The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 52

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t,” Gisela said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I-I think it can work!” Megame said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle had begun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good job, Cat,” she smiled at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three kilometers,” Gisela said.

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

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

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

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

“And so are we,” Rosa said.

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

“Then the mountain, and Nidhoggr, awaits.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Meeting at the Well

 

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

“Evening, young Miss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Greece, they call it,” Jafnar said.

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

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

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

Megame picked it up. “Is this your…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me?” Megame asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Something else?” Megame asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 28

 

“So, when we got back to the city, Rosa, Torleif and I went to the training fields and met this new guy, Nicomede,” Cat said, cup of tea in her hand, sitting in the study of the Aldobrandini manor across from Gisela.

“Ah, yes, Nicomede, I’d received news of him,” Gisela said.

“What? How?” Cat asked suspiciously. “You’re not allowed to leave.”

“And I do not leave,” Gisela said. “Your friend, Alicia, passes news along when I manage to pull her into conversation.”

“Be nice to Alicia,” Cat gestured her half-full cup at Gisela, brow furrowed.

“I have no interest in manipulating her for some ulterior motive, I just like to get news.” Gisela said. “Going back to your story, I’m not surprised the northern champions are made of tougher stuff. They’ve had it much harder than you Romans.”

“I guess,” Cat said. “She’s still just a little kid though, and she was powerful but not…trained.”

“As is the case with an alarming number of you champions,” Gisela said smoothly, taking another drink. “Mmm good tea, my compliments to Scheherazade.”

“Well, I guess Rosa’s training with Capi nowadays, but what do you mean?” Cat asked. “Aurelio’s the best hunter in Rome!”

“Aurelio is still an amateur,” Gisela said coldly.

“He beat you,” Cat said.

“And I am one of the weakest and most bookish servants there is,” Gisela said. “Not all servants are created equal, and I am both far from my patron’s center of power and blessed with only the lightest of physical enhancements, and yet I very nearly beat Aurelio after soundly trouncing the homunculus.”

“Well, it’s not like there’s a place to train this stuff,” Cat said.

“Many abilities of a champion are easy to train, it simply requires the will and drive to surpass oneself. My compliments to Rosa for realizing this; have you been seeing improvement?”

“Well…not so much on the training field, we’re still about equal there,” Cat said, looking down into her tea. She remembered how Rosa had taken charge at Malcesine. Making and executing a plan on the fly as she’d helped lead the attack. “She’s gotten better at strategizing, I guess.”

“Understandable,” Gisela said. “The Wolf of Rome is much more conqueror than warrior, and I suspect she is trying to shift Rosa from a champion of Ares to a champion of Mars, a subtle yet distinctive difference.”

“So what do you think of Nicomede, from what you’ve heard?” Cat asked.

“What I’ve heard isn’t much,” Gisela said. “I can’t speak for his character or his fighting skills, but he is a man who lead a company of over a hundred through monster-ridden territory and over the Alps on the hope of finding allies. That takes a level of skill and a force of personality not to be underestimated.”

“Sure, but he said he should lead the attack on Nidhoggr!” Cat said, irritation slipping into her voice. “That’s so…”

“Presumptuous? Arrogant?” Gisela offered.

“Ya!” Cat said. “It’s so full of him to just try and take command like that.”

“Clearly it should be you,” Gisela said, her expression neutral.

Cat paused before another word could escape.

“…you’re testing me.”

“That is my job,” Gisela said dryly.

“Well…fine I’ll take the bait. Why shouldn’t I lead? You said it yourself, I’m the best-suited person there is to kill Nidhoggr.”

“Killing Nidhoggr and leading the force to do so are not necessarily the same task; in fact, it might be even more effective to have them separated.”

“It should be led by a Roman first of all,” Cat said.

“The legions certainly,” Gisela said. “But we are discussing the task force to kill Nidhoggr, a much smaller and more specialized group. One that, in all likelihood, will be a joint effort of many nations and free agents.”

“I feel like you’re just saying whatever will knock me down a peg,” Cat gritted her teeth. “Can you go even one conversation without deliberately being an ass?”

“Then allow me to be as blunt as possible,” Gisela said, lowering her tea. “I think you are unfit for command. You might have some ability to rally others to a cause but you do not understand how to inspire discipline.”

“Who would you pick?” Cat asked. “Just to get it out in the air.”

“Nicomede, once I had some time to evaluate his abilities,” Gisela said. “But his experience leading soldiers certainly outweighs yours. Rosaria is a good candidate as well.”

“Rosa? Seriously?” Cat asked. “Who else do you want to throw on the pile just to knock me down? Going to argue Torleif next?”

“Catarina this is hardly a personal attack,” Gisela scowled at her. “Nicomede has proven himself in at least one respect. And while Rosaria had…temperament issues from what I experienced, your reports and what little communication I am allowed paints someone who is rapidly maturing, not to mention that she is being trained by a wolf with access to several of history’s greatest military minds and centuries of experience.”

“I have Scheherazade,” Cat said. “And Albion training me as well. And I have you!”

“You have a font of knowledge certainly,” Gisela said. “But Scheherazade is first and foremost a storyteller. Her teachings require a narrative structure which, while useful, has its limits. Albion Nassar is teaching you magic, which you should do, but you and I have both agreed he is likely trying to manipulate you. As for me…well gods help you, you certainly do have me, and I’ll do all I can.”

“Why not Hildegard then?” Cat asked.

“Shall we go down the list?” Gisela asked sarcastically. “I haven’t exactly had the ability to psychoanalyze all of your friends and companions, so I need to make do on your stories, scattered reports, and what rare meetings I actually get. I believe either Rosaria or Nicomede would be most suited for the role.”

“Ugh, fine! Keep your opinions,” Cat stood up. “I’m heading back into town.”

“We still have progress to make,” Gisela said to her back as she turned from the room.

“I’ll be back tomorrow!” Cat shouted from the hall as she made for the door, making doubly sure the locks and seals on Gisela’s comfortable prison were in place before walking out the door.

Cat needed an actual friend she could talk to right now, and she kicked herself for having let Gisela drag her into a conversation like that. The dark-haired woman always looked to any opportunity to needle her. Why shouldn’t Cat lead a Nidhoggr-killing force? She was the one who had the best shot of killing Nidhoggr!

Fuming, Cat made her way back into the city, the sun settling into late afternoon as she wandered from the street into the tree-strewn greenery of the Roman Shrine Complex, soon following the sound of light humming on the wind to a young woman in robes of red and white sweeping the steps of the shrine.

“Hey, Megame,” Cat said, her voice coming out more tired than she meant it to.

“Welcome back, Cat-chan,” Megame smiled at her. “Can I get you anything, tea?”

“No, I’m fine,” Cat said. “Just someone to talk to.”

“Well, you always have me for that,” Megame smiled. “It’s what friends are for.”

“Just got in an argument with Gisela.”

“Ah it’s one of those days again. What about this time?”

“Commanding, and whoever’s going to be in charge of bringing down Nidhoggr.”

“Oh, I had a visitor about that the other day,” Megame smiled.

“Wait, who?” Cat asked.

“A young Grecian man, Nicomede. Very pretty and quite polite, bit of a charmer really,” Megame’s face reddened a little. “He was here looking for me, asking about the champions in the city interested in fighting Nidhoggr.”

“So he’s already getting started…He’s rushing pretty quickly.”

“Well, it was more asking for interest,” Megame said. “I told him to talk to you.”

“You did?” Cat asked.

“Of course,” Megame smiled. “You and Gisela are at the front of all this.”

“So what else did he say, or were you too busy swooning?” Cat said, shooting Megame a teasing smile.

“I don’t ‘swoon’, Cat-chan, at least not in public,” Megame smiled at her. “He told me a little about himself, asked about the shrine and Inari-sama, just small talk really. You should talk to him.”

“He told me he thinks he should lead an expedition to kill Nidhoggr.”

“Oh, I quite agree,” Megame said.

“Wait, what?” Cat practically did a double-take as she turned to look askance at Megame.

“Hmm?” Megame looked back at her. “He led a small army all the way here, he’s dedicated and powerful, and it’s not like he wants to lead the legions or anything.”

“But Megame, with what Gisela’s said and my sword don’t you think…”

“I think you are the best suited to kill Nidhoggr,” Megame nodded. “But Cat-chan, did you want to lead this expedition simply to be the leader of it, or do you believe you are the best suited for the role?”

“Er…” Cat paused before changing track. “Gisela also thinks Rosa could do it. Can you imagine that? Rosa?”

“Rosaria has been maturing a lot recently,” Megame said. “Even you’ve commented on it. She’s a lot less angry and violent than she was when I first arrived here. She even comes by now and then to talk, and she’s quite pleasant to chat with, if a bit…mm I think ‘brusque’ for my tastes?”

“Ya I guess she’s…matured a bit,” Cat remembered how Rosa had fought at Malcesine, and their conversations on the road as well. Compared to the angry redhead she’d met on the training fields months ago she was practically a new person. More restrained, kinder, smarter…

Megame seemed to notice something as she leaned in.

“I think, Cat-chan, you might have some other things to work out about yourself,” Megame smiled.

“Maybe I guess…”

There was a brief silence between them, Cat’s face slightly red as Megame simply smiled her usual serene smile, until a new voice interrupted them.

“Hey Megame, hey Cat.”

Cat turned to see Kara, Megame’s pale-skinned Valkyrie friend walking up to join them.

“Hey, Kara,” Cat nodded her as Megame greeted her with her usual upbeat. “Kara-chan.”

“We were just talking about Nicomede, you met him?” Cat asked.

“Oh, that womanly-looking guy Megame was swooning over the other day?” Kara asked.

“I do not swoon!”

“Ya, him,” Cat said, smiling as it was Megame’s turn to redden in the face.

“I saw him, haven’t chatted with him yet. And ya, shrine maiden, I’ve met a lot of maidens in my day and you swoon with the best of them.”

“Hmph!”

“Well what did you think of him?” Cat asked.

“I don’t go for guys prettier than me,” Kara said. “Just a personal policy.”

“I meant did he seem strong?”

“In what sense?” Kara asked. “I didn’t exactly arm wrestle the guy, but he had a pretty potent spiritual aura for a human. Comes with being a champion I guess.”

“R-right…” Cat had to remind herself now and then that Kara wasn’t human. Being a Valkyrie meant she was pure spirit. Stronger, faster, and much older than she looked. Gisela and Scheherazade had both warned her that underestimating a spirit’s power could get her killed, and that learning to fight the spirits Nidhoggr commanded was almost as crucial as learning to fight Nidhoggr itself.

“I think, Cat-chan, if you want a full measure of him, you should probably go talk to him again,” Megame said.

“Right…” Cat said. “I’ll try my best not to swoon.”

She smiled as Megame turned red again, and Kara gave her a light chuckle.

“I might head to the training fields after meeting Gisela tomorrow…” Cat said, thinking it over. “Actually…speaking of that…hey Kara?”

“Hmm?” Kara turned to look at her.

“You free for a little bit?”

 

 

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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.”

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 1

September 13th, 2024

The mid-afternoon sun came down thick and golden through the pulled curtains of the library’s window, casting the tall bookshelves in gilded light and deepening shadows as the hours of the day wound down. The air outside was hot and humid, but within this sanctuary it was always dry and comfortably cool. The tea that had been laid out on the table between the two chaise lounges was still steaming and lending an aromatic fragrance to the thick smell of book paper and library dust.

“This is good tea,” Catarina said as she took a long sip from the steaming cup. “Sheh said it was Turkish.”

“It’s a bit bitter for me,” Megame said, holding the cup with both hands as she took her own drink. “Though I am grateful to your friend for making it.”

“Sheh makes all the best teas,” Cat smiled.

The pair of them had come here to cool off and relax as the afternoon reached its later phases. Thanks to a last minute change in Cat’s lesson plans and Megame’s delegating skill, both of them found themselves free in the golden hours of the afternoon, able to wile them away in the expansive library of Scheherazade.

Cat’s friend, Megame, had quickly grown accustomed to living in Rome. She was a young Japanese woman around Cat’s age, with short dark brown hair she had only recently started growing long again. When they had first met, Megame had been much rougher in appearance, with a thinner face and grungier skin, hair, and clothes. The comforts of sleeping in a bed, eating three meals a day, and regular access to bathing water had softened her considerably, though she never lost the friendly smile on her face nor the bright shine in her eyes. She was dressed in the loose white jacket and a pair of bright red broad pants, apparently the uniform of her position as a miko, a shrine maiden. She sat neatly on the lounge with her legs and back straight as she carried the teacup delicately in her hands.

Cat herself was half a head taller than Megame and a bit broader in the shoulders and hips. Unlike the shrine maiden, she was a trained fighter, and it had become more apparent as the constant training and exercise had given her the toned figure more like her adoptive sister Hildegard. She was seated on her side, half-sprawled over the long lounge chair, and kept the teacup held loosely in one hand after she’d drained it.

“So have you heard the rumors coming in from the North?” Cat asked as the silence began to descend.

“North of where?” Megame asked. “North of the city? North Italy?”

“Northern Europe,” Cat said. “Though a lot of it is trickling down through the alps. They say things are only getting worse up there.”

“Right, that’s where the Primordial lives, yes?” Megame asked. “The…Nido-hogu?” She struggled briefly with pronunciation.

Megame’s accent was a curious thing. Most of the time Cat didn’t even notice it, and it only became apparent with proper nouns and more obscure foreign words. The strangest thing of all was that, according to Megame, she only spoke Japanese and a smattering of English, but had no problem casually conversing with the Italian-speaking Catarina.

“Nidhoggr,” Cat said. “They call it…well a lot of things. The Serpent of the Damned, the Dragon of Yggdrassil, the Striking Malice.”

“A real monster then,” Megame said, putting her teacup back on the tray. “That is the one you fought in the dream, wasn’t it?”

Cat nodded, the memory from several months ago still fresh in her mind. She had faced a shadow of Nidhoggr, a mere fragment of the thing, inside of a dream. She had been victorious, but only barely, and the real thing promised to be more terrible than anything that could be conjured in a dream.

“But Italy is safe behind its barrier, isn’t it?” Megame asked.

“It is,” Cat said. “But we can’t just sit behind our walls and let the rest of the world fall apart, can we? According to the legions, the Alpine settlements come under frequent attack since they live where the border is hazy, and beyond that…well we only know what we hear, but what we hear isn’t good.”

Megame smiled at her. “You care a lot about other people, Cat-chan, I like that about you.”

Cat giggled slightly at the nickname. Megame had started by calling her ‘Catarina’, but Cat had insisted on the Japanese modifier.

“Well, I always try, but there’s not a lot I can do on my own in this case. I can’t just ride out and fix all of Europe by myself; even I don’t think that much of myself.”

“You would be surprised with what you can do when you set your mind to something,” Megame said. “But I do think that task might be better suited to Rome’s Legions.”

“That’s the problem,” Cat said. “Convincing the people of Rome to put themselves and their loved ones at risk to help people outside of Italy.”

“Isn’t it in their best interest?” Megame asked. “With the world falling apart outside without help, Rome might not have neighbors for very long.”

“That’s what I say, but a lot of people are scared and…can you really blame them? When you’re up against things like undead dragons and giants and sun-eating wolves…you don’t really think of it as a fight you can win.”

“I understand that,” Megame said. “But you’re not the type of person to be afraid, and I doubt you’re alone.”

“Well you never seem afraid,” Cat said. “After all, crossing the world’s biggest continent on foot…I bet there isn’t much of anything left that would scare you.”

“Mmm…” Megame didn’t reply, merely taking another long sip of tea before speaking again. “What about this girl…Gisela?”

“Oh, her…” Cat’s mood soured almost instantly, poisoning the taste of the tea in her mouth. “I haven’t been back to see her.”

“Why not?” Megame asked, her face curious. “You said she knew you by name, and her capture was mere days before you defeated the shadow of…that dragon.”

“Coincidence,” Cat said. “Remember she was the one leading the charge in the Battle of the Black Sun. She’s the champion of an evil goddess and should rot in jail where she belongs.”

“But being a champion means she might have knowledge,” Megame said. “Knowledge we can use. Isn’t that what she said to you?”

“In a sense…” Cat said, no longer enjoying where this conversation was going.

“Could it really hurt to go back and talk to her again?”

“I don’t trust her,” Cat said. “She attacked Rome, brought her evil goddess here, and I’m more than willing to bet she’d say anything at the chance of a little leniency. That’s not someone you can trust!”

“Well I am not asking you to trust her” Megame said. “But not everyone you think is evil can be figured out so easily. Don’t forget I came here with a vampire.”

“Ya and I remember the uproar THAT caused,” Cat rolled her eyes, even as she knew Megame had a point. The Shrine Maiden apparently agreed as she continued to press home on the matter.

“Cat-chan, this isn’t something you can just ignore and hope it improves. If she has nothing to offer, if you think she’s lying, then you can just leave and she’s still stuck in her cell. She can’t enchant or hex you through the glass, and you’re not about to just let her out on her own, are you?”

“No, of course not…”

“Then try.” Megame said.

Cat let out a long groaning sigh. “Dammit, why do you have to be so reasonable?”

Megame smiled triumphantly. “Because you and everyone around you can be very unreasonable, of course.”

“Can we finish the tea at least?” Cat asked, eyeing the kettle.

“Of course.”

The afternoon had shifted into evening as Cat climbed the steps onto the Capitoline plaza. The sun was drawing closer to the horizon and the sky was growing a steadily deeper blue in the east as new colors sprang up in the west. Streetlamps were beginning to be lit, most by hand, and the nightlife of the city was beginning. As people moved out of the plaza with the end of work, Cat moved against the flow to find herself in the holding chambers beneath.

For nearly half a year, the girl called Gisela Silva had been sealed away in a holding cell, kept under constant watch and behind a glass panel reinforced with several kinds of magic. A year ago Rome had been too small for prisons to be viable, and even now forced labor and community work was the punishment for most offenders, but Gisela could not be trusted, even under guard, in the city at large. She was a champion, and that made her dangerous.

Being a champion was to be chosen by a god as a vessel for power. Many gods across many religions and mythical pantheons had champions. Most of the ones in Rome were Greek or Roman deities. Her friends Rosa and Salvatore were the champions of Ares and Minerva respectfully; the head of the Night Guard, Aurelio, was a champion of Diana; the Pontifex Maximus, Nora Newstar, was in a way the champion of the entire Egyptian Pantheon; and a professional engineer and masterful artificer, Evangeline, was champion of Hephaestus. Even Megame was a champion to her Japanese goddess Inari.

Gisela, however, was something much more dangerous. She was a champion of the Aztec pantheon of ancient American, and specifically of Itzpapalotl, the Obsidian Butterfly, whose cult had laid bloody siege to Rome last April. Cat had been out of the city when it occurred, but resented everything that Gisela stood for.

Gisela was a tall, slim woman with long black hair and eerily pale skin. Though she seemed to be in her early twenties it was difficult for her to tell. She was dressed in an ugly white jumpsuit, the closest thing to a prison uniform they had, though Cat thought she would be better served in a straightjacket.

“Catarina Aldobrandini,” Gisela’s voice came in clear despite the thick glass, again likely the work of some enchantment. Cat shivered, there was something…wrong when she said it.

“I was hoping you would come back. You left our last meeting rather…abruptly.”

“I’m back, not that I’m happy about it,” Cat said, arms folded over her chest. “But because I think you might be useful to Rome.”

“And how does Rome wish for me to be of service?” Gisela sat back on the stark mattress she had been given. A book resting under her hand. While Rome had decided to keep her in holding indefinitely, they didn’t treat her like an animal. She had decent bedding and books to read (given approval first), and she had apparently never complained save for the occasional request to meet with people, usually Catarina or Capitolina.

“What do you know about Primordials?”

“More than anyone in this city,” Gisela said. “More than even the Capitoline Wolf’s pet Primordial.”

Cat stared. Only a handful of people knew that Angel was a fallen Primordial. It was one of the best-kept secrets in Rome, but apparently this woman knew it offhand.

“If that’s true,” Cat stood her ground. “Then that’s information we need.”

“Oh, I have no doubt,” Gisela said. “Rome and you in particular will be in need of it, and I would be happy to provide.”

“Ya, and what are you asking in return?” Cat wasn’t about to be fooled. “I’m not about to strike a deal.

“I ask for nothing,” Gisela’s face remained steadfastly serious. “I offer my advice and my services freely…save perhaps an upgrade in accommodations. My one condition is that I offer this information only to you.’

Cat slapped her hand against the glass, loud enough to send a resounding slam through the cell. Gisela didn’t flinch.

“What is with you about me?” She demanded. “Why am I so interesting? Why do you know my name? Why will you only talk to me!?”

“That’s simple,” Gisela said. “Because you’re a hero, and I came to Rome to help you.”

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Where All Roads Lead

The End of Spring

July 26th, 2024

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right,” Megame nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So where’s your fox?” Cat asked.

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

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

“I’ll let her know,” Megame giggled.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“I do just fine!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“What do ya mean?” Rosa asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right now? It’s kind of late…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me?” Cat asked.

“By name,” Aurelio nodded.

“Who is she?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Where All Roads Lead

The Way of Fate

May 29th, 2024

The sun was shining overhead as Megame helped load more supplies onto the horse-drawn cart. Cade, Hachi, Kara, and several other villagers were aiding her as they loaded food, water, and other necessities, so much that Megame felt positively overwhelmed when she compared it to the stark and almost monk-like existence she had been leading up until then. The biggest load that had been brought onto the cart, however, was an elegant wooden coffin, tied tightly and securely in place.

“By cart, it’s about two weeks to the Adriatic,” Cade said, slapping on the last box of food rations. “From there you can sail to Italy and barter passage to Rome.”

“Won’t you reconsider coming with us, Cade?” Megame asked. “Hachi’s coming of course, even Constantin!”
The vampire, after profusely thanking Megame for her selflessness and courage, had decided that while his un-life wasn’t over yet, he felt the need to move on away from the town and castle of his youth.

“It is as much tomb as home sometimes,” The vampire had mused at a dinner in Megame’s honor. “Whether I have one year or a hundred left I do not think I shall spend any more of them here. My family’s legacy has haunted this castle for centuries and perhaps I have merely become another part of it.”

“But won’t the town need protecting?” Megame asked.

“They’re not frightened children,” Constantin smiled. “And there is a fine line between them benefitting from my protection and becoming dependent upon it. I have seen to it that they know how to fight the monsters of this land, both the strong and the cunning. As well, no doubt when trade routes expand they will come in contact with other towns like this one. The supremacy of man over his environment is returning, I can feel it, no doubt the dear fox can as well.”

“I can,” Hachi nodded. “You humans truly are industrious. The end of the world came and went and you scarcely needed more than a year to get back on your feet.”

“So what will you do?” Megame asked.

“Well, I cannot be quite as nomadic as I was in my youth,” Constantin said. “Travel is still a danger for me…but I think I can relocate.”

“You should come with us to Rome!” Megame almost shouted.

“Ah, Rome…” Constantin said, leaning back as he smiled as if daydreaming. “The Eternal City…Yes that seems an ideal place to put down new roots.”
So it was that Constantin had announced his departure to the people he had protected. There was a festival the following night that ran until morning, and Megame wasn’t particularly proud of just how drunk she had been. But the day was too beautiful to be hungover, and the thought of the journey to come too exciting to be mellowed by fatigue.

“After all, what have you got to go home to?” Megame asked. “That lonely hut in the woods?”

“That lonely hut has done just fine for me,” Cade said. “Thank you very much. Besides, I imagine there’s someone else you want to have come along even more.”

Megame gained a somewhat sheepish expression as she glanced over to where Kara had taken a seat on the branch of a nearby tree, somewhat apart from the others.

“Go ask her,” Cade said. “I’ll give it some thought.”

Megame nodded and started towards Kara. As she left, out of the corner of her eye she spotted Hachi sidling up to Cade, clearly intent on doing some negotiation of her own.

“Hey, Kara,” Megame said casually, as she walked up to the tree.

“Morning, shrine maiden,” Kara said, and Megame felt a shiver as she recalled the card game with Skuld, and the fate she had played for herself. She had drawn a card labeled “The Bond” then, and among its many figures had been the clear image of Kara. Megame didn’t want to let their bond end here.

“I want you to come with us,” She all but blurted out, unable to phrase it delicately or elegantly. Kara, however, responded with a slightly crooked smile.

“Ya I thought you might try to convince me,” She said. “But I’m a busy Valkyrie with a pretty hard job.”

“I thought you were freed from your contract!” Megame said. “I made sure Skuld agreed to it and everything.”

“It’s a bit complicated, Megame,” Kara said. “But you did help, don’t worry about that. My service is completely voluntary.”

“But what you do…”

“What I do is necessary. Sometimes cruel and sometimes kind but always absolutely necessary.”

“I don’t believe that,” Megame said. “I didn’t before and I definitely don’t now.”

“Then I think you and I will never be able to see eye to eye,” Kara shrugged. “And is that really something you can deal with forever?”

“Mmm…” Megame found she had no response, instead merely quietly backing down with a bow of the head and walking away.

She didn’t want to return to the cart, but she didn’t want to try convincing Kara again either, so instead she merely walked a little ways into the forest to be among the trees, but always keeping the castle within sight.

“A lovely day, isn’t it?”

Megame nearly jumped as a voice sounded behind her. She turned and saw a young woman, probably a little younger than her, kneeling beside a nearby tree, plucking flowers from where they sprang up among the roots.

“Ah…yes, yes it is,” Megame nodded with a smile, regaining her composure.

“It’s never bright as often as it should be around here,” The girl said. “So many cloudy and gloomy days.”

“Gloomy days can be nice too,” Megame said. “Though I admit I’m a bit partial to the sun as well. But just because a day is cloudy or rainy doesn’t mean good things won’t happen.”

“And bad things can happen even when it’s sunny,” The girl nodded. “Though sometimes you get lucky, like today.”

“Like today?” Megame asked.

“Sometimes good things happen on sunny days,” The girl said, still busy with her growing bouquet of flowers.

“Sometimes,” Megame sighed. “Other times you just can’t seem to win.”

“You don’t win because you’re still learning how to play.”

“Excuse me?” Megame blinked, and in the space it took her eyes to close and open again the girl stood up to face her, hands full of flowers.

“You have real talent, Megame Kamigawa, and the heart of a saint, but this isn’t a game for saints. Sometimes you need to understand the cruelty in the world in order to see the kindness that’s there too.”

“Who…?” Megame began to ask, but before she could even finish the first word she saw it. The flicker behind the girl’s eyes, the ancient power and infinite potential hidden beneath the cloak of a young girl.

“People don’t understand destiny,” Skuld said. She was much more muted now than the last few times Megame had faced her. She spoke and acted much like a human would, save for the odd flicker of her outline and the ageless quality of her eyes.

“What don’t we understand?” Megame asked.

“You think, much like your patron, that fate is a one-way road, a path that is set for you that you must walk down. The truth is more nuanced, more complicated.”

Skuld smiled, and this time Megame felt a genuine warmth to it.

“Your fate, your destiny, is determined by the choices you make. My sisters and I cannot make these choices for you, it is and always has been in mortal hands how the threads will interact. Our job is simply to ensure that there are no ugly snares left on the tapestry, and to ensure that each of these decisions face the consequences both malevolent and benign.”

“So we make the choices?” Megame asked.

“And we ensure you face the consequences,” Skuld finished for her.

“But I beat you,” Megame said. “Constantin didn’t face his chosen consequences. He was spared because your judgement was wrong.”

“Is that what happened?” Skuld asked, her expression inquisitive. “Would you like to know what I saw?”

“Umm…” Megame hesitated a moment before nodding.

“I saw a Valkyrie whose soul needed saving and sent her on a path towards you,” Skuld said. “I saw a shrine maiden who needed to understand her role in the world and sent her towards the Valkyrie. When the pair chose to travel together I put the problem of Constantin before them. I saw you endeavor to save him, and I plucked the threads of fate to ensure you would succeed.”

“Wait…” Megame said. “So I didn’t succeed? You just let me win?”

“Now, now,” Skuld said comfortingly. “You didn’t know that. You chose, unaware of what the result might be, to risk your life to save Constantin’s. Is that not the greater accomplishment? Does that not speak more of your victory? Besides, what game did you think we were playing, Megame?”

“A Game of Fate…” Megame said.

“It is a game we never stop playing,” Skuld said. “And now you know how to play. Though with this commendation comes a warning.”

“A warning?” Megame gulped.

“I like you, Shrine Maiden,” Skuld said. “But fate is not within your domain. Fate does not command the choices you make, but it does demand the consequences be fulfilled whatever they may be.”

Skuld’s voice had not changed, but Megame felt a chill go down her spine.

“A player of the game must understand that those choices can be influenced, but the consequences cannot be avoided. If you try and undercut that law again, there are things even a paradox can’t beat.”

Skuld reached a hand into her sleeve, dropping the flowers as she did. From within her sleeve she pulled a card and offered it to Megame.

“Consider it a gift,” She said as Megame took it with both hands, bowing as she did. Looking down at the card, Megame saw it was another card with a figure on it and she recognized it instantly as Kara. It was not, however, the same Kara that had appeared on “The Seeker”; this one seemed older, thinner, and with the distinct black leather jacket Kara now wore along with a pair of trim black wings, a rifle slung over her shoulder. At the bottom of the card were the words

“The Hunter”
“Is this the card you drew?” Megame asked “This card could have beaten mine…”

“It is,” Skuld nodded. “But I chose not to play it. That is something you must understand, Megame Kamigawa. Fate is not a single road you must walk down. Just as all roads lead to Rome, any road you choose to take is the fate you follow. So you must ask yourself which road is the one you wish to take?”

“I think I understand,” Megame said, bowing her head deeply. “Thank you.”

Skuld smiled, and in an instant she was gone, the only sign of her passage being the card in Megame’s hand and the flowers scattered around where she had been standing.

Without pause, Megame hurried back to where Kara sat in the tree.

“I want you to come with us,” Megame repeated herself, emphatically this time.

“I thought you disagreed with what I do,” Kara said, raising an eyebrow.

“I still do, and I always will,” Megame said. “But that’s the choice you made and the consequences you have to live with…but I have my own choice to make, and I want to look out for you.”

“Why’s that?” Kara asked. “You barely know me.”

“Maybe that’s true,” Megame said. “But you’re my friend and I care about you. The people I care about, the people I want to help…I’ve decided they’re the most important thing in the world to me. I know you need to see your work through to the end…but I choose to stay with you as you do.”

Kara sighed, but the smile didn’t fade from her face. “You’re going to be a huge headache for me, aren’t you, Megame?”

“Yes, I will, Kara-chan,” Megame grinned, and the pair of them shared a brief laugh.

“To Rome then, is it?” Kara asked. “You know the way?”

“They say that’s where all roads lead,” Megame said. “It can’t be hard to find.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link:  https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=70&sl=528

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.

 

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