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

Chapter 51

 

The battle against the ghostly Vikings had been short, far shorter than Noemi had expected.

With their sail raised, their cries of the Naglfar carried across the sea, the Vikings had looked ready to commandeer the Dutchman for their black fleet. Noemi was not sure how one ghost ship could truly conquer another, yet Jonah seemed to take it seriously enough, sharing the captain’s orders to the two corporeal crewmates.

Cannon balls and fiery arrows lit up the foggy sea, the flames reflected on the tranquil water below. Loki’s men sailed beside the Dutchman, throwing down planks as they charged across to board the man-o-war. Clad in furs, wielding rusted blades that glowed with a spectral aura around them, the Norse dead were merciless in their assault, shouting in their ancient tongue at Noemi and Ronny.

A machete in one hand, her pistol in another, Noemi had stood on the deck, fighting the Vikings as they came, but it wasn’t long before the three of them were surrounded.

“Looks like this might be the end,” Jonah said with an almost calm fatalism.

“Easy for you to say!” Noemi shouted, parrying a longsword with her machete, before firing an enchanted bullet into the chest of a ghost. “You’re already dead!”

“What even happens if they take the ship, cabin boy?” Ronny asked, ducking beneath a high swinging strike.

“We will probably be compelled to serve Loki as we now serve Davy Jones,” Jonah said.

“I survived too much against Tess to let a god like Loki be my end!” Noemi said, trying to appear bold. Even so, the situation looked bad. While the ghosts of the Dutchman were fighting unseen, there were so many Vikings, more than could fit on a normal longboat.

The waves began to rise higher and higher as the din of the battle echoed through the ocean. The white foam crashed down, spraying all over the deck. Noemi hardly heard the rumbling until she noticed a shadow moving beneath the water.

From beneath the waves, Jormungandr raised its head above the water, its teeth long, sharp, and dripping with venom as it roared. It rolled and tightened its coils beneath the Viking ships, reducing them to splinters floating on the merciless ocean, the souls of their crews weighed down to sink to the Locker below.

Those Northmen ghosts aboard the Dutchman could only watch in awe and terror as the storm clouds rolled back to reveal the Feathered Serpent descending upon them, her form far more monstrous than when Noemi had seen her last. It felt like years to human since she had laid eyes upon her patron. Ophidia let out a screeching call as she crashed upon the deck of the Dutchman, her presence condemning the unwanted ghosts to the sea and Jormungandr’s waiting, ravenous maw.

Noemi blinked twice as she lowered her weapon. Ophidia stood before her, though the term ‘hovered’ seemed more appropriate. Her long white hair appeared more as a cowl of feathers; scales ran along her limbs and a pair of wide downy wings were displayed proudly. Ophidia stared down at Noemi through red, slitted eyes.

“It seems you had fun while I was away, Noemi.”

“I don’t know if I’d call it ‘fun’! But your timing was pretty good,” Noemi said, stepping forward. Her nerves started to calm. After all, it was still Ophidia who stood before her. “You look…ah, different?”

“Mm, yes. One moment,” The goddess spoke, as her feathers began to fall from her hair and wings. They were caught in the wind swirling around Ophidia, as they quickly took the form of her cloak once more, her skin becoming smooth as satin as her scales disappeared. Soon, she looked exactly the same as she had before she departed with the World Serpent. “Does that make you feel more at ease?”

“Yeah, that’s much less intimidating,” Noemi said with a smile. “Thanks.”

“Of course.”

Human Noemi.

The entire ship rocked violently as the voice of the World Serpent blew across the ocean like a storm. Noemi put her hands over her ears as she turned to stare up at Jormungandr, the sea snake looking down at the Dutchman with gem-like eyes.

“Y-yes? No need to be quite so loud. I can hear you better when you’re smaller, you know!”

The World Serpent blinked, letting out a low hiss. The waters began to churn beneath the ship. Ronny grabbed onto a rope to avoid being knocked about.

“What are you doing, Red?” She whispered under her breath, looking nervously up at Jormungandr. “Don’t piss her off when she’s that big!”

“That’s my point. If you want to talk, Jormungandr, then give us the respect of not having to cover our ears just to hear you speak!”

Jormungandr snorted, though it didn’t lash out at the Dutchman. Slowly, the great wyrm began to shrink, down to the size of the ship itself. Though still far larger than any of the people aboard the man-o-war, the ship rocked more peacefully beside it. The serpent’s tail flicked, spraying water back and forth, splashing the elf and Noemi with the salty fishy taste of the sea.

Noemi thought it petty, but decided it best to keep that thought to herself.

“Now…what is it you wish to say, Jormungandr?”

Who are they who sail against the Dutchman?

“Not sure honestly. Well, I can tell they’re Vikings, but I don’t know their names. They came out of the mist, screaming for the Naglfar.”

“I already tried to tell ‘em how this was a sign of Ragnarok, Jor!” Ronny shouted up, her hands cupped around her lips to amplify. “Looks like I was right!”

It is not yet time!

The World Serpent rumbled in fury as the earth began to shake again, the water turning as the storm clouds gathered around the great wyrm’s head. Venom splashed like giant drops, causing the sea to boil where they fell, before washing away. The snake’s jeweled eyes burned with a rage. It flicked its tongue out, hissing furiously.

The Naglfar should not yet be built. It is ahead of the schedule. It is not time for this world to come to an end.

“Yeah, but you know who is probably to blame for that, right, Jormungandr?” Ronny said with an amused grin, her fear having fallen away quickly. “The one who spits at fate, and I’m not talking about Odin.”

It can only be my father’s hand behind this.

“Bingo. I mean, it’s Loki’s ship after all!”

“I don’t know what game your father is playing, great serpent,” Jonah said, stepping forward, looking up at the snake with the same exasperated frustration that he often spared Ronny. “But the Dutchman won’t serve him.”

No. That cannot pass. The Naglfar must be destroyed before it sails proper.

“You know where it is?” Noemi asked.

I do not. My father has hidden it from my sight, constructing it in a secret dock or else I would sense it. If the souls from Helheim are sailing into Midgard, then it must be close to completion.

“So…what, we follow the ghosts? I don’t think they are going to tell us where they’re sailing,” Noemi said.

“No, but I believe it may be possible for us to follow the same channels as them. This ship is one of the wayward dead, even if it’s not in service to the same forces.”

“We don’t really have a pilot who can track spirits or ghosts. It’s not like just because I’m a ghost, I know the way, and the ship won’t sail off its course unless I manually do it,” Jonah said.

“Mm, is this what you want to do, Ophidia?” Noemi asked.

“It is important, not only for my debt to Jormungandr, but to all. After all, this is a threat greater than even Aztlan.”

Noemi nodded, as she turned to Jonah. “So are you willing to let the ship be commandeered for this?”

Jonah’s lips pursed as he thought for a moment, before sighing. “Putting aside the problem I just mentioned, yes. I can’t imagine Davy Jones wants the world to end.”

Sail the Dutchman to the North. Find the Naglfar. It will be at the center of this spectral fleet.

“What will you be doing, Scaly One?” Ronny asked.

I will be preparing for the inevitable engagement. Gathering the forces of the great wyrms and serpents. We will be there to stop my father’s madness.

“Am I to go with you? Or stay aboard the Dutchman.”

You shall stay, Feathered One. You will hear my voice as I prepare.

“What can I do, Jor?” Noemi asked, looking at her cutlass and pistol. She wasn’t an elf like Ronny, able to slip in and out of a story to play whatever role was most apt. Nor was she a ghost like Jonah, a face to an entire crew of souls manning one of the most powerful ship of the damned in the world. Even with her divine powers, she was still Noemi. She was one person, and never had she really felt more out of her league than here.

Jormungandr lowered her head, her eyes piercing through the mortal. Noemi didn’t shy away or turn her head, but staring into Jormungandr’s gaze always reminded Noemi of how small she was.

I have no task for you, champion. There is little one mortal can do in the plans of Fate, yet at times…I have found them deserving of my notice.

Noemi frowned at that, looking away as her cheeks flushed red. She knew Jormungandr was simply stating the truth, yet the serpent’s words were…blunt. It seemed even the world serpent took notice now, as it slowly rose its head back, speaking in a warmer tone.

Yet you work to stop Ragnarok, and in that task, even a single hand is invaluable. Take pride in that.

“R-right, well…I do want to help. Because like everyone’s saying, this affects us all. Not just the Dutchman, Ophidia’s cult, or the people oppressed by Aztlan, but all of us.”

Noemi turned to Jonah, a smile on her face as she holstered her gun. Even if she felt small, it was all about putting on a show. Sometimes, that’s all others needed.

“You need a pilot? Well, I can take you to a place where I think we can find someone able to track down the trail of spirits. It will just be a quick pit stop to get an extra set of hands.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 50

 

By necessity, the Cult of Ishtar lacked a real hierarchy and power structure. The more people knew about such a hierarchy, the easier it would be to bring down. As a result, it had been separated into semi-distinct cells with Asha and Leyla as the only common element between them. A plan to bring down Shadiya, however, would require large-scale coordination and thus they needed to start planning with everyone they knew.

They were in one of the more well-to-do estates in Babylon, on the second floor of a manor with a view overlooking the Tigris and a garden of arid plants. In the distance, far too close for comfort, was the palace of Shadiya, an intimidating ziggurat of sandstone, glass, and semi-precious stones that rose in the center of the city.

Asha had gathered all of her companions from Babylon and Damscus, as well as a small crowd of new Ishtar cultists. The manor was owned by one of their wealthier patrons, who had the means to get a large number in one place somewhat surreptitiously.

“First and foremost,” Asha said. “We all want Shadiya overthrown, but no one wants innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Shadiya in control of her brood is dangerous but out of control, it’s not much better and there are very few people on our side qualified to kill monsters.”

There was a general murmur of assent throughout the group. Plenty were willing to fight guards or URIEL, if it came to that, but very few were willing to take on Shadiya’s brood.

“With that in mind,” Leyla spoke up next. “We think we’ve managed to come up with a workable solution. Have you seen those towers erected through the city, like telephone lines?”

He gestured out the window, and from their view they could see several such towers rising throughout the city.

“Those expand her area of control. They allow her to establish her will over the minds of monsters. If they’re destroyed, so is her control.”

“That was our first plan,” Asha said. “But you can see the obvious downsides.”

“Without control,” one man said. “We just have an army of monsters loose in the city…who are now OUT of control.”

“Bingo,” Asha nodded. “And that’s just as bad if not worse, even if we had everyone out trying to fight them.”

Varia stepped forward now. After escaping from beneath the city sewers, she’d had a chance to clean up, dressed down in a number of shawls to avoid being recognized. “While we have reason to believe the monsters would turn on their URIEL handlers, after that we would still have that problem to deal with. So instead we worked out a new solution, and a new plan.”

“The job all of you will have,” Asha said. “Is that in two days’ time, you are going to go out and try to get every single person off the street you can. We’re going to do this at night to make it easier, but everyone on the streets is potentially in danger.”

“Sure but…what’s this plan?” One asked from the crowd.

“Leyla and I are going to assault Shadiya’s Palace,” Asha said. “Head on. At the same time, Constance, Hazif, and Varia will target the broadcast towers, and this is where the plan gets really brilliant.”

“We’re not going to tear down the signal, we’re going to amplify it,” Varia smiled. “Imagine Shadiya’s voice is like a radio in their heads telling them what to do. We’re not going to shut it off, we’re going to turn it up so loud they can’t even register anything but intolerable noise.”

“Turn up the volume until they can’t take it anymore,” Asha said. “Rather than guiding them those monsters are going to run just to escape the pain of the noise. Hopefully right out of the city.”

“Will that really work?” One woman stepped forward, one Asha recognized as being from one of the larger Ishtar cults. “Just turn up the volume? They’d still be able to hear the orders right?”

“I’m familiar with the method they used,” Varia said. “I’ve seen it put in action before. This kind of…telepathy you could say…requires very fine control and a consistent signal controlled with a delicate touch. Too little and it’s only subliminal, hardly altering the mind at all. Too much and it’s like…well imagine sensory overload delivered directly to your brain. You can’t shut your eyes or put your hands over your ears. It’d be intensely painful and even a monster would flee.”

“And who are you?” The cult leader’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve never seen you around before and it seems like you know quite a bit. Maybe too much.”

“She’s someone we-“ Asha began but Varia cut her off.

“I know the system because I helped pioneer its use,” Varia said plainly. “I am a former URIEL scientist, and I’m not asking for your forgiveness or sympathy, just your cooperation.”

Murmurs and objections rose up among the crowd as people seemed to divide themselves. Asha sighed; she knew this would be coming if Varia’s identity got out.

“I know people are worried,” Asha said.

“We don’t know if we can trust her!” The cultist said. “Who knows what experiment’s she’s done!?”

“I tested her,” Asha said, showing her hand. “Held her by the skin and asked all kinds of questions on if she’d betray us. Dr. Archeille has no intention of betraying us. She’ll follow the plan to the best of her abilities.”

“She’s right,” Varia nodded. “As for what I’ve done…some may have been unethical, but I’ve always tried to act within the strictest morality my work could allow.”

There were still a number of disgruntled murmurs, but for the most part the crowd went silent.

“But that’s the plan,” Asha said. “The signal will be disrupted, Leyla and I will engage Shadiya at roughly the same time so she can’t fix the problem. At the same time, I’ll need all of you and your groups out on the streets pulling people out of harm’s way. On top of that, the URIEL soldiers won’t be fleeing either.”

“We don’t want you engaging them either,” Leyla said. “URIEL soldiers are heavily armed and better coordinated. What we need to know is where they hunker down while they try to recover.”

“They’re on their last legs,” Varia said. “Most of their command structure other than Shadiya have been exiled or murdered. Given a chance, and shown that her rule is broken, they’ll surrender or flee. Try to corner them, however, and they will try to shoot their way out. We don’t need that kind of conflict.”

As Leyla began to work with the crowd, pointing out where they would need to patrol on a map of the city, Asha pulled Varia aside.

“You didn’t have to tell them who you were,” Asha said. “That…complicates things.”

“You proved I’m trustworthy,” Varia said. “That should be all they need to cooperate.”

“For this mission maybe,” Asha said. “But we can’t have you going through a lie detector for everything. If you want a future working in this city, people will need to trust you a little more.”

Varia smiled. “So your plan was to get them to trust me by deceiving them.”

“I, er…” Asha pursed her lips.

“It’s a non-issue either way,” Varia shrugged. “I have no intention of remaining in this city. I’ll be leaving.”

“Leaving?” Asha asked. “Where? Damascus?”

“Farther, I expect,” Varia said. “There’s someone I need to find that I’ve been worried about for years now.”

“You never really told me,” Asha said. “What you did before the days of Revelation with URIEL. Obviously you weren’t brought on when they were building Shadiya.”

Varia sighed. “I was brought in on what I thought was a research project, purely theoretical but before I knew it my ‘theory’ had become exceedingly ‘practical’ and I was delving into the murky ethics of human cloning.”

“Cloning?” Asha asked. “Like making copies of people in pods?”

“Well…not pods,” Varia said. “But yes, I was involved in a clandestine cloning project studying the effects of reproducing ancient mage bloodlines via cloning. As the work continued, however, the work began to…stray from what I could comfortably be do.”

“What kind of work was it?” Asha asked, leading her further away from the crowd and into a hall where they could be alone.

“Three subjects…no, three young girls were cloned from the same DNA. I just wanted to see the effects and pitched fostering them among the staff, but the project lead…Dr. Joachim, was insistent they stay isolated from the staff and most interactions other than with each other. He claimed it was for their protection and while I…agreed at first due to their inherent genetic instability and lack of immunity to modern disease…things became worse.”

Asha listened quietly as Varia leaned against the wall, staring down at the tiled floor.

“They began undergoing behavioral conditioning…and I mean intense conditioning. After that was the additional gene therapy and…the project was getting out of control. I didn’t think we should have cloned them in the first place but when that was too late…I wanted to treat them like people…when I had the chance, I treated them like my own daughters. But by the time they were in their teens, it was clear URIEL’s only plans for them were to turn them into weapons. Clandestine soldiers for a war we weren’t even fighting yet.”

“You could have left,” Asha said. “At a lot of points.”

“I was under heavy security scrutiny. Finding a job would have been nigh-impossible,” Varia said. “But more than that…you have to understand how much these girls meant to me. By the time they were six they saw me as…well not as much of a mother as I wanted to be but…they were everything. And I wasn’t about to leave them.”

“So what did you do? If anything?” Asha asked, folding her arms.

“I arranged the conditions for them to escape,” Varia said. “Not all at once and not in any way that could be traced but…well Dr. Joachim knew it was me. That is when my employment turned from ‘non-disclosure’ into ‘compulsory’. I didn’t receive any further work until the Shadiya project after the Days of Revelation. I was just kept in one URIEL cell after another, a prisoner or a slave depending on how kind they were being.”

“So that’s who you want to find,” Asha said. “The girls?”

“I know, it’s not much, in all likelihood they’re not even alive. But if Shadiya is brought down…well URIEL isn’t holding me anymore.”

Asha stood silently for a moment, thinking things over. She wasn’t sure how much of what Varia was telling her was true. She could have found out but that likely would have said more about Asha than Varia if she had tried to force her hand.

“What were their names?” Asha asked finally. “The girls.”

“All of them were codenamed Eleanor. One through three,” Varia said. “It was my idea to give them nicknames they adopted. The eldest was Lenore, the youngest Ellen, and the middle one was Nora.”

“Nora…” Asha said the name, tapping her head. “That…something about that is familiar.”

“I mean it’s not uncommon,” Varia shrugs. “I know it’s not much to go on.”

“R-right well…” Asha shook her head. “If we make it through this…and that’s a pretty big if, then I wish you good luck.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Marks that Bind

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…what kind of rock is it?”

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

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

“Do you have a minute to…?”

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

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

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

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

“H=hey it was Cat’s fault we-“

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

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

“Now that’s odd…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One second, sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m worried about her!”

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

“Wha-what do you mean?” Rosa asked.

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

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

“What is this?” Rosa asked.

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

“Runestone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“Well true…”

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

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

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

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

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

“No…” Rosa said. “I never got to…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So who keeps you marching?” Rosa asked.

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

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Lowest Valleys

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Their level?” Zeus looked at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A warning?” Zeus asked.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

The Waters Rise

 

“Lord Calroch?”

Jana Tule stepped out onto the sunlit balcony carved into a hidden rock face of the mountain, adjusting the neckline of her long emerald-blue dress.

Calroch, Lord of the Mountain, was standing in his human form looking out over the expansive island, the horizon marked by the dark shores where the evening sky was coloring a dark line along the water’s edge. It had been a cloudy day (the sky was rarely clear over Thule), and Jana had spent much of the day in attendance with the well-known but rarely-seen King of Thule.

He turned to glance at her, and while he had the long dark hair and jutting chin of a medieval monarch, she could see the yellow shine and slitted pupils that marked his draconic eyes.

“Ah, Jana, I hope the accommodations are proving satisfactory.”

“You’re far too generous with me, my lord,” Jana demurred.

He’d chosen her to be his voice on the island of Thule, relaying his messages to her people in the scattered settlements at the base of the volcano, and then bringing back their concerns and questions for him to answer. Considering the size of Thule as well as the almost labyrinthine layout of his, for the lack of a better word, lair, Jana found herself spending most of her evenings in the company of Lord Calroch, simply for convenience sake.

Calroch, for his part, was a generous if somewhat distant host. She’d been provided a room very nearly the size of her father’s entire house, halfway between a carved palatial bedroom and a granite cave. Calroch split his time between his more human and his hill-sized draconic forms, using the former to more easily communicate with Jana.

“The people are…content for now, my lord,” Jana said. “Many are still concerned regarding your nature, but I’ve mollified them for the most part. A few others are being more stubborn.”

“Stubborn?” Calroch asked.

“They either believe you to be an imposter or usurper for the real Mountain Spirit. Others believe you are the spirit but refuse to praise a dragon as king over humans. They have been…less than welcoming to my overtures.”

“I hope you’ve been doing nothing to put yourself in danger, Jana,” Calroch said.

“Oh, no, nothing so dire,” Jana said. “I am still the daughter of the Jarl.”

She left out a few of the other accusations sent at her by the more vitriolic townsfolk. A young unwed girl spending her nights on end in the company of a rapacious dragon could send anyone’s mouth talking. Jana hadn’t bothered even commenting on these accusations, save to reinforce the idea that Calroch was benevolent and far from ‘rapacious’.

As for what she did on the cold Thule nights in Calroch’s cave, that was none of their business.

Calroch was staring intently out to sea, and Jana followed his gaze out to the edge of the horizon. The wind seemed heavy out to sea judging by the large whitecaps visible even from this distance.

“Seems a storm is passing by,” She said. “The people will likely be bringing in the livestock soon.”

“It’s not a storm,” Calroch said. “There’s something moving under the water.”

“Something moving?” Jana asked. “We’ve heard of landslides underwater now and then but…”

“Not quite,” Calroch said. “Jana…I believe it is time I began negotiating in diplomacy.”

“Diplomacy?” Jana asked.

“It is a large world, and Thule is going to be a part of it again. I took you on to represent me among your people and to represent Thule abroad, did I not?”

“I…believe you mentioned that, yes,” Jana nodded. “But what does this have to do with something moving in the water?”

Calroch smiled, flashing a few of his sharp teeth. “I believe, Jana, it is time you received some practice in dealing with foreign powers.”

Calroch stepped forward, placing one foot on the edge of the balcony as he began to shift form. In the space of a blink of an eye, the balcony had become surrounded by the shimmering scales and great flapping wings of Calroch’s draconic form, a hundred meters of iron-colored scaly hide and enormous sky-darkening wings.

“Ah…shall I look after the castle?” Jana asked.

“You will be coming with me,” Calroch’s voice boomed like thunder down the mountain, resounding off the cave walls with enough strength to almost force her hands over her ears.

Calroch moved himself, positioning his great iron back just below the edge of the balcony, a series of spines running down his neck and spine. Carefully, Jana lowered herself down, finding a spot of relatively smooth scale between his great wing muscles, taking a hold of one of the spines for stability as he began to flap his wings, the great leathery limbs pulling him higher into the air before he took off from the mountain and over the fields of Thule.

Jana clung to the spine, able to feel his scales and muscles shifting under her as the wind whipped through her long hair. She could barely suck in a single breath, bent low on her knees as she wrapped her arm around the spine. She tried to keep her eyes on the horizon to fight down motion sickness. Every man and woman of Thule was used to working on a rocking ship in rough seas, but flying by dragonback was an entirely different feeling, the swell of his wings beneath her and the constant shift through the air combined with the howling wind sent her stomach falling well behind her. In less than a minute the land gave way to the sea.

“L-Lord Calroch!” She wasn’t sure he could hear her, voice lost in the wind as he flew onwards away from the island. “Where are we going!?”

“To meet someone,” Calroch’s voice boomed through the evening sky. “One you could call royalty.”

Calroch began to slow down, and Jana risked standing upwards, still clinging to one of the great bone spines as she looked out past his neck. They were hovering now, Calroch’s wingbeats keeping them in roughly the same spot over the ocean. Looking back past his tail, Jana could see Thule as a scrap of land, all but the mountain invisible at this distance.

“Who are we meeting?” Jana asked.

“Patience, Jana, they’re here.”

Jana heard something like distant rumbling. Carefully, watching the movement of his wings so she didn’t accidentally slip off his back, she moved closer to the edge of his shoulder where she could get a better view of the cold grey sea.

Beneath them, the waters were roiling, a great white spot of splashing water churning beneath them. With their altitude it was hard to tell, but whatever was causing the seas to move must have been enormous. Suddenly the waters burst, a geyser of white foam ripped free from the water as something large and dark broke the surface, rising rapidly to meet them.

In mere moments, Jana realized what it was, and stared in disbelief as the colossal Calroch was dwarfed by the head of a serpent so large it challenged imagining. Calroch was the size of a massive hill with wings nearly two hundred meters across, but this sea serpent made him look like a small cat, and made Jana feel like a flea.

‘Calroch, Iron Scale.”

The voice was like shattering stone and crashing wave. Calroch spoke back, his booming voice smoother and regal, but unable to match the pure volume of the serpent.

“I greet you, Jormungandr, World Serpent. You honor the island with your presence.”

“It is good you are awake, sleepy little dragon. We will need many.”

Jana shivered. The voice of the serpent, the World Serpent, was overwhelming, pounding in her ears like violent thunder. She shuddered at its words. If this thing creature thought of Calroch as a little dragon…

“Many of our kind, for what, World Serpent?”

Jormungandr grumbled a long string of words. Jana couldn’t tell if it was in some ancient foreign tongue, or simply so loud that it overwhelmed her ears and made it impossible to discern. From the mired syllables and drifting tones, she made out one word she recognized.

“…Ragnarok…”

Jana blinked as Jormundangr finished its speech and Calroch spoke back.

“A false twilight? Dire times indeed, World Serpent. Is that why you’ve reached across the sea to find me?”

“I have reached across far grander differences to seek out many,”

“I shall consider, Jormungandr, but I have duties of my own,” Calroch spoke, and Jana shivered as Jormungandr drew closer. With a single snap of its jaws it could have consumed most of Calroch, and her along with it. As it came closer it tilted its head slightly. With a shudder, Jana realized the World Serpent was looking at her.

“Iron Scale, you have something on your back.”

“She is a diplomat of mine,” Calroch said. “Jana Tule.”

Jana tried to stand up straight, one hand on Calroch’s spine as she faced Jormungandr’s eye, trying to remain standing on the uneven footing and the World Serpent’s gaze.

“I-I am Jana Tule, Great Serpent,” Jana bowed deeply. “I…speak for the humans of Thule.”

“Then speak for them, little one.”

Jana was nearly blown over by the force of Jormungandr’s words.

“O-of course…If I understand, you need Calroch to help you with…Ragnarok? The end of the world?”

“A false Ragnarok, human,”

Jormungandr’s voice was still like a whirlwind, but it seemed to have lowered to help her comprehend. From the serpent’s perspective, it likely had to whisper.

“For which I require an army of serpents and wyrms. Calroch is young but strong, and we will need many.”

“We need Lord Calroch as well,” Jana shouted, trying to make sure Jormungandr heard her.

“I have large ears, Jana of Thule. You do not need to humiliate yourself by shouting.”

“Ah…” Jana’s face flushed red as she spoke normally. “Forgive me…Without Lord Calroch our island will be without protection, Great Serpent.”

“Is that so?”

The serpent turned its eye to Calroch.

“You have made these humans your…pets?”

Jana frowned, but Calroch answered before she could.

“I have struck an agreement with the people of Thule, Jormungandr. I protect them and share the riches of the earth.”

“Odd for a dragon to write contracts with humans. More often they fight.”

“I agree, Jormungandr,” Calroch said. “And it is why many of my brothers and sisters are dead, and I am not.”

A low stuttered noise came from the serpent, and I took Jana a moment to realize Jormungandr was chuckling.

“A bargain is a bargain. And one you have struck even with humans is binding…but if you can be spared for a week, or even mere days, that would be sufficient.”

“Thule can survive for days or a week,” Jana said. “So long as Lord Calroch returns. We would not risk the end of the world simply to keep him here.”

“Very well. Calroch, you will hear the word when the day arrives. And you must answer the call. There is more at stake than even you can fully fathom.”

“I understand, Jormungandr,” Calroch said. “When I hear your word, I will come…but not a day sooner. I will keep to my ancient pact.”

“See that you do.”

With that, the great serpent lowered itself once more into the churning waters, soon vanishing beneath the dark waves.

Jana fell to her knees, collapsing under the pressure as she continued to cling to one of Calroch’s spines.

“Are you alright, Jana?”

“Yes, Calroch…” Jana breathed. “I’ll….I’ll manage.”

“We will return to the mountain,” Calroch said. “We have much to discuss.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 46

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Halloween?” Rosa asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I, ummm…”

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

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

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

“Dammit, Rosa, stop making this hard!”

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

“I like you!”

Rosa blinked in surprise for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

“We always have lunch sometimes!”

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

“Ummm…”

“It was Megame wasn’t it?”

“Not just her!” Cat objected.

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

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

“If I was gay?” Rosa asked.

“Well…yeah…” Cat nodded.

“I’m not,” Rosa said.

Cat froze up.

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

Cat struggled to pull a response together as Rosa laughed.

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

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

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

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

“You’re a jerk, you know that?”

“I do.”

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

“I get that.”

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

“Mmhmm,” Rosa just nodded along.

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

“Less of an ass?” Rosa suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I get it…”

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

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

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

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

“By making up for lost time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heh so…we’re dating now?”

“I guess so…”

“We should probably tell some people.”

“Mmhmm.”

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

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

“Says you, you’re terrible at it!”

“Prove it.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

The Snake and the Mirror

Seeking Advice

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s…Rosa.”

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

“Rosa!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s not,” Megame said plainly.

“And…how do you know that?”

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

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

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

“That could just be teasing,” Cat said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eh? Practice?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 45

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The World Serpent? Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have returned, Feathered One.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And that is the end of the world?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I accept.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Anansesem

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“No,” Huldra said. “Absolutely not.”

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

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

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

 

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

Bang!Bang!Bang!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Oh, please not again,” Huldra groaned.

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

“Trickster God!!”

 

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

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

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

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

 

Huldra and Ceridwen took deep breaths.

“TRICKSTER GOD!!!”

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

What is a cage sized for a fly?

 

“A spider’s web,” Huldra grinned.

 

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

 

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

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa