The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 52

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t,” Gisela said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I-I think it can work!” Megame said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle had begun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good job, Cat,” she smiled at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three kilometers,” Gisela said.

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

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

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

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

“And so are we,” Rosa said.

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

“Then the mountain, and Nidhoggr, awaits.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Marks that Bind

 

It was late at night in the Second Legion camp. Most people were asleep, while a decent contingent of the guard stayed on the walls to keep back the monsters. Evangeline, however, was taking a little time for herself. Though she’d gotten by on her bad leg without issue before, the long days of hard marching were taking their toll. She used her automatons as a leg brace to keep pace with the others, but after a day of that it had chafed fiercely, and she was relieved when they set up camp.

Their camp was in a large clearing in the forest. Hanne had taken it as simple good luck and set up camp there immediately. It was built on a hill that gave them a commanding view of the surrounding forests and even a hint of the Brocken in the distance. Evangeline, however, was convinced it was no simple hill, and had decided after night fell to investigate on her own.

Atop the hill, in the center of the camp not far from the command tent, was a loose gathering of large boulders. Most of them were very long and stood up on their narrower sides as if raised like standing stones. Even the shortest of them easily dwarfed her, and they had caught her eye the moment she walked into camp. Hildegard and Angel had both insisted the hill was safe and without any trace of excess magic, but Evangeline wasn’t so sure.

She was investigating the stones, tapping the hard rock with her cane when she heard steps coming up the hill behind her.

“Poking around with rocks now, Evangeline?” She recognized Rosa’s voice, not even needing to turn around.

“That’s right,” Evangeline said. “Rocks are interesting.”

There was a pause before Rosa spoke again, and Evangeline kept at her work.

“…what kind of rock is it?”

“Granite,” Evangeline said idly, still tapping away.

“Uh huh…” Rosa’s voice trailed off, but Evangeline didn’t hear her leave. It was clear she wanted to talk about something. By now, Rosa knew her well enough to know that Evangeline was listening, but she wasn’t going to turn around when she was already so engrossed in her work.

“Do you have a minute to…?”

“By all means, talk away,” Evangeline said, hand sliding over the smooth stone. Too smooth.

“I was just wondering…you’ve…heard about me and Cat, right?”

“You two do have such a sense of timing,” Evangeline clucked her tongue. “Choosing to tie this romantic knot of yours on the veritable eve of battle.”

Evangeline smiled, she could almost hear Rosa bristling from the way her weight shifted her armor.

“H=hey it was Cat’s fault we-“

“I think it’s cute, Rosa,” Evangeline interrupted her. “Everyone does. Besides, late or not it’s better to get it out before the big battle. So don’t worry about it.”

Her cane made a looud tink sound as it struck the stone at an angle.

“Now that’s odd…”

“It’s just…well I was anxious about Cat because she was acting all weird. I get that it’s because she was worried about bringing it up, but now I’m worried because-“

“Because you’re worried about her even more,” Evangeline interrupted her again. “Because now she’s not just your friend and comrade, but your girlfriend…I think I hit the mark,” Evangeline was half-talking to Rosa and half-trying to focus on the stone. There was something under here.

“Yeah…” Rosa muttered. “Like I don’t regret it, but now I’m all…”

“We’re all worried, Rosa,” Evangeline said. “Cat has family and friends here. We all want her safe,” Her eyes were still locked on the stone. She flipped the cane in her hand, grasping the worn wood near the base as she weighed the heavy handle on the far end. With a flick of her thumb she tripped a hidden level and heard a soft metallic whir go through the device. At the head of the cane, a small glass sphere containing a modicum of divine lightning was slotted onto place.

“I know, I know it’s just…this is kind of different now. Like, I should be looking out for her more. I don’t know, maybe I should go talk to her…”

“Cat’s sleeping and you’re overthinking things,” Evangeline’s automatons moved to her bad leg, bracing it in place. This was going to take some effort.

“Wow, Evangeline,” Irritation was growing in Rosa’s voice. “Could you at least humor me for a second before cutting me off? It’s not easy for me to talk about this kind of-“

“One second, sorry.”

Evangeline swung her cane like a sledgehammer, the metal head contacting the hard stone with enough force to shatter the glass sphere. There was a flash of light and a sound like a thunderclap rolling through the camp. Evangeline saw a number of people sticking their heads out of their tents to investigate, and she waved her cane apologetically.

“Sorry!” She shouted. “Nothing to worry about! I promise!”

“Jesus, give me some warning next time!” Evangeline turned to Rosa for the first time and saw her gingerly rubbing her ears with her palms.

“Sorry,” Evangeline said. “Running tests.”

“Could you spare me like, I don’t know, ten seconds of your time?”

“Shall I time you?” Evangeline asked sarcastically, rebalancing herself on her cane. “Look, Rosa, I understand but you’re…well you’re blowing this a bit out of proportion.”

Rosa’s face reddened both in embarrassment and irritation. Evangeline could see why Cat found her cute.

“I’m worried about her!”

“Good,” Evangeline said. “Being worried is a good thing.”

“Wha-what do you mean?” Rosa asked.

“Come look at this,” Evangeline gestured for Rosa to come close to the stone. Hesitantly at first the redhead walked over to stand next to her.

On the surface of the old granite, lines of light were beginning to wind themselves across the stone surface. Slowly they moved and intersected, forming into runic inscriptions and stylized art, flawless in detail and shining with power.

“What is this?” Rosa asked.

“A runestone. They’re pretty rare this far south,” Evangeline said. “But there are a few you can find if you know how to see through the magic.”

“Runestone?”

Evangeline nodded. “Normally they’re just carved rocks people put up to commemorate lost relatives or boast about their own accomplishments. But stones like these are something special. You see here?”

Evangeline gestured to parts of the runestone all but covered in shining runic script over geometric lines that almost appeared to be schematics. Evangeline traced some of the lines with her fingers, following the patterns.

“These were put up by dwarves as a method of recording and communication. A bit harder to find than human replications, but all the better for it. I can only imagine the kind of knowledge these things had.”

“Uh huh…” Rosa looked over the lines, but the meaning of them was lost on her. “So, what was with all the thunder and lightning?”

“Oh that?” Evangeline shrugged. “Well, dwarves don’t sell their secrets cheaply. They usually demand unfair or unreasonable trades for their work. So, of course, if they write down their designs, there’s going to be a lot of security around it. I just had to bust open the lock a little.”

“Doubt they’d like that,” Rosa said, Evangeline shrugged.

“Assuming the dwarf that wrote that is still alive, he can take it up with me and my boss.”

“Right…so, looking to see if you can work some Norse dwarf metalsmithing into all that divine engineering you do?”

“Couldn’t hurt,” Evangeline smiled. “Shame I don’t have time to implement anything I learn before the battle…”

With a flick of her hand she released some of her skittering automatons onto the runestone, letting them crawl over its surface and record whatever they could. She couldn’t very well take the stone with her later.

“Mmm…but getting back on my point,” Rosa started to say.

“I don’t think you’ll have any problems, Rosa,” Evangeline said.

“What do you mean?”

Evangeline smiled. “I mean that of course you’re worried. A lot of people are, and not just for Cat…but I also know you. I helped fortify your spear after all.”

“Well true…”

“And remember what we did? How we narrowed its focus and the concepts worked within the metal of your spear?”

“Yeah, we made it less about just killing and more about protecting.”

“We did,” Evangeline said. “And we chose that because you wanted to protect Rome and the people in it you cared about. You’re the kind of person, Rosa, who never fights better than when they’re protecting something they care about…and you’ve never had the chance to fight for someone you cared about more than Catarina.”

“Mmm…” Rosa fell into a n uncomfortable silence, and Evangeline walked from the stone as her automatons continued their work, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

“You told me about your sister, Rosa…I can’t imagine how hard carrying those memories must be for you. The two of you struggled so hard to survive…but you never got the chance to do what you wanted, to fight for her and to protect her from else.”

“No…” Rosa said. “I never got to…”

“You’re not going to fail Catarina like you failed her,” Evangeline said. “No one is.”

“Mmmm…thanks, Evangeline,” Rosa said. “Just…needed to hear it and there wasn’t…it’s hard to talk about with the team, especially Cat.”

“I understand,” Evangeline nodded. “You need to look strong and fearless as the commander, especially with Cat as scared as she is. You’re all too tight knit for you to appear scared.”

“That’s…that’s more or less it, yeah,” Rosa nodded.

“All of us are scared, Rosa. For our own reasons and for the same reason in that we’re all about to go fighting a gigantic chaos dragon. Who wouldn’t be scared, seriously?”

“I don’t know how Cat’s even still moving,” Rosa said. “I’m…I worry. This is a lot for her. Too much for anyone really.”

“Catarina is like no one else I’ve ever met,” Evangeline said. “And you really should feel lucky someone like her loves someone like you.”

“Heh, well…I do feel pretty lucky,” Rosa turned a bit red in the face.

“She relies on all of us, but you most of all,” Evangeline said. “She knows you’re scared…but so long as she sees you pushing forward and braving through it, she’ll be able to as well.”

“I guess that’s what we’re all doing,” Rosa said. “Just putting on a brave face so the rest of us can do the same.”

“That’s what being brave is,” Evangeline said. “No one here is stupid enough to think that none of us are afraid. Everyone is scared and everyone knows it…but we’re all scared together and we all march together. Like links in chain armor one pulls along the other and they pull along others, and the first was pulled along by someone else. There’s no start, no lead, just a little collective bravery form all of us is what keeps this army marching. You and Catarina inspire one another, keep each other going, and it’s the same for the rest of the team.”

“Heh, you give pretty good speeches,” Rosa gave a weary smile.

“Just one on one.” Evangeline returned her smile. “I’m terrible at public speaking really, way too casual.”

“So who keeps you marching?” Rosa asked.

“You have to ask?” Evangeline said. “All of you, of course.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 46

 

With every passing day the column of the second legion pushed northwards into Europe, over the alps and into what had been Austria and Germany. Now it was wilderness, wild and untamed with rolling hills fertile grasslands and ever-present forests closing in around them as they cut a trail north.

Their scouts, Hildegard and Turi in particular, kept an eye on the movement of monsters and wild spirits in the area. Those that didn’t try to ambush the Legion (which were swiftly repelled) were soon all seen to be traveling straight north deeper into Germany.

“They’re heading to something,” Hanne said, looking over the map as the legion commanders, Hildegard, Cat, Rosa, Angel, and Gisela all crowded around the command table, a snaking red line marking their passage thus far.

“Agreed,” Hildegard said. “This isn’t coincidence, any monster or spirit that I’ve scouted that was too far out to catch the Legion’s scent has been going in roughly the same direction.”

“Nidhoggr is calling them,” Angel said. “It is attempting to force itself fully into Midgard and wants an army there to greet it. When the Primordial manifests, then all of those monsters will be unleashed in a new tide of destruction.”

“Which means not only do we have the dragon to contend with, but an entire army as well,” Rosa sighed. “This surprise attack might turn into a siege.”

“And a siege is something we can’t afford,” Hanne said. “This battle can’t last more than a day after we initiate our attack, maybe just hours. We need to establish a line wherever Nidhoggr is and hold it while Cat and the others take out the Primordial.”

“But where is it going?” Angel said. “Nidhoggr’s influence is blocking my sight. Everywhere I look, I just see more of the dragon.”

“At a guess,” Gisela said. “Somewhere of ritual importance. This Primordial will want a stage to begin its attack on Earth and it isn’t going to settle for a nameless field outside Leipzig.”

“Any ideas?” Cat asked. “Germany has to be full of places like that…”

“One,” Gisela said. “I think…you said in your dream, when you battled Nidhoggr, it was atop a mountain, and the peak was clear of trees and plants, yes?”

“That’s right,” Cat nodded. “It was just…bare rocks and a lot of snow.”

“That might be our clue,” Gisela said. “The Brocken, Germany’s bald mountain.”

“Near Schierke,” Hanne nodded. “I know of it…I believe it’s around…here.”

Hanne marked a spot on the map to their north, matching the path of the migrating spirits.

“As for when, that is another question but also one I believe easily answered,” Gisela went on. “It’s October now, and I have little doubt that Nidhoggr’s ideal time to manifest and our ideal time to strike will be on the 31st.”

“Halloween?” Rosa asked.

“Two years to the day since the final Day of Revelation,” Gisela said. “A fine anniversary gesture considering it was Nidhoggr’s escape that started it all. The day itself has potency, though not for Nidhoggr’s cosmology…but it represents something that matters. The end of summer, life, and warmth. Nidhoggr comes with the darkening of the year.”

“It’s as likely a day as any,” Hildegard nodded. “That doesn’t even give us a month to cross half of Germany though.”

“We’ll need to march hard,” Hanne nodded. “And the going will only get rougher the closer we get, I have no doubt.”

“A month, northern Germany…a battle at Samhain on the Bald Mountain…that sounds right,” Cat said. “Like something out of a story.”

“The benefit of Primordials is that they are rarely unpredictable,” Angel said. “This is a solid hypothesis.”

“Then that’s the direction we’ll take,” Hanne said. “I want this Legion moving at sunrise and I want the supply train informed of the increased pace. I’ll need the scouts ensuring that we’re on the right path with updates on any sighted monster every third hour. Understood?”

All the assembled nodded, many of them with their faces dark. This was going to be a hard march to an even harder battle. They had a destination now, but not an easy one.

As the group began to depart from the command tent to relay orders to the rest of the legion, Cat caught up to Rosa.

“Hey,” she said. “Do you have a moment to talk, just us?”

“Hmm?” Rosa raised an eyebrow. “Sure, why not.”

With some minor trepidation, Cat led her away from the command tent to the edge of the camp, away from prying eyes and ears among the trees, though still within sight of the fires of the legion camp. Rosa followed along quietly until Cat stopped them, and she crossed her arms as she waited for Cat to speak.

“So, uuh…” Cat shuffled words around in her head, trying to come up with the right thing to say. Rosa stayed quiet, watching her with a sort of blank curiosity that only made Cat sweat more.

“I, ummm…”

“Look, Cat, if this is going to take a while, I can come back or…”

“N-no! Just…give me a second I’m trying to get my words together.”

“I can give you some minutes I just need to-“

“Dammit, Rosa, stop making this hard!”

“Making what hard? You’re the one who-“

“I like you!”

Rosa blinked in surprise for a moment.

“Well uh…yeah I mean I like you too, Cat.”

“No, you…ugh,” Cat ran a hand through her hair before steadying herself. “I mean I want to ask you out and date you and…stuff.”

“Oh…” Once more Rosa stood there in honest surprise, hands at her side. “…Wow you needed to do this whole dramatic confession thing?”

“Eh? What do you mean? Isn’t this how it’s done?”

Rosa snorted, only making the color rush to Cat’s face again. “No, you idiot. Just…like…ask me out. Tell me you want to go have lunch sometime.”

“We always have lunch sometimes!”

“Then tell me you want to go out somewhere and that you want it to be a date is my point,” Rosa rolled her eyes. “Honestly this whole confession thing…man who told you that was a good idea?”

“Ummm…”

“It was Megame wasn’t it?”

“Not just her!” Cat objected.

“Let me guess, most of the relationships you’ve read about involved guys in armor and women described as ‘damsels’.”

“That’s a…bit of an exaggeration…” Cat said, her flustering only growing more pronounced with each passing second. “I also wasn’t sure if…”

“If I was gay?” Rosa asked.

“Well…yeah…” Cat nodded.

“I’m not,” Rosa said.

Cat froze up.

“I’m bi actually. I like both sides of the field.”

Cat struggled to pull a response together as Rosa laughed.

“Seriously your face right now…have you not seen how I stare at Evangeline’s ass? The woman’s a safety hazard.”

“I don’t watch where you’re staring all the time!”

“That’s why you lose our duels half the time.”

“Oh, for the love of-!” Cat stomped forward, pushing Rosa against the closest tree to hold her there. Rosa didn’t resist or make any move to counterattack, simply watching her with an amused expression.

“You’re a jerk, you know that?”

“I do.”

“A complete ass half the time and intolerable the other half.”

“I get that.”

“I’m honestly surprised I like you half as much as I do,” Cat managed to keep her face straight as she stared down Rosa.

“Mmhmm,” Rosa just nodded along.

“But I do like you…I like you a lot especially since you became…”

“Less of an ass?” Rosa suggested.

“Yes,” Cat nodded. “Less of an ass. And especially with everything that’s about to happen…I thought it would be really important to…”

“Come on, Cat,” Rosa’s voice wasn’t impatient or unkind. It was more the tone when she was trying to get Cat to improve during training.

“I want to be with you, Rosa. No matter what happens I want to be at your side and I want to be…closer with you than just friends. Is that…alright with you?”

Rosa stayed quiet for a long time, too long for Cat. The seconds ticked by at an increasingly uncomfortable pace. Before her face finally split into a smile.

“Sure, Cat, that’ll be alright with me. Though you need to work on the straight talk because that confession was way too timid.”

Cat’s face was beat red. “I’m new at this.”

“And you took way too long. Seriously you could’ve asked me out months ago.”

“I get it…”

Rosa kept smiling and Cat felt her hand push up the bottom of her chin.

“That said, you’re going to pay for wasting all that time fretting. Seriously do you know how much training time this probably cost you? No wonder you were so distracted.”

Cat glowered, even as she felt her heart pumping wildly in her chest at Rosa’s touch. She was becoming acutely aware of just how close they were.

“P-pay how?” Cat asked, unable to look away.

“By making up for lost time.”

Before Cat could stop her Rosa had leaned in and for the briefest moment Cat could feel the ghost of Rosa’s lips pressed to hers.

Cat jerked her head back as she felt the color rush to her face in full force. “Wh-what are you-?”

“Just like a duel, Cat,” Rosa smiled at her. “Can’t be timid with me.”

Steeling herself, Cat squared her shoulders before leaning in, a bit forcefully than she’d meant to, and kissing Rosa straight on the mouth.

She wasn’t sure how long they stayed that way, seconds or moments she didn’t know and it didn’t matter. Her heart was thumping like a drum as her mind reeled at the simple fact that in a day, she’d gone from sparring with Rosa to kissing her.

Eventually they did pull apart, and though Cat was still dazed and reeling she could see that Rosa had flushed more than a little as well. Cat wasn’t entirely on the defensive.

“So umm…where do we go from here?” Cat asked.

“Wherever we want,” Rosa shrugged. “There isn’t a manual for this kind of thing, Cat.”

“Heh so…we’re dating now?”

“I guess so…”

“We should probably tell some people.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Though umm…before that…” Cat was about to pause before pushing the awkwardness down and gently shoving Rosa once more against the tree. “Let’s do that a few more times.”

Rosa smiled. “Heh, sounds good to me. You need practice anyway.”

“Says you, you’re terrible at it!”

“Prove it.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 37

 

It was still mid-morning when Cat returned from her lessons with Scheherazade in the library to find Rosa waiting for her outside the house. Rosa was already dressed in her full champion armor, shining golden-bronze covering her chest, arms, and legs, and her spear leaning over one shoulder. She tried to appear casual, leaning against the doorframe while she waited for Cat, but Cat could see how tense she was in the way she held herself, not betraying any hint of nervousness or anxiety.

“Big day,” Cat said. “Time to go fight another champion.”

“Time to beat another champion, you mean,” Rosa said with a confident smile as she stood up straight and joined Cat.

“Don’t get too cocky,” Cat teased her. “I always beat you when you get cocky.”

“Heh, I’ve got this guy’s number, no way he’s going to be tougher than you and Hilde.”

“Right…” Cat nodded as they started walking toward the training field. “So…this whole duel thing…is it smart to just pick the strongest person as leader? That seems kind of…primitive, you know.”

“It’s not like I’m an animal fighting for mates and territory,” Rosa nudged her with an elbow. “We’re about equally qualified to lead. Besides, this duel isn’t just about proving who’s stronger.”

“It’s not?” Cat asked.

“Nah, it’s a sort of a…loyalty test,” Rosa said. “See, if I beat Nicomede, and Nicomede still vows to fight for the cause and follow my lead, we know he’s fit for the team. It also sort of…compels us to fight fair, you know? Would you follow my orders if I cheated in this fight?”

“I know you too well to think you’d cheat outright,” Cat said. “I don’t think you fight fair, but I don’t think you’d cheat,” she added with a light smile.

“Heh, fighting fair is for suckers,” Rosa said. “Never take on an enemy without overwhelming odds in your favor.”

“And are the odds overwhelming here?” Cat asked.

“Eh,” Rosa shrugged. “Good enough for me. Besides I’m out of time to do anything about it.”

Together the two of them approached the field where a small crowd had gathered. The word of the dueling champions had spread around the city, and numerous curious citizens, off-duty legionnaires, and other champions had come to watch. Near the front stood the rest of the team. Capitolina was there, more formally dressed than Cat knew she preferred to be. Beside her were Megame, Evangeline, Torleif, and Aurelio. Gisela was absent, likely to keep her away from a crowd where she might be recognized. Much of Nicomede’s company was there as well to cheer on their commander. To Cat’s surprise, she saw even a small radio booth had been setup nearby, where local celebrity Thalia sat next to a microphone, getting the audience riled as word of the duel spread throughout Rome.

“Wow, they even have you on radio,” Cat smiled, though as she glanced at Rosa she could see a little of the color had drained from her face.

“Didn’t really expect a crowd…” She said, glancing around as people recognized her and began to part the way to the field.

“Mmm…” Cat could see the anxiety building in her. Rosa wasn’t the type to deal with a lot of attention well.

“Hey,” Cat caught her attention, giving her a sobering slap on the back. “Forget these people, you know? You’re not here for them, and forget what they’re here for. You’re just here for one reason, remember?”

“To beat that pretty boy’s ass?” Rosa gave her a slight smirk in return.

“To beat that pretty boy’s ass,” Cat said, nodding to her as she walked her to the sparring ring. “Nothing else matters until he’s in the dirt.”

“Thanks, coach,” Rosa managed a chuckle.

“No problem…and Rosa?”

“Yeah?”

“Screw this impartial stuff. I’m cheering for you.”

“So now you’re my personal cheerleader?” Rosa cracked a grin. “Damn I’d pay to see you in one of those skirts with the…what are those fluffy wavy things on their hands?”

“No idea,” Cat said. “But kick his ass.”

“Can do, just sit back and watch me work,” Rosa nodded and walked towards the large ring of hard dirt and flattened grass.

Cat hurried to make it to Capi’s side, getting the best view and well within earshot of Thalia’s commentary.

“Heya, pup,” Capi smiled at her. “More people than I thought.”

“Yeah,” Cat nodded. “I think Rosa’s got a bit of stage fright.”

“That will sort itself out soon,” Capi said. “Fighting has a way of erasing everything else going on.”

“Well I’m rooting for her,” Cat said.

“I need to be impartial in these kinds of events,” Capi said flatly as Cat gave her a curious glance. The mask cracked as Capi’s face split into a grin. “I’m just kidding! Of course I’m rooting for our little Rosaria.”

Cat giggled and looked to the field, listening to Thalia’s nearby commentary as she chatted excitedly into the microphone.

“And now our second challenger, the local favorite, has arrived!” The radio announcer kept a tight grip on the mic, eyes flashing as she caught every detail. “Rosaria Kokinos, Champion of Ares, and one of the finest monster-killers in recent history. Both our competitors today hail from Greece, beautiful country by the way, but Rosa’s where most of Rome is putting their money!”

Nicomede was already on the field, fully armed and armored in his darker Hellenic-styled armor with his shield slung over his back. His lance was longer than Rosa’s spear, with a long blade that gave him a lot of edge to work with. He seemed very at ease, chatting with some of the people around him as people milled into place.

“We should probably get started,” Capi said quietly to Thalia. “Before people start placing bets.”

“Too late for that” Thalia giggled, covering the microphone. “But I’ll leave the odds to your imagination.”

Soon the crowd had pulled back to the stands or stood in a broad ring around the sparring ground, with Cat and the rest of their team at the front to get the best view.

“Alright competitors! Let’s see some good sportsmanship out there. Take your marks!” Thalia’s voice rang out over the field with perfect clarity, Cat almost suspected the radio hostess was secretly a mage.

Both Nicomede and Roasaria walked to their starting marks on the sparring field, offering each other brief bows.

“May the better captain win,” Nicomede said, readying his spear.

“Agreed,” Rosa smiled, settling into what Cat recognized as her more aggressive stance.

“Begin!”

Both of them rushed forward, Rosa surprisingly faster off the mark than Nicomede, who crept forward, shield raised towards Rosa’s lunge. Rosa threw herself against the field, dodging the first testing jab of Nicomede’s spear as she closed the distance, her spear to the side as she took hold of Nicomede’s shield, using his hold on it against him as she tried to gain leverage, ducking under the next wild spear swipe as Nicomede worked to keep his ground.

Nicomede managed to wrest his shield out of her hands, forcing Rosa onto the backstep as he launched a series of swift thrusts, his shield still raised. The head of Rosa’s spear managed to knock one of his thrusts aside before she threw herself back onto the offense.

Cat watched the furious exchange of blows, almost failing to notice Capi sidling up to stand next to her.

“Do you see what Rosa’s doing?” She asked, smiling as she tested Cat.

Cat nodded. “She’s trying to make up for her lack of defense; she doesn’t have a shield like Nicomede so she can’t afford to let him gain ground because it’s harder to take it back. She’s trying to work between the long-range of his spear and the short-range of his shield.”

“Smart girl,” Capi smiled, settling back in to watch the fight.

Cat couldn’t pull her eyes away. She’d seen Rosa fight from the outside before, when she had gone one-on-one with Hildegard or Capi, but she’d never seen Rosa fight like this. There was no hesitation, no second-guessing, every move was made with rapid precision. Cat watched the way her arms were wound like a steel trap, unbound and striking at every opportunity, the way she moved with such deliberate grace in her footwork, legs sweeping this way and that in a controlled dance with Nicomede. None of it was practiced; it wasn’t elegant choreographed combat. Rosa and Nicomede hammered at each other with all the strength they could manage, attacking every vulnerability they could find, but Rosa had a way of making it look simple.

Cat watched as Rosa weaved low, striking near the bottom of his shield with the base of her spear before striking again near the top, trying to get him off-balance as he was forced backwards, only for him to dig in his heels again shield up as he threw himself into another attack, trying to force Rosa on the more vulnerable defensive.

Rosa was faster than Nicomede when he had his shield, and much more maneuverable, she twisted across the field, spear striking like a scorpion wherever he dare let his guard down for even an instant.

Rosa pulled back again, lifting her spear as she readied for her next assault, the two combatants watching one another as they moved in a slow circle. Cat could see the slow deliberate movements in Rosa’s step, the way her eyes moved across Nicomede’s armor and shield, the way the light caught in her brilliant red hair. This was Rosa in her element more so than Cat had ever seen her; here on the field, she was a thing of beauty.

Rosa charged again, and this time there was a renewed ferocity in her assault. She was letting blows get through, and Cat winced every time she saw another shallow cut graze her bare arms or bounce off her armor. Rosa was playing with fire, but she could see why. Cracks were appearing in Nicomede’s defenses. He was used to fighting in a line, to having backup who could work with him, but now it was only him, with Rosa hammering on his defenses. If he didn’t find an out, he would break soon.

Nicomede pushed forward, trying to shake Rosa off of him as he launched an attack. It broke Rosa’s assault, but only for a moment. Nicomede, however, decided to abandon a losing fight. Getting what space he could, he dropped his shield to the ground.

“Coming out from under your shell?” Rosa grinned, chest rising and falling as she tried to disguise how tired she was.

“No point holding up a leaking dam,” Nicomede grinned. “But I’m no slouch without it.”

As he spoke, Nicomede lowered his stance, both hands on his spear as the long shaft of metal began to glisten and spark with electricity. Lightning danced along the spear as he held it ready, the light bouncing off his armor as he prepared his attack.

“So tell me, Champion of Ares, did the God of War grant you any other gifts?”

“Nothing quite so fancy,” Rosa’s eyes flashed blood red. It was the same color that they seemed to shine whenever she called on the full measure of her champion’s strength. The same bristling crimson energy ran the length of her spear and up her arms, sending shivers done Rosa’s spine as she summoned everything she could.

Both of them charged this time, and their battle was marked by a sudden increase in ferocity and vigor. Both of them swiped, stabbed, and thrust at one another like animals locked in combat, red and white light dancing between them as the struck again and again. Their range was close, often too close for spears, and hands, nails, and fists often struck as often as weapons did. Neither of them gave ground as their duel grew into a grapple before leaping back to a duel again. Every other moment it seemed one had the advantage before it was snatched away again.

Suddenly, a swift sweep of the leg sent Nicomede crashing down onto his back. Before he could be pinned, he rolled out of the way, getting to his feet as Rosa’s spear struck the dirt, his hand lashed out, and he nearly bent Rosa over he took tight hold of her long red ponytail in his free hand, spear in the other ready to make the finishing strike.

Cat almost didn’t see the flash of red, an expertly aimed swing brought the tip of her spear cleaving through her hair, severing the ponytail in Nico’s hand as Rosa freed herself to shoulder him hard in the chest, sending him back before she brought her spear around again, sliding it to his throat before he could summon a response.

It had taken all of three seconds, Nicomede now stood on the field, hands raised, with Rosa’s spear at his throat.

“I yield,” He smiled, raising his hands higher.

Rosa cracked a grin, lowering her spear as Nicomede took her free hand, raising it into the air as the crowd cheered the duel, Thalia announcing the results to them and the city beyond.

Soon the crowd lurched in, cheering and congratulating them as they were patted on the shoulders and had their wounds checked. Cat stumbled forward at the head of the crowd until she was standing directly in front of Rosa.

It was strange. She was tired, sweat-stained, and bloody in a few places, along with a much shorter hairdo, but with the sun on her face and a broad grin on her face, Cat had never seen Rosa quite this…beautiful?

“Told you I had it,” Rosa smiled.

“uh…” Cat stuttered for a moment, tongue lost on an answer, before a sharp push from behind sent her almost toppling into Rosa. Without realizing it, but too late to stop it, Cat had embraced the redhead around the chest.

“Oof, nearly knocked me over,” Rosa stumbled a bit, nursing more than a few bruises.

“Heh, good job, Team Leader,” Cat smiled, hugging her around the chest.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Spear of Conviction

 

Rosa stood perched on the balance beam, legs moving smoothly across the narrow beam as she went through her forms, spear in her hands as she moved this way and that, walking along the hand-width span like a cat as she maneuvered herself with almost inhuman grace and balance.

To move like this took more than focus and poise. Balance, Capi had always stressed, took more than just physical dexterity. A mental balance must be maintained as well, a level of harmony and calm even at the most taxing times.

Rosa kicked off the beam into a sudden backflip and landed, flawlessly, on the balls of her feet before dismounting back to the hard-packed ground of the training field. Her audience, consisting of Evangeline and Capitolina, watched with impressed expressions, Evangeline even going so far as to give her quiet applause.

“Impressive,” The tall blonde champion said, putting her hands back down to rest on her cane. “I can’t imagine the tumble if I tried that.”

“Well, I owe at least a bit of it to you,” Rosa said, flashing her a grin. “The new spear feels perfect. I could balance it on a dime.”

“Oh, it’s hardly new” Evangeline waved it off. “Just a little improved. I appreciate the compliment nonetheless.”

“You’re making good progress for a pup,” Capi said. “Maybe you’ll be able to beat me in a duel soon.”

“Maybe,” Rosa nodded. “But I’m focused on Nicomede right now.”

“Ah yes the young Champion of Zeus,” Evangeline nodded. “He stopped by my workshop yesterday.”

“Is that right?” Rosa asked, taking a drink from her water bottle “What’d he have to say?”

“He wanted an inspection of his equipment,” Evangeline said. “Much like you he was aware of my prowess and asked for improvements.”

“Mind giving me a few pointers?” Rosa asked. “I could do with more info on his shield.”

“Of course,” Evangeline said. “After all I told him everything about your spear and armor.”

“Evangeline!” Rosa scoffed. “Come on, I was trusting you here!”

“Duel aside, you are still teammates,” Evangeline maintained her serene smile. “I have no reason to keep secrets between you, in fact it would be foolish of me not to share the information.”

“I guess…” Rosa almost growled. “Fine, what can you give me on his gear?”

“His most impressive asset is his shield,” Evangeline said. “Not even Catarina’s sword could pierce it. It is a piece of Zeus’ will given form and a physical manifestation of order. Your spear won’t even leave a scratch.”

“Off to a great start,” Rosa sighed. “What else?”

“His spear is like a lightning rod for divine energy,” Evangeline continued. “I actually built a slightly cruder version a while back. Just by channeling spiritual power through it he can generate lightning bolts.”

“Better and better,” Rosa grumbled. “So I can’t afford to draw back to far or he’ll fry me.”

“Don’t underestimate your own resilience, Rosa,” Evangeline continued. “I’ve improved your armor significantly. I wouldn’t recommend seeing how many lightning bolts you can take to the face, but you’re far from defenseless. Your spear is much stronger as well. It’s heavier and a bit shorter, which should give you better maneuvering room.”

“Right,” Rosa nodded, trying to work out the best strategy. “Keeping him close will minimize his advantages, but I need to look out for that shield. Might be made for defense but that’s not all a shield can do.”

“Smart pup,” Capi’s tail was wagging slightly as she stepped forward. “You’re actually learning to think through a problem rather than just take it head on.”

“Well, I can’t afford to fall asleep on this one,” Rosa said. “Nico’s tough and I know he won’t be holding back.”

“Not likely,” Evangeline said. “He mentioned he would be training long hours just like you. I think he’s a little intimidated.”

“Works for me,” Rosa said. “Though I’d prefer he didn’t take me seriously so I could get him off-guard.”

“Unfortunately, I think he’s very on-guard when it comes to you,” Evangeline said. “He might even be a little attracted to you.”

Rosa snorted before taking another drink. “He’s not my type.”

“Could always try to use your feminine wiles to distract him,” Evangeline teased and Rosa rolled her eyes.

“Ya, do me up in a chainmail bikini, that’ll work out great.”

“Well if you insist.”

“Get off it,” Rosa prodded the blunt end of her spear towards her. “Come on, we’ll take a break from the physical exercise. Today is running scenarios, right Capi?”

“That’s right,” Capi said, leading her off the field towards the benches.

“Scenarios?” Evangeline asked.

“Yeah, sort of basic ‘what-if’ questions to try and test me under pressure,” Rosa said. “Good for thinking on the fly.

“Alright,” Capi said. “Hmmm…you’re team leader. Your team is in hostile territory two kilometers ahead of the safe lines. You are attacked by a pack of cacodaemons, Gisela is wounded and unable to walk, your objective is ahead of you but she will likely die if you don’t bring her back to the lines.”

“Gisela’s too useful to let die for one objective unless it’s Nidhoggr itself,” Rosa said. “Send Nicomede and Megame to escort her back to camp. Cat, Torleif, and I can push ahead and pull back if the objective is infeasible at half-strength.”

“Okay,” Capi nods. “You push ahead but you hear over the radio that Nicomede and the others are held up close to the Legion lines. Calling the legion forward can put a lot of men at risk.”

“I pull back then,” Rosa said. “Like I said, Gisela’s too valuable to lose.”

“Have you quantified that?” Evangeline said. “Would there be teammates you’re willing to lose?”

Rosa’s face gained a strained expression. “Well I don’t like to think about it but…I mean, obviously all of us are valuable and I’d do everything I can to make sure everyone makes it. But Cat is the lynchpin of this whole mission and Gisela has a lot of information on the Primordials. Our priority would be to make sure both of them make it, no matter what.”

“Being squad leader is a lot more than ordering people around,” Capi said. “These are the kinds of decisions a commander has to make.”

“I couldn’t do it,” Evangeline said. “I prefer my stresses to end with my machines.”

“Well, it’s not like I want to be in charge just to…be in charge,” Rosa said. “Like…just think about the others on the team. Torleif’s a kid, a super strong kid but she’s still just a kid. Megame is way too kind-hearted and caring. Could you imagine her trying to make a decision like that, or telling one person they need to die for the mission to succeed?”

“She does seem very kind,” Evangeline said. “I could see where that might make things more…difficult.”

“Then there’s Gisela who…well I mean I think she’s alright. A bit of a bitch but alright. I’d never trust her as a leader though, I’d think she was always going to sacrifice me to serve some hidden agenda. She’s smart and she might know more than any of us about Nidhoggr but…I don’t trust her that much.”

“And she was an enemy of the city,” Capi said. “The Legions wouldn’t follow her, if they didn’t just want her head outright.”

“And then there’s Cat,” Rosa said. “And she…has enough to worry about.”

“Ooh now there’s a what-if scenario,” Evangeline smiled.

“Hmm?”

“Alright, now bear with me…what would you do if Catarina turned traitor?”

“Wait, what!?”

“Well maybe not traitor…” Evangeline thought it over. “What if she refused to go on, and wanted to turn back, and was threatening desertion?”

“I…that’s just…” Rosa glanced at Capi, who kept her silence, waiting for Rosa to respond.

“That’s ridiculous!”

“It is only a what-if scenario. You should consider everything, no?”

“Well, I’m not about to consider being assaulted by an army of pink hippos, and I’m sure not about to consider something like Cat abandoning the mission.”

“Is it really that strange?” Evangeline asked. “It’s a terrifying prospect, and she is just a person.”

“Sure, with anyone else, I might be with you,” Rosa said. “But Cat…look, I know Cat. I work with her every day and we went on that mission to Syria together.”

“And?” Evangeline asked.

“And Cat’s…well she’s not the kind of person to back out of a process. Even if she’s scared and I know she’s scared, it’s stupidly obvious. But she won’t complain, she won’t try to back out. Cat’s going to see this through to the end and that’s the end of it.”

“But what if…?”

“Fine! If Cat gives up for some reason I’ll drag her there myself! Happy?”

“Mmmm, satisfied,” Evangeline smiled. “I will settle for satisfied.”

“Fine,” Rosa rolled her eyes. “I’m going to go hit the showers.”

Without another word she slung her spear over her shoulder and began to stalk towards the showers, only to notice Capi catching up to her.

“You shouldn’t let a scenario bother you that much.”

“It was a dumb question,” Rosa said.

“I found it quite interesting…well, your response at least.”

“How’s that?” Rosa asked, stopping at the entrance to the showers to talk.

“It reminded me of how short and aggressive you got when I used to talk to you,” Capi said. “When I asked you questions about who you were or what your past was like.”

“Because you were annoying too,” Rosa folded her arms. “You pestered me for days!”

“But this time you didn’t get protective of your secrets or your past, you were being protective of Catarina.”

“So what?” Rosa asked. “Doesn’t change that it was a dumb question.”

“Why it matters,” Capi said patiently. “Is because I’ve never seen you aggressively rush to defend someone else like that. You were defensive about your past because it mattered a lot to you.”

“I think you’re reading waaay too much into this,” Rosa rolled her eyes. “Maybe you should stick to the wolf stuff instead of psychoanalyzing me.”

“If I’d done that, you’d probably still be out in the mountains hunting manticores,” Capi smiled.

“Well what’s your point then? Or are you just going to tease around it all day.”

“I think the reason you’re so quick to defend Cat is because she’s an important part of your life now.”

“Of course, she’s important.” Rosa said. “We hang out every day, we train together, and we’re working together on this mission.”

“That could be said of Hildegard,” Capi said. “And me too, in a way.”

“And I’d react in the same way.”

“Would you?”

“Oh, come on,” Rosa rolled her eyes. “What do you want me to say, Capi? Why do you always need to give me the runaround like this?”

“I just think, from all I’ve heard and everything you’ve said,” Capi was still smiling. “That Cat is a bit more special to you than others. You certainly know her better than most.”

“I just know her well because she’s dumb like that,” Rosa said. “Hard to forget her biggest fault.”

“And that’s why? That’s the only reason?”

Rosa folded her arms, staring down Capi for a moment. “…seriously Capi, why are you bugging me about this?”

Capi smiled, her tail listing from side to side. “Because,” she said. “I want to make sure that you go off to war without regrets, and that if you have anything you want to say to Cat, you say it.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 25

 

The returning trip to Rome took longer than the trip there had. While their group had been quick by themselves, they were now joined by a number of refugees and a few representatives of the half-ruined Malcesine. While many had stayed behind to rebuild their town, a number had decided to travel with the safety of their newfound saviors back to Rome to try their fortunes. They were regular people, and as such set the pace with Stella compared to the seemingly endless endurance of champions, mages, and wolves. Cat didn’t mind it for the most part, but not all of their newfound company was pleased with the pace.

“Oh my goooood you all walk so sloooooow.” Torleif complained, doing her best to be the vanguard even though she had no idea where they were going.

“Hey you’re free to run ahead, short stuff.” Rosa said, spear slung over her shoulder. “Rome can’t be that hard to find, riiiight?” she added with a flashing grin.

Torleif scrunched up her face with petulance. “I’m not that short! B-besides I’m twelve! I’ll grow into it!”

“Well you’re tough enough I won’t make fun of you for being twelve.” Rosa said, but she held out her spear level with her shoulder, which left it nearly a full thirty centimeters above Torleif’s head. “But you are still really short.”

“Do you want me to get my hammer!?”

“How are you supposed to hit me with it when your arms are waaaay over there?”

Cat sighed as she watched them. After an initial scuffle on their first day of the journey this had become the routine for Torleif and Rosa. She appreciated that it kept Torleif from complaining about being bored. The journey home felt a lot longer than the way there, even if it was only extended by a day or so. Cat couldn’t help but think of what was waiting for her, not only her usual lessons but the inevitable fallout of the trip. If the Alpine settlements were in this kind of shape action would be necessary.

A tug at her sleeve pulled her out of her thoughts, and she looked to see Torleif tugging at her sleeve.

“Hey Blue, how many champions are in Rome?”

“Oh, ummm well there’s Rosa, my sister’s boyfriend Turi is champion of Athena, Aurelio is champion of Diana, there’s umm…oh right, my friend Megame is champion of Inari I think, and Gisela is champion of Itzpapalotl.”

“There’s Evangeline and Sybilla too.” Rosa said “For Hephaestus and Huldra.”

“More than I’ve seen anywhere else…”

“Have you met a lot of champions?” Cat tried to keep her tone serious, but part of her still couldn’t help but see Torleif as a child. The temper and somewhat oversized clothes didn’t help, making the diminutive redhead look even smaller than she was.

“Not many…” Torleif said “Though I met a few people who are pretty tough on their own…oh! There was this one time in Barcelona…”

 

Torleif was a curious guest to have along. She was as easily distracted and prone to error as any twelve year old, but when she moved she did so with impressive purpose. She was physically the strongest person Cat had ever seen, her small arms even able to best Rosa in terms of raw strength, and her small frame made her impressively quick on her feet and difficult to take hold of. Cat, Torleif, and Hilde had taken to sparring in the afternoons when the rest of the group was resting. Beyond even her strength, however, Torleif seemed possessed of singular purpose, consumed by a mission she’d been given and never straying from her path.

The days came and went, and eventually the group found themselves once more walking the familiar hills on the outskirts of the city of Rome. Much of what had once been ruined city had been reclaimed by nature or by human hands to be cleared for farming, trees and grass taking what had once been concrete and asphalt.

“So that’s Rome, huh?” Torleif asked.

“That’s it” Cat smiled “Finally there.”

“Finally…”

“So you wanted to see the Thor worshippers, right?” Cat asked. “They can probably get you set up with a place to stay as well.”

“Well ya a bit…” Thor said “But I mostly came for people.”

“People?”

“Yep! I’m going to find a bunch of people like you guys, and we’re going to kill Nidhoggr!”

“Ummm…” Cat wasn’t sure where to begin “W-well you came to the right city, I guess.”

“Well I knew Rome was the right city!”

“How’d you know that?” Rosa asked.

“Some birds told me.” Torleif replied happily.

“Well…killing Nidhoggr is something we’re all trying to do as well” Cat said somewhat sheepishly “Good to have some help.”

“Ya I’m going to smash that stupid lizard’s face in!” Torleif grinned “Er…with help. I was told I can’t do it on my own.”

“Well that’s the truth” Cat sighed “This girl…Gisela, keeps telling me the same thing. She also said to keep an eye out for other people who could help take down Nidhoggr.”

“Well I’m one of the best for the job!” Torleif jabbed her thumb at her chest. “Where do I find you guys anyway, like if I want to meet you?”

“Training field works” Rosa said “It’s on the way.”

“I’d join you three” Hildegard said “But I need to check in with Turi so I should be off…ah yes, there’s my ride.”

From the city they could see a small shape appear in the sky, growing steadily larger until the familiar outline of Pegasus flew down to meet them.

“Glad to see everyone’s back safe and sound.” Turi said as he brought Pegasus down to trot along the ground before helping Hildegard onto the saddle with him “And do I have a story for you.”

“Can’t wait to hear it” Hildegard smiled, kissing him on the cheek as she wrapped her arms around her waist. “Cat I’ll see you at dinner tonight, and I’ll see you two on the training field.” She pointed to Rosa and Torleif, who was staring with her mouth partially open at the winged horse as they began to leave.

“Ya Turi’s pretty cool” Cat smiled at Torleif, remembering very well her own astonishment when she had first met Pegasus.

“J-just a horse…” Torleif said “My hammer’s cooler.”

The group divided as they moved itn othe city proper. Giovanni went to the Vatican as Stella led the dignitaries and refugees to the city center to be processed, and soon the three of them were taking a brief tour of the city for Torleif’s benefit, showing her a number of places she might like to visit.

“And here’s the best pasta place in Rome.” Cat said, pointing it out as they walked.

“You’re full of it! Castella’s is waay better.” Rosa said.

“Castella’s is super greasy! It’s like it’s not even food anymore!”

“You’re just a vegetarian.”

“I am not!”

Torleif stayed largely quiet, her head on a swivel as she took in the sights and listened to their friendly bickering going back and forth until something caught her eye.

“Ooh is that the training field?”

“Hmm?” Cat looked up “Oh hey, we’re already here, ya this is it.”

What had once been little more than a yard had been expanded and redressed into a training field fit for a legion. Large areas of dirt and grass were marked off for sparring matches and drilling exercises. Equipment sheds and tools stood in every corner with racks of training and martial weapons, even a few stands had been erected near some of the sparring rings for observation lessons and competitions.

“This is awesome!” Torleif shouted, rushing forward quickly enough that Rosa and Cat needed to work to keep pace.

As they entered the field, however, they could see that most of the people were gathered together in one of the rings. Looking closer, Cat didn’t recognize a lot of them, many were wearing legionnaire armor, but just as many were dressed in a kind of uniform she didn’t recognize, a pile of round shields resting in a pile nearby or carried in their hands.

Torleif tore off to explore the field as Rosa and Cat moved towards the group.

“What’s going on here!” Rosa shouted into them before moving directly into the face of the closest unfamiliar soldier “Who the hell are you?”

“I umm we’re…” Cat had to hand it to Rosa, that red-eyed stare was intimidating when she needed it to be.

“Afternoon! No need to get ornery, they’re with me.” A voice spoke up from within the crowd, and a number of people parted to reveal the speaker.

They were about Cat’s height, possibly a little taller and with a similar slender build, dressed in an ornate Greek-styled linothorax over a white tunic and short black skirt with matching bronze greaves and wristguards. Cat blinked for a moment in confusion, the voice sounded slightly masculine but it still took her a moment to realize that the skirted figure in front of her was a boy, though certainly a very androgynous one with narrow shoulders and slender hips. His hair was a light sort of chestnut brown kept in a long braided ponytail, and he had a short spear in one hand with a round shield similar to the others slung over his back.

“Sorry if we’re interrupting your field time” he said “We’re-“

“Greek…” Rosa interrupted him, more in surprise than irritation.

“Well yes we’re…hey, someone else from the homeland!” He grinned, walking forward to take her hand eagerly, placing his other on her shoulder. “So is this where our missing champion wound up?”

“Missing?” Rosa asked him dubiously.

“I had word that the champion of Ares was abroad” he said.

“Word from who? And who are you?” Cat spoke up next as he released Rosa.

“Ah of course, where are my manners? My name is Nicomede, I’m the leader of this contingent, the Spears of Olympia, and champion of Zeus, King of the Gods.”

“Zeus really?” Cat asked “That’s…pretty high profile. What are you doing all the way out here in Rome?”

“Same reason as a lot of other people, I imagine.” He said “We came to find the source of this destruction from the north and put an end to it.”

“Me too!” They were interrupted by the arrival of Torleif, who had come to investigate. “I’m Torleif! Champion of Thor!”

Nicomede smiled “Another champion of a thunder god? My you have a lot in this city.”

“Seem to get more every day…” Rosa said “I’m Rosaria.”

“I’m Catarina” Cat nodded, shaking his hand.

“Ah! Catarina and Rosaria, you two are apparently really popular on these fields.” He smiled “The legionnaires here won’t stop boasting about you two and your sister.”

“Heh, well we do our best” Cat smiled “But f you have soldiers like this, you could be leading the charge yourselves.”

“Well, truth be told this is kind of…all we have.” Nicomede admitted sheepishly “Greece right now is still a bit of a mess, more a collection of city-states than a country, especially compared to a city like Rome. This must be the biggest city in the world right now.”

“I’m not sure about that, but we do have a lot” Cat said.

“So my spears and I came to help how we could” Nicomede said “And from what we’ve been hearing, the endless waves of the dead come form this Norse dragon right.”

“Well…it’s not really as simple as a dragon” Cat said “There’s a lot more to it than that.”

“Wemight not be Roman, and we’re not about to renounce our Greek heritage, but if you Romans need a little aid taking this dragon down, then I’m willing and able to lead that charge.”

“Er wait…lead?” Cat asked.

“Well we can discuss that” Nicomede smiled.

“Duh! Cause I’m leading it!” Torleif grinned “I’ll be leading the charge to take down that snake!”

“Er…”

Cat sighed as she looked between Rosa, Torleif, and Nicomede. Gisela had said that she should try to gather everyone she could, but this almost seemed more trouble than it was worth.

 

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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

Artifice

October 12th, 2024

 

“You sure this is the place?” Rosa asked, looking at the drawn door of what looked like a run-down old garage.

“It is indeed,” Angel, the black-haired and winged wolf girl at her side nodded. “Though I must remind you again that it’s unlikely he’ll help.”

“Well, it’s worth a shot,” Rosa said. “Besides, I need every edge I can get and you said he was the best in the city.”

“Unquestionably,” Angel nodded. “Though he is also…temperamental.”

Rosa snorted. “Welcome to the club.”

Without another word, she banged loudly on the metal door of the garage. “Anybody home!?”

Angel rolled her eyes before stepping past her. “Honestly, that’s not going to work either.”

Angel placed a gloved hand on the metal of the door and from where her fingers touched the surface long ornate lines of light began to spread and curl from her hand. The pattern spread, formed, and twisted into the image of a doorway illuminated on the surface of the metal door.

“He’s been busy,” Angel said quietly, and when the pattern had drawn itself completely, the metal outlined as a doorway slid open to invite them inside.

Rosa, frowning, decided to let Angel lead before following her inside the garage.

Inside was a workshop and forge far too large to have fit in the confines of the small garage. Numerous workbenches and drawing tables were scattered about and countless tools hung from bands on the ceiling, with supplies filling shelves, drawers, and barrels covering the walls until there was hardly room to maneuver. The entire place was slightly dark, illuminated mostly by several bright spotlights and the dull orange glow of the slumbering forge.

“Ilmarinen?” Angel called into the semi-darkness. “I’m here for maintenance, and I brought a guest.”

Rosa almost jumped when she saw a figure her eyes had missed rise from where he had been slumped over a drafting table and turn to face them. He was taller than average, well over six feet, with a lanky build and snow white hair over a young but stress-lined face. Despite his thin appearance, his hands and arms revealed by his rolled up sleeves were tanned and brawny, belying a strength that he didn’t make immediately apparent.

“Angel, lovely as ever. And who’s this?” He asked, stepping forward as he examined them both.

“Rosaria Kokinos,” Angel said as Rosa gave a relaxed wave. “A…student of Capitolina’s, as well as Champion of Ares.”

Rosa saw Ilmarinen’s face falter at the name, not that she could blame him.

“This,” Angel said, addressing Rosa. “Is Ilmarinen, a god of artifice from Finland.”

“Nice to meet ya,” Rosa said. “Angel says you build things.”

“S’what artifice means, kid,” Ilmarinen said. “Angel if you could get up on the examining table. Let’s see how that arm is doing.”

Angel nodded and stepped over to what looked like a cross between a work bench and a doctor’s examining table. She stripped off her gloves, jacket, and scarf leaving her dressed in a thin undershirt over pants, and Rosa couldn’t help but stare at the artificial arm affixed to her shoulder. It was a marvel of engineering, a combination of ebon black and silvery metal, woven together like bone and sinew into a skeletal hand that moved smoothly and soundlessly. The modifications didn’t end at her arm either, as Rosa could see hints of metal protruding from her ribs and spine, and likely her legs as well.

As she watched, Ilmarinen moved to Angel and began examining her arm closely, testing its range of movement and the smoothness of its part, a silver rod in his hand that seemed to change its shape and purpose to whatever tool he needed.

Rosa watched for a few minutes, letting the pair work largely in silence. When they did speak, it was generally brief and awkwardly, and Rosa could sense some kind of tension between the two of them.

“So if you make things,” Rosa eventually spoke up, though Ilmarinen simply continued to work. “Could you improve the artifacts other gods give champions?”

“Hypothetically,” Ilmarinen shrugged, not looking up from where he worked on Angel’s arm. “Most gods don’t know much about proper forging. I might be able to make some modifications.”

“Cool,” Rosa said. “Cause I have this spear from Ares that…”

Ilmarinen clicked his tongue, cutting her off. “Better luck elsewhere, Red. I don’t do weapons anymore.”

Rosa frowned. “Seriously? I’ m not like a…well, I use it for good or for the defense of Rome and stuff. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing in principle,” Ilmarinen said. “Just a policy of mine. Don’t do weapons.”

“You fixed Angel,” Rosa said. “Bet an arm like that could punch through a brick wall, doesn’t that count as a weapon?”

Rosa saw both Ilmarinen and Angel visibly stiffen, and this time the god did turn to face her, and Rosa began to feel just what it meant to argue with the divine.

“Look girl.” Ilmarinen said. “I saved Angel’s life and even then it…didn’t quite work out how either of us might have wanted it to. Now I’m not going to touch your spear, especially not one made by a god as blood-hungry as Ares, got it?”

“G-got it…” Rosa said, swallowing her mixed frustration and fear. Ilmarinen might not be as naturally intimidating as Ares, but he was a god, and she was still only mortal.

“…Got anyone else I can go to?” She decided to try her luck, even though she could tell Ilmarinen’s patience was wearing thin.

“If you’re looking for someone like that, and it’ll get you out of my hair, then try the girl near the temple. Blonde. Goes by Metaxes. Shouldn’t be hard to find.”

“Got it,” Rosa said, not wanting to stick around much longer. She swiftly made her exit out the door and saw the lines of light vanish from the surface.

“Grumpy old bastard,” she muttered to herself as she left, hurrying in case the Finnish god’s divine ears were still listening.

 

 

All told, it took her about three hours to find the woman going by the name of Evangeline Metaxes. She was apparently a popular figure around the Temple of Rome, and also the Champion of Hephaestus. Rosa would have preferred an out-and-out god fixed up her weapons, but she supposed beggars couldn’t be choosers.

After some asking around, she had tracked Evangeline down to a two-story flat with the bottom floor converted into a workshop. It was impressively at odds with Ilmarinen’s magic forge, being much smaller and more cramped, with piles of papers and scrapped designs mixing with dust in the corners, as well of drawers of far more mundane materials half-open and rimmed with soot and powders.

“Hello?” Rosa called out as she entered the open garage-style door, this one lacking any kind of magic entrance.

“Hello!” Called down a cheerful voice as Rosa heard the sounds of someone maneuvering down a flight of wooden stairs with some difficulty. Soon at the base of the stairs appeared a woman around Rosa’s own age. She was, to Rosa’s surprise, quite different than how she had expected a Champion of the Forge to look.

She had expected someone tall, broad, and brawny, but Evangeline seemed…too thin. She wasn’t entirely thin, being very curved in certain places Rosa was quick to notice, but she seemed better suited to being the Champion of Aphrodite than the champion of a forge god. The only oddity was her walking with a pronounced limp, enough for her to require a cane. She was otherwise intensely beautiful, particularly her round heart-shaped face beneath a head of straw blonde hair kept tied up neatly at the back of her head.

She wasn’t even dressed for the job, her buttoned shirt and pants looking almost immaculate, and her neck and wrists adorned with gold necklaces and bracelets.

“Evangeline Metaxes?” Rosa asked, still not entirely convinced.

“The one and only”, Evangeline smiled warmly, extending her free hand as she rested on her cane. “And you are…?”

“Rosaria Kokinos,” Rosa said, firmly taking the hand, and she was surprised to feel an intense strength in her grip.

“Ahhh the Champion of Ares,” Evangeline smiled. “I was wondering when I might get a visit from you.”

“I was wondering if…”

“You were wondering if I could improve your weapons and armor?” Evangeline cut her off. Still smiling “Well I won’t know for sure unless I see it, will I?”

“Er…right,” A bit caught off guard, Rosa summoned her spear into her hand as her armor appeared across her body. She left the spear on a nearby table as she stripped off the thick bronze and gold armor, giving Evangeline a chance to look it over.

“Fascinating…” She marveled, and Rosa did a double take as she saw what she had taken to be jewelry around her wrists and neck scuttled to life, moving over her body like insects as they combined, split, and reformed. As she watched, one curled itself into a hand lens that Evangeline lifted to her eye to examine the spear more closely.

“Quite interesting.”

Rosa laid her armor out on the table beside her spear, feeling a little exposed. Without the armor she was dressed in little more than a padded sleeveless shirt and a skirt, neither of which were ever really her style.

“What’s so interesting? Anything you can do?”

“Well first of all, yes, I can be of service to you,” Evangeline said. “Secondly, it confirms my suspicions that while war gods are good at using weapons, they’re not particularly good at making them.”

Rosa couldn’t help but snort. “So what do ya need to make this thing even sharper?”

“Well improving a divine weapon is a…complicated procedure,” Evangeline said, putting down the lens as she rested on her cane. Rosa glanced at the hand lens and saw it reform into a tiny gold beetle and scurry out of sight.

“See, a weapon like that spear isn’t really forged out of metal, it’s made of ideas.”

Rosa frowned, tapping the head of the spear with her finger. “Kind of feels like metal to me.”

“Well yes, of course it’s metal to us,” Evangeline said. “But gods are creatures of spirit and ideas, they don’t work in real metals, but in ideas that take the shape of metal. Did you ever read the Iliad?”

“Mmm, skimmed it,” Rosa shrugged.

“Well, Homer goes into quite a bit of detail on the shield of Achilles,” Evangeline said. “The Shield is not described in terms of metal, but in terms of the imagery and the potential for meaning. Achilles’ shield bore the very image of a microcosm, as if he carried an entire world’s worth of ideas in that one shield. The relationship between life and death, war and peace, civilization and destruction, all carved into a single circle of metal. It’s little wonder that a shield with such conceptual power was indestructible.”

“So my spear’s concept is…what?” Rosa asked.

“You have to ask?” Evangeline looked at her curiously. “Your spear is war and violence born out in metal shape. With the right training I can see it as clear as the Spartan Lambda on your armor. Speaking of which…your armor is very rudimentary. It’s the idea of ‘protection’ crafted rather crudely into bronze and gold…Ares is not one for subtlety or complexity is he?”

“No, not even a little,” Rosa frowned. “So how do you go about improving it?”

“As one can sharpen a blade so to can one focus an idea,” Evangeline said. “I have enough training to hone something like your spear into a more noble or more violent weapon. I’m just an artificer, to me it’s not my job to judge on how a thing I make is used, so before I can start improving this weapon, I need you to tell me what you want out of it. It’s not just about what the spear can do, I need to know what you plan to do with the spear.”

“Hmmm…” Rosa fell silent as she began to think. “I think…that spear was made with only one thing in mind: to kill.”

“That’s about right,” Evangeline said. “It is a rather savage spear in that respect.”

“I want something more trained,” Rosa said. “Something that can lash out with more than just violence. I want a spear that can…protect as well as destroy. One where I can aim where all that wrath is going.”

Evangeline smiled at her. “I think I can arrange something like that, though I’ll need you around for help on it.

“Right,” Rosa nodded. “I’ll be around but…hey can I ask you something?”

“By all means,” Evangeline nodded. “What is it?”

“You seem a bit…well umm…”

“Unusual?” Evangeline smiled mischievously. “Unorthodox? Not what I appear?”

“…Too hot for the job,” Rosa settled on. “Like I expected a burly amazon with an arm like a tree, not a lingerie model.”

“I actually used to model while I was getting my Masters in mechanical engineering,” Evangeline chuckled. “Not lingerie though.”

Rosa clicked her tongue in disappointment.

“Either way, what got you the job?”

“Well I have a mind for machines, always have,” Evangeline said. “Though not really the forging process. That part came after Hephaestus offered me the job.”

“And what convinced him to…wait…” Rosa’s brow furrowed. “Did Hephaestus offer you the job because you were hot?”

“If I said that had nothing to do with it, I’d probably be lying.” Evangeline shrugged. “Not like I was advertising it though. He is a touch lonely and not great with women. I’m not surprised he might have given me a long look…that said…”

Evangeline rested one hand on the table as she pointed her cane at Rosaria. “I am every bit qualified for this job, Miss Kokinos. Try to imply I got it for my looks alone and I will show you just how wrong you are, Champion of Ares or not.”

Rosa raised her hands in submission. “Look you got it, whatever you say.”

“That said, it did have its downsides,” Evangeline said. “Hephaestus picking me did not endear me to a certain Goddess of Love.”

“Ah…right, I suspect not,” Rosa said. Aphrodite was not known to tolerate other beautiful things.

“So she set about making sure I was very visibly imperfect,” Evangeline tapped her lame leg with her cane.

“Wait…so Aphrodite made you a cripple? Out of jealousy?” Rosa asked incredulously.

“I am most assuredly not a ‘cripple’,” Evangeline said, losing her smile for a moment. “I am somewhat disabled but perfectly functional in all aspects of life, even if I’m not running any marathons.”

“Right…sorry,” Rosa said sheepishly. “I meant more…Aphrodite’s kind of a bitch.”

“Well on that I agree, if not necessarily in your vocabulary,” Evangeline’s smile returned. “But I like to think of it as a…badge of office. I’m even more like my boss now.”

“Heh, sounds about right,” Rosa said. “Though I’d like to be as little like my patron as I can.”

“Understandable,” Evangeline nodded. “You know, I think talking to you like this will help a lot when we’re reworking your artifacts. Would you mind coming around a few times a week? Or maybe I can come to you?”

“Sure,” Rosa shrugged. “I’m pretty free. I train with Hildegard and Cat most mornings and I have a lot of lessons with Capitolina, but I can make time.”

“Excellent,” Evangeline smiled. “Well then not to be cliché but I think this might be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

Rosa chuckled. “Don’t get sappy on me, but I wouldn’t mind hanging around you.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 19

October 9th, 2024

The day of election had finally come to Rome. Amidst gathered crowds and held breaths, the Roman Senate cast their votes for who would be the next Consul, the one who would take over after Capitolina’s temporary rule had ended and would guide the Senate and with it Rome.

Catarina, begin Albion’s apprentice, had been invited to join the gathered crowd within the Senate chamber, and there she watched as the senators cast their vote and formally announced that Albion Nassar would be the next Consul of Rome. There was a great deal of applauding and cheering, even from his opposition, and Cat saw Senator Patricia Bellos clap politely along with them. While he wasn’t a king, and the Consul was meant to guide the Senate rather than command it, Albion was now undoubtedly the most powerful man in Rome.

Cat listened to his speech from the balcony seats of the Senate chamber with Rosa seated next to her. Though uninterested in politics, she had come on Capitolina’s request and was sitting through it with a bored expression on her face. It was a good speech, to be sure, but Cat’s mind was focused elsewhere. She thought of the Dragon of the World Tree, gaining its strength in the North. She thought of the people who might be able to help her reach it. And she thought of the jaguar spirits that haunted the distant forests of Central America. As her eyes wandered over the senate chambers, she caught sight of Albion’s assistant, Lutetiana, seated near the front. Popular rumor had it that Albion was dating her, or at least sleeping with her. Cat wasn’t sure whether it was true or not, but more and more something about the silver-haired mage set her on edge.

After his speech was done and another round of applause filled the Senate chambers the crowd rose to disperse.

“Come on,” Cat said to Rosa. “Let me congratulate him and we can get going.”

“Finally,” Rosa groaned. “This went on waaaay too long.”

“Hey, it’s an important event,” Cat scowled. “Not every day we get a new Consul.”

“I guess,” Rosa shrugged. “Come on, let’s get going.”

“Alright, alright,” Cat rolled her eyes as she went down to congratulate him.

She managed to work her way through a crowd to reach Albion, shaking his head and giving him a polite ‘congratulations’.

“Ah, Catarina, I’m glad I caught you,” He said, smiling at her. “I want to see you in my office in an hour, if you’re available.”

“I…of course,” Cat nodded. “I’ll be there.”

Despite Rosa’s protestation an hour later she was in Albion’s office, which was already being cleared as he began his move to the Consul’s chamber. Still they were alone when he sat at his desk and offered her a seat opposite himself.

“What did you need me for?” Catarina asked, curious as she took the seat.

“I may have won my position but I need to act quickly upon it if I wish to make an impression. To that end I am putting together a diplomatic expedition, and I want you to be a part of it.”

“An expedition?” Cat asked. “To where?”

“To the Alps,” Albion said. “Not too terribly far but important nonetheless. They form the bulwark against northern monsters and having their settlements join Rome will be a key part to securing the borders of the field.”

“I see,” Cat said. “But why would I be part of it? I don’t have diplomatic training…”

“No, and you will not be the expeditionary lead,” Albion said. “However, you are my apprentice, as well as a skilled mage and something of a celebrity. Your presence will add weight to the arrangements.”

“Who else is going?” Cat asked, still caught up in her surprise.

“Your friend, Ms. Kokinos, and your adoptive sister, Ms. Jazheil, will be there for protection. The chief Diplomat will be Giovanni and his secretary, Ms. Notaros.

“Kokinos…” Cat looked at him before realizing. “Oooh Rosa, right. Okay.”

“I’ll have a detailed outline for the expedition for you within two days, you’ll leave within the week,” Albion continued. “We can’t afford to wait around.”

“R-right,” Cat nodded hurriedly. “Thank you and…ah congratulations again.”

“Thank you, Catarina, you are dismissed,” Albion said, waving her off, and Cat got to her feet before bowing her head and exiting.

“Well, that didn’t take too long,” Rosa said, meeting her outside. “What’s up?”

“Think we’re going on a mission soon,” Cat grinned. “Diplomacy work in the Alps.”

“Not exactly my strongest skill,” Rosa frowned.

“Well, I think we’re mostly there for protection and prestige,” Said Cat. “But I need to tell Hanne and Schehera…oh! And Gisela as well, probably.”

“Ah right your creepy prisoner teacher,” Rosa said. “Gotta say you visiting her for advice has this creepy Silence of the Lambs feel to it, you know?”

“Not really,” Cat frowned. “Is that a reference to something?”

“Forget it,” Rosa said, waving it off. “Whatever, is she teaching you how to kill Nidhoggr?”

“Well…in her way I guess,” Cat struggled with a way to describe it.

“Well if you’re going to see your creepy teacher you’re not coming back in time for combat training,” Rosa frowned.

“Ya…sorry about that,” Cat said.

“Well that just means I’m going with you.”

“Wait what?” Cat stared at her.

“You heard me,” Rosa said. “I’m not letting you ditch me, so I’m going too.”

“B-but I’m going to my house…”

“Ya so? You let Gisela in didn’t you? If you say I’m not welcome I might just start taking offense.”

“Ergh it’s not like…ugh fine, whatever you can come,” Cat put her palm to her forehead. “Come on, it’s a long walk.”

 

Together the pair of them set off towards the edge of Rome, taking nearly two hours on foot to reach the front gate of the Aldobrandini household, and they were well into conversation by the time they arrived.

“Look, all I’m saying is you need to be more aware of your limited range,” said Cat. “A spear isn’t a sword so stop treating it like one.”

“That’s because you don’t know a damn thing about spears,” said Rosa. “I’m plenty aware of my range, I just need to work not to trip over you. I need some maneuvering room.”

“If I moved any further away I’d be leaving huge gaps for Hilde to exploit.”

“If you got any closer I’d have you buy me dinner first, seriously it’s too close.”

“It is not, you’re just not used to fighting in a group.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

“Well like I said you…ah, here we are,” Cat said as she worked to unlock the gates, the key tied to the numerous magic wards protecting the front entrance as well as the physical lock.

As they stepped inside, Cat turned to lock the gate closed again as Rosa walked forward to view the manor atop the hill, giving an impressed whistle.

“Wow, you were more loaded than I thought, Cat,” She said.

“I’m not,” Cat blushed. “My family was, not that it means much anymore.”

“It means you’ve got this huge mansion,” said Rosa. “Seriously this is the kind of house that other rich people envy.”

“Oh, shut up and come on…” Cat said.

“Why don’t you live here again?” Rosa asked. “Hanne’s house is tiny, bet here you could give everyone their own wing.”

“Shut uuuup.”

“Seriously did you guys have servants?”

Cat clamped her mouth shut, keeping her eyes pointed forwards as they walked up the hill.

“You guys totally had servants. Wow, are you doing auditions for a new maid?”

“That’s not…you’re way off…”

“Cause I would totally do it if you paid me to live here on the side. Hell, I’d wear the frilly dress and everything.”

Cat paused mid-stride as the image filled her mind, but she pushed onwards as she tried to shake it from her thoughts.

“There were no frills! And I’m not hiring you to be a maid!” Cat shouted.

“I get it. Position filled,” Rosa sighed sarcastically

“You are just the worst sometimes…”

“Eh, you just need to lighten up,” Rosa shrugged as they stepped inside the manor. “So where’ve you got her locked up? The dungeon?”

“We don’t have a dungeon,” Cat sighed. “Gisela is probably in the study.”

“Well lead on, I’d probably get lost looking for it,” Rosa said, falling in behind her.

“I can only hope,” Cat said.

“See? That’s the spirit. No fun if I’m the only one giving,” Smiled Rosa.

Sure enough, they found Gisela in what was once her father’s study, which had been converted into a makeshift library while Gisela sorted through boxes of books and tomes. Cat made sure to check that the wards were still active before stepping inside.

“Glad to see you’re still here,” Cat announced herself as she stepped in. Gisela didn’t look up from where she was sorting piles of books.

“Welcome back, Catarina, I didn’t expect to see you until Friday. Some news with the election?”

“Albion won,” Cat said.

“Of course he did,” nodded Gisela. “And you brought a guest I see.”

“Ya, Rosa insisted on coming,” Cat rolled her eyes. “But I came to talk to you. Albion’s putting an expedition together that he wants me to be a part of.”

“Military? Diplomatic? Exploratory?” Gisela asked.

“Umm he said diplomatic,” said Cat.

“Who else is going?” Gisela never missed a beat as she asked questions.

“He wants me, Rosa, Hilde, Gio, and Gio’s secretary, I think.”

Gisela snorted softly. “Definitely at least some military component. That’s a show of force right there.”

“I mean…ya probably,” Cat frowned. “Point is I’m going so I’ll be missing some of your lessons.”

“Oh, I all but insist that you go,” Gisela said, finally looking up from her books.

“Wait…you do?” Cat asked, nonplussed.

“Of course,” Gisela nodded. “I think it will be an excellent experience for you.”

“Well…alright then,” Cat said, before she could ask more, Rosa stepped into the study.

“So you’re the prisoner then, Gisela right?”

“That would be correct,” Gisela turned to her, regarding her with cold eyes.

“I’ve been wanting to get a look at you ever since I heard you almost beat Aurelio,” Rosa said. “I’m not too impressed.”

“Think what you will,” Gisela shrugged. “I’m not particularly inspired to impress you.”

“Well as one champion to another I make it a point of comparing,” Rosa said. “Need to make sure I’m not being showed up, after all.”

“Well let me put those fears to rest, as a champion you’re still an amateur.”

Rosa’s brow furrowed. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” Gisela said. “You wield power like a child with a baseball bat.”

“Er…come on now…” Cat said. “Not in the study.”

“No, by all means this will suffice,” Gisela said. “Come, Champion of Ares, try to strike me.”

Rosa had moved forward before Cat could stop her, moving skillfully through the book tiles as she all but charged Gisela, fingers curling into fists.

“Dammit…” Cat sighed. “If you two break anything…”

Rosa threw the first punch, not with much weight or power as she tested Gisela’s speed, and Cat could only watch as Gisela not only deflected her fist skillfully, but with what looked like ease. Rosa drew back before pushing for another assault, her fists moving like a deft pugilist as she tried to strike at Gisela, but Gisela moved with a grace that seemed almost unnatural, deflecting every one of Rosa’s strikes. She wasn’t blocking them, it was clear from her movements and posture that she lacked the raw strength to intercept a direct hit, but with a blend of martial arts and divine speed she had made herself nearly untouchable.

“Damn, you’re quick.” Rosa pulled back, and Cat was shocked to see a smile on her face, “Like fighting an eel.”

“You’re trained at least,” Gisela said, flexing her hands. “Better than Aurelio certainly, though you lack focus and finesse.”

Rosa seemed about to charge again, but reined herself in as she uncurled her hands. “Heh well…if I tried to get any more focus, I think we’d wreck the place. Cat wouldn’t let me hear the end of it.”

“You bet I wouldn’t,” Cat crossed her arms stubbornly.

“Heh, well your creepy teacher isn’t half bad,” Rosa smirked.

“Likewise…call me, impressed, Champion of Ares.”

“Call me Rosa,” she said. “And I’m going to call you Gisela since I’m not about to try to pronounce your patrons name.”

“Itzpapalotl,” Gisela said. “It sounds like it’s spelled…but very well.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 7

September 22nd, 2024

 

There was a stirring in the darkness, a shadow that wound its way through the trees as Cat wandered through the ancient forest. Snow was falling gently, hushing all noise within to silence as any hint of birds or insects was gone, the wind deathly still as the cold night drifted over the forest. Cat wandered with caution through the trees, sword in hand, as she picked her way across the forest floor, never leaving her back unchecked for too long, moving this way and that with slow deliberate steps as she waited for the next attack.

For Cat was not alone in the darkness. Something shifted in the trees, always just out of view, something massive and coiling as it surrounded her on all sides. As the darkness spread it whispered to her in a dozen hushed voices, the words wafting gently into her ears but their tone acrid and unrelenting.

“There’s no place for you in this city,” The voice of Capitolina lacked its characteristic warmth and praise. “We don’t need you.”

Cat ground her teeth; she wasn’t about to be tricked.

“It’s time you found your own way,” Hanne’s voice spoke to her next. “We don’t want you here.”

“Shut up!” Cat shouted at the darkness. “I’m not about to be tricked.”

“Oh, I doubt that” The cold voice of Gisela sounded next, and for a second Cat could see her out of the corner of her eye, a silhouette standing against the darkness, vanishing when she turned her way. “You’re a fool, and underestimating your enemies is going to get you killed.”

“I’d like to see them try,” Cat’s hands tightened on the hilt of her sword.

“All you mages are the same” The voice of Vittorio of Sicily came next. “A tyrant’s blood runs in you. You’re no hero, just a monster waiting to be born.”

Cat didn’t reply; she wasn’t going to argue with a shadow.

“I put my trust in you,” Asha’s voice came next. “I guess it really wasn’t worth that much to you.”

“I’d never betray anyone’s trust!” Cat snapped. “Not Asha’s, not anyone’s!”

“You’re not a hero,” The voices said together, speaking as a single bodiless chorus. “You’re a child lost in the dark.”

Cat spun around, sword raised, the silver blade’s shine seeming to grow dimmer by the second as she looked for the source of the voices, the head of whatever darkness surrounded her.

 

A child lost in deep delusion

Of stunted build and crippled urd

An ill-born story told and ended

The womb and tomb of tales untold.

 

Cat felt herself shiver as the echoing voices came together into the terrible voice of Nidhoggr. The dragon of Yggdrassil with a voice pulled from the mouths of countless dead, with those she helped and cared for lost forever in tis jaws. Its great yellow eyes lit up the darkness, sickly blue with the glow of death as its ever-widening jaws reflected the white of the snow, the voices lost within its gullet screaming at her as it roared.

“You failed!”

“What good were you to begin with!?”

“You were nothing but a child!”

“Wake up, Cat!”

 

Cat launched herself forward, all but catapulting Basil from where he had been curled at her side and nearly headbutting the person who had grabbed her shoulders in her sleep.

“Ah! Goddammit, you almost clocked me there!” Rosa pulled back, releasing her as Basil darted out of the room.

“Ah! S-sorry, what time is…w-wait…” Cat blinked her eyes rapidly as the dream faded away. She was in her bed, in her room, wrapped in her blanket as the late morning sun came streaming in through the windows. The only unusual thing in her room was Rosa standing over her bed, hands on her hips and an annoyed expression on her face.

“G-get the hell out of my room!” Cat shouted at her, pulling up the blanket. “Who let you in here!?”

“Hilde,” Rosa said simply, not moving. “You missed practice, I mean what the hell we had a day scheduled!”

“Get out, get out!!” Cat shouted, grabbing her pillow and throwing it at her. “I’ll meet you downstairs just get out of my room!”

Rosa deftly dodged the pillow as she started backing out, a smirk growing on her face. “S’not like I caught you with anyone in here.”

“Wha-“ Cat looked at her before turning scarlet. “Get the hell out, you jerk!”

“Or were you worried I’d see you in your jammies?” Rosa gave her a Cheshire grin, ducking another thrown pillow as she opened the door.

“They’re cute, by the way, but I was expecting a onesie.”

“Get! Out!”

With a quiet slam, Rosa slid out the door and shut it behind her, leaving Cat alone in the room and now incredibly annoyed as she tried to clear her thoughts. The memories of the nightmare had already begun to fade, but she could still feel her heart thumping in her chest and the adrenaline rushing through her body. None of it was real, she’d told herself; it was nothing but a dream.

But dreams had power, the witch-goddess Huldra had told her so those months ago, and she’d proven it to Nidhoggr. And while the monster in her dreams might have just been a figment of her imagination, the Dragon of Yggdrassil was very real.

After a few minutes sitting huddled among her blankets and sheets, Cat slid out of bed and retrieved some fresh clothes before heading to the shower. When she made it downstairs a little while later, she saw Rosa helping herself to some of their bacon as Basil eyed it hungrily from the floor.

Before taking a bite, Rosa passed a glance to the hungry cat. “Step off, kitty. This is mine.”

“Mrow,” Came Basil’s pleading reply.

“Nope,” Rosa took a bite out of it, looking as if she gained some real satisfaction from depriving Basil.

“Oh, stop teasing him,” Cat said, annoyed as she pulled some eggs from the cupboard.

“Ya, the bigger Cat is here anyway,” Rosa said, shoving the rest of the strip into her mouth. “You know I appreciate a good pun but if you start sleeping as much as a cat I’m going to have to kick your ass like this every morning.”

“Ya, won’t happen again,” Cat said, too tired to argue.

Rosa looked at her for a second before speaking.

“Something up?” She asked.

“Something like what?” Cat asked, warming up the pan.

“I mean you sound like a zombie and look a bit like one too.”

“Mmm.”

“Oh, come on where’s all that energy from earlier?” Rosa asked. “Unless you’re plotting to try and beat me with that frying pan. Good luck.”

“I’m not going to beat you with this frying pan,” Cat sighed.

“Well then what is it?” Rosa said.

“Just…some bad dreams,” Cat said, sitting down at the table with her plate of eggs and the last of Rosa’s bacon. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Fine,” Rosa said. “Then we won’t talk about it, but don’t go missing practice again. I was pissed when Hilde came and told me you were sleeping.”

“Ya I know…sorry…” Cat wanted to say something, to make fun of Rosa’s own frequent laziness or defend the fact that she’d been having night terrors, waking up intermittently throughout the night, but she felt too listless, too tired, too…grey.

“Whatever, you got magic school at one, right?”

“Ya I…ah, dammit what time is it?” Cat said annoyed, glancing around to take a look at the clock.

“You got time,” Rosa waved it off. “I’ll walk you, make sure that you don’t fall asleep halfway there.”

“Thanks…” Cat said, a bit sheepishly. She didn’t need an escort.

“You still taking lesson with Albion?”

“Not usually these days,” Cat said. “Election’s almost decided, after all.”

“So you’re with what’s-her-name now? Silver hair, big rack?”

“Her name’s Lutetiana, no need to be crude,” Cat frowned. “She’s a really smart teacher.”

“Ya, I bet,” Rosa said. “What do you learn in magic school anyway?”

“Stop calling it that,” Cat said. “It’s more…tutelage and research. I study magic theory and history while working to apply it to my own skills.”

“Sounds even more boring than magic school,” Rosa feigned a yawn. “How do you actually manage to make shooting ice from your hands like a comic-book mutant boring?”

“Oh, shut up it is not boring,” Cat frowned. “You’re just a jerk. You don’t even go to school.”

“Hey, I take plenty of lessons!” Rosa said. “They’re just from Capitolina and are actually interesting. We learn about battles and strategies, not dull magic history.”

“It’s the same thing,” Cat frowned.

“Ya, ya” Rosa shrugged. “Come on, we should get moving.”

“Fine,” Cat put her dishes in the sink, going back to her room to get her books from her room before following Rosa out the door.

“So your friend Megame was causing some big ruckus at the river,” Rosa said.

“Eh, Megame? That doesn’t sound like her,” Cat said. “She’s not the ruckus type.”

“Ya, you’ll have to talk to her about it, I just heard it all secondhand,” Rosa said.

They walked towards Albion’s townhouse at a steady pace, mostly swapping small talk or Cat simply enduring Rosa’s near-constant needling. Something in her simply felt…off, as if she had never fully recovered from the dream. Though she hadn’t been particularly happy when she went to bed either. She wanted to say it was Gisela’s fault, that the woman had gotten into her head somehow, but she knew that it had been since her battle with Nidhoggr that this feeling had started, it had only just started getting worse.

“Hey Rosa?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you ever get…y’know, nightmares?”

There was a brief silence between them as they continued walking down the street.

“Everyone has nightmares these days, Cat,” Rosa said. “We all just need to learn to live with it.”

“Ya, I guess so.”

“You better not be looking for a shoulder to cry on or a girlfriend to discuss your dreams with.”

“Ugh, not with you,” Cat managed a small smirk.

“Good,” Rosa nodded. “I’d have to beat you up if you tried.”

“As if you could.”

The small talk started up again with more energy this time as they continued their path, and eventually Rosa left Cat as they stopped before the thick wooden door of Albion’s estate, the inner lining of the doorframe carved with runes and writing in ancient languages. When she had first come here, Cat had thought it was largely decorative, now she had a better understanding of the kind of mage Albion was, the kind that was always armed and armored. Her mentor was not someone to be taken lightly.

Albion was out today, likely working with the Senate, meaning she had only his assistant Lutetiana for company. There was always his personal daemon, Suty, but she had become much more elusive since Lutetiana arrived. Cat harbored the feeling that the daring young demoness was not only cautious around her, but downright afraid.

“Ah, young Catarina, right on time,” Lutetiana had a voice that should have put her at ease, but instead always made Cat acutely aware of everything she was doing, as if every breath and twitch of her muscles was being judged. Lutetiana was certainly a gorgeous woman, and Cat personally believed that Albion was always swift to use that to his advantage against the other senators. Popular rumor had it that the two of them were having an affair, but Cat didn’t think of Albion as the romantic type.

“Lady Lutetiana,” Catarina bowed her head. “What will be today’s lesson?”

“Today we will be studying the Magoi of Classical Greece, starting with Pythagoras,” Lutetiana said. “I assume you brought the relevant literature and last week’s assignment?”

The lesson went as it normally did. Lutetiana would spend the first hour grilling her over the assigned reading, making sure she understood even the finest detail and recalling an almost encyclopedic knowledge of magical history and theory. After that came the practical where Catarina had to demonstrate that she could perform accurately the rituals being described (Even if no actual magic was being done) as well as the relevance it had to modern Thaumaturgy. Today however, while her conversation with Rosa had pulled her out of the doldrums, it was clear that neither her mind nor her heart were one hundred percent in her lesson, and Lutetiana not only noticed, but seemed to take it as an affront.

“Am I boring you, Catarina?” She asked, golden eyes flashing dangerously.

“N-no not at all!” Cat said quickly. “I’m just…not in a good state right now.”

“Clearly,” There was no comfort in her voice as she compiled a number of withered-looking scrolls on a nearby table with nothing but a flick of her wrist. “Then we will end the lesson early today and you shall have a double-length session next week, with this as your reading assignment. I trust then that I will not be disappointed.”

“N-No, Lady Lutetiana, my apologies again.”

“Then go and clear your head,” she said. “Before I am forced to take further punitive action.”

Cat bowed, gathering up some of the scrolls as she hurried out, hoping not to offend her further somehow along the way. As she left the estate, Cat took a long sigh. From the start this just had not been her day. Kicked out of her lesson (which Albion would certainly hear about), missing her practice with Rosa and Hilde, and though she’d never admit it she was a bit embarrassed at Rosa having to pull her out of bed. Something was wrong with her, and had been for a long time. She needed a place where she could quietly work things out for herself, alone in a familiar setting.

After walking a while through the town she made up her mind. She was going home.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa