The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 52

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t,” Gisela said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I-I think it can work!” Megame said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle had begun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good job, Cat,” she smiled at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three kilometers,” Gisela said.

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

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

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

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

“And so are we,” Rosa said.

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

“Then the mountain, and Nidhoggr, awaits.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Roman Holiday – Part II

 

“I think it’s about time we called it,” Rosa said, as both she and Torleif took an exhausted seat on the benches around the ring. “Not bad, you’re improving a lot, short stuff.”

“Thanks,” Torleif said, too tired to come up with a retort.

“I gotta run, Cat’s making dinner tonight,” Rosa said. “And you didn’t hear it from me but she’s real good at it so I’m not about to miss that.”

“Mmm…” Torleif was tempted to ask if she could come along, but shivered as she felt something cool being pressed to her shoulder. She turned to see Echo standing next to her, offering her a sandwich with her own in her other hand.

“Ah! Thanks Echo!” Torleif took it happily. “Have fun, Rosa!”

“Heh, see you later, Torleif,” She waved as she got up and walked off the field.

Torleif bit hungrily into her sandwich with abandon; training was tough work. Echo ate far more daintily as she took a seat beside her, both watching the other stragglers on the field as the sun began to set.

“What’s in yours?” Torleif peered over, trying to see what was in Echo’s sandwich.

“Ah, just greens mostly. I’m a vegetarian.”

“Gross,” Torleif stuck out her tongue. “I love meat on sandwiches.”

“I had a feeling you might,” Echo smiled. “You were doing really well out there.”

“Rosa beat me a lot,” Torleif frowned. “If I used my hammer it would have been different.”

“If you had your hammer, she would have had her spear.”

“True…”

Echo’s eyes turned upwards to the darkening sky. “Hmm…it’s getting late. Where are you staying?”

“Let’s walk around a bit more!” Torleif said loudly, hopping to her feet. “It’s not that late.”

“…alright.” The concern was clear on Echo’s face, but she decided to indulge Torleif a little longer, and the pair walked back into the city.

The streetlamps, half magic half gaslight, washed the streets in a cool mixture of soft yellows and mild blues, and the streets grew more subdued as people wandered home or into pubs as the evening began to turn into night. Echo and Torleif chatted easily as they walked along the streets, wandering nowhere in particular as Torleif regaled her with stories of her travels in the north.

“So, this girl, Wilhelmina I think, had armor and a horse and everything! She looked like a real knight! And she said she’d killed dragons. I’m not sure I believe her but everyone else said it was true!”

“A real dragonslayer? She does sound impressive,” Echo smiled, glancing upwards at the night sky. “It’s getting late, we should-“

A crashing sound caused both of them to jump a little as a chair flew out of a window ahead of them, scattering glass across the street.

“I’m not sure we should get involved…” Echo tried to say but Torleif was already rushing forward, hammer in hand, to find the source of the commotion. She peered in through the shattered window before ducking down just in time to avoid a lamp being hurtled out into the street.

The window looked into a large lobby of what was likely a former hotel. Most of the furniture was gone but what remained was up in the air, levitating as it was thrown violently across the room by an unseen force. At the center were two people, trying to dodge the flung furniture as they searched for its source. Torleif recognized one of them, the fox woman Hachi. The other was a young man with a silver bow in hand, arrow nocked as he tried to fix on his target.

“Where is it!?” He shouted, and Hachi pointed towards an apparently blank patch of wall. “There! Er…there!”

“Which is it!?”

“It’s moving very quickly!”

Aurelio shot a bow, the silver arrow lodging itself in the wall. Another chair hurled itself at them, forcing them to throw themselves out of the way.

Torleif vaulted the windowsill, wary of the shattered glass as she lunged into the room. She could feel the power building in her throwing hand, lightning beginning to dance around the oversized head of her hammer as she tried to find the source of the disturbance.

“Where is it!?” She shouted, the sparks on her hammer growing in size and power.

“Who are you!?” Aurelio shouted, but Hachi pointed towards a patch of whirling air near the far wall. Without pause, Torleif lifted her hammer, pointing it in that direction as several bolts of lightning arced from the hammer’s head, filling the air with static as the bolts struck something that had been floating in the air, invisible.

The furniture fell with a crash to the floor as Hachi rushed to where the lightning had struck, muttering something under her breath as the air began to glow, Japanese sigils writing themselves in the air as Hachi exorcized the weakened spirit.

Aurelio walked towards Torleif, slinging his bow over his shoulder. “I’ll say thanks first but…who are you? That could have been dangerous.”

“Torleif, champion of Thor!” She said proudly, clipping her hammer back onto her belt.

“I hope we weren’t interrupting, Aurelio,” Echo picked her way across the glass on the floor as she entered the room.

“Ah, hey Echo. Nothing too serious, just a poltergeist,” Aurelio said.

“Ah, you’re Aurelio?” Torleif asked. “You’re a champion too, right?”

“That’s right,” He nodded, and Torleif smiled at having finally gotten the better of another champion.

“A poltergeist, don’t you have a specialist for that kind of thing?” Echo asked.

“Aelia’s here, she was just locking down the space to make sure it couldn’t flee.”

“Who’s…” Torleif was about to ask, but before she could say anymore a smiling woman appeared out of thin air beside her, shouting “Boo!”

Torleif let out a shrill short of scream as she moved quickly to Echo before angrily drawing her hammer as the semi-transparent woman laughed.

“Sorry about that,” She said. “Sometimes you just can’t help yourself. I’m Aelia, I’m with the Night Guard.”

“Right…” Torleif was still wary, hammer in hand. She wouldn’t say she was afraid of ghosts. She wouldn’t say she was afraid of anything out loud, but at the very least she really didn’t like ghosts.

“We’re all with the Night Guard,” Aurelio said. “We’re the ones who keeps Rome safe from more magical threats.”

“Cool…” Torleif really did think it was cool, but her eyes were kept on Aelia. “Do you have a lot of ghosts?”

“We have a lot of…irregulars.” Aurelio said. “Only the one ghost, unless…”

Aelia shook her head. “Bernadette’s still not up to this kind of work. She needs time adjusting.”

“Ah well, do what’s best for her,” Aurelio said. “Again, thanks for the help, Torleif, we can take it from here.”

“Alright,” Torleif nodded, gaining some of her confidence back. “And if you ever need help punching out more ghosts you can call me!”

“I’ll be sure to come calling,” Aelia smiled as Torleif shivered, taking Echo’s wrist to lead them out as the nymph waved to Aurelio.

 

“Well that was an exciting distraction,” Echo said as the two of them walked down the darkened streets. “Though now it’s getting very late, Torleif.”

“Ya, I guess,” Torleif shrugged, still walking with no clear destination in mind.

“Torleif,” Echo said softly “Where are you staying?”

“…Around,” Torleif admitted. “Usually the refugee center. But I don’t like it there. It’s crowded and noisy, the beds are less comfy than the ground, and everyone’s asking if I need help or if I’m lost.”

“Don’t you have friends you can stay with? Like Rosaria or Catarina?”

“Don’t want to ask them for help…” Torleif mumbled.

“I see…” Echo said. “Is that why we’re out so late?”

“I guess,” Torleif said. “And I like…having friends around. I know soon you’re going to turn back into a tree or something and I have to go back there. Spirits are lucky, they don’t need beds or anything…”

Torleif felt Echo gently but firmly take hold of her wrist. “Come on,” The nymph said. “You’re coming with me.”

“W-wait…” Torleif had to hurry a little to keep pace with her. “Where are we going? I don’t wanna go back yet!”

“We’re not going back,” Echo said. “But trust me and just follow along.”

Echo led Torleif along into the city, away from the refugee center or anywhere else Torleif knew until they were in a dense clean-looking part of the city filled with impressive townhouses. Echo brought her to the door of a particularly large affair, giving it a knock before entering.

“W-wait,” Torleif tugged at her hand. “Whose house is this?”

“Nora!” Echo called into the house. “I’m back! And I have a guest with me.”

“Nora? Wait, the-” Torleif asked before a new person walked into the foyer. She was on the lean side, with pale skin and dark rings under her sharp blue eyes. Smartly dressed, and with an unusual color to her hair (dyed black on one side, white on the other) she looked over Torleif with brief recognition.

“Ah, Torleif, nice to meet you again.”

Echo looked from Nora to Torleif. “You’ve met?”

“Of course, I showed her to the temple and introduced her to the Thor cult,” Nora said. “Come on, Echo, I told you about this.”

“Sorry,” Echo bowed her head.

“So, what’s up? Was there a problem?”

“Uh…” Torleif went quiet, not sure what to say, but Echo put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Torleif here doesn’t really have a place to stay. I was wondering if she could take the spare bedroom for a little while. At least until the bureaucracy clears up.”

Nora shrugged. “Sure, I don’t have a problem with it.”

“Thank you!” Torleif said, before turning to Echo. “How does a little nature spirit know Miss Nora so well?”

“Who told you Echo was little?” Nora asked, leading them into the sitting room. “Echo here is a celebrity. She helped save Rome during the early days.”

Torleif stared wide-eyed at Echo. “Really!?”

“Well, I might have helped a little,” Echo said sheepishly.

“That’s amazing!” Torleif said. “And I was just dragging you around…”

“I had a lot of fun, Torleif,” Echo smiled. “Although you do have a tendency to run into things headfirst.”

“Well, she takes after her patron,” Nora smiled. “But yes, Torleif, Echo is important, and she lives here as well.”

“Why does a spirit need a house?” Torleif asked.

“Well I don’t need one so much,” Echo said. “But I stay here with Nora to help her out with things.”

“Ooooh,” Torleif nodded. “So it’s really okay that I stay here?”

“For a while at least,” Nora said. “just don’t make a mess and put things back where you found them. Also don’t bother Lenore.”

“Who’s Lenore?”

“I won’t be around much to be bothered.”

Torleif nearly jumped as a voice sounded behind her.

“People need to stop doing that!” Torleif said angrily, turning to face the new arrival. To her surprise she looked a lot like Nora, almost enough to be a…sister?

“I’m Nora’s bodyguard,” Lenore said. “I prefer to keep myself scarce.”

“Okay…” Torleif nodded before turning back to Nora. “My things are back at the camp…”

“I’ll send someone to get them in the morning,” Nora said. “But right now it’s very late. Though…do you have anything to do tomorrow?”

“No,” Torleif shook her head.

“Well then,” Nora smiled. “I think I can take a day to give a champion a ‘diplomatic tour’ of the city. We’ll have a proper Roman Holiday, sound good, Miss Hepburn?”

“Who?” Torleif asked.

“Forget it,” Nora smiled. “Echo can show you to the spare room. I’ll see you in the morning and give you…maybe a better look at Rome.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Roman Holiday – Part I

 

Torleif had not seen so many people in years. The streets of Rome in the mid-morning were lively and bustling as people moved for work, to get food, or simply to get from one place to another. Without cars, horses, or any vehicle more advanced than a bicycle, the roads were dominated by foot traffic. That meant Torleif, still a little short for her age (though she’d never admit it), was constantly underfoot and almost claustrophobic in the tight crowds of Rome.

She finally got some air at an open market on the edge of the Tiber. Leaning against a stone railing, looking down into the slow brown waters, Torleif could catch her breath as her eyes wandered across the view. Over the past few months she could have gone days without seeing another human being. Sure having company was nice, but the city of Rome was a lot of company to ask for.

Torleif’s stomach grumbled unhappily, and she recalled the breakfast line for new arrivals that she had ditched because it was too long. Regret was starting to worm its way into her head as she eyed the stock of a nearby apple stall hungrily, almost drooling with desire. Hesitantly she started to edge closer to the stall. The owner was busy talking with several customers, and she was small and easily missed, particularly since she had left most of her gear in a locker back at the camp, save for her hammer which still hung from her belt at the back of her waist.

Creeping forward, Torleif began to plan her attack, a quick grab and run and she’d be gone…

A hand gently took hold of her shoulder, causing her to almost jump in mid-air.

“I wasn’t doing anything!” She said so rapidly she almost stumbled over her words. She turned and saw the hand belonged to a woman looking at her with a mix of concern and confusion. She was a lot taller than Torleif (though most people were), with a loose chestnut brown hair and bright green eyes. She was wearing a simple sundress of light browns and off-whites, which only brought more attention to the large white flowers literally growing in her hair.

“I wasn’t!” Torleif said before clamming her mouth shut, realizing she was only digging herself deeper.

The woman simply smiled warmly at her.

“Hungry?” She asked. Torleif nodded silently, face red.

The woman with flowers in her hair lifted her hand from Torleif’s shoulder and held it with her palm up at Torleif’s eye-level. Torleif watched, marveling, as a vine crept down the woman’s arm and sprouted into a large shiny red apple in the palm of her hand.

“Wooow…” Torleif’s eyes went big as she took the apple before swiftly adding a polite “Thank you!” As she did before biting into it.

“Of course,” the woman smiled, but Torleif could see a bit of concern in her face as well. “Are your parents having trouble getting food for you?”

“Don’t got parents,” Torleif said roughly between mouthfuls of apple.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Echo said. “But the city has put you with a foster family, right?”

“No,” Torleif said. “Miss Capi Wolf said that my case is strange cause I’m a champion. Don’t need fosters. Don’t want ‘em either.”

“Ah, my, you’re a champion,” The woman said. “I’m honored. Whose champion are you?”

“Thor.” Torleif paused to take another bite before adding. “God of Thunder! Toughest of the gods too!”

“Oh, my,” The woman said. “I’ve heard of him. I’m just a lowly spirit though, I don’t meet that many gods.”

Torleif nodded, though she also saw the smile creeping across the woman’s face. “So who are you?” She asked. “My name’s Torleif.”

“My name is Echo,” The woman smiled. “Nice to meet you, Torleif.”

“Echo?” Torleif asked. “Like in a cave? Echo, echo, echo.”

“Heh, something like that,” Echo chuckled. “But can’t you use the breakfast food line for refugees?”

“That line is so looooong,” Torleif moaned.

“I’m sure it is,” Echo nodded. “Though if you like I can help you get lunch. I know some people who-“

Echo was cut off by the sight of guards rushing down the street up the river, a number of them hurrying together at the call of some emergency.

“U-umm excuse…” Echo tried to catch their attention, but she was ignored as they hurried past her. “Hmm…I wonder what the excitement is…”

“Let’s go see!” Torleif said eagerly, taking Echo by the wrist as she moved after the guards. Echo lurched along after her, clearly surprised at the small girl’s strength.

“But Torleif! It could be dangerous!” She tried to object, helpless to break free from her grasp.

“That’s okay, I’ll protect you,” Torleif smiled.

 

The running guards and soon sounds of commotion lead them to a local park, where a dividing line had been set up to keep out the public, manned by a number of guards trying to hold back a line of curious citizens. Within the park, invisible through the trees, came the sounds of creaking branches and splintering wood as if something massive was moving through the small forest. Without pausing, Torleif pushed her way through the barricade and the guards as Echo helplessly apologized. To her surprise, they weren’t followed as Torleif pulled Echo along into the forests.

In the center of the wooded park was the source of the noise. An enormous and likely ancient tree, with a trunk many times wider than an adult man, was moving and lurching of its own volition, massive branches swaying and coiling as its canopy crashed against the leaves and branches of its neighbors. Near the base of the tree stood a trio of women, deep in conversation as they watched the tree from a safe distance away.

“I can see why you called me, the spirit is clearly very upset,” The youngest, a shortish Asian girl dressed in bright white and red robes with short dark hair was the first to speak.

“That’s what we gathered. Aurelio wanted an expert on the subject,” The second one was the tallest. She was a slender black-haired woman dressed in a long cloak and slimming clothes that made her look like an evil sorceress.

The last one to speak was older-looking, but what stood out the most were the long ears and tail of a fox that poked out from her hair and the back of her dress. “That’s why I retrieved Megame, though a proper expert would be…ah, there they are!” The trio turned to see Torleif carrying Echo to join them.

“Hi!” Torleif waved. “Need some help busting up an angry spirit? I’m your champion!”

“Ah, you must be Torleif,” The youngest woman in white and red said. “Catarina mentioned you. My name is Megame Kamigawa.”

“Oh, right,” Torleif nodded. “Cat talked about you on the trip here. Who are these?”

“This is my friend, Hachi,” Megame said, gesturing to the fox woman who eyed her curiously. “And this is Miss Sybilla, they’re with the Night Guard.”

“We are, and this is one spirit we don’t need ‘busted up,’” Sybilla said, hands on her hips. “In fact, I’m much more interested in what Echo there has to say.”

“Echo?” Torleif looked at her. “She’s just a little spirit though…”

Hachi smiled as Echo stepped towards the thrashing tree. “Something to keep in mind, Torleif-san, is that sometimes the easiest solution isn’t necessarily the best.”

“It’s not too surprising,” Sybilla said. “As they say, ‘when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Torleif frowned.

“It means,” Hachi said calmly. “That when you have something that can fix a lot of problems, like your hammer, you tend to use that to fix all of your problems.”

“Oh…” Torleif said, going a bit quiet as she turned to watch Echo and Megame chatting closer to the tree.

“So can you hear the problem?” Megame asked.

“It doesn’t like all of the new transplants in the park,” Echo said. “It’s restoring the land but the tree doesn’t recognize them; it thinks they’re invading and trying to replace it.”

“That’s not true at all,” Megame said. “We were just trying to bring some life back, and move some trees that would have been cut down for construction.”

“I’ll try to reassure it,” Echo said, moving to the tree and placing her hands on the gnarled bark, vines spreading from her fingertips.

Torleif hung back, annoyed she had nothing to do but not wanting to abandon her new friend Echo with these strangers, even if Cat had said Megame was a good person. A while later Echo removed herself from the tree, vines withdrawing from her hands as the tree’s thrashing ceased and she went to speak to the others.

“He understands and will try to be more cooperative,” Echo said. “But Miss Kamigawa, if you could mention him when you do your rituals for the local spirits?”

“I’ll be sure to,” Megame nodded. “Thank you, Echo kami-san.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Echo smiled before she went to check on Torleif. “You look a bit bored.”

“M’fine…” Torleif mumbled.

“You know, if you wanted to fight a bit you could always go down to the training fields, there’s always someone there.”

Torleif’s eyes lit up. “Can we?”

“I’m not in charge of a champion,” Echo smiled. “Lead the way, the others can take care of the rest.

Torleif smiled and started leading her from the park toward the training field. “Sorry to get you roped into that stuff back there,” Torleif said “I didn’t mean to bother you. All you did was help.”

“Oh it’s no problem at all,” Echo smiled. “I actually like getting to know people, particularly since-“

“Oh we’re here!” Torleif grinned, interrupting her as she hurried towards the field, though she spared Echo her grip this time. While the nymph took to the stands to watch, Torleif looked around to see who was there to spar. She grinned as she spotted a pair of people she knew, Rosaria from the trip down south was in a wrestling match with Capitolina Lupa, the Wolf of Rome, and while the wolf might have had all her strength, she was in human form which meant Rosa was putting up a good fight.

Torleif went to the edge of the ring, watching before chiming in. “I’ve got next!”

She watched as Rosa finally managed to pin down Capitolina, though by the way the wolf woman’s tail was still wagging, she’d been treating it more like a game than a fight.

“Well done, Rosa,” Capi smiled. “Getting better at reading your opponents.”

“Or you at least,” Rosa said before looking at Torleif. “You said you want to go, short stuff?”

“Ya!” Torleif said, dropping her hammer to the ground at the edge of the ring and rolling up her sleeves. “And don’t call me short!”

After a bit of stretching both of them bent low on either side of the ring. Torleif charged, ready to throw all her weight against Rosa, only to find the taller girl skillfully maneuvering her out of the way, and soon Torleif felt her chest being slammed into the hard earth.

“H-hey!” She shouted angrily, getting her feet under her to push Rosa off of her.

“Want to give it another try?” Rosa smiled, and again Torleif charged her, and again she was on the ground in mere moments.

“Heh, you fight like Rosa did when I met her,” Capi chuckled as Torleif struggled to escape the pin.

“Grrr…whaddya mean?” Torleif said, still wriggling in Rosa’s grasp. “I’m stronger than her!”

“Probably,” Rosa smiled. “But you fight like a charging bull.”

“She’s using your strength against you,” Capi said, more gently. “You’re off balance when you charge, and with your height, you’d have an advantage if you keep your footing and leveraged your strength right. What was that saying, Rosa? The Greek said it.”

“Give me a firm place to stand and I will move the world,” Rosa said. “Fighting’s more than throwing a hard punch, and I’ve got the bruises to show it. Want to go another round?”

Torleif grumbled, already red with embarrassment and not sure she wanted to continue.

“You can do it Torleif!” Echo’s call from the nearby stands only made her face redder. She hated being embarrassed like this, but Echo was cheering for her, and she couldn’t give the nymph a bad impression of her first champion!

“Alright!” Torleif got up. “Let’s keep going.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 25

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you want me to get my hammer!?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“More than I’ve seen anywhere else…”

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

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

 

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

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

“So that’s Rome, huh?” Torleif asked.

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

“Finally…”

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

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

“People?”

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

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

“Well I knew Rome was the right city!”

“How’d you know that?” Rosa asked.

“Some birds told me.” Torleif replied happily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re just a vegetarian.”

“I am not!”

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

“Ooh is that the training field?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Missing?” Rosa asked him dubiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Er wait…lead?” Cat asked.

“Well we can discuss that” Nicomede smiled.

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

“Er…”

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

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 22

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it,” Hilde said. “Good plan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Y-ya…” Cat said, still in shock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That one’s with us,” she smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…point taken.” Rosa said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Slayers of Monsters

September 17th, 2024

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m in France!”

Geography had never been her strongest subject in school.

 

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?”

“Name’s Torleif, lemme in.”

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

“I’m not a demon, I’m twelve!”

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

“Come on, she’s just a kid.”

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

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

The first guard turned back to Torleif.

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

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

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

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

“She’s just a kid.”

“Alone? In the middle of the night?”

“What would Wilhelmina do?”

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

“Ya but…”

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

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

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

“Hey!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get ready everyone!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A CHILD!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me?” Wilhelmina asked. “What is it?”

“How much do you know about dragons?”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Prologue

 

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

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

And it was happening all over again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As I knew they would.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In a rare few perhaps”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey old man!” She called forward again.

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

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

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

“What old saying?”

“All roads lead to Rome.”

 

Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Where All Roads Lead

Call Down the Thunder

An uncomfortable silence had fallen over the raft. Though in reality it had become something closer to a submersible. Much of the body of the raft would sink beneath the river’s surface at the slightest shift of weight, and Thor found himself confined to a corner, guiding pole in hand, lest he spend hours standing in ankle-deep water.

He had done his best to shore up the leaks and add more buoyancy, but with nothing but trees around and Thor’s own engineering prowess somewhat lacking it was still a poor showing of a raft. Of course it would be much finer if it weren’t for his passenger.

The transfigured form of Jormungandr, the World Serpent, lay curled on the center of his raft, the logs groaning under her colossal weight. Even in the form of a youngish girl with draconic features she was far denser than iron, and it was a miracle the raft could even support her as it limped and lurched down the nameless river.

Jormungandr, as it turned out, had a rather catlike disposition. Not surprisingly for a creature that slept beneath the sea she spent most of her time asleep, curled and dozing as she basked under the sun, long scaly tail running across the log raft and occasionally trailing behind them in the water. Everything about her was a nuisance. Her breath reeked of poison and rot, enough to even blacken the logs under her face where she dozed. Her very presence terrified the fish of the River and Thor had been unable to catch any all day. She was, at the very least, tolerable when sleeping, but when she awoke and opened her mouth every word came out dripping with sarcasm and malice.

Thor would and had smashed giants for the verbal abuse Jormungandr liked to spit, but both God and serpent knew it was likely a fight he could not win in present shape. Confined to the body of a small girl, Thor was at a fraction of his tremendous might, whereas Jormungandr had all her strength and more still burning within her. Last time they fought it had been something like a tie, this time the odds were stacked in the serpent’s favor.

The thought, along with her mere presence, made Thor grimace as he continued to guide the raft.

The scenery at least was lovely. The clouds overhead had parted to reveal clear skies streaked by high and distant cirrus clouds. The forests were rich and green and flush with birdsong. It might have been a paradise had it been populated by more food and beautiful women, along with one less serpent.

The greaking and groaning of the logs signaled the awakening of Jormungandr as she rolled lazily in her waking, sending water sloshing over the deck and onto Thor’s shoes.

“Watch it!” Thor spat “This water’s cold!”

Jormungandr let out a long yawn, and Thor shoved his hand over his nose and mouth as the acrid poison breath filled the air. Glancing around, he could have sworn the leaves had turned a slightly sickly yellow.

“Ugh” Thor wafted the smell away with a hand.

“You don’t know what cold is, Thunderer.” Jormungandr (Or Jor he had decided was easier to say) was still on her back, yellow snake eyes looking at him from an upside-down face as she watched him, tail sliding idly from side to side.

“Sure I do” Thor said “Niflheim is cold.”

“Nothing is colder than the bottom of the sea in the north, beneath the ice and far from where the sun can reach. It’s nothing but darkness and cold down there.”

Thor shuddered slightly. Jor always made him uncomfortable, and he hated the thought of the ocean floor. So anonymous and quiet, oppressive dark and cold, a place as alien as outer space.

“Nothing down there but fish.” Thor muttered “And one big ugly dragon.”

“Oh there are things down there, Thunder God” Jor smiled, and her grin had no kindness to it, only teeth. “I’ve met them. Old things, powerful things, things greater and more ancient than the petty Aesir and Vanir”

“Ugly tales from an ugly snake” Thor muttered, continuing to push and steer the raft. “But at least I know we’re on Midgard.”

“Do you?” Jor asked in her infuriatingly sarcastic tone.

“Yes I do, stupid.” Thor groused “You’re the Midgard Serpent, so we’re on Midgard. Quoderit Demonstom”

“Quod erat Demonstrandum” Jor rolled her eyes.

“What?”

“Nothing. Point is you’re wrong.”

“I am not wrong” Thor huffed “And I don’t need a fat ugly snake second guessing me.”

“Well, you weren’t wrong, but you are now.”

“Now you’re not making sense.”

“Fine, I’ll dumb it down for the thick-as-a-brick” Jor said “This is a magic river you’re rafting down.”

“Doesn’t seem magic to me” Thor shrugged.

“That’s because I might be ugly but at least I’m not dumb.” Jor cackled “This river is one of the byways, a trickling stream from the Well of Fate.”

“I’ve never heard of it” Thor said, still far from convinced.

“That’s because the Aesir only need their silly rainbow bridge to get around.” Jor said “The rest of us make do with other paths, the river and trails that wind like serpents between the worlds.” As she spoke, her tail flicked a few drops of water at Thor’s face. “The giants know them, my father knew them, and he taught them to me.”

Thor remembered the giant camp from the other night, the the realization of her words struck him like a ton of bricks.

“Wait!” He shouted, loud enough to catch even the serpent by surprise “Your father!”

“What about him?” Jor asked.

“It’s his fault I’m stuck this way!” Thor rushed forward, grabbing Jor by the collar and heaved with all of his lessened might. It took nearly all of his strength simply to lift her to eye level, staring into her great yellow snake eyes.

“Maybe” Jor shrugged “Seems the kind of thing he’d do.”

“Where is he!?” Thro demanded “Where is Loki!?”

“I dunno” Jor shrugged “We don’t talk much.”

“Is he on this river!?”

“Probably?” Jor offered.

“Whaddya mean ‘Probably’!?” Thor demanded.

“I mean this river winds up everywhere eventually. Makes sense he’d be somewhere in everywhere.”

Thor sighed and dropped the Serpent, too late to realize that dropping her suddenly would nearly flip the entire raft over itself, clinging to the logs as the raft bucked and rolled with the water.

“So I’ve still got no direction.” He said “Just a sinking raft and a mouthy wyrm and nine worlds to search for one god.”

“Well…maybe you’re here for a reason” Jor offered.

“A reason?” Thor rounded on her “I’ve been witched into a wee girl’s body, sent down a river to nowhere with no company but the damned world serpent! What reason is there in that!?”

Jor once again gained that enigmatic smile “You know so little of the world, little Aesir.”

“I’m not little” Thor growled “And I understand plenty!”

“No, you really don’t” Jor said, less amused this time “Your father understands plenty but you’re just dumb to most of it.”

“And you’re not!?”

“I’ve heard the whispers of the Norns while I dream” Jor said “I could feel the worlds turning around me and weighed myself upon the branches of Yggdrassil. I am not some dumb dragon to be slain, Thunderer, I am a fixture of the worlds, the great serpent, and I contain all the world within me.”

“Hmph” Thor grunted “Then bestow your wisdom O’ Serpent” he said with deliberate mockery.

“Tell me, Thunderer, what were your plans before waking up as you are now?”

“Er…” Thor actually had to think for a moment, racking his brain as he tried to recall his last thoughts before waking up along the river.

“Let me guess” Jor said “It was something along the lines of “Going to Midgard to punch Nidhoggr in its stupid face.”

“Hmmm…” Thor began to nod “That…sounds familiar…ya…”

“That line of thinking gets a person in trouble” Jor said “You’re not supposed to kill Nidhoggr, you’re supposed to kill me. Though I think right now you’d be better-suited fighting in Valhalla.”

“What does it matter who I’m –supposed- to kill?” Thor scoffed “I’m Thor! God of Thunder! I can kill whatever dragons I like!”

“Are you though?”

“Huh?”

“I just asked are you. Are you really the god of Thunder?” Jor asked, her face devoid of emotion, all light focused on her immense eyes.

“W-well of course I am!” Thor stuttered. “I Just got  my shape changed a little!”

“Do you know why you gods don’t come to Midgard often?” Jor asked. Thor’s frown only grew. He didn’t like being lectured

“We shouldn’t interfere with humans that much.” Thor said. It was what Odin had always told him.“The Norns have their own plans for them, and it never ends well if we get involved.”

“Perhaps you should have heeded that advice” Jor said “And stayed off of Midgard. Or perhaps this is precisely what was intended.”

Thor grimaced. He felt like he was being mocked, and his tiny hands curled into fists “Stop acting all high and mighty!” He shouted at the wyrm “If you have something you wanna say then just say it!”

“Fine” Jor slithered close. Uncomfortably close. Thor was nearly knee-deep in water as Jor almost seemed to coil around him, huge shining eyes staring into his.

“I don’t think you smell much like Thor. Oh I think you’re the Thunderer, no one else could be so deftly ignorant, but I don’t think this is your “changed” body.”

“Wh-whaddya mean…” Thor felt dizzy with Jor’s poisonous breath so close.

It was more than her breath though. Thor’s head was swimming like it had when he had first woken up. Hazy memories began to bubble up back into his waking consciousness, memories that didn’t feel entirely like his own.

He saw a burning village, a sanctuary that had been razed and overrun by monsters and giants, all its human inhabitants either dead or fleeing in their wake.

He saw a lightning bolt hurtling from the sky.

“The Aesir can’t kill Nidhoggr…” Thor managed to say, quietly in a whisper. “We’re not meant to.”

“That’s it” Jor said “Think back, find our solution.”

“F-Freya…” He recalled the Vanir goddess, this memory certainly his own. When the beautiful warrior-goddess had told him of the Greeks, those gods valiantly fighting their own Primordial dragon to the south, and how some had circumvented the rule of fate by empowering their own mortal champions. But had it really been circumventing? Or playing directly into fate’s hands?

Jor grinned her bestial grin, mouth full of sharp teeth. “You’re getting it now. Time to pull the Thunderer out of you.”

All this weakness, this frailty, this smallness that had consumed him. He thought it was simply the natural state for one so small, that his own strength had been stolen away somewhere. He had tried to change his form back to normal through force of will but he had thought his body was stuck this way.

Now the answer came rushing in like a tidal wave. He couldn’t change this body because it wasn’t his. He hadn’t been transformed through some witchery into a little girl. He was inhabiting one. All that weakness and powerlessness had simply been a mortal’s attempts to hold in all of his power, like a balloon filled almost to bursting. The realization shocked him, not only at his predicament but at his apparent host’s strength. Little as she may be, this girl was made of something harder than iron if she had held Thor’s power in for so long.

But with his realization came his answer. He didn’t have to find a way to transform back. He couldn’t, after all. He simply needed to step outside.

Thor’s eyes turned skyward, the clear blue sky began to darken, clouds rolled in with terrible speed as the wind whipped around them, The river thrashed with the sudden storm as the rain began to fall. Sensing what was coming, Jor slid smoothly back into the water with a splash.

As the clouds centered overhead, waves crashing and bucking beneath the raft, the whole world seemed to tear apart as a colossal lighning strike came down upon the river. Trees shattered, their branches incinerated, the thunderclap sending the river crashing over its banks as the whole world seemed to shake. In a single powerful moment, the divine spirit fled the girl’s body as quickly as it had come, flying across the heavens like a thunderbolt as it sought its chariot, reveling in all his reborn might as Thor, God of Thunder.

In the center of the crater that he had left behind, where the remaining trees fell creakily and the river pooled and swirled, a young girl rose shakily to her feet. She was almost covered entirely in mud, her head a tousled mess of bright red hair as she tried to blink the shock from her mind. Sound was muffled and the world was screaming bright around her as if she had barel missed a mortar strike.

Her name was Torleif, and for a moment she thought she had been forgotten, abandoned on this river between worlds, with nothing left behind but a body almost broken by the strain of holding in a god.

Another crash struck nearby, and Torleif dove to the ground to avoid it as a second, smaller, lightning bolt struck the earth. Once more she rose slowly to her feet and saw, planted headfirst into the earth, the reward for her valor and strength.

A hammer, heavy and meant for war, it’s handle too short for both hands, and its head sized for someone slightly larger than her. A great Uruz rune was carved upon the side. Shakily, hesitantly, Torleif reached out and took the hammer’s grip in hand.

She felt the lightning course through her, she felt the strength of thunder in her body again. All of the power she had possessed while Thor had inhabited her flowed through the hammer and into her. Through their accidental meeting he had left his mark on her, and for her strength and will he had named her worthy as his champion.

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
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