The Snake and the Mirror

Men of Thunder

 

“All I’m saying is that you Romans have had it a bit easy compared to the rest of the world,” Michail said, raising his glass to his lips to take another drink. “With this shield and all. The walk down south was like a picnic.”

“Watch it,” Lorenzo said. “That shield hasn’t been up all that long, and we had more than our fair share of problems before then. It’s one thing to move through the wilds, but in the center of a city, you’ve got nowhere to hide.”

“I get that, but still…”

Michail was one of the new Greeks that arrived under the command of Captain Nicomede, the Champion of Zeus. He was a bit wiry but pretty strongly built, and he still had his armor on though he left his shield by the door, as was standard policy in the local bars throughout Rome.

Lorenzo had been a Roman soldier since the first night of the Days of Revelation. He’d been there in the hectic first few weeks and had stayed during the mass exodus. He’d been a member of the Rangers, a legionnaire in Legio I Capitolina, and was on the short list for command of the rumored second legion.

Being friendly and good-natured soldiers who had met on the training fields, they did what most soldiers did in their free time, drink and talk up their respective service. In this case, both of them had noticed that only one free stool over was an attractive young woman, so they were being a bit louder than necessary.

“But you’ve never had to cross the Alps,” Michail said pointedly. “That’s another beast altogether.”

“From what I hear it’s not that bad, so long as you don’t try to bring elephants across,” Lorenzo smirked.

Nearby a brief exhale of breath disguising a chuckle from one stool over alerted them that the woman was listening in, though she kept her head down. She was tall, her brown hair tightly held with a few stray strands falling over her glasses, and an old tablet in her hands that she was quickly writing on, seemingly absorbed.

“And what horrors have you had to deal with, Roman?” Michail asked, still smiling.

“Well, a city full of people is like a dinner bell for monsters,” Lorenzo said. “Before the shield went up we had armies, and I do mean armies, of the undead along with a host of cacodaemons and monsters. I was in a party that killed a chimera once.”

“Oh ya? What kind of chimera?”

“Lion head. Impressive thing, at least until Hildegard shoved a sword through its brain.”

“Hildegard seems pretty popular,” Michail said. “And she’s not even a champion, right? One of those wizards?”

“Mages, we call them here,” Lorenzo said. “And yep, other than magic, she’s human to the root, just like her sister Cat.”

“Lot of women in charge here,” Michail smiled, his eyes sliding to the brunette nearby. “Must be something about Roman women.”

“I think it’s Capitolina, personally,” Lorenzo said. “Mother wolves bring out strong daughters. That said, your man isn’t exactly a masculine paragon, is he?”

“Who, Captain Nicomede?” Michail asked.

“Ya, that’s the one,” Lorenzo nodded.

“Heh, well there’s a bit of a saying going around. When it comes to Captain Nicomede, men want him and women want to be him.”

Lorenzo chuckled, before taking another swig of his drink.

“Truth be told, we didn’t have that high an opinion of him until the Alps,” Michail continued. “We thought he was a bit stuck up, but we ran with it because you just don’t turn down a blessing from Zeus, you know?”

“Alright, let’s have it then,” Lorenzo smiled.

 

The Alps were cold at high elevations, the nights were even colder.

A hundred men, all of them Greeks, all of them self-proclaimed soldiers, were huddled around each other as the sputtering light of their torches struggled in the howling wind and a frigid mix of rain and ice. It was mind-numbingly cold and they were all tired, but none of them dared to sleep.

They kept their shields and spears close, after hundreds of miles each man had become attached to his shield as if it were family. They were carefully maintained and cared for, as each of them had saved the life of its bearer on more than one occasion. All the shields bore the marks of the bearer’s home and city-state, as well as the unifying lightning bolt that tied them together as one unit, one team.

Their leader circled the perimeter of the dying light. Nicomede wasn’t particularly tall, and most of the men and a few of the women stood over him. But as they sat huddled around the dying fire, eyes looking out furtively into the night, Nicomede seemed to be two meters tall.

A shrill cry broke through the night, and they huddled closer, taking hold of spears and shields as they gathered around one another, eyes straining out into the darkness. Nicomede hefted his shield, pulling into line with them.

“Shields up!” he called out, and like a well-oiled machine they got into position, shields and spears rising into a bristling phalanx. Nicomede didn’t stand apart or behind, he was in the center and front of formation, shield and spear locked in with the rest as they pulled together.

As the monstrous cries echoed around them, Nicomede sent out the call and the edges of the phalanx pulled inwards until they stood in a solid circle with spears in all directions, a schiltron of shields and ready spears.

Slowly out of the darkness they appeared. Caocodaemons were the first, slipping out of the shadows with catlike bodies, moving slowly on silent paws with sharp fangs, their shadow bodies emaciated and their snouts filled with razor-sharp teeth.

“Hold yourselves!” Nicomede shouted as a shiver ran through the line. ”Remember that you are Zeus’ chosen, and that means tonight the monsters go hungry!”

Though the men were quiet, the shivering ceased. There was a sureness in their step as they kept their shields and spears raised. Michail had been next to Nicomede, partly covered by his shield, and had seen it all happen. He had watched as the monsters drew closer, and as something bigger began to edge out of the darkness just as the lights began to fade.

It was a lion, but like no lion he had ever seen. It was taller than horse at the shoulder, with fur the color of spun gold and a mane the color of bronze. Its eyes were red, and it had the oversized fangs of a sabertoothed cat that gleamed orange in the torchlight along with its iron-colored claws. It growled, and the deep throaty sound resonated through them, but Michail looked at Nicomede and the man didn’t even flinch.

“All of you!” Nicomede’s voice cut the wind and everyone could hear his voice. “You are in a shield wall; do you know what that means?”

Michail kept his shield raised, overlapping like scales with Nicomede’s shield and the shield of the man beside him.

“That means that you cover yourself and your brother or sister, and that they cover you!” Nicomede said. “No one stands apart and no one stands alone. I will stand in line beside each and every one of you, and I am not afraid. Do you think it’s because I’m Zeus’ Champion? Because I’m stronger or braver than you? No! It’s because when I stand in line I will fight to defend each and every one of you, and I know each and every one of you will fight to defend me!

“Do you see that lion? That monster that could kill any one of us on our own? Well he’s about to have a really bad night because if he wants one of us he’s going to get us all! So tell me, Lances! How many of you are ready to shove a spear up this monster’s ass!”

There was a resounding cry through the formation, and the men stamped their feet as one, spears steadied, as the cacodaemons backed off.

“I may be the champion of Zeus, but when I’m in the line, we stand together! So when you stand in a line with me, we’re all champions, and let me show you just how true that is!”

Thunder rolled in the dark sky above them, the moon was long since covered by the clouds and now a new roar echoed through the sky, drowning out the lion’s echoes.

A thunder clap echoed in their ears, rattling their bones as they held their ground, the air filled with blinding light and the smell of ozone. The formation haltered for a moment, but Nicomede held his ground, and Michail held beside him, and so long as one of them could hold position, they all could.

When they opened their eyes again, their shields crackled and sparked with life. Electricity flowed like water across their metal shields, flowing down the hafts of their spears until the blades danced with light. All of them could feel it, like fire in their blood as the divine lighting coursed through the formation.

Michail turned to look at Nicomede again. He had always looked a bit askance at him. Nicomede was a lightly built and very androgynous young man, one of the lightest and the slightest in the shield line. But in that moment, illuminated by fire light and lightning, Nicomede was the very image of a Greek statue, a Classical hero preserved in time from the age of myth, brought to life again.

The lion charged them, heading straight for Michail and Nicomede. Michail grit his teeth, all but feeling the hot breath of the monster. He wanted to flee, to crumple and run, but he had his brothers and sisters beside him, and Nicomede covering his side, and if he ran, he would abandon the man to his left. A shield wall, built around a man like Nicomede, could turn one man into a hundred.

Michail held, as did every man and woman around him. The formation tensed, readying for impact as the glow of lightning grew. The lion leapt, claws raised to crash down on them, and with a sound like a canon firing all the lighting built up around them was unleashed in a single devastating bolt from the tip of Nicomede’s spear. It was as if, as one, all of them had blasted the monster at once. And in an instant the lion was reduced from a gigantic monster into a smoking husk of dead flesh that crashed to the earth as the shield wall shouted in triumph.

“Alala!” Nicomede started the warcry, echoed en masse as the schiltron expanded outwards, spears thrusting forward to ward off the cacodaemons as the formation expanded. The closest were killed as spears thrust through their shadowy flesh, the rest retreated back into the shadows.

As the last of the cacodameons retreated the formation relaxes as Nicomede broke off, turning to face them, positively glowing as he stood proudly, the last of the divine lighting still clinging to his body.

“And that, brothers and sisters, is why Greece will win the day against the dark! And why we are the tip of the lance against evil! Not as one, but as a whole, together we will take this world back!”

 

 

“And we all cheered him on, of course,” Michail said. “Nicomede always knew how to fire up a crowd.”

“You should’ve been there with General Hanne on Sicily,” Lorenzo said. “Still…looking forward to see your man in action.”

On the bar before them a fresh pair of drinks were put down by the bartender.

“Compliments of the lady,” He said, gesturing to the sharply-dressed brunette with the tablet, who was now openly watching them.

Both of them raised her glasses to her as she turned to face them, legs crossed.

“Thank you,” Lorenzo smiled. “What’s the occasion?”

“That was a good story,” The woman said. “I was hoping a few drinks might help you tell more.”

“Well, I suppose I have a few in me,” Lorenzo smiled.

“And it was a long road to the Alps,” Michail said. “What’s your name, Miss…?”

“Calliope,” The woman smiled. “And I’m always listening for new stories.”

 

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Things Taken, Things Found

 

Tegwen walked across the lowland hills with the practiced ease of someone used to a life on foot. The ground here was hilly and occasionally marked with boulders and crags, but it wasn’t overly dangerous as far as terrain went, so there was little stopping her as she made her way across the land, simply needing to keep a weather eye out for anything that could be lurking behind the rocks or over the next hill.

She had her modest supplies and gear in a travelling pack over her shoulders and she moved at a brisk pace with a folded map in one hand and a cracked compass in the other. One problem with steep rolling hills was the ease with which one could get lost in them. With an irritated glance, she looked back down at her compass, shaking it gently as it spun wildly this way and that.

“Now that’s not right…” Tegwen said. “Even magic doesn’t stop compasses from working. That’s just physics…”

“Caw?”

Tegwen glanced up, and she saw a crow looking back at her from a small pile of boulders, head cocked as it regarded her with black eyes.

“Well, yes,” Tegwen nodded to the crow. “Magic can’t just arbitrarily shift the poles. Compasses only change due to spatial distortions, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t wander onto another world.”

The crow fluffed its wings before cawing loudly at her again.

“I’m not in another world, am I…?” Tegwen asked, but the crow, being a crow, remained silent.

Tegwen shook her head. “Nope, still on earth and you’re just a crow. Shoo!”

She shook her walking stick at the crow, which remained where it was. Rolling her eyes, she continued past the crow, climbing the closest hill in order to try and gain a better view of the area, still puzzling over the strange actions of her compass. When she crested the hill, however, she saw that it leveled out into a broad flat plain of knee-high green grass. The sky overhead was a uniform pale grey that caused shadows to vanish.

Spread out before her across the field were dozens to perhaps hundreds of piles of stacked stones, cairns of all shapes and sizes scattered for a kilometer around before her. Between them, rising from the earth, were scores of spears and swords, all of them rusted past the point of usefulness and all of them with their points buried in the earth so that they stood upright among the cairn, many adorned with helms on their shafts and pommels.

The world seemed quiet as Tegwen stepped forward among the cairns, no birds or insects sang despite it being midday, and the wind had died completely where before it had been relatively constant. Almost unconsciously Tegwen pulled her traveling cloak inward around her shoulders as if bundling against an unfelt cold.

A sudden movement caught her eye, and she froze in place as she saw a black shape move among the cairns. She relaxed somewhat when she saw it was another crow, the sizable bird hopping with an inelegant flap atop a close by cairn.

This one did not caw, however, it merely looked at her, head tilting this way and that as if observing her with curiosity. Taking the time to look around, Tegwen realized it wasn’t alone, and that dozens more crows were gathered in the plain around her, all of them sitting on sword crossguards, helmets, or stone piles as they regarded the strange new intruder.

Her sense of disquiet returning, Tegwen hurried forward, hoping to clear this strange and unnerving plain before things got any stranger. Tegwen might have prided herself on her dispassion, curiosity, and fearlessness in the pursuit of knowledge but she was also not a fool. There were countless things in this world she was simply not skilled or powerful enough to deal with. Of course, she wanted to know what was going on here, to find the answers behind her compass and these strange cairns and their corvid guardians, but Tegwen knew best when to let sleeping dragons lie; one thing at a time after all.

She was halfway across when the first sounds came to her ears. They were undoubtedly crows, but unlike the others they had broken the eerie silence and were now making a raucous sort of cacophony nearby. Weighing her fear against her curiosity, Tegwen turned to find the source of the noise and soon caught sight of three crows battling over something atop a stone slab.

Unlike the numerous cairns, the slab was a single massive piece of rock laid long like a fallen standing stone. Atop it, the three crows battled and squawked over an object which glimmered gold even in the pale light. Spotting the shine, her inquisitive mind sent spinning at the sight of it, Tegwen rushed forward to investigate.

“Shoo! Shoo! Get off that!” She shouted, yelling as she swung her heavy walking stick to get the crows to abandon their treasure. The trio cawed at her angrily before settling on nearby stones or debris, watching like the others as Tegwen marveled at the object.

It was a long gleaming rod of gold with a flared head, like a scepter though a more modest one. Picking it up with a gloved hand, Tegwen could tell it really was solid gold. The shaft of the rod was engraved with images of wings and feathers, while the finial at the tip lacked any sign of eagles or a cross, instead holding a fist-sized stone as black and shiny as obsidian wrapped in gold bindings. Still, the thing was no doubt worth a fortune, though Tegwen had little intention of selling it. This was a pristine artifact found within the center of a mysterious and clearly supernatural battlefield graveyard, she couldn’t possibly sell it without examining it first!

It was then that she realized that she had just taken an artifact from the center of a mysterious and clearly supernatural battlefield graveyard. Tegwen stood stock still for a moment before breaking out into a sprint, running as fast as she could towards the edge of the plain and the relative safety of the hills.

All around her the crows had gone from silent to a discordant symphony of angry caws, staring at her with large eyes as they shrieked, all the while the witch-hatted supernaturalist ran with all the speed her legs could muster.

“Nope, nopenopenopenopenopenopenope,” She repeated over and over again as she ran, the scepter still clutched in one hand with her walking stick in the other as she ran.

It only took a minute or so for her to clear the edge of the plain and rush back down the slope into a winding hillscape not unlike what she had been in before, prize still in hand. She only began to slow down, however, after she had rushed another kilometer or so from the plateau, leaving it far behind her.

Her run brought her to a river, and it was at the edge of the water that she finally came to a halt, her breath coming in heavy pants as she bent over, dropping her staff and the scepter as she rested her hands on her knees and took a moment to recover her thoughts.

“My, seems you ran quite a long ways.”

Tegwen’s head flew up as she looked for the source of the voice. Sitting on a stone rising from the water was an intensely beautiful woman. Wait….intensely beautiful? Tegwen checked her brain for a moment to make sure she was still heterosexual. Her mind replied back with a shrug. The woman was certainly not human, even at a glance. Her ears were lightly pointed at the tips, her eyes a bright sea-green, her dress was long and thin and looked to be almost made of drops of crystal water, and her hair was strikingly blue.

“Uuugh”, Tegwen went back to leaning over, still panting from her flight. “Sorry, could you just…give me a minute. That was a hard run. Ergh, thought I was in better shape than this…”

“I erm…” The spirit looked perplexed at her. “H-how about you go back to looking at me?”

“I will, I will, just one minute,” Tegwen said, picking the scepter up off the ground. “I just…whew, probably beat a personal record there. Damn, should’ve timed it…”

“Are you quite done?” The spirit asked.

“Ya, ya good to go,” Tegwen nodded, standing back up straight.

“Then how about we start over” The spirit’s smile grew wide, almost predatory as she set her eyes on Tegwen’s, and instantly she felt a pull like a lure of sensuality tugging the back of her mind.

“Oh, neat,” Tegwen smiled. “This is some kind of mental seduction, right? Like you’re luring me in? That combined with the whole water thing and…oh you’re a Morgen!”

The Morgen blinked, taken aback. “Umm…yes, now if you could go back to being seduced?”

“Oh, don’t worry I’m totally there,” Tegwen said, her hands no longer under her command as she unclasped her cloak. “I just kind of have a multi-track mind so I…heeeey, spirits don’t usually have a no-strings attached seduction thing do they?”

“Umm…yes, we do,” The Morgen nodded hurriedly. “Seriously just come on in, no repercussions.”

“No, no that doesn’t sound right…” Tegwen shook her head, even as she continued to unbutton her shirt. “Wait a minute…Morgens were like sirens! And sirens kill people!”

“No, no! That’s all propaganda, honest,” The Morgen said hurriedly. “Now if you could just get in the water…”

“Mmm…I think…I’m going to have to pass,” Tegwen’s hands froze as she began fortifying her mental resistance.

The Morgen rolled her eyes. “Oh, for the love of…” In one swift motion, she lunged from the water, tackling Tegwen to the ground as her teeth grew sharp and long like a shark’s.

In a panic and only half-thinking, Tegwen held the scepter up to defend herself, holding it sideways in her hand and pressing it to the biting Morgen’s throat to keep her jaws at bay.

“H-hey!” Tegwen shouted, pressing her head to the ground to avoid her lashing jaws. “N-no hurting me! That’s not allowed!”

There was a shift in the air, as if something imperceptible but all-encompassing had suddenly changed, as if the air had changed taste or the weather had shifted in an instant, even though all the world seemed the same.

The Morgen ceased her biting, pulling her head back as she seemed to recoil in sudden pain and horror, flinching as she raised an arm towards Tegwen.

“W-what did you do to me!?” She demanded as Tegwen rose, confused, to her feet.

“Ummm, I didn’t do anything…” Tegwen said before glancing at the scepter in her hands. The black stone at the tip seemed to be shining, though not in any way Tegwen could adequately describe. It was if it was shining black, emitting a kind of shadowy un-light around it, though the effect was fading rapidly. Tegwen took rapid mental notes even as the Morgen cowered in fear.

“But it made you stop,” Tegwen said. “So that kind of works for me.”

“That’s because I can’t hurt you!” The Morgen shouted. “Oh no…do you know what you’ve done!?”

“No, not even a little,” Tegwen shook her head.

“You’ve lain out a geas over me!” She shouted. “H-how did you even manage that!?”

“I guess this helped me do it.” Tegwen said, eyeing the scepter.

“A geas is a taboo of fate itself, you idiot human!”

“Hey, that hurts,” Tegwen said, she liked to think that was pretty bright.

Instantly the Morgen shuddered, as if lashed with pain “Ah! Sorry! I didn’t mean for that! Wh-what I mean to say…is that a geas is like a curse or a doom…it’s a command that can’t be broken governed by the laws of fate…humans aren’t supposed to meddle in that kind of thing…”

“Oh, right,” Tegwen nodded. “Like how Macbeth was fated never to be killed by a ‘man of woman born’, that kind of thing right?”

“I-I guess?” The Morgen said. “I don’t know who Macbeth is. But that sounds right.”

“Well if that’s the case then the geas is…oh, you’re fated never to hurt me now? Neat. Well that fixes my problem.”

“It’s not that simple!” The Morgen objected. “You worded it too broadly! I can’t just not hurt you…I need to do my best not to let other things hurt you!”

“Oh true…” Tegwen nodded. “Hurting by inaction still counts. Wow fate’s a real stickler about the wording…”

“No, you are” Morgen said. “The geas works by your command not fate you…where did you get that thing?”

“Spooky graveyard up the hill,” Tegwen jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Like a kilometer that way.”

“There’s no graveyard over there…”

“That explains a bit,” Tegwen said, checking her compass quickly and seeing it was working again. “Say…what’s your name anyway?”

The Morgen looked at her with a mix of confusion and irritation. “Why do you want to know?”

“Well if you’re unable to let me come to harm, then naturally you’re coming with me, right?” Tegwen asked.

“I…”

“So what’s your name? I’m Tegwen.”

“…Meredydd,” The Morgen said. “That’s my name, Meredydd, A-and who said I was traveling with you?”

“Well I’m not staying here,” Tegwen said as she picked up her walking stick and started to ford the river. “Besides, it’ll be nice to have company on the road. I’m sure you’ll come to like it eventually.”

Meredydd made no move at first, but soon she followed Tegwen into the river, crossing it with the ease of a water spirit.

“So you’re a kind of…explorer?” She asked.

“Of a sort,” Tegwen said. “But it’ll be nice to be traveling as two instead of one.”

A caw behind her made Tegwen flinch, and she looked back to see a trio of crows seated upon the branch of a nearby tree, all three of them with her eyes on her.

“Well…” She said. “Maybe more than two.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Flying Solo

 

While Hildegard, Cat, and Rosa were away on their diplomatic mission, it had fallen to Salvatore to take care of the numerous monstrous threats that still lingered at the wild fringes of Italy. The speed of Pegasus combined with his and Hildegard’s skill as monster slayers meant that they could be wherever they might be needed with great speed and could deal with anything they found there.

This time however Salvatore, or Turi as he preferred to be known, was on his own and keenly aware of it. He kept a tight hold on Pegasus’ reins as the winged horse swooped through the clear Italian sky over forests and low hills. It was a routine mission, he told himself for the hundredth time; it was just an oversized lizard, nothing more, barely even beyond the cacodaemon stage. Rosa, Aurelio, Evangeline, and all the other champions he had met had slain more terrifying monsters than that, and he was champion of Athena, She Who Fights in Front, and he wasn’t allowed to disgrace his patron goddess with cowardice.

The green hills eventually gave way to azure coast, and Turi brought Pegasus low to fly over the narrow strip of sandy beach that divided land and sea. He picked up his spear from where it had been resting on the side of his saddle, keeping its familiar weight in hand as his eyes scanned the short and cave-riddled cliffs that rose here and there along the beachhead. Whatever he was looking for was hiding somewhere out here…

Pegasus’ snorting alerted him before his eyes caught it. He brought Pegasus lower to the ground, great white wingbeats kicking up sand as the horse hovered over the beach before a particularly large cave entrance, the interior filled with impermeable shadow. Turi’s fingers tensed around the spear, working to keep his breathing steady as his heart hammered in his chest.

There’s nothing to be nervous of, he reminded himself. Just because your monster-slaying girlfriend isn’t here doesn’t mean you can’t handle this yourself.

From within the cave something stirred. The first thing he saw were its eyes. Shining yellow that seemed to glow with their own malevolent power. Then more of it appeared, a massive snake-like head ridged with spines and with a cruel mouth filled with sharp fangs. As the long neck slid free from the shadows, the first of four massive clawed feet moved forward into the sunlight.

Soon all of it was visible, a massive serpentine monster looking like an anaconda mixed with some horrible dinosaur, covered in sharp spines and glistening black scales. It had only one long neck, but it was undeniably a hydra.

Turi gulped, glad Hildegard wasn’t there to see how nervous he was, but also wishing she was there to lighten the situation somewhat. He liked to think he was brave, but Hildegard seemed to be fearless. He had asked her before if there was anything she was afraid of. She had told him the three things she was afraid of, and a hydra wasn’t on the list.

The beast was over seven meters long from nose to tail, and powerfully built with a thick body and muscled legs ending in many-fingered hands each tipped in a razor-like claw. It eyed him, head swaying slowly from side to side as its serpent tongue flicked out to taste the air.

Turi rapidly went over everything he knew about hydras. He was smart enough to not try to chop its head off. That couldn’t possibly end well. He’d never fought one with Hilde, but Evangeline said she had fought one once, and had killed it by hurtling a lightning bolt through its chest. Turi, unfortunately, would have to make do with a spear.

He whistled to Pegasus and the great winged horse flapped forward, moving with speed as it rose into the air and began to circle the hydra like a vulture. Turi watched how its head moved, how it kept its gaze fixed on Pegasus as it sluggishly tried to turn along with their great wheeling circles.

That’s good, he thought. Eyes on the horse, not the guy on its back.

Turi had no divine weapons like Aurelio or Rosa, and he didn’t have any supernatural skills like Evangeline or Megame. What Turi had was aptitude, the ability to plan and recover, but more than anything else, he had Pegasus. The horse was as smart as a man and particularly agile. He also had a keen sense for working out Turi’s plans at the same time as his rider, and always knew what his cues and signals meant.

Turi whistled again and down Pegasus dove. The hydra braced itself and pulled its head back before lunging forward to snap at Pegasus with its powerful jaws. The horse, however, remained just out of his reach, and Turi’s spear lashed out to cut a long gash along the Hydra’s flank.

The hydra screamed in pain and Turi felt a rush of success swell through him as Pegasus pulled away. It wasn’t a mortal wound, but it was effective and if he stuck to this plan…

A sizzling sound called his attention, and as he looked at his spear the rush died in his chest as terror filled him. The blade of his spear was gone, and nearly half of the wooden haft was being eaten away by what looked like boiling black acid. Turi threw what remained of his spear away before it could eat any closer to his hand as he swore loudly. He’d forgotten another key weapon of the hydra: Poison blood. He’d thought it meant simply venom, or some kind of contact poison, but it apparently had the strength to melt metal and wood.

He was unarmed save a knife he kept for emergencies. But he wasn’t about to try that against a hydra, particularly considering that a cut with a knife would let the acidic blood spill across his hand.

As his mind raced, Turi thought of the first thing Hildegard had told him she was afraid of: Being unarmed and unable to fight. It had seemed silly at first. Even unarmed, Hildegard was one of the most dangerous people he knew, a master of several brutal martial arts. And he was still far from unarmed. He had Pegasus, and he had his wit. This fight wasn’t over yet.

 

***

 

“Seems your boy is in a little bit of trouble.”

Far away, atop divine Olympos, two goddesses watched Turi and Pegasus battle the hydra through a well of clear water, able to see the events unfurling from hundreds of miles away as it was reflected on the water’s surface. The one who had spoken was tall, fair, blonde, and beautiful beyond measure. Her hair fell in bright golden curls about her shoulders beneath a circlet of gold and above staggeringly green eyes. She was dressed finely in earthy tones of green and brown beneath a cloak of falcon feathers, all embellished with gold finery that paled before the necklace she wore looped around her neck. It was a marvel of jewelry that did not outshine her beauty, but served only to enhance it beyond even divine levels. Wearing it, she went from stunning to a fair rival of Aphrodite herself.

Her counterpart, though lovely as well, was far more conservatively dressed. She wore a long robe of white brought in and clasped by relatively modest adornment and completed by an ornate golden breastplate. On her brow over her light chestnut hair rested a gold helmet that could be brought down over her face at a moment’s notice. Her favored spear and shield rested nearby, always within arm’s reach, and she surveyed Turi’s battle with large silver-grey eyes.

The fearsome grey-eyed goddess was Athena, Turi’s patron, and her guest was from a land far beyond Olympos.

“I did not choose him to be a fighter, Lady Freyja,” Athena said, giving her only a passing glance. “I chose him for his affinity for horses and for his wits. When it comes to problem solving, he will often surprise with his cleverness.”

The smiling blonde goddess, Freyja, smiled as she leaned in closer. “Well then let’s see just how clever he is.”

 

***

Turi had lured the hydra into a forest near the coast, taking it from where its size gave it a natural advantage. He brought Pegasus in low over a clearing and dismounted before sending him back into the air. The forest slowed the hydra but also limited Pegasus’ abilities, but Turi had a plan, one he needed to work quickly to set into motion.

All the while he could hear the hydra rattling through the trees. Branches and narrow trunks snapping beneath its bulk and its powerful legs. A deep resounding hiss echoing from its monstrous lungs. Turi swallowed his fear, ignoring the hammering in his heart as he set off into the woods, gathering what loose dry wood he could pick up off the ground as he ran, looking for a suitable bit of bramble.

He remembered the second thing Hilde had told him she was afraid of. The only monster she feared was not a hydra or a werewolf or even a mighty dragon. What Hildegard feared was a vampire sorceress by the name of Jezerette Al-Sonara, a monster in human skin who had nearly killed Hildegard once when she was sixteen, and a second time earlier this year when a dark contagion she had left behind nearly destroyed Hildegard’s body from the inside out. The thought of a creature like Jezerette, and worse still the lingering fear that the monster might still be alive, had always sent shivers down his spine.

This creature was not Jezerette Al-Sonara; it was a hydra, a kitten in comparison. It didn’t deserve a champion’s fear. That thought kept Turi going as he set about making his trap.

 

***

“Resourceful at the very least,” Frejya smiled as she watched him work. “He clearly has a plan.”

“All good warriors do,” Athena said. “I admire the work Capitolina has done with Ares’ champion, but she’s still a wild fighter, uncontrolled and too bloodthirsty.”

“Can’t say I disapprove of that, though I do disapprove of your other war god,” Freyja said. “I find you far better company, Lady Athena.”

“Likewise,” Athena smiled.

“Mmm, he’s cute too,” Freyja licked her lips hungrily. “Do you think his lover would mind if I-“

“I’d avoid it,” Athena said curtly, doing her best to retain her now somewhat more strained smile. She did honestly like Freyja. The Norse goddess was bold, powerful, and beautiful. Much like herself in many ways. But she was also a goddess of love and sexuality which, given Athena’s own staunch chastity, did leave them occasionally at odds, as accommodating as Athena tried to be.

“As you like,” Freyja sighed, though she quickly gained a mischievous smile. “So when he and this Hildegard girl are together do you ever look in and-“

“A-absolutely not!” Athena cracked at that, even as she knew Freyja was mostly teasing her, leaving her red-faced and irritated. The last time someone had tried to embarrassed Athena like that she had turned them into a spider. Freyja was only lucky she was a goddess, and one Athena needed.

“Naturally, my apologies,” Freyja smiled. “But I am curious what his plan is.”

“I think I know,” Athena said, looking back to the water. “But we will have to see.”

 

***

 

Turi breathed a sigh of relief as he stumbled across a wide briar thicket, a mess of thorns, vines, and brambles that could put a halt to any attempt to traverse it. There was no way a human could move through it, but he could only hope it would slow down a hydra.

Slowly he began to move around it, trying to put the bulk of the thorny brambles between the hydra and himself before dropping the armload of old dead wood he had picked up along the way. As he piled it together, he took one stick and began to bang it loudly against the tree, letting the hollow wooden sound echo outwards.

“Come on!” He shouted into the woods. “Come on, you damned ugly snake!”

He heard a distinctive rumbling hiss and the crashing through the underbrush as the hydra changed course to move towards him. He pulled a small firestarter from his pocket and set to work lighting a fire on the dried wood he had carried. Swearing as the first few flames petered out as soon as they appeared.

The ground shook as they hydra approached, and as he dared a single glance up he could see its great snake head staring at him from across the briar patch. Slowly it took a step into the brambles, gaze never leaving him.

Turi forced his gaze back down as he set to work, trying to control his breathing as it came in short terrified pants. The hydra was only getting closer and his plan was a long shot. It was natural to be terrified, if that hydra got within striking distance then he was without weapons and without Pegasus in these woods.

The earth quaked as the hydra took another step and the firestarter fumbled in his hands.

He took a long breath, remembering Hilde’s presence. Her arms around his waist when they flew together, the feeling of her hands guiding his when they trained. They had been lying together outside under the stars when she had told him the thing that frightened her the most, when she had been perfectly beautiful beneath the moonlight.

“And I suppose…the thing I’m most afraid of,” She’d said. “Well…that’s pretty simple. It’s not being able to protect the people that matter to me. Before Mother, I didn’t have anyone to worry about except myself. But now I have her, I have Cat, and I have you, Turi. I…I guess I’m scared of the thought of losing you, of not being there when you need me.”

Turi had promised her then that she’d never lose him. That he’d always be at her side when they needed one another. He wasn’t about to die out here and let her live through her worst fear. Athena and Hildegard had both come to be such a large part of his life, and he didn’t plan to let either of them down today.

With a plume of orange flame, several of the larger sticks caught fire and Turi grabbed them where he could before tossing them into the thick briar patch, filled with dry thorns and thin leaves. The hydra was almost upon him, but its feet were caught in the groping vines, and it thrashed a bit as it tried to pull itself nearer, ignoring the smoke as it began to rise around it.

There was only one thing left. The thorns wouldn’t hold back a hydra for long, but he had one last trick. A sharp whistle called Pegasus back to the clearing, the winged horse swooping behind the hydra and with several mighty wingbeats it blew a harsh steady wind into the thicket.

The dry vegetation and rushing wind combined to send the flames up into a conflagration, great licking flames soon rising up around the hydra as the monster began to suffocate in the rising pillar of smoke, snapping wildly in the air as Turi ran from the thicket.

 

***

 

Freyja and Athena watched as flames consumed the hydra. Trapped in the thicket and soon caught in the center of a spreading inferno, the monster burned alive as Turi made his quick escape, meeting Pegasus in a clearing before flying to survey the monster’s drawn-out death.

“A very clever boy,” Freyja smiled. “You must be proud.”

“I am…satisfied,” Athena said, though a smile tugged at her lips.

“Well, I have to say you’ve won me over,” Freyja said. “You say you have a more modest champion and yet here he has slain a monster with nothing but his wits. You may consider me fully intrigued in the idea of a champion.”

“I’m glad I could convince you,” Athena said. “They really can make all the difference in…ah, we have company.”

Another goddess entered the chamber. This one was slightly shorter than the others, and though she was often armed and armored she had eschewed them both to meet them, choosing a relatively simply long white dress, though she was always marked by the large white wings which spread from her back, and the golden hair that was bound tight around her head.

“Nike, good of you to join us, and aptly timed,” Athena said before gesturing to Freyja. “Lady Freyja, this is Nike, Lady of Victory. Nike, this is Lady Freyja of the Vanir, from the North.”

“An honor,” Nike bowed her head.

“Likewise, a pleasure,” Freyja returned the gesture.

“I’ve come with a report,” Nike said. “The Roman delegation has defeated the monsters threatening Malcesine. No casualties among the group, though they met a figure that might interest you, Lady Freyja.”

“Thank you, Nike, but you didn’t need to trouble yourself,” Athena said. “We would have seen to it shortly.”

“I was watching on my own,” Nike said. “I must say, I am quite impressed by the girl Hildegard, your champion’s lover, Lady Athena.”

“She is quite impressive,” Athena nodded.

“Is there a reason you chose someone like Salvatore over her?” Nike asked. “She seems an ideal candidate to be a champion.”

“I chose Salvatore for his wits, his aptitude for learning, and his equestrian abilities,” Athena said. “Though Hildegard is quite able, she is not quite as quick-witted, and mages do not always make compatible champions.”

“Hmmm…” Nike nodded but she seemed lost in thought, as if considering other matters.

“Well let’s see to this other battle,” Freyja said. “I’m curious and I do love a proper battle over a monster hunt.”

“Ah, of course,” Nike snapped back to attention. “This you’ll find to be both. Though this figure…Lady Freyja do you know of a mortal named Torleif?”

Freyja paused mid-stride and blinked before breaking out into a spontaneous fit of laughter.

“Is…something funny?” Nike asked Athena, who could only give a confused shrug.

“Oh, Odin, you conniving bastard,” Freyja grinned as she recovered from her laugh. “Just what have you been planning with that girl?”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 22

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it,” Hilde said. “Good plan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Y-ya…” Cat said, still in shock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That one’s with us,” she smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…point taken.” Rosa said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Knights and Monsters

September 25th, 2024

 

The ‘interrogation room’ of the Night Guard headquarters was really more of a lounge that many of the Guard used between shifts. Even now, as the night began to trail on into early morning, a pot of coffee had been started and there was a plate of pastries on the table though no one had deigned to start eating.

There were three people in the room, with two on one side of the table and the third opposite. On the one side was Aurelio, hands folded on the table as he eyed their guest, and at his side was the fox spirit Hachi, who sat quietly with a calm and demure smile on her face. Sitting opposite them was the ‘knight’ from the confrontation with the werewolf. She had willingly doffed most of her armor and was now sitting in her padded gambeson in the room with them.

In the light, and with her armor removed, Aurelio could get a better look at them. She had darker tan skin and possibly bleached blonde hair, amber eyes and a noticeable scar running down her cheek. She was taller than Aurelio and more strongly-built, as he was often seen as lean and somewhat wiry. She kept her arms folded over her chest as her eyes passed back and forth between them, though mostly lingering on Hachi.

“So who exactly are you, Night Guard?” she asked with barely restrained contempt.

“There were a number of pamphlets and bulletins sent out,” Aurelio said. “We’re Rome’s guard against spiritual threats that the city guard and the legions aren’t equipped to deal with.”

“And half of you are…spirits yourselves,” It was clear from her tone that she had been very close to using the word ‘monster’ instead, and her eyes had never left Hachi.

“Well none of us are what could be called ‘fully human’,” Aurelio tried to keep his tone level. “But we all have nothing but Rome’s best interests at heart.”

“And yet you choose to lock up or talk to spirits rather than engage them,” She said, scornfully.

“When it is feasible,” Aurelio said. “When they cannot be reasoned with we answer with force.”

“Well I don’t know how your ‘spirits’ are in Rome, but where I come from, if you don’t hit first and hit hard then you wind up dead.”

“Then it must be unfortunate for you that you’re in Rome now,” Aurelio said, irritation creeping into his voice.

“Let us try to keep this civil,” Hachi said diplomatically. “First of all, we have been quite rude to our guest and failed to introduce ourselves. My name is Hachi.”

“…Captain Aurelio Furlan,” Aurelio said.

“…Kira,” The knight finally said, keeping her arms folded disdainfully.

“Very good, Miss Kira,” Hachi smiled. Aurelio was impressed at how level Hachi could keep her expression, especially considering how most of Kira’s insults had been leveled at her.

“Dame Kira,” Kira shot back scornfully. “Of the Order of the Brass Eagle.”

“Dame Kira, excuse me,” Hachi didn’t miss a beat. “It is obvious that the attitude of spirits and of monsters varies between regions. I have seen proof of this with my own eyes, being as I am from very far away. With that said, I believe that most people in this city would assure you that the spirits present here seek cooperation and coexistence over death and conquest. Our current Pontifex Maximus Nora Newstar, as well as Spiritual Ambassador Megame Kamigawa, are the social and political representatives to the spirits of Rome and they have done tremendous work.”

“If they’re so cooperative, why even have this Night Guard?” Kira asked.

“Earlier this year, from my understanding, the city came under attack by a cruel and merciless Aztec deity that wished to overthrow the city,” Hachi said. “That, coupled with other incidents, showed the need for a specialized task force, one that could deal with spirits on an equal footing, something most humans are incapable of doing.”

“My order is something similar,” Kira said. “Except we didn’t recruit negotiators and ambassadors. We hired monster hunters, trained warriors, and anyone willing to fight and kill for humanity. Spirits only care about one law, the law of the strong over the weak, and no matter how much they dress it up in pretty language I’ve never seen evidence it changes.”

Aurelio glanced at Hachi and the fox woman hadn’t even twitched. Had it been Aurelio he would have visibly bristled at her comments, but Hachi never lost her cool.

“Then I am sorry for the experiences that you have had, Dame Kira,” Hachi said. “But I can assure you that the spirits of Rome wish to live in harmonious balance with their environment, a desire which requires effort both on their part and on the part of the spirits in question. And now, for the benefit of further discussion, I wish to establish the difference between a spirit and a monster.”

“I’ve yet to see the difference, save that some men can be turned into monsters too.”

“Well, it is true that most monsters are spirits and the legions have seen their fair share,” Hachi said. “Manticores, hydras, great lions and boars…there are spirits which have formed for the express purpose of hunting and killing humans. However, this is why we employ expert hunters such as Aurelio and Elisa. We believe in an even-handed approach, seeking diplomatic solutions while also carrying the capacity to respond with force.”

“I didn’t see much of that response when you chose to drag a werewolf back in chains rather than kill the damn thing where it stood!” Kira slammed her fist on the table.

“Leon hadn’t attacked anyone,” Aurelio said. “It was clear he was fleeing, not hunting.”

“So what, are you going to let a dangerous beast just walk!?” Kira demanded.

“No,” Aurelio said. “We don’t know the limitations and dangers of his condition, and he broke the law by not reporting it when he arrived. He will be dealt with as Roman law decides.”

“And how will I be dealt with?” Kira spat. “For trying to protect this city form the monsters it refuses to see in front of its face?”

“Well, thankfully, you didn’t hurt anyone either,” Aurelio said, but a slightly raised hand by Hachi left him silent as she took over again.

“Indeed, you were acting entirely in the way you believed best for protecting this city. Your actions were, perhaps, a bit heavy-handed but you broke no written law as we see it. You will be free to go after this talk is over, though we of course recommend you leave these kinds of matters to the Night Guard and the city guard patrol.”

“If there’s a werewolf on the loose,” Kira said. “I’m not going to standby.”

“I understand,” Hachi nodded, though Aurelio could feel slightly more force in her voice. “However, this city does not abide by vigilantism. If you began hunting spirits outside of self-defense then there would certainly be legal ramifications. What I can recommend for someone of your obvious, skill, and talent, is to seek out legitimate employment with the Legions or even perhaps with the Night Guard itself.”

Both Aurelio and Kira looked at Hachi with incredulous expressions.

“I’m surprised you’d even suggest hiring a full-blooded human,” Kira scoffed. “By the sound of it, that wasn’t in your hiring policy.”

“There is no reason to discriminate,” Hachi said. “You have skills that might prove useful in case there is a violent incident.”

“She might be able to work with Hildegard as well,” Aurelio said. “They do a lot of monster hunting.”

“Our point,” Hachi nodded. “Is that there are a number of excellent options for you that can fully utilize your skills, there is no need to make a vigilante of yourself chasing problems that might not exist.”

“Hmm,” Kira frowned, clearly still unhappy with the stated options, but her arms had moved onto the table. “I will…consider things.”

“That’s all we ask,” Hachi smiled. “We would hate for there to be another incident with a less peaceful resolution.”

After a few more questions regarding her background and her living arrangements Kira was released. Hachi offered to put together the official report to give to the guards, so Aurelio left her to it and soon found himself in the large entrance lobby to the Night Guard Headquarters, though he wasn’t alone for long.

“Make much progress?” Sybilla asked, pressing a mug of coffee into his hand.

“We think she’s cooled off a bit,” Aurelio said. “Guards will probably be keeping an eye on her for a while. Here’s hoping we don’t run into her again mid-chase.”

“Here’s hoping,” Sybilla nodded.

“What about the girl, Serlida?” Aurelio asked. “You and Cade had her, right.”

“She’s fine, sleeping on the second-floor lounge couch,” Sybilla said.

“What’s her story?”

“She’s a mage, as it turns out,” Sybilla said. “Explains the hair if your friend Catarina is anything to go by. She seems honest enough, very concerned for her friend Leon.”

“How does a mage meet a werewolf?”

“They apparently came as part of the same caravan. We’ll have more details when she’s rested in the morning.”

“Odd combination,” Aurelio said. “Elisa keeping a watch on the werewolf until his transformation wears off?”

“So she said,” Sybilla nodded. “This turned into a very interesting night.”

“Well, the night’s almost done,” Aurelio said, sipping the coffee.

Sybilla smoothly sat down on the arm of the chair, leaning on his shoulder. “But after a scarce few hours of daytime it’s night again and we’ll be right back at it.”

“Mmm…” Aurelio nodded but said nothing.

“Something on your mind, hunter?”

“The knight we brought in, Kira,” Aurelio said. “She reminded me a lot of…well, me.”

“Only natural,” Sybilla said. “You were very similar not too long ago.”

“I’m still similar now,” Aurelio said. “We have Hachi and Aelia and others for diplomacy, I’m mostly part of this team to be…well, a monster hunter like Kira.”

“Well of course you are,” Sybilla said. “Is that worrying to you?”

“Well if Elisa hadn’t already been there. I’m not sure if I would have held back an arrow on that werewolf,” Aurelio admitted. “I might have just shot him on the spot to be safe.”

“Mmm,” Sybilla simply leaned on him more. “But that’s not what happened.”

“But it could have happened.”

“Hunter,” Sybilla said, turning to look at him, black hair hanging idly around her shoulders. “You could have killed me dead the second I stepped out of my cell in Rome, or shot me in the Dreaming. You could have killed Mary when we had her captive in a cage. You could have spurned the idea of the Night Guard and insisted on working alone. You could have pushed me away the first night we got close….”

Aurelio felt her thin fingers slide over his chin as she drew his head to face her.

“But you didn’t. Do not waste your time and worry on the things that might or might not have been. Here we are in the now, everyone is safe, you are a respected member of the Night Guard, and you are with me.”

“I suppose,” Aurelio said. “That might be enough for now.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Nighttime Guardians

September 24th, 2024

 

It almost seemed as if the city grew brighter with each passing evening. Every night the safe boundaries of the city would expand, the soft streetlights pushing a little further out into the reclaimed city. When the sun set each night, Rome grew a little less wild. For the people who kept it safe, however, the work never seemed to end.

Aurelio had been on a scouting mission outside the strict city limits chasing down a rogue cacodaemon. After a swift silver arrow had ended its cursed existence he had made a leisurely stroll back towards the city center, taking the time to enjoy the quiet nights outside the bustling city, stopping occasionally to view the overgrown remains of old Rome, his blessed eyes able to pick out the finest details even in the absence of moonlight. He paused idly at the gates of a large estate, reading the name carved into the gatepost.

“Aldobrandini, huh? Wonder if Cat’s related…”

He was pulled from his thoughts by what sounded like a mix of leathery bat wings and flapping fabric. Appearing out of the shadows on the streets was a tall willowy woman with long dark hair, wrapped in the long cloak of a sorceress that stood out against her pale skin.

“You’re out a ways,” She said, gliding over the street pavement to stand beside him, and Aurelio felt her thin arm wrap around his own. “It seemed as if you’d be out till dawn.”

“Just taking my time,” Aurelio shrugged with a smile, not pulling away.

The woman was Sybilla, another member of the Roman “Night Guard” and Aurelio’s…well they hadn’t quite settled into a name for their dynamic, at least Aurelio hadn’t, though his friend Turi was more than eager to refer to her as his girlfriend. Aurelio insisted the truth was more complicated, but Sybilla had never tried to contest it. He knew in the back of his mind that he would have to admit to himself soon that he had at some point gone from hunting Witchbreed to dating one.

“How are the others doing?” Aurelio asked, setting off the street with Sybilla at his side.

“Oh, the usual,” Sybilla said. “Elisa is all business and Mary is there to balance her out.”

“And the new ones?” Aurelio asked. “Cade and… what was her name?”

Sybilla scoffed before shooting him a sly grin. “As if you don’t know. We both know you’re eyes keep going to those fox hips.”

“It’s the tail, honestly,” Said Aurelio, deadpan. “No other reason.”

“A likely story,” Sybilla said. “A shame too, she said she wanted to go on a long patrol with you one night. But if you can’t even recall her name…”

“I highly doubt Hachi said that.”

“So you DO know her name!”

“You know I did.”

“Only because you have a very obvious lustful gaze; it’s unseemly really.”

“And how do you know my ‘lustful gaze’?”

“Oh, I know it very well.”

The banter was frequent between them on patrols. But there was more which attracted Aurelio to her. She was beautiful, but he believed it went deeper than that. She was Witchbreed, a kind of demi-human empowered by the Witch Goddess Huldra. Simply being around her put Aurelio on edge. It heightened his senses and made the world itself seem more vivid. It was like he was a predator and she was prey. When she was near everything seemed that much more intense and lucid. And Aurelio had to admit to himself that not only did he recognize the effect she had on him, he enjoyed it.

To call Sybilla prey though was woefully underestimating her. She had the words ‘dangerous’ practically stamped across her forehead. She was a witch with a fiery tongue and a short fuse, but that happened to work well for both of them.

As the pair of them wandered back towards the city, contemplating where to spend the night as they shot barbs back and forth, both of them paused mid-stride as something hit the edges of their senses.

“You feel that?” Aurelio asked.

“Of course I do.”

In an instant, they had released each other’s’ arms and moved to get ready. Aurelio drew his bow and violet light flashed at the ends of Sybilla’s fingertips. The preparations were unnecessary, however, as another familiar face appeared form the darkness.

Mary. Another member of the Night Guard and another of Aurelio’s former quarries floated down from the trees where she had evidently been searching for them.

“Mary?” Aurelio asked. “You’re supposed to be with Elisa.”

“We have a situation,” Mary said. “All active hands on deck I believe is the phrasing…”

“A bit nautical but close enough,” Sybilla shrugged. “What’s the issue that needs four of us?”

“A creature, we’re not entirely sure what, seems to have absconded with a young woman.”

“A creature?” Aurelio asked. “Not a spirit or monster?”

“We didn’t have many details,” Mary said hurriedly. “It was reported by a bystander who reported a large…well…a large wolf on two legs.”

Sybilla and Aurelio glanced at one another. They were used to spirits like Mary, ghosts like Aelia and Bernadette, intelligent animals like Hachi and the Wolves of Rome, even vampires in the form of their recent benefactor. But this would be a first.

“Mary,” Sybill said slowly. “Is it a werewolf?”

“Elisa suggested that is a possibility,” Mary nodded. “Though she seemed skeptical…is that an odd thing for it to be?”

Mary looked between the two of them, a curious expression on her face.

“Honestly, at this point it really shouldn’t be,” Sybilla sighed. “Come on, we need to move quickly. She held out an arm for Aurelio who took it gingerly. He hated it when Sybilla needed to move quickly.

Sybilla and Mary couldn’t exactly fly like a classic superhero; it was more like a mix between super-jumping and gliding, cloaks spread like the wings of a bat. They weren’t flying that quickly but it was much faster than running on foot.

And Aurelio hated every minute of it.

He was a hunter, he was used to being on the ground and keeping himself balanced. But at times like this, all he could do was cling tightly to Sybilla’s arm as she supported him with magic.

“Oh, come on,” She chastised him as they landed inside the city proper, Aurelio bending over as he put his hands to his knees to support himself. “Don’t be such a child, hunter.”

“Urgh…alright, where are we going?” Aurelio asked. “I need a trail to follow.”

“Elisa followed them north, east of the Vatican and not far from here.”

“Good, I can pick up Elisa’s trail easily enough,” Aurelio said before turning to Sybilla. “And before you say anything, you’re even easier to track.”

Sybilla blinked before shooting him a wry smile, clearly satisfied with that response.

“You seem quite calm,” Mary said as they set off at speed over the city’s rooftops.

“Panic never solved problems,” Aurelio said. “Besides, if the creature kidnapped someone, then it probably doesn’t want to kill and eat them. That means we might have some time, and something to negotiate with.”

“I’m surprised, Hunter,” Sybilla said. “Negotiate? Six months ago you would have shot a beast on sight.”

“And aren’t you happy I changed?” Aurelio asked.

“Oh, very,” Sybilla nodded with a smile. “Though you haven’t changed where it counts.”

Both of them, however, eased on the banter as the chase began in earnest. Aurelio’s heightened senses could find Elisa’s trail made from her footprints, scattered debris, and her distinct scent (Homunculi had a unique but not unpleasant aroma if you were sensitive enough to smell it). Not long after finding her trail, however, Aurelio began seeing the signs of their quarry, and it was unmistakably the scent of a wolf.

“Seems Elisa was on to something but…hold on,” Aurelio quieted as he ran, trying to read the signs of the trail properly. The odd angles of footprints, and the lack of direction in the path all pointed to the wolf-beast fleeing rather than retreating. It wasn’t going to a lair or a hideout, but was running from something, and that something wasn’t Elisa.

“There might be more to this than we thought,” Aurelio said. “Quicken the pace!”

The three of them alighted across rooftops at speed, Sybilla and Mary helping him leap over the wider roads with magic as they kept on the trail. The tracks led them to a more disused part of the city, still inhabited but closer to the border than many found secure. It was more perception than reality, as Cacodaemon attacks within Rome had fallen to almost zero. Now, however, there was a very real monster among them. They tracked the quickening footsteps of the beast and Elisa towards a dark street and into an alley, and there Aurelio confirmed what he had suspected, that Elisa was not the only one hunting the thing.

The sight that greeted them in the alley was almost surreal. It was a dead end, one side still blocked by crumbled debris that littered these parts of the city. The only way out was through the alley entrance or up a fire escape that was five meters off the ground. At the end of the alley, hunkered down low but standing on its hind legs was what could only be described as a massive wolf-man. Its body was covered in matted brown fur, face twisted into a lupine muzzle and snout, and fingers extended into sharp claws. Half-hidden behind the snarling wolf beast was a young woman, maybe fourteen or fifteen, with only a simple cloak pulled around her nightgown and…Aurelio needed to do a double-take, rosey… almost pink hair.

Closer to the entrance of the alley, blocking off the escape of the werewolf, was what could only be described as a medieval knight, dressed in metal plates of armor pulled over a padded gambeson with a longsword and shield tightly in hand. The knight’s head was visible, and while Aurelio couldn’t tell from the angle, she seemed to be not much older than the girl herself. Given her thick armor and short hair, Aurelio could have mistaken her for a young man if it weren’t for her voice.

Between them, sword drawn and standing ready, was Elisa.

“Unhand her, beast!” The knight shouted past Elisa at the werewolf.

“He hasn’t handed me at all!” The girl shouted back. “I’m here by choice!”

“Then get away from it!” She shouted. “That thing could cut your throat in a second!”

“Except he won’t, you idiot!” The girl shouted. “He’s not a monster! He’s just sick.”

“Will you two,” Elisa said, her voice raised even as she kept her usual level tone. “Shut up for just one second while we figure this out?”

“I didn’t know you Romans let monsters walk freely in the streets!” The knight shouted, but before she could react long tendrilous shadows wrapped around her arms and legs, binding her tightly in place as Sybilla came up behind her.

“Just a few,” She said coldly in her ear. “And we don’t take well to being called monsters.”

“What the-…witch!” She shouted.

“Wrong again, only my boyfriend gets to call me that,” Aurelio rolled his eyes, now she was saying it.

Stepping forward, Aurelio drew his bow and aimed an arrow for the werewolf’s chest, addressing the girl this time.

“If he’s not dangerous,” Aurelio said. “Step away from him.”

“Of course he’s dangerous, he’s a mons-“ The knight tried to shout over him but was cut off as another tendril wrapped around her mouth, gagging her.

“Do shut up,” Sybilla said. “We’re talking now. Try to interrupt again and it goes down your throat.”

The girl with the werewolf looked torn, not leaving the beast’s shadow. “If I do…will you hurt him?”

“Not unless he tries to hurt someone else,” Aurelio said. Slowly, hesitantly, the girl stepped away, leaving the beast alone in Aurelio’s sights.

All of his old instincts were still there. He felt his fingers tremble, compelling him to release the arrow and kill the monster then and there. It would be quick and painless, a merciful death.

But Aurelio wasn’t just a hunter anymore. Part of being in the Night Guard and the champion of Diana was knowing what not to hunt.

The werewolf, even as the girl pulled away, did not move, eyeing them all fiercely, claws raised.

“Explain,” Elisa said to the girl. “Who are you and what is happening?”

“My name’s Serlida,” she said. “Part of a group of new arrivals, I’m a mage from Germany. This…” she gestured to the werewolf. “…is Leon, we picked him up a month or two ago.”

“And you knew he was a werewolf and didn’t tell anyone when you entered the city?”

“We thought we could just chain him up or something…” Serlida admitted. “It didn’t really work.”

“Clearly,” Elisa said before turning to the group. “Thanks for coming when you did, Mary, can you look into the werewolf’s mind, see how much of that is true?”

“It’s a bit harder on waking people…” Mary said, stepping into the alley. “But I’ll see what I can do.”

She moved slowly towards the werewolf, all of them watching nervously as she approached. Even as she came within an arm’s reach, however, the werewolf made no move to attack.

“I mean no harm,” Mary said slowly and softly. “I simply need to see that you don’t either.”

Very slowly Mary reached out and placed a hand on the werewolf’s shoulder.

“What are you getting?” Elisa asked

“It’s easier than I expected,” Mary said quietly. “The man sleeps while the wolf is waking…the man is innocent…the wolf is a predator, but it knows it’s in a trap. It’s smart enough not to strike.”

“Good,” said Elisa. “Then we bind him and bring him in.”

“Bring him where?” The girl, Serlida asked. “Who are you people?”

“We’re the Roman Night Guard,” Elisa said. “And we won’t harm Leon, but we’ll need to bring you all in to find out just what is going on.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Slayers of Monsters

September 17th, 2024

 

Torleif hated the long walks most of all. Most of the time she could manage to hitch a ride on a cart or a horse or something. She wasn’t particularly big or heavy and didn’t take up a lot of room, but sometimes you just ran out of options and had to rely on your own two legs. Unfortunately, Torleif’s legs weren’t very long.

For all her power as the Champion of Thor, Torleif was still only twelve, and she got annoyed by how little progress a twelve-year old made on foot. She wasn’t dressed like a normal twelve-year old either, as any semblance of normal children’s clothes had been replaced by undersized armor of hide, mail, and leather. Her bright red hair was kept in a bun at the back of her head, with the loose strands woven idly together into braids. Her gloves were somewhat overlarge and reinforced with steel, giving her hands an oversized and almost clumsy appearance. The same went for her belt, which covered most of her waist. The most notable thing about her, however, was the hammer that she carried at her waist. It wasn’t a workman’s hammer, it was never meant for carpentry or building things. The hammer at her waist was a warhammer, the head a massive block of solid steel emblazoned with a shining Uruz rune. The hammer was a bit short, meaning she could only wield it in one hand, but Torleif kind of preferred it that way.

The hammer had been a gift from her patron, Thor, and Torleif had wielded it with deadly skill for months now. It protected her from bandit and monster alike, and she’d already started to gain a fearsome reputation among the giants and trolls that had started stealing into Midgard, the human world.

Torleif breathed a sigh of relief as she saw civilization ahead. The trees parted to reveal the withered remains of a ruined autobahn, a cracked and crumbling path lined with high grasses and trees and leading off towards a nearby city. With any luck, Torleif thought, the city would be inhabited by people.

Torleif was on a mission, after all. Odin the All-Father had commanded her to seek out both the goddess Freyja and other fearsome warriors like herself. So far Torleif hadn’t found anyone who quite fit the description. She’d met people of course, but Torleif had her standards. All of the people she had come across had needed rescuing, and so far none of them had managed to stand up on their own. Torleif might save a village from a rampaging giant, but no one had stepped forward and offered to help her.

As she stepped onto the old road, her eyes passed over the rusting and half-collapsed sign that gave her a clue to her location. The arrows still pointing off to the distant city read “Barcelona”.

“Barcelona…ah! I know that place!” Torleif had intended to head towards Rome, but her route had been a bit circuitous. She had difficulty traveling in a straight line and couldn’t plan her route very well as the old maps had been made irrelevant. Torleif had needed to rely on the direction of strangers and her own wits.

“I’m in France!”

Geography had never been her strongest subject in school.

 

By the time she was inside the city of Barcelona, the sun had set and the stars were shining overhead from between the roofs of the ruined buildings that rose around her. To her disappointment, the city seemed mostly abandoned. Signs of monster attack and human departure were everywhere, but Torleif pressed on towards the city center. The old cities were massive, and humans usually settled in one small section of them, and even if there were no people she might be able to find somewhere safe to take a brief rest. Torleif might not need to sleep as much as normal people, but she still liked to. She was getting pretty hungry as well.

Her eyes caught the glow of lights ahead of her. Hurrying on down the road, boots clomping over withered asphalt, Torleif saw a wall rise before her. It wasn’t a strong stone wall, but more of a reinforced palisade made of hardy wood and bolted with whatever loose steel and iron they could find. It wasn’t a castle, but it was strong enough to no doubt keep the monsters at bay. Torches had been raised across its length to illuminate the street, and she could see more torches moving around behind the wall through the gaps in the wood.

“Hello!” Torleif called, hands cupped over her mouth as she bellowed at the wall. “Lemme in!”

She heard a number of hurried words behind the wall, and a slot opened in the gate as a pair of beady eyes stared through. The guard glanced this way and that before finally spotting Torleif, no doubt shorter than he’d expected, standing before the gate.

“Who are you?”

“Name’s Torleif, lemme in.”

“We don’t just allow anyone in, you could be a demon in disguise.”

“I’m not a demon, I’m twelve!”

Another guard spoke up behind the wall, speaking to the first.

“Come on, she’s just a kid.”

“She just LOOKS like a kid, she could be anything.”

“Including a kid, are you going to let a twelve-year old starve out there? Or leave her to the monsters?”

The first guard turned back to Torleif.

“How did you even manage to get here? Where are your parents?”

“My parents are dead,” Torleif said plainly. “And I walked here.”

The guards once more began to discuss between themselves as Torleif waited impatiently, fingers twitching as they moved towards her hammer.

“I don’t like it, it’s all kinds of weird.”

“She’s just a kid.”

“Alone? In the middle of the night?”

“What would Wilhelmina do?”

“She told us to sweat anyone who wanted in. She was the one worried about shapeshifters!”

“Ya but…”

Torleif yawned as they went back and forth, eyes wandering around the dark street until something behind her caught her eye. Something big with bright yellow eyes was moving in the shadows. As Torleif looked closer, more than one shape seemed to appear out of the darkness.

“Uh…hello?” She asked as the two guards bickered., but they ignored her.

The sound of large hooves and snorting breath rose behind her, and Torleif’s hand went for her hammer as she shouted.

“Hey!!”

“What!?” the first guard snapped angrily, but as he looked past her, Torleif saw his eyes widen and he fumbled quickly for the lock on the small gate door. As soon as Torleif heard it slide open, she threw herself at the door and ran inside, leaving the guards to lock it behind her as she ran for the town center.

She heard alarm bells begin to ring from the wall behind her as she shouted to anyone who would listen. “Monsters coming! Listen up, there are monsters at the gate!”

Soon Torleif’s small voice was drowned out by the echoing gong of what sounded like church bells. She saw people running out into a square before the steps of an immense cathedral, tall spires rising up into the dark sky as the bells echoed through Barcelona.

The people gathering didn’t look much like warriors. They were clutching spears and wearing whatever makeshift armor they had pulled on in the middle of the night, several were still wearing sleepshirts and nightgowns on underneath. They were talking hurriedly amongst themselves, organizing by some pre-made plan as they spread out among the square, and it took a few moments for any of them to notice Torleif approaching.

“Wha-get out of here!” The first one to spot her shouted. “Didn’t you hear there was a monster attack?”

“Whose kid is that?” Asked another. “Who let them out at night?”

“Hey I-“ Torleif was drowned out again by a thunderous crash behind her. The palisade had been smashed open and the guards fled as what looked at first like horde of demonic bulls rushed the town center. The gathered defenders scattered and Torleif thought, at first, they were just cowards fleeing for their lives, but she soon saw that they were taking up defensive positions around the roads and the cathedral, as if deliberately guiding the rush of bulls into the square.

One of the defenders grabbed her hand and tried to pull her away, but Torleif was neither as light nor as weak as an average girl her age and powerfully yanked her arm free, ignoring the fleeing people and gathering militia to face the oncoming threat.

“Get ready everyone!”

The sound of galloping hooves caught Torleif’s attention, and she swiveled as a tall armored woman astride a horse galloped into the square, sword in hand. Unlike the other defenders, this woman looked like a knight pulled from a storybook, all cloak and silver armor, polished sword in hand. She slid easily from her horse as it stepped into the square, watching the bull monsters approach.

“I want third and fourth up on the left! I want first and fifth on rear! Seventh, second, and sixth are on cathedral! The rest of you are on civilian protection! Guide them to me a-“

Her eyes spotted Torleif standing at the front and widened in alarm. She rushed forward, moving to get between her and the oncoming monsters as she shouted at her.

“What are you doing here! This is no place for a child!”

Torleif had never had a long temper, and her short fuse had finally run out. Thunder rumbled overhead in what had moments before been a clear night sky.

“Stop!” She shouted, shoving her way roughly past the armored woman, hammer in hand.

“Calling! Me!” Her gloved hand tightened around the hilt of her hammer as lightning began to crackle about her body, her hair rising with static as her entire form seemed to bristle with white-hot glowing energy, all focusing down into the steel head of her hammer.

“A CHILD!”

Torleif hurled her warhammer towards the monsters stampeding their way. It flew from her hand leaving a trail of crackling lightning in its wake, and collided with the skull of the lead bull with a sound that could only be described as an echoing thunderclap. The entire front-half of the beast was obliterated in an explosion of pent-up divine energy, leaving the ones behind it stumbling over its fallen body, letting out echoing cacophonic  roars as electricity scorched their black hides.

Torleif held out her hand, and with a metallic rush the hammer returned to her palm. The Uruz rune on the hammer was still glowing with power, and stray flecks of lightning still sparked across her skin and hair. The armored woman stared at her in a mix of confusion in alarm, and Torleif noticed that a silence had fallen upon the defenders.

“My name is Torleif!” She shouted into the empty air. “Champion of Thor! I’m not some lost child! I don’t want your protection! I’m here to kill monsters so either help me or get the hell out of my way!”

Thunder rolled through the sky overhead as if to punctuate the sentence, and for a moment there was only silence in the square as the beasts in the road began to reorient themselves.

“Well then,” the armored woman stepped forward before addressing the other men and women of the militia “You heard the lady! Get to your posts! Now!”

At her command the militia scattered to their posts, the armored woman staying behind at Torleif’s side.

“I don’t need your protection,” Torleif grumbled.

“And we don’t need yours,” The woman said, holding her sword ready.

“You’re still just a normal mortal,” Torleif said. “This is what I was born to do.”

“I would not be so quick to count us out just yet,” Came the woman’s reply, and before Torleif could respond she had rushed forward towards the mass of bulls.

“H-hey wait up!” Torleif shouted, rushing after her.

Torleif still had fairly short legs, so the leader of the militia reached the bull creatures first. She had looked to be the strongest fighter here, but what Torleif saw was well beyond her expectations. The woman moved with a practiced swiftness and ferocity. The only grace in her movements as she went from one creature to the next was in the sheer efficiency with which her sword moved. No action was wasted as the silver blade chopped, hacked, and hewed its ways through the necks of the creatures, her body seemingly untouchable as they attempted to gore her through.

Not about to be outdone, Torleif charged forward, her hammers slamming into the closest monster like the fist of an angry god. She lacked that same precision but made up for it in overwhelming power, a mighty swing from her hammer able to shatter the bodies of these shadowy monsters and lift them off their feet entirely.

The other militia seemed almost unnecessary as Torleif and the woman tore through the ranks of bull monsters, only one or two making it past to meet the spears of the waiting Barcelonians. Soon, all of them lay slaughtered at their feet, leaving Torleif’s armor and hammer, as well as the sword of the woman, dripping with monstrous red blood.

“Are you a champion as well?” Torleif asked, slinging the hammer on her belt. “I’ve never seen a normal person fight like that.”

“Just a champion of this city perhaps,” She said. “I answer to no God but the one true God. But…I would never refuse a little extra help.”

“My name’s Torleif,” She said, smiling brightly. It was always a pleasure meeting another great fighter, champion or not.

“Yes, you made that very clear.” The woman said. “My name is Wilhelmina Koenig. “Although…I have to ask, what is a champion of Thor doing in Spain?”

“Uh…” Torleif’s face reddened in embarrassment. Spain!? “It’s umm…a long story.”

“Well, stay the night,” Wilhelmina said. “I’m sure many here would be glad to hear it. I’m sure you’ve been missing a hot meal and a bed.”

As if on cue, Torleif’s stomach rumbled and she nodded sheepishly. “Sure! Although…there is something I wanna talk to you about.”

“Me?” Wilhelmina asked. “What is it?”

“How much do you know about dragons?”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 8

September 22nd, 2024

The camel had fetched them enough of the local currency to buy a cramped room at an inn in the less affluent part of the city, as well as a little left over. Thankfully neither of them had a pressing need to eat or drink, and the room was mostly there to have a place to meet and occasionally rest. Incredible endurance was a fortunate upside of being not quite human.

A downside however was that Asha had to work constantly to keep a safe distance from the city’s monstrous patrol and make sure her own spiritual essence was subdued. After Leyla’s explanation, Asha was sure that if she called upon enough of her power to make her wings appear, half the monsters in the city would be called down on her.

They had split up in order to explore and learn more about the city and its inhabitants, and Asha had chosen to drop by the local bazaar. The market in this part of the city was indoors, held within a massive open complex where stalls were crammed between pillars, thick rafters and tiled roofs separating them from the blistering sun, with enough openings to fill the area with dim light.

After the empty desert and the confined and quiet nihilism of The Line, a place like the bustling market of Babylon seemed downright alien. Hundreds of people milled about in a tight crowd, people shouting and waving money as merchants sold wares from as far as old Turkey and Egypt. Everything from old human inventions like battery-drained smartphones and laptop charge cords to pieces scavenged from the bodies of beasts. Asha watched from a distance as several men haggled with money worth a hundred camels over what one claimed was a dragon’s tooth with the power to heal any illness. Most people were here for the basics, however, with food and textiles being the biggest sellers by far. Most of the people in Babylon were barely past refugee status after all, and what good was a dragon’s tooth or an old wire to keep you fed?

“Oh Miss! You there! With the lovely blue eyes!” Asha’s attention was grabbed by a nearby jewelry seller. “Sapphires would make those eyes bright as stars I say! And none finer than here! Everyone else in this bazaar sells colored sea glass and old bottles as jewels, but the finest precious stones in Babylon run through my company. We sell to the Beloved Queen herself in fact!”

“Is that right?” Asha smiled as she stepped over, eyes glancing across the gold, silver, and precious stones held under glass in the man’s rather lavish stall.

“Of course! All hand-worked of course, none of that machine-wrought jewelry from the old days.”

“Rather small stall for such an important company.” Asha said, arms folded behind her back.

“We operate out of all the city’s markets! Besides, there’s no need to show off when your name is all you need.”

“Right right…” Asha nodded politely, but as the merchant continued his spiel, her eyes caught movement in the next stall over.

A fruit vendor and a customer were chatting idly over something, from the snippets of conversation she could catch is sounded like there was a bad fig crop this year. But what caught her eye was the young man at the far end of the stall trying to look nonchalant as he pocketed an apple from the pile. Asha found herself about to say something to the stall owner, but taking a second look at the thief she could see how tired and haggard he was, skin stretched across bone and his body lean, clearly on the edge of starvation. While Asha had a strong desire for justice, it was clear the man was starving. A single lost apple wouldn’t kill the seller’s business.

As the thief ran off, an ear-splitting scream echoed through the bazaar, and in an instant Asha saw that she was not the only one who had noticed his act.

A monster leaped from the rafters of the bazaar onto the hapless thief. It had a body like a large cat, but it was hairless and its skin marked with angular stripes like dark tattoos across its taut skin. It had an over-wide jaw lined with teeth and its snout covered in six bulbous eyes. Without hesitation, the beast tore into the thief it had pinned down with long sharp teeth and sickle-like claws as people backed away.

There were a few shouts of surprise and muttered whispers, but what disturbed Asha most of all was the lack of shock from the crowd. Most around seemed bent on ignoring what had happened, looking pointedly away and pretending not to listen as the man screamed until the jaws of the monster silenced him forever.

As the beast feasted, an armored man came running up to it. He was dressed mostly in black and in surprisingly sophisticated gear. While he had a polished silver breastplate, under that he wore the heavy cloth one would expect of an old riot trooper or old world soldier. He had a rifle slung over one shoulder and a sword at his waist. As he hurried to the beast, he slipped a leash around its bloodstained neck as if it were a large dog. On his back, emblazoned in bright white letters was the word: URIEL

Asha’s hand went for her knife as she turned from the confused jewelry seller. It would take only a moment to bring down the monstrous beast and its handler. What had she done over the last few months if not kill the monsters terrorizing humanity?

The creature lifted its head, as if sensing the growing power within Asha. As she began to pull the blade from her waist, however, a hand grabbed her wrist.

Asha whirled around, ready to fight, and came face-to-face with a young man staring at her, brow furrowed and a deathly serious expression on his face.

“Simmer down,” he hissed at her. “Or you’ll just call more down on everyone.”

Asha’s energy began to fade, but as it did she sensed something else in the young man. Her skin burned slightly where he touched it, like the feeling of a blistering sun on bare skin. His eyes had an unnatural silver shine to them, and his face was, Asha had no other way to describe it, impossibly handsome. He was dressed in long robes with a hood drawn up, but beneath the shadows of his hood she could see his smooth thin face and burning eyes over dark skin and smooth chin. In that first moment, Asha wanted to throw herself at him.

A moment later and she had pulled herself back together. “Who are you?” She whispered urgently.

“Not here” he said. “Follow me.”

Quickly he led her away from the bazaar, one hand still on her wrist as he brought her into a dark alley across the road from the complex, glancing this way and that to ensure they weren’t followed.

“That beast just killed a man” Asha said. “And nobody did anything!”

“Because they don’t want to wind up in a monster’s belly either,” He said. “No point stirring the pot if it will get you killed. Theft is a capital crime, like most others.”

“Stealing an apple can get you killed?”

“Stealing anything can get you killed,” the man said. “All coin belongs to the Queen, and all goods are valued by the coin. To steal anything is to steal from the Queen, and that earns you a swift and brutal execution.”

“That’s insanity,” Asha said.

“That’s the law,” The man said. “Not too long ago the punishment for theft was the amputation of a hand.”

“Ya, and that was stopped because it’s barbaric,” Asha said. “We don’t have to go back to that just because we worship old gods.”

“They don’t worship old gods here,” The man said. “They worship the Queen.”

“And who are you?” Asha asked. “Since you clearly don’t count yourself as one of ‘them’.”

“My name is Hazif,” he said. “I’m not exactly a rebel, but I want the Beloved Queen deposed as much as anyone.”

“Well, Hazif, you might not be a rebel but you’re not human either.”

“So you noticed then,” Hazif released her wrist, rubbing his hands together.

“I did,” Asha nodded. “What are you?”

“I’m half…well you could say half-demon,” He said.

“Demon?” Asha asked. “I’ve seen monsters, gods, and spirits of all kinds but none that ever called itself an outright demon. Do you mean a cacodaemon?”

“No, I don’t,” Hazif said, his face set like stone. “My father was an incubus, but my mother was human. That makes me half-incubus and therefore half-demon.”

“Well, that explains some things,” Asha said, still unable to draw her eyes entirely from his face.

“And I can tell you’re more than human, but not in a way I’ve ever seen,” Hazif said. “I take it you’re here to stir up trouble.”

“In one way or another,” Asha nodded.

“Well, I don’t recommend the way you were about to try,” Hazif said scathingly. “That would have gotten you killed.

“I can handle a monster,” Asha scoffed.

“But can you handle three hundred?” Hazif asked. “This city can’t be overthrown by force, at least not by a handful of empowered humans. There are too many monsters and too much collateral damage. Shadiya has had rebels before, and she knows how to deal with them.”

“Then how would you suggest?” Asha asked.

“If I knew how to stage a coup by myself I would have by now,” Hazif snapped. “But I know how to operate in the city. You need to lie low and observe. Just watch from the shadows. If action is a necessity, then it needs to be swift and surgical, not a blunt instrument. Make it so that the monsters and the guards never knew you were there.”

“You can’t overthrow a government like that,” Asha frowned.

“No, but you can survive, and that’s all I’ve managed so far, and if you don’t do that then there will never be change.”

“Are you acting alone?” Asha asked. “Do you have any allies?”

“None,” Hazif said. “They can be a liability if you’re trying to get by.”

“Some rebel you are,” Asha scowled. “But you sound pretty knowledgeable about how power moves in the city.”

“The government keeps its secrets,” Hazif said. “But it can’t keep all of them from me.”

“Then you’re coming with me,” Asha said.

“Where?” Hazif asked suspiciously

“Back to my place, the room I’m sharing with my partner.”

“And why should I do that?”

“Because I’m recruiting you, Hazif,” Asha said. “My name is Asha, and it’s time you learned how to be a proper rebel.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 5

September 20th, 2024

The great walls of Babylon rose out of the earth like a mirage as they approached. All along the sides of the great roads were signs of the prosperity that had been radiating from this new city, pushing back the desert to beyond the Tigris and Euphrates. Large copses of juniper trees dotted the landscape between the richly-cultivated farmland that spread beyond the city for miles, acting as its breadbasket as it drew water seemingly from barren soil.

Throngs of people lined the road that the caravan now found itself on, a far cry from their exhausting journey through the mostly empty desert. The others in the caravan marveled at the number of people and the prosperity of the city, and Asha could not help but be overwhelmed at the largest gathering of humanity she had seen in nearly two years. Leyla, however, kept his silence.

“This is incredible,” Asha said, looking out towards the great city rising on the horizon. Even at this distance they could see the spires rising from behind the high sand-colored walls. “How many people live here?”

“Tens of thousands,” Leyla said. “Maybe a few hundred thousand, it grows every day.”

“It has to be the biggest city in the world,” Asha said. “Not even Rome has that many people.”

“Who knows,” Leyla shrugged.

“You’ve gone quiet,” Asha said, lowering her tone to keep their conversation between them.

“Wouldn’t you?” Leyla asked. “Remember everything I told you about this place. It’s a trap made by Tiamat, the entire place is run by demons.”

“I don’t see any demons,” Asha said, but quickly laughed it off after Leyla’s scowl. “Don’t worry, I know we’re here on a mission, keep your pants on. My point is there are a lot of people here who aren’t demons. We can’t very well just start blowing things up, can we?”

“True…” Leyla admitted. “Most of the people here aren’t evil, they just want what anyone wants. Safety, shelter, protection. It’s a harsh world outside those walls.”

“Well we know it better than most,” Asha nodded. “But I agree there needs to be a change of regime. We can’t just let a Primordial remain in charge of the city, how exactly does she accomplish that anyway? Aren’t primordial huge scary dragon monsters?”

“In a way…” Leyla nodded hesitantly. “I’ve never actually seen a Primordial in the flesh but…Tiamat is a weird case.”

“Weird how?” Asha asked.

“Well, all the other Primordials, like Typhon, Apep, and Nidhoggr, were sealed away by gods or trapped somewhere or something.”

“Ya, so?”

“Well…Tiamat was killed.” Leyla said.

“Wait what?” Asha asked, incredulously.

“Tiamat was slain by the God Marduk,” Leyla said. “But in her dying breath she unleashed monsters upon the world. Her firstborn, the desert dragons, with poison for blood from whom all others sprang. Something evil is lurking in Babylon, and it has Tiamat’s nature but I’m not sure how.”

“Then who runs the city?” Asha asked. “A dragon can’t do it and definitely not a dead one.”

“You’ll see,” Leyla said ruefully, and her tone made Asha’s stomach twist a bit.
Asha turned back towards the caravan, the small group of wanderers on foot and camelback had made for decent company, but they’d mentioned many times that the city gates were where they would part ways.

“Why do you plan to leave?” Asha asked. “The city sounds fairly safe and it’s still a very long way to Mecca.”

“I have heard tales from others, friends and family I trust,” The leader of the convoy, whose name they had learned was Youssef, said “It is said that for our people at least, Allah has left this place.”

“Well that’s…worrying.” Asha said

“If you truly wish to stay here,” he continued. “I can only wish the two of you safety.”

“We’ll manage,” Asha smiled. “I think we both know how well we can take care of ourselves.”

Youssef laughed with them as they drew ever closer to the city. The central promenade towards the grand gates grew broader, a pair of massive stone towers on either side marking the beginning of the vest Babylonian gate complex. High walls now flanked the roads, beginning at the towers and leading back to the city gates. Along these walls a small community in and of itself had sprung up. Merchants peddled their wares to travelers and farmers, while bartering and trade had become the new standard and they had gotten used to it over the past few months, Asha was surprised to see coins trading hands at some places.

“Seems there’s a coin economy as well,” Asha noted to Leyla.

“Within the city, yes,” Leyla nodded. “I’ve seen them here and there across the desert. But a coin is only as strong as the military backing it. Beyond the city gates it loses value pretty quickly.”

“Well, I’m more interested in how exactly we plan to find a place to sleep,” Asha said flatly.

“Ah,” Leyla’s face went blank, but Asha could see his cheeks redden with embarrassment.

“Well that’s umm…”

Leyla received a sudden clap on the back from one of the caravan goers, who handed him the reins to one of their camels.

“Here,” The Youssef said. “With Ahmed’s passing in the desert we have one more camel than we need. Take it, sell it, and find what fortune you may in this city.”

Both Leyla and Asha were sent into stunned silence before hurriedly bowing in thanks. The camel would have been invaluable to Youssef and his travelers. Even without a rider it was an immense asset to them.

“You saved our lives in the desert, and that is something we shall never forget,” Youssef said. “I only hope that this can begin to repay that debt.”

“You honor us with your generosity,” Leyla said. “We’ll make sure it isn’t wasted.”

“Is this where we part ways?” Asha asked, and Youssef nodded.

“We will be acquiring supplies from these traders, but if you plan to enter the city then this is where we part. It has been an honor and a pleasure to know you both.”

“The honor is ours,” Asha said. “Stay safe in the desert.”

With their last parting words the caravan dispersed into the crowd behind them as Asha and Leyla continued on foot into the great city, now trailing a camel behind them.

The crowd grew denser as they drew towards the massive gates of the city. The gate, styled after the ancient Ishtar gate, was covered in a mosaic of tiles made from semi-precious stones and embellished with the images of tall wingless dragons. The open gates were flanked by armed guards, most carrying spears and swords, though dressed in armored uniforms and with clear authoritarian vibes. This was not a collection of survivors and refugees banding together for mutual success, this was a city-state with power behind its walls. There was no gate checking or stop for them as they passed through the open gates and into the city.

“No check at the gate?” Asha asked. “Seems trusting”

“How would you check identification in this day and age?” Leyla asked. “Show them your passport? Besides, they’re not afraid of what we could do.”

“Why not?” Asha asked. “Not all the guards in this city are human.”

Asha was about to comment, but before she could her eyes met the cityscape beyond the gates, and her jaw all but dropped in shock at the spectacle.

She had expected the city interior to match its more ancient gate and walls with collections of mud-brick houses. And she had been half-right. While the city maintained an aesthetic of ancient prosperity and segmented pyramidal architecture, it did so with a decidedly modern flare. Buildings rose several stories all around them, though leaving the great promenades wide enough to let the sun shine down. Great trees of cypress and juniper rose among them, casting green among the painted white walls. Windows were filled with glass, and numerous glass-plated structures built like greenhouse gardens and conservatories rose all around them from between and atop buildings, catching the light of the sun like golden capstones.

Among even the taller buildings, great spires rose into the sky, many of them with their crowns adorned with metal like satellite arrays, though Asha could only guess at what they were capturing now. From the walls of these towers and spires, as well as painted her and there along every street and building, was the same vaunted image of a beautiful woman, the paintings and posters capturing sublime beauty and benevolent expression. She was ageless, both youthful and mature, and her dark skin contrasted against her pale silver hair and violet eyes.

“Is that the Queen or something?” Asha asked.

“Shadiya, the Beloved Queen,” Leyla said with no small amount of contempt. “She’s the de-facto dictator of Babylon.”

“So she’s the dragon at the top of the pyramid?” Asha asked. “Our direct line to Tiamat?”

“Almost definitely,” Leyla said. “In this city everyone thinks of her as flawless, as a blessed protector of the downtrodden and the weak. But I can almost smell the evil wafting off of her very image, in truth she’s something else entirely.”

“And what’s that?” Asha asked. “Is she some kind of demon?”

“Worse,” Leyla said. “You know all those monsters we’ve been meeting? The malformed ones that didn’t come from natural cacodaemons?”

“Ya, like the one we saved Youssef’s people from.”

Leyla pointed to the closest portrait of Shadiya. “You’re looking at their mother.”

Asha stared in silence for a moment. “You’re kidding.”

“No, I’m…why would I kid about something like that!?”

“I mean…look at her. We fought what looked like a yeti mixed with a deformed bear…this woman is…well I like to think of myself as straight but…”

Leyla slapped his palm over his face. “Did you ever consider that the devil might have a pretty face?”

“Look I get that she’s evil and probably working for dragons,” Asha said quickly. “but you’re telling me that a woman who looks like THAT gave birth to…whatever the hell it was we fought in the desert?”

“Ya, that’s what I’m telling you,” Leyla said emphatically, rolling his eyes as he continued to lead the horse.

“Damn…what the hell is their Dad, some kind of pig…bear…topus?”

“Probably humans,” Leyla said. “Willingly or otherwise.”

“Wow…those genetics just don’t make any sense. How do two humans lead to…something like that?”

“You’re assuming Shadiya is human,” Leyla said. “Those pictures tend to leave out her wings…and horns…”

“Oh, let me guess, she has a tail and cloven hooves to?” Asha asked.

“Well…not hooves as far as I know.”

“Okay now you’re just screwing with me.”

“I’m not!” Leyla insisted. “I’m…heads up, look out!”

Hurriedly he took hold of Asha and pulled her off the promenade and into a side street.

“Huh? What are we hiding from?” Asha asked, her hands curling instinctively as she breathed in power.

“No no, stop that! Dim the lights, spirit girl,” Leyla insisted, pushing his hands over her chest as if trying to put out a fire.

“Oi, paws off,” Asha slapped his hands aside, even as she suppressed her divine energy. “Girl’s mind or not.”

“Ya, well we want to keep a low profile.” Leyla said, and as he did Asha could see that the light of the sacred fire had dimmed behind his eyes. “Especially with that walking around.”

Leyla was watching something over Asha’s shoulder back towards the Promenade, and Asha turned to see what it was almost to barely avoid shouting in surprise.
Patrolling the length of the promenade was a contingent of armored guards, but traveling among them was a massive…well Asha would have called it a minotaur, but it had the head of an auroch rather than a normal bull, and cloven hooves for feet. It too was dressed in armor matching that of the guards around it, and carried an enormous spear in hand.

“Well…” Asha said, “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

“I didn’t think they actually had monsters patrolling the city…” Leyla said. “Damn…”

“Worse than you thought?” Asha asked.

“Probably a lot worse,” Leyla nodded. “Seems we have our work cut out for us.”

When the patrol had passed the two of them moved back onto the promenade, warily looking around as they walked into the city as if unsure of just what else Babylon had to offer.

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 2

September 14th, 2024

“Aaah that feels amazing” Asha said as she felt the cool water pour from her cupped hands and spill over her face and down her neck. After days under the blistering hot sun and wind like furnace bellows, the feeling of even lukewarm water against her skin was positively heavenly.

Leyla didn’t respond immediately, too busy drinking water noisily from between his cupped hands, gulping down large mouthfuls at a time.

“Hey not too fast there.” Asha said “Drink a little and often, we’ll camp here for the night.”

The pair of them had arrived in a small oasis in what had once been called Iraq, and was now merely a part of what people were calling the Great Levantine Desert, as most arable land was stricken with harsh drought and an influx of sand. After days alone in the desert, the shade and water provided by the small oasis was like a spot of heaven to the weary travelers.

“I thought you didn’t need to drink” Leyla said, finally finishing his water “Being dead and all.”

“I’m only…mostly dead you could say” Asha said “I was sent back, along with my Fravashi.”

“And you’re more talkative than she was” Leyla said “I kind of like it.”

“Well that’s because you only knew part of me, I guess.” Asha said “Good to know I’m not a pest.”

“Well you will be if you keep drinking all the water, ghost girl” Leyla smiled “Leave us for some living folk.”

“I thought you were fused with a fire spirit or something” Asha said “water is bad for fire”

“Ya but it’s good for me” Leyla said, taking a long drink.

Though not in appearance, they were perhaps the oddest pair in the desert. Asha was a young Persian woman with deep tan skin and short curly black hair tied back out of her face. She was dressed in a mix of faded desert fatigues and a few padded pieces of leather over her chest, shoulders, and wrists worn under a long hooded coat. There were no apparent signs of her more supernatural nature, save for her eyes which were a brilliant sky-blue.

Leyla was similarly dressed for travel, with thick boots and durable clothing under a long loose travelling cloak, his head wrapped in a long scarf to keep out the wind and sun. Though he had the face and frame of a handsome young man, and Asha referred to him as ‘he’, the peculiarities of Leyla were entirely internal. Leyla’s body was home to three distinct spirits, that of Derya, the young man who was the body’s original owner; his younger sister Leyla who was it’s current ‘pilot’, the one in control of his body, power, and tongue, and an unnamed fire spirit of particularly potent power. The nature of the incident that brought these three into one body was still something Leyla hadn’t decided to share.

After a brief period of confusion, Asha was quick to learn not to ask too many questions about it, and had adjusted quite easily. After all, there were many other things in the desert that demanded her attention.

“How far are we form Babylon?” Asha asked as she laid out her pack alongside Leyla’s. Leyla sat next to his heavy pack and sorted through it before eventually withdrawing a map. It was dated 2019, and was covered in scrawled notes that Leyla had made himself regarding adjustments and new locations. Most of the cities on the map didn’t exist anymore, and there was a staggering number of red “X’s written across what had once been cities and towns bustling with life.

“Well Babylon is right where it’s always been” Leyla pointed to a mark on the map “A bit south of Baghdad near Hillah. As for where we are…”

Asha watched his finger trace southwest “…here, near Zahwah.”

“That’s a lot of desert in every direction” Asha said “Is there anything between us and them?”

“The Euphrates” Leyla said “So we need to cross desert, then river, then we’ll hopefully be back in more fertile land.”

“What are the odds of another oasis?”

“Slim to none” Lela smiled wryly “So don’t get on my case about water.”

“We’ll have to pack light then” Asha said “And most of the weight needs to be water. Kind of wish we’d picked up those camels in Tabarjal”

“Screw the camels” Leyla snorted “They were bad tempered and weak, they would have been dead long before we reached here.”

“Maybe, but then we would have only had to lug our stuff halfway here.” Asha said.

“You’re the one carrying a ten kilo book over your shoulder.”

Leyla said.

“Okay first of all” Asha raised a pointed finger “It’s not nearly ten kilos, it’s magic, remember? Secondly there is no way I am giving up that book.”

“I’m just teasing ya, don’t get all in a twist” Leyla said “I know that’s how you chat with your girlfriend.”

Asha rolled her eyes “Not my girlfriend but ya, it’s the only way to keep in touch with Cat. If it weren’t for her I wouldn’t be here.”

Leyla nodded and looked like he was about to speak before he suddenly froze up. Asha had come to recognize that bit of body language as Derya’s spirit passing some information along to Leyla inside their collective mind. The way Leyla described it, it was like having two separate trains of thought, one always in the background until it suddenly shunted onto the main track to take over.

“What is it?” Asha asked, suddenly alert. Usually fi Derya had something to say it wasn’t good news.

“Others are coming” Leyla said “We’re not about to be alone very long.”

In an instant Asha was on her feet. “How many? Are they friendly?”

“A number of them, Leyla said, standing more slowly” They’re on camel-back and…they’re being chased.

Asha breathed in, her mind searching deep within herself for power as she called upon the spiritual energy of the Fravashi, the guardian spirit that had fused itself with her. In her empty hands formed a pair of long curved knives. The shape didn’t matter, knife, sword, bow, Asha could use most of them with impressive effectiveness. Being dead, it turned out, had given her a number of opportunities to gain new career skills.

Leyla in turn drew a long curved shamshir sword from his waist, and together the two of them hurried to the edge of the oasis. The oasis itself was little more than a few copses of trees around the water pools protected on one side by a short rocky cliff that kept the dunes at bay. So as the two went to the side opening out into the desert, they could see for miles across the arid sandy landscape.

Ahead of them, about half a kilometer out, were the dark shapes of a hurrying camel caravan, about twelve beasts in a rushed line that were kicking up dust and sand as they made a mad dash to the oasis. Behind them, a dark blot against the pale sand and blue sky, was a monstrous lurching shape.

“Could you use a bow?” Leyla asked, one hand shading his eyes as he looked out at the group.

“They’re between it and us” Asha said “It’d be a risky shot unless I went around the long way, and there’s not much time.”

“Then let’s go out and meet them.” Leyla said, and with that the pair of them ran out at breakneck speed to meet the fleeing caravan and the monster on their tail.

The distance between them evaporated in seconds, and Asha could see the monster come into clearer focus. It lacked the defined shape and terrifying proportions of a proper mythological monster, it was instead a different sort of beast. It was a massive asymmetrical thing, looking like a cross between a bear and a gorilla with small legs and a grossly oversized right arm. It ran on all fours, hands and knuckles slamming the sand in great swinging lunges as it tried to catch the caravan. The head was like a jackal’s, maw open to reveal sharp white teeth as it let out its mad baying.

They passed on either side of the caravan, letting them towards the oasis as the stunned sun-scarred faces stared in amazement at the pair that ran out to meet the monster. As they came into range, the beast seemed to prefer keeping its chase on the bigger prey, and Leyla was there first to exploit its lack of attention. With a swing of his curved sword the beast stumbled and rolled over itself as most of its leg was severed, leaving behind the smell of scorched hair and burning flesh as the blade’s edged dance with sacred firelight. It let out a high-pitched doglike whine as it swung its massive arm at Leyla, who threw himself to the sand as the the bulk of muscle ripped through the air like a wrecking ball. However, doing so left its back open and exposed, and Asha made a running start before leaping towards it from behind. Feeling the rush of energy again, a pair of brilliant wings, feathers a blazing blue and gold, sprouted from her back in a burst of light, giving her enough lift to run up the monster’s back and broad shoulders, feet kicking off the fur as she brought both knives down on its neck, burying the white blades into its unprotected hide.

The scream this time was more subdued, and it faded rapidly as dark blood burst from its wounds, covering Asha’s hands where the divine energy coursing through her veins caused it to boil away. The beast made one last lurching stumble before it fell, lifeless, to the ground to rest in a crater of dusty sand.

“Well done” Leyla smiled, turning to Asha as her wings vanished as easily as they had appeared. “Derya agrees. He thinks you’re learning to use that power quicker than he expected.”

“Well, you kind of need to be a quick learner out here” Asha smiled. “I might be dead but I’m not a ghost anymore, not sure how easily something out here could kill me, so I’m not about to give it a chance.”

“Smart thinking” Leyla nodded before turning back to the oasis. “Now let’s check in on them before they drink all our water.”

Asha smiled as the two of them returned to the shade of the trees, where the caravan riders had dismounted as their camels moved to the closest water pool.

It was a mixed group of men, women, and a few children consisting of predominantly older men. They were muttering rapidly to each other and making glances to the pair of them. As soon as they got close, however, the group moved forward to meet them, inclining their heads and thanking them rapidly, a few muttering prayers to God for sending rescuers.

“Ah it’s our pleasure really” Asha said rapidly, nodding her head and shaking hands before she noticed a few men taking a curious look at her back. “A-and before you ask I assure you we’re not angels! Just…talented.”

There were a few laughs as the group moved back into the shade of the trees, and soon the caravan group had unpacked their saddlebags and begun laying out food for all of them. Judging by the lean looks of the camels and the riders this was likely some of the last of their food, so Asha abstained as much as she could while maintaining politeness as the group settled in near the water’s edge.

“Angels or not, you are our rescuers.” One man, likely the leader by his age and dress, spoke up. Though he was the oldest he hardly looked past forty, with only a twinge of grey in his beard, but his eyes were deeply set and his hands withered from effort and the sun. But when he took Leyla’s hand in greeting she could see the strength in his fingers.

The group was predominantly Muslim, judging by their prayers and their greetings, so Asha wasn’t surprised when they didn’t offer to shake her hand as well, but was silently amused at their ignorance of Leyla being a woman’s spirit inhabiting her brother’s body.

“As such” The man continued “I insist that you partake in all we have, for without you we would surely have been killed.”

“Thank you” Leyla said “But we don’t need much, though we’re curious where it is you’re going.”

“Most of us to Mecca, if we can get across this Allah-forsaken desert.” The elder said “It is late in the season for the Hajj, but even if it were winter we would be going. The safe lands for the Prophet’s children grow smaller every day.”

“Of course” Asha said, drawing eyes her way “We’ve seen a number of Muslims heading south, but you’re a far way off the roads.”

“We had hoped for a brief respite outside Babylon” The elder said “Though we dare not enter the city, we cannot reach Mecca without food and supplies.”

“Well if you don’t mind a few extra feet” Leyla smiled “We could offer a few extra hands.” Seems fate drew us together, since we’re on the same road.”

“Nothing would set our minds more at ease than able-bodied protectors” The Elder smiled “You may join us as long as it suits you.”

“Well then” Leyla smiled “Babylon it is then.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa