The Snake and the Mirror

Prologue

 

The sounds of battle grew closer every day. The drumbeat of marching feet, the echoing clatter of steel, and the high chorus of death-shrieks and battle-roars had echoed across the hills and grown louder and louder as fields were turned to churned mud and forests were reduced to ash. The battle had been fought for years as the wounded and the dead rose each night, picked up their weapons, and charged out once more to meet their foes the next morning. But all the courage in the world could not shift back the tide of this war. In a world above the world, the great gods of the North were losing the battle for their home.

Odin, the All-Father, the Deceiver, the God of the Hanged, rose from his throne in the great hall of Valhalla as the sounds of coming battle rang in his ears. The time for thought had come and gone, the time for action had come. In an age past Odin had been granted visions of the future, and he had seen the death of the gods, of his people, of his world, and time had made his visions reality. Odin had watched all the realms consumed by fire, water, and darkness before the great jaws of a wolf consumed him to. Now Odin, all his kin, and all his enemies had been reborn afresh into a new Asgard, with a new Midgard, and a new future.

And it was happening all over again.

Dressed humbly as he was in a long grey cloak, a walking staff in hand and a broad-brimmed hat over his eye, the tired grey god walked through the empty halls to his chambers, hidden away deep beneath the lofty hall of Valhalla. There was no one to stop or to question him, for they were all on the battlefield fighting for their lives and for their future against a sea of foes.

Within his sanctum, upon a table, rested Odin’s last confidant. Stooped in the shoulder and hidden beneath his own shadow, Odin inclined his head to greet the pale and emaciated head of a man, long since severed from its shoulders.

“The day is grim, Mimir” Odin said. “And it is dark”

“And it will grow dimmer and darker still, Father of Hosts” The severed head spoke back to him with a shriveled voice through decaying lips.

“Has it come again already?” Odin asked “Is Ragnarok upon us as it was before?”

The muscles of Mimir’s face twisted into what it could manage of a smile “Many times you have asked me, Odin, and every time I have answered the same: Only the Norns know fully how the cycle will pass, they let you be privy to their plans last time, but Urd contents herself with creating order, Verdandi chooses to weave her spider threads about us in silence, and Skuld keeps her darkest secrets tightly hidden.”

Odin could not help but feel a dark smile creep across his own face “Fate will not be kind to us, it seems.”

“Kindness is rarely the method of fate” Mimir said “But you would resent it if it were.”

“Aye, that I would.” Odin gave a tired sigh as he took a seat beside the table, placing his hat idly on Mimir’s head “Greatness rarely springs from kindness. Only in the heat of fire and under the hammer’s blow can good steel be made.”

“I cannot say what will be, All-Father” Mimir said “But ask me what is and I shall tell all I know.”

“How bleak are the signs?” Odin asked “How much time do we have before the serpent buries this world?”

“Bleak” Mimir said “Loki and Surtr have thrown in their lot with Nidhoggr.”

“As I knew they would.”

“As you knew they would” Mimir made his best approximation of a nod. “Fenrir is still bound, but his gnawing grows more pronounced each day. The Midgard serpent is unbound but seems…slothful. Its allegiance lies nowhere.”

“So my son has told me” Odin said, recalling Thor’s excited and half-drunk telling of his adventures down the river between worlds. “How is Midgard?”

“In no fit state to fight that I have seen.” Mimir said “But it has only felt the beginnings of the Primordial’s assault. Nidhoggr seeks to conquer Asgard before the wretched serpent will set all its power against Man’s Earth.”

“If Asgard falls” Odin said “if the Naglfar reaches the northern seas and Surtr strides across the lands of Midgard, then no amount of human heroism will save them from the end of days.”

“Do you think the humans have no hope?” Mimir asked, and at this the One-Eyed god’s smile grew a little broader. “Do you think they are too weak to fight?”

“On the contrary, Mimir, I think the world of the stupid little apes.”

Odin rose once more to his feet, he had spent enough time worrying and talking to a severed head. As he did, the grubby grey cloak feel away, replaced by a long cloak of dark grey wolf fur with a mantle worn over armor woven from thick gold rings. In his hand was no longer a walking staff, but a tall spear with a wicked edge and a haft blackened by fire and ablaze with shining runes. He drew the hat off of Mimir’s crown, but when he placed it on his brow it had become a great helm of gold that did not disguise his face or missing eye.

“They are a troublesome and irritating race with a penchant for discord and dishonor” Odin said “Though the same can be said of we Aesir. They are dumber than us, weaker, and more short-lived. They cannot see far past their own eyes, nor travel further than their own feet, but there is more to them than driftwood.”

“In a rare few perhaps”

“In those rare few, but they number many now, and those rare few are like fire. Where they burn, their fire spreads to others.”

Odin began to walk, steady on his feet and shoulders up, back into the hall.

“They are cowards, and they are heroes. They are criminals and they are paragons. Ten thousand contradictions in a single ugly race, but with a little pushing and molding they can be as mighty as the gods.”

“Let us hope then” Mimir gave his parting words “That they can be dragonslayers too.”

Odin walked with calm and steady footsteps back up to the great hall of Valhalla, and once more the echoing sounds of battle rang in his ears. How long could they hold this hall? A month? A week? Days? The Norns taunted him with their silence, and while Odin the Wise knew most things, he did not know it all. He relied on an old trick even more ancient than he was: Always pretend to know more than you do, more often than not people will believe you.

With a thought he called his ravens to him. Huginn and Muninn took their places on his shoulders, the great black-feathered birds looking into his single eye awaiting his instructions.

“I have a message for you two to deliver.” He said, and he whispered so that only they could hear it.

“Now begone! Get it delivered at all the speed your paltry wings can muster.”

With a squawking caw the ravens were away, dark wings carrying his words away from Asgard, leaving Odin alone with a crooked smile on his face. With nothing left to say and no one left to say it to, Odin strode out of the hall to join the din of battle.

It was night in Asgard, as it had been for weeks. After the first few days of darkness the stars and moon had blackened, but now a new aurora was cast across the heavens as great shards of multi-colored light danced and twinkled in their place. The ruined remains of the bifrost had been thrown across the sky after the shattering of the rainbow bridge, and now its ruined remains twinkled overhead.

Ahead of him Odin could see the battle lines, glowing with fire as the giants, the dragons, and the hordes of the honorless dead clashed with his Einherjar. Odin drew in a deep breath, and his nose filled with the scents of blood, filth, and carnage that could only come from battle. The ravens were already circling in their wide arc, keeping their distance until it was safe to come to feast.

He was disrupted from his reverie by the sounds of galloping hooves as a line of mounted warriors came to greet him. All the riders were women, all of them trained, battle-hardened, and beautiful, and as they rode to him many more came down from above, supported on their own great wings. The lead rider had, clutched in her hand, the reins of his own massive steed, the eight-legged Sleipnir, which dwarfed all other horses as he did all other men when he rode into battle.

“All-Father” the lead Valkyrie bowed her head as she handed him the reins “You’ll join the battle today?”

“I figured it was about time.” Odin shrugged as he mounted his horse, and he could feel the excitement brewing among the valkyries as he did. “It can never be said that I run from battle.”

“None would even think it, All-Father.” The lead Valkyrie bowed once more as the line fell in behind him.

Odin turned Sleipnir to face the battle line, even from this distance, his one remaining eye could see the fighting and the carnage as if it was happening at his feet, and soon enough it would be.

Odin, God of the Spear, God of War, and Lord of Lords, would ride to battle this day in command of his many Valkyries and his countless einherjar. As he had before, so it would be again.

 

A world away, on Midgard or as the humans called it Earth, a young girl had hitched a ride on the back of a traveler’s wagon. It wasn’t safe, the kindly man had said, traveling alone form one town to another, not with the world in the state it was. She had agreed, smiled, and let him cart her to the next town on her journey south, and she had let him remain blissfully unaware of just how rightly unafraid she was.

Her name was Torleif, and sitting beside her on the wagon, always within reach of her thick leather gloves, was a mighty hammer gifted by the god of Thunder, Thor.

“How long’s the trip, old man?” She called forward, legs swinging off the back. She had ridden up front with him for a while, but she had a child’s restlessness, and liked to move around.

“Still the better part of the day” he called back, somewhat gruffly as he repeated himself “But we’ll be there before nightfall, no reason to fret.”

Torleif lied back down in the cart, blue eyes staring upwards into the great empty sky. As she stared, a pair of dots appeared high overhead, appearing at first like her distant memories of jet planes, but these grew larger and larger still.

Soon she could see the shape of two large black birds descending in a slow spiral towards their cart. She considered taking hold of her hammer, but she could sense no danger from these birds. The ravens weren’t threatening, and in fact she felt slightly calmed by their presence. So instead she merely sat up in the cart to watch as the ravens perched gently on the sides, watching her through beady black eyes, unbeknownst to the old man who merely continued driving his cart.

One of them opened its mouth, and when it spoke it did so with a man’s voice, a god’s voice.

“Torleif” Came the voice of Odin the All-Father, though she did not know it by sound “Wielder of the Thunder and Champion of Asgard, listen well because this may be the last message you receive.”

Torleif straightened up, listening intently to the words of the raven and paying mind to every word.

“Asgard is fallen for all intents. The Aesir and the Vanir shall hold Valhalla for as long as we can, but when the hall falls and we are forced from Asgard, the Dragon of Yggdrassil shall set its sights upon your world, and by then it may be too late.”

Torleif bit her lip, hands curling into fists as she listened.

“Your only hope is to challenge Nidhoggr on Midgard, to make the dragon face you on human terms. On Midgard, a human can succeed where even the gods have failed, but you cannot do this task alone.”

Torleif had already grabbed her hammer, ready to leap off the cart and run towards Nidhoggr at his word, but now she paused.

“Seek out Freyja, the only one of our kind outside of Asgard who has not returned to fight. Find where she is and what she has been doing. More than that, however, you must seek out more like you. Find the champions and the heroes, the warriors both nearby and foreign-born with fire in their souls. You cannot slay this dragon alone, Torleif, but if you heed these words, find Freyja, and follow my signs, then you can begin to stack the odds in humanity’s favor. Follow the roads, for all roads lead to your destination.”

With that final riddle, the raven closed its beak, and it and its partner, the silent one, both flew back into the air.

Torleif frowned, she didn’t have patience for riddles, particularly when the topic sounded so dire.

“Hey old man!” She called forward again.

“Not polite to call people old, young lady” The man said gruffly “True as it may be.”

“Where do all roads lead?” Torleif asked, ignoring him.

“Well, no one place really…” he trailed off “Though there’s this old saying..”

“What old saying?”

“All roads lead to Rome.”

 

Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Where All Roads Lead

Prologue

May 1st, 2024

The city was a ruin, what wasn’t buried in sand was scored and blistered by the hot and biting wind. Here, among old brick buildings, the skeletal steel of more recent constructions, and the shattered palisades of the fallen sanctuary, a single figure still walked among the dead.

Almost nothing remained of the seven hundred and fifty three citizens that had tried to find a new life in the city of Algiers, the last survivors of the old city from the Days of Revelations, now almost two years past. All that was left of them behind their fallen walls and defensive lines were skeletons too-soon bleached by the sun and picked clean by birds and other, more monstrous, scavengers.

The lone survivor of this massacre, the stranger walking among the seemingly endless streets of the dead, marched without hesitation or a glance behind as she made her way to the shifting sands that lay beyond the city. Apep’s power was still great in North Africa, even beyond his seat of power in Egypt, and with his influence came the hungry desert and the monsters it hid. Algiers had been safe, fighting for their lives for almost two years and finding a kind of peace in these chaotic times.

Until she had arrived.

The girl’s name was Gisela Silva, a foreigner in these lands and many others. They had welcomed her, fed her, listened to her words, and treated her as an honored guest rather than as the harbinger of their destruction. The monsters of the desert did not waste their food, and all that remained of the people were bleached white bones. She paused at one particular set of bones, thrown against a wall and scattered like so much tinder, still wrapped in crude armor. She half expected to still see a sword in its hand. Taking the briefest of detours from her march, Gisela reached down and took the empty white skull into her hands.

She marveled at the transience of it. Thirty-six hours before this had been a living, breathing, speaking person. No, more than a person, this had been a hero. They had fit every criteria of the archetype, it is why she had sought them out, and it was why the city had fallen. Gisela took another breath and casually dropped the skull to fall softly to the sandy ground. What they were was irrelevant, now they were bones. And they were dead because of her.

She had doomed every single one of these Algerian survivors merely by entering their city. There was no innocent ignorance, no lie to hide behind. She had killed every one of them, and they were not the first. Gisela had been walking for a very long time, and she had left a trail of dead heroes in her wake. There was nothing left to do here but begin travelling to the next one, to find another hero and, through her presence, destroy them.

That was, she thought coldly to herself, her duty as a champion.

A few hours of tired footsteps later and she was outside the city. Though likely still within what had been the city of Algiers in a different time, but with the outskirts buried in sand, it seemed like there was nothing around but endless dunes with no hope of oasis.

Cresting a dune, her boots kicking up sand as if wading through water, Gisela was greeted by the sight of endless sandy desert that had consumed the life and soil of the land like a ravenous beast, stopped only by the shining blue of the Mediterranean. She stopped for a moment, seeing her path laid out before her for miles and miles around. She did not know where her patron would be sending her just yet, but no doubt it would be beyond this lifeless waste. She would be sending her somewhere green and full of life, fresh and ready for consumption.

She carried no weapons, and on her back were only the meager supplies needed for her survival. Even then, she needed less than the average human to survive. A few drops of water, a bite of food, and an hour of sleep a day were enough to sustain her. It was one of her gifts, the power she received as champion. Her true weapon, however, was no sword or bow, but something altogether heavier.

Just as these thoughts passed through her mind, a shadow darkened the ground around her, blocking the harsh light of the sun at her back as it loomed over her. Gisela turned and faced the terrible visage of her patron.

It was human in only the vaguest sense, a cobbled mass of bony limbs and sinew held together by cloth, finery, and slithering serpents. The first thing that always struck her was the hideous skull-like face, filled past overflowing with sharpened needle-like teeth in her lipless maw. Her eye sockets held twin jewels that glimmered blue and green even in the darkness she cast around herself. Her head was framed with a mantle of feathers blacker than night, and it continued into a dress that clung to her skeletal visage, save for the areas of her chest and arms covered in armor of painted leather embossed with unearthly symbols. What dominated the view, however, were her wings.

Four enormous bat-like wings spread out from her back, each flapping independently to keep her massive form aloft. Chains and jewels across her body moved across her body independently, intertwining with the glistening scales of serpents with each mighty beat of her wings.

All told this creature, this monstrous god, was over ten meters tall as it approached her, filling her vision with the terrible movement of her undead form. When she spoke, it was with a whistling shriek like a howling wind past her ears. Gisela made no move, no cowering gesture. This monster didn’t scare her anymore.

“Well done, child” the creature said, and Gisela could not help but darken at the laughing sarcasm in her voice, a sound like grinding swords as it echoed past her teeth. “Another city gone to rot, you truly are a masterful hero killer.”

“Where am I going next?” Gisela did not like wasting words with this beast. The longer she could go without its tyranny and bloodlust, the better.

“Far from here. There is little left of civilization to be found in this desert. Apep the Serpent has seen to that.”

Gisela snorted derisively before repeating “Where am I going?”

“A little more respect would not go amiss, child. Though your stubborn callousness amuses me.”Again she laughed that terrible sword-rattling laugh.“As for your destination…well, it needs no real introduction. You, my child, are going to Rome.”

“Rome.” Gisela repeated, half in shock half in disbelief. “That’s a thousand miles away!”

“Quicker by boat.” The monstrous deity laughed again. Gisela did not do boats.

“Fine. Rome.” Said Gisela with resignation. “What will I find there?”

“Many survivors, quite well protected too, though my influence through my cult will soften them up a bit for you.” The demon goddess grinned. Gisela could feel bile rising in her throat. She hated dealing with this goddess enough on her own, let alone the twisted people her cults tended to attract. “And of course, another hero there to be groomed for the slaughter. Another sacrifice for the Dragon of the World Tree.”

Gisela had already begun walking again. She knew her destination now, there was no need to listen to the gloating of a monstrous goddess. Going east would be preferable, the route was almost entirely over land, but that would take her through the territories of Apep the Serpent (running dangerously close to his throne in Cairo beneath an eternal eclipse), and Tiamat the Unborn Sea. The quicker way would be westward towards the ocean then across the Strait of Gibraltar into Europe.

“Such disrespect” The shadow followed her across the ground, and she could feel her presence on her like insects crawling over her skin. “After all the gifts I give you.” Never did the mocking laugh leave the goddess’ voice, and Gisela forced herself to keep walking, grinding her teeth against the impotent rage growing in her chest.

“At least you are obedient, despite your impetuousness.” The goddess continued “And you bring so many sacrifices to me, truly a goddess could ask for little more. Now go forth and find me more, champion.”

Her voice grew fainter as Gisela passed out from under her shadow.

“Find me more heroes and send them to their graves.”

                                                                                                                                                       Next Chapter
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Prologue

It was a gathering of three, as it always is. They arrived, one-by-one, in the wooded glade, as they always do. Their location didn’t matter, so long as it is near water and will have trees in a purer, more ancient part of the world.

The eldest had been the first to arrive, as she always had. Though older, she was far from a “Crone”. She was little past her mothering days, at least in appearance. Her hair had grayed and lines and deep shadows had appeared beneath her eyes, and she was clearly exasperated that she, yet again, had been the first one to arrive despite being the last to have known.

The middle of the sisters was the second to arrive. To say she was anything but in her prime would be a grave error. She was dark-haired and dark-eyed, full-figured and she carried with her an expression of calm grace that belied a menacing presence. She arrived precisely on time, exactly as she meant to, on a schedule that bound everyone but that only she knew.

The youngest of the sisters is the last to arrive. She is the youngest by far, hardly past her teenage years, and the flaunting of her relative youth is an eternal thorn in the sides of her elder sisters. She is bright, blonde, and beautiful, a smile on her face and a spring in her step as she joins them at last, her face a mask lost in thought, as if unaware she is just shy of being late.

They arrived in a circle around the pool of water as they had done countless times before in countless ages past. Though they could pass as women the truth was in their eyes. There was wisdom in their eyes, knowledge beyond mortal ken, but above all else there was time, an abyss of time behind their eyes that marked them as something far apart from humanity.

“So when is it we are meeting again?” The middle sister asked. “Shall it be on a clear autumn’s day or in a raging storm?” From her pocket she retrieved a schedule book meant for little more than show, after all what planner could account for the turn of fate and the passing of an age?

“When wolves will rise and dragons will fall.” The youngest smiled, hands clasped behind her back as if hiding something. “When the battles have been lost and won.”

“Then we had best see to our task now.” The eldest said, annoyance on her face. “Since we have come here to talk. We have made a mess of madness and our tapestries have been undone.”

“Only because you will never have the benefit of foresight.” The youngest smiled. “Merely the curse of hindsight.”

“Only because you have meddled where you shouldn’t.” The eldest snapped. “What sense was there when the future changed the past?!”

“Calm yourselves.” The middle sister’s cool and calculated voice spread between them. “There is a great disturbance in the threads, it sends ripples up and down that which we weave before, now, and after, so let us find a solution together.”

“A solution she says.” The youngest smiled, “Yet she will always have so many plans.”

“Plans in plans.” The eldest smirked. “But we always have heard her out before.”

“Our plans are undone, our dear threads frayed and unraveled. The solution is obvious, we must weave a new Tapestry.”

The eldest scoffed. “Easily said, but you were not the one tending to those woven threads. The work needed to be done is more than we have ever done before.”

“I know it is much to ask, but it is not a light weight upon any of our shoulders.” The middle said.

“So many new pieces we are moving into place, so many tasks I am setting my little bird upon.”

“I suppose it will not be so herculean a task.” The youngest considered. “Still so many changes, so far in the past. Cities will rise and will have risen, people will blink in and out of time and space. The repercussions will be seen by even mortal eyes.”

“That is the least of what they are seeing.” The middle smiled. “The world is a quickly changing place.”

“It has changed far too quickly if you asked me.” The Eldest frowned.

“She won’t.” the youngest smirked, “Besides I will have more than enough of my own work to do as well, believe you me.”

“So you may, but your work failed to make mine any easier.”

“Blame the Dragon and the Witch, not me.” The youngest smiled.

The Dragon and the Witch. That was why they had gathered again after a now unclear but undoubtedly great span of time. One rogue Witch, though she was far more than a simple witch, had set their dusty wheel turning once more.

“Oh we’re just getting started!” The youngest continued, clapping her hands together, turning to the Middle. “Tell me, what of the others?”

“Aetna has been bellowing smoke and fire for days.” The Middle stated, as if reading from a list. “The sands are churning under Egypt. An eclipse is frozen over Mexico, and the tzitzimimeh begin their descent. I’ve noticed the stars are not right over Japan either. Your doing as well?” She glanced aside at the Third, who laughed.

“None of this will be our doing.” She grinned. “We simply will make sure it all goes smoothly. Admittedly for once in history that will make my job easier than yours.”

“You said it.” The Eldest sighed, running a hand through greying hair. “No small amount of effort will have been needed to sort this out. I preferred when the past didn’t change as much as the present.”

“Change is the only way we track time.” The Middle smiled “But yes, we might have our work cut out for us for once. Luckily I have some extra help on hand.”

“Where have you gone with all this anyway?” The Eldest frowned again at the Third. “I would have liked some forewarning.”

“Rome.” The Youngest said plainly. “Oh there will be a little here and there, but for now if you must maintain your focus, I would start in Rome. Everything will be happening there. In truth everything will be happening everywhere but a little more everything will be happening in Rome. Understand?”

“I rarely have.” the Eldest sighed.

“Well, we all have our work to do.” The Second smiled her enigmatic smirk once more.

For once they seemed to agree. The Eldest was the first to remove herself as she had been the first to arrive, already weary of the sorting work she had to do. So many little threads to be realigned. The Middle followed her in turn. She had people to meet, and threads to nudge in the right direction. The Youngest left last, the heaviest burden hidden behind her laughing face. So many little threads to cut.

They had met to confirm each others’ presence, little more. Each of them had known, like a candle come to life, that their spinning wheel was turning again, and it would need tending.

Next Chapter

((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=0&sl=734 ))