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

The Marks that Bind

 

It was late at night in the Second Legion camp. Most people were asleep, while a decent contingent of the guard stayed on the walls to keep back the monsters. Evangeline, however, was taking a little time for herself. Though she’d gotten by on her bad leg without issue before, the long days of hard marching were taking their toll. She used her automatons as a leg brace to keep pace with the others, but after a day of that it had chafed fiercely, and she was relieved when they set up camp.

Their camp was in a large clearing in the forest. Hanne had taken it as simple good luck and set up camp there immediately. It was built on a hill that gave them a commanding view of the surrounding forests and even a hint of the Brocken in the distance. Evangeline, however, was convinced it was no simple hill, and had decided after night fell to investigate on her own.

Atop the hill, in the center of the camp not far from the command tent, was a loose gathering of large boulders. Most of them were very long and stood up on their narrower sides as if raised like standing stones. Even the shortest of them easily dwarfed her, and they had caught her eye the moment she walked into camp. Hildegard and Angel had both insisted the hill was safe and without any trace of excess magic, but Evangeline wasn’t so sure.

She was investigating the stones, tapping the hard rock with her cane when she heard steps coming up the hill behind her.

“Poking around with rocks now, Evangeline?” She recognized Rosa’s voice, not even needing to turn around.

“That’s right,” Evangeline said. “Rocks are interesting.”

There was a pause before Rosa spoke again, and Evangeline kept at her work.

“…what kind of rock is it?”

“Granite,” Evangeline said idly, still tapping away.

“Uh huh…” Rosa’s voice trailed off, but Evangeline didn’t hear her leave. It was clear she wanted to talk about something. By now, Rosa knew her well enough to know that Evangeline was listening, but she wasn’t going to turn around when she was already so engrossed in her work.

“Do you have a minute to…?”

“By all means, talk away,” Evangeline said, hand sliding over the smooth stone. Too smooth.

“I was just wondering…you’ve…heard about me and Cat, right?”

“You two do have such a sense of timing,” Evangeline clucked her tongue. “Choosing to tie this romantic knot of yours on the veritable eve of battle.”

Evangeline smiled, she could almost hear Rosa bristling from the way her weight shifted her armor.

“H=hey it was Cat’s fault we-“

“I think it’s cute, Rosa,” Evangeline interrupted her. “Everyone does. Besides, late or not it’s better to get it out before the big battle. So don’t worry about it.”

Her cane made a looud tink sound as it struck the stone at an angle.

“Now that’s odd…”

“It’s just…well I was anxious about Cat because she was acting all weird. I get that it’s because she was worried about bringing it up, but now I’m worried because-“

“Because you’re worried about her even more,” Evangeline interrupted her again. “Because now she’s not just your friend and comrade, but your girlfriend…I think I hit the mark,” Evangeline was half-talking to Rosa and half-trying to focus on the stone. There was something under here.

“Yeah…” Rosa muttered. “Like I don’t regret it, but now I’m all…”

“We’re all worried, Rosa,” Evangeline said. “Cat has family and friends here. We all want her safe,” Her eyes were still locked on the stone. She flipped the cane in her hand, grasping the worn wood near the base as she weighed the heavy handle on the far end. With a flick of her thumb she tripped a hidden level and heard a soft metallic whir go through the device. At the head of the cane, a small glass sphere containing a modicum of divine lightning was slotted onto place.

“I know, I know it’s just…this is kind of different now. Like, I should be looking out for her more. I don’t know, maybe I should go talk to her…”

“Cat’s sleeping and you’re overthinking things,” Evangeline’s automatons moved to her bad leg, bracing it in place. This was going to take some effort.

“Wow, Evangeline,” Irritation was growing in Rosa’s voice. “Could you at least humor me for a second before cutting me off? It’s not easy for me to talk about this kind of-“

“One second, sorry.”

Evangeline swung her cane like a sledgehammer, the metal head contacting the hard stone with enough force to shatter the glass sphere. There was a flash of light and a sound like a thunderclap rolling through the camp. Evangeline saw a number of people sticking their heads out of their tents to investigate, and she waved her cane apologetically.

“Sorry!” She shouted. “Nothing to worry about! I promise!”

“Jesus, give me some warning next time!” Evangeline turned to Rosa for the first time and saw her gingerly rubbing her ears with her palms.

“Sorry,” Evangeline said. “Running tests.”

“Could you spare me like, I don’t know, ten seconds of your time?”

“Shall I time you?” Evangeline asked sarcastically, rebalancing herself on her cane. “Look, Rosa, I understand but you’re…well you’re blowing this a bit out of proportion.”

Rosa’s face reddened both in embarrassment and irritation. Evangeline could see why Cat found her cute.

“I’m worried about her!”

“Good,” Evangeline said. “Being worried is a good thing.”

“Wha-what do you mean?” Rosa asked.

“Come look at this,” Evangeline gestured for Rosa to come close to the stone. Hesitantly at first the redhead walked over to stand next to her.

On the surface of the old granite, lines of light were beginning to wind themselves across the stone surface. Slowly they moved and intersected, forming into runic inscriptions and stylized art, flawless in detail and shining with power.

“What is this?” Rosa asked.

“A runestone. They’re pretty rare this far south,” Evangeline said. “But there are a few you can find if you know how to see through the magic.”

“Runestone?”

Evangeline nodded. “Normally they’re just carved rocks people put up to commemorate lost relatives or boast about their own accomplishments. But stones like these are something special. You see here?”

Evangeline gestured to parts of the runestone all but covered in shining runic script over geometric lines that almost appeared to be schematics. Evangeline traced some of the lines with her fingers, following the patterns.

“These were put up by dwarves as a method of recording and communication. A bit harder to find than human replications, but all the better for it. I can only imagine the kind of knowledge these things had.”

“Uh huh…” Rosa looked over the lines, but the meaning of them was lost on her. “So, what was with all the thunder and lightning?”

“Oh that?” Evangeline shrugged. “Well, dwarves don’t sell their secrets cheaply. They usually demand unfair or unreasonable trades for their work. So, of course, if they write down their designs, there’s going to be a lot of security around it. I just had to bust open the lock a little.”

“Doubt they’d like that,” Rosa said, Evangeline shrugged.

“Assuming the dwarf that wrote that is still alive, he can take it up with me and my boss.”

“Right…so, looking to see if you can work some Norse dwarf metalsmithing into all that divine engineering you do?”

“Couldn’t hurt,” Evangeline smiled. “Shame I don’t have time to implement anything I learn before the battle…”

With a flick of her hand she released some of her skittering automatons onto the runestone, letting them crawl over its surface and record whatever they could. She couldn’t very well take the stone with her later.

“Mmm…but getting back on my point,” Rosa started to say.

“I don’t think you’ll have any problems, Rosa,” Evangeline said.

“What do you mean?”

Evangeline smiled. “I mean that of course you’re worried. A lot of people are, and not just for Cat…but I also know you. I helped fortify your spear after all.”

“Well true…”

“And remember what we did? How we narrowed its focus and the concepts worked within the metal of your spear?”

“Yeah, we made it less about just killing and more about protecting.”

“We did,” Evangeline said. “And we chose that because you wanted to protect Rome and the people in it you cared about. You’re the kind of person, Rosa, who never fights better than when they’re protecting something they care about…and you’ve never had the chance to fight for someone you cared about more than Catarina.”

“Mmm…” Rosa fell into a n uncomfortable silence, and Evangeline walked from the stone as her automatons continued their work, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

“You told me about your sister, Rosa…I can’t imagine how hard carrying those memories must be for you. The two of you struggled so hard to survive…but you never got the chance to do what you wanted, to fight for her and to protect her from else.”

“No…” Rosa said. “I never got to…”

“You’re not going to fail Catarina like you failed her,” Evangeline said. “No one is.”

“Mmmm…thanks, Evangeline,” Rosa said. “Just…needed to hear it and there wasn’t…it’s hard to talk about with the team, especially Cat.”

“I understand,” Evangeline nodded. “You need to look strong and fearless as the commander, especially with Cat as scared as she is. You’re all too tight knit for you to appear scared.”

“That’s…that’s more or less it, yeah,” Rosa nodded.

“All of us are scared, Rosa. For our own reasons and for the same reason in that we’re all about to go fighting a gigantic chaos dragon. Who wouldn’t be scared, seriously?”

“I don’t know how Cat’s even still moving,” Rosa said. “I’m…I worry. This is a lot for her. Too much for anyone really.”

“Catarina is like no one else I’ve ever met,” Evangeline said. “And you really should feel lucky someone like her loves someone like you.”

“Heh, well…I do feel pretty lucky,” Rosa turned a bit red in the face.

“She relies on all of us, but you most of all,” Evangeline said. “She knows you’re scared…but so long as she sees you pushing forward and braving through it, she’ll be able to as well.”

“I guess that’s what we’re all doing,” Rosa said. “Just putting on a brave face so the rest of us can do the same.”

“That’s what being brave is,” Evangeline said. “No one here is stupid enough to think that none of us are afraid. Everyone is scared and everyone knows it…but we’re all scared together and we all march together. Like links in chain armor one pulls along the other and they pull along others, and the first was pulled along by someone else. There’s no start, no lead, just a little collective bravery form all of us is what keeps this army marching. You and Catarina inspire one another, keep each other going, and it’s the same for the rest of the team.”

“Heh, you give pretty good speeches,” Rosa gave a weary smile.

“Just one on one.” Evangeline returned her smile. “I’m terrible at public speaking really, way too casual.”

“So who keeps you marching?” Rosa asked.

“You have to ask?” Evangeline said. “All of you, of course.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Lowest Valleys

 

“Some of the world’s most powerful entities and nothing seems to get done,” Isis-Ra said, looking over the vast table they had made. On its surface of polished marble and inlaid lapis was a topographical map of Europe and the Mediterranean, all lands from Portugal to Britain to Babylon to Tunisia were there in semi-precious stone, examined and scrutinized by the great beings of three powerful pantheons, Zeus, Odin, and Isis-Ra with Freyja, Hera, and Athena as well.

“Powerful beings make for powerful indecisions,” Odin grinned, leaning on the ‘northern’ part of the table. His lone eye never rose to meet theirs, always seeming to track back to a mountain in Germany, where the Nidhoggr’s presence had been marked in swirling black and blue fog.

Three other parts of the map were similarly marked. Over Cairo, the land was black and twisted as something seemed to move beneath the stone. In Greece, fire bellowed from the mountains and hurled ash into the atmosphere over the table. In Babylon, something spread a black corruption across the land.

“Four dragons,” Zeus said. “Four monsters to be slain or thrown back beneath the earth.”

“And none of us with the power to do it alone,” Isis-Ra said.

Zeus scoffed. “I defeated Typhon once, I can do it again.”

“Even if that were true, Lightning-hurler,” Odin said, leaning on his spear. “None of us are in our prime anymore, and that would end but one problem. Typhon might be destroyed but I assure you that if Nidhoggr is not stopped, the Fimbulwinter will not end at my borders. Each of these dragons is a world-ending threat alone. All at once, they are hardly short of invincible.”

Zeus’ face grew stern as he looked down at his own lands. “They may be of the same essence but these creatures do not fight as one.”

“Agreed,” Isis-Ra nodded. “All of them have differences in their methods though their end result is the same. Apep seeks total dominion of the Underworld, twisting and binding the souls of the dead until it can unleash them all upon the earth and claim that for its kingdom as well.”

Odin nodded and turned to Zeus. “And you, Lord of Olympos. What does your monster want?”

“What it has always wanted,” Zeus folded his arms. “It is Gaia’s vengeance, the anger of the Earth given form. It would rip the gates off Tartarus and unleash its siblings, the Titans, back into the world.”

“The Titans were much like we Olympians once,” Hera said, reclining on her throne of cloud and marble nearby. “Powerful, glorious…but their long stay in Tartarus has twisted them until they became as vile as Typhon itself. They want nothing more than to tear down Olympos and the world with it.”

“Freyja’s told me about your wyrm,” Athena said, looking at the two Norse gods. “That it heralds the end of the world…seems almost tame by comparison.”

Odin looked at Athena. Since he had arrived, to most of them he had appeared almost like a doddering old man, more a trickster than the head of a pantheon. But when he looked at Athena, even the grey-eyed goddess of war was humbled by the power in his one-eyed gaze.

“Freyja has not seen Ragnarok,” Odin said. “She is wise in many things, but she does not understand it as I do.”

Odin tapped his spear across the floor and the table map shifted, focusing itself upon Northern Europe and Scandinavia.

“The breaking of Nidhoggr’s prison sets a chain of events in motion, a series of cataclysms each more terrible than the last.”

He waved his spear across the table, and a layer of ice began to spread, like glaciers caving their way across the landscape and crushing the old world beneath them.

“First will be the Fimbulwinter, the winter cold that will bring an end to all mortal resistance and civilization. Their end will not be at the claws and teeth of monsters, but at simply the death of the cold world around them. No food, no soil, no warmth or hope of spring. The mortals will die quietly, and they will be the lucky ones for it.”

“I hardly think theatrics are necessary, Lord of Songs,” Hera said. “We are gods. We have lived through cataclysms before.”

“Though I am pleased by your hospitality, allow me this rudeness, Queen of Argos,” Odin replied. “All of you have lived through hardship, all of you have seen disaster come and go. But none of you, Olympians, have ever died. Your kin quietly slumbered until being awoken again. My people suffered Ragnarok once and we were reborn. I have no intention of letting it happen again.”

“Let him speak,” Isis-Ra spoke next. “Though I will not deny your clear preference for drama…I have seen firsthand the pain of death when my beloved husband was taken from me. I would know what horrors could threaten all the gods of this world.”

“Thank you, Queen of the Sun,” Odin inclined his head. “The world serpent will lash and roil within the seas, creating calamitous waves that will sink islands and nations both. The ship of my forsaken blood-brother Loki will sail, carrying the spirits of the damned and the despised to do battle against my noble Einherjar.”

The waves of lapis roiled and churned upon the map of the world, a great serpent writhing within the depths.

“The skies will split open, and form this rend in the heavens, the sons of Muspell, the fire giants led by their king Surtr will come to the world, shattering the Bifrost with their coming.”

Tiny men moved across the frozen world. Though they were barely finger high to the gods, on the table they dwarfed mountains as they moved, great beings of fire and smoke, with swords that shone like stars surrounded by dancing lights resembling a shattered aurora borealis.

“They will join the frost giants led by Hrym, and the rest of Loki’s foul brood. And that is when the last battle shall begin.”

The stone sea of the table cracked as the serpent broke free, slithering onto the land, armies of giants crashed in all direction leaving destruction in their wake, and in the shadow cast by Odin over the table, the outline of a vast wolf stalked through the darkness.

“These are the horrors that Nidhoggr heralds. And should they join with the Titans, and with Apep’s legions of the dead, then there will be no world left to be saved,” Odin said. “Nidhoggr is the first wave, the ripple that will cascade into the tide of destruction. It needs to be stopped before all else.”

“And is stopping the dragon not what these mortals are trying to do?”

With a wave of his hand Zeus dismissed the illusion of Ragnarok across the table, letting it resettle back into its original form. “A legion of mortals, our champions among them, taking their battle to the dragon?”

“Indeed, they are,” Odin smiled. “Marvelous things, aren’t they?”

“I’m surprised you have faith in them,” Hera said. “Given the calamities you just described. The mortals seem little more than a footnote in your Twilight of the Gods that you’ve envisioned.”

“He’s picked this battle for the same reason I have,” Athena spoke up. “It’s as I always said, there are few greater monster slayers than mortals. They might not be gods, but they have a way of dragging conflicts down to their level,”

“Their level?” Zeus looked at her.

“The Primordials are bound to fate just as surely as anything else. And though they are chaos incarnate, they are bound to certain rules. Just as a God cannot bring their full wrath upon a mortal without due invitation, a Primordial cannot unleash its infinite store of destruction on them either. It would be bound, weakened, so long as no god joined the fray.”

“Clever minds think alike, as they say,” Odin gave Athena a glittering smile. “Though a Primordial, and nigh-indestructible to us, Nidhoggr is a dragon to mortals and can be fought as one.”

“Clever indeed,” Zeus smiled. “And so that is how we provide an edge, using them as proxies and giving them a portion of our powers, enough to give them strength without bringing about Nidhoggr’s divine strength.”

“I thought you knew, Father,” Athena looked at him curiously. “Why else did you make Nicomede your champion?”

Zeus waved it off. “A passing fancy, nothing more, though a serendipitous one it seems.”

Odin noticed that Hera took a long drink from a cup of what looked like wine, clearly irritated.

“So if Nidhoggr falls, and we all must hope it does at the hands of these mortals,” Zeus said. “Will we trust these mortals to deal with Apep and Typhon as well?”

“That can be the subject of later discussion,” Isis-Ra said. “No mortal can face Apep in the same way. At a fundamental level it must be defeated by Ra…but we can provide more guidance to the mortals on that matter.”

“Half the difficulty in defeating Nidhoggr was that it hadn’t been done before,” Odin said. “I’m sure the mortal champions with a little divine guidance can do the impossible again.”

“Hardly seems the meeting was necessary,” Zeus said. “If we’re to just leave it all in mortal hands.”

“That was never for us to decide,” Odin sighed. “That’s a matter for Fate to settle.”

“There is still one more matter before us,” Isis-Ra said. “The fourth shadow on our little world here.”

“Tiamat,” Freyja said. “The Primordial Sea…I’ve heard rumors that she’s taken hold in Babylon.”

“And just as many rumors that she’s about to be deposed there,” Hera said, looking down on the map. “If Ishtar is to be believed.”

“Ishtar doesn’t lie, but that doesn’t mean she’s always to be believed,” Athena said. “When Nidhoggr falls, and I have faith it will…we can turn our attention to Tiamat and see if others from that pantheon can be reached.”

“Tiamat should be a warning to us,” Isis-Ra said.

“A warning?” Zeus asked.

Isis-Ra held out one hand, creating an image of a royal barge bathed in light, rowing through unseen waters. In the other, a growing, pulsing, orb of darkness stood opposed. The barge sailed forward, its light dispelling the darkness, only for the darkness to reform once more. “Apep died and was reborn each night in battle with Ra…but Tiamat was slain by Marduk. Not trapped beneath a tree or mountain, not sent to slumber for eternity. Her corpse formed the earth we thought her forever destroyed.”

Athena frowned. Whereas the others spoke from experience, she had only second-hand accounts of these battles. Still, she was the first among them to grasp what Isis-Ra was saying. “If she has returned, then…”

Isis-Ra nodded her head. “If she has returned, it is only further proof that these Primordials cannot be permanently destroyed.”

 

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Broken Crown

 

It was around midnight in Rome. The city was, for the most part, quiet. A few places might still be bustling on the busier streets, revelers and night-owls out for the excitement of the evening. There was also the occasional sign of the Night Guard, out on their nocturnal patrol as they moved through the city in hunting pairs.

For the most part, however, the city remained asleep and quiet, precisely how Angel preferred it.

Angel had often confused Capitolina whenever she told her that she saw better at night. Even for a wolf it was easier to see and track and hunt during the day, but for Angel, the clear crystalline starlight gave her the clearest view of creation. On nights like this, when the air was crisp and clear and the sky was full of stars, Angel could see for thousands of miles, to the very limits of her waning vision. On nights like these, she could pretend she wasn’t weakening.

Her vision had receded more and more as the years passed, since she was thrown from her former perch. Her powers as a Primordial were drifting away as she became less the Eagle and more the wolf. It was a fact she had come to accept, not easily but with resignation. Within a few years, the last of her power would be gone.

“My, my, how strange it is to find a wolf brooding like a gargoyle.”

Angel whirled around, eyes blazing with light. Two figures had snuck up on her from behind; that alone was reason for alarm. It took effort to hide from Angel. It was almost impossible to sneak up on her.

Her alarm faded somewhat as she recognized the faces of the two figures. They were witches of a particularly peculiar breed. She was more familiar with the taller of the two: Huldra. The shorter one was likely her associate and elder, Hecate.

Still, she wasn’t alarmed, but she didn’t let down her guard. Huldra had unleashed Nidhoggr, and for a moment hatred coursed through Angel’s entire body. This witch, this creature, was responsible for her downfall.

Another moment and the hatred passed. Angel knew better, she knew that Huldra had been compelled by Nidhoggr’s hold on her. And Nidhoggr’s hatred for Angel had been entirely Angel’s own doing.

“You two…what do you want in this city?” Angel asked.

“How uncivil, you make it sound like we almost aren’t welcome,” Hecate smiled, flashing a youthful smile under ancient eyes.

“Our goals are the same, wolf of Rome,” Huldra said. “The re-imprisonment of Nidhoggr.”

“It can’t be done,” Angel said. “Nidhoggr’s prison was shattered, the bonds of fate placed on it shattered. Another way must be found.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Hecate smiled. “We’ve been having some chats with a friendly squirrel we found. One familiar with the layout of Nidhoggr’s arboreal tomb.”

“Squirrel…” Angel paused then her eyes went wide. “Ratatoskr? He’s alive?”

“Mending,” Huldra said. “He was dying of his wounds in Nidhoggr’s old prison.”

“He also speaks in riddles, it takes some time to work out what he means,” Hecate said. “But we had a score of witches who are all too clever by half, no riddle can resist us for long.”

“Ratatasokr speaks according to his nature,” Angel said. “And he is a messenger, unused to speaking his own words.”

“But what he has told us is intriguing,” Huldra smiled. “Our group has begun preparing the spellwork he’s described.”

“Spellwork?” Angel asked.

“The reconstruction of Nidhoggr’s prison,” Huldra said. “To recreate it would require a massive alteration in the web of fate. It’s no easy task, and impossible for anyone who doesn’t seek the ire of the Norns.”

“So, we decided ‘hey, they hate us already, why not?’” Hecate added. “Plus witches love a challenge. This is going to be some pretty stupendous work.”

“I am…surprised your number care so much,” Angel said.

“Our kind has been toying with fate as long as we’ve existed,” Hecate said.

“Another reason,” Huldra said. “Is…I suppose it’s guilt. I was not fully responsible for Nidhoggr’s release but…I cannot simply ignore the role I played. I am going to right this wrong as best I can.”

“That is admirable of you,” Angel said. “But I do not understand why you need to bring this to me. Catarina perhaps, or Capitolina, but I have no role to play.”

“To the contrary,” Hecate’s smile never faded. “You were the most intriguing riddle of them all.”

“I’m a riddle?” Angel asked.

“One put to us by Ratatoskr,” Huldra said. “And that stumped us for quite a while.”

“The broken crown, the shepherd among wolves, the light in the darkness,” Hecate said, repeating the great squirrel’s words. “It took us quite a while indeed to work out what it all meant. But now we know, it’s not a literal crown but the crown of a tree. The shattered perch you were thrown from, the eagle who guides wolves like a shepherd, the light that first started burning in the darkness.”

“The biggest detriment, of course, was that none of us knew you were still alive,” Huldra said. “I thought you had been killed by Nidhoggr at the start.”

“Nidhoggr came close,” Angel said. “I only barely survived the fall.”

“It’s quite a ways to tumble, no doubt about that,” Hecate said. “But still, knowing your alive gives us the advantage once again.”

“An advantage?” Angel asked.

“You are a Primordial,” Huldra said. “One diametrically opposed to Nidhoggr’s essence. You could be the keystone of the entire operation, a seal forged with your essence is a seal the dragon could never break.”

“Whether that is true or not,” Angel said. “I’m afraid you may have come too late. I’m losing power rapidly, I doubt I could put much of my Eagle’s essence into anything.”

“Seems to be true,” Hecate playfully tugged at one of Angel’s wolf ears. “She’s more Lupa than Aquila, as the Romans say.”

“We can still work with that,” Huldra said. “The barrier around this country…I should have recognized it the first time I came here. That’s a barrier formed by your essence, not dissimilar to what we need.”

“That barrier was made using the tools of a forge god,” Angel said. “And even still…it won’t last forever. We don’t have the resources to make anything more permanent.”

“I think you underestimate the resources you have,” Hecate said. “More than the legions and your champions, this city has three pantheons of gods backing them. Put your Pontifex to work, it’s time to start asking favors.”

“Three?” Angel asked. “Is the Norse pantheon coming around?”

“What’s left of it,” Huldra said. “But Freya has made contact with the Olympians. I plan to dig up old connections to make contact with Odin again.”

“We’ve been trying to get pantheons to cooperate for years,” Angel said. “We’ve met with consistent failure.”

“The tide is starting to turn,” Hecate said. “Those of us still attuned to it can feel the shift in the wind. This campaign against Nidhoggr is the first real push back, and the gods are starting to realize they need to capitalize on it.”

“And you say you need me,” Angel said.

“We do,” Huldra nodded. “Your essence, your spirit, whatever remains of the Eagle in you will be necessary.”

“How did you even find me?” Angel asked. “I covered my tracks.”

“Not all of them,” Huldra smiled. “The girl, Catarina. I knew her sword was an oddity, but when I knew I was looking for you it was easy to deduce; the same goes for the shield around Italy.”

“When did you…” Angel began to ask before nodding her head. “Ah…of course, the dream.”

“That’s right,” Huldra smiled. “Cat brought her sword with her into the Dreaming to face Nidhoggr, and when she did she brought a little of you with her.”

“What part will she have to play in all of this?” Angel asked.

“In all likelihood, she’ll be the lynchpin of the entire thing,” Hecate said. “That girl has more threads of fate woven into her than some small countries. I haven’t seen anything like it since antiquity.”

“That sword carries a permanent piece of your essence,” Huldra said. “It will be the key to Nidhoggr’s prison, but we will need your help constructing the lock and the bars to hold it there forever.”

Angel was quiet. She was quiet for a very long time as her mind worked. This could be her last chance, the very last thing she could do to help the war against Nidhoggr before her strength as a Primordial abandoned her entirely. A seal, a cage for the dragon, would stand as a testament to what she had been, a last eternal mark left on the world by the great Eagle before its wings finally vanished. It would be vindication for a life that was finished. But it would also be her final admission that there was no going back.

Doing this would likely mean burning through the very last vestiges of her power. If she wanted a seal that would last forever, even with the aid of multiple gods of multiple pantheons, it would leave nothing left for her to keep for herself.  The Eagle would be gone, and her wings and her sight gone with it.

She thought of Catarina and the group she had gathered to her, of the legions being assembled and the thousands preparing to march north and fight. She had seen mortal armies marching before, seen millions die on battlefields across the eons and mocked the pointless waste of life, the senselessness of mortals sacrificing their already brief lives. But she wasn’t the Eagle anymore, she was a wolf, and she was among them now. She could see them as she never had before, their nobility and their courage. If all of them were prepared to give everything, even their lives to stop Nidhoggr, then she had to do the same.

“Very well,” Angel said. “Where do we begin?”

Both Huldra and Hecate smiled, Hecate stepping forward. “We’ll need a spell to work the land, weaken the borders between worlds to make a portal big enough to force Nidhoggr through. We witches might be able to pull something like that together.”

“We’ll need chains as well,” Huldra said. “Stronger even than the chords that bound Fenrir, something to lash Nidhoggr to the roots of the World Tree.”

“Then we’ll need forge gods,” Angel said. “I know one, and the champion of another.”

“Then we’ll need the seal,” Hecate said. “A spell or artifact to bind Nidhoggr to Helheim. Seek out the Egyptians, they were good at keeping their Primordial trapped in their underworld.”

“Pontifex Nora and I will see to it,” Angel said.

“Last but not least, the most obvious.” Huldra said. “Get Catarina to Nidhoggr, and make sure she wins.”

“I do not know how much of that I can assure,” Angel said. “But…I will do everything in my power to make it so.”

“Good,” Hecate smiled kindly at her. “How’s it feel, Angel, to be the one Primordial on the side of humanity?”

“Mmm…” Angel was quiet again for a moment. “I can’t say…not because I don’t think I’m on their side but because…I don’t believe I’m a Primordial anymore.”

“Maybe not,” Huldra said. “Maybe you’re not an Eagle anymore, but you’re a good wolf.”

A portal formed from starlight opened behind the two witches as they moved to leave.

“We’ll be in touch,” Huldra said. “Rally your strength, wolf of Rome, we will need every ounce of it to win.”

Angel watched in silence as they departed before turning her eyes back to the stars. She wouldn’t be the Eagle anymore, unable to see across the worlds with a simple flick of her eyes. She wouldn’t be able to tell when the stars were right or wrong, but maybe she would be able to see them as mortals did, full of possibility and beauty.

She wouldn’t be an eagle, Angel doubted she had more than a few years of flight left in her even without this mad plan, but even if she couldn’t fly, she realized, she could be free. For now though all of her thoughts would need to go to Nidhoggr’s defeat. The end was coming soon.

 

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 37

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not?” Cat asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, coach,” Rosa managed a chuckle.

“No problem…and Rosa?”

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well I’m rooting for her,” Cat said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Begin!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Told you I had it,” Rosa smiled.

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

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

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

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 34

 

It was around mid-morning when Cat made her way up the steps of the Capitoline Plaza. While the center of Roman life had moved from the plaza that had once been the humble sanctuary, this was still to many the heart of Rome after the Days of Revelation, not the least because it was still the home of the Capitoline Wolf and her extraordinary pack. Capi had requested Cat personally come meet her there, and by the sound of it she hadn’t been alone in receiving the invitation.

Not wanting to be late, she went up the stairs two at a time before entering the large wooden doors into the dimmer building proper, up another flight of stairs, counting off the rooms, and she found the place where they were supposed to meet. She recognized it as one of the early meeting rooms of the fledgling senate. Now far too small to accommodate them, it was built like a small theatre fit for around thirty people, though now only a small group had gathered there.

On the lecture stage stood Capitolina, the Wolf of Rome, as well as Angel. At least Angel was standing; Capitolina had elected to sit on the edge of the stage, far more relaxed in posture than the stiff-backed winged wolf. Standing before the stage was a gathering of champions, Cat realized with a start.

Rosa was of course easy to spot, being the tallest and with bright red hair. Beside her was her fellow Greek, Nicomede, for once without his signature Hellenic armor. Standing close (but not too close) to him, was Megame, wearing her finest robes of bright red and white, and next to her, electing to sit in a chair, was Torleif.

Cat almost did a double-take as she recognized the last person in the small audience: At her arrival, Gisela turned to look at her. In a flash of alarm Cat thought she had escaped somehow before she reined her panic in. Capitolina was able to access the protective spells on her house. She had doubtless let Gisela out.

“Catarina,” Capi smiled as she entered, bright orange tail waving happily from side to side. “Thanks for joining us.”

“Sure…” Cat said as she moved to join the others, standing at Rosa’s side. “What’s this about?”

“We were waiting for you before we began,” Angel said in her usual flat tone.

“Sorry,” Cat said sheepishly. “Sheh kept me a bit late.”

“No problem,” Capi smiled. “The rest only just arrived anyway.”

Capi hopped to her feet. While her human form was a bit short, the elevation of the stage and her natural spiritual presence made her seem much larger.

“So you probably gathered why I brought you all here,” Capi smiled. “You see, there’s been a lot of talk about making a strike on Nidhoggr. It’s time we made part of it official.”

Cat glanced at the others, and could see the mix of excitement on the faces of Rosa, Nicomede, and Torleif combined with the hesitation of Gisela and Megame. Cat felt a growing sense of anxiety and unease welling up inside her. The encounter with Nidhoggr’s shade was still heavy on her mind, but she still felt that surge of the old exhilaration, the call to adventure.

“As some of you may be aware,” Angel said, picking up for Capi. “Catarina’s sword is one of the few known weapons that can wound a Primordial.”

“Wait seriously!?” Torleif made the loudest response. “What about my hammer!?”

“Your hammer is a potent artifact,” Angel’s expression remained unmoved. “And your patron, Thor, has an affinity for dragon-slaying. But there is nothing of your weapon that could be as critically wounding to a Primordial as Catarina’s sword. The same goes to the rest of you.” Angel’s eyes moved down the line of champions. “All of you have blessings, weapons, or abilities that make you more than a match for most monsters. But Nidhoggr is no mere dragon; it is our duty to get Catarina and her sword as close to Nidhoggr as we can.”

Gisela, to Cat’s surprise, was the first one to speak. “While I’m usually in support of this kind of action, we don’t have a solid plan to imprison Nidhoggr.”

“Because we can just kill the big lizard!” Torleif said before glancing around at the quiet room. “…Right?”

“No, we cannot,” Gisela said. “Nidhoggr cannot truly die, even by something like Catarina’s sword. It needs to be bound, imprisoned, or made dormant.”

“We are still discussing that piece of the operation,” Angel said. “But it is best to prepare any such team while we prepare the plan.”

“So we are putting a team together?” Nicomede said. “The tip of the spear?”

“That’s right,” Capi smiled, taking over again. “The legions will get us north, liberating what isolated settlements we can and crossing the distance between the Alps and Nidhoggr. But from there, once Nidhoggr’s forces are engaged, Cat alone might not be able to make it to Nidhoggr. The dragon will have surrounded itself with powerful monsters, both those under its sway and those simply drawn to its chaotic energies.”

“So, our job is to kill everything between Cat and Nidhoggr,” Rosa said. “makes sense, but there are a bunch of champions you’re forgetting.”

“We might not be able to afford bringing the Night Guard with us,” Capi said. “With all of you and a large legion outside of Italy, we may need them to fill in. Salvatore will be operating as a messenger and working with Hildegard to coordinate the battlefront. The legion will need champions fighting with them as well, after all.”

“You keep mentioning a legion,” Cat said. “Is the first Legion leaving Italy?”

At this, Capi’s smile grew a little broader. “Not quite. He hasn’t announced it yet, but Consul Nassar has pushed forward the legislation necessary to assemble a second legion. It will be the Second Legion that you’ll march with.”

“Alright, then we’re a team,” Rosa said. “That means we need to start training to be coordinated, particularly when it comes to killing monsters.”

“What about Gisela?” Cat asked before glancing at her. “Sorry but…it might be safer to keep you at the house.”

“While I had hoped to prove my good intentions by now,” Gisela said. “I am sure the binding charms can be extended over one of the yards of your estate. We can train there if I need to remain isolated.”

“I think that’s for the best,” Capi said. “For Rome’s protection and for yours.”

“Ugh,” Rosa groaned. “Cat’s mansion is like two and a half hours walk away.”

“I’ll have Alicia set up some more rooms,” Cat huffed, crossing her arms. “You can stay the night on training days. So quit complaining.”

“You put that maid through so much trouble,” Rosa grinned.

“She’s not my maid,” Cat shot back.

“Regardless,” Gisela spoke up, interrupting them. “This group needs a leader.”

“Do we really?” Megame asked, speaking up. “There aren’t many of us. Couldn’t we just…talk things out?”

“Gisela’s right,” Rosa said. “It’s good cooperating when we’re laying down plans. But on the field, in the thick of it, we need a coordinator and a team leader to keep us all going.”

“I have my biases,” Capi smiled. “But I’m going to leave the decision to all of you. You know each other pretty well for the most part, and I think it’s important for a team like this to make that decision themselves. So I guess…who wants the job?”

Cat’s heart skipped a beat. This was her chance to seize control, to be the lead as she took charge against Nidhoggr. That was part of being a hero, right? To be Jason among the Argonauts. But even as she thought about it she felt her rising heart falter. Gisela might have been an ass, but she had made a point. Did Cat want to be leader because she would be the best for the job, or just because she wanted to be seen as the first? She was their chief weapon against Nidhoggr, that needed to be her focus above all else. Could she fight the dragon knowing their lives were directly in her hands, or could she trust someone else to lead while she put everything into battling the dragon?

“I don’t think I’m quite right for leadership,” Megame said. “But thank you for inviting me to join such an auspicious team.”

“I have no right to be a leader of this group,” Gisela said. “I daresay most people here don’t even like me, I imagine there would be a mutiny as soon as I suggested the idea.”

“I should be leader!” Torleif stood up on her chair to be more or less equal in height to the others. “I’m the strongest here and I’ve got more experience of the North!”

There were a couple of nervous glances and a lot of silence. No one wanted to discourage Torleif’s enthusiasm, but she was still a child. Strong enough to fight maybe, but not to lead. Gisela seemed about to speak, no doubt bluntly, but Rosa cut her off with a more placating response.

“You’re right, you have the most experience, short stuff,” Rosa said. “But leader means more than killing the most monsters. Sometimes you even need to be in the back to coordinate people. Plus you need to act as a guide, reading maps and making sure you’re going the right way.”

Any of them could have corrected her that Torleif could simply delegate navigation to someone else, but no one was willing to. Cat and Rosa, at least, knew from her stories that Torleif had a terrible sense of direction.

“Oh…” Torleif’s face seemed to falter. “Mmm…nevermind. Didn’t really want it anyway.”

“That leaves Nicomede, Rosaria, and Catarina.” Capi said.

“I…” Cat spoke up. “…step down.”

There were a few surprised glances her way, Gisela not among them.

“I think it’s best if I keep all my focus on Nidhoggr,” Cat said. “I’m not sure I can manage that and the team at the same time.”

“Good call,” Rosa said, and Cat was surprised to hear the sincerity in her voice, without a hint of sarcasm. “Giant-ass chaos dragon is enough to worry about, we can take care of the rest.”

While Cat did feel a bit crestfallen over giving up the position, at the same time she felt relieved. It felt right, to give one of them command.

“Well I think we’ve wound up where we knew we would,” Nicomede said. “I know I haven’t been here long, but I want to get to know you all better. I have experience leading men through monster-riddled lands, and my patron is chief among the gods. I’d be honored to take the lead, if you all will allow it.”

“You’re good, Nico, I’ll give you that,” Rosa said. “But I know this group, I know monsters, and most of all I know Cat. I’ve been studying strategy and group tactics with Capi, and I’ve been working with the legions for months. You might be good, and you belong on this team, but I’m putting my hand forward to lead it.”

“So…how do we solve this?” Megame spoke up. “Do we vote or…?”

“I have an idea,” Nicomede smiled. “How about a duel, Miss Kokinos? A test of martial skill to see which of us is better?”

“I-I don’t really think violence is necessary,” Megame said. “Surely we can just talk it out.”

“Best to let them,” Gisela said. “Warriors will be warriors, besides a duel can tell much more than who is simply stronger.”

“Do it!” Torleif cheered. “You two fighting would be awesome! I get to fight the winner!”

“Hmmm…agreed,” Rosa said, holding out a hand. “A duel, in…let’s say five days time, to see which of us is leader of this team.”

“Done,” Nicomede took her hand. “Seems I need to double my training.”

“Likewise,” The eager grin never left Rosa’s face, and Cat realized it was distinct from the bloodthirsty smirk or raging scowl that she used to see on Rosa. This expression was more confident, and balanced. It was also, Cat realized, much more attractive on her features.

As the group began to disperse, Cat moved to Rosa. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” She asked “I mean…”

“Please, Cat,” Rosa smiled. “I’ve been fighting you and Hilde for, like, a year. Nico’s tough, and his men love him, but he hasn’t seen the likes of me.”

“Heh, I don’t think anyone has,” Cat smiled. “Knock him out.”

“My pleasure, Cat,” Rosa said. “My pleasure.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Shield and Spear

 

The broad map of Europe loomed large before Roman Consul Albion Nassar.  Massive maps covered most of the table before him and were covered in scrawls and markings displaying the supposed movements and strongholds of Nidhoggr’s monstrous hordes. Here and there were marked the bastions of civilization, the holdouts their scouts and refugee reports had told them were still standing even outside of Angel’s protective shield. All combined, it painted a bleak picture of the European continent. Outside of Italy, the world was a dark place.

“You’ve been pouring over these for some time,” The soft, sultry voice of Circe caught his attention. The goddess, in the disguise of his adviser, leaned over the table, seated lightly on its edge. “It almost makes a woman jealous.”

“Not even half the world could take my attention from you,” Albion smiled, but his eyes still scanned the map. “But it demands Rome’s attention.”

“And are you Rome now?” Circe asked. “I thought you were simply its Consul.”

Albion pulled his eyes away, letting them rest on Circe’s impressive form.

“For all intents and purposes,” Albion said. “While it’s my job to guide Rome on its course, it is also my job to keep you entertained. As we decided.”

“It is indeed,” Circe smiled. “Especially seeing as you promised me your student, but I find her attention divided between myself and two other teachers.”

“I never promised exclusive rights,” Albion corrected her, and he saw Circe’s eyes flash dangerously. “But every day new mages come to Rome from near and far. Soon you’ll have an entire generation to train.”

“All well and good,” Circe said. “But how do you plan to entertain me?”

“By putting a city at our disposal,” Albion said. “The greatest city in the world, as I promised.”

“Perhaps one of the greatest,” Circe chided him, but the danger had left her voice. “My vision extends further than yours. But…Rome is adequate.”

“And Rome is growing,” Albion said. “And I think it is time we pushed north. Beyond the field.”

Circe waited a moment before speaking, her eyes looking him over with curiosity. “Why?” She finally asked. “What is in the north save death?”

“Opportunity,” Albion said. “For those bold enough to take it.”

“Ah, so you would gamble the future of Rome,” Circe said. “And here I thought you were so careful.”

“I gamble now and then,” Albion smiled. “Like when I took a gamble to visit an island that shouldn’t exist, to find a witch who turns all visitors into beasts.”

“I don’t always like being toyed with,” Circe said. “What game are you playing, Albion?”

“History is like a wave,” Albion said. “Events that sweep in one after another. And you can either lead the charge, riding the crest of events forward or languish in its wake until the next wave washes you away.”

“A colorful simile,” Circe smiled. “But elaborate.”

“Nidhoggr,” Albion said. “The dragon is Rome’s next great obstacle. It keeps us trapped within Angel’s shield but, more importantly from what I have gathered it is a kind of…cosmic lynchpin.”

“The keystone of chaos,” Circe nodded. “The dragon’s escape enabled the escape and resurrection of the others and tipped the scales of fate towards chaos.”

“If the dragon falls the scale tips the other way, or at least begins to,” Albion said. “And much of western Europe is freed from its influence.”

“And much of western Europe is indebted to Rome,” Circe said, seeing the intent behind his words. “Rome with its heroes and its resources.”

“And with its legions,” Albion finished for her.

“Last I checked Rome had only one legion,” Circe said. “But who is this hero, Catarina?”

“Catarina is a foolish girl with delusions of grandeur and a magic sword,” Albion said. “But she seems to be beloved by fate.”

“It’s always best to be wary of people who are,” Circe said. “But I suppose I sense that…air about her. Not unlike clever Odysseus, though not half as clever and not a tenth as handsome.”

“Nor as duplicitous,” Albion said. This was another of Circe’s games. She enjoyed trying to make him jealous of her legendary exes. Albion knew the dance by now, he needed to dismiss them and bring up their worst properties, but still give Circe the inkling that he was slightly jealous. It was a tentative line to walk.

“But Catarina is still a single small foolish girl as you so accurately stated,” Circe continued, apparently satisfied. “Beloved or not, she isn’t capable of much alone.”

“If we truly want to make an attack on Nidhoggr,” Albion said. “Then Catarina is the bleeding edge of the spear, the diamond point around which the weapon is built. But the edge of the spear without the spear is just a shred of sharp metal.”

“So you build an army to support her?” Circe asked.

“An army to secure our way to the dragon,” Albion said. “Catarina has already been assembling a…team of sorts.”

“The champions your city seems to attract like flies,” Circe nodded. “And backing them?”

Albion moved from the table, going to the window that looked out over the plaza. “The city’s population has more than quadrupled this past year. People pour in from all directions. Legio I Capitolina was meant to be the shield, the force that unites Italy and brings it under the banner of Rome while keeping the monsters at bay.”

“So rather than a shield you want a spear, naturally,” Circe followed him, moving into his shadow. “A second legion?”

“An offensive force, quick and capable.”

“The spear in the darkness,” Circe placed her hands on his shoulders. “Do you intend to be Caesar, Albion?”

Albion could tell she wasn’t just talking about the first Caesar. She was testing his motives.

“Caesar had nations to subdue and half a continent to conquer,” Albion said. “I just have to kill a dragon.”

“I feel you might be exaggerating the simplicity,” Circe said. “But I will grant you this, Albion. You are bold. But I have to ask…why now? Why Rome? Why you?”

“Why?” Albion asked.

“Rome is secure, more so than it has been in years,” Circe said. “You have brought it together and now that you’re consul, you can develop it into greater and greater success. Infrastructure, social development, training. There are less risky paths to success. Gain the ire of the dragon any more than you have and you risk everything. Why must Rome lead the charge?”

“You seem almost hesitant,” Albion turned to smile at her. “I thought you liked a bit of boldness?”

“A little perhaps, in fair measure,” Circe said. “But there is a line between boldness and hubris.”

“Rome is strong,” Albion said. “You can tease other great cities all you like but I have every reason to believe we’re unparalleled on the continent. Nidhoggr must fall, and in all likelihood it must fall first. The conclusion is obvious: Rome must be the nation to do it.”

“Then onto my next question,” Circe said. “Why you, at this moment?”

“I’ve been reading through the Pontifex’s library, and whatever I can pull from the Vatican archives now that the wolf isn’t there to play gatekeeper. Everything points in the same direction, that fate has an inertia of its own.”

“Fate’s inertia?” Circe smiled enigmatically. “Now you have my curiosity.”

“I’m not egotistical enough to try to explain fate to a goddess,” Albion said.

“As well you shouldn’t,” Circe said. “But we think of it in…different terms than you funny little mortals. You always have such interesting ways of seeing things, sometimes interesting enough to catch us by surprise.”

“Well, at the risk of offending you, I’ll give it a try,” Albion smiled, leaning back against her. “The Days of Revelation threw the balance between order and chaos into disarray. Where once order had reigned, chaos sprang forth.”

“And now chaos reigns,” Circe said. “As it did in the days before Zeus.”

“Does it though?” Albion said. “Rome exists, as well as other pockets of stability. Chaos has the advantage, but I’d say the balance is in a state of…flux. If we do nothing then chaos will win, given time. One by one the sanctuaries and cities and holdouts will be stomped out until civilization is crushed entirely. When humans are nothing but clever beasts that hide from the shadows, then it will be as it was before Zeus.”

“A fair assessment,” Circe said.

“That’s the inertia I’m talking about,” Albion said. “The Days of Revelation, combined with the horrors of the spirit year broke the back of the entire world, it was the catalyst that began to tip the scales towards chaos. But the scales are still sliding, the balance is changing and more liable to shift. It could be decades, centuries, before we get another chance like this. Nidhoggr grows stronger faster than we do. Hit back now, when the scales are still tipping, and the blow will be that much more powerful.”

“So that’s the choice as you see it?” Circe asked. She didn’t seem surprised or curious, merely trying to weasel out his objectives.

“It is,” Albion said. “Can Rome survive as the influence and forces of the Primordials grow every year? The question, as I see it, is not if we should strike now, but can we afford to wait?”

Circe was quiet for a time as Albion went back to looking out the window, her arms over his shoulders as she rested against him.

“It is a dangerous plan.”

“Is that hesitation I sense in the goddess?”

“Not for my sake,” Circe scoffed. “But Rome amuses me, and you threaten to send everything you promised me to ruin.”

“I think there might be more to this than that,” Albion said. “You are many things, Circe, but bold might not be one of them.”

“Tread carefully,” Circe’s words were sweet as honey, but there was a very serious edge to them. Albion was closer to death right now, in her arms, than he had been in months. “You are dangerously close to insulting a goddess. Perhaps your barking should be just that.”

“As I said, my love, you are many things. Beautiful and intelligent beyond measure, as cunning as you are fair, and as pleasurable as the sun. But you are a goddess who seemed content to spend eternity on an island all but alone until I came to convince you otherwise.”

“Go on,” Her voice was still hard, but Albion was still alive. That was progress.

“Rome threatens to become your island,” Albion continued. “Bigger certainly, and more populous. But it’s just a bigger island. One nation, cut off from the world, with you at the top. It’s an improvement certainly, Romans are more entertaining than beasts, but if we hide away, and let the wave of history pass us by, then we become just a larger version of Aiaia as the world moves on, for good or ill.”

Albion waited, his eyes staring dead ahead through the window, watching Circe’s reflection in the smooth glass tinted blue by the sky. He saw her sparkling golden eyes, her head moving closer as her arms wrapped around his neck. Gently, teasingly, she gently nibbled at his ear, teeth sliding over it as she bit him with just enough force to bring a wince out of him.

“Mmm, you’re lucky you’re handsome,” Circe said. “And quite talented…in many respects,” She added with a teasing flourish to her words as she pulled away from him.

“Talent is nothing if you don’t work at it,” Albion smiled as he turned to face her. “And neither is luck.”

“So tell me, Lord Nassar,” Circe adopted the speaking habits of his assistant. “What is your grand plan?” She leaned back against the table, hands resting on the edge as she stared him down with smoldering eyes over the slim glasses that appeared on her face.

“First we announce our plan to the senate and whip them into action,” Albion crossed the room to her, placing his hands past hers as he pushed her against the table.

“Then we found our second legion,” He kissed her, passionately as he pushed her hard against the table, enough to send her falling onto her back.

“And then?” Circe asked him, her eyes burning as the top buttons of her dress shirt undid themselves.

“And then we kill a dragon,” Albion said, moving his arms to rest them over his shoulders. “But let’s focus on the present shall we, Lutetiana?”

“Let’s, Lord Nassar.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Goddess of Victory

 

T24.1Nike

Nike holding lyre, Athenian red-figure lekythos C5th B.C., Blanton Museum of Art

 

Last chapter brought the previously introduced goddess, Nike, to the forefront. But who is Nike? Most people know of her through the modern shoe company giant that bears her name, and it’s not surprising that a company wishing to associate itself with athleticism and success would name themselves after a goddess who personified victory itself.

According to Hesiod’s Theogeny Nike is the daughter of titans. Specifically the titans Pallas (not to be confused with Athena’s epithet, Pallas Athena), and Styx (not to be confused with the river). Styx the goddess is the divine form of the legendary river, a nymph and titan said to live near the entrance to Hades. She is quite significant as it was she, according to Hesiod, who was the first titan to side with Zeus during the Titanomachy, the War against the Titans. It was for this reason that her name became the name that all gods swear upon.

It is unclear what side of the war against the titans that Nike’s father Pallas found himself on. According to the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, he was slain by the goddess Athena, and his skin became her enchanted armor (Making their cooperation in the chapter Flying Solo rather awkward). However, this is likely a conflation of the Titanomachy and the later Gigantomachy (War against the Giants) as most sources say Athena had not yet been born in the War against the Titans.

Regardless, Styx’s four children all fought on the side of Zeus and the Olympians. They were Zelos (“Zeal”), Bia (“Force”), Kratos (“Strength”), and Nike (“Victory”). Nike was most closely associated with the Olympians Zeus, as his charioteer, and with Athena, reflected in her first appearance i nthe serial. She is depicted with any number of items representing victory, such as a palm branch, a lyre for celebrating, and a sash or wreath to give to a victor. In The Cities Eternal, Nike avails herself of armor and a spear, as victory over Typhon and the Primordials has not yet been achieved.

800px-Victoire_de_Samothrace_-_vue_de_trois-quart_gauche,_gros_plan_de_la_statue_(2)

Winged Victory of Samothrace

Perhaps her most notable aspect are her wings. In virtually all depictions Nike is a winged goddess, giving her an appearance not unlike later depictions of angels. Indeed, it is possible that the first depictions of winged angels from Byzantium drew their inspiration from Nike and her Roman equivalent, Victoria.

Nike in The Cities Eternal is a subordinate goddess to the Olympians but still a formidable figure. Just as she did during the Titanomachy, she is prepared to fight with the Olympians to bring order back to a world in chaos. She might not have as much power to bestow as Ares, Hephaestus, or Zeus, but her new champion is far from an amateur.

The Snake and the Mirror

Wings of Victory

 

Hildegard was on the hunt again.

Ever since recovering from her illness, she had been eager to throw herself back out into the field and do what she did best: monster hunting. The city was full of champions, mages, and skilled warriors now, a far cry from the terrified rabble Hildegard had worked to train a year ago. Yet among them all, Hildegard was still the greatest monster-killer, save perhaps for Aurelio with all of his divine gifts and hunting prowess. But Hildegard wasn’t in this for the competition. She did it to safeguard mankind, to protect the innocent, and to feel the thrill of the hunt.

She was pursuing a pack of trolls through the rolling Italian hills. They were from the far north and hadn’t been much more than a nuisance until recently. They had attacked a young girl in one of Rome’s protectorate settlements, and they had passed from bothersome to dangerous. It was time for extermination.

She rode on the back of her favored horse, one of the few in Rome though they were working to breed more. She had a spear in hand and Stahlzan sheathed at her hip as she chased the pack of trolls across the countryside. She could see them ahead of her, running like a pack of bent hairy apes towards the closest treeline. Hildegard urged her steed onwards, grip tightening on her spear. While she often wished she had Turi and Pegasus with her, she enjoyed fighting on her own terms.

By the time the trolls had escaped into the trees, Hildegard had closed much of the distance between them. She was forced to slow as she urged the horse into the forest, but she could hear their grunting breaths and the heavy footfalls in their wake. She kept her ears pricked for the slightest sound. Trolls weren’t very bright, but they could be craftier than the average wolf. Traps and ambushes were not beyond their power.

Eventually Hildegard dismounted. She could move better on foot when the forest became this dense, and she left her horse to head back to the forest’s edge as she charged deeper into the woods, spear in hand. She might not be a champion, but she was a mage, and the mana in the air reinforced her body to the point that she was almost tireless, easily outpacing the lurching run of the trolls as she continued to close the ground between them. She heard them up ahead, hooting and grunting as they fled to whatever hole they called home.

Suddenly they went silent, and Hildegard found herself at the base of a tall ridge. Before her a cavern opened into almost impenetrable darkness, a narrow cave entrance that was no doubt the den of the trolls.

Hildegard stabbed her spear into the ground, leaving it there as she moved to the cave entrance. She wouldn’t have the room to use it well in there. As she stepped inside and the darkness began to envelop her, she drew Stahlzan from its sheath and as the blade came free it burst into flames, throwing flickering orange light across the walls and down the cavern before her.

The cave went deeper than she thought, and she could still no longer hear the trolls. She paused, considering turning back but decided to keep going forward. This was far from her first hunt in close quarters, and there was no telling where the trolls would go if she retreated.

Trolls were a nasty breed of monster, though they came in a number of varieties. Their human-like appearance, their ability to speak, and their somewhat comical features could make a person underestimate them. But Hildegard had encountered them before, and trolls were only human in shape. They were man-eaters and child-snatchers, and the only thing worse than being killed by a troll was being captured by one. Some were turned to stone at the touch of sunlight, but these ones were hardier, so Hildegard was going to teach them that they might not fear the sun, but they had plenty of reason to fear fire.

She walked forward into the growing silence, keeping her sword raised as she took one quiet step after another. She was lightly armored, mostly on her wrists, legs, and shoulders, most of her body covered in a thick coat of padded leather. It kept her light while protecting her more vulnerable points, and she was glad for it as she kept checking behind her to ensure she wasn’t being followed.

The cave continued deeper, far further than any Italian cave should have. It expanded out until it was a vast cavern, the narrow path she was on expanding and twisting upon itself as other paths led up the walls and off into shadowed corners. All of this was pitch black, lit only by the glow of her sword. A sharp breath and a hurried word expanded the flame until it was shining like a bonfire before her, the flame grew hotter, burning blue as it held to the blade.

She caught the first glimmer of dark eyes as they reflected the orange light, then another set, then another. Hildegard felt her heart sink in her throat as she realized she was surrounded by dozens of trolls. The ones that she had chased had led her back to their den and directly into a trap.

“Back!” Hildegard shouted and she waved her sword before her. The trolls withdrew from the blade, but others moved forward before she whirled around and drove them back as well. They were ugly creatures with large dark eyes and oversized warty noses over thick lips and worn teeth. Their hair was long, filthy, and shaggy, and hung like curtains from their brows. Many wore rudimentary clothing, but little else and none carried any weapon more advanced than a stone to throw. But they had numbers, vast numbers that Hildegard didn’t even know the upper limits of. Eventually they would get bold.

As she looked around, eyes trying to find any better ground to fight on, she spotted more and more signs of the troll den. Cages hung from the ceiling, big and strong enough to hold a man or woman, and bones littered the ground, not all of them from beasts. Simple huts made from grasses, bone, and sticks were here and there, and from all of these places more dark eyes stared. The air was thick here and the smell of filth and sweat and other vile things was almost overpowering.

Hildegard felt panic beginning to claw at the corners of her mind but she pushed it back. She had grown wild, confident, and more outgoing with the Days of Revelation, but at times like this she needed to fall back on her training. Her old training. The Jazheils had trained her how to funnel fear, how to control oneself, and to turn killing into instinct. Her mind cleared, her heartbeat steadied, and her eyes dilated as the flame on her sword grew more focused.

Hildegard struck first. She chose the direction that she’d come from and charged, bringing her blade in a long sweeping arc so that it cut through the first troll in a single elegant motion, cleaving him from stomach to shoulder as the fire left cinders in its stinking hair. The movements of her blade left a trail of fire in its wake, illuminating the cave as she kept moving forward, never falling back as she pushed into the troll ranks. They were numerous but disorganized, throwing themselves at her from all directions. Hildegard fought back with sword, boot and fist as she pushed her way towards the entrance.

Every time she turned one would leap at her from behind, forcing her to turn and kick with enough force to shatter its teeth as her blade thrust through the thick hide of another one. The place was soon rank with the stench of troll blood and viscera as Hildegard cut through one after another, her sword and arms red up to her elbows, save for the blade where the blood was boiled away by the licking flames. But for every one she killed more would take their place. Several climbed the walls to try and leap on her from above, and while most missed, one managed to smash into her back and force her briefly to her knees.

All of them leaped on her, beating their fists against her back and grabbing her feet to gnaw at her armored boots. She felt several take hold of her arm, trying to pin her as they piled atop her. Hildegard felt the panic creeping back in as she struggled to pull herself free. The trolls were strong, binding her limbs as they gnawed and clawed and tugged at her armor, clothes, and hair. One of them smashed its fist against the side of her head. Hard. And her vision swam as she tried to reorient herself. She swung her sword hand wildly, but pinned as she was she could do little more than scratch them, even as she kept a death grip on her sword.

She was on her knees, writhing in pain as the oversized troll hands grabbed at her armor and her body, ready to tear her apart or force her in a cage or heaven knew what else to her. She needed to get clear, to break free of their grip for a fraction of a second. There was one thing, but it had been a long time since she had called on magecraft like that. Cat was better suited for the flashy elemental magic than she was. If she overdid it, it could overtax her body to the point of leaving her defenseless.

Summoning that much fire from her body could mean death.

“It will mean Victory.”

A new warmth filled her body, like a presence that coursed through her blood. The pain dulled, her vision sharpened, and in an instant, everything became clearer.

She breathed in mana from the air, feeling it empty as it all flowed into her like a whirlpool. She kept going, waiting until her body was brimming with power, her skin and eyes almost aglow with energy as she focused it inside her, holding it back until the very last moment when it would burst free in all directions.

“Burn!”

Fire filled the cavern, a whirling conflagration that filled the entire space like a tornado of light, heat, and ash as it burned the hair and skin and flesh from every troll around her. Hildegard felt the hands grasping her disintegrate as the fire burned from her skin and armor.

As the fire began to clear she shakily rose to her feet, finding herself in the middle of a scorched cavern. The floor all around her had been scorched perfectly black, and the walls closest to her were similarly burned save for the silhouettes of trolls that had been obliterated where the fires had burned their hottest. Hildegard should have been exhausted, on her knees in pain, but she felt…fine. Stronger in fact than she had in years as the fear and doubt was washed away.

From the ruins of the cavern, a few scorched trolls peered out, their dark eyes now filled with fear. Hildegard looked down at herself. Much of her coat and armor had been scorched black, and her hands, eyes, and hair still looked as if they were still on fire, glowing like cinders as licks of flame rose from her. Hildegard’s grip tightened on her sword. It was time to finish the job.

The sun was beginning to set as she eventually managed to pull herself from the cavern and into the relative brightness of the forest, eyes straining as she walked free, assured that not a single troll had been left behind. She blinked blearily but gratefully at the bright sun, letting out a long sigh of relief.

“The hardest-fought victories are the ones we cherish most, don’t you think?”

The sun grew brighter, so bright Hildegard had to throw her hand over her eyes. When the light that seeped through her fingers faded, she lowered her hand and saw a figure standing…no, floating before her.

She was taller than Hildegard by quite a bit, and Hilde was far from short. She was dressed in Hellenic armor made of brilliant gold over a pure white tunic and skirt. Her hair, from what Hilde could see, was similarly gold and she wore a shining helmet that she lifted to let it rest on her brow, revealing an almost angelic face.

An appearance reinforced by the massive avian wings that spread from her shoulders.

“Hildegard Jazheil,” The woman spoke, and Hilde realized she was in the presence of a goddess. “I see promise in you. Others seek warriors, hunters, and leaders and find subjects of their own but in you I see something unique, that will to struggle on, to fight for victory.”

Hildegard fell to one knee, not sure on the protocol. “Wh-who are you?” She stammered, eyes lost in the goddess’ radiance.

“My name is Nike, Goddess of Victory,” she said. “And I wish to name you my champion.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Into the Darkness

 

For those who know where to find them there are passages between the worlds. In the hallowed and ancient places where space begins to bend and the walls between the material and the spiritual grow weak. These passages are usually guarded by fierce beasts or ancient enchantments, and only those who know the way and have the power to walk them can ford the divisions between the living world and the places beyond.

In an ancient forest, where the roots of old trees meld and merge into a floor of sinewy wood and branches curve into great yawning arches, two women moved furtively from the threshold of one world into the next.

“And you’re sure this is the way?” The shorter one asked, glancing at the other. Her face was non-descript, and seemed to shift with the movement of light against it. A beam of moonlight from the night sky above caught wrinkles on her features and silver in her hair, but in the semi-dark starlight her face was young and full.

“It’s the path I took” The other one said. Her face was more constant, with stern and matronly features under a long curtain of midnight-dark hair, and shining teal eyes. “And it won’t be guarded anymore. Escaped prisoners rarely safeguard their prisons. All we need to do is find the door.”

“If there’s one thing I’m good at.” The first woman said “It’s finding a hidden way.”

She waved her hand through the air and the branches of the trees began to shine. Veins of silver light like serpents wound their way across the wood as they moved and slithered over them. She watched them with a keen eye as they flowed like water from one branch to another, through the roots and the veins of leaves as they began to converge upon a single arch of tree branches until it was shining like a silver doorway. As they watched, the space within the arch grew darker, becoming a yawning black portal that spewed mist out into the forest around them.

“That’s the way” The taller woman said as she stepped towards the portal.

“Where does it lead out?” The shorter one said, lowering her hand. “I’m still not caught up on you Norse and all your worlds.”

“Helheim” The taller one said “Down among the roots of the World Tree, where the sinners and the oathbreakers go and suffer in the well of serpents.”

“Lovely” the other said, irritation on her face.

“The way is open, Hecate. There’s no turning back now.”

“After you then, Huldra.”

The two witches, Huldra the Unsealing Witch of the Dreaming, and Hecate the Shifting Witch of the Crossroads, entered the yawning portal with no small amount of trepidation. Powerful though they might be, there were places where even gods feared to tread. It was never good to trespass on the domain of another.

Through the portal, the world seemed to expand in every direction around them. They found themselves ankle-deep in frigid water with a floor like gnarled wood beneath their feet. They could hardly see a few meters past their eyes, but the world around them seemed silent.

“Do you mind?” Hecate asked, glancing at Huldra. Pointing a hand itno the air, Huldra shot an arrow of bright green light into the sky before it expanded in a sudden burst, sending rays of revealing light into the area around them.

The world they found themselves in was one of pure devastation. Tree roots as thick around as buildings had been shattered into a sea of splinters, great spears of wood driven deep into every surface from the destruction of the roots. In all directions there was only shattered and fallen wood, hanging limply or lying dead in the cold water.

“So this is the place then?” Hecate asked.

“Yes” Huldra nodded “Nidhoggr’s former prison.”

“Before you released it” Hecate noted, and Huldra shot her an irritated look.

“I know, I know, you weren’t yourself” Hecate said “But the facts remain.”

“We should hurry” Huldra said curtly “Our presence won’t go unnoticed forever.”

“Very well” Hecate said “But what is it you hope to find here?”

“A solution” Huldra said “To Nidhoggr, to all of this. To being the process of fixing what’s gone wrong.”

“I don’t think you understand how correcting mistakes works.” Hecate said, her face a slightly younger mask than usual “When you break something, repairing it doesn’t mean ‘un-breaking’, it means putting it back together as best you can. Idioms aside, nothing broken can ever be as good as new.”

“I’m aware” Huldra tried to keep the irritation out of her voice “But I need to do something. I need to do anything I can.”

“And we shall” Hecate said, giving her a reassuring smile. “Let’s start searching.”

Together the two of them set off into the darkest part of Helheim, moving slowly through the devastation as they picked their way through fallen roots and forests of shattered timber.

“So if this realm belongs to Hel” Hecate said “Where is she?”

“No one is sure” Huldra said “Most believe she’s Nidhoggr’s prisoner somewhere. But without her presence, the malevolent spirits of this place grow more restless. The strongest follow Nidhoggr’s path of destruction and join it as more souls for her army of the undead.”

“How efficient” Hecate said “Kill as many as you can, and soon enough your victims shall rise to join your forces.”

“And Nidhoggr will continue until there is nothing left.” Huldra said “When the world is turned entirely to chaos, creation is undone, and it along with the other Primordials rule over the pandemonium that remains.”

“Thank you for the colorful picture” Hecate said “Now what is it you hope to find here?”

“A weapon” Huldra said “Or chains. Or at least a direction to go in order to find them.”

“Of course” Hecate’s face seemed to transform into that of a sly old woman “You can’t kill the beast, so try to get it back in the bag. It’s the logical step to take, though are we the ones to do it?”

“No, unfortunately” Huldra said “We’re too…unbound. Too separate from fate to play a large role in it. But I do believe we have a part to play when all is said and done.”

“These Primordials aren’t bound like normal beasts.” Huldra said “It took Zeus himself at the peak of his power and the aid of his siblings and the traitor Titans to defeat Typhon, and that took a thousand thunderbolts and a mountain to drop on him. We’re a bit short on both. I imagine the Nidhoggr is similar?”

“Nidhoggr has been sealed beneath the tree since the dawn of time.” Huldra said “When Yggdrassil took root the serpent was trapped there. I have no idea how to bind it here again.”

“Or who’s the one to do it” Hecate added “Since it certainly can’t be us.”

“I don’t even know if it can be done” Huldra said “There’s no precedent at least.”

Hecate snorted “Precedent? The act in and of itself is precedent. This isn’t the tipping of the scales, Huldra. This is a cycle. Chaos wins then order wins then chaos wins again. The wheel will turn in our favor, that’s inevitable.”

“Inevitable or not, the world might be consumed entirely before the shift back occurs.”

“True” Huldra shrugged “But we need to make do.”

The two continued forward, not sure what they were searching for as they picked their way through the ruined realm. The light followed them, dispelling the darkness where they walked, and they both came suddenly to a stop when they say a great furry shape appear before them out of the darkness.

It was bigger than any bear, rivaling an  elephant in size, and covered in light chestnut fur. Its back was towards them, the creature lying on its side, and a dozen spear-like shards of wooden shrapnel were impaled deep into its body. They approached with trepidation, hearing the beast’s labored breathing, and Huldra moved with caution until she saw the long water-soaked bushy tail.

“What beast is this?” Hecate asked as Huldra moved forward more quickly, placing a hand on the beast’s flank “Do you northerners have a Cerberus as well?”

“No…well yes, we do, but this isn’t Garm.” Huldra said, walking around to move to the beast’s head, “Come and see.”

Hecate moved to follow her, and when she saw the creature’s head she realized that it was the injured body of a monstrous squirrel.

“Awww” Hecate’s face switched to its younger mask “He’s adorable.”

“His name is Ratatoskr” Huldra said “A messenger of Yggdrassil…I had wondered where he had wound up. I assumed Nidhoggr had eaten him.”

Gently Huldra placed a hand on the squirrel’s large brow, stroking his soft fur. A shiver ran through his body, and Huldra could see that his injuries were severe.

“He’s in very bad shape” Hecate said, pity in her voice. “I’m not sure if we can bring him with us safely.”

“Ratatoskr” Huldra said, speaking in the tongue of animals “We need to stop Nidhoggr, to end all of this. What can you tell us, what can we do?”

“Seek the Crown” Ratatoskr’s voice was weak and high. “Seek the stars in the darkness, the shepherd among wolves.”

“Really? Is now the time to be cryptic?” Huldra growled, even as she tried to comfort Ratatoskr, her hand still stroking the fur of his head.

“You need to respect the game, Huldra.” Hecate said “This adorable creature is almost like a Primordial itself. It can’t give us a straight answer because it doesn’t think on the same level as we do. It’s a creature of pure fate, but that does mean that this riddle, while a doorway, is not a deception or a lie. Such concepts are foreign to them.”

“How do you know all this?” Huldra asked.

“I’ve seen creatures like it before” Hecate said “And don’t forget I am the oldest of our number. Show a little respect for your elders, child.”

“Right…” Huldra frowned.

“The question is the crown” Hecate said “I do love riddles.The crown…crown to what? A king’s crown? What King could have sway over Nidhoggr?”

Huldra went silent in thought, but only for a moment. “We don’t have time to sit here and think. We need to do what we can for Ratatoskr.”

“Agreed” Hecate nodded, but even as she spoke, more sounds began to echo out from the darkness, a chittering and clatter that announced the arrival of the worn out bones of oathbreakers in Nidhoggr’s thrall.

Huldra rose to her feet, flames burning in her hands. “Seems we’ll need to fight our way out.”

“What is it with you Norse and fighting?” Hecate chided her casually “So much wasted effort.”

Hecate waved her hand, and the silver liens of light began to form again, this time floating in midair as they rapidly began to coalesce into an arch of solid light.

“I know where I’m going this time” Hecate said “It’s always easier to get back than it is to go somewhere new. Now get the squirrel and let’s go.” She put a powerful emphasis on the last word as Huldra hurried forward, using magic to gently lift Ratatoskr’s massive form off the ground to float behind her.

“Where is this door taking us?” She asked as she coaxed Ratatoskr’s bulk towards the arch.

“Old Yaga’s cabin” Hecate said, a mile flickering across her face.

“Oh she’s not going to like that.”

“She’ll live with it.” Hecate said “Now get going. We have a lead now, and a crown to find.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa