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 49

 

The days were growing shorter and darker as the Second Legion continued its hard march north. It was autumn and they knew the days would be growing colder, but it was quickly becoming clear that this would be the coldest and darkest winter in centuries. Every day the sky was hidden by thick dark grey clouds and every night they could barely even make out the moon. Gisela called it the start of the Fimbulwinter, another sign that they were running out of time. If Nidhoggr wasn’t destroyed then this winter would last for years.

The raids were growing worse as well. The daytime was relatively peaceful, and the legion made good progress as they forded rivers and marched through fields and forests. At night, however, the beasts that were gathering at Nidhoggr’s summons surrounded their camp. They had wooden walls, a palisade of sharpened stakes they could set up each evening like one of Caesar’s own legions, but they weren’t fighting off barbarian hordes in the darkness. Each night they would come under attack as monsters and cacodaemons crawled out from the shadows of the night. Cat and the other mages and champions patrolled when they could at night, but they needed to sleep as well, and the camp was large. Every night, the monsters grew bolder and they would lose people, people from Rome or beyond who would not be going back home. The closer they got to Nidhoggr’s infernal gathering point, the higher the casualties rose.

Cat felt her sword slice through the throat of a monstrous wolf. It had been trying to claw over the wall, and with a running leap, it might have made it. It was easily the size of Giovanni in his full form, but far more vicious in appearance with oversized teeth and claws. Black blood spilled across the floor of the guard tower as it slumped down the wall into the ditch below among its brethren. Cat let out a sigh of exhaustion, leaning on the edge of the tower’s railing as she looked out across the wall. Lit by torchlight were scores of monstrous bodies, the corpses of failed attacks against the palisade in dozens of different forms. Legionnaires patrolled the wall with long spears and stood at the guard towers like hers to repel any attack. But now, in the shadow of their enemy, the attacks were relentless. Cat looked northward, and while she couldn’t see it through the thick trees, she could sense the Brocken ahead of them, the Bald Mountain looming on the horizon.

It was October 29th; they were running out of time.

“Cat,” Cat turned and saw Nicomede climbing up the guard tower to meet her.

“Midnight already?” Cat asked, stretching her sore arms.

“Comes quickly, I know,” Nicomede said, looking over the wall to the fallen bodies of monsters below. “I’ve never seen it this bad…”

“Do you need help?” Cat asked.

Nicomede smiled at her. “I’ll manage just fine, Cat. You need rest. Go and get some sleep.”

“Right…” Cat nodded. Leaving him as she wearily climbed down to the camp and walking towards her tent.

She was tired, that much couldn’t be denied. Her limbs ached and she wanted nothing more than to sleep to take the edge off of the worst of it. But just because she was physical fatigued didn’t mean she could easily find peace enough to sleep.

She wandered into her tent and lied down on the cot and old bedroll. The night was cold, and they were lucky to have enough blankets to go around, but Cat was still shivering as she stared upwards at the roof of her tent.

The sounds of monsters being killed at the walls was muffled here, but she could still hear the howling coming up from the woods beyond their camp, and the quiet sense of dread that hung over everyone and everything.

Cat wanted to sleep, knew she needed to, but she couldn’t.

“Having difficulties, my dear Catarina?”

Cat stood up on her cot and turned to see Scheherazade sitting next to her, lounging in a large and opulent armchair as she watched Catarina.

“Schehera?” Cat asked blearily. “I thought you were going to stay in Rome?”

“I go where you go, Catarina. You did summon me after all. I just thought it best to lay low, so you could save your strength.”

“Ah,” Cat said. “Then why did you…show up?”

“It’s clear you weren’t going to be sleeping easily,” She said. “I thought I might be of help.”

“Do you have a sleeping potion or something?” Cat asked.

“Not quite.” With a wave of her hand, the cot had become an opulent bed of soft down and warm blankets.

Cat almost sank into the comfortable bed. It was too soft to be believed and she wanted nothing more than to spend all night in it. But it wouldn’t make sleep any easier.

“Mmm, it’s not the cot…though this is nice,” Cat said.

Scheherazade moved, the armchair vanishing as she took a seat on the bed next to Catarina. “I didn’t think it would be. Talk to me, Catarina.”

“I just…it’s everything,” Cat said. “I don’t…I don’t even know if I’ll be alive in two days. I’ve got this whole huge battle and, like, I know what they say, that you never know when you’ll wander out and get hit by a bus but…I could die…and the odds aren’t that much in my favor and there’s…”

“There’s Rosaria,” Scheherazade said.

“Yeah,” Cat nodded. “What if I died? Ugh I should have waited. What that would do to her?”

“Shhhhh,” Scheherazade reached down to stroke her hair. “Rosa knows what’s at stake, and I saw your little confession, she wasn’t about to stop because of that.”

“Oh Gods you saw that?” Cat pulled her head under the covers, face red.

“I’m afraid so, Catarina. Though it really as quite endearing.”

“Mmm…did you think I did the right thing?”

“Catarina, I have never seen you do something more right,” Scheherazade said.

“Do you have any advice, Schehera?” Cat asked. “Just…I need something that will help.”

“I can’t imagine the anxiety you’re feeling, the worry, the fear…but Catarina…is there anything on your path that you regret? It was a long road that brought you here, and you made many decisions to stay on this path, even when you knew where it might lead you.”

Cat was silent for a long time as she thought over Schehera’s words. Was there anything that she had regretted?

Three years ago, she had left her family estate after hiding inside for three weeks. She had chosen to venture out into Rome in search of food. There she’d meth Hildegard, and from there she’d met Hanne, Capitolina, Schehera, and Angel. She’d decided to train, to become a combat mage like Hildegard so that she could be like a knight, like a hero.

That had led her to Sicily, to Vittorio and Lana, the first real people she’d really helped save. She hadn’t done all that much, she wasn’t the hero of that story, but she had helped and it had earned her the sword she still carried with her, the sword she had insisted be made from the feather of a Primordial, the one weapon that could defeat Nidhoggr.

Training with that sword, to be the best fighter she could, had led her to meet Rosa. Scheherazade had brought her in touch with Asha, and through them Cat had learned how much it truly meant to her to help people. She’d helped inspire Asha to be a hero and helped Rosa overcome her grief to be…well to be the person Cat fell in love with.

Cat squirmed under her sheets. She didn’t regret any of it. Sure, she’d acted a bit like a kid now and then with her head in the clouds, but she’d still been learning. She could have turned back at any time. She could have been a more traditional mage and stayed safe in Rome with Albion. She could have accepted Angel’s warning and found another magic focus for her sword. She could have taken Gisela’s warning to heart and abandoned her quest, given up on being a hero and all the danger that entailed.

“No,” Cat said slowly, looking up at the ceiling of the tent. “I don’t…I don’t regret any of it, Schehera. Not a single choice, and not a single moment. I’m anxious, I’m terrified, more scared than I’ve ever been but…there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now. There’s no choice that I would change. This is where my road was always going to lead, I think.”

“I knew it would,” Schehera said. “From the day I met you I knew that this is where you’d be. The sword of humanity against the darkness. It’s where you belong, and I know you’ll do marvelous things, Catarina.”

“Mmm…” Cat felt her anxiety wane a little under Schehera’s gaze, but she still felt it, that same fear clawing at her heart.

“Hey Schehera,” Cat said. “Can you tell me a story? Just…any story?”

Scheherazade smiled, her very essence seeming to glow. “That, my dear Catarina, is one thing I can absolutely do.”

Scheherazade started telling her a story, not a grand or epic story, but a small story. It concerned a farmer, his son, and a magic sheep. Cat wasn’t paying attention to the details, it could have been any story really. She was just lost in Scheherazade’s soft and comforting voice.

Before the story could end, Scheherazade smoothly worked it into the beginning of another one, never letting the conclusion come so Cat could keep listening to her voice. It wasn’t a story Cat knew, but not one so gripping that she hung on every word. It was a story that was comfortable and quiet, one you tell to a child who doesn’t need excitement, just one that needs to fall asleep.

One story wove into another, and then another, the narrative gliding like a river through the tent as it suffused it with a sense of peace. In the tent, at that moment, everything worked out just fine and all the characters were happy.

Before long, Cat had drifted off to sleep, and Scheherazade smiled quietly at the irony. Long ago, a woman with nothing but stories and her voice had kept a brutal king awake for a thousand and one nights. Now, she had brought a hero to sleep in just a few minutes. Perhaps she really wasn’t as good as the real thing, but she had been exactly what Catarina needed.

“And then,” Scheherazade said, watching the soundly sleeping Catarina. “They all lived happily ever after.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Lowest Valleys

 

“Some of the world’s most powerful entities and nothing seems to get done,” Isis-Ra said, looking over the vast table they had made. On its surface of polished marble and inlaid lapis was a topographical map of Europe and the Mediterranean, all lands from Portugal to Britain to Babylon to Tunisia were there in semi-precious stone, examined and scrutinized by the great beings of three powerful pantheons, Zeus, Odin, and Isis-Ra with Freyja, Hera, and Athena as well.

“Powerful beings make for powerful indecisions,” Odin grinned, leaning on the ‘northern’ part of the table. His lone eye never rose to meet theirs, always seeming to track back to a mountain in Germany, where the Nidhoggr’s presence had been marked in swirling black and blue fog.

Three other parts of the map were similarly marked. Over Cairo, the land was black and twisted as something seemed to move beneath the stone. In Greece, fire bellowed from the mountains and hurled ash into the atmosphere over the table. In Babylon, something spread a black corruption across the land.

“Four dragons,” Zeus said. “Four monsters to be slain or thrown back beneath the earth.”

“And none of us with the power to do it alone,” Isis-Ra said.

Zeus scoffed. “I defeated Typhon once, I can do it again.”

“Even if that were true, Lightning-hurler,” Odin said, leaning on his spear. “None of us are in our prime anymore, and that would end but one problem. Typhon might be destroyed but I assure you that if Nidhoggr is not stopped, the Fimbulwinter will not end at my borders. Each of these dragons is a world-ending threat alone. All at once, they are hardly short of invincible.”

Zeus’ face grew stern as he looked down at his own lands. “They may be of the same essence but these creatures do not fight as one.”

“Agreed,” Isis-Ra nodded. “All of them have differences in their methods though their end result is the same. Apep seeks total dominion of the Underworld, twisting and binding the souls of the dead until it can unleash them all upon the earth and claim that for its kingdom as well.”

Odin nodded and turned to Zeus. “And you, Lord of Olympos. What does your monster want?”

“What it has always wanted,” Zeus folded his arms. “It is Gaia’s vengeance, the anger of the Earth given form. It would rip the gates off Tartarus and unleash its siblings, the Titans, back into the world.”

“The Titans were much like we Olympians once,” Hera said, reclining on her throne of cloud and marble nearby. “Powerful, glorious…but their long stay in Tartarus has twisted them until they became as vile as Typhon itself. They want nothing more than to tear down Olympos and the world with it.”

“Freyja’s told me about your wyrm,” Athena said, looking at the two Norse gods. “That it heralds the end of the world…seems almost tame by comparison.”

Odin looked at Athena. Since he had arrived, to most of them he had appeared almost like a doddering old man, more a trickster than the head of a pantheon. But when he looked at Athena, even the grey-eyed goddess of war was humbled by the power in his one-eyed gaze.

“Freyja has not seen Ragnarok,” Odin said. “She is wise in many things, but she does not understand it as I do.”

Odin tapped his spear across the floor and the table map shifted, focusing itself upon Northern Europe and Scandinavia.

“The breaking of Nidhoggr’s prison sets a chain of events in motion, a series of cataclysms each more terrible than the last.”

He waved his spear across the table, and a layer of ice began to spread, like glaciers caving their way across the landscape and crushing the old world beneath them.

“First will be the Fimbulwinter, the winter cold that will bring an end to all mortal resistance and civilization. Their end will not be at the claws and teeth of monsters, but at simply the death of the cold world around them. No food, no soil, no warmth or hope of spring. The mortals will die quietly, and they will be the lucky ones for it.”

“I hardly think theatrics are necessary, Lord of Songs,” Hera said. “We are gods. We have lived through cataclysms before.”

“Though I am pleased by your hospitality, allow me this rudeness, Queen of Argos,” Odin replied. “All of you have lived through hardship, all of you have seen disaster come and go. But none of you, Olympians, have ever died. Your kin quietly slumbered until being awoken again. My people suffered Ragnarok once and we were reborn. I have no intention of letting it happen again.”

“Let him speak,” Isis-Ra spoke next. “Though I will not deny your clear preference for drama…I have seen firsthand the pain of death when my beloved husband was taken from me. I would know what horrors could threaten all the gods of this world.”

“Thank you, Queen of the Sun,” Odin inclined his head. “The world serpent will lash and roil within the seas, creating calamitous waves that will sink islands and nations both. The ship of my forsaken blood-brother Loki will sail, carrying the spirits of the damned and the despised to do battle against my noble Einherjar.”

The waves of lapis roiled and churned upon the map of the world, a great serpent writhing within the depths.

“The skies will split open, and form this rend in the heavens, the sons of Muspell, the fire giants led by their king Surtr will come to the world, shattering the Bifrost with their coming.”

Tiny men moved across the frozen world. Though they were barely finger high to the gods, on the table they dwarfed mountains as they moved, great beings of fire and smoke, with swords that shone like stars surrounded by dancing lights resembling a shattered aurora borealis.

“They will join the frost giants led by Hrym, and the rest of Loki’s foul brood. And that is when the last battle shall begin.”

The stone sea of the table cracked as the serpent broke free, slithering onto the land, armies of giants crashed in all direction leaving destruction in their wake, and in the shadow cast by Odin over the table, the outline of a vast wolf stalked through the darkness.

“These are the horrors that Nidhoggr heralds. And should they join with the Titans, and with Apep’s legions of the dead, then there will be no world left to be saved,” Odin said. “Nidhoggr is the first wave, the ripple that will cascade into the tide of destruction. It needs to be stopped before all else.”

“And is stopping the dragon not what these mortals are trying to do?”

With a wave of his hand Zeus dismissed the illusion of Ragnarok across the table, letting it resettle back into its original form. “A legion of mortals, our champions among them, taking their battle to the dragon?”

“Indeed, they are,” Odin smiled. “Marvelous things, aren’t they?”

“I’m surprised you have faith in them,” Hera said. “Given the calamities you just described. The mortals seem little more than a footnote in your Twilight of the Gods that you’ve envisioned.”

“He’s picked this battle for the same reason I have,” Athena spoke up. “It’s as I always said, there are few greater monster slayers than mortals. They might not be gods, but they have a way of dragging conflicts down to their level,”

“Their level?” Zeus looked at her.

“The Primordials are bound to fate just as surely as anything else. And though they are chaos incarnate, they are bound to certain rules. Just as a God cannot bring their full wrath upon a mortal without due invitation, a Primordial cannot unleash its infinite store of destruction on them either. It would be bound, weakened, so long as no god joined the fray.”

“Clever minds think alike, as they say,” Odin gave Athena a glittering smile. “Though a Primordial, and nigh-indestructible to us, Nidhoggr is a dragon to mortals and can be fought as one.”

“Clever indeed,” Zeus smiled. “And so that is how we provide an edge, using them as proxies and giving them a portion of our powers, enough to give them strength without bringing about Nidhoggr’s divine strength.”

“I thought you knew, Father,” Athena looked at him curiously. “Why else did you make Nicomede your champion?”

Zeus waved it off. “A passing fancy, nothing more, though a serendipitous one it seems.”

Odin noticed that Hera took a long drink from a cup of what looked like wine, clearly irritated.

“So if Nidhoggr falls, and we all must hope it does at the hands of these mortals,” Zeus said. “Will we trust these mortals to deal with Apep and Typhon as well?”

“That can be the subject of later discussion,” Isis-Ra said. “No mortal can face Apep in the same way. At a fundamental level it must be defeated by Ra…but we can provide more guidance to the mortals on that matter.”

“Half the difficulty in defeating Nidhoggr was that it hadn’t been done before,” Odin said. “I’m sure the mortal champions with a little divine guidance can do the impossible again.”

“Hardly seems the meeting was necessary,” Zeus said. “If we’re to just leave it all in mortal hands.”

“That was never for us to decide,” Odin sighed. “That’s a matter for Fate to settle.”

“There is still one more matter before us,” Isis-Ra said. “The fourth shadow on our little world here.”

“Tiamat,” Freyja said. “The Primordial Sea…I’ve heard rumors that she’s taken hold in Babylon.”

“And just as many rumors that she’s about to be deposed there,” Hera said, looking down on the map. “If Ishtar is to be believed.”

“Ishtar doesn’t lie, but that doesn’t mean she’s always to be believed,” Athena said. “When Nidhoggr falls, and I have faith it will…we can turn our attention to Tiamat and see if others from that pantheon can be reached.”

“Tiamat should be a warning to us,” Isis-Ra said.

“A warning?” Zeus asked.

Isis-Ra held out one hand, creating an image of a royal barge bathed in light, rowing through unseen waters. In the other, a growing, pulsing, orb of darkness stood opposed. The barge sailed forward, its light dispelling the darkness, only for the darkness to reform once more. “Apep died and was reborn each night in battle with Ra…but Tiamat was slain by Marduk. Not trapped beneath a tree or mountain, not sent to slumber for eternity. Her corpse formed the earth we thought her forever destroyed.”

Athena frowned. Whereas the others spoke from experience, she had only second-hand accounts of these battles. Still, she was the first among them to grasp what Isis-Ra was saying. “If she has returned, then…”

Isis-Ra nodded her head. “If she has returned, it is only further proof that these Primordials cannot be permanently destroyed.”

 

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 48

 

Noemi stared out across the still ocean, leaning against the railing of the ship. It had been only a few days since the World Serpent had departed once more, though this time with Ophidia behind her. When Noemi had asked to come along, Jormungandr had…Well, Noemi wasn’t sure if it could be called a laugh, but certainly scoffed at the mere thought. Apparently, where they were going, it was not for mortals to follow.

Ophidia had sworn to Noemi that she would return, and Noemi could still feel the divine spark inside of her, the connection to her patron, though it had cooled a bit with the Goddess so far away and distracted.

“Hey, Red!”

The sharp voice broke Noemi out of her thoughts. She looked over her shoulder to see Ronny standing there, the elf holding a mop in her hand.

“It’s your turn to swab the deck, matey, arrr!” Ronny thrust the mop into Noemi’s hands, affecting her best pirate voice. Considering the elf claimed to be a great pirate captain, Noemi thought it could use some work. It was not nearly gruff enough to match the scowl the elf wore.

“I still don’t get why we have to. Every morning there is just a new layer of ghost dust. This ship is uncleanable.”

“Captain’s orders,” the elf shrugged. “Besides, not like there’s much to do on the Dutchman outside our chores, yeah?”

“I guess,” Noemi said with a sigh, taking the mop from the elf. “Though you mean Jonah’s orders.”

“Pfft, Cabin Boy isn’t the captain! We just can’t see the real captain so…that’s why we gotta do what Cabin Boy says, lest the ghosts come to eat us,” Ronny wiggled her fingers, drawing out the words as spooky sounds came from all around her, flashes of light and wisps of color danced behind.

“I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t happen. Jonah’s probably just messing with you, ‘cause you’re a pirate. Or you’re messing with me, because you’re an elf.”

“Hey! I resent that!” Ronny said, putting a hand to her breast as she mocked offense. “I would never!”

“I don’t think there is a folklore with elves where they don’t mess with humans and play tricks on them,” Noemi said. She dipped the mophead into the bucket and started to wash down the deck. “Though, speaking of folklore, what do elves know about Ragnarok?”

“Do I look like I’m from Alfheim, Red?” Ronny said, her hands on her hips as she flipped her long hair back. Noemi wondered if theatrics were what the elf ate and drank, if she survived off exaggerated gestures. “I’m one of the Tylwth Teg. We barely have any connection with those Norse light elves. And don’t get me started on the dark elves!”

“…Sore subject?”

“I wouldn’t expect a human to understand the complicated webs of diplomacy of the Faerie Lands,” Ronny waved it off. It seemed the game of pirate had become less interesting than the role of a snobbish princess. Or maybe Ronny just was a snobbish princess. Noemi could never tell.

“Well, you must know something, right?”

“I know as much as you do, I expect,” Ronny said with a shrug. “It is the end of times, with a giant battle and everyone dies.”

“Really? That’s how you describe it?” Jonah asked, stepping up behind her. The elf jumped in surprise, before turning her scowl upon him.

“Cabin Boy, I told you not to sneak up on me! It’s not fair that your ghostiness gives you silent footsteps.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever, Pirate Girl,” Jonah said, rolling his eyes. “I never really believed in any of this but…I guess it’s easier to believe old stories when you are a ghost aboard a mythical ship. Used to read a lot when I was alive, and I always liked the old Viking stories.”

“You know what’s supposed to happen, Jonah?”

“Mm, as much as anyone really ‘knew’ what was happening before the Days of Revelations. Probably not as much as scholars, but I read the Eddas on my travels.”

“So what happens during Ragnarok?”

“Err, well, it’s a long series of events,” Jonah said. “But I’ll try to summarize what I can. After a really long winter, with battles taking place across the world, all civilization sort of…collapses. Families are torn apart, kings overthrown, the usual end of world stuff.”

“Yeah, that definitely happened where I was from,” Noemi said. There had been complete chaos at the time, even before Aztlan came and made it worse.

“Then the sun and the moon are swallowed by wolves, everything goes dark while earthquakes shake and volcanoes erupt, and the Jormungandr and Fenrir are both free to try to destroy the world, Jormungandr by water, while Fenrir tries to swallow it whole.”

“Then the battle, right?” Ronny says, her eyes wide and excited, even at the sailor’s somewhat short style of storytelling. The elf can’t help but be enthralled, even as Jonah flushes and clears his throat. It was Noemi’s turn to roll her eyes.

“Y-yes, then the battle between the gods and the monsters. They slay each other, and eventually the world is set ablaze by the fire giant Surtr, before being submerged in water, ready for a new age.”

“The World Serpent mentioned a ship of Naglfar? What is that?”

“I think that’s Loki’s ship, if I remember correctly…I think it’s supposed to be one of the things that happens at the same time Fenrir is freed, but I don’t remember what it does besides, uhh, be made out of nails.”

“That must be what Jormungandr was talking about, but I still don’t understand it. If it is part of the end of the world, why is it trying to stop it?”

“Well, the wyrm said it was too early, right?” Ronny suggested with a smile. “Maybe it just wants to go back to bed for a bit?”

“She called it a ‘fake Ragnarok’, yeah,” Noemi said. “But it sounds like a fake Ragnarok is as bad as a real one.”

“I don’t imagine it would affect the Dutchman much,” Jonah shrugged. “But the end of the world isn’t a good thing for anyone, even ghosts.”

“Won’t affect the Dutchman?” Ronny asked, raising her eyebrow incredulously. “What makes you think it hasn’t already?”

“We’re still sailing under Davy Jones’ direction, collecting the dead souls and sending those to the bottom of the sea. That’s no different.”

Ronny stared at Jonah, wide eyed, before her hands went back to her breasts, over her heart as she fell to the floor, laughing. She rolled around on her back, in a fit of cackles, her feet banging against the floorboards. Noemi found the laughter infectious, feeling giggles building in her throat, though she didn’t know just what had sent the elf into a laughing fit. Neither did Jonah, it seemed.

“What’s so funny?” He asked, annoyed.

“You humans sure are blind sometimes. How many ghost ships did you used to have to fight, mm? What, one every other year? Every five?”

“Communications between ships was always getting better,” Jonah said. For Noemi, the pieces started to fall into place. She looked at the ghost and could see it was dawning on his mind as well, as he looked away, mumbling his words.

“And how many have we fought in the last month?”

“…Six.”

“That’s only if you count multi-ship battles as one,” Noemi said. “I think it’s been ten all together…”

“You’re saying that the ships reappearing comes from this false Ragnarok?”

Ronny sat up, still giggling as she took deep breaths. As she looked at the two humans standing over her, her cheeks started to bulge again as she tried to hold in her amusement. Noemi rolled her eyes, stomping her foot imperiously to get the elf to focus.

“Ronny.”

“Sorry, but…They’re Viking ghosts, more often than not. They’ve been mostly in the northern waters. Of course it’s related!”

“She has a point, Jonah,” Noemi said, running a hand through her hair. It had been easy to ignore the connections between the individual ghost ships that they had encountered. They all had flown different colors, all had seemed to be unique occurrences. Looking at the big picture, it became a lot clearer that it was an anomaly. Noemi blamed it on the way the Dutchman traveled. Appearing in random places without any clear bearing on how they got there made travel mapping a pain.

“If that’s the case then—” Jonah started.

“Then you’re already drawn into this false Ragnarok thing, same as Red,” Ronny said, sitting up with a wild smile. “Looks like you got conscripted to this wyrm army thing too, Cabin Boy.”

“I don’t answer to Jormungandr, err, I mean, the ship doesn’t,” Jonah said. “Only if the Captain says…”

“I think what she means, Jonah, is that your boss already decided. Look,” Noemi pointed across the railing, to where the morning fog was still rolling over the cold ocean waters. Jonah moved beside her, squinting his eyes, before his already ghostly face went even paler. Ronny hopped to her feet, a hand over her saber as she joined them on Noemi’s side.

Black sails fluttered in the cool early wind. Longboats, prows curved like dragons, their hulls covered in barnacles and slime from the ocean’s depth, rocked towards them. The sound of drums beat in the distance in time to the splashes of oars on the water. Noemi watched as the shadows in the fog took shape, their silhouettes starkly outlined by the mist.

Their flags caught the wind, bearing a symbol that Noemi didn’t recognize. Five sails, all with the same straight line running down it like a tree, with two branches hanging off its left side. Ronny muttered the name of it, just loudly enough for Noemi to catch it.

“Ansuz.”

“But…That’s backwards…” Jonah said, his brow furrowing. “The branches for Ansuz are on the right side.”

“Yeah, when they’re for the Traveler!” Ronny shouted. Noemi turned, giving the elf a curious look.

“I thought you didn’t know much about the Norse?”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t know how to read the letters they sent! Ansuz facing right is usually used for messengers of Odin. When it’s reversed it’s…”

“Loki?” Noemi guessed.

“The Trickster. Yes.”

The three fell silent for a moment. They could hear the chanting from the other ships as they drew near. Above the shouts and jeers, one cry was distinct, making Noemi’s blood run cold and her heart race.

“For the Naglfar!”

“If that’s the case,” Noemi said, pulling her gun from its holster. “We better get to the guns. I’m not interested in losing my nails today.”

 

 

 

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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

Seeking Advice

 

The scent of tea always calmed Cat down, even if it was the locally produced herbal tea rather than the exports she’d grown up on. The legion was camped for the night and the sun had started to set as Cat sat with Megame in a large tent, sharing cups of tea between them as they chatted in the waning hours of the day.

“You seem a bit…off, Cat-chan,” Megame said as Cat took a long gulp of tea.

“Off?” Cat asked. “H-how do you mean?”

“Just the past few weeks I’ve noticed you’ve been acting quite oddly. I understand the pressure but…still it’s something…if you don’t wish to talk about it I won’t-“

“Ah! No, it’s not you, Megame,” Cat sighed. “It…well, something has been bothering me…if you can keep a secret for a while.”

Megame’s face split into an eager smile. “Oh, of course, Cat-chan. I’m here for you.”

“I’m sort of…well…I think I’m…in love with someone,” Cat tried to say it quickly, almost slurring the words together.

“Eeeee!” Megame practically screeched as she leaned forward. “Tell me everything! Who is he? What’s his name? Is it someone I know? Nicomede maybe? Or some boy in the camp?”

“Well, it’s umm…” Cat’s face was scarlet as she tried to find the best way to phrase it. “It’s…umm…not a boy.”

Megame paused, staring intently at Cat with a bewildered expression before her face started turning steadily redder. “Eeeh…C-Cat-chan I am…r-really quite flattered but…”

“Huh…wait no! Megame it’s not you! Honest!”

Megame sighed, the color draining from her face. “Thank goodness…n-not that I think you’d be a bad girlfriend, Cat-chan but…I’m not sure I could do it.”

Megame managed to pull herself together as she sipped from her tea, taking the moment to think. “Mmm, then who is the lucky…girl, I suppose?”

Cat took her own long sigh, preparing to admit it for the first time out loud.

“It’s…Rosa.”

Once more Megame stared at her for an exhaustingly long moment before her face split into a grin once more.

“Rosa!”

“Keep it down!” Cat hissed at her, glancing around as if merely saying her name would summon the redhead like some kind of demon. “Yes, it’s Rosa.”

“That’s…oooh, Cat-chan, I’m sorry, but that’s just so cute!”

“How is it cute?” Cat asked, still red-faced.

“Oh, just the way she’s always so gruff and in your face and the way you’re more idealistic and kind. It’s a great romance setup! Plus her red and your blue mix so well together.”

“W-well, before you gush anymore, it’s not like I asked her out or anything. I’m still not sure…how to approach it.”

Megame giggled again, even after Cat gave her a glare.

“Sorry,” Megame said. “But the way you’re being so shy and unsure is so out of character for you, Cat. Where’s that heroic girl who fights monsters and saves nations?”

“These are entirely different things!” Cat said. “I work closely with Rosa and she’s my friend and I don’t want to ruin anything…and besides, I’m not sure if she’s even…interested in someone like me, or girls in general. She might even be seeing someone else.”

“She’s not,” Megame said plainly.

“And…how do you know that?”

“Because I pay attention, Cat-chan, honestly,” She let out a long false sigh, even though there was still a smile on her face. “Rosa flirts with everyone, Nicomede and Evangeline-san the most, but she’s not dating anyone.”

“You’re sure?” Cat asked. “Like…super sure?”

“I am super sure, Cat-chan,” Megame said. “And as for whether she likes girls…well like I said, she flirts with Evangeline-san.”

“That could just be teasing,” Cat said.

“Her eyes don’t lie,” Megame said. “And I noticed they tend to go to very particular places when she talks to Evangeline-san.”

“Well, great,” Cat rolled her eyes. “I know she might be gay, but now I’m self-conscious.”

“Mmm, Evangeline-san has us both beat in the body department,” Megame nodded. “But I don’t think she returns the feelings, which means there’s nothing stopping you.”

“There are plenty of things stopping me,” Cat said. “Terror for one.”

“Cat-chan,” Megame leaned in again, looking at her. “You can’t be afraid of these feelings or they’ll keep eating at you. Besides, how do you think Rosa would want you to come to her? Scared and timid or bold and straightforward?”

“Well…probably bold,” Cat admitted. “Knowing Rosa, it’s the only way to get her respect.”

“Respect isn’t the problem,” Megame said. “Rosa respects you, we all do. But you need to show her that you can be as bold with her as you can be with a monster. Do you understand?”

“Heh, when did you become good at relationship advice, Megame?” Cat smiled. “Do you have a boyfriend?”

“Well…no,” Megame blushed. “I talk a lot with your friend Sheh is all. Plus, a lot of it is really obvious when you’re looking at it from the outside. You like Rosa, so you should tell her while you have the chance.”

“Yeah…I knew I’d have to, I just…guess I needed someone to tell me that. Thanks,” Cat sighed, leaning back in her chair before looking back at Megame.

“So what about you? You said you didn’t have a boyfriend but have you ever been attracted to girls?”

Megame scoffed. “No, thank you. I prefer men, Cat-chan.”

“Reeeally?” Cat grinned. “Because I know how much you like Nico and he’s an awfully effeminate man.”

Megame blushed. “M-maybe but he’s still a man, and I value him for his heroic and strong qualities…a-and it’s not like being clean-shaven and thin makes him less of a man.”

“I’m just teasing,” Cat said. “Although…what about Kara?”

At this, Megame stiffened up considerably, much to Cat’s delight.

“What about her?” Megame asked, trying to be as nonchalant as she could manage.

“She’s awfully cool, with the whole ‘pale skin, dark hair, and troubled past’ thing. Heck, just some of your stories had me swooning a bit myself.”

“Kara is very cool,” Megame said, keeping face straight. “But I don’t really ever…think of her that way.”

“Not at all?” Cat asked. “She’s got a pretty boyish build. If you cut her hair shorter you probably wouldn’t even know until you pulled off her-“

“Sh-she’s very pretty but we’re just friends,” Megame insisted again. “A-and besides, even if we weren’t, it’s not like being with her would mean I prefer women.”

“Wait…so let me get this straight,” Cat smiled. “You’re saying it’s not gay if she’s a valkyrie?”

“N-not so crudely!” Megame turned red again. “And I am not interested in her that way but if I was…”

“I don’t buy that for a minute,” Cat said. “I mean I buy that you prefer men, but valkyries are pretty clearly all female.”

“I know that!” Megame insisted, Cat had never seen the girl so flustered before. “But we’re…very close and if she brought it up I’m not sure how I’d respond but I’m not going to…pursue that kind of thing.”

“Well, now you know a little about how I feel about Rosa,” Cat said. “Though with me it’s more that I’m worried it could spoil your friendship.”

“I don’t think it will,” Megame said, pulling herself back together. “I know you both better, and I think this will go well for both of you. Besides…given the mission…this isn’t something you should keep pent up, Cat. And she might be feeling the same way.”

“Right,” Cat nodded. “Heh, does that mean you’re going to confess to Nicomede?”

“N-no!” Megame insisted. “I’m not sure I like him THAT much yet…though I’ll think about it.”

“Mmm, thanks Megame. Maybe we could practice?”

“Eh? Practice?”

“Sure,” Cat said. “Like I try and practice my…love confession, I guess, and you pretend to be Rosa.”

“Mmm, I’m not sure if I can estimate how Rosa would react,” Megame said. “Besides if you kept saying something like ‘I love you’ to me over and over I might faint. I can only take so much after all.”

“Heh, alright, I guess I’ll just have the one shot. Besides, Rosa’s taller than you, If I practice too much, then when it comes to the real thing I might wind up staring at her chest.”

“Probably not a great way to start,” Megame said. “Though now I’m curious…I always wondered how cute I was to different boys. What about you?”

“Heh, you’re pretty cute, Megame,” Cat smiled. “But I sort of got the sense you either weren’t into girls or were waaaay too into your valkyrie friend.”

“S-stop that,” Megame huffed. “Kara and I are just very good friends.”

“Alright I’ll stop,” Cat said. “And thanks again for the help, Megame.”

“Tell me how it goes!” Megame said. “I’ll be waiting eagerly.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 45

 

It took far less time for Noemi to readjust to being aboard the Dutchman than she expected. At first this scared her. After all, it was a ship of the dead. What place did she have aboard it to feel so comfortable? Still, she had spent so much time aboard ships while fleeing Aztlan, that there was something almost comforting about returning to the sea.

What she hadn’t gotten used to quite yet was the bitter cold. The ship was still of the damned as it were, and the dead didn’t mind the cold. All the blankets they had were thin and scratchy, and so Noemi spent most nights curled up against Ophidia trying to keep herself as warm as she could. The goddess didn’t seem to mind, and despite being a serpent, Noemi found her surprisingly warm.

It didn’t get any warmer as they sailed to the north. True to Jonah’s words, there were far more ghost ships sailing than Noemi remembered from her last voyage. Their pace was slow for the Dutchman as they made their way to the frozen north again, fighting the drowned dead that had risen from the sea floor. Noemi had run out of bullets for her guns long before they reached the North Sea and had taken to using a sword to fight back the skeletal sailors.

Still, they had persisted, as the waters had turned dark and frigid, the air icy on the deck as Noemi bundled herself in a coat made of Ophidia’s feathers. The goddess had presented it to her as they had sailed further north, and it was quite effective of keeping Noemi’s heat trapped.

“Yo, Red, help me out with the sails!”

Ronny was hanging off the mast, a rope tied her belt as she sewed up the fabric of the Dutchman’s sails where holes had cut into the sheet. Noemi looked up, frowning, had over her eyes to block out the glare of the sun.

“Why are you bothering? It’s not like this ship will be slowed by holes in the sail. As far as I can tell, it’s all magic.”

“Yah, but it looks ugly. Who wants to sail on an ugly ship?”

“…Pass. If I fall from that height, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to leave this boat.”

“What a whiner!” Ronny grumbled, as she started lowering herself by the rope. “So why are we going north anyway? Cabin boy said it was your request.”

“Mm,” Noemi paused for a moment, looking at the elf, before shrugging her shoulders. There wasn’t really any harm in being honest when they were already on the ship. “I’m going to try to summon Jormungandr.”

“The World Serpent? Why?”

“Because don’t you remember the last time? I want to…take her up on her offer. And Ophidia could really benefit from the cosmic power.”

“If I remember last time, it was considering eating us last time we saw it…You’re weird, wanting to see it again.”

“I guess I am,” Noemi said with a grin. “But she said ghosts aren’t tasty, and think how bad ghost wood must taste. To a giant snake, it must taste like moldy dirt or something!”

Ronny laughed, untying herself from the rope as she dropped down to the deck, but furrowed her brow and scrunched her face again as she remembered just who they were talking about. “Still don’t trust it, her, whatever! They always say she’s a sign of the end, after all.”

“Well, I think we’re already in the end of days, Ronny,” Noemi said. “After all, the dead are rising, people are following old gods and rituals. I guess I’m one of those too, but…”

“If you get us eaten, Red, I’m going to haunt you forever on this ship.”

Noemi sighed as Ronny brushed by to go about her other tasks. The elf was certainly lively, a welcome change of pace compared to all the ghosts and even Ophidia and Jonah, who still came off with a certain distance, but that liveliness sometimes left Ronny storming off in a huff.

“I would not worry, Noemi,” Ophidia said, her voice coming from behind. Noemi felt the goddess’s hands on her shoulders, squeezing them with reassurance. “I did not feel any ill-intent or duplicity from the World Serpent when we last spoke. She seemed an…earnest creature. I do not see why she would have cause to deceive.”

“Yeah, though she’s so…big…I just hope it doesn’t turn you into some weird alien dragon monster, Ophidia…”

Ophidia smiles and gives Noemi’s shoulders another squeeze. “I would not allow such a thing. Especially with a cult that is growing. I am better now to resist such an influence than before.”

“So what you’re saying is that…It was the right call to make the cult first?” Noemi teased, leaning back into her arms.

“I don’t know if I would say that necessarily,” Ophidia said, ending her words with a small huff, before continuing, albeit reluctantly. “However, there are…advantages to the order we chose.”

“Well, I think we’re getting close. Those mountains have been in the distance, just over the horizon, for like three days now…That’s ‘her’ right?”

“It is…a part of her. But we are close to where her essence is at its strongest, to draw her forth into this world.”

“Yeah, they kind of look like those images you see on the maps, where they’ll draw a sea serpent with links like arches in the water. We don’t seem to get any closer or farther away.”

“We are close, as I said. I will summon her in the morning, Noemi, should the stars and signs be right.”

Noemi didn’t get much sleep that night, even curled up in Ophidia’s protective arms. She was warm, the ship trying to gently rock her to bed, but every time she closed her eyes, she could only see the massive jaws of the World Serpent, swallowing the boat as the light goes dark. It had been one of the most terrifying moments of her life, even more than the jungle. In the jungle, she had to run faster. Staring down the jaws of the giant snake into the void…there was no where to run from that.

Eventually, though, sleep had finally claimed her. The sun had yet to rise as she stumbled onto the deck, still weary from the poor rest she had gotten. Ophidia was already there, along with Jonah, as a representative of the Dutchman. He was frowning, clearly as unsure as Ronny about this entire endeavor.

“Are we really sure we want to catch her eye? I mean, what if she changed her mind about not wanting to eat this ship? I don’t want to see if the Dutchman can dive into stomach acid to escape.”

“We’ll be fine, Jonah,” Noemi said, with more confidence than she actually felt. She turned to Ophidia, who stood at the prow, staring out at the ‘mountains’ in the distance. “Ready when you are, Ophidia!”

The feathered serpent nodded. Before the pair’s eyes, Ophidia’s cape transformed, attaching to her arms, becoming a set of feathered wings. Her body started to sway back and forth, as a tail sprouted from behind her, tipped with the same white feathers. Noemi just watched her movements, like those of a snake charming a vole.

At first, there was nothing. No response at all. Yet the tension fell over them like a blanket, as Noemi’s breaths grew shorter and quieter, feeling it building in her chest. Ophidia rose from the deck, hovering in the air, using her wings to twirl like a cyclone as she danced, communicating in a language without words. Noemi had seen her do such things with other spirits, often times she would dance to make the ghosts sluggish and slow. Now, however, she moved with an ancient grace, like a priestess before an altar.

There was a low rumbling, as the mountains started to shift. The moved like a wave, dipping into the ocean before rising up once more, water crashing down around them as the ocean churned. Noemi gripped the side of the ship as it thrashed over the tumbling waves. In the water, there was a large crest of water, coming towards the Dutchman, the height as tall as the mast aboard the man-o-war.

“Here it comes…” Jonah said, his face white.

“I think it should be…’Thar she blows’!” Ronny said, giggling, though Noemi knew it was more out of fear than humor.

Noemi said nothing, as the wave drew closer. It blotted out the sun, casting a shadow over the Dutchman, rising like a pillar towards the sky, before the water fell away, revealing the form of the Midgard Serpent. Salt water came down like a deluge upon the Dutchman, as the giant snake stared with its jeweled eyes.

“You have returned, Feathered One.”

“I have,” Ophidia said, still hovering in the air, moving in a figure eight before the larger being. “I have come to learn and grow more powerful, as you offered before.”

“Already you have become not so small as when I last spoke. You are becoming big, big enough to stand among us.”

“I am, World Serpent, if you would have me.”

Jormungandr stared down at her, ignoring the ship, the “not food” as she had once declared them. Noemi felt like an ant before her eyes, small, insignificant. Not even the Dutchman had firepower enough to stand against the serpent.

“I have gathered to me a storm of dragons, wyrms, and serpents, assembling them and learning what has become of many,”

Jormungandr said, her words causing the waves to rise and fall, rocking the boat beneath. She paused, to allow the sea to calm itself before speaking again.

“Something broods beyond the walls. Rumors stir in the waters of the world. Ragnarok is coming to pass.”

“I thought Ragnarok already happened!” Noemi shouted up, though she didn’t know if the World Serpent could hear her. “Ophidia, ask her that!”

“Has not Ragnarok already passed? The world has changed, Great One, and it is a new age, is it not?”

“It is not. The Norns are silent. The hammers of the shipwrights of the Naglfar clamor in the depths. The Black Ship may soon sail.”

“And that is the end of the world?”

The serpent nodded her head, and Noemi could feel her feet giving out from under her, as if the water of the ocean was sinking away. Jormungandr stopped, and the world stabilized around her once more.

“If you wish to stop the ending of the world, we will need a ship to sail against the Black. This ship. Among many more.”

“Err, I’m sorry…” Jonah said, shouting up as well. He shook his head, his face white. “You want the Dutchman? But…That’s…It doesn’t work that way. Only Davy Jones can command it!”

“Has your lord spoken to you in recent time, ghost?”

Jonah shut up, not having an answer. The serpent focused her intense glare down at him, all but crushing him beneath the weight of it. Ronny looked at Jonah, then to Jormungandr. She took a gulp and stepped forward.

“I don’t get it! You’re Jormungandr, right? So aren’t you on the side that wants to end the world? All the stories we’ve ever told have said that you fight with the giants and end the world!”

Jormungandr laughed, and it was as if a great wind came from the north, pushing the Dutchman back, the sea turning choppy and rough. Spray blanketed the crew, including Noemi, her hand turning white from grabbing onto the railing.

“I seek only the death of the Thunderer. My enemies are not humans, nor the world. For the world is me. Fate must go as planned. Time is not ready for our battle. It is a wrong thing.”

“A wrong thing, World Serpent?” Ophidia asked.

“It may yet come to pass, but there is a hand behind this that I do not like. Join my army of wyrms, Feathered One, and fight against the wrong thing. Do so, and I will make you big.”

Noemi looked up at Ophidia, trying to catch her breath from the excitement that came with every motion of the large snake. Ophidia turned to catch her eye, and in that moment, Noemi saw hesitation in the goddess. A sense that there would be no going back. Noemi took a deep breath, before nodding her head. It was okay. They would do this together.

Ophidia turned back to the world serpent, staring up at her large shining eyes.

“I accept.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Anansesem

 

What precisely happened in the cave at the far northern corner of the world, where the witches were caught in the trap of the trickster god, is not to be said to be true. It should never be mistaken with things that really happened. It was a story.

A story is a story; let it come, let it go.

Anansi had been in many difficult positions before, but this was a tricky spot, even for him. He was trapped in a cold dark cave in the far north at the hands of Trickster God. This was not the first time he had been caught in a trap, and he had escaped from all of them because Anansi is as clever as he is quick. But still, the cold bars of the cage the Trickster God had caught him in could not be broken. Anansi could feel the magic in the bars, and no weapon was so sharp to cut them, nor any weight great enough to crush them.

Anansi was not alone with the Trickster God, of course. The Witch Women were there as well. They were powerless in their cages as he was, for Trickster God had made shackles that bound their spellwork and their hands. They cried out to him for assistance, for they could not best Trickster God without him.

“We did what now?” Ceridwen’s voice was deadpan.

“I do not recall any crying,” Said Huldra, equally perturbed.

It was so! I heard their crying with my own ears.

Anansi needed to escape the bars, but Trickster God was wily. He was no farmer or animal to be fooled by Anansi’s normal games, or so he had been led to believe. He could sense an odd fire in Trickster God. The northern witch had called him malicious and intelligent, with many plans that often got the better of him. But Anansi knew all the spirits and their stories, and he knew Trickster God was not acting like himself.

“It’s Ragnarok,” Huldra said leaning against the bars of her cage. “As it approaches Loki’s character begins to shift. Gone the prankster and the trickster, all that remains of him is a cruel giant who will sail the ship Naglfar to drown the world in death.”

That is what the witch said, and it is what Anansi knew to be true, for Anansi knew all stories ever told.

If Trickster God had lost his Trickster-ness, then he was just God, and Anansi had fooled God many times before. Anansi was proud, but Anansi was still in a cage.

“Trickster God!” Anansi called out, but Trickster God was busy building his massive boat, and could not hear them over the blows of his hammer.

 

“No,” Huldra said. “Absolutely not.”

“Well…if it helps,” Ceridwen looked at Huldra. “I mean what else are we doing?”

Huldra groaned, rolling her eyes in a final spiteful gesture before relenting.

Both witches put their hands over their mouths and shouted “Trickster God!”

 

Trickster God finally heard the calling and stomped down from his ship in rage. He banged his hammer loudly on the bars of their cages.

Bang!Bang!Bang!

Trickster God demanded to know why they were making such a noise, and Anansi stepped up, chastising him for his poor workmanship.

“Look at these bars,” Anansi said. “They are too far apart. I could easily slip through.”

Anansi stuck his leg out of the cage between the bars, for Anansi’s spider legs were long and thin. But his hands were still bound, and while bound he could not escape.

Trickster God cursed for he hated being mocked. He swore to the sky and then used his own strange magic to make the cage smaller. Now the cage was sized for a child. Satisfied that his work had succeeded, Trickster God returned to his ship and his hammering.

The cage was smaller now, but Anansi still had a plan, once more he needed to catch Trickster God’s attention.

“Trickster God!” Aanasi called, but his voice was small and could not be heard over the storm and sea.

 

“Oh, please not again,” Huldra groaned.

“Let’s get it over with,” Ceridwen said, lifting her hands to her mouth.

“Trickster God!!”

 

Once more Trickster God stormed down from his boat to confront the noisy witches, and Anansi caught his eye once more. Again he insulted Trickster God’s craftsmanship, for Anansi could still push his leg out through the bars, though his hands were still bound.

“Look here,” Anansi said. “I could still easily slip away for my cage is too large.”

Trickster God cursed and spat once more ad made Anansi’s cage smaller, now it was sized for a baby. Satisfied, Trickster God once more went back to work on his ship.

Anansi had almost succeeded, he simply needed to catch Trickster God’s attention one more time.

 

Huldra and Ceridwen took deep breaths.

“TRICKSTER GOD!!!”

 

Trickster God stormed down from his boat, furious for the constant interruptions, his head burning like a bonfire and his eyes wild with rage. He was ready to cast all of their cages into the sea for their constant interruptions, and he would have drowned the Witches then and there were it not for Anansi’s interruption.

“Trickster God,” Anansi said. “My cage is still too large, I can slip my leg right through these bars. But I am afraid you can make this cage no smaller, for my shackles will not fit.

Trickster God scowled, he wished to punish Anansi’s mockery but he could indeed make the cage no smaller than it was while Anansi’s hands were bound. So Trickster God removed Anansi’s shackles, and then shrank his cage once more. Now it was a cage sized for a fly.

Satisfied that none could escape a cage sized for a fly, Trickster God returned to his boat, stuffing wax in his ears to ensure the witch women would disturb him no more.

Anansi was trapped now in a far tinier cage, but he was happy.

 

“Why are you so happy?” Ceridwen asked, annoyed as she looked down at the miniscule cage.

“I imagine it’s…” Huldra froze as her eyes widened before a smile split across her face. “Clever Anansi, very clever.”

“What’s so clever?” Ceridwen asked, irritated as she looked between them.

 

What is a cage sized for a fly?

 

“A spider’s web,” Huldra grinned.

 

Anansi unraveled his cage as easily as Trickster God had made it, for none can spin a finer web than Anansi and now his hands were unbound. With ease, then he unlocked the cages of the witch women and the three of them escaped into the stormy night, leaving Trickster God none the wiser, building his boat with wax in his ears.

 

This is the story, whether it is true or not. If it was good or if it was bad, take some of it elsewhere, and then bring more back…

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 44

 

“Talk” Asha slammed the man against the alley wall, hand pressed against his chesr as she stared him down.

“N-no.” The man tried to summon up what resistance he had. He was taller than Asha, but not by much. “The things they’d do to me if I talked…”

Leyla’s sword pierced the wall beside his chest, blade shimmering with heat.

“And the things we’ll do if you don’t?” He asked, eyeing him carefully.

It was a bluff on their part, if a dangerous one. Asha and Leyla had both been pretty strict on that point to Hazif and Freny. They were rebels and they had to fight, but they weren’t torturers, they wouldn’t sink to URIEL’s level.

The man was a mid-level employee at a nearby facility they had been tracking. They had hoped they might glean something from his walking route, but they’d been disappointed. Now, with their gestating cult in very dire straits it was time to start playing more dangerously. Hitting URIEL where they were weak, and even possibly uncovering some fo their secrets, was too valuable of an opportunity to slip by.

Asha pushed her hand hard against his chest, fingers spreading as spiritual energy coursed through her body beneath her skin. For him, it would have felt very hot, not enough to burn but enough to start making him sweat.

“I don’t believe you.” He said “If you were going to torture me you wouldn’t do it in some alley where I could scream for help.”

“Scream and the guards come down on us.” Leyla said.

“Yes, both of us.” The man pushed against her hand, even as he flinched at the heat. “And that’s worse for you than it is for me.

“Look” Asha said “We know you work with URIEL, we know there’s a lot of traffic and shipping into that facility. We’re not looking to hurt anyone.”

“You’ve killed a lot of soldiers” He spat back.

“Yes, we have.” Leyla said “Men armed with guns while we acted in self-defense, who serve a tyrannical empress. We just need to get inside, after that we’ll make our own way. It won’t be the first time.”

“Wait…” The man’s face went from confusion to revelation “You’re the ones who attacked the SV-facility a few months ago?”

“Uh…” Leyla paused as Asha shot him an angry glance. That had likely been where they had found Freny, but letting the man know only made him more of a witness.

“No no that’s brilliant!” The man’s face lit up “I thought you were just thieves or terrorists or something…well, I guess you’re both, but my friend Faraj was one of the scientists there. He said you got them to leave unharmed…Though he said you burned through his lab coat!”

“Yeah that was us…” Asha nodded “We’re not really in the business of killing civilians and unarmed scientists.”

“Who are you then?” He asked “There’s a thousand rumors going around but no one really knows for sure…”

“Well we’ve kind of needed to keep anonymity” Asha said before shaking her head “Back on the matter, we want into that facility.”

“Well I can’t give you my access codes or anything, they’ll know it was me.” He said.

“Make it work” Leyla said “Honestly this is a formality. Force us and we’ll go through the front door.”

The man gulped, clearly straining for an answer. “…early morning, 3AM or so, minimal staff on-site and I could…leave a few perimeter doors open after my shift ends. If you time it right you might be able to slip in without much fuss.”

“Tempting as that sounds” Leyla said “It seems a little too much like a trap.”

“No I swear! It’s not a trap” He said, and Asha couldn’t sense a lie in his words.

“He’s not lying” Asha said “But that was a pretty quick reversal.”

“It’s about more than just my neck” He said “There are a lot of people I work with…good people, some of them working against their will…They’re unhappy but alive, and I wouldn’t sell them out to some bombers or terrorists…but you spared Faraj’s life…and I hope you’ll spare theirs as well.”

“If they’re unarmed and they stay out of our way” Asha said “Then we’re not going to hurt them. But hat about your work? And the URIEL Loyalists?”

The man’s face hardened “Damn them…you think it’s sinister up here o nthe surface? The things they’re doing down there…it’s inhuman, there’s no other word for it. If I had a choice I’d…Can I just ask one thing?”

“We’re listening” Leyla said.

“When you leave, if everyone is out, burn the place down. I don’t want any trace of it left and…well it’s a bit self-serving but it would cover any evidence I leave of helping you as well.”

“I think we can manage that.” Asha said “Although…if there’s more that you’d like to do against URIEL, or you need to go underground, then I know a goddess that might interest you.”

 

It was late at night when they reconvened near the URIEL facility. Much like the last one the building was fairly mundane at the surface, the only sign of anything odd being the sizable perimeter wall surrounding it. They met about a block down the road, but rather than bring Eli along this time they had more potent reinforcements.

“I’m not followed” Freny huffed as Asha checked the corner of the street again.

“You think it’s wise to bring her?” Leyla asked, glancing at Freny “She’s going to be recognized.”

“Hazif’s fault for mentioning it in front of her” Asha grumbled. The second Freny had learned there was going to be a fight she had demanded to be a part of it. She might have been on their side, but she still had a bloodthirsty streak.

“We’ll just have to keep our eyes on her and make sure she doesn’t get too much publicity.”

“Alright…” Lela sighed before handing Freny a long scarf to tie around her face, though with her long horns and whipping scaled tail it seemed almost a pointless gesture.

Together, moving quickly and quietly, they headed towards the facility wall. As they got close, however, Freny suddenly stiffened visibly, halting in her tracks.

“What’s wrong?” Asha hissed, eyes darting around out of fear they’d be spotted early.

“This place…” Freny said quietly “This place. This place. This place…”

“Freny” Asha took firm hold of her shoulder, bringing her back to clarity. Freny shivered her eyes narrowing as her face set into a scowl.

“Are we killing?” She asked, pointed teeth bared.

“If they try to attack.” Asha said “If they don’t, then don’t attack.”

“Hate this place.”

“We’re going to burn it down” Leyla said “All of it, to ash. But first we need to get inside.”

Freny growled again but nodded her head in assent. Together the three of them moved back quickly to the perimeter wall.

The man had told them about a maintenance door on the west wall that was normally locked tight but lacked a guard. They found ti without arousing suspicion and Asha tested the handle, finding the door was unlocked.

“Good man” Asha smiled, but Leyla remained alert.

“It could still be a trap.” He said “be ready”

The maintenance door led into a shaft that, if the man was to be believed, would lead them directly into the facility without having to cross the yard that was strewn with guard. Of course, normally the maintenance hall had its own security but they were trusting their new friend had fulfilled his part of the bargain and seen to it.

True to his word, they found a ladder that led down into a darkened hallway that pointed them towards the facility. Once inside, he had warned, they’d largely be on their own. He lacked the clearance and the courage to try and disengage as much security as he could, and t might have tipped the guards off ahead of time. He had predicted that the second they managed to get to the lower levels the guards would come running.

The long hall from the maintenance office into the facility ended in a steel door that Asha also found to be unlocked. She opened it slowly, poking her head out to find a crisp sterile-looking white lab that was blessedly empty. Most researchers, he had said, would have gone home by now. Many of those who remained were never allowed to leave.

Leyla led them through the halls, sword in hand, as Freny brought up the rear and Asha moved between them, all of them with eyes and ears ready to catch the first sound of interception.

The sound of boots came from around the corner as a security guard rounded it. Asha could seen the startled confusion in his eyes before his body tensed, muscles moving to lift his weapon.

“Freeze!” He shouted, rifle rising to point at them, but Asha was quicker. In one swift blue or motion she moved past Leyla, drawing an arrow before releasing it. The man was falling with an arrow in his chest before he even knew what happened.

“Move” Asha said “The clock just started ticking.”

The man had said the stairwells to lower levels were in the southwest corner, and once again he was proven right as Freny forced open the sealed iron door with draconic strength, revealing the concrete stairwell spiraling before them. As the door was forced, however, alarms began to blaze throughout the facility.

The three of them threw themselves down the stairs, rushing from landing to landing to get to the bottom-most level where URIEL’s dirtiest secrets would be hiding. As they moved deeper, Freny’s movements became steadily more erratic, shivers running up and down her body.

“Hate this place…” She kept repeating over and over, and Asha placed a hand on her shoulder, trying to use her power to calm the dragon woman down. She wasn’t sure if it worked, but Freny did seem to calm visibly at her touch.

The door at the bottom of the stairwell was larger and thicker than the others had been.

“Give me a moment.” Leyla said and he moved his hands over the frame, pressing his palms against where the lock sealed the door and where the hidden hinges were as heat emanated from his skin, enough to soften steel.

He stood back, parts of the door glowing softly orange, before turning to Freny.

“Your show, Freny.”

Freny growled, teeth bared and tail whipping from side to side as she charged the door. There was a sound of wrenching metal as her clawed gauntlets stabbed into the reinforced steel and the door buckled before her before being ripped free from its hinges with a screeching groan of rent metal.

“Good job” Asha said, hurrying through after as she looked around “What in God’s name…”

The halls above had been spotless and sterile, a hall like any advanced research laboratory. Here, however, the halls were darker, lit only by harsh LEDs that bruned in the ceiling. The walls were covered with a tangle of cables and wires that covered every scrap of wall not covered in switches and dials that served some unknown purpose.

The hall branched out into several others, all of them similarly strange as they hurried to find something they could use, or at the very least a place to set their fire. Coming through another door, they found a large bunker that was clearly meant to serve as a dormitory.

A number of scientists, casually dressed in civilian clothes or lab coats stared as the trio entered. The alarms were still blaring outside and several were brandishing rudimentary clubs or fire axes.

“They’re here!” One of them hurried forward, brandishing his axe. “The intruders! They’re here to kill us all!”

“We’re not!” Asha said hurriedly “Just here to stop…whatever’s happening down here.”

“Monsters” Freny spoke next “They make monsters…”

Freny’s eyes were looking over them, narrowed and almost burning with hatred as she stared them down.

“Our work is important! We do the Queen’s bidding and we’ll be rewarded! That’s what she said!” the man shouted, still brandishing his axe dangerously.

“Asif, calm down.” A woman behind the axe-wielding man stepped up to him, placing a hand on his shoulder “I’m sure we can just…talk this…”

In one sudden motion she grabbed the back of his head and slammed it into the nearest deck, causing the man to crumple to the ground.

“Idiot” She muttered before looking up at the three of them. “And a zealot. The rest of us are more than happy to leave if you’re offering escape.”

“Umm…” Asha glanced between the fallen man and the woman “And who are you?”

“Varia Archeille, formerly willingly of URIEL. Now, I would like to leave if at all possible.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 43

 

“Ah, Huldra…” Cat said. “Er…Lady Huldra…Miss Huldra?”

She wasn’t quite sure how to handle the honorifics, but Huldra brushed it off.

“Huldra will do fine, Catarina,” She said, nodding politely, the divine aura soon fading from her voice. “I came to discuss this campaign you’re marching on.”

“Oh!” Cat stood up. “Of course.”

“So this is the Dream Witch?” Rosa asked, standing up as well as she looked Huldra up and down.

“That I am,” Huldra said. “And you are…?”

“Rosaria Kokinos,” Rosa said. “Champion of Ares.”

“Ah, the Greek war god,” Huldra said. “Well then, you will likely find this of interest as well.”

“Do you have a way to kill Nidhoggr?” Rosa asked. “That’s kind of priority number one.”

“Nidhoggr can’t be killed, can he?” Cat said. “At least that’s what Gisela keeps insisting.”

“They are correct,” Huldra said. “Nothing in any of the worlds can kill Nidhoggr forever. It is a part of the World Tree as surely as root and crown.”

“Then I take it you have another kind of plan?” Rosa asked.

“Trap it,” Huldra said. “As Angel has doubtless told you, Nidhoggr may yet be trapped within the realm of Helheim where it had been sealed since the dawn of time.”

“Angel mentioned it might be possible,” Cat said. “I was hoping we’d find a solution before we reached Nidhoggr.”

“You have,” Huldra smiled. “Because my…compatriots and I have been working tirelessly on a solution.”

“Compatriots?” Rosa asked. “Like other witches?”

“Just like,” Huldra said. “Some of the most powerful True Witches on the planet have been looking for a solution. And we have found one.”

“Excellent,” Rosa smiled. “What is it? Like a dragon-sized bear trap?”

“Something a touch more…arcane,” Huldra said. “A very complicated spell that should do just what we need.”

“A spell?” Cat asked. “Something I could have just looked up in a book?”

Huldra smiled slyly. “This kind of spell, if it was ever put to word, was written in tongues unspoken since before men were made from mud and driftwood.  A hundred mortal mages couldn’t make it work.”

“What does it do exactly?” Cat asked. “You have me curious now.”

“A good quality in any mage…in appropriate quantities,” Huldra said. “Allow me to illustrate.”

Before her, scrawled like images in the air, formed the illusion of an ash tree, no taller than she was. Worlds like spheres circled through its branches and along its trunk.

“This is Yggdrassil…as close as it can be approximated in three dimensions at any rate. The worlds twist among its roots and branches in their cosmic dance. At least…that is how it should be.”

She flicked her hand, and the worlds fell out of orbit, twisting wildly along the tree as great rents and savage claw marks appeared along the trunk, the crown shattering and scattering stars.

“This is the trail of destruction left by Nidhoggr as it tore across the world tree. It has sunk its claws deep, drawn ancient magic from the storied wood until it was as eternal as the tree itself, a creature bound forever by fate.”

“All of this doesn’t sound very helpful,” Rosa said, but Huldra silenced her with a look as Cat listened quietly.

“Nidhoggr, the Realms, the Tree. These concepts are tied too closely together for us to force fate against Nidhoggr. No force in the cosmos has a stronger connection the World Tree than Nidhoggr, save perhaps for Angel when she was at full strength. The key, then, is to sever Nidhoggr’s connection the World Tree while simultaneously cutting the walls between worlds.”

“And that can be done?” Cat asked.

“We were not sure at first, but we believe it to be so,” Huldra nodded. “Before the World Tree, before the nine realms, there were only two realms: Muspellheim, the land of fire, and Niflheim, the land of frost. Between them was the infinite primordial void, a chasm called Ginungagaap.”

“I think I read about that,” Cat said. “Gisela had it in one of her books. That’s where the Primordial giant, Ymir lived, right, the one whose body became the realms?”

Huldra smiled. “You are a scholar.”

Cat smiled, face reddening a bit.

“I realized, with Hecate’s assistance, that if you recreated those conditions…If, for a moment, it was on Earth as it was at the beginning of creation, then Nidhoggr would briefly become unbound by fate. The borders between worlds would evaporate, and the dragon could be thrust back into its ancient prison.”

“That sounds…dangerous,” Cat said. “A piece of infinite void on Earth?”

“A tiny portion,” Huldra said. “Like a pinhole in the fabric of reality…though up close even a pinhole can be dramatic I suppose. But it is hardly a threat to creation at large.”

“How long could this…hole into the void be open for?” Rosa asked. “What’s our window?”

“It would last moments, mere seconds at most,” Huldra said. “As they say nature abhors a vacuum, and Fate despises primordial chaos. For that brief window, we would be unmaking fate entirely, unraveling the threads in the most destructive manner possible. The retribution of the Three will be swift and terrible.”

“The Three?” Cat asked.

“The keepers of Fate,” Huldra said. “Past, Present, and Future. I daresay after this is over, my sisters and I will need to scatter to the winds to avoid them. This is not the sort of trick that gives you a second chance. In that brief moment, on that battlefield with Nidhoggr, we will not just be unmaking creation, we will be ripping a hole in time, fate, and destiny. This is not action taken lightly, and there will be ramifications.”

“Something this drastic…” Cat thought it over. “There are other Primordials…we can’t keep doing something like this, can we?”

Huldra shook her head. “No…but order and chaos…there is a balance to these things. If Nidhoggr is defeated the scales will be tipped back towards order, the inertia of destiny will be on your side. Here, you’re working against fate itself. All signs point to the end of the world, the dissolution of reality as you know it.”

Cat took a long breath, sitting back in her chair as she stared into the grass.

It was an easy thing to say you were saving the world. Heroes do it all the time in the stories. But the stories never talked about this kind of burden, this kind of anxiety and stress. She was eighteen years old…how did the fate of civilization wind up in her hands? And now…Gisela had said she might be a hero, an archetype to do impossible things, but if Huldra was right then fate was against her.

How do you get a happy ending when the story is trying to end in despair?

“Hey…Cat,” Rosa was looking at her, concern on her face.

“If I may,” Huldra spoke. “Catarina…I would like to speak with you alone.”

“S-sure…” Cat nodded before turning to Rosa. “I’ll be…back in a few.”

“Yeah…” Rosa nodded back. “We’ll talk later.”

“Right…”

Quietly, Huldra led Catarina away from them and away from the camp until they were out of earshot of any listeners.

“I am sorry, Catarina.”

“Sorry?” Cat asked, looking at her.

“I released Nidhoggr. Whether of my own volition or not…I bear some responsibility to the world as it is now and to you.”

“Ah…” Cat said. “Well…thanks for that…er…the apology I mean.”

“I know, it isn’t much,” Huldra placed a hand on her shoulder. “But Catarina…I am going to make right what I set wrong. No matter the cost, I will be with you to whatever end.”

“Mmm…” Cat’s mind was hardly there, still stuck on what was to come. “What will I need to do for this spell?”

“That is what I wished to discuss,” Huldra said. “The spell will open the door, tear a rift in reality, through which you can send Nidhoggr…but he must be pushed through by force. That dragon will not willingly go to its doom. I can open the door but you must force it through.”

“Which means I still need to beat Nidhoggr,” Cat said. “Somehow…”

“I’m afraid so.” Huldra said. “My sisters and I will be preparing the spell with Angel’s assistance.”

“Angel?” Cat asked.

“We need a Primordial’s energy to call on such power. Only a being whose essence was intermingled with Primordial chaos can help generate a spell to make it again.”

“Ah right…” Cat nodded. “So I guess it will just be me and Nidhoggr.”

“Catarina,” Huldra’s fingers tightened on her shoulder as she bent to look into her eyes. “I want you to remember this, above all else. You are not alone. Your companions, your allies, an army at your back. All of us are with you, all of us are trying to help you succeed.”

“But in the end, it’s me,” Cat said. “I need to push Nidhoggr through that door.”

“Each and every one of us will be pushing with you,” Huldra said.

“I just…” Cat shivered, feeling the weight pressing down on her. “I’m scared…I’m really just…terrified. Of the dragon, of fighting it…but most of all I’m scared of failing, I mean…I’m just a girl! I have a nice sword and some armor but Nidhoggr is this gigantic…chaos…worm thing! I can’t cut holes in a cosmic tree! I can’t fight cosmic eagles and I don’t live forever! It’s just…I’m like this little breeze…I got lucky and I knocked some leaves over…I blew away a shadow but it’s just…one breeze against a storm and I’m going to break if I even get near it…”

Huldra listened quietly, even as Cat stammered, tears welling in her eyes.

“Catarina…” When she spoke, the cadence was kind and soft. Like Hanne’s voice, or Schehera’s, or her mother’s.

“I understand…they’ve told you they believe in you, that you have all the traits of a hero, but you just don’t feel it. You just feel like a person…like you always have. Nothing’s different or special, not in comparison to something like this. Is that right?”

Cat nodded quietly, red-faced and embarrassed to be losing it in front of a Witch-Goddess.

“I’m a witch, Catarina, and a good one. I don’t put stock in heroes and my very existence toys with the fabric of stories and fate…so I don’t believe in you because you’re a hero. I believe in you because you’re strong. Because you faced Nidhoggr’s shadow without turning back to save the ones you’ve cared for, and now they follow you to face the real thing. I have faith in you because I believe in you, child, and not in heroes. And I’ve been around long enough to know that while the storm wreaks havoc, given time and circumstance it’s the little breeze that tears the mountains down.”

After a long deep breath Cat managed to pull herself together.

“I…thanks…Huldra.”

Huldra gave her a gentle smile. “Thank you, Catarina. It is only because of you that what we do is possible. But I’m not alone in believing in you. See to everyone with you, let them know how you feel and I know they will remind you that even to the very end you will not stand alone.”

“Right…I will, yes,” Cat nodded. “There’s some…important things I think I need to say.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa