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.”

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Okami

September 22nd, 2024

 

Megame had returned to the shrine to think. There would be no easy reconciliation between these kami, so she had cleared the bridge and come here to consider her options as Rome watched its primary source of water thrash and bite at itself. Amnis and Adversum would not stop fighting until one of them was victor, but neither of them seemed fit to take control of the entire river. Cooperation would be the ideal solution, but that was looking more and more unlikely.

When it came to situations like these, Megame needed the advice of an expert.

She sat, legs folded under her, in the central shrine of the Roman Shrine Complex. The secluded room was dedicated to Inari Okami, one of the few spirits that had a permanent residence and dedicated shrine within the overall complex, and easily the most powerful spirit that called it home. Nora had even offered to give her a cellae in the Roman Temple, a place more suited for a god, but both Megame and Inari had declined. Inari Okami preferred a more naturalistic setting, and her authority could keep the rowdier lesser spirits in line. While the official name was the Roman Shrine Complex, the nickname “The Inari Shrine” was already beginning to catch on.

Inari’s personal shrine room was dimly lit, with the light of the sun shuttered away. The air was still and thick with the scent of incense. Flanking the altar on either side was a pair of stylized stone fox statues with bright red bibs tied around their necks. On the altar, itself was a number of prayers wrapped into scrolls and an offering of rice, some of Megame’s last from Japan. Megame herself lowered her forehead to the floor, prostrating herself before the altar as she waited for divine contact.

“Megame, my dear child, you seem troubled. Lift your gaze”

Megame lifted her head from the floor as she heard the voice. No longer was Inari the semi-tangible echo of a spirit that had followed her across Eurasia. Here, in a proper shrine with proper worshippers, she could take full form.

In this case, Inari had taken her favored appearance as a beautiful young woman in the prime of her health. Her hair and eyes were both brilliant gold, and her long hair fell in great tumbles down her back and shoulders. Her skin was ivory pale, her thin eyebrows raised in amusement. She was dressed in a brilliant kimono of gold and vermillion that was wrapped around her with a loose elegance. She radiated light in the dark shrine, casting an amber glow around the room. Flanking her, the two stone foxes had come to life as pure white fox spirits, moving protectively to either side of their goddess.

She sat on the shrine, reclining slightly with a sake vessel balanced in one hand as she regarded Megame. “What is it that burdens your thoughts, my loyal shrine maiden?”

“Inari-Okami, I seek your aid in resolving a matter that might jeopardize this city.”

Inari smiled at her, taking a brief sip of sake before replying.

“Of course, dear Megame. I promised to be your adviser in all things, did I not? What counsel can one of the Okami provide.”

“I am humbled by your generosity, Inari-Okami. The two spirits of the Tiber River, Amnis and Adversum, are refusing to cooperate in any way with one another. The river grows fierce, and it is unfit for travel and soon may be unfit to drink.”

“That is worrisome,” Inari said casually, lacking urgency in her voice. “A river is the lifeblood of a city. Without access to the river for trade and freshwater the city itself may wither. I take it you have spoken to both spirits and tried to resolve their quarrels?”

“I have, Inari-Okami. They refuse to speak on level terms. Both believes the other to be inferior, and that the entirety of the river should be theirs.”

“Why has this only just begun? Surely they must have had quarrels before?”

“Indeed they would have, Inari-Okami, however, there was once a third spirit who commanded all the river. He was known as the god Tiberinus, and he kept the other spirits in line so that the river flowed as it was meant to.”

“And where is this god Tiberinus now?” Inari asked, eyebrow raised.

“No one knows, Inari-Okami.” Megame said. “They say he is dormant, or perhaps simply…gone. The spirits at least feel safe enough that he is to fight over his position.”

“And with so much to gain and so much to lose, neither side will be willing to cede power.” Inari said, a smile growing at the edges of her lips. “My this is a difficult negotiation.”

“The river cannot function without both of them.” Megame said. “Neither of them respects the purpose of the other enough not to neglect their domain. Adversum does not care for the river floor, or the purifying and nurturing it provides. Amnis doesn’t care for the surface water or the current, the flow that we need for transport and drinking. Without both in control of their domains, the river and Rome will suffer.”

“An astute observation, my dear shrine maiden,” Inari said. “You are becoming better at weighing a situation before you act. You are a clever girl and good with words, but sometimes it takes more than words to put a spirit back in line.”

“Would intimidation lead to a prosperous result, Inari-Okami?” Megame asked. “I am not sure if forcing a spirit will aid us, or if I am even capable.”

“These spirits are attempting to expand their domains.” Inari said. “This by itself is not unusual or despicable. I myself have expanded into many domains over my long existence. However, an attempt to openly subjugate an equal spirit to expand one’s own power is…vulgar. It is unbecoming behavior on the part of both of them, and it needs to be stopped. Occasionally the hand of force is needed to keep the overly-ambitious in line.”

“I see,” Megame nodded her head. She didn’t like the idea of bullying spirits back into line. But this quarrel between equals was putting the entire city at risk. “Though I am not sure if I am capable of bullying a spirit…” Megame said reluctantly.

“You have neither the height nor the strength to do so on your own,” Inari said, still smiling. “Nor do you yet have the authority. You could in theory call upon one of your native Okami to assist you, but…?” She left the statement deliberately open-ended, testing Megame to hear her reply.

“But…such an act of cultural aggression would not be taken well.” Megame finished the statement. “The Roman gods would resent a Japanese Okami bullying the spirits of their domain…. though by the same measure they will be difficult to coax into intervention.”

“And why is that?” Inari asked, her smile broadening as she was clearly pleased.

“Because the powerful Roman gods, those with the authority to punish the river spirits, show too much disdain for lesser spirits to govern them.”

“As you eliminate all unfeasible solutions, the workable ones present themselves” Inari said, “This is how you should approach the problem. Find the method by which they can be coerced, and find a spirit fit to apply it. It may require a good deal of effort, but I am confident my shrine maiden can accomplish it. You are, after all, what the western Okami refer to as my ‘Champion’.”

Megame bowed her head deeply again. “I will not disappoint you, Inari-Okami.” She said, and as she spoke the amber light began to fade. The fox spirits once more turned to stone, and the beautiful image of Inari faded away.

Megame waited for a few moments in the darkness before rising again, breathing in the scent of incense as she focused her thoughts. It was Inari’s way to never give her a direct answer unless she was issuing command. She much preferred it when Megame discovered a solution for herself. No doubt if she failed and Rome was truly imperiled she would give her a solution, but neither of them wanted that to happen. She may not have given Megame everything, but she had set her down the right path. Inari might be her adviser, but it was up to Megame to solve this problem.

 

The sun was beginning to set when Megame returned to the river, bathing the sky in oranges and reds as it painted the chopping waves of the Tiber gold and white with the dimming sunlight catching in the swells. People still gathered at the river, watching the waters churn nervously as they waited for a solution to arrive, or perhaps for the chaos to stop.

As she stepped towards the bridge, she saw she was not the only specialist on the scene Nora was still there, talking now with Sybilla Musil. Sybilla was a witch of some kind employed with Rome’s Night Guard, and by the expression on their faces, the situation had not improved.

“Ah, welcome back, Megame.” Nora said, spotting her as she approached. “Did your goddess have any answers.”

“None directly,” Megame said. “Though I believe she may have given me the inspiration for a solution.”

“You can stop this?” Sybilla asked, turning to her as well. “It didn’t sound as if you had much luck beforehand.”

“I was unprepared, now I am better informed.” Megame said. “But if the Night Guard has its own solution.

“Nothing yet,” Sybilla sighed. “We’re better at hunting or dealing with angry ghosts and lesser spirits where they become an issue. This is a bit beyond our capabilities at the moment.”

‘If you have a solution, Megame,” Nora said, “The floor is yours.”

Megame bowed her head. “I will do my best.”

Once more the bridge was cleared, and Megame walked out onto it alone. She walked to the center and sat down, legs folded beneath her as she took several long deep breaths. She closed her eyes, hands on her legs, and after one long breath she cleared her mind.

As Megame focused herself, her mind wiped of distraction and emotion, she could feel something else around her. She could feel the flow of spiritual energy winding around her like river, flowing past her in great waves as it filled the air. It was the aether, mana, chi, the breathing air for spirits and the fuel for mages the world over. With proper meditation and a practiced mind, even a mundane human can feel the spiritual energy that radiates from everything. Now that she was in an almost trance-like state, Megame could feel the push and pull of the energy around her as it flowed through her, through the people in the crowd, and gathered like whirlpools in the spirits of Amnis and Adversum.

Megame could feel the flow moving through them all, but the was only the surface. She needed to dig deeper, to feel the current that pushed the eddies and the flow of tides, to sink down into the primal forces that shape the world. There was the mortal Tiber River, the water that flowed through its banks. Beneath that there were the two spirits, Amnis and Adversum, fighting for control. But below that still was the spiritual heart of the river, the power that the two spirits battled for. It was the core of the river, the heart of its power inaccessible to all but a few. To feel the energy moving through it, Megame had to reach out with her own spirit and throw her mind outward into the spirit world around her.

It was not unlike Astral projection, the separation of the spirit from the body. But while astral projection could allow someone to easily communicate with spirits and the spirit world, Megame needed to send herself deeper, to mingle her essence with the primordial spirit of the Tiber River and stir up whatever slept there. She was so deep in the spiritual realm, so far removed from the material plane, that she couldn’t speak or see or sense anything with perception as she knew it. There was only her spiritual sense to guide her.

Megame’s spirit sank below the bridge and into the spiritual waters, diving below the battling whirlpools of Amnis and Adversum. As the flow of energy began to steady around her, growing dark as it neared the chaotic depths, she sent out the closest thing she could to a summons. Megame let loose a pulse of her own spiritual energy, a vibrating echo of power that rippled through the aether to reach whatever could hear it so deep below the mortal world.

For a moment she sensed noting but the slow flow of energy. Then something powerful flowed past her body, another pulse much larger and more sluggish than the one she had sent out. It was probing, questioning why she was there.

Hurriedly Megame sent out another pulse, trying her best to weave her thoughts and emotions into the wave of spiritual energy. Worry, concern, fear, combined with the feeling of the flowing waters of the Tiber. There was another silence before the entity pulsed again, this time she felt its own feelings of concern flow through her body. They communicated like submarines bouncing signals through the abyss, two whirls of energy pulsing at one another through the sightless spiritual realm. Finally, Megame focused herself, putting all of her effort into the one single message so that the precise meaning came through.

“Come with me.”

With that last message, her spirit flew upwards towards her body. She sucked in a deep gasp of air as if she had been holding her breath, eyes fluttering as her vision cleared. She could hear the muttering of the crowd and the slapping and crashing of the water. Now all she could do was wait, and hope that her message had been heard.

Moments after the churning began to slow, and soon it ceased entirely as an unnatural stillness overcame the water. The crowd watched nervously, a silence descending on the bridge as everyone waited for something to happen.

With an immense splash of water something huge launched itself from the river’s depths, a great serpentine shape that rose into the air, its aqueous body coiling around the bridge several times over like a tremendous python. There were several terrified screams and cries from the crowd as they backed away, the guards moving between them and the new monstrous entity, but Megame simply rose to her feet as the head of the serpentine water creature began to form.

Water coalesced into azure scales, churning foam into a mane of white hair, and the great head of the entity solidified into the head and muzzle of a lion-like creature. As the entity took full form, Megame saw now that a long sinuous dragon had wrapped itself around the bridge, its tail still lost in the depths of the harbor.

Megame bowed her head. “Lord Tiberinus, I presume”

“It has been long since I last heard that name,” The dragon’s mouth did not open as it spoke. “I have forgotten the face it wore and the faces of the people it spoke to.”

“I hope this one will suit you.” Megame bowed her head again. “I think it is quite regal.”

“And how did you find me, little mortal? How did you know where to look?”

“So long as there is a Tiber River there is spirit of the Tiber.” Megame said. “When you disappeared I realized you must have simply sunk back into the waters from which you were birthed. But please, Lord Tiberinus, will you let the river flow as it always has?”

“I will ensure it,” Tiberinus said. “It shall flow from the mountains to the sea. It shall chop in the storm and flow calmly under the sun. So it has been for thousands of years, so it shall be again.”

“And Amnis and Adversum?”

“Spoiled children to be dealt with. There is but one Tiberinus.”

Megame bowed once more, this time to her knees, forehead to the ground. “Thank you, Lord of the River.”

 

Nora and Sybilla watched in relative quiet from the river’s edge nearby as Megame spoke to the great water dragon.

“I’ve never seen a river spirit quite like that,” Sybilla said. “Granted I’ve only met a handful.”

“They tend not to look like that around here.” Nora said, a nervousness growing in her voice.

Sybilla quickly took notice. “Is something wrong?”

“That’s not what Lord Tiberinus looked like in any depiction…that’s what a Japanese river spirit might look like.”

“Japanese?” Sybilla looked at the serpentine dragon again. “Do you think…?”

“That Megame altered the nature of the spirit itself using nothing but her own spiritual influence?” Nora finished her question. “It can happen with gods and spirits but…it takes hundreds or thousands of people all believing the same thing to change a spirit like that. Not a single Japanese girl.”

“Then perhaps we should keep an on this one.” Sybilla said, a slight smile growing on her face. “There might be more to her than we first suspected.”

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Purity

September 22nd, 2024

 

The waters of the Tiber thrashed and churned like the waves on a storming sea. Great swells a meter high smashed into one another in flying sprays of white that splashed against the concrete banks of the river. The oddest thing of all, however, was that all this storm and fury was happening under a clear blue sky on a windless day.

“That certainly is…unusual,” Megame said, standing at the river’s edge as she watched the churning waters.

“Not exactly natural, is it?” Nora asked. The pair of them stood slightly apart, given a berth by the people who had gathered to watch the strange thrashing of the water.

“No, it’s definitely the water kami in the river fighting one another.”

“Well we need them to stop,” Nora said. “If they get too out of control it could damage valuable infrastructure and put a lot of people at risk.”

“Absolutely,” Megame nodded. “I just need a way of reaching out to them.”

“How do you do it normally?” Nora asked. “It’s easy with gods since they usually want the attention. But these spirits seem pretty distracted.”

“Well there are a number of ways,” Megame said. “They don’t all work outside of Japan though…I’m going to need a bridge to be cleared.”

“It’ll get done,” Nora said. “Best to get this solved quickly.”

“Ah…thank you,” Megame bowed her head, slightly embarrassed to be ordering the Pontifex around.

“Hey, you’re the expert here,” Nora said. “If it’ll stop these spirits, then you say jump and we’ll jump.”

“I’m going to do everything I can.”

It took only a few minutes for them to clear the closest bridge with the help of some nearby local guards. People had gathered in a growing crowd at either end of the bridge, all interested in seeing the young shrine maiden at work. There were many in the city who didn’t support the shrine or Megame’s position. To many in Rome, spirits were evil and needed to be eradicated or ousted by the city rather than negotiated with, and others were deliberately inflating the problem for funding, making up fake conflicts and capitalizing on everyone’s heightened superstitions. Megame might have been a little nervous working in front of so many people, but more than anything, she was determined to show that not only was her job important, but it was vital to the safety and prosperity of Rome.

Still, anxiety tugged at her stomach, and her hand went to the small satchel at the base of her back that was tied to her sash. If something went wrong, she always had backup to call upon.

Megame stood alone at the center of the bridge, water splashing violently beneath her as the water spirits raged. Taking a deep breath, she gestured for the guardsman who had helped clear the bridge to give her his canteen. He handed it over, a slightly confused expression on his face as she took it gratefully. First, she poured some of the water over both of her hands, then poured a little more into her cupped left hand before bringing it to her lips. After briefly rinsing the water in her mouth she spat it out onto the ground then poured more water over her left hand before handing the canteen back to the confused looking young guard with a smile.

“Thank you very much,” She said as she handed it back.

“Er…no problem,” he said. “Does that…help?”

“It helps me,” Megame said, the water dripping freely from her fingertips. “One must be physically and spiritually pure to commune with the kami properly.”

“Um…alright then,” the guard simple nodded before returning to the far end of the bridge with the rest of the crowd. Megame could hear him muttering with another guard as she prepared herself mentally.

“Did she just spit it out?”

“Ya, it’s weird, didn’t think the spirits’d like that.”

“And you just have normal water today, right?”

“Well ya, it’s not like I asked a bishop to bless my canteen today. It’s just water…”

“I don’t get half this ritual stuff.”

“Well, that’s why you’re on this end of the bridge, isn’t it?”

Megame smiled to herself. The purification ritual didn’t have anything to do with the kami or the water. It was a symbolic gesture to show Megame’s body, heart, and soul were spiritually pure before attempting to speak with the Kami. It was a formal necessity in Japan, but she found even as far as Rome the spirits responded well to an effort to make the body pure before speaking to them. Kami, most people failed to realize, were a symbolic race rather than a literal one. Megame could have taken a cleansing shower in Catholic holy water for an hour, but if she did not respect the inherent nature of the rite, then the gesture would be meaningless. So long as she believed the ritual made her body spiritually pure, the kami would as well.

Now she was clean, so it was time to begin the communion.

Megame bowed deeply at the waist, her body facing upstream. It was a long, formal, and deeply reverent bow and she rose slowly from it. Then she repeated, once more bowing deeply to signal her sincere and deep reverence for the spirits churning in the waters before her. When she rose the second time, she clapped loudly twice, the sound of her wet palms striking echoing over the water. After clapping, she repeated the bow a third time.

This was to catch the attention of the kami, to let them know that a mortal was listening and wished to speak. Unless they were offended, this was usually when a Japanese spirit would give sign that they were listening, if not quite willing to communicate directly. The water beneath her, however, continued to thrash violently against the banks.

This was the tricky part of the game. It was a test of formality and patience when it came to spirits. The world over, all spirits were proud, and most did not appreciate needing to communicate with mortals at this level. Megame’s posture, gestures, and intent all pointed to reverence, but also her desire to negotiate. To come too quickly to her call would indicate subordinate position in the discussion, something no spirit would abide.

Megame had heard that Nora had directly negotiated with Hera Okami in order to secure the removal of Echo’s famous curse, and Megame was astonished that she was able to bargain with something as powerful as that. Megame had spoken to a number of Okami in Japan, but she had never truly negotiated with them. This kind of interaction, with lesser more earthbound kami was more her speed.

The river continued to splash wildly. It was time for Megame to make another gesture.

“Great spirits of the river,” she spoke out over the wild waves. “I ask that you please hear my words. I speak for the people of Rome, those who rely upon these waters to survive. We wish to know, all of us, why such good spirits who have allowed us to survive should choose to cause such chaos.”

She spoke using her most formal Japanese as the language held far less bearing than the tone. She was deliberately placing herself in a somewhat subordinate position, showing that any further negotiation relied on their willing cooperation. But she did not debase herself entirely, naming herself as active representative of Rome so that they could not simply ignore her and demand a more ‘important’ representative.

At this, the waters paused, the waves stopped and settled as the current again took hold. There were a number of “oohs” and hushed talking from the crowds, as well as a cheer or two. Megame’s heart was speeding up, however, as she knew that this was far from over.

On either side of the bridge the water began to churn, great white foam frothing up from the river’s depth as great mounds of water began to rise up until they formed great cascading water hills that loomed over the bridge. There was a sudden hush of whispers, several people shouted in fear, but Megame retained her calm, turning ninety degrees so she would be directly facing neither of them, keeping her head bowed.

The great hills of water began to take defined shape. Both of them took the appearance of large broad-shouldered old men. The one on her right, on the downstream side of the bridge, took a much lighter appearance. His beard and long hair were formed from white foam, as were his large bushy eyebrows. His eyes were a light shining blue, like looking up at the sun from under shallow water. His counterpart was physically darker, with skin taken from the deeper siltier waters. His beard and hair were an oily mess of river plants and sunken flotsam with odd pieces of shell, driftwood, and rusted iron wrapped in his long beard. His eyes were a deep green, like a sunken lantern in night waters.

The pair of them eyed her suspiciously, but she did not move until they spoke to her.

“This human is an odd one,” The brighter river spirit said, great watery hand stroking his foamy beard. “Look at how she is dressed.”

“Agreed,” the darker river spirit said, leaning in closely to observe her. Both of them were massive, the waterline only at their waist as they towered over the bridge. But Megame wasn’t intimidated. Size was no true indicator of power. “All white and red, no blue at all, and not nearly enough skin.”

Megame frowned slightly. One thing that she’d found in Rome was that spirits in this land were far more interested in attractive young humans than she had been used to. Hachi had suggested using this to her advantage and using her body for negotiations, and Megame had flatly refused. She took the ‘maiden’ part of ‘Shrine Maiden’ seriously.

“My name is Megame Kamigawa,” she said, keeping her head lowered. “Might I know your names, great spirits of the river?”

Both of the spirits began speaking at once, their voices splashing and gurgling with the sound of a flowing stream as they tried to speak over one another, shooting angry looks at one another before taking their turns. The lighter one with the beard of foam spoke first.

“I am Adversum,” he said, his voice carrying a regal bearing.

“And I am Amnis,” Said the darker water spirit through his floral beard.

Megame turned to both of them in turn as they introduced themselves, making sure never to offer attention to one more than the other.

“Lords of the river,” she addressed them both. “Why do you cause such chaos in the Tiber?”

“Because it is my river!” Adversum shouted angrily, his voice a crash of waves upon the rocks. “Up to Mount Fumaiolo!”

“And time and again I have told you it is mine!” Amnis protested angrily, teeth clanking like sheets of metal. “Down to the Tyrrhenian Sea!”

“Both of you stake claim,” Megame said. “And such great spirits would not lay claim to a river without just cause. Pray tell us humans why it is the river is ones and not the others.”

Instantly both spirits set into one another, their arguing at such a rage and such a volume that Megame could scarcely make heads or tails of it. The noise sounded much like the crashing waves below her did, incoherent and directionless as the two river spirits verbally crashed into one another. She did all she could to try and coax clearer answers from them, but it took some time.

 

“So let me get this straight,” she said, hands on her hips. The argument had gone on for over an hour, and the spirits had largely accepted her role in it. It let Megame speak a little more casually.

“You, Lord Amnis, command all that flows downstream and gathers at the bottom of the Tiber.”

“It is so! That is my ancient duty and I will not abandon it!” The vine-haired spirit gargled.

Megame turned to his counterpart. “And you, Lord Adversum, command all the waves and spray of the Tiber from the coast up to the mountains.”

“Wherever the sky kisses the water is my domain!” Adversum said. “This river is mine.”

“And you two refuse to share the river?”

“The Tiber can have but one spirit as its master,” Adversum said. “So before it was with Tiberinus, so too shall it be with me.”

“I command more of the water!” Amnis shot back. “The waters of the river beneath the surface are mine and I will not give them up.”

Waves splashed over the bridge as the two spirits shouted, drawing closer together until their hands rested on the bridge railing and water and detritus fell from their bodies to the pavement.

“M-my lords, please if we could just-“ Megame’s words failed to reach them as the shouting continued until it reached a fever pitch.

“I’ve had enough of your filthy scum dirtying my waters!” Adversum roared.

“The Tiber is nothing but a trickling stream without me!” Amnis shouted. “Take your pretty waves back to Fumaiolo and shove them up your spring.”

At this final insult, both spirits came to blows, watery fists thrown across the bridge as both river spirits exploded into geysers of water, the churning and roiling returning to the river’s surface as Megame sighed in defeat, water falling down on her like rain.

This was going to be tougher than she’d thought.

 

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Miko

September 22nd, 2024

The life of a shrine maiden began early in the morning. The sun was only beginning to send its light up in the east by the time that Megame was rolling out of bed. It usually took a moment for her to orient herself, her half-sleeping brain asking why she wasn’t sleeping out on the cold forest ground or in her familiar futon back home and half a world away. Megame had rolled instead out of a comfortable western bed to stand groggily, swaying like a tree in storm, in a room that was still somewhat unfamiliar.

A light clap of her hands to her face brought reality and memory back to her as she recalled where she was. She was in Rome, in the small second floor apartment of a townhouse in the inner city that she shared with her fox and companion, Hachi. Her room was small and relatively barren, the walls undecorated but the furnishings lovingly tended. She didn’t have much for herself, but she was proud of what she had.

After a quick hot shower (a blessing after more than a year traveling on foot), she was out in the apartment, pulling on the white kimono and bright red pleated hakama that were once merely for ceremony but seemed to have become her permanent uniform in the city. While she still had her old weather-beaten set from her travels, she had requisitioned more from the local tailors (With careful oversight from Inari-Okami) and they had cost no small amount given the current price of silk.

As she walked into the sitting room, she found Hachi asleep on the couch. It would have been cute to find her there in fox form, her bright red bushy form curled like a dozing cat, but she had taken human form and appeared more like a disreputable woman sleeping off a hangover. She was sprawled over the couch with her arm hanging off and her foot in the air, her head lost in the mess of her tangled black hair, and her long bushy foxtail lying limp over her back. Everything about her was askew, and Megame decided to take a moment from her morning routine to admonish the fox.

“Hachi!” She called, and with a grunt the fox woman snapped awake.

“Huh-wha?”

“Look at yourself! You look like a-“

“Like a woman who had a real good time,” Hachi said with a weary smile.

“You were supposed to be on patrol last night!”

“I was on patrol!” Hachi said defensively. “I was out with Cade until two! Then we just…went back to his place till…four I think?”

“Ugh you should’ve stayed there,” Megame leaned in before pinching her nose in disgust.

“You reek of booze.”

“These Italians make good wine!” Hachi said.

“That’s not wine I’m smelling.”

“Well funny story…” Hachi’s words were still slightly slurred “So apparently there’s this thing called ‘U-ui-su-…” She stumbled over her syllables as she tried to sit up, pulling her kimono back over her shoulders to retain some semblance of modesty.

“It’s whiskey and you’ve had entirely too much! It’s obscene!” Megame scolded.

“Not so loud,” Hachi mewled. “I’m hungover!”

“You’re not hungover, you’re still drunk!” Megame said, loud enough for Hachi’s ears to flatten in pain. Wherever she was in the haze between drunk and hungover, it was not a pleasant place to be. “What you need is a cold shower and new clothes.”

“Then help me to the bath,” Hachi complained, clearly intent on not moving under her own power.

“We only have a little shower here and I already used it,” Megame said. “You can get yourself into it. Besides you’re entirely too handsy when you’re drunk.”

“No, you’re just no fun when you’re sober!” Hachi objected. “Remember that time in…uuh…Beijing I think? With those refugees and we both got suuuuper drunk?”

“I really try not to,” Megame frowned. “That’s when I knew I would have to be the responsible one.”

“So be responsible and carry meeee,” Hachi waved an arm uselessly at her.

“Turn into a fox then! You’re too big and heavy when you’re human.”

“Mmmm, no,” Hachi put her hands over her tucked fox ears. “Can’t focus.”

“Uuugh, fine,” Megame rolled her eyes and with no small amount of tugging, pulling, and lifting, managed to lurch the drunken fox woman off the couch and into the shower, dumping her into the tub and quietly enjoying the animal shriek she gave when Megame turned on the cold spigot.

Once she was sure Hachi wasn’t going to pass out and drown, Megme left her to begin preparing her breakfast toast and packing her lunch, taking the extra time to make food for Hachi as well.

Troublesome though the fox might be, Megame loved her dearly and considered her the closest friend she had in Rome. Hachi had been at her side the entire length of her journey, and had saved her from danger on countless occasions. She was also a surprisingly wise ear to talk to and shoulder to lean on. She was, after all, ninety-seven years old by most reckonings. They were so close in fact that the kitsune had on more than one occasion joked that she was Megame’s ‘fox wife’, drawing from those old stories of young men seduced by lovelorn fox spirits.

Having fixed Hachi’s lunch and left it where the fox could find it, Megame left the apartment to begin her day out in the city. Moving from the wilderness to Rome had been a massive shock in many regards, but in others it had felt like coming home. She had grown up in Kyoto and the bustle and movement of an ancient city felt familiar, even if they were very different in setting. Her origins, combined with her unique style of dress and her actions in constructing the shrine, had made her something of a known figure in the neighborhood. People often stopped to wave or say hi to her, and every day she received a free loaf of bread from the bakery at the end of the street after she had helped him quell the angry wheat kami that had been souring his dough.

That was part of her new job here in the city of Rome. She had been officially appointed by the then-acting Consul and Wolf of Rome Capitolina as ‘Spiritual Ambassador’ of Rome after helping resolve an incident with a rampaging wind kami, though they had called it an eolian nymph. It was her job to act as mediator between the common people of Rome and the common spirits of Rome that inhabited it.

This position had also earned her the respect of the local spirits as well, though their greetings were often subtler than the peoples’. A warm breeze over her face or the falling leaves parting around her were a sure sign that the wind kami had seen her and given their greetings, just as the trees seemed to bend slightly to shade her face from the sun.

Megame walked with a quick step form her apartment towards her new place of business. What had once been only the Parco San Sebastiano (along with the Parco degli Scipioni and other reclaimed areas of greenery that had been combined into a whole) was now home to the Central Roman Shrine Complex. A large wooden temple built in a style mixing ancient Japanese architecture and classical Roman sensibilities, made almost entirely out of wood and salvaged stone without hint of glass or metal beyond use in ornamentation. Despite being new it already seemed quite old, and it had been built with care among the trees and plants of the park, with many more having been planted to spread the vegetation further. It was a green piece of naturalism in a decidedly artificial city, and Megame had chosen it for just that reason. Spirits were of nature, and therefore attracted to where it was densest within cities. At last count, the park and Shrine complex was the transient home to over forty major spirits and hundreds of lesser ones.

The entrance to the park and the shrine was marked by a tall wooden gate, made in the style of a Japanese torii, but not strictly the case. Gates had long since been used to mark the divide between the spiritual and mortal worlds by cultures the world over, so while the styling might represent Megame’s personal flare, the gate itself was a beloved feature of many of the shrine’s local spirits.

Waiting at the gate’s entrance for her was the other spiritual ambassador to Rome, though one who held much higher prominence in Roman society.

“Morning, Megame,” Pontifex Maximus Nora Newstar waved casually to her.

“Ah, good morning, Pontifex,” Megame inclined her head politely.

“It’s Nora,” She waved it off.

“As you wish,” Megame smiled. “How can I be of service?”

As Pontifex Maximus, Nora was the chief religious official in the new Roman government. She was to act as liaison between dozens of religions and cults to the various ancient spirits, Okami, and gods that lived and were worshipped in the city. She also acted as an arbiter with the gods themselves, resolving their differences with their cults and with each other. Her positions was in many ways similar to Megame’s, but while Nora worked with gods and city leaders, Megame’s worked between the small nameless spirits and the common people, promoting harmony between the mortal and the spiritual. It was why Nora operated out of the massive Roman temple, while Megame worked out of the smaller and more pastoral shrine.

“There’s been some trouble on the river,” Nora said. “It’s close to the temple but it seemed more like your kind of work, and when I asked Echo she agreed that I should see you about it.”

“Oh of course,” Megame nodded. “Let me make sure everything is in order here and I can see to it.”

Megame stepped into the shrine as Nora walked beside her, seeing to her morning duties and ensuring nothing had gone wrong during the night.

There was nothing of value in the shrine, and so Megame had little fear of potential thieves, and the watchful eyes of spirits would ensure that no such transgression would be tolerated. Still, the front door to the shrine itself needed to be open, the stairs needed to be checked for loose debris, and she needed to ensure none of the lesser shrines were knocked over by more energetic or mischievous spirits. After making sure everything was in order, she returned to Nora at the gate.

“So where are we off to?” She asked.

“Down to the river,” Nora said. “There’s been something of an uproar recently.”

“An uproar?” Megame asked.

“Well the Tiber river is the main source of freshwater in Rome,” Nora said “Making it an invaluable human resource. Unfortunately with more spirits moving in, a number of water spirits have been increasing, and they all want to stake a claim in the Tiber.”

“Staking a claim?” Megame asked. “But what about the native river spirit? Shouldn’t there be a spirit for the river specifically?”

“There should,” Nora nodded. “An ancient river spirit named Tiberinus. However, no one has heard from him or seen him since the Days of Revelation.”

“I see,” Megame said “So with that vacuum in the river, you have water and river kami trying to take his place.”

“Yes, and it’s becoming a nuisance,” Nora said. “If something isn’t done soon then they’re going to fight it out.”

“You’re right, that’s no good,” Megame said. “Spirits fighting can be very destructive, and the consequences if it happened in our water supply…”

“None of the gods I’ve spoken to are willing or able to keep them in line,” Nora said.

“Greco-Roman river spirits tend to be…wild. It will take a lot to bring them in line.”

“So that’s why you need me?” Megame asked.

“We need an expert, and that’s you,” Nora said. “I won’t lie it’s a big job.”
“Well, I’ll see what I can do.” Megame smiled.

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Where All Roads Lead

 

Chapter 33

“Oh now this will be an interesting game,” Skuld smiled, as Megame put down the second subject. This one depicted an armored young woman, similar to the one on the Brave Companions card earlier, the one with bright blue hair and a sword in hand.

“The Hero”

“Let us see how well you will understand the Hero’s Journey.”

Megame tried to steady her nervous hand as she drew the first card. It depicted the Hero, this time dressed in crown and framed with wings, standing as a great vaunted figure before a cheering crowd. The bottom of the card read:

“The Legend”

Megame put down the card.

“It is the duty of a hero to become a legend,” Megame said. “To become famed in story and song, celebrated for centuries as a person worthy of remembrance.”

Skuld smiled as she drew her card and played it.

“The Solitude,” She said, placing a card down depicting a lone figure wandering a desert. “Though they may cheer her name, those words will never reach her. She is alone, and suffers for that loneliness as those she cared for fall from her grasp.”

Megame drew her next card in stubborn silence, and was surprised to find the first repeated card she had ever seen.

“Umm…” She hesitated before putting it down. “The Warrior”

Once more she put down the card of the red-haired spear-wielding woman that had been her first subject. “The hero need not be alone. There are those who she’ll always have by her side. Those who will inspire her to save the people in need, and those who will love her when she needs them.”

Skuld’s smile never left as she put down her next card.

“The Beasts,” She said, putting down a card displaying a terrifying draconic monster. “Our hero will be strong, but there are some monsters that would make meals of heroes; there are some threats she can never overcome, brought low before her legend will born.”

Megame quietly drew her next card. She saw an unfamiliar figure upon it this time. They appeared to be little more than a child, but in their hand they carried a large warhammer, a weapon that blazed with light and electricity that filled the rest of the card. At the bottom read:

“The Thunderer”

“The Hero is never alone,” Megame said, fortifying her previous position. “And while she cannot slay all monsters, no monster can stand before the mighty thunderer! The one who can strike down giants and dragons with all the power of a god.”

“Fascinating,” was all Skuld said as she eyed the card. “You may yet have impressive skills if you can reach this deep into the deck.”

Without any further comment, she drew the next card from the deck and placed it.

“Hidden Knowledge,” She said, putting down a card illustrated with a thick leather-bound book that was clasped tightly shut and wrapped in chains. “All the strength will be of no use if our hero lacks the mind to use it properly.”

Megame drew her next card stubbornly, and this one gave her pause. It was, again, another figure. This one was a person with long dark hair, from their back spread the wings of a black butterfly, and monstrous claws rose from the background, inches from wrapping around their head. At the bottom of the card was the label:

“The Dark Herald”

Megame stared blankly at the card. What was this figure supposed to represent? The champion of some monster? The dark angel of some cruel god? How was that supposed to help the hero overcome hidden knowledge?

Once more, Megame found herself without an answer. Did she try anyway, find the thing that came closest and risk further decades of her lifespan? The way she saw it, she had little choice.

Gingerly, she put down the card as her mind raced. Skuld merely sat in silence.

“The Dark Herald…” Megame said slowly. “Will…” She sighed. “They will likely fight.”

“That is one possibility,” Skuld said as she swept the cards away. “But that will not be the path of fate she should followed.”

“What could I…she have done?” Megame asked.

“That will be for the hero to decide,” Skuld smiled. “There will be one more round should you choose to continue. The final risk will be upon you. Remember child that I will have nothing to lose while you sit here with everything at risk.”

The cold feeling came back, and Megame looked to the apparition before her as she saw it fade away entirely. At first she feared that it was already over, but then the reality set in. She was all the lifespan she had left.

One last shot to make things right.

“I will keep playing,” Megame said. “Not just for me, or for Constantin but…I want to prove I can make a good ending.” She nodded vehemently. “I want to prove that…despite it all, despite all the things you do…there can still be a happy end for the people in this world.”

The words were confident, but with each one spoken her courage waned. What was she doing here? Why was she risking her life for this stranger? Even if she told herself it was for a greater reason, to show she could defy fate, was that enough? Was she the one to fight that battle?

Was she wrong?

“Draw the card,” Skuld’s face had grown stony. “The time to play for your fate will arrive.”

Megame, her hands shaking, drew the card. When she looked at the picture it almost fell from her hand.

As she placed it with utmost care upon the table, the image upon it became etched into her mind: That of a bright-eyed, dark-haired girl dressed in robed of white and red, a fox dancing at her heels.

“The Shrine Maiden”

It was her. There could be no mistake. Even in an abstract illustration, she could recognize herself in the card. There was a connection she felt, like rope tied from her heart to the card. Skuld had been right, the time had truly come for her to play for her fate.

“Let us see what fate you will desire, Shrine Maiden,” Skuld spoke to the card and to Megame.

Megame didn’t want to draw the card. She didn’t want to play this game. Even if she had a feeling that the other cards had been the fates of others, to play for her own fate…

Megame had underestimated Skuld. She had expected to play for Constantin’s fate, not for her own. Slowly, she convinced her hand to reach out and draw the card, even as her fingers screamed at her to stop.

On the card was the image of a landscape, of pastoral fields, deep forests, and sloping mountains and hills, all beneath an orange evening sky and a bright red sun. Once more, even in abstraction, Megame recognized the truth of the card’s meaning, she could see the fate that it held, and she felt the desire deep within her soul for it.

“The Land of the Rising Sun”

She placed the card on top of the Shrine Maiden after a moment in taking comfort from its imagery.

“And what will this card mean?” Skuld asked, as Megame sat in silence.

“I want to go home,” Megame said quietly. “I want to see Japan again…I don’t want to die in this country.”

“None will ever find comfort in the thought of death on foreign shores,” Skuld said. Her voice lacked its earlier amusement, though a smile from her now would be unspeakably cruel.

Skuld drew her card in silence then placed it on the table.

“All who venture will desire a return to hearth and home,” Skuld said as she placed it. “But the shrine maiden must answer to a Higher Calling.”

On the card was the image of the Shrine maiden, being directed away from the red sun by a great hand, towards a distant land and a city built on seven hills. “This duty in Rome will keep you from your homeland as far as the future can tell.”

Every cell in her body wanted to stop her from drawing the next card. One wrong draw, one lack of imagination, one stroke of bad luck, and that would be the end of her. This card was the knife at her throat, the gun to her head, and she was toying with it.

But the only way to win was to draw the card.

Slowly Megame pulled the next card away and looked at it.

“The Bond”

Once more she felt a warmth within her heart as she looked into the card. She was there, the Shine Maiden, but she was not alone this time. The Searcher, The Warrior, The Hero, The Thunderer, The Dark Herald, all the subjects and characters she had drawn walked beside her. There were smiles in their faces and a brightness in the air.

Slowly she put down the card, her confidence rising. It was as if they were standing around her, all the people she had tried and failed to save. Perhaps, if she could escape this match, if she could win this one goal, then she could help them, and they could help her in turn.

“I don’t need to do this alone,” She said quietly. “And I won’t do it alone. I’ll find them all, each and every one, and I’ll help them on their paths and…by doing so, they’ll help me. My duty fulfilled…then they’ll help me get home.”

She could feel her heartbeat again. Life flowing through her body. Skuld wasn’t throwing monsters or calamity at her, and she didn’t need their strength. She needed their love, and a bond between them, these people she had not yet met.

Skuld’s voice was quiet as she played the next card and ripped the warmth from Megame’s body.

“The End of Days,” She said, displaying a card that showed a withered black world beneath a bleeding black sun. “Will be a time when all mankind is gone and the world falls silent.”

Megame stared for a moment, mouth agape. What sort of card countered the end of the world? Had she lost already? Was this the end?

Shivering slightly, a cold wind blowing through the clearing, she drew the next card. There was no figure on its surface, instead merely a number of shining blue threads that wound through empty space, some crossing, others tying together while others still strayed apart. Merely looking at them almost made Megame feel as if the threads were moving on their own. At the bottom the card was labeled:

“The Threads of Fate”

Megame almost slammed the card onto the table. She would not die here, not at this table. Not only for her own future but for the future of the others.

“That fate is not written,” She said. “The Threads of Fate twist to prevent such a catastrophe.”

“You should be careful,” Skuld said, her eyes flashing up to meet Megame’s with their terrible gaze. “You will be venturing into my territory.”

“I’m not going to back down,” Megame stood firm, even as her insides felt like ice.

Skuld drew her next card and placed it down. It depicted three women standing around a pool of water. One old, one middle-aged, one young. It was an image that was both strange to Megame and remarkably familiar.

“It will never be for a mortal to decide how the threads of fate are drawn, sewn, and cut as they need,” She said. “I will play The Three, they who will command fate, they who will mandate the future, and they who will not be denied.”

Megame was frozen to her seat.

This was it. The End. Megame had walked directly into Skuld’s trap; she had contested her fate against the will of those who decided them. She had attempted to beat a master of fate at their own game. There was nothing left now but to draw her next card and die.

Her hand reached about halfway to the deck and froze, and she could not move it further.

Megame felt tears run down her face as her arm shivered.

“I can’t…” She stammered through her caught throat. “I don’t want to…”

Skuld rose from her seat and gently walked to the side of the table. She took Megame’s bare wrist in her hand and guided it to the deck.

Megame expected to die instantly, or at the very least feel the icy cold touch of death. Instead all she felt was warmth.

“It will be alright,” Skuld said gently. “In any future, along any path, you should not be afraid.”

“But…” Megame couldn’t manage her words as tears streamed down her face. She didn’t want to draw the card. She didn’t want to see it.

“This will ever be why humans should not play the game of fate,” Skuld said quietly as she pressed Megame’s fingers to the cards. “But whatever the draw may be, you will prove yourself a tremendous player of the game, Megame Kamigawa. You will have felt not only for your own fate but for the fates of others. You will have felt how their destinies could tie to your own. It will be that empathy, that kindness of spirit, that will make you a player of the game that others could only hope to be.”

Slowly Megame drew the card.

“Let us play the last round,” Skuld said as she retook her seat. “Let us see what fortune brought you.”

Without a word, Megame put down the card.

“Paradox,” She said simply.

On top of the pile of cards that had grown was one that was simply a complete blank, nothing drawn for the single word.

“Fate has decreed it, but fate will not have its way today.” Megame said. “Something will happen regardless of the plan of fate, and the Shrine Maiden’s dream, and the dreams of the others, are some of them.”

Skuld stared at the cards for a while, her expression inscrutable, before her face finally split into a smile. She drew her last card, looked at it, and then simply put it into her sleeve.

“I will cede the round,” Skuld said. “Whether you will win for the blessing of the fox goddess or your own abilities, it is my sisters’ jobs to say.”

She rose form the table. “Your life is yours again, Constantin’s unlife is his once more.”

Megame sat in her chair, body limp, as she inhaled for what felt like the first time in years.

“I win?”

“Yes.”

“I get all my years back?”

“Yes.”

“And Kara’s contract is over?”

“Will you repeat all the conditions you placed?” Skuld asked.

“Ah, sorry,” Megame said.

Slowly, she drew herself from the table and rose to stand before Skuld. She bowed deeply at the waist before her, hands at her waist.

“Thank you, Lady Skuld,” She said. No response came, and when she eventually looked up, she saw that Skuld was gone and Megame was alone in the clearing.

A smile slowly starting to spread across her face, Megame started back towards the face, the sky looking bluer than she had ever seen it before.

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=66&sl=469

Where All Roads Lead

The Game of Fate

May 26th, 2024

Megame walked quietly back into the forest where she had built her temporary shrine. The sky through the dark trees was an overcast grey, a solid slate of empty color that cast everything in a pale light. The birds were quiet, there was no sound of snapping twigs or rustling leaves as the stillness over the forest became slowly absolute.

Hachi had wanted to come, but both Megame and Kara had insisted that she had to do this alone. Any attempt to help or provide advice might be taken as an attempt to cheat, and if Kara was to be believed, there was nothing that Skuld hated more than being cheated. Still, Megame silently wished that she had someone with her for her support.

She reminded herself that she was never truly alone. The kami were on her side, Inari-sama in particular, and that luck would keep her going strong into the future so long as she had faith in it. Still, it was hard not to have doubts when she felt so alone in a silent forest, about to play a game of fate with death itself.

Kara had been very blunt on the full nature of her opponent. Skuld was not a death goddess, not a mere Norse divinity who could read the future. While Megame had not wanted to believe it, she could sense the ancient power behind Skuld’s eyes just as surely as she could feel the world enter the spectral pale of death around her when they had last spoken.

Being a relatively devout Shinto-Buddhist, Megame believed in the cycle of Samsara and reincarnation. That did not, however, eliminate the specter of death from her worries and fears. Death still very much existed, and while it was not an end to her spiritual existence, it was not a threshold she felt ready to cross.

In the clearing she had made, a table had appeared in the center where her shrine had once been, sitting in the shade of the large tree at the center. It was made of finely carved wood with a pair of matching chairs, and seemed somewhat at odds with the rustic surroundings.

Walking to the table, a hand running over the polished wood surface, Megame couldn’t help but feel her heart hammer in her chest, waiting for her opponent to arrive.

“Right on time,” The voice of Skuld filled the air as the tall woman stepped into view from around the trees. “Will you be ready to play?”

“I am,” Megame nodded. “I said I would. I’m not about to back down.”

“To back down would be the wiser choice,” Skuld said. “It would have been years yet before you can play this game on my level. But you will only have luck to guide you now.”

“I have faith in that luck,” Megame said firmly. “And I believe what I’m doing is right. I need to stay with that.”

Skuld only smiled as she took her side, a deck of cards appearing in the center of the table before them, and with a wave of her hand she gestured Megame to take her seat, which she did without comment.

“When this game ends,” Skuld said. “There will be little time for questions; it will be better if you asked them before we begin.”

“I just have a few,” Megame nodded. “You…aren’t just a Norse goddess are you? That’s what Kara said.”

Skuld smiled. It was an empty and hollow smile that sent fear down her spine.

“Who are you?”

Skuld didn’t respond at first, merely looking Megame squarely in the eyes. That, however, was all the confirmation she needed.

This woman of a thousand faces and a thousand names was the tender of the future, the caretaker of the branches of destiny, the aligner of threads.

The Bringer of Death.

This beautiful blonde-haired young German woman may as well have been a skull wreathed in a dark cloak, scythe over her shoulder. But all that was just imagery, the curtain dropped before the truth that her eyes made clear.

“What will you do to me?” Megame asked. “If I lose?”

At this Skuld’s smile grew somewhat sinister as she spoke, adding a slight melodic quality to her voice.

“I’ll fix your feet so you can’t walk,”

Megame shuddered as a feeling of cold came over her body as if all the warmth had fled her.

“I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk,”

Her body stiffened, joints aching as if her very bones protested.

“I’ll take your sight so you can’t see”

“Why?” Megame asked, body shivering. “Why do this? Why play with lives like this?”

Skuld’s smile fell, and the cold feeling left Megame all at once.

“You would ask me why I would demand life as payment,” She said. “You would ask me to be satisfied with money or currency, some token to be offered?”

“I…” Megame began, but Skuld interrupted her.

“Money will never buy life,” Skuld said. “The threads of fate are not spun from gold, only life can pay for life.”

“So that’s all you take,” Megame said. “Money won’t pay for life, so the only thing you’d take as a wager…”

“Nothing will satisfy a debt of death save for years of life. It is why the dead will never be able to gamble for more years. They will have nothing left to spend.”

Megame nodded. “Alright. I’m ready to take that risk.”

“Your years,” Skuld said. “Will be offered as an opening wager the fate of Constantin’s undead soul.”

“I agree,” Megame said. “Though first, I want to know how our games will be structured. How do I win and…how do I lose?”

“We will play three games. On each, you shall be the one to choose the subject,” Skuld said. “And for each game lost I will take a third of your remaining lifespan. Should you win a single round, your life will be restored in full and the price on Constatnin’s head will be delayed.”

“Delayed until when?” Megame asked.

“His thread will be wound back into the tapestry to prevent snarl,” Skuld said. “It will be cut of course, as all threads are, but he will have some time yet before my sisters and I come for him again.”

“Alright,” Megame swallowed. “I just need to win one game? Out of three?”

“Just one of three,” Skuld smiled again. “To beat me at my own game.”

Megame didn’t know if those odds were generous or horribly unbalanced. She also didn’t want to know the answer.

“I agree,” Megame said. “To all the terms you’ve given.”

Skuld gestured to the cards. “Then we may begin.”

Megame shivered as something cold ran through her body. A fog began to pour in the clearing around them, pooling like banks of snow at their feet. From the fog, standing at the side of the table between them, stood the ghostly image of Megame herself. Even at a glance Megame knew what this apparition was. It was her available funds, the remaining years of her life made real so she could watch them slip away.

Taking a deep breath, Megame tried to ignore the apparition as she took hold of the top card, putting it face up on the table to reveal it to both of them.

“Oh, how fun.” Skuld smiled.

The image on the card was labeled “The Warrior”. Unlike the card from the previous game with Kara, she did not recognize the girl on this one. She was young, around Megame’s age, but with bright red hair kept in a ponytail, and her body adorned with what looked like classical Greek armor like that which could be found on a statue. In her hands was a long spear.

“You will draw the first card,” Skuld smiled, politely ceding the first draw to her. Megame nodded and drew again, looking the card over.

This one was much more malevolent looking. Filling the card was the shadow image of an enormous black dragon, its body a mix of withered skin and exposed bone. Skeletons danced at its feet, and its great maw was opened to breathe poison gas and reveal a gaping maw of teeth. At the bottom of the card read:

“The Dragon”

Megame thought for a moment, The use was obvious, that a warrior should be destined to kill a great dragon, but doing the obvious thing might just make it easier for Skuld to counter her. She decided to try and be more ambiguous, give herself more room to wiggle.

“The dragon,” She said, putting the card down. “The warrior’s destiny is to face a great dragon in combat”

Her wording was deliberate. She didn’t make promises of dueling or slaying a dragon, merely to face it; it made her goal that much easier to reach.

Skuld apparently approved, the enigmatic smile never leaving her face. Silently, the Norn drew the next card and looked at it for less than a second before placing it down on top of the dragon.

The card portrayed a massive hulking figure with skin of bronze and eyes like fire. Everything about them seemed burning red and furious.

“The Rage,” Skuld said. “You warrior will not reach her goal, burdened as she is with the weight of her own fury.”

Megame frowned. She had expected Skuld to make the dragon inaccessible somehow, but instead she had handicapped the warrior. She drew her next card and her heart fell.

The image on this card was not one of courage or inspiration; rather it was the image of a wolf with bright red fur. It did not look particularly fearsome or ferocious, rather a proud and noble she-wolf. At her feet were two young human babies, seemingly at ease with the predator before them. In the background, she could see a vast city built atop some hills. At the bottom the label read:

“Mother Wolf”

Megame puzzled over the wordings. How could a wolf be motherly? She racked her brain for a moment as she tried to think of stories with wolves that didn’t come with the monikers “Big” and “bad”. Nothing came to her mind, but an idea slowly crept over her mind. She might not know the specific story, but the image and its use were undeniable. Not all wolves were ferocious, not all foul looking things were to be feared. Sometimes those we would think of as enemies could be our strongest allies.

“Mother wolf,” Megame put down the card. “The warrior is angry, and rightfully so perhaps, but with a wise mentor and an understanding hand she can tempered into something great. Although that person may not take a form they expect.”

Skuld’s smile widened.

“You will not be the average adversary,” She said with clear amusement in her voice. “Good.”

With that she drew and put down her next card without delay.

“Tragedy,” Skuld said, placing down a card displaying a weeping mask. “The anger in her soul can be quelled, but at its root is tragedy, which no mentor or training can heal.”

“Mmm…” Megame frowned, wondering if she could ever hope to stump Skuld before she drew her next card.

Once more the card stumped her at first, and she was a little frustrated at how Skuld drew these easily-applicable cards while hers became steadily more arcane.

This newest card displayed the image of the spear-carrying warrior descending a dark staircase, lit only by a single light at the top of the stairs, reading:

“Journey to the Afterlife”

Megame put down the card. “A death is a tragedy,” she said, trying her best to keep eyes on Skuld. “But sometimes, even if death can’t be stopped, closure can be found beyond the land of the living. The Warrior descends into the underworld, reuniting one last time with those she lost and finding peace.”

Skuld simply drew her next card before placing it down over Megame’s.

“The army,” She said. “The hordes of the dead stand before the Warrior and the dragon. Too much for one soul to stand against.”

Megame stubbornly drew her next card. She felt vindicated that attempts to break the warrior had failed, but this battle wasn’t over. She put down the next card she drew almost as soon as she drew it.

“Brave companions!”

Megame almost shouted, getting very into it. The card she had put down depicted more warriors. At the head was her own red-haired subject, standing alongside another young woman, her hair blue and a sword clutched in her armored hand. Behind them, more figures remained, obscured by darkness.

“Not all armies need be fought alone,” Megame said. “Working together, many can share glory as one.”

Skuld quietly drew and played her next card.

“Primordial,” She said, putting down the card and revealing a card that appeared to be a plain swirling black void.

“There are things that cannot be fought and killed by strength of arms. Some dragons which are more than they appear to be. The warrior’s prize is forever beyond her power.”

Megame frowned, hoping her luck would hold as she drew her next card.

Her heart froze in her chest as the next card revealed itself. It displayed only a shattered spear upon the ground with the words written plainly

“Loveless”

Even without revealing the card Skuld’s smile grew.

“Stumped are we?”

“N-not yet!” Megame objected as her mind raced. She could place it down, try to come up with some excuse. But she knew that Skuld would be more than happy to see through any obfuscation. She might even be penalized for it.

“I concede,” She hung her head. “I can’t win this round.”

With a flick of her hand the card Megame had been holding vanished and appeared in Skuld’s hand as she looked it over.

“Ah, a difficult future indeed.” She said. “The warrior will be strong and has new allies, but there will be nothing in her to fill the hole in her heart. A weakness you should have seen to. Without love, her journey is doomed to fail.”

“How could I have known that!?” Megame objected. “I fixed her tragedy!”

“One cannot simply fix a tragedy; that is human nature. It will be your duty to see that wounds will not fester in the future.”

Megame frowned, but more than the usual shame of having lost, she could feel something tugging at her spirit. She looked at the ghostly image of herself and saw it begin to fade, becoming less solid and less substantial with each passing moment.

“How many years do you think you have left?” Skuld asked. “Would you like to take a guess?”

“Next round!” Megame insisted as Skuld shuffled the cards into the deck.

“There is yet the option of surrender.” Skuld said. “If you will back down and abandon Constantin you will walk away with two-thirds of your remaining life intact. Those lost years will be nothing but the price of your foolishness; they need not be your entire life.”

Megame bit her bottom lip. As she felt a cold sensation sink through her bones, she realized just how high the stakes of this game were. Every lost game was a third of her remaining lifetime. Years, perhaps entire decades, where she would have smiled, laughed, and loved, lost to time.

She should stop now. She could get out while she still had a life to live. Constantin was a vampire, he had used up all the life he had and then some. What was the point of dying to try and save him?

Because in the pit of her heart, Megame knew that she could not abandon someone that she had a chance to save, just to save herself. It isn’t who she is.

“Keep playing,” Megame said. “I still have two rounds to beat you.”

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=65&sl=14

Where All Roads Lead

Chapter 24

May 24th, 2024

 

It was about midnight in castle Arbessos. The sun was a distant memory and the moon hung high in the sky as Megame made her silent way out of the castle and into the dark forest surrounding it. The castle, if anything, seemed more active at night than it did during the day. All the candles and torches had been lit to fill the space with light, but none of Constantin’s servants had tried to stop her as she made her way out of the front gates and into the forests.

She was not entirely alone. Hachi had decided to join her, and the red fox jumped lightly around her feet as Megame picked her way through the forest, traveling further from the trail. The fox was always eager to be her companion and protection, and on many occasions Megame had sought her advice. Now, however, she needed the guidance of a higher power. And it would take some effort to reach out to them this far from home.

The Okami were powerful, but Megame was nearly nine thousand kilometers from the center of their power, and not even they could reach that far of their own accord. It would take work for her voice to reach them and for them to respond in kind. First and foremost, Megame would need to construct a rudimentary shrine, to act as a conduit and beacon for her prayer. It was not unlike establishing a phone connection, Megame thought with some amusement. Her divine coverage didn’t reach far outside of Japan, so she needed to erect a new cellphone tower in order to get a signal and make international calls.

Megame giggled lightly to herself as she searched the woods for an ideal location. It took an hour or so shambling through the dark underbrush before she came upon an adequate position. It was a large clearing in the woods, big enough for some of the moon and starlight to come down and bathe the bare earth in its light. She searched around the perimeter until she found two trees growing beside one another at the edge of the clearing, the branches between them intertwined in such a way that, if she looked at it in a certain light, the tree trunks and branches resembled a tori gate. She used this as her point of reference and began construction of the shrine. Aligned with the gate, she found the largest stone she could find and, grunting and griping with exertion, staggered with it to the center of the clearing before dropping it to the ground. She then took time to collect sticks and fallen leaves, wrapping and weaving them with grasses to create crude panels that could be carefully stacked to create and enclosed space upon the stone, all of it coming together to make a crude and rudimentary enclosure less than thirty centimeters on a side and with an open side facing the gate.

Carefully, Megame pulled from her pack the sacred object given to her by Inari, a polished circular silver mirror bedecked around the rim with rope dyed red and gohei streamers that she delicately placed inside the shrine. She then took a few steps back, walking the perimeter of the ad hoc shrine as she softly recited the sacred incantation to accompany the building of the shrine, sanctifying the land, clearing it of any residual spirits and making the crude open box into a suitable dwelling place for a kami.

When her ritual was complete, Megame retreated through the “Gate” then re-entered, this time stepping from the outside world into the sacred space of a Shinto shrine. The difference was like night and day, though perhaps not for the average person. All noises within the shrine ceased instantly; any of the night birds or insects that had filled the night with chatter could not be heard within the clearing the moment she passed through the gate. The light of the moon and stars seemed magnified, letting the clearing fill with soft white light. Even in the darkness of its enclosure, the mirror shone brightly, reflecting the moonlight and constellations, though a close observer could tell that the stars burning in the silver mirror were not the same as the ones above Romania.

Hachi took her place beside the shrine. Held in her vulpine mouth was a granary key, another sacred icon and one the fox kept with her for such occasions. It would take every possible effort to make this small Romanian clearing into a functional Shinto shrine, and Hachi’s presence as a fox added much. Silently, Megame fell to her knees and entered a state of praying meditation, quietly praying as her soul called out for divine presence, letting the silence grow around her as she hoped it would be enough.

The Okami’s arrival was not loud or dramatic. It came in gently like an autumn wind, quiet but distinct as it blew into the clearing and a presence entered the shrine. There was a flash of movement within the mirror that was not reflected in the world outside, and out of the clear night haze a figure formed atop the shrine enclosure.

She took the form of a beautiful young woman, wrapped in a long elegant kimono, styled in many layers and brocaded in imagery that seemed to shift and roil as Megame watched it, containing images of gems, flowers, and gold across a servant of brilliant vermillion.  Her face was young but austere, framed by long straight hair of pure white color. Her eyes shone a brilliant gold that was clear even in the pale moonlight. Much of her nose and mouth was hidden behind a large red fan decorated with ornate depictions of foxes. She was perched weightlessly upon the enclosure for her mirror, legs hanging off one side as her torso turned to look down on Megame, almost seeming to float upon the panels of sticks and leaves that should have collapsed under a light breeze.

Megame found that the image of Inari Okami had changed the longer she knew her. When they had first met, the Okami seemed much more traditional, her face done in the older style of the Heian and Kamakura periods. As she and Megame had interacted, her face makeup and hair had become somewhat more restrained and modern. She had also taken on the ears and tails of a fox on more than one occasion, a depiction that, while common, Megame had often been told was inaccurate. Whatever the cause or reason to her mild shapeshifting, Inari always came with the same personality, if not the same face.

“It’s been some time since you called me directly, Kamigawa-kun.” Inari said, but there was a hollowness, a haze to her voice that made her somewhat indistinct. Clearly even with the shrine in place, the distance was having some effect.

Megame bowed until her forehead just barely touched the ground.

“Forgive me, Inari Okami-sama.” Megame said, still kneeling prostrate before her. “I needed your counsel in this time, in order to help me make a decision.”

“Speak quickly then, child. I doubt I have much time in such a crude shrine.”

As rapidly as she could while maintaining clarity Megame explained their situation, how she had come to the aid of a vampire if only to prevent what she felt was a needless death, as well as her confrontation with Kara and her belief that she needed to be stopped.

“I’m just not sure,” Megame concluded “If it really is fate, then should I even try? Is there anything I can do to help him? Or help Kara?”

She stayed kneeling in silence for some time, waiting for Inari’s eventual response.

“Rise, Kamigawa-kun. I would have you listen to my words and heed them carefully.”

Megame rose quickly to her feet, locking eyes with the piercing gaze of the fox goddess.

“I am the patron of luck, the bringer of fortune to those in need of salvation. I bring the rain and the despoilment dependent on my mood and my whim. I follow no divine plan, I may take advice from older and wiser kami but I find with my intuition they more often take advice from me. By following my own design and creating my own luck, I have become the most prolific kami in Japan, and soon in all the world. I did not reach this stage through fate or destiny; that is the excuse of the lazy or the insincere.”

“Then there is no such thing as fate, Inari-sama?” Megame couldn’t help but ask, having to know just who Kara’s employers were.

“There might very well be such a thing as Fate, Kamigawa-kun.” Inari said “But if so then it is not designed by an all-knowing force. Many times I have shaped the likelihood of circumstance and coincidence, I have brought fortune and ruin to those I felt needed it. Does this make me a master of fate? For surely I have changed the fates of those I interfered with. I believe it makes me nothing more than a kami of fortune, changing the likelihoods and probabilities as I see fit. Unless of course your friend suggests my own hands are bound by some yet greater force, which I find to be nothing more than revisionist nonsense, claiming the choices of an individual were guided by an unseen force after they happened.”

“I’m…not entirely sure I understand, Inari-sama,” Megame admitted, bowing her head.

“Forgive my rambling,” the goddess of fortune smiled “I suppose you desire a succinct answer. I believe that the future is only determined by the choices one makes. There is no grand plan, there is no design tugging at strings, there are only mortals and spirits who pull at one another as they guide themselves along roads forged one step ahead of their feet.”

“Then why does Kara believe that Constantin is fated to die? Where is she getting that from?”

Inari considered her words, eyes looking off into the distance as her fan hid most of her face.

“I believe that this new friend of yours, Kara, is merely the tool of something more powerful.”

“M-More powerful?” Megame asked “Like an Okami?”

“Something like one certainly,” Inari said “To be able to claim to be an arbiter of fate they must be very powerful indeed, or tremendously arrogant. The thing to remember, Kamigawa-kun, is that in matters of luck, destiny has little say. Spin the wheel of chance and I guarantee no force lurking on earth or in heaven can tell you where it might land. Even I can only make the outcome more or less likely. And if some western deity believes that they control my actions through some unseen plans, then I would like to see them try.”

Megame could see the distinct gleam of a smile in her eyes.

“So if I want to free Kara from her responsibilities,” she said “And to stop Constantin’s death…”

“Then you must strike at the source.” Inari nodded “Do not go to Kara, but go above her. Find the ones pulling her strings and confront them, then you might be able to change fortune in your favor.”

Even as a solution presented itself, Megame could only feel her stomach sink. How was she supposed to face whatever power had employed Kara, one strong enough to keep a leash on a powerful Valkyrie?

“Do not fear, kamigawa-kun,” The fox kami smiled as her appearance began to fade into the night air, the integrity of the foreign shrine beginning to collapse “Even if you cannot see or hear us, the kami are with you. When you decide to challenge the will of fate, you will not be alone.”

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=48&sl=171

 

Where All Roads Lead

Chapter 21

May 24th, 2024

Constantin’s servants had prepared dinner for them. It was later than Megame was used to, the sun having already set by the time they were seated, but it was to be expected given the nature of their host. Constantin had clearly gone out of his way to provide for them, with finer food fit for humans brought up from the town in order to serve them. From what Megame had learned, the servants generally ate at home and so there was rarely any real food in the castle.

They had been given a scrumptious dinner of roasted lamb and greens paired with a local red wine. Megame had been slightly worried at first but none of the others had hesitated for even a moment before digging in, and the rumbling of her belly for such deliciously prepared food meant that her resistance did not last long. Hachi still had something of a fox to her and had never learned how to use a knife and fork, so her eating habits tended towards the more feral, picking up a rib of lam with her fingers and tearing into it with sharp canine teeth. Kara and Cade, both being of the rougher sort, had similar eating habits. Megame wasn’t entirely used to western silverware, but she did her best to have her eating habits match the formality of the setting.

Constantin’s dining hall was a grand affair clearly meant for many more guests than what he currently served. The long wooden table was seated for five, but could easily have seated twenty. Long tapestries hung from pillars depicting the castle’s history and that of Constantin’s now long-departed family. The curtains had been drawn from the windows, allowing moonlight to shine in to meet the warm orange glow of the massive hearth built into the wall behind the head of the table where their vampiric host was seated.

Constantin himself had obviously foregone a meal, though he encouraged them to eat regardless. It was clear he enjoyed the company, even if it was predominantly Megame and Cade who spoke to him.

“I had always wished to visit Japan.” Constantin chatted as Megame worked to finish the last of the food on her plate. “Unfortunately your country was quite closed off at the time.”

“That was a long time ago.” Megame swallowed another mouthful of food. “Japan has been open to outsiders for nearly two hundred years.”

“Alas, it has been for nearly two hundred years that I have had my condition.” Constantin said.

“Before then I was a sailor, and I delighted in seeing foreign shores, from the Floridan marshes of the Americas, the white sand beaches of Brazil, to the mysterious coast of darkest Africa. I traveled with explorers and merchantmen whenever I could, though I never made it by sea to the Far East. Once, I had the opportunity…but I’m afraid I never arrived for the boat.”

“Why would you be a sailor when you have a big fancy castle?” Megame asked.

“I was something of a family oddity.” Constantin admitted. “I chose to forgo the family tradition of aristocracy and superiority in pursuit of a life outdoors. I know many of my relatives hoped I would die on some godforsaken distant shore so I could forfeit my inheritance to them, alas the great irony was that it would be home in Romania that I would find immortality.”

“You were turned into a vampire in Europe?”

“Quite so, on shore leave before an expedition of mine was to begin. I met the most beautiful woman I have ever known, dark-eyed and intoxicating to the senses. Little did I know she found my blood as tempting as I found her. One night of passion and my sailing career was put to rest.”

“Why couldn’t you go sailing anymore?” Megame asked.

“The sun, of course, was no longer mine to see.” Constantin said. “And while there is beauty in the moonlit sea, there are many burdens to being one of the undead.”

“Vampires of Constantin’s breed can’t cross water outside of their coffins.” Kara said. “Constantin here couldn’t so much as leap over a stream if he wanted to.”

“The lady is right.” Constantin nodded. “I could travel by ship but I would spend the duration of my voyage in a box. I could never sentence myself to a life as so much cargo.”

“Ah…” Megame’s face fell. It was easy to get caught up in the possible upsides of being a vampire. She hadn’t considered that eternal life and beauty might have very high costs.

“Still, I can journey to the shoreline.” Constantin said. “I can stand upon the cliffs and hear the crashing waves, but it is a hollow experience. I can feel the wind on my face and taste the salt but these senses lack the…substance they once had. If any of you are seeking immortality, I cannot say I recommend undeath as the way to go about it.”

The vampire glanced around the table. “Of course, this is already somewhat blessed company in that regard. I am sure Miss Kara can live for many centuries as a Valkyrie, Lady Hachi as well can live for more than a thousand years if your stories are true. I know my friend Cade certainly has another century or two in him at least.”

“Yes…I think I’m the shortest-lived person here.” Megame said with a note of disappointment.

“Ah but the candle that burns shortest burns brightest.” Constantin smiled. “A human life is full of energy and vigor compared to the grey eternities of immortality. I would trade five centuries as a vampire for one year as a mortal man again.”

“Really?” Megame blinked in surprise.

“In a heartbeat, given I still had them.” Constantin smiled. “Though I feel the point may be moot. If our Lady Valkyrie has her way, then vampire or not my time seems to be finished.”

“Nothing lasts forever, Constantin.” Kara said. “Not even you.”

“I had no intention of seeing time till time ran out.” Constantin smiled. “It seemed like a dull proposal anyway. That said, I am still curious why a Valkyrie has marked me for death.”

“I didn’t do it.” Kara shrugged. “I’m just the instrument of fate in all of this.”

“Aaah, fate.” Constantin steepled his fingers. “Would you mind entertaining a few of my questions?”

Kara made something of a show out of glancing at her watch, which Megame sensed with annoyance was entirely unnecessary.

“I’ve got time.” Kara said. “Can’t say I have all the answers though.”

“Of course, of course,” Constantin nodded. “First I must ask, was it fate that I become a vampire? Was that as pre-ordained as my demise at your hands.”

“Dunno.” Kara shrugged. “I wasn’t involved in that. Makes sense that it was though, or else I would have taken you out a long time ago.”

“Then I suppose I can blame fate for that, rather than any condition of truly execrable luck.” Constantin smiled ruefully.

“Do you wish you hadn’t become a vampire?” Megame asked.

“When I am alone in this castle with my thoughts,” Constantin said. “I often wondered how my life would have proceeded. The places I would have seen, the people I would have met. The women I could have married and the children I could have sired. These phantoms from a life not lived haunt me in my solitude. I am nearly three hundred years old, but the man I was died the instant my heart stopped beating.”

He stared for a long time into the empty wine glass that had held his “meal”.

“Other times, however, I am among the people of this town. They remind me what I have done for this place, what I have accomplished in protecting and serving them long after the quarrels and in-fighting of my apathetic family turned them into dust. I cannot say for certain that without me this town would even exist.”

His eyes turned back on to Kara.

“Perhaps one more misfortune of my condition is that it guarantees the inevitability of violent death. I have heard stories that truly ancient vampires fall into eventual derangement and must be torn apart by their younger kin, and of course the ever-present threat of vampire hunters is coupled by the annihilating rays of the life-giving sun. There are no peaceful endings for a vampire, are there, Miss Kara?”

“None I’ve ever heard of.” Kara said. “If it helps any, it’s not going to hurt.”

“Small comfort, seeing as I have forgotten what pain feels like.” Constantin smiled coldly.

Megame’s face had sunken with the depressing conversation. She turned to Kara as well.

“Is this really what needs to happen?” She asked. “This feels like a drawn-out execution.”

“Because that’s precisely what it is.” Kara said. “Far too drawn out for my tastes.”

“And nothing bad has happened!” Megame objected. “If there are no consequences a day from now, a week, a year, how can his death really matter in the long run?”

“That’s speculation.” Kara said. “None of us can hope to grasp the full consequences of leaving him alive. Like a ripple effect, the smallest disturbances can quickly escalate to enormous size.”

“But it’s not fair if he doesn’t even understand what he’s dying for!”

Kara snorted slightly into her wine as she took a long drink.

“Life isn’t fair, Megame.” She said. “And most people die for no reason. Trust me when I say that death is far more fair than life can ever be.”

“How is death fair!?” Megame asked.

“No exceptions, no refunds, no do-overs. Everyone gets the same thing.” Kara said. “A single lifetime to call your own. That’s fairness.”

Megame’s brow furrowed. “So it’s fair because he dies like everyone else?”

“One year or a thousand.” Kara said. “Nothing lasts forever, like I said, and the time has run out on this vampire.”

“That can’t be the source of the paradox.” Megame said. “What if he just needs to leave? Or change his name and identity? Just to not be around anymore, wouldn’t that be enough?”

“If that was enough” Kara said “Then why would they have sent me?”

“…” Megame found herself at a loss for words.

“I can’t say I like how she’s going about it.” Cade said. “This is a pretty grim way to do her work, but I can’t say I’m as high an authority on who lives and who dies as her boss.”

“I don’t like that someone else can decide it at all!” Megame said. “No one should be allowed to choose who lives and who dies.”

“No one does, Megame,” Hachi said, “Kara’s employers, if they are truly what they claim, aren’t people who get to judge others. They are the forces that binds the world together. I can’t say I understand or agree with it, and I’m not sure that they truly are who they say they are…but what can we accomplish by getting in the way?”

“You’re all taking Kara’s side…” Megame said, feeling as if both of them had physically struck her.

“It’s not a side.” Kara said. “I don’t like doing my job, but it is the way it has to be.”

“If I may speak…” Constantin said. “Miss Megame, I am truly grateful for the compassion you have shown towards what many would dismiss as a monster, but I am afraid your pleas will go unheard. I will not beg and grovel for my life, as I am sure I won’t receive it.” He turned to Kara, who nodded in cold reply.

“I merely ask for some time to get my affairs in order.” He said. “If this is truly to be an execution, then I should be afforded the right to ensure that all of my debts and affairs are settled, if Fate can abide this small favor in exchange for all that it has taken from me.”

Kara’s face fell into an expression of tired irritation as she thought for a moment in silence.

“Thirty-six hours.” She said. “You have thirty-six hours to settle everything you need. After that, it’s lights out. No exceptions, no extensions.”

“Thirty-six hours.” Constantin mused. “I suppose I had best get to work.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=42&sl=437

Where All Roads Lead

Chapter 18

May 23rd, 2023
“A-A Valkyrie!?” Megame repeated, perhaps for the fourth time after they had been led into the castle and shown to their rooms. Kara, Megame, and Hachi were sharing a large opulent room with a pair of four-poster beds and vast windows overlooking the dark forest with heavy curtains drawn over them. Megame had always dreamed of staying a night in some opulent western castle, though she hadn’t imagined that when she did it would be in the possession of a vampire, or that her roommate would be a Valkyrie.“You can stop saying it now.” Kara frowned, leaning back as she sat cross-legged on her bed.
“But you’re a Valkyrie!” Megame shouted.

Kara’s mouth screwed up into something like a scowl. “Do you even know what a Valkyrie is?”

“Eeee…” Megame trailed off as she tried to think. The immediate vision that came to mind was a somewhat rotund blonde woman astride a winged horse, dressed in armor with a horned helmet and spear in hand.

That was a hazy vision but it was still nothing like the girl that sat before her. Kara was almost morbidly thin, her hair was raven black and she carried a rifle instead of a spear. No sign of a winged horse either.

“I’m going to take that as a no.” Kara said. “Because if you knew I doubt you’d be as impressed.”

“Of course I’d be impressed!” Megame said. “I think it’s really neat.”

Kara sighed. “A Valkyrie,” she began, “Is a female warrior in service to the Norse gods. It’s their duty…was my duty…to reach out to the dying valiant heroes of the world and take them to Valhalla, where they can fight and celebrate until Ragnarok.”

“Mmm…” There were a lot of half-remembered words in there that Megame only sort of knew.

“So I was basically a glorified pall-bearer. It was my job to protect the souls of the dead.”

“You keep speaking in past tense.” Megame said. “It’s almost as if you’re not a Valkyrie anymore.”

“I might as well not be.” Kara said. “I don’t do that kind of work anymore.”

“Because you’re a hitman.” Megame nodded, but Kara shot her a pointed glare.

“There’s a little more nuance to it than that.” Kara said. “I’m not simply a contract killer. I don’t do it for money or personal pleasure. I have reasons for doing it.”

“Well that makes me feel a bit better at least,” Megame said. “But I’m still kind of uneasy. I mean…you look perfectly human and normal, it’s weird thinking of you…”

“As inhuman?” Kara asked. “Would you like proof?”

“Proof?” Megame blinked.

Without another word Kara rose from the bed, getting onto her feet as the room seemed to darken around her, the oil lamps that lit the place dimming for a moment and throwing long shadows over the wall. Behind Kara, cast over the deep red curtains, were the shadow of a pair of long elegant wings sprouting from her back. As the moments passed, the shadows seemed to pull themselves from the wall, solidifying around her until they truly were a pair of great black raven wings rising from behind her shoulders. Everything about her seemed to glow, exaggerated beyond a human level. Her eyes were a glowing deathly blue, her hair lightless strands of black, and her skin pale as death.

“W-wow…” Megame couldn’t help but recoil slightly from the sudden transformation. Kara hadn’t grown beyond her wings but she seemed to fill the room as if her presence had become ten feet tall. For a moment, Megame swore she heard the flapping of wings and the caw of ravens from outside the windows.

As soon as the vision had come it passed, Kara’s wings receding as the lights brightened again, returning to her normal “Human” state.

“Proof enough?” Kara asked.

“I-I didn’t doubt you.” Megame said, somewhat shakily.

“I don’t think you doubted.” Kara said. “But I do think you didn’t entirely understand what I meant when I said I wasn’t human. Sometimes you need to pull the mask off to make a point.”

“I can’t do anything that impressive…” Megame said. All of her power came from the Kami; she had almost none left for herself.

“Well then take it from me.” Kara said. “There are always going to be things you don’t understand. Sometimes the things I do look awful, but I need you to understand that it’s for the best.”

“I…don’t know if I can accept that.” Megame said. “Even if I don’t understand the reasoning…I still want to know why, Just taking your word for it makes me feel so…passive.”

“This is my job, not yours.” Kara said. “You’re the one who chose to tag along and you can leave at any time.”

“I don’t know if I can just…leave this now.” Megame frowned. “I might not have a right to know…but I still want to. Do you do it because he’s not human?”

“That would make me a hypocrite, wouldn’t it?” Kara scoffed. “It makes no difference to me that he’s a vampire. I don’t just take down monsters. Sometimes I need to target humans too.”

“But why?” Megame asked. “What possible good can come from killing people?”

Kara sighed. “Don’t ask me to explain”

“Too late for that.” Megame huffed, crossing her arms. “I’m asking.”

Kara groaned. “Honestly…fine, do you reeeeally want to know why I do what I do?”

“Yes!”

With a sigh Kara began to speak.

“Okay so…do you know what a paradox is?”

“It’s a thing that is the opposite of itself, right?” Megame said.

“Close enough. In this context, a paradox is something that contradicts itself, or contradicts how things are supposed to be.”

“Supposed to be?”

“Yes, stay with me here. With the Days of Revelation, there was a lot of magical and metaphysical upheaval. Not everything made sense or fit nicely into causality. You probably haven’t noticed, but in a few cases…more than you’d think…the past was altered as well as the present.

“Imagine time is a book, a single long book with all of history being written on one page to the next. The Days of Revelation not only wrote new words, but they quietly went back and changed some of the old ones. Now you can see where that might be a problem?”

“The new stuff might not make sense,” Megame said. “Or contradict what will happen before it does!”

“Bingo.” Kara nodded. “You’re getting it. These little past alterations, or even the lack of them, can cause paradoxes in the present. If a paradox is big enough or noticeable enough then people will catch on to it.”

“And that’s bad?”

“That’s very bad. When people start actively noticing key inconsistencies, then the whole tapestry is in danger of unraveling if they try to track the change, or if they try to further contradict the paradox.”

“Further contradict?”

“If some people spotted an inconsistency in time and causality,” Kara said. “They’d be tempted to push its limits, test it, see how much breaking they can get away with, let the inconsistencies spiral outwards in cascading events or perhaps try to make little paradoxes of their own. If more of these inconsistencies and paradoxes are made then the whole thing threatens to collapse. Causality breaks, reason goes out the window, and chaos wins.”

“It sounds dangerous…” Megame said. “But I still don’t think I entirely understand. How does one little paradox create more?”

“Easy,” Kara said. “Say that a man reaches a fork and is supposed to go right. Instead he goes left because the road to the right has a monster on it, a monster that didn’t exist before the Days of Revelation. So he takes the left, and all the people he meets are people who he was never meant to meet. Their interactions create perturbations; they influence the decisions of all those people who were never supposed to meet him. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. At the same time, all those people on the right road never got to meet him, their fates are now absent his presence. This isn’t a big deal for many, but it’s a huge deal for some.

“From that one wrong choice, that incorrect path taken, a growing tide of inconsistencies emerge. Consequences no one could have predicted, ripples become waves as the paradoxes grow. Soon the best laid plans of fate are trashed, the future is in turmoil because of one false choice in the past.”

“Hmmm…” Megame said. “Inari Okami-sama never put much stock in fate…”

“An odd choice for a goddess.” Kara said. “They’re more tied to fate than others.”

“She said it is an individual’s responsibility to carry the weight of their own future.” Megame said. “That fate controls the actions of no one.”

Kara shrugged. “Maybe she’s right. Maybe fate doesn’t control anyone. But we instead unknowingly follow along. Time is the music and fate is the dance, each step deliberate even if you can’t appreciate the whole until the dance is over.”

“What does all of this have to do with you?” Megame asked. Kara looked at her dead on, her eyes hard and Megame found it difficult to keep her gaze.

“It’s my job to find these paradoxes, these people who turned left instead of right, and remove them from the equation before things become too far gone.”

“Th-that seems like a really brutal way to solve a problem.” Megame said, body trembling more than a little.

“It’s a hard solution, but the most efficient one.” Kara said. “Trying to push them back onto the right road can just create more consequences and inconsistencies. It’s my job to take them out, and when I bring them down, I bring them down for good. Not just dead but out of the history books.”

“I see…” Megame started. “Still that seems…like a really difficult job. How did you get started in that?”

“Now that is where I draw the line.” Kara said with a distinct tone of finality. “You know what my job entails but you can kindly stay right out of my personal life.”

“Sorry…” Megame said quietly.

Kara sighed. “Let’s just say I work for very important people, and I’m paying off some dues to them. Until then I do as they say and I don’t ask questions.”

“Even if your job is killing people?”

“Killing people who aren’t meant to exist.” Kara said. “Constantin is a problem and I am the solution. I don’t like it, he doesn’t like it, but it has to happen.”

“What did he do?” Megame asked. “Where did Constantin turn left?”

“Dunno.” Kara shrugged.

Megame stared in disbelief. “You’re telling me you need to kill him and you don’t even know why!?”

“It’s not my job to know.” Kara said. “It’s not anyone’s job to know. Only three people in all existence know the whole story and not one among them knows all of it. Most people just aren’t meant to know how fate will play out, I’m just around to make sure all of it goes smoothly.”

“I still don’t think I can accept that.” Megame said.

“Accept it or not that’s the way it is.” Kara shrugged again.

“Well maybe it doesn’t have to be.” Megame said. “Can’t someone’s fate change?”

“People who change fate tend to wind up dealing with me.” Kara said coldly. “It’d be best for everyone if you just dropped it.”

“And if I find a solution?”

“Huh?”

“If there’s a way to fix fate but kept Constantin alive, would you spare him?”

“First of all he’s a vampire, so he’s not alive to begin with.” Kara said. “Secondly, you’re not cut out for playing that game. The stakes are too high and the players cheat.”

Megame set her face into a confident smile.

“Maybe, but I don’t ever play alone. I have the Okami of Luck on my side. With that much luck, I doubt even Fate can stop me!”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=36&sl=454

Where All Roads Lead

Chapter 15

May 23rd, 2023

The town of Arbessos was about as large as Megame had been expecting. It was a small-ish town, barely more than a village, surrounded by dark wilderness where the trees had grown to the very edges of the town properties. The road leading to it had barely even been that, a bare strip of earth well-worn by travelers and carts. The three of them had traveled the road for several days before finally arriving, relying on Cade’s memory and Kara’s keen eyesight to guide the way. According to Hachi they weren’t too far out of the way and Megame tried to reassure herself that, so long as they stayed roughly on their path, she had nothing to worry about in regards to displeasing Inari-sama.

The town itself seemed almost like something out of a classic monster film. Houses built in an old European style, all wood and thatched roof, filled with people who were dully dressed, primarily farmers trying to eke out whatever land and resources they could from the stubborn forests. Ahead of them the road continued past the town, rising up a hillside and into the dark forest where, about a mile up a low mountain, Megame could see the vague outline of a castle’s parapets.

The people of Arbessos did not seem to want to speak much, offering them nothing but an occasional look of questioning or concern as they traveled down the central road towards the castle path.

“Should we find somewhere here to stay?” Megame asked, more quietly than she needed to.

“Probably shouldn’t.” Cade said, his step not faltering. “Constantin’s going to learn we’re in town when he wakes up, better to announce ourselves first rather than have him visit us in the dead of night.”

Megame shivered at the thought of a creeping vampire waiting outside her room in some inn, and hastily agreed. Cade had said he was more of a decent sort of vampire, but Megame would rather meet him and be sure than to trust someone else’s word on the matter. It’s not that she didn’t believe Cade, it’s just…well it was a vampire.

So they four of them continued on foot, with Hachi once more in her vulpine form, towards the castle, unchallenged by the locals who simply let them pass with watchful eyes.

“They seem suspicious.” Kara noted quietly, clearly a little uncomfortable with so many eyes on them.

“Well, we’re off to meet a vampire willingly.” Cade said. “Wouldn’t you be?”

“Wouldn’t they remember you?” Megame turned to Cade. “You’ve been here before, after all.”

“That was quite a long time ago.” Cade shrugged. “A lot of them wouldn’t remember, heck plenty of them weren’t even born.”

“Right…” Once more, Megame found herself wondering how much her companions were keeping from her. It almost made her regret revealing so much about herself. It must be nice being so mysterious.

Once more the road darkened around them as the path began to rise up the slope of the mountain, twisting back and forth on itself as it wound its way up the slope. There were no lights or lanterns to guide them and as they continued the sky overhead began to darken with the coming night. The clouds overhead gained their evening colors as the dark canopy of trees blocked out much of the light, leaving them in a state of semi-darkness that was rapidly growing deeper.

The rest of the group seemed undaunted, picking easily over the road even as Megame struggled to find her footing.

“C-can you two wait up?” She stammered as she hurried to catch up with them, Hachi at her heels.

“Trouble seeing in the dark?” Kara asked as she turned to her, and in that moment Megame saw a cat-like flash of light behind Kara’s eyes.

“A bit…” Megame admitted “Though it looks like I’m the only one…”

“’Fraid so.” Cade said, and he offered her a hand, but Megame refused it, reaching instead into her pack to pull out one of her charms. She placed the long paper charm, covered in her own ornate calligraphic script, against her forehead as she chanted a quiet verse under her breath. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again the world was a much brighter place, kami of starlight dancing behind her eyes as they illuminated the world in her vision.

“You two might be monster hunters and magic hitmen, but I still have a few tricks of my own.”

“Heh, fair enough.” Cade lowered his hand. “I’ll be sure not to underestimate you.”

With her vision in the darkness improved, Megame managed to keep pace as the four of them traveled up the mountainside. She was also somewhat relieved that her own fatigue wasn’t dragging them down. Inari’s blessings had given her the stamina for more than a simple trek up a low mountain, so she was hardly even breathing heavily when they turned a corner through the woods and faced the great façade of Constantin’s castle.

The place seemed as much a palace as a fortress. Grand architecture combined with defensive walls, artfully built minarets rising high into the night air, great glass windows to let in the light during daytime hours. It was more elegant than it was foreboding, and rather than some portcullis or drawbridge, the sealed entrance was a magnificent double oak door bound in iron and covered in decorative metalwork.

Kara whistled openly at the castle. “Nice place…lots of good vantage points too.”

“I’d be careful with what you say.” Cade said warningly. “Walls have ears in a place like this.”

“He’s going to find out soon enough” Kara said, gesturing to the rifle bag slung over her shoulder.

“Well, for now we’re guests.” Cade said. “Sacred hospitality and all that.”

“There’s nothing particularly sacred about a vampire.” Kara said. “So he’s going to need a damn good reason for me to not just smoke him in his sleep.”

“Well…sounds like we’ll be off to a fine start.” Cade sighed, but he said nothing more as he stepped up towards the door, banging a powerful fist against the hard wood until it echoed around them, backing up to rejoin them as they waited for a reply.

For a moment all was quiet and Megame wondered if it was still too early in the evening for a nocturnal vampire to be awake. Before she could decide whether or not to knock again, however the door began to creak open.

With a great groaning noise the great entrance parted, the doors opening seemingly under their own power. In the entrance, standing alone, was a single man, the entrance hall behind him dimly lit by torch and candle light so as to cast the front of him in shadow.

“It is rare that I receive visitors these days, particularly from foreign lands. Please, step closer into the light.”

Slowly the four of them moved forward, and as they did Megame caught a better view of the man. He was about as tall as Cade but much thinner, lightly built but with more of an athletic build rather than being skinny. His shoulders were still relatively broad, but that could have been the mantle of the long coat he wore that hung almost to his ankles. It was an old and worn garment, seemingly well-used in bad weather, and beneath it he wore finer garments than one would expect of a castle lord. His face was kind and, Megame could not help but notice, supremely attractive with gentle lines and thin eyes beneath a head of bound blonde hair. With her enhanced vision, she could see the red color of his eyes in the moonlight.

“Ah, I see my guests are not so unfamiliar. I’m surprised to see you here again, Cade, I had thought we had an agreement.” The vampire’s voice was not unkind, though it did have a sharpness to its tone that sent a shiver down Megame’s spine.

“I’d hoped it would have stayed that way, Constantin.” Cade said. “But it seems some powerful forces have had some disagreements, so we’re here to re-open negotiations.”

“Well, let it not be said that I am an ungracious host.” Constantin spread his arms in a magnanimous gesture. “Companions of Cade are always welcome in my hall. I’m sure you’re tired from the road. I have business in town tonight, but you may rest here this night and the day tomorrow, and perhaps tomorrow night we can have our discussion.”

“Sooner would be better.” Kara said. “I don’t think we need a night and a day to rethink our positions, and you could try and pull something in the night.”

Constantin did not reply at first, simply gesturing for them to follow past the threshold as they stepped inside, the warmth of the hall a welcome reprieve from the chilly night air.

“It is not ideal, I admit.” Constantin said, still facing them, and in the brighter light, Megame could see the flash of pronounced canines. “Had I some forewarning of your arrival I would of course have received you for the entire night. Alas I am as busy as any lord should be and tonight is no exception. As for preying upon you or displaying some other malice while you rest…well I doubt any of you have cause for concern. Cade trusts me of course; I doubt you, my dark-haired guest, would be so careless as to ever sleep with fewer than one eye open, and of course the young eastern maiden has a fox, which even I am not potent enough to slip past. Besides, if any of you were truly weak enough to be so easily cornered by me, I doubt Cade would have brought you.”

“Well he’s right there, at least.” Cade shrugged.

“But of course where are my manners. As Cade has no doubt told you my name is Constantin, lord of this castle and protector of Arbessos, and I would like to have the pleasure of knowing my other guests.”

“My name is Megame…” She said, pausing before giving her family name as she recalled Cade’s warning. For now she’d have to start trying to be mysterious. “And this is my companion, Hachi.”
Hachi once more took her more human form to bow politely. There was little worry in giving Hachi’s name, as she had been upfrotn when they met about it being an appelation rather than her true name.

“Two fine and rare beauties to grace my hall.” Constantin smiled, and Megame felt her stomach flutter at his words, though the feeling seemed to pass immediately. Again, she recalled Kara and Cade’s words regarding the hypnotic powers of vampires. How much of his attractiveness came from nothing but magic?

He turned to Kara. “And what might your name be, dark-haired traveler?”

“Kara.” She said plainly. Constantin looked her over for a moment in silence, as if observing something through her.

“Well you are of course welcome here, Miss Kara. All of you will have rooms prepared for you at once. I do not keep much food here save for what the servants need, but I’m sure it will suffice for hungry travelers when dawn comes.”

“There are easier ways to settle why we’re here.” Kara said, her tone darkening, though the gracious smile never left Constantin’s face.

“I can hazard a guess why you are here, Miss Kara, and I appreciate Cade’s efforts in having you come through the front door rather than through a window or some other manner of skullduggery.”

Kara raised an eyebrow. “You know why I’m here?”

“I imagine, in the eyes of some, my time is up. Though others might say it has been up for quite some time.”

Megame passed worried looks from Constantin to Kara. There was intensity in the air between them, and she saw Cade’s fingers curling as well. No one was sure what action either Kara or the vampire might take.

“In a manner of speaking.” Kara said. “Though some would prefer a surprise assassination, introducing myself makes it feel more like an execution.”

“Well, I cannot say I’m surprised you came for me. I expected one of Cade’s ill-informed brethren to hunt me down rather than one of your kind.”

Kara shrugged. “I’ve been reassigned, don’t think too hard about it.”

Constantin put his arms behind his back. “I had a feeling as soon as I saw you, you’re certainly not human, but I’m rather honored to have you as my personal angel of death.”

“Trust me, it’s not much of an honor.” Kara’s hands tightened on the strap of her rifle bag.

“Wait, hold on just a minute.” Megame was red-faced as she interrupted them, stepping forward to stand almost between them. “I know what Kara’s mission is, and I’m not sure if I agree with it or not. What I don’t agree with is everyone seeming to know everything and leaving me in the dark.”

Megame turned on Kara. “Why are you on this mission?” She asked. Her face was bright red, she hated being this direct and demanding, but she wanted answers before Kara and Constantin tried to kill one another.

“You mean you haven’t told her?” Constantin asked curiously from behind Megame.

“I told her it’s my job and the rest doesn’t matter.” Kara narrowed her eyes, her face gaining a truly severe expression that made Megame shiver, but she didn’t move. “And what I am doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Then why not tell me?” Megame asked desperately “Just so I know.”

Kara sighed, her hand falling from her rifle bag. “Fine” She said with finality.

“I am…was…a Valkyrie.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=30&sl=817