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

 

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

Chapter 22

 

The diplomatic mission to the Alps had been rather hastily organized. It had seemed like a whirlwind for Cat to prepare everything, meet with the others, get packed, and start on their travels across Italy. It didn’t help that this would be her first long-term trip out of Rome since her escapade off to Gaza earlier that year. Rosa and Hildegard, more used to week-long monster-hunting sorties, were more casual about packing and also much quicker about it, admonishing Cat on some of her choices, particularly the book she used to communicate with Asha, which was light for its size but still quite bulky.

“Don’t worry about it,” Asha’s smiling face came over the page the last time they had chatted. “Have fun on this mission, I want stories when you’re back. Things here are getting a bit…interesting anyway.”

The other oddity in their mission had been Giovanni. Unlike the more casual approach of Hildegard and Rosa, Giovanni was decidedly strict in their traveling schedule and in protocol for when they would arrive in the small settlement of Malcesine where they were expected. All of this had been recorded and announced meticulously by his assistant, Stella.

Stella was a bit of an odd girl, but the two of them had quickly hit it off. She dressed almost exclusively in the long dress of a nun minus the distinctive habit, though Stella said she had ceased her training in order to explore other career opportunities. She seemed quite devoted to Giovanni in a way Cat thought at first might indicate a crush on him, but it became quickly apparent that Stella was, oddly enough, possibly the Catholic wolf’s only honest human friend. And it was a position Stella clearly took quite seriously.

So it was the five of them had left the city of Rome with modest fanfare and set off into the rolling hills of Northern Italy.

“So what exactly is my job when we get there?” Cat had asked early into their first day.

“Well, you’re something of a celebrity in Rome,” Giovanni had said. “But not terribly well-known outside of it. You, Miss Kokinos, and Miss Jazheil will be there to show the relative strength of Rome, the unity between its government and its mages, as well as the benefits of being a divine champion. So for the most part we’ll need you to be presentable, charming, and talkative. More than anything else we need to sell Rome as a safe haven, and having approachable and kind representatives is key.”

“Be pretty and charming,” Rosa said derisively. “I’ll keep my mouth shut, got it.”

“If we’re looking for pretty and charming with you, we might be out of luck,” Cat teased her before turning back to Giovanni. “But ya, I got it, Albion makes me do a lot of ‘stand there and look pretty’ at Mage’s Guild meetings.”

“Well, you’re all hardly just wall decoration,” Giovanni said. “Stella and I will be speaking to their leaders in terms of negotiations, but you three will be interacting with the average folk. Offer to help out a little, show you care about more than killing monsters. A little Samaritan work can go a long way.”

“You got it,” Cat smiled. All told it sounded like a fine expedition, and a relaxing detour from her almost exhausting schedule in Rome, where she had to run between Schehera, Hilde, Gisela, and Lutetiana for lessons on top of extra training with Rosa and meeting Alicia to talk about house repair.

The trip took ten days of walking, fairly tirelessly too. Cat and Hilde were both mages, with bodies reinforced beyond the average human’s, Giovanni was a centuries-old wolf and Rosa was a particularly tough champion, which meant that Stella, the only mundane human among them, set a somewhat slower pace. She was, however, quite apologetic and held out particularly well, and Cat didn’t mind, enjoying the more leisurely pace and occasional breaks to marvel at the sight of the country around them.

So much of Italy had returned to a primordial undisturbed naturalism. Ancient forests spread for miles amidst rolling hills of high grasses under the clear blue sky. All was made lovelier by Stella, as she played a skilled recorder and would often play for all of them into the night under an almost endless starry expanse of sky.

They carried two tents, with Cat and Rosa in one, Hildegard and Stella in another, and Giovanni preferring to sleep in the woods. Cat wasn’t sure if she was just getting more used to it, but Rosa’s company was more…enjoyable than she had thought possible. With little to do but talk on their long treks through the countryside, Rosa exposed more of a casual side to her that Cat had only started to discover. A more subdued Rosa than the one that carried her spear in hand, Cat didn’t mind her company nearly as much as she thought she would.

Eventually the hills gave way to the rocky foothills of the alps, marking them as drawing closer to Malcesine on the shores of Lake Garda. They had decided to be more well-dressed on their arrival. Cat had combed her short hair and worn her relatively simple silver armor over her surcoat and pants with her white cape around her shoulders. Hildegard was dressed more ceremonially than her usual monster-hunting gear, wearing a long coat marked with the Jazheil family crest and her sword, Stahlzan at her hip. Rosa, naturally, wore her champion armor complete with her sharp spear over her shoulder and her long red hair somewhat tamed into a ponytail. Giovanni and Stella had foregone any finer clothes, though Stella was wearing her best robe and had tended to her hair somewhat for appearance if not for vanity.

It was early afternoon, and the sky had darkened with heavy clouds when Hildegard made the motion for the group to stop.

“Something wrong?” Cat asked, moving forward to stand beside her.

“Smoke,” Hildegard said, and a moment later Cat could pick up the very faint scent of burning wood.

“We’re not far,” Giovanni said. “The town should be visible over the next hill.”

Hurrying forward, the five of them crested the hill, a new sense of dread filling them as they reached the top and looked out over the landscape.

Lake Garda was a dark slate grey beneath the heavy clouds that had come rolling in form the north. The town of Malcesine was a collection of buildings populated by several hundred all surrounded by a palisade wall of wooden stakes, using the wall, rocky terrain, and the natural border of the lake for protection these past few years. Today, however, smoke was rising from the town as fires burned in several spots across it, and from here, about a half-mile out, they could hear the soft din of battle and screams mixed with monstrous roars.

None of them needed to be spurred on, and they broke into a flat run towards the city as one, Cat Hilde and Rosa naturally gaining ground more quickly than Stella and Giovanni who remained in human form behind her.

“We need to clear the town!” Hildegard said hurriedly as they ran.

“Move in from the west,” Rosa said. “You can see two main streets running the length up the coast. Hilde, strike left to the coast; Cat and I will stick to the right. Reconvene at the East then work backwards, clear what you can and send people back out behind us!”

“Got it,” Hilde said. “Good plan.”

“R-right.” Cat nodded hurriedly. When had Rosa learned to take charge like that?

As they neared the gates of the palisade they saw the large wooden door had been blown open with tremendous force, flattening whom or whatever had been behind it. The road leading into town split, with the right road leading up along the coast along the wall and the other going lower to run by the coast of the lake. Without hesitation, Hildegard started down the left road before calling back to them. “Stay sharp, and stick close together!”

“Ready, Cat?” Rosa asked, holding her spear ready.

“Ready!” Cat nodded, heart racing as she drew Ceruleamor from its sheath.

It didn’t take long for them to find the source of the damage. The town wasn’t just under attack, it was overrun. People screamed and ran through the streets, pursued by the hordes of the wandering dead. Cat shivered as she recognized them. Tall skeletons, fleshless and scorched, bound together with magic as their eyes burned with the same eldritch blue light she had seen in Nidhoggr’s eyes. These ones held swords and primitive spears, and moved with more strength and assuredness than the shambling monsters Cat remembered.

The skeletons weren’t alone, however. She could see the great dark shapes of true monsters tearing through the town amidst the smoke and fire. The air was thick with the din of roars, screams, and the crumbling of stone along with crackling fire. Cat barely even knew where to start, looking this way and that in the unraveling chaos as she clutched her sword in her hands.

“Focus, Cat!” Rosa shouted, and instantly Cat’s mind snapped to work. Together the two of them charged in at full speed, heading towards the closest skeletons that were menacing a few of the locals barricaded in their homes. Rosa’s spear easily cut their legs out from under them, her armored boot coming down to smash their skulls in. When Cat’s sword cut through their bones, however, Ceruleamor seemed to shine with white light as the Primordial magic binding the bones together was undone, and the skeleton crumpled into ash.

With a divinely-empowered kick, Rosa smashed the front door in, shouting in and ordering the people cowering inside.

“Everyone out!” She roared. “Town’s on fire and this door won’t stop a monster! West gate’s secure! Go!”

People rushed past her out the way they came as Cat kept Rosa’s back clear.

“Come on!” She shouted back at her. “There’s a lot more people here!”

The pair of them kept going, keeping close together as they worked down the street, going from one side to the other as they tore through the skeletal ranks. Rosa’s spear was a golden flash as it lashed like a venomous serpent from one rushing skeleton to the next. Cat always managing to keep pace with Rosa, her own sword whipping through to strike at everything within range, leaving a path of dust and ash in her wake.

The pair of them had been training to fight together for months, and their progress showed as they tore through the gangs of undead. They kept close, never pulling out of the other’s range as they moved from one group to the next, shouting warnings and movements to one another as they kept pace. Even as they worked, however, it was clear the town was coming apart at the seams. A building before them seemed to explode into the streets, forcing both of them to their knees, arms raised to block the storm of dust and debris as an enormous manticore burst forth from within, red scales blazing in the fire light and its claws and monstrous inhuman jaws red with blood.

“Go for the tail,” Rosa said, lifting her spear. “I’ll keep it preoccupied.”

“Right,” Cat nodded, dodging off to the side as Rosa darted forward. The manticore braced itself, scorpion-like tail striking down at Rosa repeatedly. She was quick, however, and Cat couldn’t help but notice she was starting to move like Hildegard. No excess of energy or motion, moving just enough to dodge the whipping spined tail, eyes keenly searching for an opening, spear kept up on the defensive, moving lightly on her feet.

“Come on, ugly,” Rosa said, dodging another strike as the manticore batted its wings on fury. “Keep those eyes on me, you hell-faced oversized bat.”

The manticore prepared to charge her, iron-colored claws raking the dirt, but before it could move Cat was behind it, her sword singing through the air before chopping clean through the manticore’s tail near the base, severing it entirely as the manticore let out a roar of confusion in pain. Before it could whirl back on her, Rosa charged forward, burying her spear deep in the gaping maw of the creature before ripping it free as the manticore fell into its death throes.

The pair of them exchanged brief grins before readying themselves to keep moving. Before they had even made it a few steps, however, an enormous serpent-like creature burst from an alley. It had once been a pale white color, its body undulating like a snake or some obscene worm as its body was covered in scorching and consuming flame. As it pulled itself from the alley, the pair of them saw Hildegard lunge forward in pursuit, sword blazing with fire in her hands as she wove her ways through the lashing coils, blade leaving shallow cuts along its foul glistening ide from where explosions of flame burst forth.

“Cat!” Hilde shouted, spotting the pair of them. “Ice this thing’s head!”

Cat didn’t need telling twice, rushing forward as Rosa ran alongside to cover her. Cat raised a hand, and the gibbering eyeless maw of the worm began to crack and blister as crystals of ice began to spread relentlessly across its flabby skin. As the beast struggled, flesh cracking and flaking away as the ice cut deep, Hildegard made a last running jump, kicking off the monster’s flesh as the fiery glow around her sword expanded into an inferno. In one great swing she brought it down, shattering the monster’s head in an explosion of frozen meat before landing gracefully on both feet.

“Whew, thanks,” She smiled at them. “Damn things are tricky, cut them in half and you’ll just wind up dealing with two. How’s it looking on this side?”

“We killed a manticore and got a few people out,” Cat said. “There are probably more monsters still but-“

She was cut off at the last second as Hilde grabbed her by the shoulder and threw her aside, a moment later the space between them erupted in flames, throwing them all bodily into the air and Cat felt herself roll as she hit the ground hard.

Cat blinked rapidly to try and clear her vision. Her ears whined at her in shock as her body resisted her orders to move, everything briefly numb. When she did finally roll herself over, she saw their attack land lightly on the ground from where the rooftop perch where it had made its attack.

It was an enormous wolf, easily matching Giovanni or Capitolina at their full size. Its body was covered in spiny black fur formed from pure shadow, and spots of cinder, ash, and erupting fire marked its skin, its eyes and mouth blazed with the same terrible orange flame as it rounded on her, Cat struggling to pull herself up to her feet.

Her hands tightened reflexively, but in a moment of terror she realized the explosion had knocked the sword from her hand. She whipped her head around, searching for its familiar blue gleam, but the wolf took that instant to charge, mouth opening into a too-wide snarl as it lunged at her, teeth bared to rip her limb from limb.

There was a sound like a thunderclap, nearly deafening Cat a second time, and the wolf that had charged her was sent crashing off to the side as if it had been hit by a freight train.

Cat stared at the fallen creature’s body. Where its head had been was now nothing but a crater of shattered stone and the monster’s black gore exploded outward around a shining silver object. Looking closer, Cat could see it was a hammer, a massive block-headed warhammer with a shaft much too short and a rune shining white with power glowing on its side.

As she stared, the hammer loosed itself from where it had embedded itself in the ground, flying with a whoosh under its own power past her again and, as Cat watched, into the gloved hand of a small girl.

“Is that all it took to knock you guys off kilter?” The red-haired little girl demanded, hefting her hammer as she scowled at Cat. “Are you guys from Rome?”

“Y-ya…” Cat said, still in shock.

“Well then get off your ass and get to work!” She bellowed with more force than Cat would have thought possible. “Let’s see what Romans are made of!”

Cat’s mind snapped back to the alert, and after a second of searching, she saw Ceruleamor glistening in the ash where it had flown from her hand, picking it up, she looked around and saw Hildegard and Rosa helping each other to their feet, both of them looking shaken but otherwise fine.

The sounds and noises of destruction, however, had called down a veritable army of the skeletons on them, nearly a hundred from all over town had come at the sound of the roars and explosions and Cat backed up towards the other three as they began to circle, the girl beside her.

“Who are you?” Cat asked. “And where’d you get that hammer.”

“I’m Torleif!” The girl said proudly. “Champion of Thor!”

“I’m Cat,” she nodded in reply, sword raised.

“Scared of some bones, Cat?” Even as Torleif spoke Cat could see her eyes glancing this way and that. Even for the four of them, from sheer numbers and positioning, the skeletons were posing a real threat.

A howl burst through the town, and some of the skeletons in the back turned in time to see an enormous black wolf, hide scarred and eyes a fierce gleaming yellow, crush the closest ones under its paws, jaws grabbing the closest one and swinging it until its bones flew apart.

Cat saw Torleif lifting her hammer for another throw, but grabbed her wrist.

“That one’s with us,” she smiled.

“Fine,” Torleif said. “Leggo of my wrist…”

As Cat watched Giovanni in full form, she saw someone else slide off his back. Stella, rather than hide behind the massive wolf, rushed towards the closest skeleton, parrying a wild swing with a sword of her own before her hand shot out to take hold of its forehead. Cat couldn’t hear the words she mumbled, but in a second the skeleton’s eyes turned to smoke and its entire body crumbled into a pile of bones.

“Let’s not leave it to them!” Hildegard shouted. “Exploit the opening, go!”

Cat and Rosa rushed forward as Hildegard kept their flanks secure, the pair of them rushing the crowd of skeletons where Giovanni and Stella were fighting to make a gap in the ring around them.

“H-hey, wait!” Torleif hurried after them, moving at impressive speed despite her short legs as she caught up to them. “I’m here to!”

“Then start killing monsters, kid!” Rosa said, the arc of her spear cutting down two skeletons in one swing.

Cat saw Torleif’s brow furrowed, and above them the roiling clouds echoed with thunder. She raised her hammer skyward, lightning beginning to dance from her wrist to the hammer’s oversized metal head.

In one motion, Torleif brought her hammer down, and a bolt of lightning shot forth like a geyser, ripping through a score of undead and leaving only ashen bone in their wake.

“Don’t call me a kid!” Torleif shouted pointedly at Rosa, hammer still sparking with stray flecks of lightning.

“…point taken.” Rosa said.

The six of them broke through the line of skeletons, escaping being surrounded as they worked in tandem. With their backs relatively secure they could work more easily, Hildegard’s burning sword and Torleif’s hammer kept their sides clear, the pair of them able to destroy large swathes of the undead on their own. Cat and Rosa held the front, working together to keep the line held as more of the skeletons pressed in around them. Giovanni and Stella held the rear, destroying any that got past the others and making sure any survivors made it out.

It was nearly two hours before the town was finally clear, and by the end all of them were visibly exhausted, most of them leaning on walls or weapons while Torleif simply flopped back on her rear.

The town had been evacuated, with many thankfully having hidden before the attack began, and while Giovanni and Stella tended to the wounded and met with the town leaders, the four warriors took a few minutes to recover.

“So,” Cat looked at Torleif. “Got a better opinion of Romans now?”

Torleif’s tired face broke into a smile. “Mmm, I guess you’re not tooootally soft,” She said.

“So what’s the champion of Thor doing down here?” Rosa asked.

“I’m going to Rome,” Torleif said. “And it looks like I finally found the way.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Where All Roads Lead

The End of Spring

July 26th, 2024

 

It was midsummer now in Rome, and the air was hot, dry, and thick with the sounds of people as the sun rose steadily towards its apex. Catarina had finished breakfast and was on her way to the training field for her morning routine, and today she wasn’t going alone.

“I wonder if you two will beat me today,” Hildegard smiled as she fell into step beside her.

“Of course we will!” Cat said proudly, hands on her hips “We get stronger every day! You can’t be the best forever.”

“I don’t need to be the best,” Hildegard said, her voice tilting as she teased her sister. “I just need to be better than you.”

The pair of them laughed as they made their way past the barracks of the first legion to the training field where dozens of people were already gathered to exercise and spar. Their favored training ring was a chalk circle drawn on the ground about five meters across, and their third was already there waiting for them.

“You Italians know how to keep someone waiting,” Rosa tapped her foot impatiently, training spear resting over her shoulder. “These spots aren’t exactly reserved you know; I gotta fight people off to keep it.”

“Then you’re nice and warmed up,” Hildegard said as she and Cat retrieved training swords from the racks.

The banter might have been cleaner, but the sparring matches between Rosa and Cat were no less brutal. They had stopped holding back on their abilities as well. Cat used her ice magic wherever possible to compliment her swordsmanship, but Rosa didn’t relent with her champion’s strength, and a powerful body blow from Rosa would often throw Cat out of the sparring circle entirely.

They ran a few rounds one on one, keeping the other sharp as they kept finding new ways to exploit each other’s weaknesses.

“Back legs too far out!” Rosa jeered as the butt of her spear smacked hard against Cat’s shin.

“Ow! Dammit!” Cat growled, striking out against Rosa’s defenses.

“She’s right!” Hildegard called from the sidelines. “You keep ignoring your footwork when you’re not on ice.”

“I don’t need reminding!” Cat shouted back as she parried another quick blow from Rosa, countering into a quick elbow to the ribs.

“And you get too aggressive when you’re parried, Rosa!” Hildegard called to her in turn.

“Ya ya!” Rosa retorted as she pulled back. “Not game point yet though.”

After several spars, Cat finished in the lead at two hundred and fifty six wins to Rosa’s two-fifty three (The pair of them had kept track since their very first bouts). They switched to coordinated fighting, with the pair of them up against Hildegard.

Hildegard could have used her magic, but it was quickly apparent she didn’t need to. Catarina didn’t even know how she moved like she did. There was no excess energy, no nervousness or uncertainty to her movements. She could dodge the edge of Cat’s practice sword by centimeters and be utterly unfazed. She was also incredibly ruthless with the pair of them, using her entire body as a weapon, as Rosa was quick to discover when Hildegard’s knees slammed into her stomach after a miscalculated spear thrust. The pair of them didn’t need to keep track of their wins against Hildegard. They hadn’t won one yet. They didn’t train against Hildegard to win, however. They did it to communicate.

“Rosa, up top!” Cat called, as a wave of ice-filled air whipped towards Hildegard’s head. Hilde ducked low, just in time for the shaft of Rosa’s spear to swing around towards her face, forcing Hilde onto the defensive as she raised her sword to block the blow with the flat of the blade. Neither of them were done yet, and they moved as one to attack Hildegard from both sides. On anyone else it would have worked, but Hildegard was dangerous from all angles. She dodged a thrust from Rosa’s spear, hooking her arm around the shaft and redirected it towards Cat just as she stopped her swing with a counter of her own, twisting out of reach as Cat and Rosa all but collided with each other.

“An improvement,” Hildegard smiled. “But not good enough.”

“We’re not done yet,” Cat said, picking herself up along with Rosa.

“Not even close,” Rosa added, leveling her spear at Hilde.

 

As the sun reached its peak, the three of them finished their spar. Rosa needed to leave to continue her training with Capitolina and Hildegard needed to train some of the recruits. On her own until her magic lessons, Cat decided to grab a sandwich to go and take a walk through the Parco San Sebastiano, where quite a bit of development had gotten underway.

Utmost care had been taken not to disturb the native trees, and in fact more had been imported as a large complex of wooden buildings began to take form at the center of the park. They were built with naturalism and minimal impact in mind, and the three masterminds of the structure were currently meeting beneath a large wooden gate that stood austerely at the front.

“Painting it red might be too much of a statement,” Nora said, looking over the large building schematics. “This is an inter-pantheon shrine after all.”

“I think it’s a lovely shade of vermillion,” Echo smiled.

“Well the painting isn’t really necessary, but I’m glad to see Echo-san is onboard,” The last one, and the newest to the city, smiled before catching sight of her. “Ah, Cat-chan!”

“Hey, Megame,” Cat waved at them, finishing the last of her sandwich. “More shrine work?”

Megame gave an exaggerated sigh. “It doesn’t seem to stop. Inari-sama never said it would be this hard…”

“They rarely do,” Nora clicked her tongue. “Anywho, this gate…called a tori right?”

“That’s right,” Megame nodded.

“We’ll leave it bare wood for now. Now regarding the central shrine…I dunno, Echo, general purpose? What do you think?”

As the Pontifex and nymph chatted, Cat took the time to talk with the young Japanese woman, a shrine maiden as she had explained.

“I’m still surprised they’re building a shrine in the city,” Cat said. “We have the temple after all.”

“Temples are for gods, shrines are for the lesser spirits, Cat-chan,” Megame smiled. The nickname had been a joke at first but Cat liked it, and all but insisted Megame continue. She’d met the shrine maiden not long after she arrived in the city a month ago, hardly a day in fact and it seemed at times as if the Japanese girl had deliberately sought her out. Still, Cat didn’t have much company her age, so she was more than happy to make friends. “And there are some god-like spirits who prefer a more natural setting.”

“Well it’s coming along great,” Cat said.

“Did you just get off sparring?” Megame asked. “You seem a bit sweaty.”

“Ya, I did,” Cat sighed. “Hilde kicked our asses again.”

“Aaw, well, maybe tomorrow you’ll have better luck!” Megame said cheerfully.

“So where’s your fox?” Cat asked.

“Hachi? She’s sleeping, she spends most of her nights out with Aurelio and Cade now.”

“Ah right, she’s with the Night Guard too,” Cat nodded. “Shame, she’s cute and I barely get to see her anymore.”

“I’ll let her know,” Megame giggled.

 

The two of them kept chatting until the sun passed its noon zenith, signaling the time for Cat to make her way back into the city. She waved a goodbye as she walked out of the park, making her way to Lord Nassar’s impressive estate. His lessons were as challenging as ever, but much of it felt like busywork to keep her occupied with minimal effort on his part as he continued his campaign work, so for many lessons Catarina found herself either alone or in the company of Albion’s new assistant.

“Now that is a fascinating interpretation” Lutetiana said as she glanced over her homework. “Though I feel you’re missing the historical relevance of the katadesmoi in favor of a literal interpretation. I suggest rereading the Selinus documents.”

“Right,” Cat bowed her head. “I will see to it.”

She had no idea where Lutetiana had come from. Indeed, the accomplished and knowledgeable mage seemed to have appeared from thin air to work as Albion’s campaign assistant. While she was supposedly a lesser mage to Cat’s teacher, the breadth of her knowledge at times seemed to rival Scheherazade’s. She was also a tremendously attractive woman, with unnaturally young silver hair bound behind her head, and gleaming curved eyed always watching past her thin glasses. At times, during her lessons, Cat found her eyes distracted as they followed her around the room.

“See that you do,” Lutetiana said with an enchanting smile. “A smart mage can’t afford to ignore the classics.”

 

After her lesson, later in the afternoon, Cat made her way to Scheherazade’s library. Normally she spent the time reading or having the storyteller help her with her homework, but it was Friday so she had an appointment to make. Inside the vast library Cat hurried through the varied shelves, almost inadvertently passing a collection of chairs where Scheherazade sat engrossed in conversation with another visitor.

“Afternoon, Catarina,” Schehera smiled as her guest, a lithe dark-haired woman, raised her cup in casual greeting.

“Hey Schehera, hey Kara,” Cat nodded. “Sorry, need to take a call.”

“Of course, we won’t hold you up,” Schehera smiled. Cat hurried on and found the familiar journal she’d be given sitting open on a pedestal.

“Afternoon, Asha,” Cat wrote happily, waiting for the familiar face to appear on the opposite page.

“Evening, Cat.” Asha’s smiling face and flowing script appeared. “Off your lessons already?”

“Ya, Lord Nassar is super busy these days so I get off easy a lot. How’s the campaign?”

“Well another day another monster fought and another village saved,” Asha said. “But at times it feels like trying to drain a river with a bucket, you know? Leyla says we should set eyes on Babylon.”

“Well, whatever you think will work best,” Cat said. “Just stay safe, I want to make time to visit you soon, and I can’t do that if a monster eats you!”

“Not a whole lot to see out here, Cat,” Asha said sheepishly. “Sand, rock, and monsters mostly.”

“Well, you’re there for starters” Cat smiled. “And if that’s the case you should come to Rome!”

“Heh, we’ll see,” Asha said. “How else have you been?”

The two of them kept exchanging conversation through the book until the sun was low in the horizon, and it took a gentle reminder from Schehera in the form of a golden bird on her shoulder to remind Cat that she would soon be running late for dinner.

“Thanks, Sheh, bye!” She called as she ran out of the library and headed home.

 

The dinner table at the Anchesi-Jazheil-Aldobrandini household had only grown larger and more cramped, to the point that Hanne was considering looking into a larger home. Where before it had just been her and her adoptive daughters, it was now Hanne, Hildegard and Salvatore, Catarina with the frequent company of Sheh or Megame, and now Rosaria and Capitolina were frequent fixtures as well. There was, of course, Basil the cat but he tended to make himself scarce whenever Capitolina was around. The dining room was filled with the noise of Cat and Rosa arguing, Hildegard and Turi flirting to the absolute limits that Hanne would tolerate, and Hanne herself discussing legion movements with Capitolina. When she was away on the march, Hilde tended to take control of the household, much to Cat’s dismay.

“You’re always the slower one,” Rosa argue, skewering a meatball with her fork before pointing it at Cat. “I mean honestly, it’s like being chained to a slug.”

“I’m plenty faster than you!” Cat said. “But at close range that spear is useless, so I need to cover more ground to keep you protected at that range.”

“I do just fine!”

Capitolina sighed but gave Hanne a smile. “Nothing like a noisy dinner.”

“Is this like how wolves do it?” Hanne said. “They do have similar manners at least.”

Capitolina gave a short bark of laughter. “Ha! Well not too different. Lots of yipping and barking and fighting for the scraps.”

“Sounds like home,” Hanne said. “How are the others?”

“Kebechet and Giovanni are doing what they can. They both approve of this shrine plan given the pressure on the Temple and the Vatican.”

“And Angel?” Hanne asked, passing some of the salad to Turi.

“She’s in one of her weird moods again,” Capitolina sighed. “I worry about her…and other things as well. These weird moods tend to come before something else bad happens.”

“Well hopefully this time we’ll be a bit more prepared,” Hanne said. “At least, I hope we will.”

 

Capitolina left soon after dinner, leaving Rosa to chat with Cat and Hildegard about their training until well into the night, at which point Cat elected to walk with Rosa back to her small apartment in the next district over.

“So things seem to be going well,” Cat smiled, as the pair of them strolled under the moonlight.

“What do ya mean?” Rosa asked.

“We’re having fun being part of Hilde’s unit, right?” Cat asked. “Better than being a huge jerk and a loner at least?”

“Eh,” Rosa shrugged. “It has its perks I guess.”

“I know Hilde likes it,” Cat said. “And so do I.”

“Aaah come on stop making a thing out of it,” Rosa groaned. “We work decently together, isn’t that enough for you?”

“We’ll talk about it,” Cat stuck out her tongue teasingly. But her short giggle was interrupted by the sounds of another joining them in the narrow street.

“Ah, there you are, Cat,” Aurelio said as he slid down a nearby wall. “Hilde and Turi said you were coming this way.”

“Sure, what’s up, Aurelio?” Cat asked, curious.

“There’s…something you need to see,” Aurelio said, and Cat caught the slight twinge of nervousness in his voice.

“Right now? It’s kind of late…”

“Best not to keep it waiting too long,” Aurelio said.

“I can make my own way home,” Rosa said. “See ya tomorrow, Cat.”

“See ya,” Cat waved as she followed Aurelio into the city.

“How’s the Night Guard doing?” Cat asked as they moved towards the Capitoline Hill.

“Better than expected,” Aurelio said. “And growing every day.”

“How’s…what’s her name again? Sybilla?”

“Ya, Sybilla, we’re…fine,” Aurelio said, and Cat smirked at the slight redness in his face.

“So is Night Guard business why you’re looking for me?” Cat asked. “I mean, I think it’s really cool and all but I doubt I’m qualified.”

“It’s more…unfinished business,” Aurelio said as he walked into the building at the head of the square, leading Cat down into the dark and empty basement. His face had gained a serious tone that Cat wasn’t used to, and she fell into a hushed silence as she followed him down the stairs.

“It took us months to get a word out of her,” Aurelio said. “She’s not someone you can just throw in jail, so we’ve had her in holding until she started making requests. The first one was to see you.”

“Me?” Cat asked.

“By name,” Aurelio nodded.

“Who is she?”

Aurelio led her to a holding cell, where the wall had been replaced by a clear pane of enchanted glass so reinforced Cat could practically see the magic glistening across its surface. On the other side of the glass, standing at the center of a prison-like cell of a padded mat, toilet, and desk, was a young woman with long black hair and a pair of bright violet eyes on her thin face.

“So you brought her here after all,” The woman said. “Catarina Aldobrandini, it is a pleasure.”

Despite her words there was no smile on her face, or any sign of emotion at all.

“Who are you?” Cat asked, suddenly wishing she had her sword, despite the barrier between them.

“My name is Gisela Silva,” the stranger said. “And I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=71&sl=920

Where All Roads Lead

Return to Rome

April 10th, 2024

The journey home had been a quiet one. Rosa had spoken little for most of the ride and it took no small amount of cajoling from Cat to bring her around again.

“You alright, Rosa?”

“Whaddya mean?” Rosa pulled her eyes from the horizon to look at her.

“I mean…you lost your-“

“I didn’t lose anything.” Rosa cut her off. “I lost my sister a long time ago. This was…well I guess…this was a chance to say goodbye.”

“I see…” Catarina fell into sheepish silence for a moment, but it was not long before she couldn’t take the silence anymore.

“You ever think about joining me and Hildegard?” Catarina asked the reticent redhead.

“Join you for what?” Rosa eyed her somewhat suspiciously.

“Well, Hilde and Turi tend to go out and slay monsters the legion can’t deal with easily. I wanted to join them, but I think we can make a stronger case if we volunteer together.”

“Seriously?” Rosa asked. “You want us working together?”

“Did you see us back there at the fort!?” Cat said. “We couldn’t be stopped! We make a great team!”

“You’re delusional,” Rosa waved her off.

“I’m right,” Cat said stubbornly. “You and I did really well together, and I think we could make a good team.”

Rosa let out a long sigh. “We wouldn’t be part of the legions?”

“Not officially, no,” Cat said. “We mostly answer to Hanne, the Senate, and Capitolina.”

At this Rosa’s interest seemed to perk up as she glanced at Cat. “Really?”

“Well, sure,” Cat nodded. “Capitolina and the other wolves put the security of Rome as their primary focus, so they want to know where the monsters are and be sure the best people are getting rid of them.”

Cat could tell Rosa was becoming more interested, even if it wasn’t showing on her face; she just needed a bit more of a push.

“Come ooooon,” Cat said. “You, me, Hilde, Turi, some of the best fighters in Rome going out to hunt monsters. How does that not sound awesome? You don’t have to walk in formations or go on long patrols with the legion or anything, just us and the hunt.”

“Jeez, you’re pushy,” Rosa said. “Fine, I’ll join Hilde and Turi on one of their hunts and see if it’s my thing. You can come along too if you have to, so long as you don’t talk this much.”

“No promises,” Cat grinned. “But I think you’ll enjoy it.”

“We’ll see about that…” Rosa muttered, looking out over the edge of the carpet. “Is…that Rome?”

“Hmm…” Cat looked out over the horizon and the rich green Italian countryside as well. “Looks like Rome to me though…I don’t remember that much smoke.”

Rosa’s eyes narrowed. “Something’s gone wrong.”

Cat felt a lump in her throat, her thoughts instantly going to Hilde, vulnerable and bedridden. “I-I’m sure everything is fine.”

“Can this thing go faster?” Rosa asked, feet rubbing against the fabric of the flying carpet.

“It’s not like it has an accelerator or brakes or anything,” Cat grumbled, fingers hooking around the forward edge of the carpet as she tried to urge it forward. She wanted to get to the ground as much as Rosa did, but a magic carpet wasn’t exactly intuitive to fly.

As they flew in closer, it became clear that something disastrous had happened during their brief excursion. Numerous streets were in disrepair, with stones shattered and the fronts of buildings torn open. There was evidence of fires and other smaller-scale damage, and the legions were out in force along with the city guard to repair damage and protect the populace.

“I need to check in with Capitlina,” Rosa said. “See what went wrong.” Rosa said, surveying the damage from above.

“I need to get home…” Cat said, her anxiety slowly rising in her chest.

“Drop me off near the Hill,” Rosa said. “It’s on the way.”

“R-right…” Cat maneuvered the carpet a little to bring them low over the Capitoline Hill. She didn’t even touch the ground before Rosa leapt off the side of the carpet and started off running, leaving Cat to shoot back off into the air and fly straight for home.

She touched down a few minutes later, jumping off the carpet which vanished into a mist of golden light behind her as she threw the door open. The house itself seemed unharmed, the windows and door were still intact and there were no signs of exterior damage, but Cat’s heart was in her throat as she ran inside.

“Mrowr,” The familiar meow of Basil greeted her as the cat sat up from where he had been curled on the couch, hopping softly down to receive his usual attention. Cat ignored him as she ran upstairs.

“Hilde!” She shouted up. “I’m home!”

Cat ran up the stairs two at a time and threw open the door to Hilde’s room, only to find it already crowded with a number of people. Hilde was still in bed, seemingly asleep, while Salvatore and Aurelio were there as well. Both of them seemed much worse for wear. Turi had a number of bandages over his arms and one on his face. Aurelio was leaning against the wall, one arm in a sling and similarly scratched up with dark rings around his eyes from lack of sleep.

“Cat, you’re back,” Turi smiled as she ran into the room.

“What happened?” Cat demanded before he could say more. “Did Rome come under attack?”

“Ya,” Turi nodded. “The cult decided to make their move while you and Rosa were away.”

Cat’s heart sank. She had gone on this mission purely to save Asha. While the girl was a close friend, not being in Rome might have endangered a lot of people, and she’d taken Rosa as well, one of the best monster hunters in the city.

Turi apparently saw her fears on her face, as he was quick to respond.

“It’s not your fault, Cat. No one saw this coming, there was no way any of us could have known and I doubt they were waiting for you to leave, more likely they were waiting for the Legions to depart again so they only had the guard to defend Rome.”

“But we repelled the attack, right?” Cat asked. “Is the cult still out there?”

“Not anymore,” Aurelio shook his head. “We cut off the head, rounded up most of the remaining members as well as its most influential leaders. Whatever dregs of the cult remain will be gone soon enough as people start to name names.”

“And Hilde’s fine,” Turi said. “I defended this area personally to make sure of it.”

Though pangs of guilt still cut at her, Catarina did feel some relief at that note. “Alright…what about Hildegard? Has she improved?”

There was a brief silence as Turi looked towards the floor, and Cat knew that the situation had no doubt become worse. Cat may have solved Asha’s problems on the other side of the sea, but she was still powerless to help Hildegard now.

There came a knock at the door, and it was opened to reveal a young woman Cat didn’t recognize. She had short dark hair, black but with a touch of blue, and bright turquoise eyes.

“Aurelio?” She asked, looking around before spotting him in the crowded room, “I wanted to make sure you were still here.”

“Still here, Mary,” Aurelio nodded. “How’s everyone else?”

‘Aiding in the rebuilding efforts,” Mary said. “Sybilla asked after you so I came looking.”

“I’ll be out to join them soon,” Aurelio said, arms folded over his chest. “Just needed to check on Hilde and Turi here.”

“Of course I…” Mary had glanced at Hildegard while speaking, but as she did the short woman did a brief double-take before staring at her in earnest, words trailing off.

“Something wrong, Mary?” Aurelio asked.

“I’ve seen this before…” The woman called Mary said quietly, and both Cat and Turi turned to face her.

“Before?” Cat asked. “This sickness? Where!? Where have you seen it before?”

Before she had even realized it, Cat had grabbed Mary by the shoulders. The young woman seemed surprised, though her expression was still slightly muted.

“Well I haven’t seen it personally but…I have some of my creator’s knowledge, and she was familiar with all manner of vicious curses.”

“So it is a curse…” Turi said. “We had thought as much.”

“What can we do?” Cat asked. “How is the curse lifted?”

“Breaking a curse is deceptive in its simplicity,” Mary said. “One must be the person who laid the curse in the first place, or more powerful than said person.”

“We don’t know who it was…” Cat said. “At least I don’t.”

Mary spent another moment looking over Hildegard “It is…a very powerful curse. Beyond the grasp of mortal spellcasters.”

Cat’s heart sank. If that was true, then she didn’t have the power to break the curse; Scheherazade likely didn’t either, perhaps not even Albion Nassar.

“Though I know someone who would be easily capable of tearing this curse away,” Mary concluded as she drew back from Hildegard.

“Who!?” Caat all but demanded, fists shaking.

“My creator and former master,” Mary said. “The Witch Goddess Huldra.”

“Then we’re sunk,” Aurelio said. “Not only is Huldra who-knows-where, there’s the small problem of her being evil.”

“Argh!” Cat shouted in frustration, hands still on Mary’s shoulders, a nonplussed expression on her face. “Why would even suggest that if there was no hope?”

“Because the Hunter is not telling the full story,” Mary said. “Lady Huldra is not by her nature evil. She is possessed by a piece of Nidhoggr’s spirit. It consumes her thoughts and guides her actions. She is a slave to it, not a willing servant.”

“But we’re still at square one,” Cat said. “With no one to turn to.”

Mary looked past Cat to Aurelio. “Now is the time,” she said firmly.

“No,” Aurelio said. “Too much has happened, we need to recover.”

“We made a bargain, I am upholding my end.” Mary’s eyes narrowed slightly.

“How can we even hope to find Huldra?” Aurelio asked. “Or get her to agree to some kind of exorcism?”

“By doing for her what you did to me,” Mary said. “We must kill this piece of Nidhoggr where it resides within her mind, in the Dreaming.”

“You can find her in the Dreaming?” Aurelio asked.

“Of course,” Mary nodded. “She is my creator, I can always track her presence.”

“Why didn’t you say so earlier!?” Aurelio demanded, but Cat cut him off.

“Wait, wait. wait, you both lost me,” she said, hands raised. “Explain what’s going on.”

Mary spoke before Aurelio could come up with the words.

“My creator, Huldra, is also a goddess of dreams,” Mary said. “All dreams can be reached in the Dreaming, the gestalt world from in which all dreams are formed, if one knows the way. Aurelio has been there before, and it is the place where I once existed.”

“So you’re saying,” Cat said, parsing things out. “Is that someone can go into the Dreaming, find your master, and kill the piece of Nidhoggr that’s enslaving her?”

“It can be done, hypothetically,” Mary said. “Though the journey will be difficult. I can take one person at most. Aurelio’s injuries would follow him into the dreaming alogn with his mental fatigue, and Hildegard is obviously incapable…”

“I’ll do it,” Turi said. “I am a Champion of Minerva, I think I stand a better chance than most.”

“No,” Cat said. “Let me do it.”

Turi turned to her. “Hilde would never have let me put you at risk to save her. Besides, you’re not as skilled a monster-slayer as she is, and you’re not a champion.”

Cat stood stubbornly against him. “She wouldn’t want you to risk your life either, and I might not be a champion but if this IS a primordial we’re dealing with, then I have an advantage.”

“Advantage?” Mary asked, curious.

Cat lifted the sword from her belt and showed it to Mary. “Caeruleamor, my sword.”

Mary stepped closer, tilting her head as she examined the sword, a curious expression on her face. “This steel…what has been worked into it?”

“Mmm…something potent.” Cat said, recalling her promise to Angel. “Something that can cancel out the power of a Primordial.”

Mary looked from Cat’s sword to Turi. “She has a point,” she said. “Nidhoggr, even a fragment of it, is no mortal monster or cacodaemon. The Dragon of Yggdrassil is mightier than the power of a god, save perhaps for the likes of Zeus or Thor, and a fragment is more than enough to overcome most mortals unless they have an advantage such as this.”

“It’s still not a safe journey,” Turi said hesitantly.

“I never asked for a safe journey,” Cat said. “But if I can help save Hilde, if there’s anything I can do to make a difference, then I’ll do it.”

Cat turned to look at Mary. “I want to do it.”

“Very well,” Mary said. “I’ll begin the preparations.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=67&sl=912

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

The Wolves of Rome

Mount Etna

April 15th, 2023
Mount Etna had once stood as a stately and quiet mountain in Sicily, a quiet monolith that looked out over the sea and the city of Catania. Most years since antiquity it was a silent behemoth that loomed like a slumbering giant on the island nation. On occasion, it unleashed the odd belch of fire, reminding the populace of the monster that lurked within its core, a beast with a hundred hungry maws full of ash, smoke, and molten rock.

The Mount Etna that stood since the Days of Revelation was a very different beast, a terrible hollow tombstone, a shattered prison and abandoned workshop. The snow at its peak had been replaced with bare scorched rock and the telltale marks of cataclysmic eruption that had ripped the mountain’s peak asunder. Smoke still rose from its peak, but it was not a column of ash, pumice, and fire. It was the wispy transparent ghost of a dying fire, like a candle just recently snuffed out. The beast had escaped its prison and the fire in the forge had gone out.

Catania, the city that reached almost to the mountain’s very slope, had been devastated. Half of it now found itself buried in ash from the initial pyroclastic devastation that had rolled in like a tidal wave. The buildings closest to the peak had been shattered entirely and the rest had been buried like the Pompeii of ancient Rome. Walking through the city was hazardous, and cloth masks were worn over the face as the legs of the Roman expedition shuffled through knee-deep drifts of white-grey ash. The ashfall had ended months ago, but with none around to clean it save the wind it was still piled high in some places, and could be dangerous to breathe in as it was kicked up in clouds around them as they moved. Safety goggles, pilfered from old chemistry labs, had been issued as standard equipment as well.

There was no safer and more direct approach to Etna. The roads of Catania were largely deserted and provided a straight path through the ash rather than struggling half-blind through the wilderness. The Rangers marched in a column through the city, eyes sharp for any sign of movement. Ash or not, this was their territory. They had been trained for months in urban combat, and a city to them was home. Breaths were shallow and eyes darting as they moved in a line through the grey city towards the black mountain.

The preparations and tension were well-warranted. Typhon had long since abandoned his prison, but he had left plenty of his ill-bred progeny behind.

A shadow moved through the air, half-hidden in the low cloud cover. Most of the Rangers, Hanne among them, would have preferred a clear day for the assault, but time was not on their side. Supplies were running low and they would need to return to Rome soon. Crossbows rose into the air, pointed skyward as they slowed their steps, eyes up as they waited for a sign of scaly skin or leathery wings.

There was a shriek that echoed through the air, coming down from the grey clouds before being cut off in a sudden harsh note. A moment later, a great black shape tumbled to the earth, crashing against the side of a building before tumbling down in a hail of dust and brick. The rangers moved forward and found the corpse of a dragon-like beast lying in a pile of rubble, wings torn by its descent and its head cleanly severed from its serpentine neck.

Hanne couldn’t help but smile as she called the Rangers back in line. It felt good to have air support at least.

Overhead, where the clouds gave way to blue sky, Hildegard and Turi, riding astride Pegasus, had been tasked with keeping the skies clear. From Etna’s smoking caldera had emerged all manner of scaly creatures on leathery wings to keep them occupied. These weren’t the cacodaemons of Rome, but to all eyes, flesh and blood creatures born in their draconic shape. Most were beastlike, occasionally venturing to the Rangers in curiosity, but largely leaving them be. Others, hoping for an easy meal, dove on them only to be met by the far swifter Pegasus and Hildegard’s lethal blade.

“Nice shot.” Turi smiled as Hildegard’s blade cut cleanly through the shrieking creature’s neck.

“What do you call these things again?” Hildegard asked, one arm still hooked tightly around his waist.

“We just call them drakes.” Turi shrugged “They’re not really monsters just…big scaly animals, they don’t usually eat people.”

“Is that all there is between us and Etna?” She asked, sharp eyes still scanning the sky.

“I wish.” Turi sighed, and Hildegard joined him. It could never be easy.

Their destination was visible even from miles away, a great gash rent into the base of the volcano, flanked by great statues that looked as if they had been buried for eons. It could be nothing but the entrance to Hephaestus’ forge in the heart of the volcano.

True to Turi’s word, the closer they drew to the volcano, the stronger the resistance became. The drakes were replaced by larger and fiercer draconic monsters, their skin all crackling fire and smoking brimstone. At the mountain’s base giants lurked, waiting to hurl stones wildly at the oncoming Rangers.

“Incoming! Three o’ clock high!” Hildegard shouted, and Pegasus’ wings flared as they banked hard right, just in time for Turi’s longer spear to impale a swooping drake in the chest, the metal spearhead driving deep into its burning heart. Ash and cinder exploded from the wound like blood as the hissing beast tumbled, smoking, to its death on the ground below. With no time to lose, Pegasus dove down towards the earth, two more flaming drakes close behind them, their bodies glowing and hissing as they passed through the wet clouds. Hildegard turned herself, clinging with one hand tight to Turi as the pair of them shot almost straight down. The drakes, black pinions of their batlike wings spread wide, were hurtling towards them. Aim would be everything.

Hildegard drew in her breath, it had been some time since she’d practiced magic like this, but it was just like riding a bike.

From her hand shot a dozen points of bright yellow light, whizzing through the air like firecrackers as they shot towards the closer of the two drakes. Several exploded on its face, tearing through ashen scale and cracked muscle as the rest tore holes in the great batlike wings, shredding them as they exploded in bursts of white light against the relatively thin membrane.

As they dove beneath the clouds, Turi kept Pegasus’ nose pointed firmly towards the ground, his wings folding in as they dropped like a meteor towards the earth. Hildegard had a moment to look down and see the state of the Rangers, pushing their advance towards the entrance to the great workshop as a small band of giants tried to stop them.

As they dived lower, almost coming to the tree line, Pegasus’ wings shot open, and for a moment, it felt as if Hildegard’s stomach was sent hurtling behind her as they pulled up from the steep dive, wind whipping at their faces as they recovered. One of the drakes recovered with them, its heavier body barely managing to avoid being dashed across the earth. The other one, its wings torn apart by Hildegard’s magic, was not so lucky, air whistling through the holes in its wings before it crashed into the ground, rolling into a crumpled heap of shattered bone and wing. One down, Hildegard thought to herself.

“Quick! Towards those giants!” She called to Turi, having to shout over the sound of whistling wind. Hildegard grit her teeth. Her clothes were soaked with a chill that reached her bones, her hand holding tight to Stahlzan with a vice-like grip. Her muscles raged, her teeth wanted to chatter from the cold, and her eyes were almost whipped shut by the wind that tore at her face and hair. Her mind, however, was as sharp as ever; this was her element.

“Towards the giants!?” Turi shouted back, incredulously.

“I have an idea.” Hildegard said, a grin cracking across her face. Turi looked like he was about to object, but held his tongue. If there was one thing he had learned to trust, it was Hildegard’s monster killing instincts.

Pegasus swooped in on the wind towards the giants. These beings truly lived up to the name. Easily seven meters at the shoulder and built like Neanderthals, their skin was covered in patches of volcanic ash and fire just like the drakes. Other parts of their body gave way to patches of scaly skin or horns upon their crown, all clear signs of more monstrous lineage.

Hildegard raised her sword high, turning it in the air until the shining silver blade caught the dim light of the sun. It wasn’t enough, but at just the right angle…

The closest giant turned towards them, distracted from its assault on the rangers by the bright shining light in the sky hurtling rapidly towards them. Hildegard glanced back and saw the drake still directly behind them, trying to close the gap to get in range of its blazing fire breath.
The next few moments happened like frames frozen in Hildegard’s mind. Timing was everything.

Reaching forward, she took hold of Pegasus’ reins with Turi, hands wrapping around his to guide them as she drew herself closer to him. For a moment, she felt both of them in sync, their breathing, muscles, and heartbeats moving together as he felt her plans through the slightest motions of her hands.

The giant reached with one great thick hand to the massive boulders of igneous stone at his feet. He moved slowly, like a massive tree in motion as his great form lifted the rock, weighing at least several tons, up into the air, arm pulling back like a pitcher winding up the throw. Hildegard held steady, flying straight for him, eyes focused on the great muscular arms, waiting for the muscles to release and the throw to release.

At the very last moment, Hildegard and Turi moved at once, pulling Pegasus’ reins hard to the right into a dive, the sudden turn almost throwing them both from his back as gravity roared in their ears. The boulder, released from the giant’s arm with all the force of a cannonball, whistled past with alarming closeness, and Hildegard could feel the whipping wind of its passage against her back.

The drake, however, had been too focused on its quarry. It had only begun to turn when the great stone collided with its form with enough force to tear it apart as it all but exploded on impact into a cloud of ash and blood.

Hildegard looked again to the giant, who was reaching slowly for another stone, failing to notice the small form at his heels.

Hanne, thankful for the distraction, had run ahead of the Ranger column, which was advancing slowly as they took cover from the giants’ assault. As the great giant had stared stupidly at his accidental strike, Hanne had drawn her blade, and by the time the giant noticed, it was far too late as the saber tore through his Achilles tendon, sending the giant to his knees with a crash that shook the earth. Hanne didn’t pause to revel in her victory, however; even on its knees a giant was still a giant. She had maybe seconds before she was caught in a grasp that could crush every bone in her body.

Sword in hand, she rushed forward past the giant’s legs. People tended to aim for the throat so often they forgot another key point of weakness, and considering giants were built like large humans…

Taking her sword in both hands, she plunged the blade into the giant’s inner thigh, and the burst of blood that greeted her told her she had successfully cut the giant’s femoral artery. It wasn’t instantly fatal, but the giant wouldn’t be moving out of this spot. By the time she had finished cutting the other leg, the giant now shaking in its rage and pain, much of Hanne’s jacket had been soaked in giant’s blood. She leaped away as the giant tried in vain to roll over and find her, tracking blood with each step.

Spurred on by Hildegard’s daring and their commander’s own giant-slaying prowess, the other Rangers had surged forth, leaving the giants daunted as they tried in vain to crush the smaller and more nimble humans. One of them swept his great hand over the ground, catching one of the rangers in his powerful grasp, only to drop her moments later as a half dozen crossbow bolts sank themselves into the tender flesh of his hand. Another giant reached for a massive boulder at his feet, only for swords to slash deep into his fingers.

One by one the giants fell and the drakes crashed to earth as the Rangers cut their way into the workshop, Pegasus landing at the entrance to let Hildegard to disembark and regroup with her adoptive mother.

“That was some excellent flying, Salvatore.” Hanne said as Hildegard slid off the horse.

“Thank you.” Turi smiled. “Even if Pegasus did most of the work.”

“And you handled yourself well, Hildegard.” Hanne patted her on the shoulder as they crossed the threshold into the workshop, flanked by a large contingent of Rangers.

“Do we know what we’re looking for?” Hildegard asked as they made their way inside.

“Angel drew us some sketches but that’s about it…” Hanne said.

The entrance hall soon gave way to the body of the forge, a great empty cavity opened up before them as they stepped into what had clearly once been a massive complex. All around them were the remains of workbenches, racks of tools fifty meters long, great cauldrons that had once held gallon upon gallon of molten metal, and anvils twice as tall as a man.

At the center of this divine architecture, the entire complex had been ripped open by Typhon’s release, leaving the already quite open forge hollow and open to the air as rays of light shone down through holes in the caldera, all of it lit by weak sunlight and the omnipresent crimson glow of the molten magma at the heart of the great rupture.

Blessedly, either by divine presence, fear of Typhon’s prison, or simple luck, the forge itself was empty and Hanne sent the Rangers out scouting for their prize as she observed what had become of the forge.

“As close as I can tell,” She said, standing near the ragged edge of the forge floor where it fell into the heart of the mountain. “Typhon’s prison was underneath this place, and when he broke out he took half the forge with him.”

Hildegard, looking around the great cavity, could see the half-ruined remains of rooms, sublevels, and massive equipment scattered across the inside walls of the hollowed out volcano. Below her, where the floor dropped away, was a great sea of magma marked only by the twisted remains of bars and rods of black metal, no doubt what remained of his prison. The cavity blasted into the forge was nearly a mile across, and given the splendor of the remains, the finely wrought divine architecture and the scale of the machinery, Hildegard could only guess what it must have been like in its prime.

“Captain!” One of the Rangers called out as he approached, something tall slung over his shoulder. “We think we found them.”

He presented to the pair of them what looked like a spear, nearly eight feet long, made of silvery metal. Across its surface were etched alien runes and long patterns of flowing wings and lightning bolts.

Hanne looked the spear over before pulling a piece of scrap paper form a pouch at her belt where Hildegard could see a finely rendered sketch of what looked almost precisely like the spear the man carried.

“How many did you find?” Hanne asked.

“Nearly thirty, captain.” The ranger said.

“Good.” Hanne smiled “Get the wagon, load them up, I want to be back on the coast by nightfall.”

The man saluted as the Rangers in the forge all rushed to join in the retrieval. Hanne took a moment to examine the forge a while longer, looking for anything valuable they could scavenge.
All told it wasn’t much. When the god of the forge had evacuated it was clear he took most of his toys with him. There were no magical armaments to speak of save for the spears, and the rest seemed to be mostly odds and ends. Lengths of wire, bars of metal, and a few half-finished projects and schematics. Hanne had all of it loaded up anyway. Knowledge was power, and the chance to clean out a god’s forge was one that didn’t come by often.

A cry from the entrance alerted her attention, and she ran forward just in time to see several Rangers, laden with pilfered equipment, running for the cover of the forge as a large shadow flew over the ground. Hanne swore under her breath as she ran forward, sword drawn. Another drake had come to make easy pickings while they were weighed down with spoils.

“Ready crossbows!” She shouted as she ran into the half-lit light of the clouded morning.

“Hildegard!” She whirled around, looking for the mage.

Her search was answered, however, as a barrage of fireballs erupted from the ground further down the slope, and she saw Hildegard, hand raised, at their source as the whizzing firecrackers of magical energy ripped across the drake’s body.

The creature whirled and screeched angrily, flapping wildly to maintain its altitude. Another moment later, its erratic movements were interrupted as what looked like a shining crystal lance shot from the ground and impaled the monster clean through the chest. As Hanne watched the beast fall, still screaming, toward the earth, she saw the spear catch the light and realized it wasn’t crystal.

It was ice.

Running at a full sprint down the slope for the entrance, Hanne saw Hildegard sitting on a rocky outcrop. Beside her, one arm wrapped around her shoulder, was Catarina.

“Look who I found.” Hildegard smiled as Hanne rushed to meet them, throwing caution to the winds as she pulled Cat into a tight embrace.

“I was only gone a few days.” Cat protested, but she returned the hug, wrapping her arms tightly around her adoptive mother.

“Sorry I missed the party.” Cat said when they finally relinquished one another. “I got held up by some stuff in Syracuse.”

“You’ll have to tell us all about it.” Hildegard smiled.

“It is quite a tale.” The familiar sly voice of Sheh moved between them as the tall light-eyed woman stepped from the shadows. For a moment, Hanne swore she saw something shiny and silver held in her hand before it was hidden in the folds of her dress.

“Then we’ll hear it on the ship ride home.” For the first time since arriving on Sicily, Hanne allowed herself a sigh of relief. Cat was safe and with her again, their mission was finished. All that remained was the journey back to Rome and to home.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Wings over Sicily

April 11th,2023
Hildegard walked along the shore, shielding herself from the rays of the sun with her cape. People always told her that a cape was bad in a combat situation because it could result in her enemy grabbing it. Her answer was always the same. A Ranger was out in the hot sun and the pouring rain. During times like that, having a piece of cloth above your head, especially one reinforced to repel water, was useful.

She had awoken by herself, with only her sword and clothes in terms of gear. A quick assessment had told her that quite a lot had changed from the initial invasion plan. She was alone, without another soul in sight. Out at sea, she thought she could make out a ship of some shape, but it was too far away to say if it was one of theirs. More than likely, it was a pirate ship or a ship of the dead.

Hilde had smiled and rubbed her hands together. This might not have been the plan, but oh was she going to have a story to tell to the other Rangers when she got back. Doubt flickered in her mind for only a moment; the creeping concern that she was the only one to have made it from the boats, before she quickly dismissed it. If she had survived, than surely most of the others did as well. Cat had fallen off first and Hilde had dived after her. The other rangers were surely fine. Cat though…

As Hilde’s footsteps sank into the sea, her thoughts turned back to the younger girl. A small frown crossed her face. She had held onto Cat as the blue haired mage had slipped under the water, but the force of the waves had knocked her unconscious and her grip had slipped. If something had happened to Cat, Hilde wasn’t sure what she would do.

“No.” She told herself, with as much force as she could. “You won’t think like that. Cat is a tough girl, just like you are. She’ll be fine.” After a moment, Hilde gave herself a wry smile. “After all, Mother would kill her double if Cat died after all that begging to come!”

Hilde continued to walk on the beach until the sun reached its zenith. Wiping at her brow and letting her cape fall down, she let out a heavy breath. “Mm, need to find some water.” She said, looking at the rows of empty abandoned houses that had once been part of a seaside town. She had never been to Sicily before this. Even studying the maps didn’t help her when she had no landmarks with which to go by.

It was a small town, and Hilde could tell it had been abandoned for some time. There were still scenes of people’s final moments playing out behind the windows. It seems that most of the residents had fled from something in a hurry, most likely during the Days of Revelation.

While peeking through one of the windows into a home, seeing a bottle of water just lying on the kitchen table, Hildegard heard a sound. Wings flapping meant there was something approaching from the air. Her hand moved over the hilt of her sword. Pretending to keep staring through the window, Hilde waited until the creature was drawing in close. The flapping grew louder. She could feel the wind pushing against her. There was the thump of a landing.

She spun around, drawing her sword, and found herself looking up at…a flying horse?
It was hard to see against the light of the sun behind it. Hilde staggered back, squinting as a spear wielding figure in armor descended from the skies on the back of a shadowed horse. Hildegard dug her feet into the dirt, making sure her footing was steady.

The horse and rider landed on the road, creating a cloud of dirt and gravel. Hilde closed her eyes against the cloud of debris. When she opened them again, she let out a gasp.

The ranger found herself staring into the eyes of a Pegasus straight from ancient myth. Its pure white coat seemed to shine in the sunlight as the horse observed her with intelligent, aware eyes. The gentle flapping of its broad wings caused her hair to blow back as if it were a windy day.

Hildegard slowly took a step forward, cautiously, as her eyes travelled up to see the Pegasus’s rider.
It was a boy about her own age, clad in riding leathers with an ancient-looking breastplate over his chest. His sandy brown hair clung to his skin from the sweat and it was clear that if the Pegasus’s wings were causing her hair to blow every which way, the winds he was enduring were worse. He carried a spear which gave Hildegard cause for concern.

“You’re not one of the villagers from this region.” He said, looking down on her.

“I don’t even know where this region is!” Hilde said. She kept her weapon out, not dropping her guard for a moment.

“You’re in Messina. Nobody here has armor like that…or a magical sword. Are you from the south?”
Hildegard groaned at hearing that she was in Messina. That meant she was far north of the landing point. Her disappointment didn’t last long as she picked up on the rest of what he said. “Hey! You have armor and a flying horse! Even if my sword was magical, how can you say something like that?”

Dropping the reins, the boy started stroking Pegasus’s mane. “The Goddess granted me these gifts to help me protect the region from monsters. But trust me, they work just as well against more human threats!”

“Monsters?” Hilde said, with a frown. “Like Cacodaemons?”

The boy tilted his head. “Don’t know what those are. If we have them, we call them something different.”

“They’re just a general term for the monsters. Look, I got washed up on shore after a sea serpent attacked our ship. My sister fell in the water, so she’s probably somewhere nearby. My name is Hildegard, I’m from Rome. We came here because…” Hilde started to explain her reason for being there, before stopping. Revealing the location of a hidden cache of magical weapons to a stranger did not seem wise. “Because we wanted to find out if there were any other survivors.”

The boy didn’t seem to believe her, but he did lower his spear a little as Pegasus snorted. “Hmm, well, I don’t entirely believe your story…But Pegasus seems to think you’re not a bandit. My name is Salvatore Messana. People call me Turi though.”

“Well, tell your horse that I appreciate his vote of confidence.” While her words sounded ludicrous to her ears, Hildegard meant them sincerely. She was, after all, standing before an undeniable Pegasus. Was it so hard to believe that the creature was able to make a good judge of character?
“So how does someone just get a Pegasus?” Hildegard asked. Seeing him sitting on its back, she couldn’t help but get a little jealous. If there were more of them, she wanted one.

“It’s not A Pegasus, it’s just Pegasus.” Turi said. “As for why, you’d have to ask the Goddess. But I’ve trained and ridden horses all my life. When the mountain shook, the Goddess appeared to me at my Ranch and told me she had chosen me to be her champion.”

“Mmm…” Hilde did her best to hide her disappointment. I want a flying horse…

“I’ve been keeping monsters from attacking the villages in this region. With Pegasus, I can travel faster than just about anyone. It’s how I know you’re not from around here.” Turi said, leaning forward and resting his arms against Pegasus’s head. He seemed to relax fairly quickly. Hildegard smiled confidently. He was just a rancher pretending to be a monster hunter, not a trained professional like her!

“I can tell you’re not a soldier. So how do you manage to kill anything with that spear?” She asked, looking him over. He was decently built, but Hildegard knew enough about combat to know he was a trained rider, not a trained fighter.

Turi bristled at her words. “I may not be a soldier, but I can kill monsters just fine. The spear guides itself toward their hearts.”

Hildegard frowned. She wouldn’t say out loud it was cheating to have the spear do all the work, but the expression on her face made her feelings perfectly clear.

Turi could tell what she was thinking anyway, and he matched her frown. “It takes a lot of effort to direct Pegasus in the air already. The Goddess is just helping me do my job.”

“I suppose. I think it would be better to take someone who already knew how to fight with a spear and teach them how to ride a flying horse.”

Leaning back, Turi folded his arms. “Are you going to argue with the Goddess of Wisd—“

Before he could get her full title out, the entire ground shook. The birds took off from the trees, cawing in distress. Something was moving in the trees, causing the branches to shake. Turi quickly grabbed Pegasus’s reins, his guard back up. “A giant! Get out of its way!”

With a tug on the reins, Pegasus took off for the air, rising high above the trees. Looking up, Hildegard could see the head of the giant well above the tree line as it carved a path through the forest. It was larger than any cacodaemon she had seen in Rome. It was humanoid, but its body seemed to be made out of stone and dirt, its hair out of plants. Her head could barely reach its knee.

Drawing her sword, Hildegard just smiled as her eyes began to take in everything they could, anything that would give her an advantage. If she could bring down this giant, then there’d be no question that she was one of the greatest monster hunters that had ever lived! If she could get in the trees, she could in theory pull herself up his arm to his neck. With her sword’s fire and her magic, she could possibly set his hair alight.

She started to run towards the trees, her sword already burning brightly with magical fire. The giant didn’t seem to notice her. Instead, his eyes were trained on…Turi and Pegasus. Hildegard slid to a stop as she watched the two dive like a hawk from the sky. One hand on the reins, the other holding the spear, Turi seemed to be using the weapon like a compass, matching his course based on where it pointed.
The giant grabbed a tree and ripped it from the ground, swinging it as a club. Turi pulled back on the reins, causing Pegasus to go off course but avoid the giant’s swing. Hilde waved her arms to try to get his attention. If she could get in the air, she’d be able to kill this monster!

“Hey! Turi! Listen to me!” She screamed as he flew above. She chased after the horse, until finally, finally, she managed to get his attention. She pointed to the giant, then her sword, then made a slashing motion across her neck.

Turi quickly headed back down for the ground, letting go of Pegasus’s reins as he held out his arm, grabbing Hildegard around her waist and pulling her up, the momentum of his flight sweeping her off the ground. Hildegard made a face that she was happy he couldn’t see at the sudden and unfamiliar sensation of being off the ground as he pulled her onto the horse.

“Al-alright, now get me up…AAAH!” Hildegard started to scream for a moment as Pegasus began to climb through the air again. She quickly bit her tongue to get herself to stop, wrapping her arms around the horse’s neck and closing her eyes. Turi’s arm stayed around her to keep her from falling as Pegasus moved freely, his rider’s hand no longer holding the reins.

Pegasus rose rapidly into the air. As Hilde opened her eyes, she took a look below. She had been on planes, very rarely, but this was different. The only thing keeping her from falling was the arm of this rancher.

“Get ready to jump!” Turi said as they approached the giant’s head. Hilde gripped her blade. This was what she was trained to do. She felt Turi’s arm pull away as she willingly slipped off the horse, falling quickly towards the giant’s shoulder. She crashed into it with a thud, starting to bounce and slip until she dug her sword into the caked mud that made the creature’s body. “Haaa…” She let out a sigh of relief as she pulled herself to her feet. This wasn’t the most stable of ground, but she’d make it work.

The giant hadn’t even really noticed her, focused as it was on the flying horse with the pointy spear that seemed to always go for its chest. Hilde charged around the shoulder, her sword ablaze as she swung it up, catching the grassy hair. The magic flames eagerly lapped at the giant, and soon a bonfire had started on the monster’s head, helped along by Hildegard’s own spells. Chanting in German, the Ranger Knight used all the offensive spells she knew against the creature.

It howled in pain as it clawed at its own hair. Hildegard grabbed onto the rocky surface as best as she could. She could hear Turi screaming something as she saw Pegasus fly like a dart towards the giant’s now undefended heart. She could hear its death cry as it started to fall, the magical spear piercing through its skin, the divine enchantment breaking through its hard hide.

The giant began to tumble, with Hildegard still on it. If she held her grip and it landed the right way, perhaps she’d still be able to come out of this alright. Gripping on for dear life in the most literal sense, Hildegard grit her teeth as she focused on reinforcing her body. No matter what, this was going to hurt.

She heard the fluttering of wings and felt Turi’s hand grabbing her by the collar of her armor. She was lifted off the giant and pulled onto the back of the flying horse. Hilde hadn’t even realized she’d stopped breathing until she let out a big breath. The giant collapsed with a thud that shook the earth even more than its footsteps.

Turi was sweating, his breathing shallow. Hilde wasn’t faring much better as they both flew on the back of Pegasus, recovering their breaths. Neither had the energy to say anything, but it was Hilde who recovered first. With a big smile, she looked down at the dead monster.

“Can’t wait to tell Cat I took down a giant! The look on her face will be priceless.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

The New Front

April 8th, 2023
It was mid-morning as Hanne checked herself in the small mirror that stood out in her otherwise spartan room. Vanity wasn’t one of her traits, but as the appointed commander of the Rangers, it was expected she keep at least her appearance trim. She was wearing her old military uniform and she’d kept it immaculate over the past few years, no mean feat given the recent months. She needed to cut an impressive figure today, as the day had come for the Rangers to march to the sea.

It would be the first time many of them had left Rome in almost half a year, herself included. The Rangers might venture out beyond the barricade wall, but even that was merely a portion of the city at this point. Today, they would be marching south, towards their launching point in southern Italy to sail to Catania on Sicily, and from there they would march to Mount Etna. The Rangers were nervous, most of them anyway, and in times like that soldiers would look to their leaders. Capitolina had wanted to come as well, but Angel had insisted she stay in Rome in her role as temporary Consul.

Finishing her check, keeping her uniform trim and hair bound tight behind her head, she set the mirror down and slung her bag over her shoulder. Her sword was hung at her hip, and she even had her old service rifle stowed in her bag along with everything else she needed. She was used to sleeping on nothing but the bare ground and she’d drilled the Rangers in it over the past week.

They would be moving light and sleeping light, trying to cover as much ground as they could as quickly as possible. The Rangers, enjoying the beds the sanctuary assured them, had been quick to gripe about sleeping with nothing but a thin bedroll on the hard ground outside…with the usual exception of Hildegard, who practically seemed more comfortable on the ground, and Catarina, who was always eager to please.

Hanne allowed herself a sigh. Catarina was far too young for this, she knew that. She was still a teenager; she shouldn’t be drilled as a soldier or used like one until she was at least eighteen. But they were short on able manpower, and Catarina had been both zealous and disciplined in her training. Hanne had worried at first that her eagerness would drag down her performance, but to her pleasant surprise Catarina had been quick to take to instruction. She did everything in her power to prove herself ready, and in doing so was already ranked as one of the best Rangers Hanne had. It did little to assuage her worries though, Hanne wondered if Catarina knew the full extent of what she was getting into. She was overjoyed to fight with the Rangers, and Hanne had brought her along on the last few city expeditions, even having her fight one-on-one with a Cacodaemon (with Hildegard close by to intervene if need be) and Catarina had done…remarkably well. Hanne had half-expected her to turn around completely, too gripped by fear to prove herself effective. In fact Hanne had almost hoped for that outcome, as it meant she could have pulled her out of the Rangers and the expedition. Catarina, however, had proven herself an amazing combatant, able to fight at her finest against a dangerous foe.

Speaking of which, Hanne listened for a sound elsewhere in the house and was greeted by total silence. She let out another sigh as she realized Hildegard and Catarina were doubtless already out the door. It was still another two hours before the Rangers were to meet, which could mean only one thing.

Hanne stepped quickly out the door, locking it behind her as she moved into the city. She took a few steps towards the piazza before pausing and turning on her heel to the training field instead. If they had left with zeal to get there first, they would be at the piazza, but if they had left at the same time…

It took her only ten minutes to reach the training field, the weight of her bag almost nonexistent on her shoulder, and her suspicions were realized as she was greeted by the sound of clashing swords that echoed louder the closer she got to the training field. There, surrounded by a small ring of spectators, Hildegard and Catarina had decided to expend some of their excess energy.

Normally, Hanne would have walked over, broken them up, and chewed them out over wasting all their strength when they had a day’s long march ahead, but experience had taught her by now that if those two wanted to duel there was little that would stop them. Interrupting them now would only postpone the competition to sometime later, which was a distraction she could certainly do without on today of all days. So instead she took her place on the outside of the ring of onlookers, keeping her distance so as not to make her presence immediately known.

Duels between Catarina and Hildegard always drew spectators; they were, after all, Rome’s premiere magic combatants at this point. Hildegard was still the better fighter, but Catarina’s rapid improvement showed that the gap was no longer quite as broad, and as Hildegard was now her favorite opponent, the younger girl was beginning to learn the older’s tricks.

The two of them moved with impressive speed, constantly closing the distance between each other, attacking, parrying, withdrawing, and renewing their attacks. Catarina had been in good shape when Hanne had first met her, and a decent diet combined with intense exercise was definitely improving her skills. Hildegard was, of course, in perfect form. Her movements were as elegant as they were efficient, no energy wasted, her sword swinging with practiced precision with which Catarina had to stagger to contend.

The magic, of course, added another layer of strategy to the fight and entertainment for crowd (though they had to stand well back). Catarina was an ice mage and Hildegard’s specialty was fire. That meant Hildegard usually had the advantage, but Catarina had become more liberal and strategic in her use of her frosty spells. Hanne watched, hands at her side, as the battle unfolded.

“The score is still one nothing, Cat.” Hildegard smiled, sword held tight in her fingers. It lacked its usual circuit of fire, but given her habit of destroying training swords with that enchantment, not to mention the ever-present danger of contact burns, that had been a demand on Hanne’s part. “If I win that’s the round.”

“That was a lucky shot.” Catarina complained, gripping her training “sword” tightly, though it was little more than welded steel roughly the weight of her actual sword. Hildegard’s sword was magic and virtually indestructible, whereas Cat’s sword needed regular treatment to keep it sharp. Thus, for safety reasons as well, Hanne had barred its use for training so as to maintain its edge. All her training would be of little use if the blade was dull when she actually needed it.

Catarina was the first to move, and Hanne’s eyes caught the ground before her slicking over with a thin sheet of ice, just enough for Catarina to glide on. As she slid to Hildegard, the swinging of her training sword sent Cat herself off at an angle precisely as she intended, allowing her to slide even as she followed through with the swing in order to move to Hildegard’s unprotected side, giving her less than a second to step back and parry the blow.

It was an unorthodox fighting style, and one that Cat was still in the process of mastering. As a result Hanne had banned it outside of their little duels, as she’d prefer Catarina stick to the easier and far safer fundamentals than a risky magic-dependent strategy. However she had to admit Cat was improving. She could use the same ice magic to lock herself to the ice, allowing her to stop and slide at will. It often left Hildegard distracted as she needed to step over or around the ice, or expend her own magical energy to melt it, turning the dirt of the training ground into a slick mud that was at times just as dangerous as the ice.

Hildegard moved in again, sidestepping the ice as she brought her sword against Cat in a powerful horizontal swing. Catarina flawlessly skated backwards before braking herself on the ice, the field she was generating almost to the edges of the onlookers. The smile on her face was obvious as she half-moved, half-skated around Hildegard’s advance, sliding with graceful ease across the ground in and out of reach, using her feet and the ice itself to propel herself rapidly around Hildegard.

Hanne had to admit she was impressed. On the rare occasion they had spoken Lord Albion had complimented Catarina’s tremendous potential. She was the last of one of Italy’s oldest bloodlines, which apparently had a lot of meaning for mages, and it gave her a lot of skill and power others her age would lack.

Hildegard, however, was not to be underestimated. Her blood was almost as strong as Cat’s, and she was a lot more experienced in utilizing hers for combat. With a single raised hand she let out a burst of heat through the ground, causing it to sizzle beneath her boots as she charged Catarina again. A little heat and the ice would turn to mud, a bit more however…

Hanne watched passively as a plume of steamy fog enveloped their impromptu combat ring. She could see the shapes of Hildegard and Catarina moving within, the sudden sound of metal on metal as Catarina barely parried a feinted blow from Hildegard, using the camouflage of the steam to her advantage. In such a situation, the quickest thing to do would be to retreat backwards out of the fog as it dissipated, but she knew Catarina. Cat enjoyed showing off (a bad habit she was getting from her adoptive sister), and would seek a magical solution for a magical problem. Sure enough, a moment later, and a pulse seemed to ripple through the steam cloud before it suddenly changed form, dissipating and condensing into a sudden flurry of snow that fell on the crowd.

Hanne smirked. It was pretty, if inefficient. The snow was not much of an improvement for visibility, though it dissipated more quickly, and Catarina had not gained much of a combat advantage in the process. When visibility was clear again, she was still on the defensive, with Hildegard’s fire refusing to give Cat another inch to spread the ice field.

This is where Hildegard’s decisive advantage began to show. In straight melee combat with no magic she was peerless warrior, and as she worked now to neutralize Cat’s magic, that experience was starting to show. Cat needed time and energy to spread the ice, neither of which she had now as Hildegard beat mercilessly against her defenses, Catarina’s sword constantly moving to intercept Hildegard’s swift and vicious swings, unable to find time to make her own counterattack. Catarina tried retreating, back stepping to give herself ground for reprieve, but Hildegard was always upon her with another swing to be deflected. Hildegard didn’t even need to try particularly hard. So long as she kept up the assault, the intention was much more to tire Cat out than pierce her defense.

The longer she kept it up, the more tired Cat became, and the shakier and more unsteady her defense. It would not be long before…

Another moment later, and Hildegard’s leg easily snaked around Cat’s, whipping back to slam the younger girl to the ground. Before Cat could even think to recover, the tip of Stahlzan was inches from her throat.

“That’s two for me and that’s the round.” Hildegard smiled triumphantly before sheathing her sword and extending a hand to help Cat to her feet.

“Fine…” Cat admitted defeat. “Though you had a huge headstart in training.”

“Not my fault.” Hildegard said, ruffling Cat’s hair. “You’re getting better though, with the ice in particular.” Cat beamed at the last few words, clearly quite pleased with herself.

The cheery attitude was disrupted, however, when Hanne cleared her throat loud enough for them both to hear. Almost in unison they turned and saluted to her, eyes wide with surprise and more than a little fear.

“Very well done, both of you.” Hanne said calmly, stepping forward, not letting them break from their rigid posture. “Catarina, your improvement is exemplary.”

Cat smiled, still holding her salute solidly.

“That said…” Hanne’s voice started to rise. “I thought I told you no dueling on expedition day!” She was more than a little pleased to see the pair of them shivering at her raised voice.
“Both of you! Piazza! Now! Double time!”

She watched, satisfied, as the pair of them scrambled to retrieve their belongings and head to the piazza ahead of her.

As she watched them go, Hanne could almost see the next few days ahead of them. The fight through Rome would not be easy, but if they moved outside the city before nightfall then the monsters shouldn’t be too bad. The scouts had reported that monsters were much thinner in the rural areas, and so the journey to the ships would be easier, mostly uninterrupted marching across the next two days to reach the docks on time. An evening spent there with the scouts and they would set sail for Sicily.

The boats would be ready, and it was half a day’s sail to Sicily for the five ships they had prepared. Hanne had no idea what awaited them in the waters of the Mediterranean, or on Sicily itself, but as she watched Hildegard and Catarina speed off, she knew that before anything else, she would bring both those girls home.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
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