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

Chapter 44

 

“Talk” Asha slammed the man against the alley wall, hand pressed against his chesr as she stared him down.

“N-no.” The man tried to summon up what resistance he had. He was taller than Asha, but not by much. “The things they’d do to me if I talked…”

Leyla’s sword pierced the wall beside his chest, blade shimmering with heat.

“And the things we’ll do if you don’t?” He asked, eyeing him carefully.

It was a bluff on their part, if a dangerous one. Asha and Leyla had both been pretty strict on that point to Hazif and Freny. They were rebels and they had to fight, but they weren’t torturers, they wouldn’t sink to URIEL’s level.

The man was a mid-level employee at a nearby facility they had been tracking. They had hoped they might glean something from his walking route, but they’d been disappointed. Now, with their gestating cult in very dire straits it was time to start playing more dangerously. Hitting URIEL where they were weak, and even possibly uncovering some fo their secrets, was too valuable of an opportunity to slip by.

Asha pushed her hand hard against his chest, fingers spreading as spiritual energy coursed through her body beneath her skin. For him, it would have felt very hot, not enough to burn but enough to start making him sweat.

“I don’t believe you.” He said “If you were going to torture me you wouldn’t do it in some alley where I could scream for help.”

“Scream and the guards come down on us.” Leyla said.

“Yes, both of us.” The man pushed against her hand, even as he flinched at the heat. “And that’s worse for you than it is for me.

“Look” Asha said “We know you work with URIEL, we know there’s a lot of traffic and shipping into that facility. We’re not looking to hurt anyone.”

“You’ve killed a lot of soldiers” He spat back.

“Yes, we have.” Leyla said “Men armed with guns while we acted in self-defense, who serve a tyrannical empress. We just need to get inside, after that we’ll make our own way. It won’t be the first time.”

“Wait…” The man’s face went from confusion to revelation “You’re the ones who attacked the SV-facility a few months ago?”

“Uh…” Leyla paused as Asha shot him an angry glance. That had likely been where they had found Freny, but letting the man know only made him more of a witness.

“No no that’s brilliant!” The man’s face lit up “I thought you were just thieves or terrorists or something…well, I guess you’re both, but my friend Faraj was one of the scientists there. He said you got them to leave unharmed…Though he said you burned through his lab coat!”

“Yeah that was us…” Asha nodded “We’re not really in the business of killing civilians and unarmed scientists.”

“Who are you then?” He asked “There’s a thousand rumors going around but no one really knows for sure…”

“Well we’ve kind of needed to keep anonymity” Asha said before shaking her head “Back on the matter, we want into that facility.”

“Well I can’t give you my access codes or anything, they’ll know it was me.” He said.

“Make it work” Leyla said “Honestly this is a formality. Force us and we’ll go through the front door.”

The man gulped, clearly straining for an answer. “…early morning, 3AM or so, minimal staff on-site and I could…leave a few perimeter doors open after my shift ends. If you time it right you might be able to slip in without much fuss.”

“Tempting as that sounds” Leyla said “It seems a little too much like a trap.”

“No I swear! It’s not a trap” He said, and Asha couldn’t sense a lie in his words.

“He’s not lying” Asha said “But that was a pretty quick reversal.”

“It’s about more than just my neck” He said “There are a lot of people I work with…good people, some of them working against their will…They’re unhappy but alive, and I wouldn’t sell them out to some bombers or terrorists…but you spared Faraj’s life…and I hope you’ll spare theirs as well.”

“If they’re unarmed and they stay out of our way” Asha said “Then we’re not going to hurt them. But hat about your work? And the URIEL Loyalists?”

The man’s face hardened “Damn them…you think it’s sinister up here o nthe surface? The things they’re doing down there…it’s inhuman, there’s no other word for it. If I had a choice I’d…Can I just ask one thing?”

“We’re listening” Leyla said.

“When you leave, if everyone is out, burn the place down. I don’t want any trace of it left and…well it’s a bit self-serving but it would cover any evidence I leave of helping you as well.”

“I think we can manage that.” Asha said “Although…if there’s more that you’d like to do against URIEL, or you need to go underground, then I know a goddess that might interest you.”

 

It was late at night when they reconvened near the URIEL facility. Much like the last one the building was fairly mundane at the surface, the only sign of anything odd being the sizable perimeter wall surrounding it. They met about a block down the road, but rather than bring Eli along this time they had more potent reinforcements.

“I’m not followed” Freny huffed as Asha checked the corner of the street again.

“You think it’s wise to bring her?” Leyla asked, glancing at Freny “She’s going to be recognized.”

“Hazif’s fault for mentioning it in front of her” Asha grumbled. The second Freny had learned there was going to be a fight she had demanded to be a part of it. She might have been on their side, but she still had a bloodthirsty streak.

“We’ll just have to keep our eyes on her and make sure she doesn’t get too much publicity.”

“Alright…” Lela sighed before handing Freny a long scarf to tie around her face, though with her long horns and whipping scaled tail it seemed almost a pointless gesture.

Together, moving quickly and quietly, they headed towards the facility wall. As they got close, however, Freny suddenly stiffened visibly, halting in her tracks.

“What’s wrong?” Asha hissed, eyes darting around out of fear they’d be spotted early.

“This place…” Freny said quietly “This place. This place. This place…”

“Freny” Asha took firm hold of her shoulder, bringing her back to clarity. Freny shivered her eyes narrowing as her face set into a scowl.

“Are we killing?” She asked, pointed teeth bared.

“If they try to attack.” Asha said “If they don’t, then don’t attack.”

“Hate this place.”

“We’re going to burn it down” Leyla said “All of it, to ash. But first we need to get inside.”

Freny growled again but nodded her head in assent. Together the three of them moved back quickly to the perimeter wall.

The man had told them about a maintenance door on the west wall that was normally locked tight but lacked a guard. They found ti without arousing suspicion and Asha tested the handle, finding the door was unlocked.

“Good man” Asha smiled, but Leyla remained alert.

“It could still be a trap.” He said “be ready”

The maintenance door led into a shaft that, if the man was to be believed, would lead them directly into the facility without having to cross the yard that was strewn with guard. Of course, normally the maintenance hall had its own security but they were trusting their new friend had fulfilled his part of the bargain and seen to it.

True to his word, they found a ladder that led down into a darkened hallway that pointed them towards the facility. Once inside, he had warned, they’d largely be on their own. He lacked the clearance and the courage to try and disengage as much security as he could, and t might have tipped the guards off ahead of time. He had predicted that the second they managed to get to the lower levels the guards would come running.

The long hall from the maintenance office into the facility ended in a steel door that Asha also found to be unlocked. She opened it slowly, poking her head out to find a crisp sterile-looking white lab that was blessedly empty. Most researchers, he had said, would have gone home by now. Many of those who remained were never allowed to leave.

Leyla led them through the halls, sword in hand, as Freny brought up the rear and Asha moved between them, all of them with eyes and ears ready to catch the first sound of interception.

The sound of boots came from around the corner as a security guard rounded it. Asha could seen the startled confusion in his eyes before his body tensed, muscles moving to lift his weapon.

“Freeze!” He shouted, rifle rising to point at them, but Asha was quicker. In one swift blue or motion she moved past Leyla, drawing an arrow before releasing it. The man was falling with an arrow in his chest before he even knew what happened.

“Move” Asha said “The clock just started ticking.”

The man had said the stairwells to lower levels were in the southwest corner, and once again he was proven right as Freny forced open the sealed iron door with draconic strength, revealing the concrete stairwell spiraling before them. As the door was forced, however, alarms began to blaze throughout the facility.

The three of them threw themselves down the stairs, rushing from landing to landing to get to the bottom-most level where URIEL’s dirtiest secrets would be hiding. As they moved deeper, Freny’s movements became steadily more erratic, shivers running up and down her body.

“Hate this place…” She kept repeating over and over, and Asha placed a hand on her shoulder, trying to use her power to calm the dragon woman down. She wasn’t sure if it worked, but Freny did seem to calm visibly at her touch.

The door at the bottom of the stairwell was larger and thicker than the others had been.

“Give me a moment.” Leyla said and he moved his hands over the frame, pressing his palms against where the lock sealed the door and where the hidden hinges were as heat emanated from his skin, enough to soften steel.

He stood back, parts of the door glowing softly orange, before turning to Freny.

“Your show, Freny.”

Freny growled, teeth bared and tail whipping from side to side as she charged the door. There was a sound of wrenching metal as her clawed gauntlets stabbed into the reinforced steel and the door buckled before her before being ripped free from its hinges with a screeching groan of rent metal.

“Good job” Asha said, hurrying through after as she looked around “What in God’s name…”

The halls above had been spotless and sterile, a hall like any advanced research laboratory. Here, however, the halls were darker, lit only by harsh LEDs that bruned in the ceiling. The walls were covered with a tangle of cables and wires that covered every scrap of wall not covered in switches and dials that served some unknown purpose.

The hall branched out into several others, all of them similarly strange as they hurried to find something they could use, or at the very least a place to set their fire. Coming through another door, they found a large bunker that was clearly meant to serve as a dormitory.

A number of scientists, casually dressed in civilian clothes or lab coats stared as the trio entered. The alarms were still blaring outside and several were brandishing rudimentary clubs or fire axes.

“They’re here!” One of them hurried forward, brandishing his axe. “The intruders! They’re here to kill us all!”

“We’re not!” Asha said hurriedly “Just here to stop…whatever’s happening down here.”

“Monsters” Freny spoke next “They make monsters…”

Freny’s eyes were looking over them, narrowed and almost burning with hatred as she stared them down.

“Our work is important! We do the Queen’s bidding and we’ll be rewarded! That’s what she said!” the man shouted, still brandishing his axe dangerously.

“Asif, calm down.” A woman behind the axe-wielding man stepped up to him, placing a hand on his shoulder “I’m sure we can just…talk this…”

In one sudden motion she grabbed the back of his head and slammed it into the nearest deck, causing the man to crumple to the ground.

“Idiot” She muttered before looking up at the three of them. “And a zealot. The rest of us are more than happy to leave if you’re offering escape.”

“Umm…” Asha glanced between the fallen man and the woman “And who are you?”

“Varia Archeille, formerly willingly of URIEL. Now, I would like to leave if at all possible.”

 

 

 

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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 43

 

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

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

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

“Oh!” Cat stood up. “Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And that can be done?” Cat asked.

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

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

Huldra smiled. “You are a scholar.”

Cat smiled, face reddening a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

“The Three?” Cat asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right…”

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

“I am sorry, Catarina.”

“Sorry?” Cat asked, looking at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Angel?” Cat asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…thanks…Huldra.”

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

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

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Meeting at the Well

 

It had taken some searching for Megame to find the old well. A marching legion was always in need of water and every little bit helped. The well was the old kind you’d find in stories, a cylinder of stones rising from the ground in a forest clearing, overgrown with vines and roots with a shaft that cut deep into the dark earth. There was an old length of rope Megame tested for strength before typing it to her pail and lowering it down into the well below.

“Evening, young Miss.”

Megame nearly jumped as an old man emerged from the trees. She hadn’t seen or heard him as she’d approached, and she hurriedly withdrew the pail, bowing her head.

“I’m sorry, sir. Is this your well? I didn’t mean to use it without permission.”

The old man raised a wrinkled hand with skin like gnarled bark. “Think nothing of it, this water is for all who would drink from it. I only ask you be thankful, not all wells are this free to be drunk from.”

Megame watched the old man closely. His face was much like his hands, wizened and leathery from years on the road and under the sun. He had a cloth running across his face and over his nose to cover one of his eyes and his silver hair had receded entirely under the broad brim of his hat. His shoulders were wrapped in an old traveling cloak that was a weathered and dusty grey.

“Thank you,” Megame bowed again before lowering the pail into the well once more.

“You’re a very polite girl,” the old man said. “What’s your name?”

“Megame Kamigawa,” she said, nodding her head. “That’s very kind of you to say, Mister…”

“Jafnar, you can call me,” the old man said.

“Mister Jafnar,” she nodded. To her surprise she still hadn’t heard the splash of water; the well must have been very deep. “It’s odd seeing someone alone out here. These lands are dangerous.”

“Dangerous to some,” Jafnar said. “Not to all, and I’m not the only one alone at this well.”

“Ah, I’m traveling with an army,” Megame said. “The second Roman Legion. If you like, you can join the Legion’s supply train for a while. We’ve met a lot of people on the road north.”

Jafnar laughed. “Ha! The problem with marching with armies is they tend to march to war. I think, in the long run, my route may be safer. Besides, I’m going south.”

“South?” Megame asked. “Well…it is safer, but where south? Italy?”

“Greece, they call it,” Jafnar said.

“Greece is a very long way…” Megame said.

“My legs are good,” Jafnar said. “I have my walking stick…somewhere. And besides, I have a meeting in Greece I really shouldn’t miss.”

Megame glanced around, and saw an old stick lying against the side of the well. She paused. Had the stick always been there? Had Jafnar placed it there when she hadn’t been looking?

Megame picked it up. “Is this your…”

Light flashed in her mind’s eye. Power like electricity running under her skin ran through her fingers to her shoulder, causing her hair to stand on end. As she looked at it, the old staff of gnarled wood gleamed with power, runes across its surface. At the same instant it was a spear, long and glistening with power, blood like crimson paint across its blade and almost halfway down its haft. In that mere second, the stick, staff, and spear were one, all overlaid in the vision of her eyes and her mind.

“Ah, there it is, thank you,” Jafnar casually took the staff from her, and the power and visions faded instantly.

“Y-you’re welcome…” Megame paused, before shaking her head and continuing to lower the pail into the deep, deep well.

“It’s nice isn’t it?” He said. “Wish I could say I made it myself.”

“It is a nice…walking stick,” Megame said. “Is it umm-“

Before she could think up a more polite way of asking if his staff was magic, Jafnar spoke over her.

“You know, this reminds me of another time I was at a well,” He said, idly musing with the tone of an old man recalling the distant past.

“Met another woman there, one far less polite than you.”

“A-another woman?” Megame’s eyes were still on the staff, mind only half paying attention to his story.

“She was a pretty thing. Lithe and blonde in her absolute prime…she seemed like the very image of youth…and yet at the same time she was the oldest thing I had ever seen.”

Megame froze, hands still on the rope just as she felt the pail finally hit water.

A picture formed in her mind’s eye. A young woman with long curly blonde hair and rosy cheeks on flawless young skin. A woman with eyes that seemed to swallow all light, eyes older than the stars.

“I…I believe I’ve met someone similar,” Megame said, trying to keep her tone calm as she lowered the pail into the invisible pool of water far beneath the well.

“It’s not something one forgets,” Jafnar said. “To see something so eternal look so young. All the potential and possibility of the unlived future wrapped up in a beautiful girl. The future given form. I looked at this girl and I saw beauty, but when I looked into her eyes I saw the end of all things.”

“Skuld,” Megame said. “That’s what she said her name was.”

Jafnar smiled. “One of many she possesses, the youngest or the eldest of the Three.”

Megame looked up at the old man. “Apologies, Mister Jafnar but…who are you?”

“I’ll forgive your lack of wit,” he smirked. “On the fact that you’re still something of a foreigner, Kamigawa. I too have many names. As many, I am sure, as your Sun, Moon, and Storm gods. To poets, I am the Father of Songs; to travelers, I am The Wanderer, and to soldiers I am the God of Battle, the Barrow Lord. Though I think you’ve heard my name on the lips of one dear to you.”

“Someone dear to me?” Megame asked, when she was struck by a sudden realization. It was an epiphany sparked by a memory, a casual chat with Kara some months ago.

“My old boss?” Kara had said. “Guys a bit of a miscreant when he’s not all geared up for battle, if I’m being honest. Tends to dress himself up and pretend to be someone else, or no one at all. He’s got some tells though, so it’s not too hard to spot him if you know what to look for.”

There were some things that spirits, even gods could not hide. Just as Hachi and Capitolina always had the ears and tail of a fox or wolf, there were some qualities with inertia that could not be hidden save by the greatest shapeshifters. Kara had told her how to spot the lord of the Valkyries. An old man, cloaked with a broad hat, a walking stick, but most of all a missing eye. For the eye had been the price he’d paid for knowledge, and no shape he took could regain that lost sight.

“Odin Okami-sama…”Megame said quietly, before falling quickly to her knees, hands releasing the rope and pail to fall into the well.

Odin’s hand lashed out, snatching the rope with lightning speed.

“That would have been an inconvenience,” he said. “Okami-sama was it? I’ll need to add that to the list. Now get up.”

Megame slowly rose to her feet, sheepishly taking the rope and pulling up the heavy pail of water.

“Sorry…” She said, trying not to make eye contact.

‘You fret on things too much,” Odin said. “Politeness is well and good but it can be a pain. Your Japanese gods must be a pain to deal with.”

“There is just…a formality to things,” Megame said. “I’m not sure how to react with foreign gods sometimes…”

“I did catch you off-guard there a bit,” Odin grinned. “Don’t fret with it, I’ve fooled much brighter and much braver than you.”

Megame hid a grimace. She was pretty sure she’d just been insulted.

“If you are Odin-sama,” Megame said. “Then you would have known who I was before you met me.”

“Yes, but it’s important for you to introduce yourself. Plus it ruins the game if I let it slip who I am too early.”

“If I may ask, why did you come to see me?” Megame asked. “Surely Torleif or…”

“It was a fun little detour, hardly anything world-shaking,” Odin shrugged. “I’m not here to impart advice or give a warning. I think it would be a bit late for the latter at any rate…no I dropped by on my way to Greece to meet you in particular.”

“Me?” Megame asked.

“You, Megame kamigawa, Player of Games,” Odin smiled. “Like it or not you have a reputation now, and a name.”

“Player of Games…” Megame frowned. “I’m not sure I like it, it makes me sound like a video game addict.”

“Ha!” Odin roared with laughter. “You think I like half the names people have thrust on me? Sorry to say, little foreigner, once you challenge a great Norn to the Game of Fate you start having a reputation. I wanted to see if the girl lived up to the reputation.”

“I imagine I’m shorter than you imagined,” Megame said.

“No, all you small humans look about the same size to me,” Odin grinned. “But I’m curious about something else.”

“Something else?” Megame asked.

“Skuld was kind when she challenged you,” Odin said. “You won back all the stakes you placed. Small as it might be to me, a girl’s life is the highest stakes you can offer. When I played the Game of Fate I won the vision I wanted, but I paid a price as well.”

Odin gestured to his missing eye. “And in my fate, deep in the well of Mimir, I saw Ragnarok. Tell me, Player of Games, what did you see? What was in those cards that brought you out to Nidhoggr’s country?”

“I saw people coming together,” Megame said. “I saw myself and others bound together to fight the evil in these lands. Even if they didn’t know me back then…I knew I’d meet them, and they’d need my help.”

“I suppose I’m doing the same,” Odin smiled wryly. “The Norns are quiet but my vision still extends far. I had a dream, of a raven meeting an eagle atop a great mountain lit by a golden sun. So while I had hoped to stay on the battlefield of my homeland, I knew I was needed elsewhere.”

“I feel it would be arrogant of me to compare my problems to those of a great spirit,” Megame said.

Odin laughed again as Megame finally pulled the water from the well. “It’s not you humans who are like gods,” he said. “It is too often we gods are like you. I think, however, it’s time I kept moving.”

Megame bowed deeply at the waist. “It has been an honor to meet you, Odin Okami-sama.”

“Keep following that path you saw, Player of Games,” Odin said, drawing his cloak about himself as he moved back into the forest. “But never forget that sometimes knowledge has a price.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 39

 

It seemed it didn’t matter where she went these days, Noemi was getting used to being either aboard a rocking creaky ship or running through the underbrush of a jungle. After running off from Nicolas, Noemi had followed the bare markings that made up the trail of a human, doing the best she could with what little she had before her. A footstep in some dried mud, fabrics caught on thorns and bark, or the remains of a campfire here and there kept her going deeper into the jungle.

It seems odd that your sidekick, from what you’ve told me, would go this deep alone, Noemi.

“Well, maybe she found a spirit of her own. I don’t know how she got here but…look, even if it’s not her, we’ve come this far. We should see it through!”

I suppose. Though what will you do if it is not her?

“I don’t know…probably talk to whoever is leaving this trail, I guess. They must be good at surviving. Maybe they’d be willing to travel with us, or at least get us in contact with spirits…”

Yes. The local spirits here feel…oddly tranquil.

“They probably haven’t had much happen to stir them up as of late.”

Noemi hadn’t been paying much attention to the spirits as she ran through the jungle. Most seemed to just shuffle out of her way, scurrying beneath the leaves and vines to hide. Others watched with curious but passive interest as she charged forward, ignoring them. They were certainly less aggressive than the spirits in Tess’s jungle had been, though there she had no idea which ones were spies for the jaguar.

Perhaps she should have paid them a little more attention, though. Noemi’s foot caught on a vine and sent her tumbling to the ground, right beside a number of spirits who swiftly took the form of birds, flocking away together, chattering and calling to one another. She could feel the hair on her arms and neck rising as she pushed herself off the ground, spitting out mud.

In Tess’ jungle, that would have been a death sentence. Here, it was just carelessness. Still, carelessness was unacceptable. Noemi cursed herself silently under her breath, as she started to run again. She could feel Ophidia’s presence pushing her forward, as the previously quiet jungle started to fill with sounds.

All the animals, large and small, joined in the cacophony around her as Noemi winced. That…didn’t seem to be a good sign.

Now they are no longer tranquil.

“Is that…sarcasm?”

An observation.

“It is!”

I would be careful, Noemi. With everything so…active, it is hard to get a sense of what is ahead of us.

“Yeah…can barely hear anything over these screeches. Stupid birds!”

Pay attention, Noemi. You are getting careless…

“Right…Sorry…”

Noemi shut up and stopped running, moving slowly through the brush. It might have been late, but her instincts and her habits from surviving in the rainforest were starting to return to her as she took a moment to recover. The spirits were active now, sure, but she could use that to her advantage. It means that it would be as hard for others to hear her as for her to hear them.

She drew her machete from her belt. The weight of it felt familiar in her hands, and helped her slide easily back into the cunning survivalist mindset she had before. She pushed her red hair out of her eyes, the strands sticking to her skin, sweaty from the humidity. Noemi swung the blade, clearing a path as quietly as she could, even as the jungle made noise all around her.

The feeling in the back of her mind, that they were being followed and stalked, never went away though, even as she continued along the trail. Eventually, the jungle gave way to a small clearing around a pond. Noemi looked around, but there was no one. No black-haired girl…

Stepping out from the foliage, her machete raised, Noemi slowly approached the pond. The water was flowing into it from a small creek, it seemed to have some fish swimming beneath its surface. Noemi wondered if perhaps the water spirit had seen any other human, if she could tell her where Gisela might have gone.

“Guess we should see if someone’s home…”

I do sense a spirit nearby but…Noemi. We’re not alone!

“What do you—” She didn’t even finish the sentence before she heard the soft twang of a bowstring. Actually, she felt it before she heard it, her instincts warning her of the danger before the arrow had left the bow. Falling to the ground, she rolled forward, raising her machete in front of her as she took a knee.

Men started to step out of the forest, wearing dark greens and blacks, though decorating themselves with the feathers and fur of animals. Most were carrying bows, though some held swords in their hands. They all bore the symbol of the jaguar on their cloak. Servants of Tezcatlipoca, an Aztlan raiding party…they had reached even here.

Noemi swore under her breath, her eyes darting around like a cornered beast. They were all around her, and there was nowhere close enough to take cover from their arrows.

She could hear the sound of a woman laughing. Stepping from the shadows came what seemed to be a priest, dressed in the raiment of the Jaguar, the black skin of the beast draped over her head. The priestess continued to laugh, though there was a deeper, louder chortle underneath her haughty airy one.

You’ve made it far too easy,” she said, the strange echo on her voice. Noemi’s face blanched.

“Tess…”

“That and a thousand other names.”

“How…How did you…?”

“You think my influence so meager, my power so thin, that I cannot reach this far? I told you before that there was nowhere you could go that I could not find you, no shadow dark enough for you to hide from me. Aztlan has no boundaries, -I- have no boundaries. The village was already under my control, before you set your feet upon the sands.”

“How!?”

The priestess grinned, and for a second, Noemi thought she could see the face of the young girl who had once traveled beside her in the priestess’ dark smile.

“Fate, I suppose. The spirits know to keep an eye out for you or your ‘sidekick’. When you washed ashore, it was not long before my priestess was informed. I knew you would not think before rushing off after your precious Gisela.”

“Gisela…”

“Is not here, girl, and you will never find her. Your search has ended, and I plan to make good on that promise I made you.” The priestess sauntered over and Noemi could almost feel Tezcatlipoca’s power coursing through her body. She ran her finger down Noemi’s chest, eyes dark and burning with divine light. “Your heart will make a fine meal for…what’s this now?”

The skin over Noemi’s heart started to glow a faint white, the color of Ophida’s feathers. The priestess’…no…Tezcatlipoca’s face split into an even wider grin.

“Oh ho, what a treat. So this is how you escaped my forces in the jungle before. You found yourself a patron, just like poor Anton. An imitation god for an imitation hero,” Tezcatlipoca said, wrapping her fingers around Noemi’s throat, cutting off her air. “An ancient shadow of my fallen brother. You’re not even a goddess anymore, little snake. I would hardly deign to give you the honor of sacrifice but…I suppose you’ll make good fodder.”

The long, soft, fingers of the priestess loosened their grip on Noemi’s throat. Noemi sucked back in air, rubbing her throat gingerly.

“Bind her and prepare her as a proper sacrifice. I’ve waited too long to simply devour her here. I want to savor the last beats of her heart.”

Noemi was still gasping for breath as the soldiers started to grab her, throwing her to the ground as they pinned her arms behind her back. They didn’t bother being gentle as they tied her arms together, tightly so that she could barely move them, before slipping a collar and chain around her neck.

Noemi pulled against the collar but as they yanked on the chain, she found herself unable to breathe again and was forced to stumble forward. She glared at them all, even as they led her through the island jungle towards their camp.

“Ophida,” She said silently, thinking it rather than speaking. “Do you think you can get us out of here again?”

I cannot. I’m afraid I’ve grown too diminished, and there are none of my winged serpents here upon which I can call.

Noemi grimaced. Ophida didn’t say it, but Noemi was blaming herself anyway. After all, she had made the choice to come here over helping Jormungandr or even staying behind to build a cult for Ophida and make the spirit stronger. She had bet it all on finding Gisela and now…Well, it had gotten them here. Captured and with no power between them to break free.

“I’m sorry, Ophida…”

I understand, Noemi. It is…unfortunate. But know, that I did enjoy our time together.

“Thanks. I…I haven’t been a good champion for you, but…I really am sorry. I wish I had been able to see it more clearly before now.”

There is nothing we can do now, Noemi.

“Yeah…”

She felt the tug of the chain on her neck, bringing her out of her inner thoughts. Noemi let out a groan as the metal dug into her neck, glaring at the Aztlan soldier who held her chain.

“No escape for you, not even into your own thoughts, prisoner,” he grinned at her, looking pleased with her capture and degradation. “We’ve got to get you prepared for your sacrifice.”

“Oh, please, don’t let me stop you there,” Noemi said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

They pulled her forward, dumping a bucket of water on her head, scented with some sort of flower she didn’t know. Noemi grimaced from the shock of it. “…You are such a princess, Tess! Perfumed water, really?”

“That’s Tezcatlipoca, slave! He has demanded very specific preparations for you.”

Noemi spit on the ground in front of her, some of the perfumed water leaving her now scented lips. “Thought I was a sacrifice. So just slit my neck already, cut out my heart, and be done with it.”

The guard glared at her, but he continued to prepare her, stripping her out of her worn, raggedy, clothes and giving her a fresh dress. Noemi rolled her eyes, but didn’t struggle as they slipped the dress over her, briefly untying her bonds. She considered throwing a punch and making a run for it, but that was just likely to lead to more torture before they had the grace to kill her.

“There, just as the Jaguar demanded.”

Noemi was dragged towards the altar in the center of the camp, where the priestess stood, a knife in her hand as she voiced the words of prayer to the Jaguar. Noemi sighed as she marched, the crowd parting for her.

As she started to climb the steps up the altar, a loud screech came from the jungle, followed by hundreds of weaker shrieks. Noemi looked up, as dozens, if not hundreds of bird spirits took to the skies above the canopy of the trees, flying above the clearing where the Aztlan hunters had made their camp. She could hear the grunting and snorting of angry boars in the trees, the cracking of snapped bark.

“The spirits, they’ve been disturbed!” The priestess shouted, her voice human again. “Oh, great and mighty Jaguar, pacify these unruly, urgh!”

The priestess’ hands went to her throat, blood pouring through her fingers as her voice failed her. The animal spirits charged out from the trees into the camp in a rush of claws and talons, stampeding over the Aztlan soldiers. People went flying towards the branches, which grabbed those unfortunate few, pulling them into the shadow of the leaves.

Noemi’s jaw dropped open as she watched, her hands still bound together. The soldiers drew their swords and grabbed their bows, trying to fight off the forces of the jungle itself.

“Boss!”

Her head whipped around as she heard her name being called. There was Junko, riding on the back of a giant boar spirit, throwing knives at any who sought to block her path. The Asian girl reached down with one hand and grabbed the redhead, pulling her onto the back of the spirit as they continued to barrel into the jungle, leaving the sounds of the chaos behind them.

“…I thought the cavalry was supposed to be horseback. This is one strange looking horse,” Noemi joked, though her voice came out forced.

“Thank god I wasn’t too late. When I heard Nicholas say he sent you into the jungle…”

“What are you doing here, Junko?”

“I told you I had my own business, boss. But…I needed to get out too, hid away on a ship to Cuba. Been here a couple of months.

“…the Dutchman…It must have…”

“Come on, we’ll get you to a port, get you out of here before Aztlan can recover.”

“…No,” Noemi said, with confidence in her voice. “I’m not going anywhere. I said I was going to stop running but…I haven’t been doing that, I’ve still been letting Tess run me through a maze like a rat. We’re freeing this island from Aztlan.”

“Ehh?! Boss…That’s not going to be easy, they’re already here!”

What of Gisela, Noemi?

“I made a mistake! I let my desires get in the way of my responsibility. Things only got worse when I went off searching for Gisela. They’ll only keep getting worse if I don’t do anything and then it will be too late to stop them.”

“So…what are you going to do, boss?”

“We’re going back to the village, Junko. I’ve got a new cult to sell to the people.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa