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 49

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you need help?” Cat asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Having difficulties, my dear Catarina?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s Rosaria,” Scheherazade said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Chapter 43

 

“Ah, Huldra…” Cat said. “Er…Lady Huldra…Miss Huldra?”

She wasn’t quite sure how to handle the honorifics, but Huldra brushed it off.

“Huldra will do fine, Catarina,” She said, nodding politely, the divine aura soon fading from her voice. “I came to discuss this campaign you’re marching on.”

“Oh!” Cat stood up. “Of course.”

“So this is the Dream Witch?” Rosa asked, standing up as well as she looked Huldra up and down.

“That I am,” Huldra said. “And you are…?”

“Rosaria Kokinos,” Rosa said. “Champion of Ares.”

“Ah, the Greek war god,” Huldra said. “Well then, you will likely find this of interest as well.”

“Do you have a way to kill Nidhoggr?” Rosa asked. “That’s kind of priority number one.”

“Nidhoggr can’t be killed, can he?” Cat said. “At least that’s what Gisela keeps insisting.”

“They are correct,” Huldra said. “Nothing in any of the worlds can kill Nidhoggr forever. It is a part of the World Tree as surely as root and crown.”

“Then I take it you have another kind of plan?” Rosa asked.

“Trap it,” Huldra said. “As Angel has doubtless told you, Nidhoggr may yet be trapped within the realm of Helheim where it had been sealed since the dawn of time.”

“Angel mentioned it might be possible,” Cat said. “I was hoping we’d find a solution before we reached Nidhoggr.”

“You have,” Huldra smiled. “Because my…compatriots and I have been working tirelessly on a solution.”

“Compatriots?” Rosa asked. “Like other witches?”

“Just like,” Huldra said. “Some of the most powerful True Witches on the planet have been looking for a solution. And we have found one.”

“Excellent,” Rosa smiled. “What is it? Like a dragon-sized bear trap?”

“Something a touch more…arcane,” Huldra said. “A very complicated spell that should do just what we need.”

“A spell?” Cat asked. “Something I could have just looked up in a book?”

Huldra smiled slyly. “This kind of spell, if it was ever put to word, was written in tongues unspoken since before men were made from mud and driftwood.  A hundred mortal mages couldn’t make it work.”

“What does it do exactly?” Cat asked. “You have me curious now.”

“A good quality in any mage…in appropriate quantities,” Huldra said. “Allow me to illustrate.”

Before her, scrawled like images in the air, formed the illusion of an ash tree, no taller than she was. Worlds like spheres circled through its branches and along its trunk.

“This is Yggdrassil…as close as it can be approximated in three dimensions at any rate. The worlds twist among its roots and branches in their cosmic dance. At least…that is how it should be.”

She flicked her hand, and the worlds fell out of orbit, twisting wildly along the tree as great rents and savage claw marks appeared along the trunk, the crown shattering and scattering stars.

“This is the trail of destruction left by Nidhoggr as it tore across the world tree. It has sunk its claws deep, drawn ancient magic from the storied wood until it was as eternal as the tree itself, a creature bound forever by fate.”

“All of this doesn’t sound very helpful,” Rosa said, but Huldra silenced her with a look as Cat listened quietly.

“Nidhoggr, the Realms, the Tree. These concepts are tied too closely together for us to force fate against Nidhoggr. No force in the cosmos has a stronger connection the World Tree than Nidhoggr, save perhaps for Angel when she was at full strength. The key, then, is to sever Nidhoggr’s connection the World Tree while simultaneously cutting the walls between worlds.”

“And that can be done?” Cat asked.

“We were not sure at first, but we believe it to be so,” Huldra nodded. “Before the World Tree, before the nine realms, there were only two realms: Muspellheim, the land of fire, and Niflheim, the land of frost. Between them was the infinite primordial void, a chasm called Ginungagaap.”

“I think I read about that,” Cat said. “Gisela had it in one of her books. That’s where the Primordial giant, Ymir lived, right, the one whose body became the realms?”

Huldra smiled. “You are a scholar.”

Cat smiled, face reddening a bit.

“I realized, with Hecate’s assistance, that if you recreated those conditions…If, for a moment, it was on Earth as it was at the beginning of creation, then Nidhoggr would briefly become unbound by fate. The borders between worlds would evaporate, and the dragon could be thrust back into its ancient prison.”

“That sounds…dangerous,” Cat said. “A piece of infinite void on Earth?”

“A tiny portion,” Huldra said. “Like a pinhole in the fabric of reality…though up close even a pinhole can be dramatic I suppose. But it is hardly a threat to creation at large.”

“How long could this…hole into the void be open for?” Rosa asked. “What’s our window?”

“It would last moments, mere seconds at most,” Huldra said. “As they say nature abhors a vacuum, and Fate despises primordial chaos. For that brief window, we would be unmaking fate entirely, unraveling the threads in the most destructive manner possible. The retribution of the Three will be swift and terrible.”

“The Three?” Cat asked.

“The keepers of Fate,” Huldra said. “Past, Present, and Future. I daresay after this is over, my sisters and I will need to scatter to the winds to avoid them. This is not the sort of trick that gives you a second chance. In that brief moment, on that battlefield with Nidhoggr, we will not just be unmaking creation, we will be ripping a hole in time, fate, and destiny. This is not action taken lightly, and there will be ramifications.”

“Something this drastic…” Cat thought it over. “There are other Primordials…we can’t keep doing something like this, can we?”

Huldra shook her head. “No…but order and chaos…there is a balance to these things. If Nidhoggr is defeated the scales will be tipped back towards order, the inertia of destiny will be on your side. Here, you’re working against fate itself. All signs point to the end of the world, the dissolution of reality as you know it.”

Cat took a long breath, sitting back in her chair as she stared into the grass.

It was an easy thing to say you were saving the world. Heroes do it all the time in the stories. But the stories never talked about this kind of burden, this kind of anxiety and stress. She was eighteen years old…how did the fate of civilization wind up in her hands? And now…Gisela had said she might be a hero, an archetype to do impossible things, but if Huldra was right then fate was against her.

How do you get a happy ending when the story is trying to end in despair?

“Hey…Cat,” Rosa was looking at her, concern on her face.

“If I may,” Huldra spoke. “Catarina…I would like to speak with you alone.”

“S-sure…” Cat nodded before turning to Rosa. “I’ll be…back in a few.”

“Yeah…” Rosa nodded back. “We’ll talk later.”

“Right…”

Quietly, Huldra led Catarina away from them and away from the camp until they were out of earshot of any listeners.

“I am sorry, Catarina.”

“Sorry?” Cat asked, looking at her.

“I released Nidhoggr. Whether of my own volition or not…I bear some responsibility to the world as it is now and to you.”

“Ah…” Cat said. “Well…thanks for that…er…the apology I mean.”

“I know, it isn’t much,” Huldra placed a hand on her shoulder. “But Catarina…I am going to make right what I set wrong. No matter the cost, I will be with you to whatever end.”

“Mmm…” Cat’s mind was hardly there, still stuck on what was to come. “What will I need to do for this spell?”

“That is what I wished to discuss,” Huldra said. “The spell will open the door, tear a rift in reality, through which you can send Nidhoggr…but he must be pushed through by force. That dragon will not willingly go to its doom. I can open the door but you must force it through.”

“Which means I still need to beat Nidhoggr,” Cat said. “Somehow…”

“I’m afraid so.” Huldra said. “My sisters and I will be preparing the spell with Angel’s assistance.”

“Angel?” Cat asked.

“We need a Primordial’s energy to call on such power. Only a being whose essence was intermingled with Primordial chaos can help generate a spell to make it again.”

“Ah right…” Cat nodded. “So I guess it will just be me and Nidhoggr.”

“Catarina,” Huldra’s fingers tightened on her shoulder as she bent to look into her eyes. “I want you to remember this, above all else. You are not alone. Your companions, your allies, an army at your back. All of us are with you, all of us are trying to help you succeed.”

“But in the end, it’s me,” Cat said. “I need to push Nidhoggr through that door.”

“Each and every one of us will be pushing with you,” Huldra said.

“I just…” Cat shivered, feeling the weight pressing down on her. “I’m scared…I’m really just…terrified. Of the dragon, of fighting it…but most of all I’m scared of failing, I mean…I’m just a girl! I have a nice sword and some armor but Nidhoggr is this gigantic…chaos…worm thing! I can’t cut holes in a cosmic tree! I can’t fight cosmic eagles and I don’t live forever! It’s just…I’m like this little breeze…I got lucky and I knocked some leaves over…I blew away a shadow but it’s just…one breeze against a storm and I’m going to break if I even get near it…”

Huldra listened quietly, even as Cat stammered, tears welling in her eyes.

“Catarina…” When she spoke, the cadence was kind and soft. Like Hanne’s voice, or Schehera’s, or her mother’s.

“I understand…they’ve told you they believe in you, that you have all the traits of a hero, but you just don’t feel it. You just feel like a person…like you always have. Nothing’s different or special, not in comparison to something like this. Is that right?”

Cat nodded quietly, red-faced and embarrassed to be losing it in front of a Witch-Goddess.

“I’m a witch, Catarina, and a good one. I don’t put stock in heroes and my very existence toys with the fabric of stories and fate…so I don’t believe in you because you’re a hero. I believe in you because you’re strong. Because you faced Nidhoggr’s shadow without turning back to save the ones you’ve cared for, and now they follow you to face the real thing. I have faith in you because I believe in you, child, and not in heroes. And I’ve been around long enough to know that while the storm wreaks havoc, given time and circumstance it’s the little breeze that tears the mountains down.”

After a long deep breath Cat managed to pull herself together.

“I…thanks…Huldra.”

Huldra gave her a gentle smile. “Thank you, Catarina. It is only because of you that what we do is possible. But I’m not alone in believing in you. See to everyone with you, let them know how you feel and I know they will remind you that even to the very end you will not stand alone.”

“Right…I will, yes,” Cat nodded. “There’s some…important things I think I need to say.”

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 40

 

It was growing cooler by the day, a fact only made clearer by the crisp emptiness of the Piedmont sky in northern Italy. The Alps here dominated the horizon, rising in the north, a visual reminder of the great barrier that separated Italy from the devastation throughout Europe. Here, the long fields of wild grass were interrupted by a forest of white tents, marked here and there by red banners bearing a new sigil. Legio I Capitolina had become famous for carrying the image of a wolf throughout Italy. This camp, however, and its two thousand legionnaires carried the image of an eagle, the sigil of Legio II Aquila.

It had been several months since the official formation of the second legion and the famous duel between Rosaria and Nicomede that had ended with Rosa’s victory. The legion had been armed, armored, trained by the top warriors from the first legion, and then sent north to a forward camp in the foothills of the Alps to begin preparations for what was becoming known as the “Dragon Offensive”. While the soldiers were put through constant drills, tested against captive monsters, and instructed how to deal with the horrors they might face in the north, the ‘Forward Offensive Team’ as they had been named were doing training of their own, though among the soldiers of the second legion they had earned a slightly mocking nickname: “The Champion Unit”.

Cat’s sword struck the hard metal of Rosa’s spear shaft as the redhead easily brought it up in defense before lashing back with a vicious counter. Cat backstepped out of range before rushing forward again, keeping her eyes trained on Rosa as she covered her free hand with ice, holding it back before lashing out with a sudden flurry of blinding ice crystals. As Rosa tried to rub them from her eyes with her arm cat pushed forward, only to be stopped as something hooked around her collar from behind. Cat felt herself pulled from her feet and thrown bodily away from Rosa, landing in a roll as Rosa recovered.

“Got your back, Rosa!” Torleif grinned, standing firmly planted from where she’d thrown Cat, Rosa moving beside her with spear in hand.

“Good save, kid,” Rosa grinned as Cat rolled back to her feet, looking around for her own backup.

“Megame, you were supposed to keep her busy!” Cat shouted as the shrine maiden hurried to her side.

“Sorry!” Megame apologized profusely. “She’s really small and hard to keep a hold of!”

“Don’t call me small!” Torleif hurled her hammer at the pair of them and Megame rushed forward, hands glowing like the sun as a person-sized shield of cascading light formed in front of her, deflecting the hammer with enough force to send Megame grinding a few inches back as Torleif’s hammer spun wildly off-course into the air.

“Rush her!” Cat said, knowing they only had seconds before Torleif remembered to recall her hammer. The pair of them charged forward, Rosa moving to intercept them as Torleif hung back a few steps. Cat engaged Rosa, sword meeting her spear as Megame darted off to the side to flank her, only to be caught by Torleif who lunged at her, still unarmed but using her immense strength to send the shrine maiden bowling over.

As Cat and Rosa resumed their duel, Cat caught a sight of something out of the corner of her eye. From half the field away she saw Gisela, bow drawn, leveling an arrow directly for her. Cat prepared to dodge, disengaging from Rosa, only for Nicomede to rush between her and Gisela, followed a moment later by the sound of an arrow being deflected from a shield.

“Thanks Nico!” Cat said, pushing her advantage on Rosa as Nicomede covered her flank. Torleif reached out a hand as she entangled herself from Megame, calling her hammer back to her hand, only for Megame to roll forward, summoning a shield as the hammer was deflected again.

“Stop that!” Torleif shouted, rushing to retrieve it by hand when Megame to grab her heel. Torleif was strong but still light, and tumbled easily onto her front where she had trouble getting leverage.

Megame drew another one of her charms from her sleeve, slamming it into the ground as the grass and roots began to coil around Torleif’s arms and torso, binding her in place.

“Just stay right there for a moment,” Megame said, moving back to Rosa as the glowing light on her hands reformed into claws of sunlight spreading from her fingers.

Cat lunged for another attack, only to be knocked off balance as Nicomede was pushed roughly against her side. Gisela had abandoned using her bow from a distance, slamming herself hard enough against his shield to send him backing into Cat. Rosa seized the moment, spear thrusting forward only for Nicomede to pivot to face her, deflecting it with his shield as Cat rushed past him to engage Gisela at close range.

Cat’s sword flashed as it swung against the black bludgeon that Gisela’s bow had changed shape into. Gisela lashed out with a sweeping kick, only to find her leg caught in a patch of growing ice over the ground as Cat pushed forward, hammering at her defenses with her sword as she forced Gisela back on the defensive. Megame and Nicomede were both on Rosa, forcing her to back up as they tried to attack her from either side.

A blast of lightning from down the field signaled Torleif freeing herself from Megame’s trap, recalling her hammer to her hand as she rushed in to back up Rosa. Nicomede stepped in to block a hammer blow meant for Megame, sending both of them crashing backwards as the force of it sent him sprawling over her.

“Sorry…” Ha managed, a bit flustered as he pulled himself off the shrine maiden and helped her to her feet. The shift in combat had slowed Cat’s assault, enough for Gisela to regain her footing and her speed as she began her counterattack. Her bludgeon and legs slamming against Cat every chance they took as Cat was forced to draw more of her magic from her ice and into her body to match Gisela’s champion speed. As Megame and Nicomede re-engaged Rosa and Torleif, Cat could see what Gisela was doing. She was pulling Cat away, trying to keep her focus away from the others, as she had with Nicomede, but if Cat backed up now Gisela’s counter-attack would likely put her out of commission entirely.

“Nico!” Cat shouted. “Shield!”

Without even a question, Nico released his shield and tossed it to Cat who caught it loosely in one hand. Without strapping it on she didn’t have all its utility, but she could do enough. Maneuvering around Gisela she lunged forward, shield raised, as she forced Gisela backwards towards the group. Gisela managed to pull away from the charge but Cat continued forward until she was engaged with Rosa again, bringing the six of them together into chaotic melee.

A small crowd had gathered to watch the display of skill, magic, and divine power as the two teams sparred relentlessly, weapons colliding and magic flashing as they broke apart and reformed again and again. They would have continued longer, perhaps as long as they could, if it hadn’t been for a sharp voice cutting through the air.

“Time!”

All six of them pulled back, magic fading and weapons lowering as Hildegard walked onto the field. While already impressive, her ascension to being Nike’s champion had made her a radiant presence on the field. The color of her hair and skin seemed more vivid, and she seemed surrounded with an eternal kind of glow, particularly in her eyes. It made her stand out even before she manifested Nike’s wings during battle.

“We almost had them!” Cat objected, even as she sheathed her sword.

“Pfft, you wish,” Rosa said. “Nice try though.”

“I was pulling a lot of those hammer blows!” Torleif said. “If I went all out we would have won in the first minute!”

“We were all holding back,” Megame said. “We are friends after all.”

“That’s half the reason I told you not to perform these split-team matches.” Hildegard said, arms folded. “It only teaches you how to fight each other and coordinate half the team, not to mention you won’t be holding back against Nidhoggr’s forces.”

“It’s not like we can train against monsters,” Rosa said. “We’ve thinned them out all over this area and the captive ones don’t last long enough against the six of us. Besides we switch off teams to learn how to coordinate.”

“And yet you and Cat always seem to end up on opposite sides,” Hildegard said, a frown still across her face.

“Alright, alright, point taken,” Rosa said, turning to the rest of them. “Team dismissed! Training’s done for the morning.”

As the group began to disperse Cat walked up to Rosa, keeping pace with her as they moved off the field.

“Wanna go out for lunch?” Cat asked to which Rosa shrugged.

“Sure.”

“Something on your mind?” Cat asked as she moved them towards the mess tent.

“Just thinking through that fight, seeing a few issues.”

“I think I know what you mean,” Cat said. “Torleif forgets she can summon her hammer to her half the time.”

“Well yeah, but other than that…” Rosa said. “Gisela’s still not working well in a team. Nicomede has trouble holding ground with his shield up when he’s one on one.”

“We’ll be fine,” Cat smiled. “We’ve got a tough commander to whip us into shape after all.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Rosa smirked. “It’s still a pain when you’re that commander.”

Together the pair of them got some food from where it was being handed out and took a seat at a makeshift table under the sky.

“But what about you?” Rosa asked.

“Huh? Me?” Cat looked back at her curiously.

“You’ve been acting weird,” Rosa said. “A bit fidgety. Plus I keep baiting you into one-on-one and you keep falling for it.”

“Well that…” Cat went off, burying her food in her mouth to stifle the silence. She had managed an excuse by the time she was finished swallowing.

“Just nerves I guess.”

“If you say so,” Rosa said. “I mean I get it, but it’s not your normal way of dealing with stress, you know?”

“Not normal?”

“Well, sure,” Rosa said. “Normally when you’re stressed you get angry, or frustrated, or something Nowadays you seem…I dunno, scared of us.”

“Uh…”

Cat seriously hoped Rosa wasn’t looking too closely at her. They’d all been travelling together and working as a team for months. It had meant Cat was with Rosa pretty much every hour of the day, and all of that exposure had only confirmed what she’d been worried about for several months now.

Rosa, Cat had realized, was tough, effective, kind, and a bit of an ass in a likable way. She was also incredibly attractive, and had the body of an Amazon. It hadn’t taken long for Cat to realize that she’d fallen head over heels for the stubborn redhead.

This had been revelation enough. Cat had become aware she preferred women to men when she’d been quite young. She’d always been the knight saving damsel in her imagination after all; and that damsel had never been a man. She’d stifled a lot of that when she was younger, as it was a mage’s duty to continue the bloodline, though with the Days of Revelation that restriction had been lifted for the most part. But she had never in her life ever been attracted to a specific person like this.

Alicia and Asha might have been cute, but Alicia was straight and Asha now had her own…slightly confusing thing going with Leyla, and neither of them had stoked a fire in her quite like Rosa had. Cat spent months in between hating Rosa for making things complicated and wanting to throw herself at her. The only result of that conflict had been a lot of awkward pauses at meals and in conversation that Rosa seemed either to ignore or get confused by. Cat didn’t even know what Rosa’s preferences were; she couldn’t tell whether her aggressive flirting with Nicomede and Evangeline was legitimate or just teasing, and she wasn’t sure how to bring it up without potentially damaging the friendship they had. It hadn’t been an easy friendship to build to begin with.

“So uh…” Cat began. “Sorry just…a lot of pressure, you know. How about Nicomede? He still doing fine with the team?”

“Hmm? Nico’s fine as ever. What’s up with you, Cat?”

“Ah well…” Cat steeled herself. “It’s just, uh…”

“Catarina.”

Cat nearly jumped in her seat as she turned to see Angel stepping towards her. The winged wolf had traded out her more casual attire for a somewhat more armored appearance, complete with silver helm with holes for her long wolfish ears.

“Ah! Come on…Angel, what is it?”

“You are about to have a visitor, I did not want them to catch you off-guard.”

“Too late for that,” Rosa chuckled as Cat’s face burned.

“Who is it?” Cat asked, defeated.

I do hope I’m not interrupting anything important.”

Cat blinked as she recognized the source of the familiar voice. A tall willowy woman in long dark robes and unnaturally bright teal eyes and hair. Huldra, the witch she had met in the dream battle against Nidhoggr stepped forward to join them, standing at Angel’s side.

“I have some news that might be of interest.”

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 37

 

It was still mid-morning when Cat returned from her lessons with Scheherazade in the library to find Rosa waiting for her outside the house. Rosa was already dressed in her full champion armor, shining golden-bronze covering her chest, arms, and legs, and her spear leaning over one shoulder. She tried to appear casual, leaning against the doorframe while she waited for Cat, but Cat could see how tense she was in the way she held herself, not betraying any hint of nervousness or anxiety.

“Big day,” Cat said. “Time to go fight another champion.”

“Time to beat another champion, you mean,” Rosa said with a confident smile as she stood up straight and joined Cat.

“Don’t get too cocky,” Cat teased her. “I always beat you when you get cocky.”

“Heh, I’ve got this guy’s number, no way he’s going to be tougher than you and Hilde.”

“Right…” Cat nodded as they started walking toward the training field. “So…this whole duel thing…is it smart to just pick the strongest person as leader? That seems kind of…primitive, you know.”

“It’s not like I’m an animal fighting for mates and territory,” Rosa nudged her with an elbow. “We’re about equally qualified to lead. Besides, this duel isn’t just about proving who’s stronger.”

“It’s not?” Cat asked.

“Nah, it’s a sort of a…loyalty test,” Rosa said. “See, if I beat Nicomede, and Nicomede still vows to fight for the cause and follow my lead, we know he’s fit for the team. It also sort of…compels us to fight fair, you know? Would you follow my orders if I cheated in this fight?”

“I know you too well to think you’d cheat outright,” Cat said. “I don’t think you fight fair, but I don’t think you’d cheat,” she added with a light smile.

“Heh, fighting fair is for suckers,” Rosa said. “Never take on an enemy without overwhelming odds in your favor.”

“And are the odds overwhelming here?” Cat asked.

“Eh,” Rosa shrugged. “Good enough for me. Besides I’m out of time to do anything about it.”

Together the two of them approached the field where a small crowd had gathered. The word of the dueling champions had spread around the city, and numerous curious citizens, off-duty legionnaires, and other champions had come to watch. Near the front stood the rest of the team. Capitolina was there, more formally dressed than Cat knew she preferred to be. Beside her were Megame, Evangeline, Torleif, and Aurelio. Gisela was absent, likely to keep her away from a crowd where she might be recognized. Much of Nicomede’s company was there as well to cheer on their commander. To Cat’s surprise, she saw even a small radio booth had been setup nearby, where local celebrity Thalia sat next to a microphone, getting the audience riled as word of the duel spread throughout Rome.

“Wow, they even have you on radio,” Cat smiled, though as she glanced at Rosa she could see a little of the color had drained from her face.

“Didn’t really expect a crowd…” She said, glancing around as people recognized her and began to part the way to the field.

“Mmm…” Cat could see the anxiety building in her. Rosa wasn’t the type to deal with a lot of attention well.

“Hey,” Cat caught her attention, giving her a sobering slap on the back. “Forget these people, you know? You’re not here for them, and forget what they’re here for. You’re just here for one reason, remember?”

“To beat that pretty boy’s ass?” Rosa gave her a slight smirk in return.

“To beat that pretty boy’s ass,” Cat said, nodding to her as she walked her to the sparring ring. “Nothing else matters until he’s in the dirt.”

“Thanks, coach,” Rosa managed a chuckle.

“No problem…and Rosa?”

“Yeah?”

“Screw this impartial stuff. I’m cheering for you.”

“So now you’re my personal cheerleader?” Rosa cracked a grin. “Damn I’d pay to see you in one of those skirts with the…what are those fluffy wavy things on their hands?”

“No idea,” Cat said. “But kick his ass.”

“Can do, just sit back and watch me work,” Rosa nodded and walked towards the large ring of hard dirt and flattened grass.

Cat hurried to make it to Capi’s side, getting the best view and well within earshot of Thalia’s commentary.

“Heya, pup,” Capi smiled at her. “More people than I thought.”

“Yeah,” Cat nodded. “I think Rosa’s got a bit of stage fright.”

“That will sort itself out soon,” Capi said. “Fighting has a way of erasing everything else going on.”

“Well I’m rooting for her,” Cat said.

“I need to be impartial in these kinds of events,” Capi said flatly as Cat gave her a curious glance. The mask cracked as Capi’s face split into a grin. “I’m just kidding! Of course I’m rooting for our little Rosaria.”

Cat giggled and looked to the field, listening to Thalia’s nearby commentary as she chatted excitedly into the microphone.

“And now our second challenger, the local favorite, has arrived!” The radio announcer kept a tight grip on the mic, eyes flashing as she caught every detail. “Rosaria Kokinos, Champion of Ares, and one of the finest monster-killers in recent history. Both our competitors today hail from Greece, beautiful country by the way, but Rosa’s where most of Rome is putting their money!”

Nicomede was already on the field, fully armed and armored in his darker Hellenic-styled armor with his shield slung over his back. His lance was longer than Rosa’s spear, with a long blade that gave him a lot of edge to work with. He seemed very at ease, chatting with some of the people around him as people milled into place.

“We should probably get started,” Capi said quietly to Thalia. “Before people start placing bets.”

“Too late for that” Thalia giggled, covering the microphone. “But I’ll leave the odds to your imagination.”

Soon the crowd had pulled back to the stands or stood in a broad ring around the sparring ground, with Cat and the rest of their team at the front to get the best view.

“Alright competitors! Let’s see some good sportsmanship out there. Take your marks!” Thalia’s voice rang out over the field with perfect clarity, Cat almost suspected the radio hostess was secretly a mage.

Both Nicomede and Roasaria walked to their starting marks on the sparring field, offering each other brief bows.

“May the better captain win,” Nicomede said, readying his spear.

“Agreed,” Rosa smiled, settling into what Cat recognized as her more aggressive stance.

“Begin!”

Both of them rushed forward, Rosa surprisingly faster off the mark than Nicomede, who crept forward, shield raised towards Rosa’s lunge. Rosa threw herself against the field, dodging the first testing jab of Nicomede’s spear as she closed the distance, her spear to the side as she took hold of Nicomede’s shield, using his hold on it against him as she tried to gain leverage, ducking under the next wild spear swipe as Nicomede worked to keep his ground.

Nicomede managed to wrest his shield out of her hands, forcing Rosa onto the backstep as he launched a series of swift thrusts, his shield still raised. The head of Rosa’s spear managed to knock one of his thrusts aside before she threw herself back onto the offense.

Cat watched the furious exchange of blows, almost failing to notice Capi sidling up to stand next to her.

“Do you see what Rosa’s doing?” She asked, smiling as she tested Cat.

Cat nodded. “She’s trying to make up for her lack of defense; she doesn’t have a shield like Nicomede so she can’t afford to let him gain ground because it’s harder to take it back. She’s trying to work between the long-range of his spear and the short-range of his shield.”

“Smart girl,” Capi smiled, settling back in to watch the fight.

Cat couldn’t pull her eyes away. She’d seen Rosa fight from the outside before, when she had gone one-on-one with Hildegard or Capi, but she’d never seen Rosa fight like this. There was no hesitation, no second-guessing, every move was made with rapid precision. Cat watched the way her arms were wound like a steel trap, unbound and striking at every opportunity, the way she moved with such deliberate grace in her footwork, legs sweeping this way and that in a controlled dance with Nicomede. None of it was practiced; it wasn’t elegant choreographed combat. Rosa and Nicomede hammered at each other with all the strength they could manage, attacking every vulnerability they could find, but Rosa had a way of making it look simple.

Cat watched as Rosa weaved low, striking near the bottom of his shield with the base of her spear before striking again near the top, trying to get him off-balance as he was forced backwards, only for him to dig in his heels again shield up as he threw himself into another attack, trying to force Rosa on the more vulnerable defensive.

Rosa was faster than Nicomede when he had his shield, and much more maneuverable, she twisted across the field, spear striking like a scorpion wherever he dare let his guard down for even an instant.

Rosa pulled back again, lifting her spear as she readied for her next assault, the two combatants watching one another as they moved in a slow circle. Cat could see the slow deliberate movements in Rosa’s step, the way her eyes moved across Nicomede’s armor and shield, the way the light caught in her brilliant red hair. This was Rosa in her element more so than Cat had ever seen her; here on the field, she was a thing of beauty.

Rosa charged again, and this time there was a renewed ferocity in her assault. She was letting blows get through, and Cat winced every time she saw another shallow cut graze her bare arms or bounce off her armor. Rosa was playing with fire, but she could see why. Cracks were appearing in Nicomede’s defenses. He was used to fighting in a line, to having backup who could work with him, but now it was only him, with Rosa hammering on his defenses. If he didn’t find an out, he would break soon.

Nicomede pushed forward, trying to shake Rosa off of him as he launched an attack. It broke Rosa’s assault, but only for a moment. Nicomede, however, decided to abandon a losing fight. Getting what space he could, he dropped his shield to the ground.

“Coming out from under your shell?” Rosa grinned, chest rising and falling as she tried to disguise how tired she was.

“No point holding up a leaking dam,” Nicomede grinned. “But I’m no slouch without it.”

As he spoke, Nicomede lowered his stance, both hands on his spear as the long shaft of metal began to glisten and spark with electricity. Lightning danced along the spear as he held it ready, the light bouncing off his armor as he prepared his attack.

“So tell me, Champion of Ares, did the God of War grant you any other gifts?”

“Nothing quite so fancy,” Rosa’s eyes flashed blood red. It was the same color that they seemed to shine whenever she called on the full measure of her champion’s strength. The same bristling crimson energy ran the length of her spear and up her arms, sending shivers done Rosa’s spine as she summoned everything she could.

Both of them charged this time, and their battle was marked by a sudden increase in ferocity and vigor. Both of them swiped, stabbed, and thrust at one another like animals locked in combat, red and white light dancing between them as the struck again and again. Their range was close, often too close for spears, and hands, nails, and fists often struck as often as weapons did. Neither of them gave ground as their duel grew into a grapple before leaping back to a duel again. Every other moment it seemed one had the advantage before it was snatched away again.

Suddenly, a swift sweep of the leg sent Nicomede crashing down onto his back. Before he could be pinned, he rolled out of the way, getting to his feet as Rosa’s spear struck the dirt, his hand lashed out, and he nearly bent Rosa over he took tight hold of her long red ponytail in his free hand, spear in the other ready to make the finishing strike.

Cat almost didn’t see the flash of red, an expertly aimed swing brought the tip of her spear cleaving through her hair, severing the ponytail in Nico’s hand as Rosa freed herself to shoulder him hard in the chest, sending him back before she brought her spear around again, sliding it to his throat before he could summon a response.

It had taken all of three seconds, Nicomede now stood on the field, hands raised, with Rosa’s spear at his throat.

“I yield,” He smiled, raising his hands higher.

Rosa cracked a grin, lowering her spear as Nicomede took her free hand, raising it into the air as the crowd cheered the duel, Thalia announcing the results to them and the city beyond.

Soon the crowd lurched in, cheering and congratulating them as they were patted on the shoulders and had their wounds checked. Cat stumbled forward at the head of the crowd until she was standing directly in front of Rosa.

It was strange. She was tired, sweat-stained, and bloody in a few places, along with a much shorter hairdo, but with the sun on her face and a broad grin on her face, Cat had never seen Rosa quite this…beautiful?

“Told you I had it,” Rosa smiled.

“uh…” Cat stuttered for a moment, tongue lost on an answer, before a sharp push from behind sent her almost toppling into Rosa. Without realizing it, but too late to stop it, Cat had embraced the redhead around the chest.

“Oof, nearly knocked me over,” Rosa stumbled a bit, nursing more than a few bruises.

“Heh, good job, Team Leader,” Cat smiled, hugging her around the chest.

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 31

 

It was about midmorning when Cat arrived on the training field. Rosa was already there as usual. Cat was pretty certain she got up extra early every day just to beat Cat there so she could tease her for being late. That said, Cat had come with company, and she wasn’t planning on taking Rosa on today.

“Brought a friend I see,” Rosa nodded to the new arrivals, leaning on her spear.

“Hey,” Kara waved casually. “Cat invited me.”

“I wanted to try to do some training against spirits,” Cat said. “That’s most of what we’ll be fighting in the north, isn’t it? Spirits and monsters. I can learn a lot training with you and Hilde, but I can’t learn everything.”

“Well this ought to be entertaining at least,” Rosa said. “And we might get an audience. Nicomede and Hildegard tend to roll in pretty soon.”

“I’m not here to show off,” Kara shrugged.

“Then why did you bring the shrine maiden?” Rosa asked, glancing over her shoulder, and the two turned to see Megame hurrying towards them.

“What’s up, shrine maiden?” Kara asked, surprise creeping into her voice.

“I came to watch, of course,” Megame smiled. “I don’t often get to see Kara-chan fight.”

“Wait, Megame, who are you going to be rooting for?” Cat asked, arms folding over her chest.

“Oh, I don’t think I’m going to take sides,” Megame said. “But I’ll wish you both luck!”

“Well that’s something…” Cat said. “Alright…to start, I want to see what a spirit can do barehanded. Just a friendly spar for now, no weapons.”

“How friendly?” Kara asked. “I need to know how much to keep back.”

“I don’t want you holding back at all,” Cat said. “I know I won’t be.”

Rosa whistled “This out to be good,” before leading Megame back to the nearby seats to watch.

Cat started doing some light stretching, focusing her magic to course through her as she reinforced her body, thin sheets of ice creeping harmlessly over her skin as she prepared herself. Kara simply rolled her shoulders before stripping off her jacket, her white skin almost glowing against the black tank top underneath. As she swung her arms, the glowing only grew more pronounced, her shining blue eyes burning brighter as well, and with a single stretch of the back a pair of large black wings sprouted from her shoulder blades.

“Well, then,” Kara’s tone was still deadpan. “Ready when you are.”

Cat surged forward, her eyes on Kara’s hands as she brought her fists up. She started with a quick jab towards her shoulder, testing her to see just how quick the Valkyrie was. Kara’s hand came up to block her jab like a blur. It was a loose hit, easy to deflect, but Kara’s open palm stopped her fist cold. There wasn’t even a hint of give, it was as if Cat had just punched a solid wall. Stepping back, Cat threw a few more strikes at Kara, each one stopped or deftly dodged as Kara started pushing her advantage. Cat threw another punch, realizing too late she had overcommitted, her arm moving too far and giving Kara all the opportunity she needed. The Valkyrie seized her wrist, locking her arm with one hand as the other swung in to land a blow to her stomach with Cat barely managing to avoid a devastating gut punch.

Even in a grazing blow, Kara’s fist hit like a sledgehammer, a force entirely disproportionate with the speed and mass of the blow. Cat felt her feet briefly leave the ground as Kara’s blow struck and the air left her lungs in a single wrenching gasp. Kara pulled her arm back for another blow, but Cat managed to twist her trapped arm free and back out of her range, her breath still coming in heaves as she worked to keep herself on her feet.

“Thing you need to remember about spirits,” Kara said, lightly swinging her arms to loosen them. “You’re not fighting flesh and blood. These aren’t human arms or human fists. We’re not bound by your physics or your logic. We can go a lot longer and we can hit a lot harder than you can, magic or no magic.”

“Right…” Cat managed to get back on her feet, the pain fading as ice moved over the sensitive flesh. She focused more magic into her fists, hardening and strengthening them. Kara might not be made of flesh and blood, but she WAS made of magic, which was close enough.

“Alright,” Cat said. “Round two, let’s go.”

The two moved in closer, Cat being more cautious as she watched the way Kara moved. Though her expression never changed, the skill and experience was clear in the way she held her body. Kara was never uncertain, never twitchy, watching Cat closely with that same half-bored expression as her piercing blue eyes watched every twitch of muscle across Cat’s body.

Cat started with a few light jabs, easily deflected by Kara as Cat pushed it into a full offensive attack, trying to keep her on the back foot as she tried to wiggle a hit through. Kara’s hands moved like blurs, slapping aside each new jab as it came, her feet dancing out of the way as Cat tried to sweep them out from under her. Though she wasn’t getting through, Cat never gave Kara the time to counter-attack, but it was a delicate balance. If she was too slow then Kara could squeeze in far more devastating blows of her own, but if she over-committed…

Cat threw another punch, realizing too late where Kara’s hands were. In one swift motion Kara had her arm in a lock, and Cat had to pivot and brace her feet to keep herself from being completely thrown onto the ground as she worked to twist herself out of Kara’s grip, only for the Valkyrie to hook her leg in Cat’s and pull hard as she moved to counter her, sending Cat onto her back.

“Better that time,” Kara said. “At least you’re thinking it through.”

“Ya well,” Cat dusted herself off. “That didn’t have to do with you being a spirit so much as me being an idiot.”

“I’ll say,” Rosa grinned. “Come on, Cat. How many times have I caught you with that move?”

“Alright,” Kara said. “Round three and I’ll give you a few more pointers. There’s more to fighting spirits than you might think.”

Cat surged forward again, repeating her method of going on the offensive, though careful to leave herself options if Kara tried to catch her in a lock again. Her reinforced hands hammered against Kara’s arms, hoping to wear her down, but part of her suspected that Kara’s stamina was virtually endless. In a test of endurance, the Valkyrie would be able to outlast her several times over.

She’s not flesh and blood, Cat reminded herself, she doesn’t work on the same principles.

As the two fought, Megame began passing around a thermos of tea for the other spectators, and Kara’s head turned on a swivel after deflecting another blow.

“Hey Megame, what flavor is that?”

Cat almost couldn’t believe it as Kara looked entirely away from the fight, hands still raised but her focus turned elsewhere. Cat launched a hard jab straight for her more exposed shoulder, only to see Kara’s hand shoot up to grab her fist in her palm.

“It’s called Chun Mee, Echo Kami-san gave me some,” Megame smiled.

“Smells good,” Kara still wasn’t looking at her, even as she turned her body to coolly deflect Cat’s next blow. “I’ll have some after this.”

Cat barely saw Kara’s fist blur as it struck her in the chest in a hard counter, sending her feet scuffling back as the breath was forced from her lungs, sucking for air.

“H-How did you…” Cat wheezed as Kara’s hands went to her sides.

“Next tip, Cat. See these?” She used her pointer and middle finger to point to her own eyes “These are for magic and decoration. Most spirits have three-sixty degree vision in any kind of mundane conditions. I could have been blindfolded in a blackout and I can still see you coming, especially with your fists glowing like a lighthouse to my senses. If you want to distract, trick, or blind a spirit, you need to appeal to their nature, or find something magic.”

“Got it…” Cat mumbled as she stood back up. “So, I’d need to, like, put a magic blindfold on you?”

“I prefer putting blindfolds on others, but hey buy me dinner and we’ll talk,” Kara smiled.

“I…w-wait, what?” Cat tried to say, but as soon as her hands were raised Kara was on her and Cat was forced onto the defensive.

Fighting Kara was a lot like fighting Rosa. Being a champion of Ares meant that Rosa usually had the edge in terms of raw physical strength, so Cat was forced to rely on dodges, parries, and deflection to fight defensively without exhausting herself. Fighting Kara, however, was like fighting a freight train that kept coming back. Each new blow forced Cat another step back as she rapidly gave up ground.

‘Come on,” Kara said. “You’re not going to beat Nidhoggr like this. That dragon is going to wear you down then crush you like an ant!”

“I know!” Cat growled, but try as she might she couldn’t find a hole in Kara’s offense. Nothing she could attack easily or safely exploit. If she wanted to beat Kara, to beat anything on this level, she was going to need to take risks.

Cat measured the pattern of her blows, waiting until her arm was forward before launching her counter-attack. It was an all-or-nothing gambit. Either she would seize the advantage or Kara would punish her brutally for it. Cat felt Kara’s fist slam into her side, but she turned enough to let it graze her, wincing at the pain but following through on her own strike. Moving her legs quickly under her, she seized Kara’s arm and twisted herself around to try for a throw over her shoulder. Kara moved with her, trying to twist out of the lock until they both fell into a grapple.

Cat had less than a second before Kara’s monstrous strength forced her to submit, and in that moment, she converted all of the pent up magical energy in her hands and arms into a burst of ice and snow, a dazzling explosion of white that blinded spirit and human alike. Cat launched herself forward, trying to use weight to her advantage as she and Kara went crashing to the ground. On her back, Kara lost most of the advantage her strength gave her, and Cat took it for all it was worth.

After another fifteen seconds of rolling struggle, Cat finally managed to pin Kara down.

“Whew,” Cat breathed. “Call it! I just pinned a Valkyrie.”

“Not bad,” Kara said, rolling back onto her feet when Cat released her. “Glad to see you’re willing to take risks. Learning something too.”

“Woo! Well done, Cat-chan!” Megame shouted from the benches. A small crowd had gathered to watch, most curious to see the newcomer taking on Catarina. Nicomede among them, clapping politely along with the others.

“We can take five,” Kara said, stretching her arms. “Or you can get back to practicing with Red over there.”

Cat nodded. “She’s probably pretty angry about having to sit out anyway.”

Walking back to the edge of the ring, Cat happily took some water as she went to meet with Rosa and Nicomede.

“Heh, not bad, Cat.” Rosa said “Looks a lot like when I train with Capi. Have to learn to fight spirits somehow.”

“I’m a bit envious,” Nicomede added. “Both of you have the chance to spar with friendly spirits. In Greece, if you wanted to fight spirits you better have thirty men with you.”

“I’m not about to wrestle a chimera or anything,” Cat said. “But it is helpful. What brings you to the field?”

“I like to get here before the others,” Nicomede said. “We have training in a half hour and it sets a good example.”

“Good thing too, I wanted to talk to both of you,” Rosa said, looking from Nicomede to Cat. “And Megame could probably hear it too.”

“What’s up?” Cat looked at her curiously, Rosa’s tone was more serious than usual.

“Capi said that the Consul’s started pushing for an attack plan,” Rosa said. “Seems we might be getting our wish sooner than expected. Within a couple of months we might be moving North.”

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Obsidian Mirror

 

The lights were on in the Aldobrandini manor as Cat waited with dwindling patience in her family’s study, slumped in a chair as the enticing demon of sleep called to her. It was nearly midnight, meaning she’d be spending the night there anyway, but Gisela had told her that they would be going on another trip into Gisela’s memories…once she had prepared.

That had been four hours ago.

Cat placed the book she’d been reading back off to the side to look at Gisela again. The dark-haired woman was staring out the window into the moonless night. She always had a relatively neutral expression, but there was an… intensity to her tonight that Cat couldn’t place.

“Is it bad?” Cat asked the silence. “The memory?”

“It is the second worst memory of my life,” Gisela said. “And the most…vivid. You know me well enough by now, Catarina, to know that I’m not…fond of who and what I was. But this memory…is the kind of horror that anyone who feels it should be spared.”

“Well…when you’re ready,” Cat said nervously. “Whenever you want to start.”

Gisela took a long deep breath. “Now, I think, is as good a time as ever.”

She turned from the window and moved towards Cat, sitting beside her on the couch. “I will show you, Catarina, just what we found waiting for us in Mexico City.”

 

There was an odd sound in the air as the four of them made it through the edges of the tree cover. The rainforest had given way to more temperate trees and ferns as the climate grew more arid, but the foliage was still thick as the spirits of the world went wild. They had avoided roads as they moved northward, the patrolling bandits and slavers had grown more numerous, and they had grown more anxious about what they might find in Mexico City.

They moved up a tall tree-covered ridge that cut down sharply in a short cliff at the edge, giving a broad look down on the road in the valley below. It would give them a decent view and keep them covered, but Anton and Noemi moved with quiet grace at the front as they scouted it out, Gisela and Tess taking up the slower rear, keeping an eye out for anyone who might be tracking them. The forest and underbrush was so thick, however, that it was impossible to see far.

As they moved to the edge of the rift, they could see that the valley below expanded outwards to the large city itself. Much of what had been Mexico City was underwater, as the waters of the ancient Lake Texcoco had rushed up from the earth to reclaim its ancient beds. But numerous islands covered in a mix of old architecture and new constructions rose all across its surface, connected by a latticework of bridge roads and ferry lines. The road below them was one of the main thoroughfares, leading from the edge of the lake to the city’s heart.

It was more people than Gisela had seen in months. Hundreds were walking towards the city with only a few traveling in other directions. Some were laden with food or supplies to sell or deliver, many more simply walked on their own, urged on by the movements of the road’s patrolling guards, all of whom carried marks of leopard skin somewhere on their uniforms. A number of people, however, were being carried. Their arms strapped to a wooden rod over their shoulders as they were forced by guards to march into the city.

“We shouldn’t have come here,” Noemi said. “Whatever’s happening, it can’t be good.”

“Agreed,” said Anton. “We need to-“

There was a sound of snapping twigs behind them, and all of them turned, readying themselves as they looked around for whatever might be behind them. Even Cat, silent in the memory, had to strain to see it but as she did it sent a shiver down her spine. A pair of eyes from an enormous cat, gleaming in the darkness.

There was a roar that echoed across the ridge, and from the underbrush burst a dozen of the city guard, all of them wielding spears and nets as they rushed forward. The first one fell to one of Anton’s arrows, white-feathered shaft rising from his throat. The next was brought down by a bullet from Noemi, but with it came the alarm. Soon the entire city would descend on them.

“Run!” Noemi shouted, and they broke off back into the jungle, Gisela struggling to keep pace with Noemi as Cat and her future Gisela glided silently behind them like ghosts.

It was a brutal, panting run through the thick vegetation as they leaped over fallen trees and ducked beneath low-hanging branches, all the while the sound of the city’s hunters on their trail. Gisela and Noemi stuck close together, occasionally grabbing each others’ sleeve as they took a running jump, both of them panting heavily as they ran with all the speed they could muster.

“Wait!” Anton shouted through deep breaths. “Tess! Where’s Tess!?”

All of them swiveled their heads, but the forest was thick and they couldn’t afford to stop running. Anton, however, stopped midstride, arrow nocked on his bow as he shouted into the jungle.

“Tess!”

Noemi and Gisela broke to a stop, but Anton turned to them.

“No!” he shouted. “Keep going!”

But before he even had time to turn back a net had been thrown over him as the hunters descended on them. Noemi and Gisela turned to run again, only for more armed men and women to emerge from the trees, spears and a few remaining guns readied as they cornered them. Tentatively, both of them dropped their weapons, raising their hands in surrender.

Before long they were bound like the others they had seen, forced to march by the guards along the great road towards the city. No one else around them would look them in the eye, turning away as if to ignore them at all costs. The three of them moved together, but Tess was still missing.

“As far as we hoped, Tess had gotten away,” The phantasmal Gisela said to Cat. “We didn’t say anything, for fear of tipping off the guards to her presence.”

“Did she get away?” Cat asked, Gisela remained silent.

They were marched across the bridge that spanned the dark waters of the lake to the largest city island, over which a massive step pyramid rose from the dense complex of buildings. Even Cat marveled at the scope of it. It wasn’t an occupied ruin like Rome, but a true massive city, with a population that no doubt rivaled theirs, and this had been months ago. How had people built something like this so quickly?

The sun had begun to set as they entered the city. People moved off in different directions as the roads spread out like a spiderweb. Many of the captured victims were pushed in different directions, but the three of them were kept forward on a march, heading towards the base of the pyramid. As the darkness grew, torches were lit all across the city, and people began to gather towards the pyramid. At the bottom of the stairs they were untied, though the guards pressed in close and gave them a single firm command.

“Climb.”

“Eighty steps,” Gisela said as she and Catarina watched the trio climb. “I counted them.”

“What is this?” Cat asked.

“A temple, of course,” Gisela said. “Rome was lucky. Your wolf spirits demanded nothing and gave you protection. Other gods are not so generous.”

Eighty steep steps lead them high above the rest of the low-built city, the pyramid itself having been built to be a commanding structure on the lake, unchallenged by any other building. At the top, it leveled off into a great open space that looked out over the city, now shining with firelight, and the dark lake beyond.

The space at the top of the pyramid was covered by a stone roof supported by a pillar at each corner. Hanging suspended vertically from the roof was a massive stone disc of pure black obsidian polished to a shine fine enough to clearly see their reflections. Once more they were bound by the guards, this time with their arms clasped tight behind their backs as they were made to stand. Rising from the floor at the pyramid’s center was a large ornate stone altar, covered in what was unmistakably dried blood.

A man walked to the center of the temple, standing on the opposite side of the altar from them, dressed in a blending of old-style fine clothes, in this case a black tailored suit, mixed with odd religious elements such as white feathers and a carved staff in his hand, his face covered in a number of black markings. A medley of music began to rise from the city below, beating drums mixed with the chiming of clay flutes and seashell horns blowing in the night air as the man, the priest, began to speak.

“Oh Lord, Oh Master, Oh Night and Wind, you who are high above us all for we are base before you. You who offer us safety in exchange for our devotion, you who offer strength in return for our sacrifice, you who have made us more than any spirit or weapon or man. We call upon you, Lord of the Night Wind and Keeper of this city and its people. We call upon you, honored lord Tezcatlipoca, to partake in this power and this feast.”

He chanted proudly, reverently as the crowd below began to cheer. The sound of soft footsteps climbing the pyramid steps behind them caused them to turn their heads, even as the guards kept tight hold on them, and Cat saw the shock and terror rise in their eyes as two figures cleared the top of the pyramid.

The first was Tess, unharmed and unbound, dressed in a long dress of black feathers and leopard skin, and behind her was an enormous jaguar.

“Tess!” Gisela was the first to speak. “You’re alive, you’re…” her voice fell to a whisper.

Something had changed in Tess. Her expression was deathly serious, a stripe of blue paint running across her eyes that seemed to give them a supernatural quality, and she paid no mind to the rhinoceros-sized jaguar in her shadow.

Looking more closely, Cat’s own eyes grew wide. The jaguar truly was in her shadow, the feet and claws of the enormous cat blending into the shadow cast by Tess.

The high priest moved away from the altar and Tess moved to take his place. As she moved before the mirrored obsidian, however, it wasn’t her back that they saw. Something enormous, monstrous, and only barely human in shape moved in the reflection, and Cat shivered again as she saw the blood drain from the faces of the three bound prisoners.

“This was a trap,” Noemi hissed. “You lead us here, to this…why, Tess? Why!?”

Anton remained silent, his expression a mix of stunned anguish and resignation.

Tess raised her hands to eye level, looking at her small childlike palms.

“Look at these,” she said, and it was not with Tess’ voice that she spoke. It was as if something much larger, much deeper, and much older was lurking in her lungs, adding its voice to hers. “Paltry, young, weak, feminine. Truly these are dire times when I require this…thing to be my vessel.”

“Vessel…” Anton replied quietly. “This whole time? What are you?”

The creature wearing Tess’ face smiled.

“I am the Lord of the Night Wind, the Bringer of calamity and the Maker of Change. I am He by whom you live and in whose service you belong. I am Tezcatlipoca, the Keeper of this City.”

The being, the deity cast in the reflection shivered, and the jaguar in her shadow bellowed a deep echoing roar.

“Why lie to us?” Gisela asked, still bound, and Cat could hear the desperation in her voice. “What do you want with us?”

“With you two?” Tess, or rather Tezcatlipoca, gestured at Gisela and Noemi. “I want nothing. For you are nothing, save for my entertainment. With him, however…”

She turned her yellow cat’s eyes on Anton, and they shone with an almost predatory gleam.

“For months I was forced to toil, restricting myself in this puerile form purely to evoke your natural chivalry and pity. My power had to be restrained, hidden away in my Nagual so as not to arouse the suspicion of my brother that you served with such devotion.”

“Nagual?” Catarina asked, looking at her Gisela.

Gisela nodded towards the massive jaguar. “A complicated concept. A deity’s nagual is their animal counterpart. Somewhere between a soulmate and a second form.”

“But I needed you, and I needed Quetzacoatl’s influence,” Tezcatlipoca continued. “I needed that power to grow and fester within you, until you carried most of the feathered serpent’s influence on earth.”

Tezcatlipoca spread his arms, and for a moment Cat could almost see him beyond the reflection, as if the night air had shifted.

“I refuse to restrict myself to paltry spiritual form. What these people, what this world needs is a god who rules as a king. But a mortal body, particularly one like this is…weak, needy. It will fall apart in a few months’ time unless certain measures are taken. “

From her belt she drew a long jeweled knife, and gestured to the priest, who called the guards binding Anton forward. He struggled, pushing back against them, but the four guards over powered him and forced him onto his back on the altar.

“Call out to your god, Anton,” The pleasure in Tezcatlipoca’s voice was clear as she cleanly cut open his shirt with the knife. “There is only one god in this city, and I intend to rule it forever. But for that, I need a strong heart, one rich with divine energy. And if it happens to rob power from my hated brother…all the better.”

“Tess…” Anton said quietly. “Don’t do this.”

“There never was a Tess,” Tezcatlipoca said. “There is only the Night Wind, and soon it shall cover the world.”

As Tezcatlipoca raised the knife, Gisela raised her ghostly hand to Cat’s eyes, blocking the view.

“Gisela I-“

“There is no lesson here. There is nothing you can learn by watching this.”

Gisela may have blocked out sight, but she couldn’t stop the sounds. Cat felt her blood run cold and her breath knot up in her throat as the knife plunged into flesh. The sound of the chanting and cheering crowd intermingling with the high-pitched scream of the past Gisela as she was forced to watch, even louder as it filled the memory until it was almost ringing in her ears. Cat didn’t know if being spared the sight but not the sound was mercy or not, she could hear every horrific noise of the dagger through flesh, the sound of rushing blood and mixing screams just as Gisela had heard it. And the nausea in her throat grew as it went on.

Cat was not a stranger to death. She had seen people die, both in combat and innocent. But this ritualized murder was on an entirely different level.

Eventually Gisela lifted her hand to let Cat see. Tezcatlipoca had moved past the altar to face Noemi and Gisela. Her lips, chin and the front of her dress were now covered in blood as she regarded them. The past Gisela was a wreck, hanging limply as she was held up by the guards, sobbing openly with her eyes still wide in horror. Noemi simply stared at Tezcatlipoca with a dead-eyed look, shivering slightly even as she tried to stay standing.

“As I said I want nothing from you two, save for entertainment,” She said. And as she spoke Cat could feel power in her words. Everything about her divine aura had grown, her eyes almost glowing in the night as divine energy coursed through her.

“And your hearts will grant me little compared to his. Besides, I’d like a little time to grow accustomed to it, perhaps find a finer vessel.”

She gestured to the priest, who again gestured to the guards. In a few moments both Gisela and Noemi were cut free.

“Run,” Tezcatlipoca said. “Run wherever you can, as fast as you can. Run knowing that I have eyes in every shadow. Run knowing that wherever you flee and wherever you hide I will find you. Run knowing that when you are captured you will be brought here to die on this slab at my hands. Tell everyone you meet, show everyone you see that the Night Wind is coming. Now run.”

Gisela and Noemi broke down the stairs, running into the night to leave the city and flee into the world beyond.

The memory ended, and once more they were in cat’s study. Though now it seemed much darker than it had before.

“Is she still out there?” Cat asked. “Tezcatli…”

“Tezcatlipoca, and as far as I know,” Gisela said. “Despite her claims her influence does not spread far beyond Central America, but there her power is absolute. She is a God-King, though I wonder if she found a stronger vessel more fitting of a masculine god, or if she is still wearing Tess’ face to mock me.”

“That was…” Cat struggled to find words, still hearing the sounds of Anton’s sacrifice in her ears.

“Horrific,” Gisela said.

“But that’s not the end,” Cat said. “I still don’t know what happened to Noemi, or how you met Itzpapalotl but I…” she trailed off, checking her words.

“You what?”

“I think I understand you a little better now,” Cat said. “At least why you don’t get close to anyone. After seeing that…”

“You know more than that,” Gisela said. “Nidhoggr is my mission now, and after that I intend to remove Itzpapalotl from the board as well. But after that…”

“You want to go back,” Cat said. “Right? You…want to go back there.”

“Assuming by some miracle I survive,” Gisela said. “Yes. Someday I plan to return to the New World, to Mexico City, and I will kill Tezcatlipoca.”

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 28

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He beat you,” Cat said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Presumptuous? Arrogant?” Gisela offered.

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

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

Cat paused before another word could escape.

“…you’re testing me.”

“That is my job,” Gisela said dryly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not Hildegard then?” Cat asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just got in an argument with Gisela.”

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

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

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

“Wait, who?” Cat asked.

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

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

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

“You did?” Cat asked.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I quite agree,” Megame said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Megame seemed to notice something as she leaned in.

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

“Maybe I guess…”

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

“Hey Megame, hey Cat.”

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

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

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

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

“I do not swoon!”

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

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

“Hmph!”

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

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

“I meant did he seem strong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm?” Kara turned to look at her.

“You free for a little bit?”

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 25

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you want me to get my hammer!?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“More than I’ve seen anywhere else…”

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

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

 

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

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

“So that’s Rome, huh?” Torleif asked.

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

“Finally…”

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

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

“People?”

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

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

“Well I knew Rome was the right city!”

“How’d you know that?” Rosa asked.

“Some birds told me.” Torleif replied happily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re just a vegetarian.”

“I am not!”

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

“Ooh is that the training field?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Missing?” Rosa asked him dubiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Er wait…lead?” Cat asked.

“Well we can discuss that” Nicomede smiled.

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

“Er…”

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

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa