The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 52

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t,” Gisela said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I-I think it can work!” Megame said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle had begun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good job, Cat,” she smiled at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three kilometers,” Gisela said.

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

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

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

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

“And so are we,” Rosa said.

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

“Then the mountain, and Nidhoggr, awaits.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 46

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Halloween?” Rosa asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I, ummm…”

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

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

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

“Dammit, Rosa, stop making this hard!”

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

“I like you!”

Rosa blinked in surprise for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

“We always have lunch sometimes!”

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

“Ummm…”

“It was Megame wasn’t it?”

“Not just her!” Cat objected.

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

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

“If I was gay?” Rosa asked.

“Well…yeah…” Cat nodded.

“I’m not,” Rosa said.

Cat froze up.

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

Cat struggled to pull a response together as Rosa laughed.

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

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

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

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

“You’re a jerk, you know that?”

“I do.”

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

“I get that.”

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

“Mmhmm,” Rosa just nodded along.

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

“Less of an ass?” Rosa suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I get it…”

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

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

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

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

“By making up for lost time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heh so…we’re dating now?”

“I guess so…”

“We should probably tell some people.”

“Mmhmm.”

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

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

“Says you, you’re terrible at it!”

“Prove it.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

Where All Roads Lead

Dark Heart

April 4th, 2024

It was with some trepidation that Hanne took her place at Hildegard’s bedside. The young woman had become almost comatose over the past few days, lucid enough to speak only for a few minutes each day and even then, she mostly spoke in gibberish. They still had almost no lead on what was causing this illness or curse. It almost certainly wasn’t any kind of mundane sickness, and there were no other cases quite like it reported anywhere else in Rome. It was, by all appearances, a unique and very potent sickness that was quickly burning down one of Rome’s greatest champions from the inside out.

Hanne sat slightly hunched over, elbows resting on her knees as she clasped her hands together. She wasn’t praying, she had stopped praying long ago, she was merely deep in thought, trying to work out what was happening to her daughter.

There was nothing she could think of. There had been no magic source that Hildegard had been exposed to that other mages hadn’t been close to as well. There was nothing on Sicily they knew of that could have caused this, and that had been almost a year ago. Even if she could do nothing about it, Hanne needed to know the source of the illness ravaging her daughter.

She took a long deep breath. It had been a few years since she had formally adopted Hildegard. She was a bit old for an orphan, sixteen specifically, and it hadn’t been strictly necessary for Hanne to do so. Hildegard was old enough to have run her own life by that point, but Hanne knew that while Hildegard was mature in many ways, she was hopelessly naïve in others.

More than a few nights had passed when she quietly cursed Hildegard’s birth family. As much as Hildegard revered them, there was a callousness to the way she was raised, a sinister level of conditioning almost to the level of brainwashing. Hildegard had never been trained how to balance finances, buy a car, care for herself beyond physical training, or even how to interact with others on an operating level. She had seen similar qualities in Catarina, both girls being fairly immature for their age, but it was much more pronounced in Hildegard. She had not been raised as a girl, but as a weapon to slay monsters. Hanne had done all she could, but much of the damage was done.

“Mother, please.” Hildegard said as the pair of them ate breakfast around their small kitchen table. It had been four years ago, before the Days of Revelation, when they had both been living in Hanne’s small apartment in Berlin.

“Why are we spending the day looking at scrawls?”

“The Berggruen Museum is hardly scrawls, Hildegard. You need to learn a little about culture.”

“And what good has culture ever done anyone?” Hildegard crossed her arms stubbornly, and Hanne gave her a rap on the head with her fork.

“Culture is what makes us human, Hildegard, and you’ve been lacking a good deal of it. What good is defending humanity if you don’t even know what humanity is?”

Hildegard didn’t respond, just grumbled slightly into her fork.

“Besides, what would you rather do on a lovely day like this? Train? You train every day and there will be time after the museum.”

“Maybe if I went to school…” Hildegard groused. “I would have more to do.”

“We’ve been over this.” Hanne sighed. “There’d be little point attending High School at your age, and you’re not ready for University.”

“Of course I’m ready!” Hildegard said. Hanne could not help but smile inwardly, for her many faults, Hildegard never could back down from a challenge.

“Oh are you?” Hanne asked. “How well-versed in history are you? What year did the Berlin Wall fall?”

“Umm…”

“Year of German Unification? Napoleonic Wars? American Revolution? Crusades? Roman Empire? Are these ringing any bells for you?”

“Uh…”

“No?” Hanne asked sarcastically. “Mathematics then, how skilled are you?”

“I can do long division” Hildegard said proudly.

“So can most sixth-graders.” Hanne replied flatly. “I won’t even touch science. From what you’ve told me a mage can’t tell a light bulb from a manual transmission, not even getting into biology and chemistry.”

“So I’m a little behind…” Hildegard admitted.

Hanne sighed again, but when she spoke it was with affection “Hildegard you are very behind. You’re almost like…a time traveler to be honest. You have no idea how to exist in a twenty-first century world.”

“But I can try!” Hildegard said.

“And you will.” Hanne nodded. “And today’s lesson will be at the Berggruen.”

Hildegard groaned and hung her head, knowing she’d been beaten.

It was those memories Hanne found she missed the most. Both of them had lived for several years in Hanne’s somewhat cramped apartment. Pay with the SEK wasn’t particularly good, certainly not enough for her to move into a bigger apartment the moment she adopted Hildegard. In a way though, it was better for them. Hanne got the distinct impression that Hildegard had very little affectionate contact with adults through her childhood. Hanne was not a particularly huggable person, but the first few times she had tried to embrace Hildegard she’d felt her physically recoil.

Now, however, Hildegard felt in many ways like a lost puppy, responding to the new idea of affection by desiring constant close contact. She had little of the teenage drive to go off on her own, and instead spent every moment she could with Hanne.

Many at work who had met her joked that Hildegard would be well-suited to join them in a few years in the Commandos, but Hanne was worried about just how true that was. Hildegard would have made a terrifyingly effective SEK commando, but for all of her physical prowess Hanne had many concerns about Hildegard’s perceived morality. She still did.

The Days of Revelation had not been good for Hildegard’s development. For her, of course, the end of the world had been like Christmas. She could finally do what she did best out in the open. She could be the knight in shining armor she always wanted to be and save hundreds by killing monsters. While Hanne had to admit Hildegard had been a truly invaluable asset, she was worried that all of the work she had done making Hildegard less of a weapon and more of a person may have been proven to be all for naught. She feared that for the sake of the city, Hildegard’s humanity would slowly be eroded away.

Hildegard’s saving grace did not come in the form of a transcendent piece of art or in some philosophical spark enlightenment. To Hanne’s surprise, Catarina had done more to turn Hildegard around in months than Hanne had done in a year.

As if reading her mind, Basil the cat leaped into Hanne’s lap as she continued her reverie, idly petting him with one head as she watched over Hildegard.

Catarina had given a human face to Hildegard’s desire to protect others. She found herself responsible for Cat’s safety and wellbeing as much as Hanne did. When Catarina asked Hildegard to train her, it had forced her to examine herself and her own training. That introspection had been the key to Hildegard’s re-awakening as a person. Until this illness had set in, the three of them had started making time to spend together as a family in Rome, seeing various sites and generally acting like normal people rather than a Centurion General and Rome’s two most effective combat mages.

Hanne realized too late that those had been the good times that were doomed to end. Something was threatening to take her daughter from her, something which she could not fight herself nor deploy her legions against. She was helpless to do anything as something entirely beyond her power slowly killed Hildegard.

A knock at the door slowly brought her attention back, and she saw Hildegard’s doctor, Abigail White, standing in the doorway.

Abigail White was decent as mages went. Hanne found her much more personable and kind than most of that ilk, so she didn’t mind that she was now acting as Hildegard’s sole physician. After all, no mundane doctor had found anything to do for her. She gestured for the doctor to enter, and she stepped lightly inside to take a seat across from her.

“Afternoon, Doctor.” Hanne said, and Abigail smiled in reply.

“Good afternoon, General. How long have you been with her.”

“Only a few minutes.” Hanne said, still idly stroking Basil. “Salvatore was watching until then.”

She took on a slightly strained expression as she thought of Salvatore. It was well-established now that Hildegard had been dating the young Sicilian when this illness set in. While Hanne was more protective than most when it came to Hildegard and boys, she knew that the young woman could more than handle herself against the unwelcome advances of those seeking to take advantage of her kindness and naiveté. What she had not expected was for the romance to be from Hildegard’s end, but it was clear almost from the day that they returned from Sicily that Hildegard was quite taken with him. Hanne had vetted him severely as she could without Hildegard’s knowing, and Turi would later remark that gaining her approval had been akin to “Walking through fire”. Still, he had proven himself to be a decent enough young man to warrant her approval.

“Anything to report?” Doctor White asked as she set to work, using her tools to check Hildegard’s pulse, pupil dilation, and other factors she kept careful note of.

“Nothing out of the usual.” Hanne said. “She was lucid for about a half hour this morning apparently. But nothing else.”

“Hmmm…” Abigail said with concern. “They’re becoming further apart.”

“I’ve noticed.” Hanne nodded. “You took blood samples a few days ago, have you noticed anything?”

“That’s what I came to talk to you about.” Abigail said, putting her stethoscope around her neck after checking her heartbeat. “I’ve been comparing Hildegard’s blood samples over the past few weeks and I’ve noticed…a trend.”

“A trend?”

“Yes.” Abigail nodded. “I’ve found something in her blood that doesn’t show up under a traditional microscope.”

Alarm and apprehension rose in Hanne’s chest. Was this what they had been looking for?

“Specifically I found a kind of particulate matter that I’m not familiar with in her bloodstream.”

“In her blood?” Hanne asked. “But other doctors took blood samples, how did they fail to notice?”

“That’s the strange part.” Abigail said. “There’s no way they could have found it because…it disguises itself almost on the molecular level.”

“Disguises itself? How?”

“In a word? Magic.” Abigail said. “I only uncovered it by accident. I attempted to induce necrosis in Hildegard’s red blood cells using my own magic. When that magic hit the blood cells they briefly altered their morphology in order to initiate self-repair. In a way it was like…setting fire to a costume. It needs to be pulled off to be put out and then stitched back together, and for that brief period you can see the actor underneath.”

“And it only reacts to magic?”

“Under normal circumstances yes.” Abigail nodded “I managed to repeat the process using intense heat and cold. It takes significant cell damage to induce their appearance, more than other doctors would have done. Such experiments would have been needless.”

“Alright, so it’s a lead.” Hanne said. “What can those molecules tell us?”

“Well it tells us for certain that while it is magical, it is nothing like any curse I have seen. This is a potent mix of the magical and the biological, and it is pumping this metamorphic matter through her veins at increasing quantities.”

Slowly, Abigail reached into her coat and carefully removed a test tube. Inside, she showed Hanne a small amount of tar-like black material.

“I managed to remove some and render it semi-inert. None of my processes are enough to make a viable cure, but it’s a start in understanding the affliction.

“What is it?” Hanne asked, studying it closely.

“Like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Abigail said, “There is only one thing for certain. It acts like blood. It’s not present in any of Hildegard’s tissue or fluid samples, only in her circulatory system. The multiplication rate for it seems exponential, meaning it could have been laying relatively dormant for years before it finally accumulated enough presence to kick-start a cascading effect.”

“Where did it come from though?” Hanne asked, “Has anyone seen anything like this?”

“I’m running samples to both Renard Aestling and Albion Nassar,” Abigail said, “But like I said I’ve never even heard of anything like this. This is powerful magic, General. So I need to ask, even before Sicily, maybe even before the Days of Revelation, was Hildegard exposed to any potent magical artifacts? Particularly anything that came in contact with her blood?”

“Nothing between when I adopted her and the Days of Revelation…” Hanne said, “And nothing after that. But I don’t know very well what she did before I found her.”

“Found her?” Abigail asked, “Where exactly did you find her? What had she been doing?”

“She was unconscious and near dead,” Hanne said, “I found her in a burning castle way out in the country, most people didn’t even know it existed.”

“Was she bleeding?” Abigail asked, concern growing on her face.

“Yes…” Hanne said slowly, the alarm rising in her chest. “Doctor White…Hildegard said she had been fighting a very potent vampire mage in that castle, but I never found a body.”

“Vampire mage?” Abigail asked, rapidly scrawling notes.

“Yes…” Hanne said “She didn’t speak of it much but…Doctor White…that vampire had an artifact.”

“It carried an artifact?” Abigail asked.

“No, it was inside it.” Hanne’s stomach dropped. This wasn’t some new disease brought on by monsters or spirits. This was Hildegard’s old life, a legacy of the days before Hanne knew her, and it was killing her.

“This artifact…I never knew much about it, but Hildegard always called it the same thing.”

“What?”

“The Heart of Darkness.”

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link:  https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=39&sl=624