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.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 51

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

Human Noemi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are they who sail against the Dutchman?

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

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

It is not yet time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know where it is?” Noemi asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 50

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know people are worried,” Asha said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I, er…” Asha pursed her lips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 49

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you need help?” Cat asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Having difficulties, my dear Catarina?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s Rosaria,” Scheherazade said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Witch Hunter

 

Huldra sighed as she sealed the portal behind her, leaving the camp of Legio II Aquila behind as she stepped onto the old creaking floorboards of Baba Yaga’s chicken-footed hut.

“Treating my lovely home like a damnable train station,” The Russian crone muttered as she eyed Huldra. “Were you at least successful?”

“They know the plan,” Huldra nodded. “I fear for Catarina though.”

“Fear for us first,” Baba said. “The powers you want to harness…that spell could unravel half of creation if you’re not careful.”

“It’s the only plan we have,” Huldra took a seat in an old moth-eaten armchair. “The Ginnungagap Rift spell…it is probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”

“Second craziest,” Baba Yaga shrugged. “First was letting that damn dragon out of its hole…oh don’t look at me like that you hag, you brought it up.”

Huldra settled her gaze back at the floor. “We’ll be on the run after this, no more big coven meetings for us for some time, centuries maybe.”

“All the better for it,” She shrugged, hunched over her cooking pot. “We witches aren’t the cooperative type normally, and when we do work together we start suggesting ideas like poking holes in reality. A penchant for toying with fate or not, that’s dangerous work.”

“Maybe you have a point,” Huldra sighed, sinking into the chair. “Though there is one thing still to worry over.”

“Our little fledgeling,” Baba Yaga never raised her eyes from her cauldron. “I half-expected you to whip Ceridwen with a switch when she came back and said she’d given her up to le Fay.”

“But she was fine,” Huldra said. “We took five witches to check on her and all signs point to her being perfectly fine. Morgan is playing a strange game.”

“It wasn’t her,” Baba said. “Morgan would have snatched that girl up like a hawk takes a rabbit if she had even half a chance. No, something stopped her.”

“You kept insisting on that and we saw no evidence,” Huldra said, fingers rubbing her forehead.

“Hecate agreed with me!” Baba rapped a wooden spoon on the rim of the cauldron. “There was something wrong about it. Something’s clinging to that girl and I don’t want a part of it, especially if it scared off a creature like le Fay.”

“A creature who has not shown her face for months,” Huldra said. “She’s gone to ground again and I don’t like it…she’s being far too silent for my tastes. She’s up to something.”

“She’s a True Witch, we’re all up to something,” Baba clicked her tongue.

“You know what I mean,” Huldra shot her a glance. “I want to know where she is and what she’s doing.”

Baba Yaga’s hand tightened on her spoon. “You know that’s just what the problem is, don’t you?”

“Excuse me?” Huldra sat up.

“You need to have your spoon in every pot, even if they’re not yours! You’re what the humans these days call a…a…”

“Control freak?” Huldra offered as Baba chewed on her tongue.

“That’s the word!” She snarled. “You need to have your nose and your hand in everything you do! Don’t think I haven’t noticed you checking in on all the other Witches while you think Hecate and I aren’t looking!”

“I’m coordinating,” Huldra said.

“We’re witches, we don’t coordinate well,” Nana’s crone face was twisted into an ugly leer. It would have been terrifying to just about any mortal on Earth. “Not to mention it led to-“

“Don’t you dare!” Huldra snapped but Baba Yaga continued.

“Possessed or not, do you think you would have delved so deep into Nidhoggr’s prison if you didn’t have your titanic ego and curiosity to satisfy? It might have been Nidhoggr’s evil that made you break the lock, but it was your desire to know, to learn everything about that forbidden power that sent you down there.”

Huldra rose to her feet, and somewhere outside the bird-footed house the thunder rolled.

“Watch yourself,” Baba had her spoon pointed at Huldra as if it were some terrible wand. Given the caliber of witch she was, it might as well have been. “Remember where you are, then remember who I am before you open your mouth.”

Huldra took a moment, drawing in a long breath before she spoke again.

“My apologies, Baba…you know how highly I think of you.”

“Oh, I know, though a reminder now and then couldn’t hurt,” She settled back at her cauldron.

Huldra moved to the door. “I’m going to find Morgan and what she’s up to. I’ll want assistance.”

“Ceridwen is free” Baba said, her tone still calm. “Anansi and Hecate too, though you’ll never find the latter if you go looking.”

“Believe me I know better,” Huldra said. “Alright, Anansi and Ceridwen then. That should be enough. Nimue? Where is she?”

“Who knows,” Baba shrugged.

Huldra frowned. She would have preferred Morgan’s opposite if there was the possibility of a confrontation.

“Thank you, as ever, for the hospitality, Baba,” She bowed her head.

“If you’re off to trounce that red-haired rat, give her a kick for me.”

“Of course,” Huldra smiled before exiting the shack into the cool Russian evening and vanishing into thin air.

Ceridwen was the easier to find. She was still on guard duty for Tegwen, now with explicit instructions to never leave Tegwen out of her sight.

“Nothing’s happened!” She all but shouted as Huldra arrived. “Honestly you’re worse than my mother!”

“I’m not here about Tegwen. I’m recruiting you,” She said sharply.

“Oh heavens, what now?” Ceridwen asked.

“We’re going to track down Morgan le Fay,” Huldra said. “And find exactly what she’s up to.”

“Well…I won’t mind a little muscle,” Ceridwen said. “You were missed last time I met her.”

“Not just us,” Huldra said. “You’re the second of three. Come on.”

Her voice was sharp and curt as she opened another portal in the air, standing wide enough for both of them to step through.

They stepped out into what seemed like an ocean of green. Vegetation and foliage stretched out around them in a curtain of emerald in a thousand different shades.

“Gods, it is hot!” Ceridwen groaned as she stepped through. “Where is this? The sun?”

“Ghana,” Huldra said sharply. “And we won’t be around long. I’m recruiting Anansi as well.”

“Oh!” Ceridwen perked up immediately, and Huldra noticed her heavier outer robes vanishing as her neckline plunged. “Lead on then.”

“Oh honestly…” Huldra rolled her eyes as she set out into the jungle.

“Anansi!” She called out among the trees. “It’s Huldra!”

“Aaah, a pleasure for such fine witches to come by for a chat.”

The shadows over them moved, and Huldra watched as the rough silhouette of something large with eight long legs crept through the foliage above them.

“And a shapeshifter to boot,” Ceridwen smiled, muttering to herself.

Huldra never got a complete look at the spider, but as it moved to a tree, a man in more familiar form dropped down to the ground. He looked as he had at their first meeting, a tall man of wiry shape but toned build with deep black skin and glittering eyes dressed in a loose robe of silver thread.

“One could say, Lady Ceridwen,” He smiled at her, her image reflected in his eyes eight times over. “That I am merely a spider in the shape of a man.”

Ceridwen smiled, eyes aflutter as Huldra stepped forward.

“Anansi, I could use your assistance,” She said, her tone politer than it had been with Ceridwen.

“I have little that needs my direct attention,” He said, “What did you require?”

“Morgan le Fay,” Huldra said. “I want to find her and learn precisely what she’s up to.”

“Ah, I’ve heard much more of this ‘Morgan’ than I have seen. Is that what she’s going by now? Or is it Morgause? I’ve been devouring your Arthurian stories since last you spoke of her.”

“Syncretization makes answering that question more confusing than it’s worth,” Huldra said. “Morgan le Fay, semi-human sorceress, enemy of Camelot, mother of Mordred, the Queen of Air and Darkness. All caught up?”

“That will suffice,” Anansi smiled. “I am interested in seeing the witch behind the story…why not? I will aid you. It should make for another interesting story to tell.”

“Thank you, Anansi,” Huldra smiled.

“Alright, problem number one.” Ceridwen said “Finding Morgan, how do we do it?”

“That won’t be too hard. It’s a lot like tracking game.”

“Find the trail,” Anansi smiled. “Witches follow familiar trods, after all.”

“Precisely. I’ve been keeping a close eye on everybody partially to track movement. If Morgan is plotting something, she’ll be orbiting wherever her plan is centered. Like an animal returning to their den, she’ll keep going back to that one place along familiar trails, even if she has to cut across worlds to do it.

Huldra dug deep, feeling the paths that her portals took, the hidden ways and cuts through time and space that witches of her caliber used to travel from one point on the World Tree to another, feeling them out like the tunnels of insects gnawed through wood, dirt, and stone until she found what she was looking for. A trail, well-used but unaccounted for, among the many that the other witches had left behind.

“Either I found where she’s been going,” Huldra said. “Or some other witch has been scurrying about the eastern waters of the North Sea.”

“That’s rather remote…” Ceridwen said. “Even for her that’s far from home.”

“Precisely where you’d go if you don’t want to be found,” Huldra said. “Come, let’s see what our wayward sister is doing.”

With a wave of her hand she opened a door in the air, a portal between their spot and wherever it was that Morgan was setting up shop. Without hesitation she stepped through.

Cold. The sudden shift from the tropical climate to the freezing north was powerful, and Huldra worked to summon a cloak about her shoulders. When she tried, however, she felt her shoulders still bare and the feeling of heavy iron shackles on her wrists.

“What is-!” Before she could finish the sentence, she felt herself drawn away from where she stood like a fish caught on a line. In a single instant she was dragged across a cold stone floor and into a bare cage of cold iron.

Huldra whirled around, and saw two other cages next to hers holding Anansi and Ceridwen.

“It seems…” Anansi’s voice was calm. “We were expected.”

They were in a colossal cave, a massive stone vault that served as a natural harbor to the North Sea. She could see the entrance open into the cold grey sky, wind whipping at the dark water. Their cages were placed on a natural sort of pier, a ragged stone floor rising out of the water.

“Well there it is, the witch was right. This little trap caught the intruding mice right up.”

A cold voice echoed around them, a cackle barely restrained by his words.

“Who goes there!?” Ceridwen shouted, but Huldra knew the voice. Her brow furrowed, teeth grinding as she stared at the tall figure stepping out of the darkness.

“Loki,” Huldra hissed.

Loki blinked in surprise before his grin split even wider.

“Well if it isn’t Frau Holda,” He said. “I daresay if you’d sent ahead, I would have sent finer arrangements. Spikes perhaps.”

“What is the meaning of this trap, Loki!?” She demanded.

“Insurance,” Loki shrugged. “Morgan insisted, and I quite agreed, that should you witches come sneaking along we should be prepared to…keep you out of the game for a while.”

He gestured idly to the cages.

“Keep us from what?” Ceridwen asked, but Huldra was already scanning the cave.

It was dark and difficult to see with only the distant light of the cave-harbor mouth, but in the water she began to make out the outline of something enormous. The wind whistled against the stone, but beneath it she could hear the sound of nails being hammered and building being done.

Loki. A ship. The eastern edge of the North Sea.

“You’re building the Naglfar,” Huldra looked at him, aghast. “Loki, you know what that will mean.”

“Better than most,” Loki’s expression soured. “But I have some insurance this time. And you being out of the picture just puts the odds more in my favor.”

“Did Morgan put you up to this!?” Huldra demanded. Loki’s fist smashed against the bars of the cage, hard enough to rattle the iron and throw her onto her back.

“I do not take orders from that witch!” He snarled before turning his back on them and storming away.

“The Naglfar sails!”

 

 

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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.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Spear of Conviction

 

Rosa stood perched on the balance beam, legs moving smoothly across the narrow beam as she went through her forms, spear in her hands as she moved this way and that, walking along the hand-width span like a cat as she maneuvered herself with almost inhuman grace and balance.

To move like this took more than focus and poise. Balance, Capi had always stressed, took more than just physical dexterity. A mental balance must be maintained as well, a level of harmony and calm even at the most taxing times.

Rosa kicked off the beam into a sudden backflip and landed, flawlessly, on the balls of her feet before dismounting back to the hard-packed ground of the training field. Her audience, consisting of Evangeline and Capitolina, watched with impressed expressions, Evangeline even going so far as to give her quiet applause.

“Impressive,” The tall blonde champion said, putting her hands back down to rest on her cane. “I can’t imagine the tumble if I tried that.”

“Well, I owe at least a bit of it to you,” Rosa said, flashing her a grin. “The new spear feels perfect. I could balance it on a dime.”

“Oh, it’s hardly new” Evangeline waved it off. “Just a little improved. I appreciate the compliment nonetheless.”

“You’re making good progress for a pup,” Capi said. “Maybe you’ll be able to beat me in a duel soon.”

“Maybe,” Rosa nodded. “But I’m focused on Nicomede right now.”

“Ah yes the young Champion of Zeus,” Evangeline nodded. “He stopped by my workshop yesterday.”

“Is that right?” Rosa asked, taking a drink from her water bottle “What’d he have to say?”

“He wanted an inspection of his equipment,” Evangeline said. “Much like you he was aware of my prowess and asked for improvements.”

“Mind giving me a few pointers?” Rosa asked. “I could do with more info on his shield.”

“Of course,” Evangeline said. “After all I told him everything about your spear and armor.”

“Evangeline!” Rosa scoffed. “Come on, I was trusting you here!”

“Duel aside, you are still teammates,” Evangeline maintained her serene smile. “I have no reason to keep secrets between you, in fact it would be foolish of me not to share the information.”

“I guess…” Rosa almost growled. “Fine, what can you give me on his gear?”

“His most impressive asset is his shield,” Evangeline said. “Not even Catarina’s sword could pierce it. It is a piece of Zeus’ will given form and a physical manifestation of order. Your spear won’t even leave a scratch.”

“Off to a great start,” Rosa sighed. “What else?”

“His spear is like a lightning rod for divine energy,” Evangeline continued. “I actually built a slightly cruder version a while back. Just by channeling spiritual power through it he can generate lightning bolts.”

“Better and better,” Rosa grumbled. “So I can’t afford to draw back to far or he’ll fry me.”

“Don’t underestimate your own resilience, Rosa,” Evangeline continued. “I’ve improved your armor significantly. I wouldn’t recommend seeing how many lightning bolts you can take to the face, but you’re far from defenseless. Your spear is much stronger as well. It’s heavier and a bit shorter, which should give you better maneuvering room.”

“Right,” Rosa nodded, trying to work out the best strategy. “Keeping him close will minimize his advantages, but I need to look out for that shield. Might be made for defense but that’s not all a shield can do.”

“Smart pup,” Capi’s tail was wagging slightly as she stepped forward. “You’re actually learning to think through a problem rather than just take it head on.”

“Well, I can’t afford to fall asleep on this one,” Rosa said. “Nico’s tough and I know he won’t be holding back.”

“Not likely,” Evangeline said. “He mentioned he would be training long hours just like you. I think he’s a little intimidated.”

“Works for me,” Rosa said. “Though I’d prefer he didn’t take me seriously so I could get him off-guard.”

“Unfortunately, I think he’s very on-guard when it comes to you,” Evangeline said. “He might even be a little attracted to you.”

Rosa snorted before taking another drink. “He’s not my type.”

“Could always try to use your feminine wiles to distract him,” Evangeline teased and Rosa rolled her eyes.

“Ya, do me up in a chainmail bikini, that’ll work out great.”

“Well if you insist.”

“Get off it,” Rosa prodded the blunt end of her spear towards her. “Come on, we’ll take a break from the physical exercise. Today is running scenarios, right Capi?”

“That’s right,” Capi said, leading her off the field towards the benches.

“Scenarios?” Evangeline asked.

“Yeah, sort of basic ‘what-if’ questions to try and test me under pressure,” Rosa said. “Good for thinking on the fly.

“Alright,” Capi said. “Hmmm…you’re team leader. Your team is in hostile territory two kilometers ahead of the safe lines. You are attacked by a pack of cacodaemons, Gisela is wounded and unable to walk, your objective is ahead of you but she will likely die if you don’t bring her back to the lines.”

“Gisela’s too useful to let die for one objective unless it’s Nidhoggr itself,” Rosa said. “Send Nicomede and Megame to escort her back to camp. Cat, Torleif, and I can push ahead and pull back if the objective is infeasible at half-strength.”

“Okay,” Capi nods. “You push ahead but you hear over the radio that Nicomede and the others are held up close to the Legion lines. Calling the legion forward can put a lot of men at risk.”

“I pull back then,” Rosa said. “Like I said, Gisela’s too valuable to lose.”

“Have you quantified that?” Evangeline said. “Would there be teammates you’re willing to lose?”

Rosa’s face gained a strained expression. “Well I don’t like to think about it but…I mean, obviously all of us are valuable and I’d do everything I can to make sure everyone makes it. But Cat is the lynchpin of this whole mission and Gisela has a lot of information on the Primordials. Our priority would be to make sure both of them make it, no matter what.”

“Being squad leader is a lot more than ordering people around,” Capi said. “These are the kinds of decisions a commander has to make.”

“I couldn’t do it,” Evangeline said. “I prefer my stresses to end with my machines.”

“Well, it’s not like I want to be in charge just to…be in charge,” Rosa said. “Like…just think about the others on the team. Torleif’s a kid, a super strong kid but she’s still just a kid. Megame is way too kind-hearted and caring. Could you imagine her trying to make a decision like that, or telling one person they need to die for the mission to succeed?”

“She does seem very kind,” Evangeline said. “I could see where that might make things more…difficult.”

“Then there’s Gisela who…well I mean I think she’s alright. A bit of a bitch but alright. I’d never trust her as a leader though, I’d think she was always going to sacrifice me to serve some hidden agenda. She’s smart and she might know more than any of us about Nidhoggr but…I don’t trust her that much.”

“And she was an enemy of the city,” Capi said. “The Legions wouldn’t follow her, if they didn’t just want her head outright.”

“And then there’s Cat,” Rosa said. “And she…has enough to worry about.”

“Ooh now there’s a what-if scenario,” Evangeline smiled.

“Hmm?”

“Alright, now bear with me…what would you do if Catarina turned traitor?”

“Wait, what!?”

“Well maybe not traitor…” Evangeline thought it over. “What if she refused to go on, and wanted to turn back, and was threatening desertion?”

“I…that’s just…” Rosa glanced at Capi, who kept her silence, waiting for Rosa to respond.

“That’s ridiculous!”

“It is only a what-if scenario. You should consider everything, no?”

“Well, I’m not about to consider being assaulted by an army of pink hippos, and I’m sure not about to consider something like Cat abandoning the mission.”

“Is it really that strange?” Evangeline asked. “It’s a terrifying prospect, and she is just a person.”

“Sure, with anyone else, I might be with you,” Rosa said. “But Cat…look, I know Cat. I work with her every day and we went on that mission to Syria together.”

“And?” Evangeline asked.

“And Cat’s…well she’s not the kind of person to back out of a process. Even if she’s scared and I know she’s scared, it’s stupidly obvious. But she won’t complain, she won’t try to back out. Cat’s going to see this through to the end and that’s the end of it.”

“But what if…?”

“Fine! If Cat gives up for some reason I’ll drag her there myself! Happy?”

“Mmmm, satisfied,” Evangeline smiled. “I will settle for satisfied.”

“Fine,” Rosa rolled her eyes. “I’m going to go hit the showers.”

Without another word she slung her spear over her shoulder and began to stalk towards the showers, only to notice Capi catching up to her.

“You shouldn’t let a scenario bother you that much.”

“It was a dumb question,” Rosa said.

“I found it quite interesting…well, your response at least.”

“How’s that?” Rosa asked, stopping at the entrance to the showers to talk.

“It reminded me of how short and aggressive you got when I used to talk to you,” Capi said. “When I asked you questions about who you were or what your past was like.”

“Because you were annoying too,” Rosa folded her arms. “You pestered me for days!”

“But this time you didn’t get protective of your secrets or your past, you were being protective of Catarina.”

“So what?” Rosa asked. “Doesn’t change that it was a dumb question.”

“Why it matters,” Capi said patiently. “Is because I’ve never seen you aggressively rush to defend someone else like that. You were defensive about your past because it mattered a lot to you.”

“I think you’re reading waaay too much into this,” Rosa rolled her eyes. “Maybe you should stick to the wolf stuff instead of psychoanalyzing me.”

“If I’d done that, you’d probably still be out in the mountains hunting manticores,” Capi smiled.

“Well what’s your point then? Or are you just going to tease around it all day.”

“I think the reason you’re so quick to defend Cat is because she’s an important part of your life now.”

“Of course, she’s important.” Rosa said. “We hang out every day, we train together, and we’re working together on this mission.”

“That could be said of Hildegard,” Capi said. “And me too, in a way.”

“And I’d react in the same way.”

“Would you?”

“Oh, come on,” Rosa rolled her eyes. “What do you want me to say, Capi? Why do you always need to give me the runaround like this?”

“I just think, from all I’ve heard and everything you’ve said,” Capi was still smiling. “That Cat is a bit more special to you than others. You certainly know her better than most.”

“I just know her well because she’s dumb like that,” Rosa said. “Hard to forget her biggest fault.”

“And that’s why? That’s the only reason?”

Rosa folded her arms, staring down Capi for a moment. “…seriously Capi, why are you bugging me about this?”

Capi smiled, her tail listing from side to side. “Because,” she said. “I want to make sure that you go off to war without regrets, and that if you have anything you want to say to Cat, you say it.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 35

It was going to be an awkward kind of day, Asha decided. Though if she had allowed herself to dwell on it even a little longer, she knew that it would have been much stranger than just ‘awkward’. It wasn’t helped by feeling like she was in a doctor’s office, stripped to her underwear and waiting atop the cold stone bench that marked their ‘altar’ to Ishtar. She sat on the edge, legs hanging off as her fingers nervously drummed the rim of the altar. The base had been surrounded by Ishtar’s preferred food, spices, and incense offerings while the top had been left bare to ‘give them room’ as Constance had so delicately put it. The room itself was a windowless underground stone chamber lit with torches that cast everything in a hazy amber glow.

At Rachel’s recommendation, she had stopped holding back her spiritual energy as well. Her long wings of gold and blue lay behind her, draped across the altar, and the power coursing through her manifested as a soft glow on her exposed skin and a shine in her eyes. She’d been more self-conscious about her appearance over the last few hours than she had been in the last two years, constantly adjusting her hair and re-checking her appearance in the polished bronze shield that lay against the side of the altar. The waiting was the worst part, how long was he going to take?

No sooner had she thought that than did the door open up as Leyla half-stepped in, still clearly talking to someone on the other side, likely Constance.

“Yes I know…I know…oh just…just get out! No opening the door until we say so.”

With a sigh, Leyla stepped inside, shutting the door behind him and triple-checking to ensure it was locked before looking up to see Asha sitting on the altar. The changes of expression on his face were certainly something to see. First was surprise, a widening of the eyes and half-gape that marked a pleasant shock rather than horror. Then came the embarrassment, rushing in like the tide as his face turned red and his eyes flickered in the predictable paths of trying to look up and down her body while trying to look away at the same time. All the while, underpinning this flood of emotion, were the subtle changes in stance and movement of the lips that marked arousal.

Asha could identify it not because she was a particularly skilled face-reader, but because she was feeling the exact same thing. Leyla had a tendency not to flaunt his body too much, wearing long and loose-fitting clothing ideal for desert travel. She’d seen him shirtless now and then but, given the context and that he was stripped to his underwear, now she saw him in a completely different light.

Leyla had always had an androgynous face, and now she could see that extended to the rest of him, from his narrow shoulders to his slender waist. She could see the sharp build of his body despite the slimness. He was lithe but not thin, as monster hunting had a way of toning the body.

Leyla was no doubt seeing the same thing in her. Asha didn’t have the most impressive curves, but broad hips and a toned stomach that gave definition to her waist were quick to draw his eyes to her deep tan skin before they traveled further upwards.

“Umm…” Leyla was the first to manage to break the silence. “You look…really good.”

“Likewise,” It was a lame line and both of them knew it. But they needed to lift the awkward mood somehow. It wasn’t that Asha didn’t want to be here in this situation with Leyla. Rather the context was making it far more awkward than the prospect of the act itself.

Leyla took a seat beside her on the altar, both staring forward at the door as they struggled to find a way to start, to say something that might break the tension.

“So what was Constance trying to do?” Asha asked.

“Giving me tips,” Leyla screwed up his mouth in a sort of half-smirk. “I told her I wasn’t new at this.”

“Wait…you’ve done it…in that body?” Asha glanced at him.

“Let’s not go there,” Leyla said. “But short answer is yes.”

“Oh…” Color rushed to her face as Asha’s self-consciousness returned. “I’m…completely new at this.”

“Oh…ooh,” Leyla was about as red as she likely was. “Wow and I’ve just been assuming and…seriously, never? You must have had a boyfriend.”

“Nope,” Asha said.

“Girlfriend…you know, other than Cat?”

Asha punched him in the shoulder, but she felt the burden ease up as he chuckled.

“No but seriously, a girl as beautiful as you,” Leyla continued. “I can understand waiting around for…well ‘it’. But it’s just been you?”

“No one,” Asha said, though she could hear her heart thumping in her chest now as she dangled on the words, head ablaze as she considered the ramifications of adding ‘except you’. Was she ready for that? Were they ready for that?

Her fingers curled around the edge of the altar. The anticipation, the knowledge of why they were there causing her heartbeat to accelerate until it was like thunder in her brain, making her thoughts hazy and indistinct as they fluttered half-formed between what was, what could be, and what would be.

As she stared off in no particular direction, she was pulled suddenly from her fevered reverie by the feelings of his hands on her shoulders. Suddenly she was looking at him, her eyes staring into his as her wings flapped to life.

“I think…” Leyla said, his words slow and deliberate. “…that there isn’t much point in just waiting.”

“Y-yeah…” Asha managed to stammer before Leyla pushed forward and, faster than she could blink, she felt his lips pressed to hers.

She was so focused, so consumed by the feeling of him kissing her she didn’t notice he was gently moving her onto her back until she felt her skin and the soft feathers at the base of her wings pressed against the cold stone. All she could focus on was the shape of his lips and the warm wet feeling of his tongue.

He pulled his head back, only far enough to speak, and Asha moved her arm to catch his long dark hair in her hand as she ran it across the back of his head.

“Are you ready?” He may have taken the lead, but Asha could see the intense nervousness running through Leyla’s body, his hands trembling even as they caressed her shoulders.

“Yeah,” Asha said, this time with more assurance. She wanted to feel his lips gain, to feel all of him against her.

The one word was all it took for him to lean back in, and this time she could feel his chest pressed against hers as his hands set to work on what little she still wore. She realized then just how warm he was, his very skin hot against hers as the power of the fire spirit burned within him. It was like being embraced by a furnace, but rather than push him away, Asha only wanted to feel more of it.

Her hands moved through his hair and across his back, feeling the heat rising off of him as his lips moved from hers to her cheek and down her neck, leaving her mouth free to release its gentle gasps. Leyla was leading, doing most of the work as he positioned them, his hands running from her shoulders to her waist too tantalizingly far up her hips, but if he had any complaints he didn’t voice them between his own rapid breaths.

It should have been uncomfortable, even painful. The two of them were positioned awkwardly atop the hard stone altar, neither experienced and one not experienced at all, guided only by their instincts and what little they knew. But something inhuman burned in both of them, that rush of spiritual energy that was ignited as their hearts raced and their spirits burned drove out any memory of pain or discomfort as they were lost in each other.

Asha didn’t know how long they had been going. She hadn’t bothered trying to keep track of time or anything except Leyla and what he was making her feel. He may have started but she was soon more than eager to give back in their flurry. And by the time one had finished the other pushed them forward with hurried movement and whispered words until they had lost all sense of when they had started or when they planned to end.

It took only a glance, however, only an aside glance from Asha to bring that tumultuous feeling crashing down on them. As she saw that in their lustful haze neither of them had realized they were being watched.

“Oh, don’t mind me,” A woman sat in a small but elegant throne across the room from them, facing their altar. “Please, continue.”

Both of them sat bolt upright, a movement that, in retrospect, was not well planned as Leyla winced sharply in pain and a riveting shudder ran up Asha’s spine. She had been on top at this point, and her wings were still fluttering hazily as they extricated themselves from one another with awkward pauses and murmured apologies until they were sitting on the edge of the altar.

The woman, or rather the goddess, facing them was astonishing to behold. She was a love goddess after all, and her beauty was unrivaled by anything Asha had ever seen. Her skin was a deep brown, her hair the black of fertile river soil, and her eyes a glistening golden color. She was dressed in fine robes that spoke of divine royalty, capped by a crown of molded gold centered with an eight-pointed star.

She might not have been tall, she did not tower over them like a giant upon a vast throne, however, there was a deeper allure to her. Every facet of her being seemed to exist to be her pleasure. From the silky shine of her hair, to the graceful movement of her slender legs and the glittering of her golden eyes, she was everything that Asha had ever wanted.

Asha’s head was already in a haze of confusion, lust, and slightly awkward shame, but seeing this love goddess before her sent her emotions on a spiraling journey to nowhere. Simply looking at her was enough to make Asha want to push Leyla back down onto his back, and a glance was all it took for her to tell Leyla felt the same. His arousal was, after all, much more obvious.

“L-Lady Ishtar,” Asha bowed her head deeply. “We’re honored by your presence.”

“I should imagine so. I have neither the time nor the inclination to visit every amorous pair in Damascus. Both of you should be more than honored to simply have me in your presence. If anything, I should have you on your knees.”

If Asha had been blushing before her face was burning now. She had hoped the goddess would announce herself first rather than sit around invisibly to…watch.

“Now, as you seem insistent upon interrupting such a lovely show,” Ishtar said. “Why is it you two have taken all this effort to summon me?”

 

Her voice, which had been a velvet waterfall of sweet and tantalizing words, suddenly grew sharp. It was, Asha felt, like a sword pulled from an ornate sheath.

Asha swallowed her nervousness. Now was not the time to stumble over her words. Still, giving a speech to a goddess was nerve-wracking under ideal conditions, and now she was nude and very…distracted.

“Lady Ishtar, we wish to create a cult for you in the city of Babylon.”

“Ah, Babylon…” The goddess said wistfully. “The old lands…While I am intrigued by the idea, it begs the question…why? You mortals so rarely do anything for each other, let alone the gods. At least not without persuasion.”

Asha swallowed a groan, this goddess was relentless. Leyla, however, was there to pick up the slack.

“Because the city is currently ruled by a tyrant,” he said. “One who considers herself and rules like a god-queen. We felt a real goddess, particularly one of your aspects and…popularity, would be a far better figure around which to rally the city.”

“Because everyone wants a sex goddess,” Ishtar’s smile grew even more predatory. “And because you need a war goddess. Is that right?”

“Bluntly put…yes,” Asha bowed her head.

Ishtar took a while to answer. Quite a while, Asha realized, her thighs and hands fidgeting nervously as she felt her heart shiver with each breath.

“I am amused,” Ishtar smiled. “Such an earnest display just to curry a little favor with me. I suppose you have tickled my better nature.  Of course, favor swiftly earned is favor swiftly lost. If I am displeased by this cult, or by your representations of me, then I will as soon flay you alive as I might bless you.”

She never stopped smiling as she spoke, that was perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it all. Ishtar walked along that fine line between beautiful and dangerous.

“For now though I am amused. Continue to amuse me, make me satisfied by your performance in this cult, and you shall reap the crop of my favor in Babylon.”

She smiled at them with a touch of cruel mischievousness. “I’m glad I could bring you two a little closer together.”

Both of them bowed their heads deeply.

“Thank you, Lady Ishtar” They said together.

“Do not waste this rare opportunity. For your own sake…” She gave them one last smile before vanishing, the divine essence that had seeped in with her vanishing in a rush as well until Leyla and Asha were quite sure they were alone again.

They had Ishtar’s cooperation, they had both agreed that it was all they needed before they opened the door and joined the others to give them the news. Together, they passed a single glance to the door.

Leyla grabbed her shoulders and pushed her back down against the altar. Hard. But not as hard as she had wanted him to. She looked up at him, a grin spreading across her face. Neither of them needed to express a word. The love goddess had left, but her influence hadn’t.

The others could wait for a few hours.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Men of Thunder

 

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

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

“I get that, but still…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh ya? What kind of chimera?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Who, Captain Nicomede?” Michail asked.

“Ya, that’s the one,” Lorenzo nodded.

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

Lorenzo chuckled, before taking another swig of his drink.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa