests, then all of those monsters will be unleashed in a new tide of destruction.”

“Which means not only do we have the dragon to contend with, but an entire army as well,” Rosa sighed. “This surprise attack might turn into a siege.”

“And a siege is something we can’t afford,” Hanne said. “This battle can’t last more than a day after we initiate our attack, maybe just hours. We need to establish a line wherever Nidhoggr is and hold it while Cat and the others take out the Primordial.”

“But where is it going?” Angel said. “Nidhoggr’s influence is blocking my sight. Everywhere I look, I just see more of the dragon.”

“At a guess,” Gisela said. “Somewhere of ritual importance. This Primordial will want a stage to begin its attack on Earth and it isn’t going to settle for a nameless field outside Leipzig.”

“Any ideas?” Cat asked. “Germany has to be full of places like that…”

“One,” Gisela said. “I think…you said in your dream, when you battled Nidhoggr, it was atop a mountain, and the peak was clear of trees and plants, yes?”

“That’s right,” Cat nodded. “It was just…bare rocks and a lot of snow.”

“That might be our clue,” Gisela said. “The Brocken, Germany’s bald mountain.”

“Near Schierke,” Hanne nodded. “I know of it…I believe it’s around…here.”

Hanne marked a spot on the map to their north, matching the path of the migrating spirits.

“As for when, that is another question but also one I believe easily answered,” Gisela went on. “It’s October now, and I have little doubt that Nidhoggr’s ideal time to manifest and our ideal time to strike will be on the 31st.”

“Halloween?” Rosa asked.

“Two years to the day since the final Day of Revelation,” Gisela said. “A fine anniversary gesture considering it was Nidhoggr’s escape that started it all. The day itself has potency, though not for Nidhoggr’s cosmology…but it represents something that matters. The end of summer, life, and warmth. Nidhoggr comes with the darkening of the year.”

“It’s as likely a day as any,” Hildegard nodded. “That doesn’t even give us a month to cross half of Germany though.”

“We’ll need to march hard,” Hanne nodded. “And the going will only get rougher the closer we get, I have no doubt.”

“A month, northern Germany…a battle at Samhain on the Bald Mountain…that sounds right,” Cat said. “Like something out of a story.”

“The benefit of Primordials is that they are rarely unpredictable,” Angel said. “This is a solid hypothesis.”

“Then that’s the direction we’ll take,” Hanne said. “I want this Legion moving at sunrise and I want the supply train informed of the increased pace. I’ll need the scouts ensuring that we’re on the right path with updates on any sighted monster every third hour. Understood?”

All the assembled nodded, many of them with their faces dark. This was going to be a hard march to an even harder battle. They had a destination now, but not an easy one.

As the group began to depart from the command tent to relay orders to the rest of the legion, Cat caught up to Rosa.

“Hey,” she said. “Do you have a moment to talk, just us?”

“Hmm?” Rosa raised an eyebrow. “Sure, why not.”

With some minor trepidation, Cat led her away from the command tent to the edge of the camp, away from prying eyes and ears among the trees, though still within sight of the fires of the legion camp. Rosa followed along quietly until Cat stopped them, and she crossed her arms as she waited for Cat to speak.

“So, uuh…” Cat shuffled words around in her head, trying to come up with the right thing to say. Rosa stayed quiet, watching her with a sort of blank curiosity that only made Cat sweat more.

“I, ummm…”

“Look, Cat, if this is going to take a while, I can come back or…”

“N-no! Just…give me a second I’m trying to get my words together.”

“I can give you some minutes I just need to-“

“Dammit, Rosa, stop making this hard!”

“Making what hard? You’re the one who-“

“I like you!”

Rosa blinked in surprise for a moment.

“Well uh…yeah I mean I like you too, Cat.”

“No, you…ugh,” Cat ran a hand through her hair before steadying herself. “I mean I want to ask you out and date you and…stuff.”

“Oh…” Once more Rosa stood there in honest surprise, hands at her side. “…Wow you needed to do this whole dramatic confession thing?”

“Eh? What do you mean? Isn’t this how it’s done?”

Rosa snorted, only making the color rush to Cat’s face again. “No, you idiot. Just…like…ask me out. Tell me you want to go have lunch sometime.”

“We always have lunch sometimes!”

“Then tell me you want to go out somewhere and that you want it to be a date is my point,” Rosa rolled her eyes. “Honestly this whole confession thing…man who told you that was a good idea?”

“Ummm…”

“It was Megame wasn’t it?”

“Not just her!” Cat objected.

“Let me guess, most of the relationships you’ve read about involved guys in armor and women described as ‘damsels’.”

“That’s a…bit of an exaggeration…” Cat said, her flustering only growing more pronounced with each passing second. “I also wasn’t sure if…”

“If I was gay?” Rosa asked.

“Well…yeah…” Cat nodded.

“I’m not,” Rosa said.

Cat froze up.

“I’m bi actually. I like both sides of the field.”

Cat struggled to pull a response together as Rosa laughed.

“Seriously your face right now…have you not seen how I stare at Evangeline’s ass? The woman’s a safety hazard.”

“I don’t watch where you’re staring all the time!”

“That’s why you lose our duels half the time.”

“Oh, for the love of-!” Cat stomped forward, pushing Rosa against the closest tree to hold her there. Rosa didn’t resist or make any move to counterattack, simply watching her with an amused expression.

“You’re a jerk, you know that?”

“I do.”

“A complete ass half the time and intolerable the other half.”

“I get that.”

“I’m honestly surprised I like you half as much as I do,” Cat managed to keep her face straight as she stared down Rosa.

“Mmhmm,” Rosa just nodded along.

“But I do like you…I like you a lot especially since you became…”

“Less of an ass?” Rosa suggested.

“Yes,” Cat nodded. “Less of an ass. And especially with everything that’s about to happen…I thought it would be really important to…”

“Come on, Cat,” Rosa’s voice wasn’t impatient or unkind. It was more the tone when she was trying to get Cat to improve during training.

“I want to be with you, Rosa. No matter what happens I want to be at your side and I want to be…closer with you than just friends. Is that…alright with you?”

Rosa stayed quiet for a long time, too long for Cat. The seconds ticked by at an increasingly uncomfortable pace. Before her face finally split into a smile.

“Sure, Cat, that’ll be alright with me. Though you need to work on the straight talk because that confession was way too timid.”

Cat’s face was beat red. “I’m new at this.”

“And you took way too long. Seriously you could’ve asked me out months ago.”

“I get it…”

Rosa kept smiling and Cat felt her hand push up the bottom of her chin.

“That said, you’re going to pay for wasting all that time fretting. Seriously do you know how much training time this probably cost you? No wonder you were so distracted.”

Cat glowered, even as she felt her heart pumping wildly in her chest at Rosa’s touch. She was becoming acutely aware of just how close they were.

“P-pay how?” Cat asked, unable to look away.

“By making up for lost time.”

Before Cat could stop her Rosa had leaned in and for the briefest moment Cat could feel the ghost of Rosa’s lips pressed to hers.

Cat jerked her head back as she felt the color rush to her face in full force. “Wh-what are you-?”

“Just like a duel, Cat,” Rosa smiled at her. “Can’t be timid with me.”

Steeling herself, Cat squared her shoulders before leaning in, a bit forcefully than she’d meant to, and kissing Rosa straight on the mouth.

She wasn’t sure how long they stayed that way, seconds or moments she didn’t know and it didn’t matter. Her heart was thumping like a drum as her mind reeled at the simple fact that in a day, she’d gone from sparring with Rosa to kissing her.

Eventually they did pull apart, and though Cat was still dazed and reeling she could see that Rosa had flushed more than a little as well. Cat wasn’t entirely on the defensive.

“So umm…where do we go from here?” Cat asked.

“Wherever we want,” Rosa shrugged. “There isn’t a manual for this kind of thing, Cat.”

“Heh so…we’re dating now?”

“I guess so…”

“We should probably tell some people.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Though umm…before that…” Cat was about to pause before pushing the awkwardness down and gently shoving Rosa once more against the tree. “Let’s do that a few more times.”

Rosa smiled. “Heh, sounds good to me. You need practice anyway.”

“Says you, you’re terrible at it!”

“Prove it.”

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Artifice

October 12th, 2024

 

“You sure this is the place?” Rosa asked, looking at the drawn door of what looked like a run-down old garage.

“It is indeed,” Angel, the black-haired and winged wolf girl at her side nodded. “Though I must remind you again that it’s unlikely he’ll help.”

“Well, it’s worth a shot,” Rosa said. “Besides, I need every edge I can get and you said he was the best in the city.”

“Unquestionably,” Angel nodded. “Though he is also…temperamental.”

Rosa snorted. “Welcome to the club.”

Without another word, she banged loudly on the metal door of the garage. “Anybody home!?”

Angel rolled her eyes before stepping past her. “Honestly, that’s not going to work either.”

Angel placed a gloved hand on the metal of the door and from where her fingers touched the surface long ornate lines of light began to spread and curl from her hand. The pattern spread, formed, and twisted into the image of a doorway illuminated on the surface of the metal door.

“He’s been busy,” Angel said quietly, and when the pattern had drawn itself completely, the metal outlined as a doorway slid open to invite them inside.

Rosa, frowning, decided to let Angel lead before following her inside the garage.

Inside was a workshop and forge far too large to have fit in the confines of the small garage. Numerous workbenches and drawing tables were scattered about and countless tools hung from bands on the ceiling, with supplies filling shelves, drawers, and barrels covering the walls until there was hardly room to maneuver. The entire place was slightly dark, illuminated mostly by several bright spotlights and the dull orange glow of the slumbering forge.

“Ilmarinen?” Angel called into the semi-darkness. “I’m here for maintenance, and I brought a guest.”

Rosa almost jumped when she saw a figure her eyes had missed rise from where he had been slumped over a drafting table and turn to face them. He was taller than average, well over six feet, with a lanky build and snow white hair over a young but stress-lined face. Despite his thin appearance, his hands and arms revealed by his rolled up sleeves were tanned and brawny, belying a strength that he didn’t make immediately apparent.

“Angel, lovely as ever. And who’s this?” He asked, stepping forward as he examined them both.

“Rosaria Kokinos,” Angel said as Rosa gave a relaxed wave. “A…student of Capitolina’s, as well as Champion of Ares.”

Rosa saw Ilmarinen’s face falter at the name, not that she could blame him.

“This,” Angel said, addressing Rosa. “Is Ilmarinen, a god of artifice from Finland.”

“Nice to meet ya,” Rosa said. “Angel says you build things.”

“S’what artifice means, kid,” Ilmarinen said. “Angel if you could get up on the examining table. Let’s see how that arm is doing.”

Angel nodded and stepped over to what looked like a cross between a work bench and a doctor’s examining table. She stripped off her gloves, jacket, and scarf leaving her dressed in a thin undershirt over pants, and Rosa couldn’t help but stare at the artificial arm affixed to her shoulder. It was a marvel of engineering, a combination of ebon black and silvery metal, woven together like bone and sinew into a skeletal hand that moved smoothly and soundlessly. The modifications didn’t end at her arm either, as Rosa could see hints of metal protruding from her ribs and spine, and likely her legs as well.

As she watched, Ilmarinen moved to Angel and began examining her arm closely, testing its range of movement and the smoothness of its part, a silver rod in his hand that seemed to change its shape and purpose to whatever tool he needed.

Rosa watched for a few minutes, letting the pair work largely in silence. When they did speak, it was generally brief and awkwardly, and Rosa could sense some kind of tension between the two of them.

“So if you make things,” Rosa eventually spoke up, though Ilmarinen simply continued to work. “Could you improve the artifacts other gods give champions?”

“Hypothetically,” Ilmarinen shrugged, not looking up from where he worked on Angel’s arm. “Most gods don’t know much about proper forging. I might be able to make some modifications.”

“Cool,” Rosa said. “Cause I have this spear from Ares that…”

Ilmarinen clicked his tongue, cutting her off. “Better luck elsewhere, Red. I don’t do weapons anymore.”

Rosa frowned. “Seriously? I’ m not like a…well, I use it for good or for the defense of Rome and stuff. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing in principle,” Ilmarinen said. “Just a policy of mine. Don’t do weapons.”

“You fixed Angel,” Rosa said. “Bet an arm like that could punch through a brick wall, doesn’t that count as a weapon?”

Rosa saw both Ilmarinen and Angel visibly stiffen, and this time the god did turn to face her, and Rosa began to feel just what it meant to argue with the divine.

“Look girl.” Ilmarinen said. “I saved Angel’s life and even then it…didn’t quite work out how either of us might have wanted it to. Now I’m not going to touch your spear, especially not one made by a god as blood-hungry as Ares, got it?”

“G-got it…” Rosa said, swallowing her mixed frustration and fear. Ilmarinen might not be as naturally intimidating as Ares, but he was a god, and she was still only mortal.

“…Got anyone else I can go to?” She decided to try her luck, even though she could tell Ilmarinen’s patience was wearing thin.

“If you’re looking for someone like that, and it’ll get you out of my hair, then try the girl near the temple. Blonde. Goes by Metaxes. Shouldn’t be hard to find.”

“Got it,” Rosa said, not wanting to stick around much longer. She swiftly made her exit out the door and saw the lines of light vanish from the surface.

“Grumpy old bastard,” she muttered to herself as she left, hurrying in case the Finnish god’s divine ears were still listening.

 

 

All told, it took her about three hours to find the woman going by the name of Evangeline Metaxes. She was apparently a popular figure around the Temple of Rome, and also the Champion of Hephaestus. Rosa would have preferred an out-and-out god fixed up her weapons, but she supposed beggars couldn’t be choosers.

After some asking around, she had tracked Evangeline down to a two-story flat with the bottom floor converted into a workshop. It was impressively at odds with Ilmarinen’s magic forge, being much smaller and more cramped, with piles of papers and scrapped designs mixing with dust in the corners, as well of drawers of far more mundane materials half-open and rimmed with soot and powders.

“Hello?” Rosa called out as she entered the open garage-style door, this one lacking any kind of magic entrance.

“Hello!” Called down a cheerful voice as Rosa heard the sounds of someone maneuvering down a flight of wooden stairs with some difficulty. Soon at the base of the stairs appeared a woman around Rosa’s own age. She was, to Rosa’s surprise, quite different than how she had expected a Champion of the Forge to look.

She had expected someone tall, broad, and brawny, but Evangeline seemed…too thin. She wasn’t entirely thin, being very curved in certain places Rosa was quick to notice, but she seemed better suited to being the Champion of Aphrodite than the champion of a forge god. The only oddity was her walking with a pronounced limp, enough for her to require a cane. She was otherwise intensely beautiful, particularly her round heart-shaped face beneath a head of straw blonde hair kept tied up neatly at the back of her head.

She wasn’t even dressed for the job, her buttoned shirt and pants looking almost immaculate, and her neck and wrists adorned with gold necklaces and bracelets.

“Evangeline Metaxes?” Rosa asked, still not entirely convinced.

“The one and only”, Evangeline smiled warmly, extending her free hand as she rested on her cane. “And you are…?”

“Rosaria Kokinos,” Rosa said, firmly taking the hand, and she was surprised to feel an intense strength in her grip.

“Ahhh the Champion of Ares,” Evangeline smiled. “I was wondering when I might get a visit from you.”

“I was wondering if…”

“You were wondering if I could improve your weapons and armor?” Evangeline cut her off. Still smiling “Well I won’t know for sure unless I see it, will I?”

“Er…right,” A bit caught off guard, Rosa summoned her spear into her hand as her armor appeared across her body. She left the spear on a nearby table as she stripped off the thick bronze and gold armor, giving Evangeline a chance to look it over.

“Fascinating…” She marveled, and Rosa did a double take as she saw what she had taken to be jewelry around her wrists and neck scuttled to life, moving over her body like insects as they combined, split, and reformed. As she watched, one curled itself into a hand lens that Evangeline lifted to her eye to examine the spear more closely.

“Quite interesting.”

Rosa laid her armor out on the table beside her spear, feeling a little exposed. Without the armor she was dressed in little more than a padded sleeveless shirt and a skirt, neither of which were ever really her style.

“What’s so interesting? Anything you can do?”

“Well first of all, yes, I can be of service to you,” Evangeline said. “Secondly, it confirms my suspicions that while war gods are good at using weapons, they’re not particularly good at making them.”

Rosa couldn’t help but snort. “So what do ya need to make this thing even sharper?”

“Well improving a divine weapon is a…complicated procedure,” Evangeline said, putting down the lens as she rested on her cane. Rosa glanced at the hand lens and saw it reform into a tiny gold beetle and scurry out of sight.

“See, a weapon like that spear isn’t really forged out of metal, it’s made of ideas.”

Rosa frowned, tapping the head of the spear with her finger. “Kind of feels like metal to me.”

“Well yes, of course it’s metal to us,” Evangeline said. “But gods are creatures of spirit and ideas, they don’t work in real metals, but in ideas that take the shape of metal. Did you ever read the Iliad?”

“Mmm, skimmed it,” Rosa shrugged.

“Well, Homer goes into quite a bit of detail on the shield of Achilles,” Evangeline said. “The Shield is not described in terms of metal, but in terms of the imagery and the potential for meaning. Achilles’ shield bore the very image of a microcosm, as if he carried an entire world’s worth of ideas in that one shield. The relationship between life and death, war and peace, civilization and destruction, all carved into a single circle of metal. It’s little wonder that a shield with such conceptual power was indestructible.”

“So my spear’s concept is…what?” Rosa asked.

“You have to ask?” Evangeline looked at her curiously. “Your spear is war and violence born out in metal shape. With the right training I can see it as clear as the Spartan Lambda on your armor. Speaking of which…your armor is very rudimentary. It’s the idea of ‘protection’ crafted rather crudely into bronze and gold…Ares is not one for subtlety or complexity is he?”

“No, not even a little,” Rosa frowned. “So how do you go about improving it?”

“As one can sharpen a blade so to can one focus an idea,” Evangeline said. “I have enough training to hone something like your spear into a more noble or more violent weapon. I’m just an artificer, to me it’s not my job to judge on how a thing I make is used, so before I can start improving this weapon, I need you to tell me what you want out of it. It’s not just about what the spear can do, I need to know what you plan to do with the spear.”

“Hmmm…” Rosa fell silent as she began to think. “I think…that spear was made with only one thing in mind: to kill.”

“That’s about right,” Evangeline said. “It is a rather savage spear in that respect.”

“I want something more trained,” Rosa said. “Something that can lash out with more than just violence. I want a spear that can…protect as well as destroy. One where I can aim where all that wrath is going.”

Evangeline smiled at her. “I think I can arrange something like that, though I’ll need you around for help on it.

“Right,” Rosa nodded. “I’ll be around but…hey can I ask you something?”

“By all means,” Evangeline nodded. “What is it?”

“You seem a bit…well umm…”

“Unusual?” Evangeline smiled mischievously. “Unorthodox? Not what I appear?”

“…Too hot for the job,” Rosa settled on. “Like I expected a burly amazon with an arm like a tree, not a lingerie model.”

“I actually used to model while I was getting my Masters in mechanical engineering,” Evangeline chuckled. “Not lingerie though.”

Rosa clicked her tongue in disappointment.

“Either way, what got you the job?”

“Well I have a mind for machines, always have,” Evangeline said. “Though not really the forging process. That part came after Hephaestus offered me the job.”

“And what convinced him to…wait…” Rosa’s brow furrowed. “Did Hephaestus offer you the job because you were hot?”

“If I said that had nothing to do with it, I’d probably be lying.” Evangeline shrugged. “Not like I was advertising it though. He is a touch lonely and not great with women. I’m not surprised he might have given me a long look…that said…”

Evangeline rested one hand on the table as she pointed her cane at Rosaria. “I am every bit qualified for this job, Miss Kokinos. Try to imply I got it for my looks alone and I will show you just how wrong you are, Champion of Ares or not.”

Rosa raised her hands in submission. “Look you got it, whatever you say.”

“That said, it did have its downsides,” Evangeline said. “Hephaestus picking me did not endear me to a certain Goddess of Love.”

“Ah…right, I suspect not,” Rosa said. Aphrodite was not known to tolerate other beautiful things.

“So she set about making sure I was very visibly imperfect,” Evangeline tapped her lame leg with her cane.

“Wait…so Aphrodite made you a cripple? Out of jealousy?” Rosa asked incredulously.

“I am most assuredly not a ‘cripple’,” Evangeline said, losing her smile for a moment. “I am somewhat disabled but perfectly functional in all aspects of life, even if I’m not running any marathons.”

“Right…sorry,” Rosa said sheepishly. “I meant more…Aphrodite’s kind of a bitch.”

“Well on that I agree, if not necessarily in your vocabulary,” Evangeline’s smile returned. “But I like to think of it as a…badge of office. I’m even more like my boss now.”

“Heh, sounds about right,” Rosa said. “Though I’d like to be as little like my patron as I can.”

“Understandable,” Evangeline nodded. “You know, I think talking to you like this will help a lot when we’re reworking your artifacts. Would you mind coming around a few times a week? Or maybe I can come to you?”

“Sure,” Rosa shrugged. “I’m pretty free. I train with Hildegard and Cat most mornings and I have a lot of lessons with Capitolina, but I can make time.”

“Excellent,” Evangeline smiled. “Well then not to be cliché but I think this might be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

Rosa chuckled. “Don’t get sappy on me, but I wouldn’t mind hanging around you.”

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Where All Roads lead

Chapter 29

April 9th, 2024

 

Something about tonight was very wrong.

It began when Aurelio begrudgingly accepted doing his rounds with Sybilla that night. The Witchbreed had wanted to begin “Contributing to the city that has sheltered me” as she put it in so many diplomatic words, but he felt that another part of the reason had simply been to needle him.

What had once been Elisa and Aurelio alone had now doubled to the pair of them and the new additions of Sybilla and Mary. Simply to put him at ease, they had moved in pairs with one of the newcomers always in the company of the old. Aurelio did not yet trust Sybilla and Mary alone together out in the city.

Even with this unusual arrangement in place, things had gone relatively normally. For the first few hours of the night the city had been quiet. The moon was brilliant and bright overhead, and the starlight had revealed little in the way of resistance…at least at first.

“That’s the third one tonight,” Aurelio said, walking to the body of the fallen cacodaemon as the arrow in its side dissolved in a stream of moonlight. “And this isn’t even a wilder part of the city. There hasn’t been a single one reported in weeks and now we have three in one night.”

“Well you know what they say,” With a flick of her wrist, Sybilla undid the magic binds that had held the beast in place as Aurelio finished it. “Once is an occurrence, twice is coincidence…”

“And three times is evidence of malice.” Aurelio finished for her. “We should get in touch with Mary and Elisa; they’re closer to the frontier.”

“Do you think this area is safe?” Sybilla asked.

“I don’t know,” Aurelio admitted. “But the city guard should be able to handle it. We can’t just leave the outskirts, especially if they have it worse. We’ll need that flying spell of yours.”

“Asking me for favors so freely now?” Sybilla asked with a smirk.

“I’m asking you to help me out.” Aurelio griped.

“Very well, come along then.” Sybilla offered a hand which Aurelio reluctantly took. She had a tendency to treat him like a child whenever she used her magic. It may have been true that he didn’t understand most of it, but he still hated her patronizing tone.

He felt Sybilla’s magic course under his skin as she floated from the edge of the rooftop into the open air. Aurelio felt his stomach drop as he followed her off the edge, expecting to plummet at any moment. As their feet touched the next closest rooftop their speed increased, both of them running or gliding across the rooftop before taking a flying leap across the next street. It was a quick way to move as it let them cross even the widest streets that would have blocked Aurelio’s nightly rooftop jaunts, even if it took some getting used to.

It was when they were crossing the roof of a large estate, Aurelio’s boots hitting the roof hard as Sybilla floated beside him, that he felt a tug on his hand indicating that she had stopped. He almost tripped at the sudden change, and rounded on her to demand what the problem was, only to see her eyes staring upwards into the sky. Following her gaze, Aurelio saw precisely at what she was staring.

The moon, which had been largely full and waxing every night, now appeared as if a fresh new moon. Only the faintest outline of its presence could be seen, and its surface was almost completely black.

“That’s not right…” Sybilla muttered.

“No, it’s not,” Aurelio said. “The moon doesn’t just suddenly switch phases like that.”

“It’s almost like an eclipse,” Sybilla said. “As if something just dropped a shadow on top of it.”

“But lunar eclipses are red,” Aurelio said. “This is just…black.”

“The more I look at this, the less I like it.” Sybilla said. “This isn’t a bit of freak astronomy.”

“It might be causing all these cacodaemons.” Aurelio said. And even as he spoke, the night seemed to erupt with howls. Roars and growls and moans rose form the shadows as a thousand lurking horrors began to tear themselves free from the spirit world of human fear. As the noise rose, Aurelio could almost feel a sense of fear spreading through the city as he had in the nightmare. People cowered in their rooms at the sounds of the multiplying cacodemons, and that fear only gave them more power.

“I’ve never heard of this many in one place…” Sybilla said.

“Not since the Days of Revelations,” Aurelio said, drawing his bow again. “This is too much to just leave for the guards. This is an attack on the city.”

“By whom?” Sybilla asked.

“My guess?” Aurelio asked. “The cult. Unless I’m wrong this is them making their move.”

Sybilla nodded as a new seriousness came over her face, one he had not seen since the dream. “What’s the plan?”

“Elisa and I talked about this,” Aurelio said. “If the city comes under attack from spirits then she heads to the Capitoline Hill and I secure anyone who can help.”

“And who is that in this case?”

“Most notably? The Pontifex and Echo, Hildegard’s family, and then Angel.”

“Understood.” Sybilla nodded, and Aurelio felt a fresh flood of her sorcery pour into him. “Think you can fly on your own, hunter? I’ll need both hands free.”

“So will I,” Aurelio nodded. “Nora’s estate is this way. Follow me.”

Without further words the two of them rushed out over the city of Rome. Without Sybilla’s handholding, Aurelio found himself much quicker to adapt to the newfound flight. He couldn’t levitate like she could, but his leaps were much longer, almost like taking jumps on the moon. He could take his speed and arc into account as he ran and leapt from rooftop to rooftop, which was invaluable as he needed to shoot and run almost the entire way there.

The cacodemons seemed to rise from every dark corner and dim night alley in the city. Every place where shadows lurked seemed to hide a nest of them as they rose and lurched from their home in human nightmares with drooling fang and sharpened claw. A menagerie of horrors in every shape and size came crawling into being across the city of Rome. Where they came their roars soon followed, creating a siren call of terror throughout the city as people woke to find a city filled with nightmares.

Arrow after arrow flew from Aurelio’s bow, and each one found its mark, but for every cacodemon he struck down two more seemed to rise from the shadows that he had to overlook. If he stayed to fight and kill every single one he saw, they would never make it far across the city. Their numbers were overwhelming, and soon Aurelio saw the city guards and the garrisoned legionnaires rushing into the street, half-dressed in armor with swords and spears ready as the spirits attacked on all sides.

Sybilla had not been lying when she said she needed her hands free. Both were occupied with somatic gestures needed for her more advanced spellwork, and between his shots Aurelio would sometimes pause to watch her work. Blue light, dripping with power, lashed like whips from her hands and tore through cacodaemons like paper. With a wave of her hand she flung bolts of magic through the air like missiles, their paths curving like an arcing comet before striking some shadow-born monster that flapped along on leathery bat wings.

Her real specialty, however, was in summoning. From some realm of nightmare she summoned her own monstrous horrors to fight fire with fire. Beasts of black obsidian hide and burning blue eyes built like fierce wolves tore through their weaker and less-defined cacodaemon cousins. Raven-like creatures with flaming wings erupted from portals she opened in the sky to tear through others form above. In the alleys and streets, long clawed tentacles burst from sewer grates, and pulled the helpless and howling cacodaemons down into the depths to meet their fate.

Aurelio had always assumed that if she truly was evil, Sybilla would be no more difficult to hunt down than any other Witchbreed, but tonight he was being rapidly proven wrong.

It took them over an hour to finally reach Nora’s townhouse, and in that time Aurelio had lost count of the spirits he’d killed, not even bothering to keep track of Sybilla’s. As they landed at Nora’s front door, her summoned minions seemed to vanish into the night air and Aurelio felt the power fade from his body. Sybilla took a moment, leaning against the brick wall as her breaths came in ragged pants.

“Give me…a moment.” She breathed, clearly drained.

Aurelio nodded and started slamming his fist on the door.

“Echo!” He shouted “Nora! It’s me! Aure-“

His words were cut short in an instant as he felt the unmistakable feeling of a cold steel blade pressed to his throat. Sybilla was up in an instant, hand pointed over his shoulder as blue lights danced up her arm.

“Release him!” She hissed at his unseen assailant.

“In short order,” Aurelio nearly did a double take when he heard what was unmistakably Nora’s voice in his ear. “When I know who he really is.”

Aurelio shivered as he felt the blade press ever so slightly into his skin, the razor-like edge drawing a few drops of blood. In a moment he was released, and he turned, rubbing his neck with one hand, to face his attacker.

Lenore was standing behind him, idly wiping his blood from her knife.

“What the hell was that!?” He demanded, angered as much by the assault as he was by her candidness.

“Always be sure your allies are who they claim to be.” Lenore said before flashing the blade at him “Silver lined with Zoroastrian runes. Anything in false shape is going to be shifted back to their true form by it.”

“Satisfied then?” Aurelio said, still annoyed.

“Yes.” Lenore said plainly before her eyes traveled to Sybilla, who still had her hands raised threateningly.

Aurelio saw a new kind of intensity in her eyes, and there was something deeply unsettling about the way she regarded Sybilla.

As the intensity in the air grew, Aurelio heard the door open and saw Nora, far less regal than usual in a blue nightgown, regarding the scene.

“Hands down, both of you.” She said, and both Sybilla and Lenore followed her instructions “We don’t need people on the same side killing each other tonight.”

“We came to check on you,” Aurelio said. “To make sure you’re safe.”

“We’re all plenty safe, please come inside.” She said, leading the trio back inside the warm light of her townhouse.

As they stepped into the sitting room, Aurelio saw they weren’t alone. Angel, the winged wolf, seemed to have beaten them there, and she stood next to Echo over a pile of old books that were stacked high on the table.

“We need to get back onto the streets.” Aurelio said.

“I agree,” Nora nodded. “But you need to know what we’re up against first.”

“Do we have any ideas?” Aurelio asked. “We figure it was the Butterfly Shroud making their move.”

“This is not the work of mere mortal spellcasters,” Angel said. “The worst of this has yet to come.”

Aurelio frowned; he had been afraid she would say something like that.

“What is it then?” Sybilla asked.

“This is not a mere lunar event,” Angel said. “I have looked to the dawn and the news becomes much worse. A black sun rises over Rome.”

“Black sun,” Aurelio repeated. “Please tell me that’s not literal.”

“It is,” Angel said. “To your eyes it will appear like an endless solar eclipse.”

“What does it mean?” Sybilla asked

“In general, it is a mark of cosmic instability for the black sun to rise in the daytime world. One hangs over Cairo even as we speak. As for the specifics…” She took a moment to consider her words.

“Something foul has snuck past my shield.”

“How?” Aurelio asked. “Some loophole?”

“If I knew I would have fixed it,” Angel said, with a note of irritation. “But what I do know is that something evil and very powerful is now lurking in Rome. Normally I would trust this task to Miss Jazheil and her sister but…”

“Hildegard is out of commission,” Aurelio nodded.

“And Catarina is outside Rome, along with the Champion of Ares.” Angel said. “I have contacted Salvatore already. You remaining champions are now the best hope for Rome.”

“Where do we start?” Aurelio said. “We need to start looking somewhere.”

“Angel and I are doing all the research we can,” Nora said. “To try and find out what’s causing this.”

“We’ll rendezvous with Elisa and Mary and fill them in.” Sybilla said. “We’ll need to be coordinated.”

As they spoke, a strange soft sound began to waft through the room. It was pleasant, almost mesmerizing as it filled the air without their notice until it filled every corner of the room. All of them looked around for the source, and soon their eyes focused on the small radio set, which had turned itself on and begun playing the unearthly tune.

“To hazard a guess,” Nora said. “Start at the radio station.”

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=58&sl=813

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.

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Clear Skies

April 12th, 2023
It was after a long day with Echo that Kebechet made her way back to the capital. She loved her grandmother Nephthys dearly, but time did tend to run while she was around, and Kebechet had her father’s preference for studiousness and scheduling. As such her day had fallen irreparably behind schedule and she’d been forced to call the day a wash to be picked up again tomorrow. So it was with trepidation that Kebechet walked through the early-night streets of Rome.

The streets themselves were largely deserted. Most after dark activities were focused in specific gathering halls and pubs and other places, with only the odd stranger like Kebechet stalking the night alone. She moved purposefully but in almost total silence, telling of either her divine or canine nature, her footsteps never echoing across the ground. As she stepped up to the Plaza del Campidoglio, planning to retire to her usual quarters for the night, something caught the corner of her keen vision. A glance upwards and she saw a lone figure on the roof of the new capital building. Though a small dark figure, likely invisible to human eyes, Kebechet could see the distinct winged outline of Angel even from across the square.

It was rare to see Angel on her own, as she seemed to have rented space permanently in Capitolina’s shadow. Kebechet could likely count the time she had seen Angel on her own on both hands, and seeing her alone on the rooftop like that had a distinct air of ominousness to it. Her day complete and her work going unfinished until the next day, Kebechet decided she might as well do some investigating on her own.

It was a quick and quiet route up the stairs of the building to the roof. All of the officials and the small gathering of senators had dispersed with the sunset. At night the capital building belonged almost exclusively to the wolves. Kebechet wasn’t sure where Capitolina was at present, though she knew Giovanni almost always returned to the Vatican by nightfall if business had dragged him away to the Capitoline Hill. Capi could be in any number of places, and it was possible that Kebechet and Angel were the only living souls in the building. Despite this, it was with her signature silence that she stepped free of the last doorway and out onto the roof.

The last rays of the sun were almost gone, merely painting the Western horizon a slight purple with their final passage. The rest of the sky belonged to the night, and Kebechet took a moment to look up at the vault of stars above them. If there was one thing to be said for the end of the world, it was that it had certainly opened up the skies again. Rome had not seen a night like this for centuries before the Days of Revelation, and with the outpouring of divine and spiritual energy into the world, the constellations seemed almost alive again. Though the stars held certain beauty, Kebechet could not help but feel unease at the thought of nightfall. She couldn’t help but imagine Egypt, her homeland, trapped for the last six months beneath an eternal night sky, Amon-Ra’s sun barge lost beyond the horizon and the terrible serpent Apep reigning supreme.

Kebechet approached Angel from behind, but she had no illusions of sneaking up on the other wolf. Angel’s vision far surpassed her physical eyes. Even Kebechet had a sense of awareness far beyond the mortal ken. Giovanni and Capitolina still relied on their (admittedly enhanced) senses for detection, but Kebechet was a goddess and Angel was something else entirely.

“It is a lovely night.” Kebechet said, breaking the ice as she took a spot standing next to Angel.

“All the stars are out.” Angel replied in her usual monotone. Kebechet was not sure if her words were casual or carried implication of some more troubling fundamental truth about stars, and she didn’t press for it. Glancing at Angel now that she stood beside her, Kebechet could see the stars reflected in her large blue eyes. Though she realized “reflected” might be the wrong word for it. She didn’t see any familiar constellations in Angel’s eyes. They were foreign stars, certainly foreign to the Mediterranean and possibly foreign to Earth entirely. There had always been something about Angel that put Kebechet into a sense of unease.

There were beings higher on the divine hierarchy than divinities like Isis-Ra, Zeus, or Odin. They were more ancient and more powerful but far less human, most unable to express thought or feeling or take any physical form. These were beings like Gaia, Nun, and Nyx, that brought the world into shape. Angel, like the other Primordials, was about halfway there. She was a cosmological constant, an anchored point of the universe, or at least she had been once. Though she possessed an odd and almost human form, from Kebechet’s perspective, merely looking at her was like seeing the whole of a ruined civilization.

“Just out stargazing?” Kebechet asked when the silence became too uncomfortable to stand.

“I am simply observing.” Angel said.

“The Sicilian operation?” Kebechet glanced at her again. Surely Angel could see that far if she could glance across the world at a moment’s notice.

“Once every few hours.” Angel said. “It has had a few problems but it is progressing.”

“Have you been keeping Capitolina updated?” Kebechet said, pleased with the small talk.

“No.” Angel said plainly.

This earned a look of surprise from Kebechet. Angel not disclosing something to Capitolina was something she had scarcely imagined before. Before she could ask why, however, Angel decided to cut her off.

“For the same reason I tell you nothing of your homeland. What good is it to know that which you cannot change? All it would bring is worry.”

Kebechet knew she had a point. They lacked the time, materials, and manpower to launch a second operation to rescue the first. If there were problems then nothing could be done at all, and they would have to live with the outcome whether they knew it beforehand or not. No doubt if total defeat had befallen them, Angel would let them know. But without that assurance of total loss, then there was no point wasting effort over the wringing of hands.

As for learning more about her homeland, Kebechet was actually thankful of her relative ignorance. She wanted to know as little as possible of the hell on earth that Egypt had likely become under Apep’s terrible reign.

“But that is not, I suppose, why I came out here tonight.” It was Angel’s voice now that cut the silence.

“You said you were observing.”

“And I am” Angel said “But I am not observing the world, merely the limit of my own power.”

“I don’t follow.” Kebechet said, her eyes moving back and forth from Angel’s face to the stars, as if hoping to find some connection.

“I told you when we first met that I am just a shadow of my former power.” Angel said. Kebechet remembered it distinctly. She had been the first of them to sniff out what Angel truly was. Neither Capitolina nor Giovanni had the senses for it, but Angel’s presence had sent every mental alarm of hers blaring in her head.

“That was not entirely the truth.” Angel said “The truth is…I believe I’m growing weaker.”

Kebechet was staring at her now.

“My strength left me long ago, and I grow tired more easily now. Even now…the length of my vision is beginning to recede. Events are blurrier and more difficult to track. I lose precision and accuracy in my sight almost every week.”

“Why?” Kebechet asked, even though she could guess the answer.

“Too little of me is Eagle now” Angel said. “Too much wolf, too much machine. Perhaps even a little too much human now.”

When a god was forced into a new role they could adapt to it, even thrive. Her Grandfather Set was a prime example of that, for better or worse. But with a being like Angel…she didn’t exist on human faith, and any alteration in her being was unwilling at best, dangerous at worst. It only made things worse that Kebechet knew nothing could be done. No matter the healing done or repairs made, nothing could make Angel truly whole again.

As Kebechet watched her, something unusual seemed to overcome Angel. Her hand moved to grasp her other arm, the false mechanical one she kept hidden under a jacket. She held it tightly as the rest of her started to shake, not heavily, but with a distinct series of trembles running through her body.

“I am…” Angel’s voice was quiet, and for once she seemed to have lost her monotone. “…frightened.”

Wordlessly, Kebechet reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. Though she was far from qualified to handle a Primordial in emotional distress, Kebechet knew that the last thing Angel should be at that moment was alone. No doubt Angel felt as much terror at the mere thought of feeling fear as she did from losing her powers.

“I think we are all a little afraid, Angel.” Kebechet said. “I fear for my homeland and my own future. Giovanni fears for the survival of his church. Even Capitolina I am sure fears for the future of her city.”

Angel did not reply, but Kebechet could feel that she had stopped trembling.

“I suppose one reason Capitolina made us a pack was so that if we’re scared, we can at least be scared together.”

At the sound of Capitolina’s name Kebechet could feel Angel growing calmer, and she could have sworn she saw her tail give a single contented wag.

Kebechet had always believed Capi had drawn them together simply for their proximity and their identities as wolves, but holding tight to Angel and looking out over the city that was slowly rebuilding itself, perhaps there was more to it than simply that. Though they were a disparate and mismatched group in almost all respects, they had helped the people of Rome begin to claw their way out of the shadows that had fallen on it. She could see the scattered lights of the city, the movements of people in their ever-growing sanctuary. If the mission succeeded, then the entire city, perhaps the entire country, might be like this again someday.

“Besides” She continued, keeping her hand on Angel’s shoulder “We can’t let the humans see we’re scared. We’re supposed to be their protectors, after all.”

“How long do you think that will hold?” Angel asked, and it took a moment to think before Kebechet responded.

“We’ll keep doing it until they can protect themselves. Whenever that is.”

“That may be sooner than we think.” Angel said. “Though they’ve had setbacks, the Rangers are availing themselves quite handily, and…” She seemed to trail off, her eyes flickering with movement.

“And…?”

“There is one I am watching with…particular interest.” Angel said. “I suppose she…piqued my curiosity.”

“Coming from you that’s praise indeed.” Kebechet couldn’t help but smirk. She’d never known Angel take an interest in anything other than Capitolina.

“Time will tell if she’s anything more than bravado, however.” Angel said “I shall wait and watch.”

“That’s about all any of us can do.” Kebechet said. “But if humans are good at anything, it’s holding surprises.”

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Fall From Heaven

April 4th, 2023
There once was an Eagle at the top of the world.

Its outspread wings canvased the vaulted sky, the aurora dancing through its feathers and the stars resting on its pinions. In its talons it grasped the very highest branches of Yggdrassil, the World Tree, upon which all nine worlds rested. No being rose higher than the Eagle, it owned the sky above all the worlds and roosted at the peak of the heavens where Ymir’s broken cranium was forged into the vault of the sky an endless age ago. Time did not matter to the Eagle. It did not matter to most outside the worlds. The Eagle would always remain at its perch as it had done since Yggdrassil sprang into existence. It remembered the worlds before time, when there was nothing in existence but fire and ice, and the Eagle knew that in time the worlds would be consumed and fire and ice would be all that remained again.

 From its roost atop the world the Eagle could see all of creation. It could see with perfect clarity the sights of the nine realms, the Eagle knew their histories and peoples, could watch them from its perch. The Eagle grew wise from this grand vision. The Eagle grew proud.

There are other creatures that live upon the World Tree, other entities as old as time who inhabit all of the worlds and none. There were the four harts, Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Durathror, who danced about its branches like the winds. There was the squirrel, Ratatoskr, that was the quickest on the branches. He spoke often with the Eagle, admired her perch and clarity of vision. The Eagle in turn was fond of the squirrel, and used him as her messenger.

There was another creature on the World Tree. Deep within its roots, where the rays of light from Sol and Mani never reached, there was a place where the gnarled roots of Yggdrassil bound the bodies and souls of murderers, adulterers, and oath-breakers. This was the most cursed place on Yggdrassil, the Well of Hvergelmir, where no water flowed but instead venom poured from the mouths of serpents beyond counting in number. Here in this terrible place lived the king of all serpents, an ancient ravenous beat that gnawed on corpse and root alike, Yggdrassil’s most terrible prisoner, Nidhoggr.

The serpent’s existence was torment compared to the Eagle’s life at the tree’s crown. Venom from countless lesser serpents dripped into its body until its very blood could melt steel. It gnawed and swallowed and chewed upon the corpses of the honorless and the cursed until its body grew rotten and skeletal and its breath carried every terrible plague. Even with its terrible agony the serpent Nidhoggr grew stronger and smarter. The roots of Yggdrassil tapped into the great wells of time, fate, and knowledge, and the tree itself was rich with power. As Nidhoggr’s fangs sank deep, damaging the tree over eons, it learned the most terrible powers of Seidr, Witchcraft. It learned how to ensorcel and command the dead to do its bidding. It saw the turning of the worlds and bided its time in agony, waiting and hoping for the moment to strike.

For an eternity the Eagle had mocked the serpent. Trapped so low and so far from light and warmth. She mocked its pain and agony with laughter and jeers by way of her swift-footed messenger Ratatoskr. Nidhoggr could never catch the squirrel, and was forced to endure centuries of insults and mockery from the lofty Eagle. Nidhoggr was patient, however, and knew how to bide its time. It endured the insults as it endured the agony. All it could do, all it had to do, was wait.

There was a witch goddess, Huldra, who had been lured to Hvergelmir by Nihoggr’s insidious call. The wyrm had enraptured her ambitioned and enslaved her mind, and in that moment all creation shook. The roots shattered, the serpents slithered free, and on terrible bat’s wings the dragon of Yggdrassil broke free and it knew its first meal.

With a terrible roar Nidhoggr rose upon Yggdrassil leaving chaos in its wake. The branches shook and snapped, the worlds tumbled, and the end of days began. As had been predicted so very long ago, Nidhoggr broke free.

The dragon attacked the Eagle, tore at its body with gnashing tooth and vengeful claw. Their battle tore the crown of Yggdrassil apart, shattering the ordered roost of the Eagle. It fought valiantly and boldly, but the Eagle had grown arrogant, its position unchallenged and its beak and talons dull. The dragon, however, had its teeth and claws sharpened on the World Tree’s roots, and the strength of eons in its jaws. Though their battle was fierce its outcome was certain from the start, and with a triumphant roar the Nidhoggr cast the Eagle down from its perch, letting its shattered body fall where it may so it could die in the dust as Nidhoggr felt it deserved.

Whether chance or destiny guided its fall, who can say, but chance rarely has any bearing on a Primordial such as the Eagle. Its power broken and its body torn apart the great eagle fell not to the tree’s roots but to Midgard, cascading down with the aurora in its wake and shining brightly like a meteor. This strange object that fell from the sky would by many who saw it be seen as the first sign of the Day’s of Revelation, falling in Mid-October before the hungry dragon Nidhoggr set its own eyes upon Midgard on October 31st.

The Eagle crashed in the far north lands, in the deep forests of the place now called Finland. There she would have remained until death had the falling creature not attracted the attention of a freshly-awakened pantheon. Not knowing where this strange thing was or where it came from, most ignored it or cursed it for an ill omen. One god, however, the Finnish god of the Forge, Ilmarinen, saw the thing for the shattered beauty it was, broken and neglected like a fallen chandelier. He took the eagle, at the edge of death, to his forge in the hopes of mending what he could.

Where once there had been flawless feather the color of night divine steel would have to take its place. It was Ilmarinen who had made the sky, and he could see that it was from the vault of the sky that the Eagle had come. He worked ceaselessly to repair its broken wings and feathers, and created wings of obsidian and moonlight so flawless they appeared as real feathers.

Ilmarinen’s forge, however, was a flawed and tricky thing. Whatever metals were placed within came out fearsome, ill-tempered, or simply cursed. When he placed the living Eagle in the forge, the metal set and new life began to flow into her but her form was forever altered. Gone was the shape of a proud and noble Eagle, daughter of the sky. Instead from the furnace he pulled the shape of the most feared and hated beast in Finland.

The Eagle had become a wolf.

Horrified by what she had become, the Eagle fled into the woods, traveling South into the darkness, with the wings upon her back all that remained of her noble heritage.

 

“That is what I am.” Angel said. Cat had taken a seat to listen, eyes wide, to Angel’s story. It was an unreal feeling, being given something that was both a life story and a fairy tale.

“How did you wind up in Rome?” Cat asked after the silence in Angel’s voice final settled.

“As I said I ran South. I wanted my revenge on Nidhoggr, but I don’t have the power…I doubt I ever did. I wasn’t used to supporting a wolf’s body, by the time Capitolina found me I was barely alive. I owe her my life and far more.”

“But if you’re a Primordial” Cat said “You should be really powerful, like a god even!”

“I was once.” Angel said. “But when Nidhoggr threw me from my perch my power was broken. Ilmarinen may have healed my injuries but in a wolf’s body my old strength will never return to me. I’m merely a shadow of my former power.”

“But still you’re a Primordial. A sword made from your feather would be really powerful, wouldn’t it?” Cat said excitedly. She was prepared to be shot down again, but she wasn’t prepared for Angel to get angry.

The room darkened, the evening light streaming in through the windows turned black, and there was a shift in the air as Angel’s wings spread from her back. For the first time Cat could see what Angel had meant in her story. She saw pinpoints of starlight reflected in her feathers and eyes. She could see shimmering blue lights surrounding her. For a moment all of Cat’s courage faded from her as she suddenly felt very very small.

“Do you think you could carry that power?” Angel demanded, and Cat winced away from the fierce tone in her voice. “A sword bound to a Primordial’s essence would call to them and they would come running, like a moth to a flame, to devour you and snuff out any threat to their power.”

“I’m not afraid!” Cat tried to covnince herself as well as Angel. “Could you at least give me a chance?”

The air shifted again, the light returned, and with a heavy sound Angel half-collapsed onto the table, one arm supporting her as her fingers dug into the wood with a mechanical grinding sound, her breath coming in quick halting breaths.

“Weaker every day…” Angel muttered ruefully to herself before rising to face Cat, her face returning to its stony mask.

“Are you okay, Miss Angel?” Cat asked, concern breaking through her earlier boldness.

“I will be fine.” Angel said, placing a hand to her chest and taking a deep breath.

“…why do they call you Angel anyway?” Cat asked.

“I never had a proper name.” Angel said “It was one Ilmarinen gave me when he found me.”
“Where is Ilmarinen?”

“I suspect he’s still in Finland…I regret leaving him on occasion, I was not in a…proper state of mind.”

“So it’s still a no on the sword, huh?” Cat asked after a moment with a hopeful smile.

“I would entrust such a blade to someone who had proven themselves worthy.”

“Like a knight?” Cat asked eagerly.

“Like a hero.” Angel said. “Like Sigurd, Karna, or Achilles. Do you claim to be the equal of any of these beings?”

“…no.” Cat admitted. “But it’s hard to prove yourself without a sword! It’s not like Sigurd got Balmung afterhe killed Fafnir.”

Angel made a brief noise not unlike a sudden exhalation through her nose. Had that been a laugh?
“There is something to that.” Angel said. “I Will be keeping a close watch on you, Catarina Alobrandini.” She said, her eyes twinkling with starlight.

“Go to Sicily, I’m not sure about a sword, but I believe you may yet find something there.”

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=35&sl=539 ))

The Wolves of Rome

The Wolf and the Eagle

March 20th, 2023

 

For the first time in a long time, there was the familiar sound of people bustling in the city at all hours of the day. The quiet footsteps of the retiring dreamers, the heavy stomps of the Rangers going about their patrols, and the countless conversations between survivors and refugees all converged together into a soothing murmur to lupine ears. The smells were also better than they had been for some time. The prevalent smell of the walking dead had finally begun to be overshadowed by the scent of living, breathing people.

Yet with all the joy at seeing the city survive, Capitolina’s ears and tail were drooped with stress. She never could sleep, there always seemed to be matters requiring her attention. If it wasn’t Lord Nassar demanding a meeting, or having to speak in front of the council, or helping train the Rangers, Capi hadn’t rested for three days. This was the first moment in a while she found herself alone and able to breath. Her muscles relaxed as she slid down the wall supporting her with a plop. Her eyes fell close as she just took in the sounds and smells of the city.

Over the low buzzing din of the ever present noise, Capitolina could make out the much closer sound of footsteps approaching. She opened her eyes as her ears perked up. In a flash, she was back on her feet as a smile grew on her face. Her tail began to wag, before she forced it to stop. Angel always seemed to get more distant when Capi was overly eager to see her. It wasn’t Capi’s fault though, she just always felt surer of what she was doing when she was around the other wolf. While Giovanni and Kebechet agreed to work with her, she still spent more time mediating their arguments than cooperating with them, when she wasn’t arguing with them herself.

With Angel, however, it wasn’t like that. While the other wolf could hardly be considered warm by any stretch of the word, Capitolina still seemed to smile more when she was around than when she wasn’t. The slender wolf walked with heavy steps to Capi’s ears. When she had first met the other wolf, she had been caught off guard by how much Angel had weighed. When she had asked early after they met, Angel had been reticent. It was in her nature never to give up too much, but over the months Capi had started to learn more about the past of the mysterious winged wolf.

“What is it, Angel?” Capi asked.

“The Rangers have moved into the Trastevere tonight. A large group of survivors has been found.” The smaller wolf said, very matter-of-factly.

Capi’s ears and tail perked up. More survivors were always a good thing in her book. The council could moan about food supplies or secure space, but for Capitolina, all survivors were welcome to the Sanctuary. With good planning and a strong leader, there should be enough to make sure everyone could live. That was what she wanted. Without a strong leader, well, she did not know what would happen in the Sanctuary.

“Any sign of food in the area around us?”

As far as Capi was concerned, Angel was the true backbone of the Sanctuary. The wolf, as odd as she was, could see the area around as if she were looking down from the sky itself. It had been Angel who had told them that people had created a barricade around the Vatican, creating a safe zone there. It was Angel who told Capi where there was still living game to be found and safe places to forage. Angel kept a watch over the Rangers and the City Watch, keeping Capi informed of their status. If it wasn’t for her, Capi’s tail and ears would have turned gray with stress.

“There was a deer pack…” Angel began.

“Deer herd. Wolves have packs, Angel, not deer.”

“Deer herd…” Angel continued, as if she hadn’t been cut off at all. “Not far to the south, heading towards Ostica. Getting them back will require at least three of us, for two carcasses and the safest way would be through the route to the Vatican. For foraging, the Rangers have driven the undead away from a grocery market on Cavour, which seems to be untouched.”

“Hmm…send a group of Rangers with volunteers to the grocery, but make sure we don’t have a repeat of people hoarding food. All food goes to the distribution center. As for the deer, if we need to go through the Vatican, we’ll take Giovanni with us on the hunt. He should be agreeable to help us with that, right?”

“And where should the survivors be housed?” Angel asked, awaiting orders as she always did.

“…We’ll put them alongside the Tiber, between here and the Palatine. The Rangers have been clearing that neighborhood out and we can extend the barricades there to protect them. Have the City Watch station some of their guards there on patrols. I’ll tell Hanne to make sure a squad of her troops passes through nightly.”

“As you command, Capitolina.” Angel said, nodding her head stiffly. She turned her head and walked back the way she had come. Capi watched her go, her smile fleeing from her face slowly.

Angel was loyal to her to a fault. Whatever Capi said, Angel did. Whatever Capi wanted, Angel got. She was a perfect beta for Capi’s wolf pack, but she was so distant. Try as Angel might, she never could seem to understand what Capi really wanted from her. Sometimes, Capi wasn’t sure either. She just knew that being around Angel made her happy.

When she had found Angel, the small wolf had been half-dead with hunger. Curled up in the city limits, ragged after wandering halfway across Europe by herself, Capi had taken the poor creature to her den underneath the city. She had nursed the wolf back to health. Capi had fed her, had groomed her, and had even stolen the clothes that the other wolf wore around the city.

Capi had known Angel to be an oddity since she had first found her. There were the wings of course, unkempt and ragged just like the rest of her. Capi had never heard of a winged wolf in any folklore and legend and she knew most of those. Beyond that was the source of Angel’s excessive weight in the form of metal woven into her very being. Though she was loath to reveal it, hiding behind thick clothes and her scarf, Angel’s right leg and arm along with much of her abdomen and almost certainly a number of organs had been replaced by metal.

These were no primitive human prosthetics. It had taken weeks of convincing but Capi had final gotten Angel to give her a good look at them. Functionally they were perfect replacements, responding fluidly to her every thought. The artistry to them was unearthly, the metal shimmering in flowing organic lines wrapped around casing like polished porcelain. Capi had never seen anything like it, but knew enough to know that these artificial limbs were not simply amazing, but truly divine. Angel would not name the smithing god that made them, however, and it was a secret Capi still had not yet coaxed from her.

Capi’s tail started to wag as she barked to get Angel’s attention, before clearing her throat. “Ah…” Sometimes it still happened, especially around the pack that she slipped into her more primal language. Angel could understand it just as well as any other, but it was still hard for her to make the right sounds back. Italian was overall easier for them both.

“Yes, Capitolina?” Angel asked, turning around immediately.

“Ah, well, I was wondering if you were taking care of yourself, Angel, making sure to eat and get proper rest.” Capi spoke with her nurturing tone, just wanting Angel to stay with her a little bit longer. It didn’t matter what they talked about, she just wanted the girl’s company. She could be herself more with Angel than with anyone else in the city. It was, in its way, relaxing just to have Angel near.

It had not always been that way. When Angel had started recovering her strength and lucidity soon after Capi found her, the strange winged wolf had grown hostile, even violent at times. At first Capi couldn’t understand why. She tried her best to help her, done everything she could to make Angel feel like a member of her pack. It was not until Angel gained the clarity to speak again that Capi realized what was wrong, when Angel’s first words to her were “I am not a wolf!”

“I don’t need to eat or sleep, Capitolina. I partake in those activities when convenient.” Angel answered, rather flatly.

“That’s no good, though! You’re a wolf, Angel, just like me. It helps the body and brain to at least do those things to refresh and grow stronger.” Capi put her hands on Angel’s shoulders. “Mm, since you’re too stubborn to do it without me there, how about we take a nap together after sunrise. I could use the rest too, after all.”

“If you insist.”

“I have some business to finish before then, but the humans can manage themselves for an hour or two while we recharge. And you’ll feel better after, I’m sure of it.” Capi’s tail was wagging. If Angel noticed she didn’t show any sign.

Angel truly wasn’t a wolf. Sure she had the fur and the fangs, and even the ears and tail in human form, but no wolf would ever mistake her for something naturally-born. Whatever Angel had been, she had been irrevocably changed, and despite her resistance Capi had worked long and hard to help her make the transition. She seemed more comfortable now, playing at being a wolf like Capi truly was, but there was still something undeniably odd about her. Giovanni had once compared Capitolina to a statue, ever-beautiful yet clearly ancient. Capitolina wasn’t sure if she should have taken it as a compliment, but she at least felt that she knew the feeling. Kebechet was much the same, an ancient goddess predating even Capitolina, yet looking physically no older. But if Capitolina was a statue, Angel was an abyss: all-consuming, unchanging, with eyes that seemed to swallow the years whole.

It was most evident when she used her abilities, the ability to see well beyond mortal sight, her gaze passing for miles around and giving her a view from the heavens. When she used this sight, her eyes shone with starlight, powerful and pure, a kind of magic none of them recognized.

Despite all this, despite her mechanical limbs, tattered wings, impossible age, and supernatural vision, Capi never stopped seeing her as the broken wolf in need of care and nurturing, and that had proven just as correct an observation. Angel was still far from being a wolf, she was cold and seemed to almost disdain her bestial nature, but she was making progress, and Capi was always there to help her.

“…Are you sure it is not just that you need sleep, Capitolina?”

“Well, uh…” Capi’s ears drooped. Angel’s greatest strength was her eagle eye perception. It was easy to mistake her cool demeanor for missing the obvious in front of her.

“…Very well. I will stay with you while you rest to make sure you are safe, Capitolina, though I will continue my duties as I guard by your side. If something happens that you need to know about, it will be more convenient to be close anyway.”

“Ah! W-well, as you say!” Capitolina’s smile grew as she took a step back from the raven-haired wolf. It didn’t really matter the reason why Angel would be there, just so long as she would. Knowing her loyal second was there always helped Capi sleep more soundly. “At sunrise then, Angel, it’s a date.”

“I will be waiting in the den, Capitolina. Is there anything else?”

“Mm, no, that’s it.”

Angel bowed again and resumed her exit. Capi watched her, half wanting to stop her again. In the end, she stood there in silence. There was still, after all, so much to do before sunrise.

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=19&sl=632 ))