Vol 2 Conclusion

With the last chapter “The End of Spring” we officially mark the end of The Cities Eternal Volume 2: Where All Roads Lead. Of course, this is hardly the end of the serial, and after a brief 2-week hiatus we will return with a new Volume! We will try to keep regular updates of background material and interest regarding this new volume until then. For now, us the time to catch up if you’ve fallen behind, or send the serial to your friends. We try to improve the site all the time, but it would be even better if we could get our feedback.

Where All Roads Lead

The End of Spring

July 26th, 2024

 

It was midsummer now in Rome, and the air was hot, dry, and thick with the sounds of people as the sun rose steadily towards its apex. Catarina had finished breakfast and was on her way to the training field for her morning routine, and today she wasn’t going alone.

“I wonder if you two will beat me today,” Hildegard smiled as she fell into step beside her.

“Of course we will!” Cat said proudly, hands on her hips “We get stronger every day! You can’t be the best forever.”

“I don’t need to be the best,” Hildegard said, her voice tilting as she teased her sister. “I just need to be better than you.”

The pair of them laughed as they made their way past the barracks of the first legion to the training field where dozens of people were already gathered to exercise and spar. Their favored training ring was a chalk circle drawn on the ground about five meters across, and their third was already there waiting for them.

“You Italians know how to keep someone waiting,” Rosa tapped her foot impatiently, training spear resting over her shoulder. “These spots aren’t exactly reserved you know; I gotta fight people off to keep it.”

“Then you’re nice and warmed up,” Hildegard said as she and Cat retrieved training swords from the racks.

The banter might have been cleaner, but the sparring matches between Rosa and Cat were no less brutal. They had stopped holding back on their abilities as well. Cat used her ice magic wherever possible to compliment her swordsmanship, but Rosa didn’t relent with her champion’s strength, and a powerful body blow from Rosa would often throw Cat out of the sparring circle entirely.

They ran a few rounds one on one, keeping the other sharp as they kept finding new ways to exploit each other’s weaknesses.

“Back legs too far out!” Rosa jeered as the butt of her spear smacked hard against Cat’s shin.

“Ow! Dammit!” Cat growled, striking out against Rosa’s defenses.

“She’s right!” Hildegard called from the sidelines. “You keep ignoring your footwork when you’re not on ice.”

“I don’t need reminding!” Cat shouted back as she parried another quick blow from Rosa, countering into a quick elbow to the ribs.

“And you get too aggressive when you’re parried, Rosa!” Hildegard called to her in turn.

“Ya ya!” Rosa retorted as she pulled back. “Not game point yet though.”

After several spars, Cat finished in the lead at two hundred and fifty six wins to Rosa’s two-fifty three (The pair of them had kept track since their very first bouts). They switched to coordinated fighting, with the pair of them up against Hildegard.

Hildegard could have used her magic, but it was quickly apparent she didn’t need to. Catarina didn’t even know how she moved like she did. There was no excess energy, no nervousness or uncertainty to her movements. She could dodge the edge of Cat’s practice sword by centimeters and be utterly unfazed. She was also incredibly ruthless with the pair of them, using her entire body as a weapon, as Rosa was quick to discover when Hildegard’s knees slammed into her stomach after a miscalculated spear thrust. The pair of them didn’t need to keep track of their wins against Hildegard. They hadn’t won one yet. They didn’t train against Hildegard to win, however. They did it to communicate.

“Rosa, up top!” Cat called, as a wave of ice-filled air whipped towards Hildegard’s head. Hilde ducked low, just in time for the shaft of Rosa’s spear to swing around towards her face, forcing Hilde onto the defensive as she raised her sword to block the blow with the flat of the blade. Neither of them were done yet, and they moved as one to attack Hildegard from both sides. On anyone else it would have worked, but Hildegard was dangerous from all angles. She dodged a thrust from Rosa’s spear, hooking her arm around the shaft and redirected it towards Cat just as she stopped her swing with a counter of her own, twisting out of reach as Cat and Rosa all but collided with each other.

“An improvement,” Hildegard smiled. “But not good enough.”

“We’re not done yet,” Cat said, picking herself up along with Rosa.

“Not even close,” Rosa added, leveling her spear at Hilde.

 

As the sun reached its peak, the three of them finished their spar. Rosa needed to leave to continue her training with Capitolina and Hildegard needed to train some of the recruits. On her own until her magic lessons, Cat decided to grab a sandwich to go and take a walk through the Parco San Sebastiano, where quite a bit of development had gotten underway.

Utmost care had been taken not to disturb the native trees, and in fact more had been imported as a large complex of wooden buildings began to take form at the center of the park. They were built with naturalism and minimal impact in mind, and the three masterminds of the structure were currently meeting beneath a large wooden gate that stood austerely at the front.

“Painting it red might be too much of a statement,” Nora said, looking over the large building schematics. “This is an inter-pantheon shrine after all.”

“I think it’s a lovely shade of vermillion,” Echo smiled.

“Well the painting isn’t really necessary, but I’m glad to see Echo-san is onboard,” The last one, and the newest to the city, smiled before catching sight of her. “Ah, Cat-chan!”

“Hey, Megame,” Cat waved at them, finishing the last of her sandwich. “More shrine work?”

Megame gave an exaggerated sigh. “It doesn’t seem to stop. Inari-sama never said it would be this hard…”

“They rarely do,” Nora clicked her tongue. “Anywho, this gate…called a tori right?”

“That’s right,” Megame nodded.

“We’ll leave it bare wood for now. Now regarding the central shrine…I dunno, Echo, general purpose? What do you think?”

As the Pontifex and nymph chatted, Cat took the time to talk with the young Japanese woman, a shrine maiden as she had explained.

“I’m still surprised they’re building a shrine in the city,” Cat said. “We have the temple after all.”

“Temples are for gods, shrines are for the lesser spirits, Cat-chan,” Megame smiled. The nickname had been a joke at first but Cat liked it, and all but insisted Megame continue. She’d met the shrine maiden not long after she arrived in the city a month ago, hardly a day in fact and it seemed at times as if the Japanese girl had deliberately sought her out. Still, Cat didn’t have much company her age, so she was more than happy to make friends. “And there are some god-like spirits who prefer a more natural setting.”

“Well it’s coming along great,” Cat said.

“Did you just get off sparring?” Megame asked. “You seem a bit sweaty.”

“Ya, I did,” Cat sighed. “Hilde kicked our asses again.”

“Aaw, well, maybe tomorrow you’ll have better luck!” Megame said cheerfully.

“So where’s your fox?” Cat asked.

“Hachi? She’s sleeping, she spends most of her nights out with Aurelio and Cade now.”

“Ah right, she’s with the Night Guard too,” Cat nodded. “Shame, she’s cute and I barely get to see her anymore.”

“I’ll let her know,” Megame giggled.

 

The two of them kept chatting until the sun passed its noon zenith, signaling the time for Cat to make her way back into the city. She waved a goodbye as she walked out of the park, making her way to Lord Nassar’s impressive estate. His lessons were as challenging as ever, but much of it felt like busywork to keep her occupied with minimal effort on his part as he continued his campaign work, so for many lessons Catarina found herself either alone or in the company of Albion’s new assistant.

“Now that is a fascinating interpretation” Lutetiana said as she glanced over her homework. “Though I feel you’re missing the historical relevance of the katadesmoi in favor of a literal interpretation. I suggest rereading the Selinus documents.”

“Right,” Cat bowed her head. “I will see to it.”

She had no idea where Lutetiana had come from. Indeed, the accomplished and knowledgeable mage seemed to have appeared from thin air to work as Albion’s campaign assistant. While she was supposedly a lesser mage to Cat’s teacher, the breadth of her knowledge at times seemed to rival Scheherazade’s. She was also a tremendously attractive woman, with unnaturally young silver hair bound behind her head, and gleaming curved eyed always watching past her thin glasses. At times, during her lessons, Cat found her eyes distracted as they followed her around the room.

“See that you do,” Lutetiana said with an enchanting smile. “A smart mage can’t afford to ignore the classics.”

 

After her lesson, later in the afternoon, Cat made her way to Scheherazade’s library. Normally she spent the time reading or having the storyteller help her with her homework, but it was Friday so she had an appointment to make. Inside the vast library Cat hurried through the varied shelves, almost inadvertently passing a collection of chairs where Scheherazade sat engrossed in conversation with another visitor.

“Afternoon, Catarina,” Schehera smiled as her guest, a lithe dark-haired woman, raised her cup in casual greeting.

“Hey Schehera, hey Kara,” Cat nodded. “Sorry, need to take a call.”

“Of course, we won’t hold you up,” Schehera smiled. Cat hurried on and found the familiar journal she’d be given sitting open on a pedestal.

“Afternoon, Asha,” Cat wrote happily, waiting for the familiar face to appear on the opposite page.

“Evening, Cat.” Asha’s smiling face and flowing script appeared. “Off your lessons already?”

“Ya, Lord Nassar is super busy these days so I get off easy a lot. How’s the campaign?”

“Well another day another monster fought and another village saved,” Asha said. “But at times it feels like trying to drain a river with a bucket, you know? Leyla says we should set eyes on Babylon.”

“Well, whatever you think will work best,” Cat said. “Just stay safe, I want to make time to visit you soon, and I can’t do that if a monster eats you!”

“Not a whole lot to see out here, Cat,” Asha said sheepishly. “Sand, rock, and monsters mostly.”

“Well, you’re there for starters” Cat smiled. “And if that’s the case you should come to Rome!”

“Heh, we’ll see,” Asha said. “How else have you been?”

The two of them kept exchanging conversation through the book until the sun was low in the horizon, and it took a gentle reminder from Schehera in the form of a golden bird on her shoulder to remind Cat that she would soon be running late for dinner.

“Thanks, Sheh, bye!” She called as she ran out of the library and headed home.

 

The dinner table at the Anchesi-Jazheil-Aldobrandini household had only grown larger and more cramped, to the point that Hanne was considering looking into a larger home. Where before it had just been her and her adoptive daughters, it was now Hanne, Hildegard and Salvatore, Catarina with the frequent company of Sheh or Megame, and now Rosaria and Capitolina were frequent fixtures as well. There was, of course, Basil the cat but he tended to make himself scarce whenever Capitolina was around. The dining room was filled with the noise of Cat and Rosa arguing, Hildegard and Turi flirting to the absolute limits that Hanne would tolerate, and Hanne herself discussing legion movements with Capitolina. When she was away on the march, Hilde tended to take control of the household, much to Cat’s dismay.

“You’re always the slower one,” Rosa argue, skewering a meatball with her fork before pointing it at Cat. “I mean honestly, it’s like being chained to a slug.”

“I’m plenty faster than you!” Cat said. “But at close range that spear is useless, so I need to cover more ground to keep you protected at that range.”

“I do just fine!”

Capitolina sighed but gave Hanne a smile. “Nothing like a noisy dinner.”

“Is this like how wolves do it?” Hanne said. “They do have similar manners at least.”

Capitolina gave a short bark of laughter. “Ha! Well not too different. Lots of yipping and barking and fighting for the scraps.”

“Sounds like home,” Hanne said. “How are the others?”

“Kebechet and Giovanni are doing what they can. They both approve of this shrine plan given the pressure on the Temple and the Vatican.”

“And Angel?” Hanne asked, passing some of the salad to Turi.

“She’s in one of her weird moods again,” Capitolina sighed. “I worry about her…and other things as well. These weird moods tend to come before something else bad happens.”

“Well hopefully this time we’ll be a bit more prepared,” Hanne said. “At least, I hope we will.”

 

Capitolina left soon after dinner, leaving Rosa to chat with Cat and Hildegard about their training until well into the night, at which point Cat elected to walk with Rosa back to her small apartment in the next district over.

“So things seem to be going well,” Cat smiled, as the pair of them strolled under the moonlight.

“What do ya mean?” Rosa asked.

“We’re having fun being part of Hilde’s unit, right?” Cat asked. “Better than being a huge jerk and a loner at least?”

“Eh,” Rosa shrugged. “It has its perks I guess.”

“I know Hilde likes it,” Cat said. “And so do I.”

“Aaah come on stop making a thing out of it,” Rosa groaned. “We work decently together, isn’t that enough for you?”

“We’ll talk about it,” Cat stuck out her tongue teasingly. But her short giggle was interrupted by the sounds of another joining them in the narrow street.

“Ah, there you are, Cat,” Aurelio said as he slid down a nearby wall. “Hilde and Turi said you were coming this way.”

“Sure, what’s up, Aurelio?” Cat asked, curious.

“There’s…something you need to see,” Aurelio said, and Cat caught the slight twinge of nervousness in his voice.

“Right now? It’s kind of late…”

“Best not to keep it waiting too long,” Aurelio said.

“I can make my own way home,” Rosa said. “See ya tomorrow, Cat.”

“See ya,” Cat waved as she followed Aurelio into the city.

“How’s the Night Guard doing?” Cat asked as they moved towards the Capitoline Hill.

“Better than expected,” Aurelio said. “And growing every day.”

“How’s…what’s her name again? Sybilla?”

“Ya, Sybilla, we’re…fine,” Aurelio said, and Cat smirked at the slight redness in his face.

“So is Night Guard business why you’re looking for me?” Cat asked. “I mean, I think it’s really cool and all but I doubt I’m qualified.”

“It’s more…unfinished business,” Aurelio said as he walked into the building at the head of the square, leading Cat down into the dark and empty basement. His face had gained a serious tone that Cat wasn’t used to, and she fell into a hushed silence as she followed him down the stairs.

“It took us months to get a word out of her,” Aurelio said. “She’s not someone you can just throw in jail, so we’ve had her in holding until she started making requests. The first one was to see you.”

“Me?” Cat asked.

“By name,” Aurelio nodded.

“Who is she?”

Aurelio led her to a holding cell, where the wall had been replaced by a clear pane of enchanted glass so reinforced Cat could practically see the magic glistening across its surface. On the other side of the glass, standing at the center of a prison-like cell of a padded mat, toilet, and desk, was a young woman with long black hair and a pair of bright violet eyes on her thin face.

“So you brought her here after all,” The woman said. “Catarina Aldobrandini, it is a pleasure.”

Despite her words there was no smile on her face, or any sign of emotion at all.

“Who are you?” Cat asked, suddenly wishing she had her sword, despite the barrier between them.

“My name is Gisela Silva,” the stranger said. “And I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
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Where All Roads Lead

The Way of Fate

May 29th, 2024

The sun was shining overhead as Megame helped load more supplies onto the horse-drawn cart. Cade, Hachi, Kara, and several other villagers were aiding her as they loaded food, water, and other necessities, so much that Megame felt positively overwhelmed when she compared it to the stark and almost monk-like existence she had been leading up until then. The biggest load that had been brought onto the cart, however, was an elegant wooden coffin, tied tightly and securely in place.

“By cart, it’s about two weeks to the Adriatic,” Cade said, slapping on the last box of food rations. “From there you can sail to Italy and barter passage to Rome.”

“Won’t you reconsider coming with us, Cade?” Megame asked. “Hachi’s coming of course, even Constantin!”
The vampire, after profusely thanking Megame for her selflessness and courage, had decided that while his un-life wasn’t over yet, he felt the need to move on away from the town and castle of his youth.

“It is as much tomb as home sometimes,” The vampire had mused at a dinner in Megame’s honor. “Whether I have one year or a hundred left I do not think I shall spend any more of them here. My family’s legacy has haunted this castle for centuries and perhaps I have merely become another part of it.”

“But won’t the town need protecting?” Megame asked.

“They’re not frightened children,” Constantin smiled. “And there is a fine line between them benefitting from my protection and becoming dependent upon it. I have seen to it that they know how to fight the monsters of this land, both the strong and the cunning. As well, no doubt when trade routes expand they will come in contact with other towns like this one. The supremacy of man over his environment is returning, I can feel it, no doubt the dear fox can as well.”

“I can,” Hachi nodded. “You humans truly are industrious. The end of the world came and went and you scarcely needed more than a year to get back on your feet.”

“So what will you do?” Megame asked.

“Well, I cannot be quite as nomadic as I was in my youth,” Constantin said. “Travel is still a danger for me…but I think I can relocate.”

“You should come with us to Rome!” Megame almost shouted.

“Ah, Rome…” Constantin said, leaning back as he smiled as if daydreaming. “The Eternal City…Yes that seems an ideal place to put down new roots.”
So it was that Constantin had announced his departure to the people he had protected. There was a festival the following night that ran until morning, and Megame wasn’t particularly proud of just how drunk she had been. But the day was too beautiful to be hungover, and the thought of the journey to come too exciting to be mellowed by fatigue.

“After all, what have you got to go home to?” Megame asked. “That lonely hut in the woods?”

“That lonely hut has done just fine for me,” Cade said. “Thank you very much. Besides, I imagine there’s someone else you want to have come along even more.”

Megame gained a somewhat sheepish expression as she glanced over to where Kara had taken a seat on the branch of a nearby tree, somewhat apart from the others.

“Go ask her,” Cade said. “I’ll give it some thought.”

Megame nodded and started towards Kara. As she left, out of the corner of her eye she spotted Hachi sidling up to Cade, clearly intent on doing some negotiation of her own.

“Hey, Kara,” Megame said casually, as she walked up to the tree.

“Morning, shrine maiden,” Kara said, and Megame felt a shiver as she recalled the card game with Skuld, and the fate she had played for herself. She had drawn a card labeled “The Bond” then, and among its many figures had been the clear image of Kara. Megame didn’t want to let their bond end here.

“I want you to come with us,” She all but blurted out, unable to phrase it delicately or elegantly. Kara, however, responded with a slightly crooked smile.

“Ya I thought you might try to convince me,” She said. “But I’m a busy Valkyrie with a pretty hard job.”

“I thought you were freed from your contract!” Megame said. “I made sure Skuld agreed to it and everything.”

“It’s a bit complicated, Megame,” Kara said. “But you did help, don’t worry about that. My service is completely voluntary.”

“But what you do…”

“What I do is necessary. Sometimes cruel and sometimes kind but always absolutely necessary.”

“I don’t believe that,” Megame said. “I didn’t before and I definitely don’t now.”

“Then I think you and I will never be able to see eye to eye,” Kara shrugged. “And is that really something you can deal with forever?”

“Mmm…” Megame found she had no response, instead merely quietly backing down with a bow of the head and walking away.

She didn’t want to return to the cart, but she didn’t want to try convincing Kara again either, so instead she merely walked a little ways into the forest to be among the trees, but always keeping the castle within sight.

“A lovely day, isn’t it?”

Megame nearly jumped as a voice sounded behind her. She turned and saw a young woman, probably a little younger than her, kneeling beside a nearby tree, plucking flowers from where they sprang up among the roots.

“Ah…yes, yes it is,” Megame nodded with a smile, regaining her composure.

“It’s never bright as often as it should be around here,” The girl said. “So many cloudy and gloomy days.”

“Gloomy days can be nice too,” Megame said. “Though I admit I’m a bit partial to the sun as well. But just because a day is cloudy or rainy doesn’t mean good things won’t happen.”

“And bad things can happen even when it’s sunny,” The girl nodded. “Though sometimes you get lucky, like today.”

“Like today?” Megame asked.

“Sometimes good things happen on sunny days,” The girl said, still busy with her growing bouquet of flowers.

“Sometimes,” Megame sighed. “Other times you just can’t seem to win.”

“You don’t win because you’re still learning how to play.”

“Excuse me?” Megame blinked, and in the space it took her eyes to close and open again the girl stood up to face her, hands full of flowers.

“You have real talent, Megame Kamigawa, and the heart of a saint, but this isn’t a game for saints. Sometimes you need to understand the cruelty in the world in order to see the kindness that’s there too.”

“Who…?” Megame began to ask, but before she could even finish the first word she saw it. The flicker behind the girl’s eyes, the ancient power and infinite potential hidden beneath the cloak of a young girl.

“People don’t understand destiny,” Skuld said. She was much more muted now than the last few times Megame had faced her. She spoke and acted much like a human would, save for the odd flicker of her outline and the ageless quality of her eyes.

“What don’t we understand?” Megame asked.

“You think, much like your patron, that fate is a one-way road, a path that is set for you that you must walk down. The truth is more nuanced, more complicated.”

Skuld smiled, and this time Megame felt a genuine warmth to it.

“Your fate, your destiny, is determined by the choices you make. My sisters and I cannot make these choices for you, it is and always has been in mortal hands how the threads will interact. Our job is simply to ensure that there are no ugly snares left on the tapestry, and to ensure that each of these decisions face the consequences both malevolent and benign.”

“So we make the choices?” Megame asked.

“And we ensure you face the consequences,” Skuld finished for her.

“But I beat you,” Megame said. “Constantin didn’t face his chosen consequences. He was spared because your judgement was wrong.”

“Is that what happened?” Skuld asked, her expression inquisitive. “Would you like to know what I saw?”

“Umm…” Megame hesitated a moment before nodding.

“I saw a Valkyrie whose soul needed saving and sent her on a path towards you,” Skuld said. “I saw a shrine maiden who needed to understand her role in the world and sent her towards the Valkyrie. When the pair chose to travel together I put the problem of Constantin before them. I saw you endeavor to save him, and I plucked the threads of fate to ensure you would succeed.”

“Wait…” Megame said. “So I didn’t succeed? You just let me win?”

“Now, now,” Skuld said comfortingly. “You didn’t know that. You chose, unaware of what the result might be, to risk your life to save Constantin’s. Is that not the greater accomplishment? Does that not speak more of your victory? Besides, what game did you think we were playing, Megame?”

“A Game of Fate…” Megame said.

“It is a game we never stop playing,” Skuld said. “And now you know how to play. Though with this commendation comes a warning.”

“A warning?” Megame gulped.

“I like you, Shrine Maiden,” Skuld said. “But fate is not within your domain. Fate does not command the choices you make, but it does demand the consequences be fulfilled whatever they may be.”

Skuld’s voice had not changed, but Megame felt a chill go down her spine.

“A player of the game must understand that those choices can be influenced, but the consequences cannot be avoided. If you try and undercut that law again, there are things even a paradox can’t beat.”

Skuld reached a hand into her sleeve, dropping the flowers as she did. From within her sleeve she pulled a card and offered it to Megame.

“Consider it a gift,” She said as Megame took it with both hands, bowing as she did. Looking down at the card, Megame saw it was another card with a figure on it and she recognized it instantly as Kara. It was not, however, the same Kara that had appeared on “The Seeker”; this one seemed older, thinner, and with the distinct black leather jacket Kara now wore along with a pair of trim black wings, a rifle slung over her shoulder. At the bottom of the card were the words

“The Hunter”
“Is this the card you drew?” Megame asked “This card could have beaten mine…”

“It is,” Skuld nodded. “But I chose not to play it. That is something you must understand, Megame Kamigawa. Fate is not a single road you must walk down. Just as all roads lead to Rome, any road you choose to take is the fate you follow. So you must ask yourself which road is the one you wish to take?”

“I think I understand,” Megame said, bowing her head deeply. “Thank you.”

Skuld smiled, and in an instant she was gone, the only sign of her passage being the card in Megame’s hand and the flowers scattered around where she had been standing.

Without pause, Megame hurried back to where Kara sat in the tree.

“I want you to come with us,” Megame repeated herself, emphatically this time.

“I thought you disagreed with what I do,” Kara said, raising an eyebrow.

“I still do, and I always will,” Megame said. “But that’s the choice you made and the consequences you have to live with…but I have my own choice to make, and I want to look out for you.”

“Why’s that?” Kara asked. “You barely know me.”

“Maybe that’s true,” Megame said. “But you’re my friend and I care about you. The people I care about, the people I want to help…I’ve decided they’re the most important thing in the world to me. I know you need to see your work through to the end…but I choose to stay with you as you do.”

Kara sighed, but the smile didn’t fade from her face. “You’re going to be a huge headache for me, aren’t you, Megame?”

“Yes, I will, Kara-chan,” Megame grinned, and the pair of them shared a brief laugh.

“To Rome then, is it?” Kara asked. “You know the way?”

“They say that’s where all roads lead,” Megame said. “It can’t be hard to find.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link:  https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=70&sl=528

Where All Roads Lead

The Night Guard

April 15th, 2024

Aurelio still had his arm in a sling as he walked the steps up to the Campidoglio. Once the center of the Roman Sanctuary, it had fallen out of use as the center of new Roman life when the Senate had relocated and the new market districts began to open. It now served primarily as offices for mid-level bureaucrats, artifact storage and, most notably, the den of Rome’s favored wolves. It was with them that Aurelio was to meet, and while he disliked being up so early in the morning, he moved with purpose so as not to be late.

The city had largely recovered from what was being called the Battle of the Black Sun, though tensions were still high and Pontifex Nora had been working overtime to try and calm fears and stifle false rumor. Butterfly cultists were still being drawn out of the woodwork every day, some by force and others turning themselves in for hope of leniency. Still, the damage had been mostly repaired, the injured were safely in hospital care, and Aurelio had been working overtime to seek out and destroy the last of the cacodaemons that had cropped up during the siege.

The battle had not been without its casualties. A number had died during the attack and Rome had instituted a day of mourning in honor of both civilians killed and the soldiers lost defending them. But in the recent days there had been some hope amidst the post-battle malaise that clung to the city.

Hildegard was back on her feet. Though not in fighting condition, she was lucid and moving around, improving with every passing day. According to Mary, Cat was to thank, and she’d fought valiantly inside the Dreaming. Aurelio had suspected that Hildegard’s adopted sister had a lot of potential, but he was starting to think he had been underestimating her.

“Good morning, Aurelio,” Elisa’s voice pulled him from his thoughts as he looked up at her. She had recovered much more quickly from the fight with Gisela than he had, which he suspected had much to do with her being a homunculus.

“Oh, hey Elisa,” He said, giving her a wave. “Capitolina call you here too?”

“She did,” Elisa nodded. “I imagine to thank us for our work.”

“Maybe,” Aurelio said. “Though I’m not really one for being decorated, and that’s not the impression I got from her.”

When Capitolina had asked him, it had been with a serious tone in her voice. She’d thanked him then for all he had done, but had left him with a somewhat ominous message.

“We can’t let this happen again.”

“I suppose we’ll find out soon.” Aurelio said, and together the pair of them walked into the old senate palace.

Capitolina was waiting them in the large room that had once housed the senate, now empty save for a large round table of oak lined with chairs, and a broad window looking out over the city and letting the morning light shine into the otherwise lightless room, filling it with the pale grey light of morning. She was not alone either. Joining her in the room, standing along the edges of the table were Sybilla, Mary, and to his surprise, the ghost Aelia as well.

Capitolina’s ears rose as they stepped in, and she smiled at the sight of them. “Good, the last two are here.”

“Almost late, hunter,” Sybilla said, arms folded over her chest. “Hardly gracious.”

“Almost,” Aurelio said. “So why are we here, Capitolina?”

Capitolina began to pace a bit, hands held behind her back as she spoke. Though there were many chairs around the table, none of the people standing took a seat.

“If there’s anything that this battle showed us,” Capitolina said. “It is that the city is unprepared for this kind of attack.”

“Can anyone be prepared for something like that?” Aurelio asked. “An attack by an Aztec cult and its monstrous goddess? Not to mention an enemy champion…”

“There is precedent now, even if there wasn’t before,” Elisa said. “We know it’s possible, and no doubt there are other threats we haven’t predicted brewing as well. We all knew we would have to deal with monsters and hostile groups of humans, but the world has changed in the past two years, and the threats against this city will change as well.”

Capitolina nodded. “Precisely what I’m saying. We’ve had to deal with cult sabotage, dream plagues, violent gods, and enemy champions. These aren’t the threats that the legions were raised to deal with.”

“We’ve managed,” Aurelio said.

“Barely,” Sybilla spoke next. “By the time you and Elisa had fixed a problem it was often long after it had developed. People were put at risk, and now people have died.”

“We weren’t alone in failing,” Aurelio snapped at her. “You wouldn’t help us until you could turn it into a bargain for your own gain, and it’s not as if you could have prevented the battle either.”

“A bargain to secure my own freedom!”

“Enough!” Capitolina barked. “It is true that you and Elisa were not enough to track down the cult before they became dangerous, Aurelio.”

The words stung, even if Aurelio knew they were true. If they had found some clue earlier, one lucky break, the battle might have been avoided entirely. Instead they had been caught up in chasing Mary and dealing with Sybilla in the last few crucial weeks, missing any time the cult may have tipped their hand early.

“The important thing to take from that,” Capitolina said. “Is not that you two failed, but that what you did simply wasn’t enough. Rome is a big city, and it’s getting bigger every day. Two people can’t patrol it alone.”

“So you want to form a team,” Elisa finished the thought for her, and Capitolina grinned somewhat impishly.

“I was thinking more of a…guard.”

“Like a task force?” Sybilla raised an eyebrow. “For what exactly, cult extermination?”

“More than that,” Capitolina said. “There are a lot of threats to this city that the legions can’t deal with. Mary showed us that we’re not necessarily safe in our dreams, and the cult showed us that not every god out there has the city’s best interest at heart. During the battle we saw that monsters and cacodaemons will take any opportunity to rush back into the city if chaos reigns, and of course I have little doubt that the Primordials have their own plans now that they’re aware of Rome, even if the shield is keeping the bulk of their forces back.”

“Umm…i-if I can speak?” Aelia spoke up quietly as all eyes turned to her. She was visible enough, but the ethereal morning light made her slightly translucent.

“It’s why I invited you too,” Capitolina said. “You were part of the city’s defense, and one of its spirits. Besides, I always like hearing from the Romans I know best,” she added with a smile.

Somewhat reassured, Aelia spoke with more confidence.

“You keep phrasing things as threats to the city, things that need to be eliminated like the cult…but that’s not the only way to deal with these things. I mean…look at Mary, if what I’ve heard was true, she used to be a threat to the city and now she’s helped defend it.”

“You can add me to that list as well,” Sybilla said. “I wasn’t exactly welcome when I arrived.”

“I’m not welcome either!” Aelia said, nodding along. “I’m a spirit, so of course people are afraid of me. But I love this city and the people in it. I think that there might be ways to deal with spirits other than brute force. If we approach some of these threats the right way, they might become allies instead.”

“She has a point,” Sybilla said. “The legions negotiate with the human settlements, but no one’s tried to negotiate with the spirits in Italy, not even in Rome itself, except the Pontifex but from what I understand she deals exclusively with gods.”

“Probably because it requires a very specific kind of negotiator,” Mary said. “You only managed to capture and work with me thanks to Sybilla.”

“And that’s just the kind of thing we need,” Capitolina said excitedly. “We need warriors, negotiators, experts in all fields regarding spirits and the supernatural.”

“That’s a tall order,” Aurelio said. “If you consider it’s just the five of us right now. Has anyone heard from Evangeline?”

“From what I understand she wants to work freelance,” Elisa said. “Besides as a champion, she’s not as well-versed in spiritual or magical matters.”

“I’m a champion,” Aurelio frowned.

“But also a hunter of spirits, a role which made you uniquely suited for the job,” Capitolina said. “Evangeline will help this city, no doubt, but she might not be right for this group.”

“I believe Capitolina is looking for people of distinctly inhuman nature,” Elisa said, looking over the room at the people gathered. “Benandanti, homunculus, mara, witchbreed, lemure. None of us can be called a completely mundane human, and where there are five of us we might very well find more.”

“There have been a few promising people entering the city recently,” Capitolina nodded. “I keep getting reports of people with powers or spiritual natures, though distinct from mages or champions. There’s also exorcists and other experts from the Vatican to consider.”

“Well, I mean this is all well and good to discuss,” Elisa said. “But we do require a great deal if we want to make this more than unorganized patrols. There’s funding, management, and supply requisition to consider. Not to mention selling to the public the idea of a squad of inhuman warriors and spiritualists.”

“I’ll see if I can make it work,” Capitolina said. “I still have plenty of pull with the senate, and right now I think the people want that little bit of extra reassurance.”

“I think that’s all any of us want,” Aurelio said. “To make the people of this city feel safe again, and back it up by preventing this kind of thing before it happens again.”

“Well,” Sybilla said, uncrossing her arms. “I’m not quite what this city’s little mage club is looking for so I’ve no better place to be. I’m onboard.”

“As am I,” Mary nodded.

“Me too,” Aelia smiled as she nodded.

“And I as well, though I still have my duties to Renard,” Elisa said.

Aurelio hesitated before speaking as the eyes came on him, though only for a moment.

“Before coming to Rome I prided myself on hunting alone. But during the battle…I doubt any of us could have succeeded without the rest of us working together. I can’t protect this city or the rest of Italy alone so…count me in.”

Capitolina’s tail wagged as they all agreed, her toothy grin wide. “Then it’s settled…though we’ll need a name.”

“Dream squad?” Sybilla offered jokingly with a half-grin.

“Legio Spiritus?” Aelia offered sheepishly.

“I think a fanciful name for it is somewhat silly…” Elisa said.

“What about the Night Guard?” Aurelio offered, and the others looked at him.

“Short, evocative, gets the point across,” Sybilla mulled it over. “Not bad, hunter.”

“It’s not overly flashy,” Elisa said. “It could work, and we do seem to operate largely at night.”

“I kind of wish it was in Latin, but I can’t complain,” Aelia said.

“I certainly don’t have a better idea. I barely understand how humans go about naming things,” Mary said.

“Seems like Night Guard is the winner,” Capitolina said proudly. “I’ll start pushing the paperwork through with the Senate.”

The rest of them started discussing the direction this fledgling guard would take, times of operation, and rumors of arrivals in the city who might be of use. They spoke through lunch and well into the afternoon before departing for the evening, all of them now flush with dreams for the future defenders of Rome.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link:  https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=68&sl=973

Where All Roads Lead

Chapter 34

April 10th, 2024

“So how does this work, exactly?” Cat asked.

The pair of them had moved upstairs to the barren room Hildegard used for her own magic practice. It was little more than blank walls, floors, and ceiling, as the candles and target dummies, as well as jars of material reagents had all been cleared out of it.

“We must enter a dream,” Mary said, stooped over the ground as she traced a circle of fine white ash across the ground. “From there I can lead you into the dream of the Lady Huldra.”

“Right…” Cat nodded along. “But what then? The way you said it made it sound like Nidhoggr was in her mind, not her dreams.”

“Something you must understand,” Mary continued, working even as she spoke. “Is that Huldra is a unique brand of witch, one that occurs very rarely across history and culture. She is a being for which the lines between mortal, witch, and god are all quite thin. Are you familiar with the deity known as Hecate?”

“I think I’ve heard of her,” Cat nodded.

“Hecate is another such ‘True Witch’, in her case she is known as the Unbound Witch of the Crossroads,” Mary said. “What they are and where they come from is…uncertain to say the least. I only know what I do because Lady Huldra created me. They might simply be divine aberrations, those caught in a nebulous place between mortality and godhood, or perhaps they are all merely minor aspects, living incarnations of the great forces of magic. What you need to know, however, is that they are as powerful as they are inhuman.”

“I think I understand,” Cat said. “But it doesn’t answer my question.”

“Lady Huldra is known as the Unsealing Witch of the Dreaming. The separation between her mind and the realm of Dreams is so thin as to be almost nonexistent. She can walk through dreams with a thought, bring order to the chaos between the dreams, and enact the will of dreams upon reality. We can reach her very core through the Dreaming alone.”

“Well, you say it will work,” Cat said. “So I’ll trust you at least.”

Truth be told, she didn’t really understand everything of what she was getting herself into, but she knew enough. Enter the mind of this True Witch and slay the dragon within. If she succeeded, Hildegard would be cured.

She had not asked what would happen if she failed.

“Be seated in the circle,” Mary said, and Cat took a seat, crossing her legs with her sword in her lap. Mary moved to sit across from her, making sure the folds of her long white cloak were within the edges of the circle.

“Normally we would enter your dream, and from there follow a trail of dreams into that of Lady Huldra,” Mary said, checking to make sure the circle was unbroken. “But we are short on time, and I am not an average Oneiromancer, so we are going to…brute-force this somewhat.”

“How exactly?” Cat said nervously, hands tight around the scabbard of her sword.

“I will be using my connection to Lady Huldra to enter her dream directly.”

“Is that…worse?” Cat asked. “Sorry I’m still new to this whole ‘dream walking’ thing.”

“It will be…somewhat disorienting,” Mary said after a moment’s consideration. “But you should be able to fight at full power.”

“Do I get any cool dream powers?” Cat asked eagerly. “Like I have dreams where I can fly, will I be able to fly when I’m there?’

“Probably not,” Mary said. “I will be working against Lady Huldra to keep the dream stable. It will be as…real as I can make it.”

“Why not stack the odds a little?” Cat asked. “These are dreams right?”

“Please bear in mind,” Mary said. “That dreams are highly mutable to both sides, and a nightmare is still a dream. By keeping the dreamscape stable, it ensures that they will not try to gain an advantage either.”

“So how do I keep it stable? Cat asked.

“That is for me to contend with,” Mary said. “Your only duty is to slay the spirit of Nidhoggr within Lady Huldra’s soul. If you attempt to alter the will of the dream on your own, then it will be your willpower measured against Nidhoggr’s as it will try to do the same.”

“Alright, sounds simple enough,” Cat nodded. “I’m ready.”

“Good,” Mary said. “Because I already began the ritual.”

“Wait…what?” Cat said, but even before her words had finished her vision began to blur, her eyelids grew heavy, and a sudden wave of sleep washed over her. She never stood a chance of resisting as her eyes fell shut against her mind’s protest, shoulders slumping as her head nodded, with Mary’s shining turquoise eyes being the last thing she saw before she fell asleep.

She was in a dark forest when she woke up, the trees and bushes around her lit by a pale blue moon that sent its light down in great silver shafts through the treetops. She was still sitting, and she was glad to see her sword was still in her lap. Taking it in her hands, she stood up and looked around, hoping to see some sign of Mary, or anywhere she was supposed to go.

As she looked, the trees before her seemed to open, their trunks and branches bowing outwards to form a path through the trees. As a trail took form, shining turquoise spheres of light appeared in a line above the trail, casting their light down upon the newly-cleared trail.

“Guess I should go this way…” Cat said as she nervously set off down the trail.

There was still no sign of Mary, but she was a dream spirit after all; maybe she was there right now, invisible to Cat. More worryingly, maybe she wasn’t there at all, and Cat was walking right into a trap set up by Nidhoggr and the enslaved Dream Witch. The color of the spheres, however, were the precise shade of blue-green as Mary’s eyes, giving them a reassuring presence. Even if she couldn’t see or hear her, it made her feel as if Mary was close by.

Swallowing the growing fear in her chest, Cat began to walk along the trail.

The path had been level at first, but it soon came to shift upwards until Cat was climbing a winding uphill trail along a mountainside. The trees grew sparser as the wind grew cold, and soon a gentle dust of snow began to fall as she hiked further up the mountain. Time was difficult to factor in. She was still in a dream of sorts so she couldn’t easily determine the passage of minutes or hours. By the time she was nearing the mountain’s peak, it felt simultaneously as if she had spent the better part of a day hiking, and as if she had spent no time at all.

The mountain plateaued at the top, creating a shelf of relatively flat, snow-covered stone that rose above the last of the forest. As Cat cleared the treeline, her breath steady as she worked her way towards the peak, she could see that while the moon was bright, the sky was far from clear.

Great dark forms twisted across the sky, arching from one horizon to the next as they twisted, intersected, and divided above the mountain like a great net that contained the world that met directly above her head. Though a few stars could be seen from the gaps in this colossal barrier, everything within, even the moon, seemed to be held beneath the great dark forms which rose to meet in the sky directly above them. Cat stared up at the great shadows in the sky, and she recalled part of a story that Angel had told her a year before.

There is a great tree that holds the cosmos together, all the worlds are held between its branches, and the stars rest upon its crown. That is Yggdrassil, the World Tree, and its roots had been Nidhoggr’s prison. With this in mind, Cat could see how this great barrier could be the great roots of a cosmic tree. The dragon could escape its prison in body, but the shadow of its mind still lurked there.

She was on the right course.

Catarina drew her sword as she neared the mountaintop. Caeruleamor’s shining silver-white metal seemed to glow with its own light as she drew it, gleaming in the frosted air. Snow crunched under her feet and her breath came in wisps of steam as she rounded a patch of boulders that marked the end of her ascent and arrival at the mountain’s peak.

As it had looked from below, the mountaintop was a broad flat area of stone, covered in a few centimeters of snow that gave it an almost unearthly quality. Standing on the white with nothing around save for the moon, stars, and the roots of the great Tree, it was almost like standing on the surface of an alien moon. She stepped forward, leaving a lonely track of footprints in the snow behind her as she looked out across the horizons and saw the expansive dark forest below.

At the center of the peak, from the darkness in the sky, something began to form. It seemed to draw itself out of nothing, a great bulky body that ripped itself free from between the beams of silver moonlight. Steadily it grew larger and longer, great rolls of dark flesh billowing outwards and resting on the ground, an immense serpentine shape coming into being.

As it drew more of itself into existence, the dark shadow-stuff began to gain definition. Lines began to harden and form into a skeletal visage. Flesh withered as quickly as it formed, leaving great patches of exposed muscle and bone visible across its ever-rotting form. A pair of enormous batlike wings began to spread, their fingers withered away until only scraps of dark flesh remained. Its entire body was corpselike, decaying flesh bound and tied together into the hulking form of a draconic monster.

From the billowing coils, fearsome claws, and great wings a head began to emerge. Rising from the mass of its body, a fearsome serpentine head, scaled skin clinging tightly to sharp bone, stared down at Catarina. It was surrounded by a mane of horns, great spikes that breached the skin where it was drawn too tightly, and from the deep shadows of its eye sockets came a pair of burning cold blue lights.

It was a massive dragon, its length impossible to determine as it coiled and undulated upon itself, but even seeing it now Cat could sense that it was merely a shadow of something larger. The air around it seemed to flicker in a dark haze, shadow smoke rose from its body to make it indistinct and almost transparent in some places. As it emerged from nowhere, the sky itself seemed to grow dark around her. Cat gripped the hilt of her sword tightly with both hands as she stepped forward towards the dragon. It opened its mouth, lined with countless teeth as it spoke.

And they come alone, this little silver thing.

Bright eyed and foreign forged, weak and lost.

In far flung dream they seek, the unseating of a greater being.

Of dragon, death, and rotting root. Of darkness from the deep times drawn.

 

Nidhoggr spoke in a voice that was not its own. The dragon had chewed on the corpses of the slain for countless years and now it spoke with their combined shrieking voices. Its breath was rot itself, as sickening to smell as it was to listen to, and there was an otherworldly echo to it that made Cat’s very bones shake. It was a tremendous voice, powerful and terrifying, forced through the mouth of this dark serpent before her. The message was clear, even if she could not understand the words. She was alone against something far more than a dragon, and even this was but a mere shadow of the real thing.

Cat raised her sword and pointed its edge at Nidhoggr.

“I’ve come to slay you, dragon!” She shouted at it. “So I can free this witch and heal my sister! I won’t be stopped by a serpent like you!”

It sounded a bit flat in her ears as declarations went, though she wondered if it could even understand her. She had heard the words it said before, but the noises it had made weren’t quite right, as if it had been speaking another language entirely and it was the intent, not the words, that had reached her mind.

Among the names of serpents, the striking malice sinks deep.

The poison of the world tree, the devourer of flesh

From the shadow mountains rise, and cold peaks dwell upon

No steel can harry ancient flesh, no mind pursue what dwells within

 

It spoke again in that strange verse-like tone with that same overwhelming voice. From the cruel edge and the hint of dark laughter alone Cat could tell she was being mocked. She doubted she would get much in the way of banter from this monster, but she didn’t need to get it angry. Cat just needed to kill it.

Cat charged forward, sword raised as she kicked up small clouds of loose snow with each step, leaving a trail of wet stone behind as she broke the unperturbed surface of the mountaintop. With an almost casual ease the great tail of the serpent swung out to meet her, a whip-like tendril of shadow and diseased flesh that tore through the air. Cat rolled under it, not slowing down as she drew closer to the beast.

Nidhoggr readied itself, sharp claws digging into the earth as it opened its great mouth, whipping up a great storm of snowflakes as it uncoiled itself. From deep within its gullet came a plume of sickly black and green gas that spread towards her, stinking of death and rot as it spread through the air.

Cat raised one hand, focusing her magic as the snowflakes surrounding them were redirected towards her hand, forming into a barrier that collapsed into steam at her command, creating a gaseous shield that collided with Nidhoggr’s poison breath and forming a massive plume of vapor that filled the mountaintop.

A few great whips of its massive serpentine body cleared the air, dispersing both Cat’s steam and the poison gas harmlessly into the sky. Cat had not stopped running, eliminating the distance between her and the dragon. Magic wasn’t going to kill this monster; she needed to get it in sword range.

Nidhoggr didn’t seem to realize the danger Cat’s sword posed, and it threw all of its great bulk into the next attack, massive coils undulating as it moved to surround Catarina. Claws shattered the stone as it dragged itself along, great wings flapping until they were practically in a snowstorm, all the snow that had been on the ground whipped up into a frenzy around them.

Nidhoggr’s great head pulled back, arching into the striking position of a snake, and Cat readied herself, magic flowing through her body as the slick ground hardened into ice beneath her feet. With a snap of its fangs the dragon struck, head whipping down on her with terrifying speed. Its bulk, however, made it slow enough for Cat to avoid, throwing herself out of the reach of its jaws as her feet slid across the ice with practiced ease. The dragon had missed its strike, and worse still left its chest exposed.

Cat gripped her sword with both hands, pulling it back before driving it with all her might into the creature’s chest of withered muscle and grey sinew. The silver blade, shining with a light of its own, tore through the Nidhoggr’s flesh, and where it cut it left dancing blue lights in its wake.

Nidhoggr screamed with a roar that echoed across the mountain as its body lashed in pain. Cat barely had enough time to pull her sword free and run before she was crushed by the great coils of the writhing serpent, needing to fling herself to the ground to avoid its massive bulk.

The reverberating echo of the Nidhoggr’s roar of pain made her very bones shudder, as if it was screaming with the voices of all the dead it had consumed.

No steel of man or dwarf she swings, this thing of light and mortal flesh

It brings a blade of Urd to bear, biting tooth of burning starlight

Of glossy pinion made and forged, from fallen wing its power plucked

The vicious voice from great tree’s crown, by serpent fang made silent tune

“That’s right!” Cat grinned as she got to her feet. “I’m not some pushover to be thrown around. This sword was made from one of Angel’s feathers! And that means it can hurt even something as powerful as you!”

The great dragon coiled and uncoiled its serpentine body as it prepared for its next strike, tail whipping through the air as it gathered itself together before lunging at Cat, throwing all of its massive weight towards her. Cat steadied herself, taking hold of her sword with both hands as ice began to spread from her feet, covering the mountaintop around her in a thick layer of dangerously slick ice.

Nidhoggr’s coils slid loosely across the ice, but its great claws easily smashed through it to keep itself steady as it swung its long tail towards her. Cat ducked low, bringing her sword up in a fierce upward jab that caught the flesh of the dragon’s tail. The withered muscle and stretched skin burned and sizzled away at the touch of the blade, but it still had the incredible force of the dragon behind it, and Cat was thrown bodily off her feet and sent skidding across the icy ground.

Her hand dragged across the ice, her magic slowing her slide and keeping her steady, but the dragon recovered more quickly than she did. Like the blow of a sledgehammer the dragon’s claws came down on top of her, its massive hand pinning her to the icy ground as its claws dug painfully into her shoulder and side, the massive weight of the dragon crushing down on her ribs.

Her breath was squeezed out of her chest, arms struggling for grip as she saw her sword, thrown from her hand, just out of her reach. As she stretched her arm, fingers trying to reach the end of the pommel, another squeeze from Nidhoggr sent a wave of spasming pain through her as she felt herself being slowly crushed beneath it.

The great jagged maw of Nidhoggr stooped low over her, empty blue eyes staring into her own as it opened its great maw. Its stench sent a nauseating sickness down her throat as she felt it burn and blister against her skin, the withering breath sucking the last of the air from her lungs as it spoke.

Of supple flesh and stitched bone, fragile daughter of Embla

No elder blood or carven name, brought low with just an empty hand

No dragons here stand, only darkness awaits

 

The dragon squeezed its claws again, and Cat screamed as she felt her ribs began to crack, the sharp claws cutting through her meager armor and into her flesh. Still the Nidhoggr spoke, and this time its words came through clearer.

Die and be mine

 

Cat’s eyes stung and watered, her vision hazy from the decaying breath of the dragon, but past its forest of teeth and down its dark maw she saw lights within its throat, burning blue like countless tiny eyes, staring out at her from within its endless stomach.

She was being simultaneously crushed, cut, and suffocated as the dragon drew out her death, but as it drew back its great serpent’s head, jaws open wide, she could see her death fast approaching as it prepared for the kill strike.

Cat tried to summon up what magic she could, reaching into her body’s native aether to cast a spell, any spell, but the battle and the intense pain of Nidhoggr’s crushing claws kept her firm calling up anything more than the weakest sparks.

As Nidhoggr drew itself up to its full height, head arched backwards like a cobra, she thought of what Mary had warned her of. This dream felt all too real, she had reached her very real limits and she had done little more than scratch the dragon. The thought of failure was almost as great a pain as Nidhoggr’s claws. She had come this far and died for nothing, lost in a dream.

Cat’s hands balled into fists. Mary’s rules be damned. This was a dream, she knew it was a dream, and she wasn’t about to be beaten in a dream. She didn’t need to call up her own native aether, she had all the fuel she needed if she desired it.

Nidhoggr’s head came down, bone-like fangs glistening in the moonlight, but as it did a dozen massive spikes of ice rose from the ground to meet it, impaling the jaws of the serpent like glistening blades of crystal. Most of them shattered on impact, unable to breach the Primordial’s hide, but it was enough to stop its strike, and more than that it was enough to loosen the dragon’s grip on her. She reached out as far as she could, stretching her hand to take hold of the hilt of her sword, willing the dream to nudge the sword into her hand.

With the familiar weight of the sword once more in hand, Cat swung it upwards, cutting a gash in Nidhoggr’s leg that caused it to release her as it edged backwards. Cat rolled to her feet, and while she tried to will the dream to dull the pain, it still came through as all too real. Her breath came in ragged pants, her legs shivering and the bloody wounds on her shoulder and side showing no signs of stopping, her face burned and she was still trying to blink the poison from her eyes.

“I’m not about to lose to some rotted out carcass!” She shouted defiantly, trying to buy time as her vision recovered. “Not even a shadow of the real thing! I won’t lose to you in real life and I definitely won’t lose to you in a dream!”

Lost in a dream far from home, the bitter drink of defeat

So far deep in delusion, unable to see the truth

The horns of Ragnarok blow, the Dark Hills empty

Trapped in a place before the World’s end, lost in a dream of the past

Cat’s vision had mostly returned, and she swallowed the pain in her body. Her hands tightened around the pommel of her sword.

“Maybe it is all just a dream,” Cat said. “Maybe none of it really matters. The new Rome we’ve built, the people I’ve helped, the new friends I’ve made…maybe it’s all just one last dream we’re having before the world really ends…but that’s enough for me!”

Cat stepped forward, pointing her sword at Nidhoggr.

“I’ll keep believing in that dream! I believe that the world can come back, better and stronger than it was! I believe that every person I help, every single person I save, will help the world a little more! I believe all of it matters! And more than anything else I believe in what I’m doing, in what I am! Even if it’s just a dream!”

Cat placed her left hand over her heart, feeling it beat even here in the dream. It was her dream to be a hero, to help everyone she could. But hers was one of countless dreams. It had been the dream of the wolves and the citizens of Rome to rebuild their city. It had been the dream of Vittorio in Sicily to see his country rebuilt. It had been the dream of Asha to earn a second chance and follow in Cat’s footsteps.

All of it had been nothing but dreams. But dreams could build cities, and dreams could kill dragons.

Catarina felt a warmth behind her, and the dark sky began to fill with a faint pink and yellow glow as the first rays of dawn approached, banishing the night.

Nidhoggr did not bother with reply, it charged her again, maw first, once more throwing all its weight behind its attack. Cat focused herself, digging her feet into the frozen ground as she braced herself, the coils and wingbeats of the serpent sending up another blizzard of snow as it opened its mouth impossibly wide to lunge forward and devour Cat, but this time she was ready for it.

At the last second, Cat lunged forward, closing the last meter between before driving the tip of her sword into the roof of Nidhoggr’s mouth, its own momentum forcing her entire sword through its jagged skull and piercing the creature’s brain. Her success, however, was short-lived as the colossal weight of the dragon kept moving, its inertia forcing her off her feet as she and the body of the massive black dragon were thrown from the mountaintop.

Cat rolled over stones and down the slope as the undulating body of the Primordial thrashed around her, massive coils smashing against the earth as it fell down the mountainside. Unable to find her footing, Cat fell to, rolling painfully across barren stone and missing the crushing coils of the dragon’s death throws by the skin of her teeth. She just needed a handhold, something to grab onto as her hands clung uselessly to the loose dirt and stones of the mountainside.

Whether by luck or the virtue of the dream she all but crashed into a warped and withered sapling that had taken root in the mountain’s slope. Clinging to it for dear life, Cat watched as the long sinewy body of Nidhoggr crashed into the forest below, toppling trees and shattering stone as  it coiled and uncoiled, its screams echoing across the landscape.

Cat continued to cling to the small tree, one arm and her legs wrapped tight around it as her free hand clung to her sword. As the last of Nidhoggr’s screams faded and silence began to settle across the dream, Cat looked toward the horizon and watched the sun slowly begin to rise, the early morning light banishing the great binding roots of Yggdrassil, leaving the sky clear save for the brightest stars.

“There is a power in dreams.”

Cat turned, almost jumping out of her skin as a figure seemed to simply appear next to her.

She was a tall willowy woman dressed in ornate robes crafted from rich silks with a long cloak of thin fur around her shoulders. She had the same glossy dark hair and blue-green eyes as Mary, but they were older eyes and her hair reached to her waist. She turned to Cat, fixing her shining eyes on her.

“It is rare for me to offer someone my gratitude, rarer still for that someone to be human,” She said. “But nonetheless you have earned it.”

“Ah…Lady Huldra?” Cat said.

“I am,” Huldra nodded. “And thanks to you I am for the first time in years truly myself again.”

“Well…you’re welcome,” Cat said, before adding awkwardly. “Well…i-if you’re grateful, I could use your help with-“

“Your sister,” Huldra nodded, her eyes turning form Cat towards the lightening horizon. “I will see to it that it is done.”

“Thanks…” Cat felt relief wash over her and she joined Huldra in silence staring off into the distance.

“Catarina!” Mary’s familiar voice, mixed for once with shock and surprise came next as the much smaller young woman appeared next to her opposite Huldra. “I…you actually…” She failed to summon words as she looked towards the devastation Nidhoggr’s body had left behind.

“What, didn’t think I had it in me?” Cat smiled.

“Well…I am impressed,” Mary said. “But I sensed you used the dream to your advantage. That should have let Nidhoggr beat you.”

“There are a few things you still do not understand, little mara,” Huldra said. “The Nidhoggr failed to utilize the dream because it was no longer its dream alone. The Dragon of Yggdrassil has long since forgotten the light and color of the sun.”

Huldra turned again to Catarina. “You did not try to manipulate Nidhoggr’s dream, but you called upon the power of your own. Through will alone you merged your dream with that of the dragon’s, melding the dreamlands together.”

“Can’t really say I know what that means…” Cat said sheepishly. “But it worked!”

“Simply put, your will was stronger than Nidhoggr anticipated.”

“Told it not to underestimate me,” Cat grinned.

“You have done a tremendous thing,” Huldra said. “But if you seek to challenge the Dragon of Yggdrassil again, understand that it will be expecting you, and you will not have the power of the dream behind you. What you fought was a shade of the real thing, a small shadow thrown against the wall, bound by the limits of the dream.”

“I don’t plan to stop,” Cat said. “No matter what. I won because of my dream, and I won’t give it up because I’m scared of a dragon.”

“Then the only advice I can give you before you wake up,” Huldra said. “Is to keep tight hold of that courage, and that dream.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link:  https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=69&sl=850

Where All Roads Lead

Return to Rome

April 10th, 2024

The journey home had been a quiet one. Rosa had spoken little for most of the ride and it took no small amount of cajoling from Cat to bring her around again.

“You alright, Rosa?”

“Whaddya mean?” Rosa pulled her eyes from the horizon to look at her.

“I mean…you lost your-“

“I didn’t lose anything.” Rosa cut her off. “I lost my sister a long time ago. This was…well I guess…this was a chance to say goodbye.”

“I see…” Catarina fell into sheepish silence for a moment, but it was not long before she couldn’t take the silence anymore.

“You ever think about joining me and Hildegard?” Catarina asked the reticent redhead.

“Join you for what?” Rosa eyed her somewhat suspiciously.

“Well, Hilde and Turi tend to go out and slay monsters the legion can’t deal with easily. I wanted to join them, but I think we can make a stronger case if we volunteer together.”

“Seriously?” Rosa asked. “You want us working together?”

“Did you see us back there at the fort!?” Cat said. “We couldn’t be stopped! We make a great team!”

“You’re delusional,” Rosa waved her off.

“I’m right,” Cat said stubbornly. “You and I did really well together, and I think we could make a good team.”

Rosa let out a long sigh. “We wouldn’t be part of the legions?”

“Not officially, no,” Cat said. “We mostly answer to Hanne, the Senate, and Capitolina.”

At this Rosa’s interest seemed to perk up as she glanced at Cat. “Really?”

“Well, sure,” Cat nodded. “Capitolina and the other wolves put the security of Rome as their primary focus, so they want to know where the monsters are and be sure the best people are getting rid of them.”

Cat could tell Rosa was becoming more interested, even if it wasn’t showing on her face; she just needed a bit more of a push.

“Come ooooon,” Cat said. “You, me, Hilde, Turi, some of the best fighters in Rome going out to hunt monsters. How does that not sound awesome? You don’t have to walk in formations or go on long patrols with the legion or anything, just us and the hunt.”

“Jeez, you’re pushy,” Rosa said. “Fine, I’ll join Hilde and Turi on one of their hunts and see if it’s my thing. You can come along too if you have to, so long as you don’t talk this much.”

“No promises,” Cat grinned. “But I think you’ll enjoy it.”

“We’ll see about that…” Rosa muttered, looking out over the edge of the carpet. “Is…that Rome?”

“Hmm…” Cat looked out over the horizon and the rich green Italian countryside as well. “Looks like Rome to me though…I don’t remember that much smoke.”

Rosa’s eyes narrowed. “Something’s gone wrong.”

Cat felt a lump in her throat, her thoughts instantly going to Hilde, vulnerable and bedridden. “I-I’m sure everything is fine.”

“Can this thing go faster?” Rosa asked, feet rubbing against the fabric of the flying carpet.

“It’s not like it has an accelerator or brakes or anything,” Cat grumbled, fingers hooking around the forward edge of the carpet as she tried to urge it forward. She wanted to get to the ground as much as Rosa did, but a magic carpet wasn’t exactly intuitive to fly.

As they flew in closer, it became clear that something disastrous had happened during their brief excursion. Numerous streets were in disrepair, with stones shattered and the fronts of buildings torn open. There was evidence of fires and other smaller-scale damage, and the legions were out in force along with the city guard to repair damage and protect the populace.

“I need to check in with Capitlina,” Rosa said. “See what went wrong.” Rosa said, surveying the damage from above.

“I need to get home…” Cat said, her anxiety slowly rising in her chest.

“Drop me off near the Hill,” Rosa said. “It’s on the way.”

“R-right…” Cat maneuvered the carpet a little to bring them low over the Capitoline Hill. She didn’t even touch the ground before Rosa leapt off the side of the carpet and started off running, leaving Cat to shoot back off into the air and fly straight for home.

She touched down a few minutes later, jumping off the carpet which vanished into a mist of golden light behind her as she threw the door open. The house itself seemed unharmed, the windows and door were still intact and there were no signs of exterior damage, but Cat’s heart was in her throat as she ran inside.

“Mrowr,” The familiar meow of Basil greeted her as the cat sat up from where he had been curled on the couch, hopping softly down to receive his usual attention. Cat ignored him as she ran upstairs.

“Hilde!” She shouted up. “I’m home!”

Cat ran up the stairs two at a time and threw open the door to Hilde’s room, only to find it already crowded with a number of people. Hilde was still in bed, seemingly asleep, while Salvatore and Aurelio were there as well. Both of them seemed much worse for wear. Turi had a number of bandages over his arms and one on his face. Aurelio was leaning against the wall, one arm in a sling and similarly scratched up with dark rings around his eyes from lack of sleep.

“Cat, you’re back,” Turi smiled as she ran into the room.

“What happened?” Cat demanded before he could say more. “Did Rome come under attack?”

“Ya,” Turi nodded. “The cult decided to make their move while you and Rosa were away.”

Cat’s heart sank. She had gone on this mission purely to save Asha. While the girl was a close friend, not being in Rome might have endangered a lot of people, and she’d taken Rosa as well, one of the best monster hunters in the city.

Turi apparently saw her fears on her face, as he was quick to respond.

“It’s not your fault, Cat. No one saw this coming, there was no way any of us could have known and I doubt they were waiting for you to leave, more likely they were waiting for the Legions to depart again so they only had the guard to defend Rome.”

“But we repelled the attack, right?” Cat asked. “Is the cult still out there?”

“Not anymore,” Aurelio shook his head. “We cut off the head, rounded up most of the remaining members as well as its most influential leaders. Whatever dregs of the cult remain will be gone soon enough as people start to name names.”

“And Hilde’s fine,” Turi said. “I defended this area personally to make sure of it.”

Though pangs of guilt still cut at her, Catarina did feel some relief at that note. “Alright…what about Hildegard? Has she improved?”

There was a brief silence as Turi looked towards the floor, and Cat knew that the situation had no doubt become worse. Cat may have solved Asha’s problems on the other side of the sea, but she was still powerless to help Hildegard now.

There came a knock at the door, and it was opened to reveal a young woman Cat didn’t recognize. She had short dark hair, black but with a touch of blue, and bright turquoise eyes.

“Aurelio?” She asked, looking around before spotting him in the crowded room, “I wanted to make sure you were still here.”

“Still here, Mary,” Aurelio nodded. “How’s everyone else?”

‘Aiding in the rebuilding efforts,” Mary said. “Sybilla asked after you so I came looking.”

“I’ll be out to join them soon,” Aurelio said, arms folded over his chest. “Just needed to check on Hilde and Turi here.”

“Of course I…” Mary had glanced at Hildegard while speaking, but as she did the short woman did a brief double-take before staring at her in earnest, words trailing off.

“Something wrong, Mary?” Aurelio asked.

“I’ve seen this before…” The woman called Mary said quietly, and both Cat and Turi turned to face her.

“Before?” Cat asked. “This sickness? Where!? Where have you seen it before?”

Before she had even realized it, Cat had grabbed Mary by the shoulders. The young woman seemed surprised, though her expression was still slightly muted.

“Well I haven’t seen it personally but…I have some of my creator’s knowledge, and she was familiar with all manner of vicious curses.”

“So it is a curse…” Turi said. “We had thought as much.”

“What can we do?” Cat asked. “How is the curse lifted?”

“Breaking a curse is deceptive in its simplicity,” Mary said. “One must be the person who laid the curse in the first place, or more powerful than said person.”

“We don’t know who it was…” Cat said. “At least I don’t.”

Mary spent another moment looking over Hildegard “It is…a very powerful curse. Beyond the grasp of mortal spellcasters.”

Cat’s heart sank. If that was true, then she didn’t have the power to break the curse; Scheherazade likely didn’t either, perhaps not even Albion Nassar.

“Though I know someone who would be easily capable of tearing this curse away,” Mary concluded as she drew back from Hildegard.

“Who!?” Caat all but demanded, fists shaking.

“My creator and former master,” Mary said. “The Witch Goddess Huldra.”

“Then we’re sunk,” Aurelio said. “Not only is Huldra who-knows-where, there’s the small problem of her being evil.”

“Argh!” Cat shouted in frustration, hands still on Mary’s shoulders, a nonplussed expression on her face. “Why would even suggest that if there was no hope?”

“Because the Hunter is not telling the full story,” Mary said. “Lady Huldra is not by her nature evil. She is possessed by a piece of Nidhoggr’s spirit. It consumes her thoughts and guides her actions. She is a slave to it, not a willing servant.”

“But we’re still at square one,” Cat said. “With no one to turn to.”

Mary looked past Cat to Aurelio. “Now is the time,” she said firmly.

“No,” Aurelio said. “Too much has happened, we need to recover.”

“We made a bargain, I am upholding my end.” Mary’s eyes narrowed slightly.

“How can we even hope to find Huldra?” Aurelio asked. “Or get her to agree to some kind of exorcism?”

“By doing for her what you did to me,” Mary said. “We must kill this piece of Nidhoggr where it resides within her mind, in the Dreaming.”

“You can find her in the Dreaming?” Aurelio asked.

“Of course,” Mary nodded. “She is my creator, I can always track her presence.”

“Why didn’t you say so earlier!?” Aurelio demanded, but Cat cut him off.

“Wait, wait. wait, you both lost me,” she said, hands raised. “Explain what’s going on.”

Mary spoke before Aurelio could come up with the words.

“My creator, Huldra, is also a goddess of dreams,” Mary said. “All dreams can be reached in the Dreaming, the gestalt world from in which all dreams are formed, if one knows the way. Aurelio has been there before, and it is the place where I once existed.”

“So you’re saying,” Cat said, parsing things out. “Is that someone can go into the Dreaming, find your master, and kill the piece of Nidhoggr that’s enslaving her?”

“It can be done, hypothetically,” Mary said. “Though the journey will be difficult. I can take one person at most. Aurelio’s injuries would follow him into the dreaming alogn with his mental fatigue, and Hildegard is obviously incapable…”

“I’ll do it,” Turi said. “I am a Champion of Minerva, I think I stand a better chance than most.”

“No,” Cat said. “Let me do it.”

Turi turned to her. “Hilde would never have let me put you at risk to save her. Besides, you’re not as skilled a monster-slayer as she is, and you’re not a champion.”

Cat stood stubbornly against him. “She wouldn’t want you to risk your life either, and I might not be a champion but if this IS a primordial we’re dealing with, then I have an advantage.”

“Advantage?” Mary asked, curious.

Cat lifted the sword from her belt and showed it to Mary. “Caeruleamor, my sword.”

Mary stepped closer, tilting her head as she examined the sword, a curious expression on her face. “This steel…what has been worked into it?”

“Mmm…something potent.” Cat said, recalling her promise to Angel. “Something that can cancel out the power of a Primordial.”

Mary looked from Cat’s sword to Turi. “She has a point,” she said. “Nidhoggr, even a fragment of it, is no mortal monster or cacodaemon. The Dragon of Yggdrassil is mightier than the power of a god, save perhaps for the likes of Zeus or Thor, and a fragment is more than enough to overcome most mortals unless they have an advantage such as this.”

“It’s still not a safe journey,” Turi said hesitantly.

“I never asked for a safe journey,” Cat said. “But if I can help save Hilde, if there’s anything I can do to make a difference, then I’ll do it.”

Cat turned to look at Mary. “I want to do it.”

“Very well,” Mary said. “I’ll begin the preparations.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=67&sl=912

Where All Roads Lead

 

Chapter 33

“Oh now this will be an interesting game,” Skuld smiled, as Megame put down the second subject. This one depicted an armored young woman, similar to the one on the Brave Companions card earlier, the one with bright blue hair and a sword in hand.

“The Hero”

“Let us see how well you will understand the Hero’s Journey.”

Megame tried to steady her nervous hand as she drew the first card. It depicted the Hero, this time dressed in crown and framed with wings, standing as a great vaunted figure before a cheering crowd. The bottom of the card read:

“The Legend”

Megame put down the card.

“It is the duty of a hero to become a legend,” Megame said. “To become famed in story and song, celebrated for centuries as a person worthy of remembrance.”

Skuld smiled as she drew her card and played it.

“The Solitude,” She said, placing a card down depicting a lone figure wandering a desert. “Though they may cheer her name, those words will never reach her. She is alone, and suffers for that loneliness as those she cared for fall from her grasp.”

Megame drew her next card in stubborn silence, and was surprised to find the first repeated card she had ever seen.

“Umm…” She hesitated before putting it down. “The Warrior”

Once more she put down the card of the red-haired spear-wielding woman that had been her first subject. “The hero need not be alone. There are those who she’ll always have by her side. Those who will inspire her to save the people in need, and those who will love her when she needs them.”

Skuld’s smile never left as she put down her next card.

“The Beasts,” She said, putting down a card displaying a terrifying draconic monster. “Our hero will be strong, but there are some monsters that would make meals of heroes; there are some threats she can never overcome, brought low before her legend will born.”

Megame quietly drew her next card. She saw an unfamiliar figure upon it this time. They appeared to be little more than a child, but in their hand they carried a large warhammer, a weapon that blazed with light and electricity that filled the rest of the card. At the bottom read:

“The Thunderer”

“The Hero is never alone,” Megame said, fortifying her previous position. “And while she cannot slay all monsters, no monster can stand before the mighty thunderer! The one who can strike down giants and dragons with all the power of a god.”

“Fascinating,” was all Skuld said as she eyed the card. “You may yet have impressive skills if you can reach this deep into the deck.”

Without any further comment, she drew the next card from the deck and placed it.

“Hidden Knowledge,” She said, putting down a card illustrated with a thick leather-bound book that was clasped tightly shut and wrapped in chains. “All the strength will be of no use if our hero lacks the mind to use it properly.”

Megame drew her next card stubbornly, and this one gave her pause. It was, again, another figure. This one was a person with long dark hair, from their back spread the wings of a black butterfly, and monstrous claws rose from the background, inches from wrapping around their head. At the bottom of the card was the label:

“The Dark Herald”

Megame stared blankly at the card. What was this figure supposed to represent? The champion of some monster? The dark angel of some cruel god? How was that supposed to help the hero overcome hidden knowledge?

Once more, Megame found herself without an answer. Did she try anyway, find the thing that came closest and risk further decades of her lifespan? The way she saw it, she had little choice.

Gingerly, she put down the card as her mind raced. Skuld merely sat in silence.

“The Dark Herald…” Megame said slowly. “Will…” She sighed. “They will likely fight.”

“That is one possibility,” Skuld said as she swept the cards away. “But that will not be the path of fate she should followed.”

“What could I…she have done?” Megame asked.

“That will be for the hero to decide,” Skuld smiled. “There will be one more round should you choose to continue. The final risk will be upon you. Remember child that I will have nothing to lose while you sit here with everything at risk.”

The cold feeling came back, and Megame looked to the apparition before her as she saw it fade away entirely. At first she feared that it was already over, but then the reality set in. She was all the lifespan she had left.

One last shot to make things right.

“I will keep playing,” Megame said. “Not just for me, or for Constantin but…I want to prove I can make a good ending.” She nodded vehemently. “I want to prove that…despite it all, despite all the things you do…there can still be a happy end for the people in this world.”

The words were confident, but with each one spoken her courage waned. What was she doing here? Why was she risking her life for this stranger? Even if she told herself it was for a greater reason, to show she could defy fate, was that enough? Was she the one to fight that battle?

Was she wrong?

“Draw the card,” Skuld’s face had grown stony. “The time to play for your fate will arrive.”

Megame, her hands shaking, drew the card. When she looked at the picture it almost fell from her hand.

As she placed it with utmost care upon the table, the image upon it became etched into her mind: That of a bright-eyed, dark-haired girl dressed in robed of white and red, a fox dancing at her heels.

“The Shrine Maiden”

It was her. There could be no mistake. Even in an abstract illustration, she could recognize herself in the card. There was a connection she felt, like rope tied from her heart to the card. Skuld had been right, the time had truly come for her to play for her fate.

“Let us see what fate you will desire, Shrine Maiden,” Skuld spoke to the card and to Megame.

Megame didn’t want to draw the card. She didn’t want to play this game. Even if she had a feeling that the other cards had been the fates of others, to play for her own fate…

Megame had underestimated Skuld. She had expected to play for Constantin’s fate, not for her own. Slowly, she convinced her hand to reach out and draw the card, even as her fingers screamed at her to stop.

On the card was the image of a landscape, of pastoral fields, deep forests, and sloping mountains and hills, all beneath an orange evening sky and a bright red sun. Once more, even in abstraction, Megame recognized the truth of the card’s meaning, she could see the fate that it held, and she felt the desire deep within her soul for it.

“The Land of the Rising Sun”

She placed the card on top of the Shrine Maiden after a moment in taking comfort from its imagery.

“And what will this card mean?” Skuld asked, as Megame sat in silence.

“I want to go home,” Megame said quietly. “I want to see Japan again…I don’t want to die in this country.”

“None will ever find comfort in the thought of death on foreign shores,” Skuld said. Her voice lacked its earlier amusement, though a smile from her now would be unspeakably cruel.

Skuld drew her card in silence then placed it on the table.

“All who venture will desire a return to hearth and home,” Skuld said as she placed it. “But the shrine maiden must answer to a Higher Calling.”

On the card was the image of the Shrine maiden, being directed away from the red sun by a great hand, towards a distant land and a city built on seven hills. “This duty in Rome will keep you from your homeland as far as the future can tell.”

Every cell in her body wanted to stop her from drawing the next card. One wrong draw, one lack of imagination, one stroke of bad luck, and that would be the end of her. This card was the knife at her throat, the gun to her head, and she was toying with it.

But the only way to win was to draw the card.

Slowly Megame pulled the next card away and looked at it.

“The Bond”

Once more she felt a warmth within her heart as she looked into the card. She was there, the Shine Maiden, but she was not alone this time. The Searcher, The Warrior, The Hero, The Thunderer, The Dark Herald, all the subjects and characters she had drawn walked beside her. There were smiles in their faces and a brightness in the air.

Slowly she put down the card, her confidence rising. It was as if they were standing around her, all the people she had tried and failed to save. Perhaps, if she could escape this match, if she could win this one goal, then she could help them, and they could help her in turn.

“I don’t need to do this alone,” She said quietly. “And I won’t do it alone. I’ll find them all, each and every one, and I’ll help them on their paths and…by doing so, they’ll help me. My duty fulfilled…then they’ll help me get home.”

She could feel her heartbeat again. Life flowing through her body. Skuld wasn’t throwing monsters or calamity at her, and she didn’t need their strength. She needed their love, and a bond between them, these people she had not yet met.

Skuld’s voice was quiet as she played the next card and ripped the warmth from Megame’s body.

“The End of Days,” She said, displaying a card that showed a withered black world beneath a bleeding black sun. “Will be a time when all mankind is gone and the world falls silent.”

Megame stared for a moment, mouth agape. What sort of card countered the end of the world? Had she lost already? Was this the end?

Shivering slightly, a cold wind blowing through the clearing, she drew the next card. There was no figure on its surface, instead merely a number of shining blue threads that wound through empty space, some crossing, others tying together while others still strayed apart. Merely looking at them almost made Megame feel as if the threads were moving on their own. At the bottom the card was labeled:

“The Threads of Fate”

Megame almost slammed the card onto the table. She would not die here, not at this table. Not only for her own future but for the future of the others.

“That fate is not written,” She said. “The Threads of Fate twist to prevent such a catastrophe.”

“You should be careful,” Skuld said, her eyes flashing up to meet Megame’s with their terrible gaze. “You will be venturing into my territory.”

“I’m not going to back down,” Megame stood firm, even as her insides felt like ice.

Skuld drew her next card and placed it down. It depicted three women standing around a pool of water. One old, one middle-aged, one young. It was an image that was both strange to Megame and remarkably familiar.

“It will never be for a mortal to decide how the threads of fate are drawn, sewn, and cut as they need,” She said. “I will play The Three, they who will command fate, they who will mandate the future, and they who will not be denied.”

Megame was frozen to her seat.

This was it. The End. Megame had walked directly into Skuld’s trap; she had contested her fate against the will of those who decided them. She had attempted to beat a master of fate at their own game. There was nothing left now but to draw her next card and die.

Her hand reached about halfway to the deck and froze, and she could not move it further.

Megame felt tears run down her face as her arm shivered.

“I can’t…” She stammered through her caught throat. “I don’t want to…”

Skuld rose from her seat and gently walked to the side of the table. She took Megame’s bare wrist in her hand and guided it to the deck.

Megame expected to die instantly, or at the very least feel the icy cold touch of death. Instead all she felt was warmth.

“It will be alright,” Skuld said gently. “In any future, along any path, you should not be afraid.”

“But…” Megame couldn’t manage her words as tears streamed down her face. She didn’t want to draw the card. She didn’t want to see it.

“This will ever be why humans should not play the game of fate,” Skuld said quietly as she pressed Megame’s fingers to the cards. “But whatever the draw may be, you will prove yourself a tremendous player of the game, Megame Kamigawa. You will have felt not only for your own fate but for the fates of others. You will have felt how their destinies could tie to your own. It will be that empathy, that kindness of spirit, that will make you a player of the game that others could only hope to be.”

Slowly Megame drew the card.

“Let us play the last round,” Skuld said as she retook her seat. “Let us see what fortune brought you.”

Without a word, Megame put down the card.

“Paradox,” She said simply.

On top of the pile of cards that had grown was one that was simply a complete blank, nothing drawn for the single word.

“Fate has decreed it, but fate will not have its way today.” Megame said. “Something will happen regardless of the plan of fate, and the Shrine Maiden’s dream, and the dreams of the others, are some of them.”

Skuld stared at the cards for a while, her expression inscrutable, before her face finally split into a smile. She drew her last card, looked at it, and then simply put it into her sleeve.

“I will cede the round,” Skuld said. “Whether you will win for the blessing of the fox goddess or your own abilities, it is my sisters’ jobs to say.”

She rose form the table. “Your life is yours again, Constantin’s unlife is his once more.”

Megame sat in her chair, body limp, as she inhaled for what felt like the first time in years.

“I win?”

“Yes.”

“I get all my years back?”

“Yes.”

“And Kara’s contract is over?”

“Will you repeat all the conditions you placed?” Skuld asked.

“Ah, sorry,” Megame said.

Slowly, she drew herself from the table and rose to stand before Skuld. She bowed deeply at the waist before her, hands at her waist.

“Thank you, Lady Skuld,” She said. No response came, and when she eventually looked up, she saw that Skuld was gone and Megame was alone in the clearing.

A smile slowly starting to spread across her face, Megame started back towards the face, the sky looking bluer than she had ever seen it before.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=66&sl=469

Where All Roads Lead

The Game of Fate

May 26th, 2024

Megame walked quietly back into the forest where she had built her temporary shrine. The sky through the dark trees was an overcast grey, a solid slate of empty color that cast everything in a pale light. The birds were quiet, there was no sound of snapping twigs or rustling leaves as the stillness over the forest became slowly absolute.

Hachi had wanted to come, but both Megame and Kara had insisted that she had to do this alone. Any attempt to help or provide advice might be taken as an attempt to cheat, and if Kara was to be believed, there was nothing that Skuld hated more than being cheated. Still, Megame silently wished that she had someone with her for her support.

She reminded herself that she was never truly alone. The kami were on her side, Inari-sama in particular, and that luck would keep her going strong into the future so long as she had faith in it. Still, it was hard not to have doubts when she felt so alone in a silent forest, about to play a game of fate with death itself.

Kara had been very blunt on the full nature of her opponent. Skuld was not a death goddess, not a mere Norse divinity who could read the future. While Megame had not wanted to believe it, she could sense the ancient power behind Skuld’s eyes just as surely as she could feel the world enter the spectral pale of death around her when they had last spoken.

Being a relatively devout Shinto-Buddhist, Megame believed in the cycle of Samsara and reincarnation. That did not, however, eliminate the specter of death from her worries and fears. Death still very much existed, and while it was not an end to her spiritual existence, it was not a threshold she felt ready to cross.

In the clearing she had made, a table had appeared in the center where her shrine had once been, sitting in the shade of the large tree at the center. It was made of finely carved wood with a pair of matching chairs, and seemed somewhat at odds with the rustic surroundings.

Walking to the table, a hand running over the polished wood surface, Megame couldn’t help but feel her heart hammer in her chest, waiting for her opponent to arrive.

“Right on time,” The voice of Skuld filled the air as the tall woman stepped into view from around the trees. “Will you be ready to play?”

“I am,” Megame nodded. “I said I would. I’m not about to back down.”

“To back down would be the wiser choice,” Skuld said. “It would have been years yet before you can play this game on my level. But you will only have luck to guide you now.”

“I have faith in that luck,” Megame said firmly. “And I believe what I’m doing is right. I need to stay with that.”

Skuld only smiled as she took her side, a deck of cards appearing in the center of the table before them, and with a wave of her hand she gestured Megame to take her seat, which she did without comment.

“When this game ends,” Skuld said. “There will be little time for questions; it will be better if you asked them before we begin.”

“I just have a few,” Megame nodded. “You…aren’t just a Norse goddess are you? That’s what Kara said.”

Skuld smiled. It was an empty and hollow smile that sent fear down her spine.

“Who are you?”

Skuld didn’t respond at first, merely looking Megame squarely in the eyes. That, however, was all the confirmation she needed.

This woman of a thousand faces and a thousand names was the tender of the future, the caretaker of the branches of destiny, the aligner of threads.

The Bringer of Death.

This beautiful blonde-haired young German woman may as well have been a skull wreathed in a dark cloak, scythe over her shoulder. But all that was just imagery, the curtain dropped before the truth that her eyes made clear.

“What will you do to me?” Megame asked. “If I lose?”

At this Skuld’s smile grew somewhat sinister as she spoke, adding a slight melodic quality to her voice.

“I’ll fix your feet so you can’t walk,”

Megame shuddered as a feeling of cold came over her body as if all the warmth had fled her.

“I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk,”

Her body stiffened, joints aching as if her very bones protested.

“I’ll take your sight so you can’t see”

“Why?” Megame asked, body shivering. “Why do this? Why play with lives like this?”

Skuld’s smile fell, and the cold feeling left Megame all at once.

“You would ask me why I would demand life as payment,” She said. “You would ask me to be satisfied with money or currency, some token to be offered?”

“I…” Megame began, but Skuld interrupted her.

“Money will never buy life,” Skuld said. “The threads of fate are not spun from gold, only life can pay for life.”

“So that’s all you take,” Megame said. “Money won’t pay for life, so the only thing you’d take as a wager…”

“Nothing will satisfy a debt of death save for years of life. It is why the dead will never be able to gamble for more years. They will have nothing left to spend.”

Megame nodded. “Alright. I’m ready to take that risk.”

“Your years,” Skuld said. “Will be offered as an opening wager the fate of Constantin’s undead soul.”

“I agree,” Megame said. “Though first, I want to know how our games will be structured. How do I win and…how do I lose?”

“We will play three games. On each, you shall be the one to choose the subject,” Skuld said. “And for each game lost I will take a third of your remaining lifespan. Should you win a single round, your life will be restored in full and the price on Constatnin’s head will be delayed.”

“Delayed until when?” Megame asked.

“His thread will be wound back into the tapestry to prevent snarl,” Skuld said. “It will be cut of course, as all threads are, but he will have some time yet before my sisters and I come for him again.”

“Alright,” Megame swallowed. “I just need to win one game? Out of three?”

“Just one of three,” Skuld smiled again. “To beat me at my own game.”

Megame didn’t know if those odds were generous or horribly unbalanced. She also didn’t want to know the answer.

“I agree,” Megame said. “To all the terms you’ve given.”

Skuld gestured to the cards. “Then we may begin.”

Megame shivered as something cold ran through her body. A fog began to pour in the clearing around them, pooling like banks of snow at their feet. From the fog, standing at the side of the table between them, stood the ghostly image of Megame herself. Even at a glance Megame knew what this apparition was. It was her available funds, the remaining years of her life made real so she could watch them slip away.

Taking a deep breath, Megame tried to ignore the apparition as she took hold of the top card, putting it face up on the table to reveal it to both of them.

“Oh, how fun.” Skuld smiled.

The image on the card was labeled “The Warrior”. Unlike the card from the previous game with Kara, she did not recognize the girl on this one. She was young, around Megame’s age, but with bright red hair kept in a ponytail, and her body adorned with what looked like classical Greek armor like that which could be found on a statue. In her hands was a long spear.

“You will draw the first card,” Skuld smiled, politely ceding the first draw to her. Megame nodded and drew again, looking the card over.

This one was much more malevolent looking. Filling the card was the shadow image of an enormous black dragon, its body a mix of withered skin and exposed bone. Skeletons danced at its feet, and its great maw was opened to breathe poison gas and reveal a gaping maw of teeth. At the bottom of the card read:

“The Dragon”

Megame thought for a moment, The use was obvious, that a warrior should be destined to kill a great dragon, but doing the obvious thing might just make it easier for Skuld to counter her. She decided to try and be more ambiguous, give herself more room to wiggle.

“The dragon,” She said, putting the card down. “The warrior’s destiny is to face a great dragon in combat”

Her wording was deliberate. She didn’t make promises of dueling or slaying a dragon, merely to face it; it made her goal that much easier to reach.

Skuld apparently approved, the enigmatic smile never leaving her face. Silently, the Norn drew the next card and looked at it for less than a second before placing it down on top of the dragon.

The card portrayed a massive hulking figure with skin of bronze and eyes like fire. Everything about them seemed burning red and furious.

“The Rage,” Skuld said. “You warrior will not reach her goal, burdened as she is with the weight of her own fury.”

Megame frowned. She had expected Skuld to make the dragon inaccessible somehow, but instead she had handicapped the warrior. She drew her next card and her heart fell.

The image on this card was not one of courage or inspiration; rather it was the image of a wolf with bright red fur. It did not look particularly fearsome or ferocious, rather a proud and noble she-wolf. At her feet were two young human babies, seemingly at ease with the predator before them. In the background, she could see a vast city built atop some hills. At the bottom the label read:

“Mother Wolf”

Megame puzzled over the wordings. How could a wolf be motherly? She racked her brain for a moment as she tried to think of stories with wolves that didn’t come with the monikers “Big” and “bad”. Nothing came to her mind, but an idea slowly crept over her mind. She might not know the specific story, but the image and its use were undeniable. Not all wolves were ferocious, not all foul looking things were to be feared. Sometimes those we would think of as enemies could be our strongest allies.

“Mother wolf,” Megame put down the card. “The warrior is angry, and rightfully so perhaps, but with a wise mentor and an understanding hand she can tempered into something great. Although that person may not take a form they expect.”

Skuld’s smile widened.

“You will not be the average adversary,” She said with clear amusement in her voice. “Good.”

With that she drew and put down her next card without delay.

“Tragedy,” Skuld said, placing down a card displaying a weeping mask. “The anger in her soul can be quelled, but at its root is tragedy, which no mentor or training can heal.”

“Mmm…” Megame frowned, wondering if she could ever hope to stump Skuld before she drew her next card.

Once more the card stumped her at first, and she was a little frustrated at how Skuld drew these easily-applicable cards while hers became steadily more arcane.

This newest card displayed the image of the spear-carrying warrior descending a dark staircase, lit only by a single light at the top of the stairs, reading:

“Journey to the Afterlife”

Megame put down the card. “A death is a tragedy,” she said, trying her best to keep eyes on Skuld. “But sometimes, even if death can’t be stopped, closure can be found beyond the land of the living. The Warrior descends into the underworld, reuniting one last time with those she lost and finding peace.”

Skuld simply drew her next card before placing it down over Megame’s.

“The army,” She said. “The hordes of the dead stand before the Warrior and the dragon. Too much for one soul to stand against.”

Megame stubbornly drew her next card. She felt vindicated that attempts to break the warrior had failed, but this battle wasn’t over. She put down the next card she drew almost as soon as she drew it.

“Brave companions!”

Megame almost shouted, getting very into it. The card she had put down depicted more warriors. At the head was her own red-haired subject, standing alongside another young woman, her hair blue and a sword clutched in her armored hand. Behind them, more figures remained, obscured by darkness.

“Not all armies need be fought alone,” Megame said. “Working together, many can share glory as one.”

Skuld quietly drew and played her next card.

“Primordial,” She said, putting down the card and revealing a card that appeared to be a plain swirling black void.

“There are things that cannot be fought and killed by strength of arms. Some dragons which are more than they appear to be. The warrior’s prize is forever beyond her power.”

Megame frowned, hoping her luck would hold as she drew her next card.

Her heart froze in her chest as the next card revealed itself. It displayed only a shattered spear upon the ground with the words written plainly

“Loveless”

Even without revealing the card Skuld’s smile grew.

“Stumped are we?”

“N-not yet!” Megame objected as her mind raced. She could place it down, try to come up with some excuse. But she knew that Skuld would be more than happy to see through any obfuscation. She might even be penalized for it.

“I concede,” She hung her head. “I can’t win this round.”

With a flick of her hand the card Megame had been holding vanished and appeared in Skuld’s hand as she looked it over.

“Ah, a difficult future indeed.” She said. “The warrior will be strong and has new allies, but there will be nothing in her to fill the hole in her heart. A weakness you should have seen to. Without love, her journey is doomed to fail.”

“How could I have known that!?” Megame objected. “I fixed her tragedy!”

“One cannot simply fix a tragedy; that is human nature. It will be your duty to see that wounds will not fester in the future.”

Megame frowned, but more than the usual shame of having lost, she could feel something tugging at her spirit. She looked at the ghostly image of herself and saw it begin to fade, becoming less solid and less substantial with each passing moment.

“How many years do you think you have left?” Skuld asked. “Would you like to take a guess?”

“Next round!” Megame insisted as Skuld shuffled the cards into the deck.

“There is yet the option of surrender.” Skuld said. “If you will back down and abandon Constantin you will walk away with two-thirds of your remaining life intact. Those lost years will be nothing but the price of your foolishness; they need not be your entire life.”

Megame bit her bottom lip. As she felt a cold sensation sink through her bones, she realized just how high the stakes of this game were. Every lost game was a third of her remaining lifetime. Years, perhaps entire decades, where she would have smiled, laughed, and loved, lost to time.

She should stop now. She could get out while she still had a life to live. Constantin was a vampire, he had used up all the life he had and then some. What was the point of dying to try and save him?

Because in the pit of her heart, Megame knew that she could not abandon someone that she had a chance to save, just to save herself. It isn’t who she is.

“Keep playing,” Megame said. “I still have two rounds to beat you.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=65&sl=14

Where All Roads lead

Chapter 32

April 9th, 2024

“Charge the radio station,” Aurelio said.

The others didn’t object, all of them charging forward to where the dark-haired woman was waiting for them. Another black arrow shot through the sky, only for one of Sybilla’s crow-like minions to fly down and intercept the shot. The others ran too, Mary using her magic bolts to tear through the closest star demons, disarming some and destroying others to clear their way.

Gisela jumped down from the roof of the building, standing between them and the door as she drew another arrow. Aurelio did the same, trying to keep pace even as he drew back his next arrow, his only hope was that he was a better shot than she was. With his champion’s vision, he could track the movement of her eyes, see where she was looking as she pulled back the arrow, her eyes squaring on Sybilla. They were both fully-drawn, ready to fire. Aurelio knew he could make this shot, that he could put an arrow through her heart, but if he released his arrow at the intended target, then Gisela’s would strike just as true.

Aurelio made his decision, at the last moment he threw himself to the side, slamming into Sybilla to throw her to the ground as the black arrow screamed through the air where her heart had been mere moments before. His own arrow flew off course, embedding itself into the wall a meter from Gisela.

Sybilla stared up in Aurelio in surprise, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape. Aurelio, however, frowned as he pulled her quickly back to her feet. He had missed his shot, missed it in order to save a Witchbreed. He didn’t want to talk about it.

Elisa had closed the distance between their group and Gisela, moving in to engage the champion head on. Her sword flashed as Gisela swung her bow like a curved sword, using the flat edge to deftly parry Elisa.

“Keep going!” Elisa shouted. “Stop the signal! I’ll hold her off!”

Aurelio knew she was right; they had to keep moving. Together, they threw open the double doors of the radio station and ran inside. He slammed the doors shut behind them, but as the doors closed he caught Gisela’s eye for the briefest, and saw the power behind her dark violet eyes.

Elisa wasn’t going to last long.

As he slammed the doors shut, Sybilla and Mary summoned magical chains and barriers over the doors to slow down any pursuers. Evangeline was rapidly disassembling the marionette, the armored soldier coming apart into a number of small insect-like constructs that wrapped themselves around her body like thick bands of jewelry and two on her hands like armored gloves.

“Do you know where the broadcast controls are?” Evangeline asked, flexing her fingers, more of the constructs wrapping around her leg like a brace.

“Afraid not,” Aurelio said. “Guess we’ll just have to find-“

“Thank goodness you’re here!” A voice cut through them, all of them ready for a fight as they saw a woman running down the hall towards them. He didn’t recognize the woman, but there was something oddly familiar about her voice.

“Who are you?” Aurelio asked.

“I’m umm…well I’m Siren on the radio.” She said.

“Y-You’re Siren?” Aurelio asked in surprise. He had to admit, the woman was pretty but from -the- Siren, he was expecting someone more…voluptuous.

“That’s right,” She nodded quickly.

“What are you doing here?” Sybilla asked. “This place is the center of a cult invasion!”

“Well I couldn’t go outside!” She said. “So I just…hid in the closet.”

“Do you know where the broadcast controls are?” Evangeline asked.

“Of course,” Siren nodded quickly. “It’s just…”

“Just what?” Aurelio asked.

“It’s Mariposa, one of the new singers. She’s locked in the broadcast room and…” She trailed off.

“Is she the source of this?” Aurelio asked.

“I think so,” Siren nodded. “But I don’t think…she’s herself. I believe she’s been brainwashed.”

“Take us there,” Aurelio said. “We’ll see what we can do.”

Siren nodded and led them deeper into the facility, guiding them towards the broadcast room. It was a large room, divided in half by a large glass screen, one side filled with recording and broadcast equipment, the other with several chairs and microphones. The only other figure in there now was a young olive-skinned woman who was singing into the microphone, the machines seeming to work of their own accord as they captured her voice. Though she was singing in that same steady haunting tune, Aurelio could see shivers running down her body, her eyes tearstained and glowing with unnatural power.

“I’ll try to shut down the broadcast,” Evangeline said, moving to the machines and setting to work.

“Good. Mary, Sybilla, do you think you can break that trance on her?”

“We can try,” Sybilla said. “What about you?”

“I’m going to help Elisa,” Aurelio said, and he ran back out the way they had come.

By the time he burst through the doors back outside, Elisa was on her last legs. Her arms, chest, and face were covered in cuts and bruises form blows. Gisela wasn’t untouched, but she was in far better shape than the homunculus.

“I’ll take this, Elisa,” Aurelio said, readying his bow. “You join the others inside.”

For a moment it looked as if she was about to protest, but Elisa relented. “Fine,” she said “Don’t get yourself killed.”

Aurelio had an arrow nocked to the string, keeping his distance as he carefully eyed Gisela.

“Why did you come here?” He asked. “Why are you doing this?”

“I only came here looking for someone,” Gisela said. “And it isn’t you.”

“Well you sure know how to make an entrance,” Aurelio growled. “How many people are going to die today because of you?”

“This city would have come under siege whether I came here or not,” Gisela said. “If it can’t survive now then perhaps it was never meant to.”

“And who made you the judge of that!?” Aurelio demanded. “Your patron!?”

“Make no mistake,” Gisela said. “I despise Itzpapalotl as much as you do, perhaps more.”

“Then why!?” Aurelio demanded. “Why have you helped her!? Why are you willing to destroy this city for her!?”

“Because the threads of fate don’t always pull us in the direction we choose.” Gisela said, an arrow appearing in her hands as she nocked it against the bowstring.

“I don’t accept that” Aurelio said. “You can’t just blame fate and refuse to take responsibility!”

“Oh, I will take the responsibility,” Gisela glared at him. “I do this because it is the only thing I can do, the only hope I have, and I will bear that burden.”

“And it’s my duty to stop you,” Aurelio said. “At any cost.”

“Then you may try, Champion of Diana.”

Aurelio drew and fired his arrow with incredible speed. If it had been a cacodaemon or a monster he would have caught it right in the eye faster than it could move. But she was no cacodaemon; Aurelio was fighting another champion, and he knew the fight wouldn’t be that easy.

Gisela leaned out of range, the silver arrow missing her by inches as it streamed through her hair, her arm pulling back as her own black arrow shot through the air. Her bow arm was as quick as his, but her precision was lacking as Aurelio quickly moved out of the arrow’s path. She was a champion but not a hunter; her bow didn’t respond to her like Aurelio’s did to him. Here, at least, he had the advantage.

Aurelio leapt back, putting more space between them, knowing that the more distance he got, the greater his advantage would be. As he moved he drew and fired another arrow, almost striking Gisela if she hadn’t struck back at the last second, her black bow whipping through the air as it deflected the arrow and sent it spinning into the air.

“Is that all you have?” Gisela said, drawing and firing another arrow that came dangerously close to his neck. She might lack his precision, but she was no amateur. He couldn’t afford to lower his guard.

“How long have you been a champion?” She asked as she pulled back another arrow, ducking her head at the last moment as another silver shaft missed her by centimeters. Aurelio had to admit her reflexes were top notch, f that was all it was letting her dodge his arrows.

“More than a year,” Aurelio said proudly. “All in service to Lady Diana.”

“Amateur.”

Aurelio hadn’t even seen her move. She didn’t run at him so much as she seemed to fade out of one spot and appear much closer, as if the shadows cast over the street had delivered her there without need to walk. In less than the blink of an eye the distance between them was halved, and Aurelio had to all but throw himself out of the way as another black arrow flew at him with renewed speed.

By the time he recovered Gisela was upon him again, another arrow drawn as the distance between them evaporated. She fired at almost point-blank range and only his reflexes saved him from catching the arrow full in the chest. Still, he wasn’t fast enough, and he felt the black arrowhead cut his left arm.

Aurelio swore under his breath as Gisela changed tact, the string vanishing from her bow as the strange black wood seemed to reshape itself into a bladed edge. With no way out, Aurelio brought his own bow to meet hers like clashing swords, the divine wood holding against Gisela’s attack.

She didn’t stop at one attack, however, unleashing one ferocious swing after another. Aurelio knew what she was doing, exploiting the inherent weakness of his bow to take her advantage. At close range he didn’t like his odds, at least not while she was armed. She was fierce but also rather short, only around Catarina’s height and more than a head shorter than him. She had eliminated his reach, so he needed to eliminate hers.

Still holding his bow like a club, he made his attack, forcing her to raise her bow to defend herself as his left hand pulled an arrow from his quiver. Holding it just below the tip, he made a sudden jab at her arm, the arrow scratching against her skin, but delivering enough pain to make her drop her bow.

Aurelio knew his chance wouldn’t last long. If she recovered she could summon the bow back to her hand and all of this gained ground would be lost. So the moment it left her fingers, he made his attack.

Aurelio dropped his bow, bringing up his fists as he struck for her stomach with a fast jab form his right hand. The speed caught her off-guard, and he knocked the air from her lungs as she staggered back. When he brought his fists back around again, however, she was ready for him, and Aurelio saw her foot swing around like a whip far too fast to prevent it slamming hard against the side of his face, sending him reeling. He saw her hold out a hand, trying to bring her bow back between her fingers, but he threw himself at her, tackling her to the ground before she could regain the focus.

Soon any thought of their bows were abandoned as they broke into a close-range fist-fight. At this distance, Aurelio had some advantage from size and reach, but Gisela had a champion’s strength, and he could feel each brutal blow as she delivered it, strong enough to shatter bones on an ordinary man. A single dizzying kick to his side almost audibly cracked several of his ribs. And another blow to the head sent his vision spinning.

Aurelio gave as good as he got though. Striking wherever he could find an opening to throw her off-balance. He knew this wasn’t going to last forever, and that he was probably at a disadvantage, but he didn’t need to beat her, he just needed to stall her. He could only hope the others had found a way to stop her.

Before long both of them were tired and ragged, worn to the edge by their fight. Aurelio could feel his breath coming in heavy pants, body aching with each new breath. He didn’t know how much fight was left in him, but he was going to make sure it was enough. Steadying himself, he hunched his shoulders and charged Gisela, expecting her to strike back as he threw his full weight against her.

He felt her fist slam into the side of his head, color flashing behind his eyes as he tackled her to the ground, arms wrapping around her chest to try and pin her arms behind her. After a few moments of struggle he managed to pin her on her stomach, face to the ground with her arms held behind her.

“I might not be who you’re looking for,” Aurelio panted. “But I guess I’m enough.”

Just as he subdued her, light seemed to fill the air around them. At first Aurelio thought it must have been a spotlight or a meteor, blocking his eyes with his hands, but as he looked up he could see that the sun had revealed itself in full, the black miasma that had blocked it vanishing. With a last waning scream, the star demons vanished in the sunlight and the monsters and cacodaemons retreated or were destroyed entirely.

All around him the tune that wafted through the air had changed. It was no longer Mariposa’s haunting song, but instead another, brighter, and more intoxicating melody that sang through the air. With a start, Aurelio realized that Siren’s voice had replaced Mariposa’s, freeing the minds of the city from its grasp.

“Strong enough to protect your city,” Gisela said, face still pressed against the ground. “I will admit…Rome has impressed me.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=64&sl=398

Where All Roads Lead

Battle of the Black Sun

April 9th, 2024

Trouble had exploded into chaos. The great city of Rome had become nothing short of a battlefield beneath the lightless gaze of a black sun. Even with the passing of the night, the cacodaemons were out in force, running boldly through the streets to reclaim their old hunting grounds, many of them already grown into full-fledged monsters. Those, however, were now the least of Aurelio’s problems. Here and there the cultists of the Butterfly Shroud raced into the streets, shouting their victory as they attacked anyone caught outside. The hypnotic tune of the radio had begun to draw people into the streets, be it by curiosity or some malevolent spell, but more and more of the city was soon at the mercy of the cultists and monsters, even as Aurelio shouted for them to retreat indoors and barricade their doors.

Worst of all, however, were the demons that descended from the sky.

It had started with a roar on the air, a howling shriek that echoed through the sky from all directions. Aurelio had looked for the source, unable to find it until Sybilla had pointed his eyes upwards. There, falling from the skies, were dozens of winged monstrosities unlike anything he had ever seen.

They had the bodies of human skeletons, more than three meters tall and flying on great black bat wings. Their bones were covered in what appeared to be fine jewels but, with his enhanced sight, Aurelio could see they were made of hissing gnashing serpents covered in jeweled scales. The eyes of the demons burned with pale starlight, and their horrid screech rose from their skeletal chests to escape through maws filled with pointed teeth.

“What in the gods’ name…” Aurelio said quietly. “Are those?”

“Not invincible, I hope.” Sybilla said, magic crackling at her fingertips.

“This is too much for the two of us; we’re too disorganized.” Aurelio said.

“We need to get to the radio tower,” said Sybilla.

“I agree,” he nodded. “But we can’t break through a force like this on our own. Can you use magic to get in touch with Mary?”

“Can do,” Sybilla nodded. “We’ll rendezvous with her. Follow me.”

With that, she leapt from the rooftop with Aurelio close behind, the pair of them moving as fast as they could as they cut through the cacodaemons and monsters. They made it down several streets before the first of the star demons began to land, the closest one smashing into the roof before them.

Aurelio wished he could say it looked better up close, but standing before them only made the thing appear more monstrous. It towered both of them, long skeletal arms ending in wicked-looking claws as jeweled serpents wound their way through its bones, hanging from its chest, hips, and shoulders, great bat wings spreading out to either side.

Aurelio took a step back as he drew his bow and Sybilla moved between him and the monster. It roared, lurching forward to attack, only for Sybilla to bind its long arms with tendril-like shadows rising from the roof under their feet.

Aurelio pulled back an arrow on his bow, releasing the silver shaft of moonlight to strike the skeletal demon in the crown, the shining arrow bursting its skull as shadows and specks of starlight were scattered behind it. The beast roared, wounded but not dead as it tore itself free of Sybilla’s bindings, sweeping its arm to throw her bodily to the side as Aurelio nocked another arrow, drew, and released.

The next arrow smashed into the humerus, causing its arm to fall away as the bone burst where it was struck like shattering glass. Still the monster kept coming, and Aurelio had to roll out of the way to avoid the great claw of the monster smashing down on him, shattering the roof where he had landed. As he got back to his feet, monster turning to bear down on him, a lance of violet light tore through its chest cavity, incinerating several ribs and leaving nothing but smoke behind.

Sybilla, back on her feet, stood behind the creature, hands glowing from where she had launched the magic bolt. Aurelio used the brief distraction to get off another arrow, smashing yet more of the skull of the demon as it began to fall apart. Though it didn’t seem to have a solid weakness, the damage it had sustained proved too much for it to keep going, and its body began to disintegrate. Both of them waited until it had vanished entirely before moving on, Sybilla clearly more tired than before.

“Tougher than they look,” She muttered. “This is starting to take its toll.”

“We’ll get reinforcements,” Aurelio said. “How much further away is Mary?”

“Not far,” Sybilla said.

The pair of them made their way through the crowded streets, pushing the enchanted or the curious to safety as they cut down what monsters they could without slowing down. The massive star demons seemed to be growing more numerous by the minute, their great skeletal forms slamming into buildings and sending a spray of debris into the streets before they emerged, wings spread, to terrorize the vulnerable populace.

They were thankfully not too far from the radio station when they found Mary and Elisa. The two homunculi had been just as busy tearing through ranks of cacodaemons as Aurelio and Sybilla, Mary calling on the same destructive magic as Sybilla while Elisa had her sword drawn, slicing through cacodaemons with astonishing speed, blade running like silver through the air.

Aurelio was surprised, however, to see two more figures with them. One of them was a tall young woman with long blonde hair and a lovely face. She was leaning on a cane and had one hand raised, the hand itself wrapped in what looked like an ornate golden gauntlet. She seemed to be conducting the fourth figure who, Aurelio realized, wasn’t a person at all but a tall marionette-like automaton made of metal plates and clockwork, forged form brass and gold, moving with weapons drawn against the gathering crowds of monsters at its master’s command.

“Aurelio!” Elisa called, the first to spot them. “Thank goodness. We weren’t far from being overrun.”

“You and the whole city,” Aurelio said before glancing at the strange woman. “Who’s this?”

The woman turned to face him properly, still leaning on her cane as she smiled his way. “Evangeline Metaxes,” She said, bowing gracefully. “Champion of Hephaestus, at your service.”

Aurelio felt relief wash over him. Here at last was some good news. “You have a good sense of timing,” he said. “We need all the help we can get.”

“So I see,” Evangeline nodded, looking at the chaos around them.

Aurelio turned to Mary. “Any idea what we’re dealing with?”

Mary shook her head. “None yet.”

“Where is everyone else?” Aurelio asked Elisa. “We need to get to the radio tower.”

“Capitolina and Angel are organizing the city guard,” Elisa said. “They can’t spare the manpower. Turi is keeping the territory around Hildegard safe, but he refuses to go much further out.”

Aurelio swore. He really could have used both of them right now.

“There’s us too!” An oddly familiar voice reached Aurelio’s ears, and he turned to see the women he had met on a previous patrol facing him, Aelia and Bernadette, the ones Mary had called ghosts.

Now that he knew it, he could almost see it on them. Where the sun touched them he could almost see through, and they were dressed in the same archaic clothes he had seen them in before.

“Miss Aelia, Please!” Bernadette protested. “It’s not safe out here! We need to get inside!”

“The monsters are ignoring us,” Aelia ignored her in turn as she spoke to Aurelio. “Either they just can’t see us or they think we’re with them. We can help too!”

Elisa stepped forward. “Can you get people inside their houses?” She asked, “They’re being lured out by the music and we need to focus on killing monsters enough without people putting themselves in danger.”

“We can do that!” Aelia nodded eagerly. “Right Bernadette?”

“I suppose…”

“Why are you helping us,” Aurelio asked. “If they’re not attacking you or other spirits?”

“This is our city too.” Aelia said firmly. “I was born Roman and I’m still Roman. This is my city so I’m going to defend it!”

Aurelio could almost feel Mary smiling behind him.

“Alright,” he nodded. “And…thanks for the help.”

Aelia nodded again as she turned away with Bernadette, the pair of them almost vanishing into thin air as they left.

“So we have two champions, a Witchbreed, a homunculus, and an embodied Mara against an army of monsters between us and the radio tower?” Aurelio asked, looking around.

“I’ve heard of worse odds,” Sybilla smiled as they watched the cacodaemons mass to make a second charge.

“I almost feel sorry for them,” Evangeline smiled, directing her marionette into a defensive position, long blades appearing from within its golden wrists.

“Then let’s not keep them waiting,” Aurelio said, drawing his bow and leveling an arrow at the closest cacodaemon.

Aurelio had never liked working in a large team. When he had hunted with the benandante, he had done so largely alone, only regrouping with them after a hunt. As a champion, he had thought he would live a life apart, in solitude from the other warriors of Italy. As the five of them went on the offensive, however, he couldn’t help but feel exhilarated.

Evangeline’s marionette and Elisa led the charge, both of them with swords drawn to cut through anything that got too close. The marionette had size, reach, and what was clearly immense physical strength, lifting cacodaemons into the air with its great golden arms before flinging them into buildings. Elisa, however, had speed, closing the gaps in the marionette’s defenses as her blade moved like a blur through any monster that dared get too close.

Sybilla and Mary worked in tandem, their magic similar enough to benefit from one another. Mary, still not as artful and experienced as Sybilla, but brimming with raw power, kept to the destructive side, creating beams of light that scythed through even the large star demons that had begun to swarm them. Sybilla, meanwhile, used her remaining strength to summon monsters of her own, massive hounds built from shadow, tentacle horrors that reached from shadowed alleys to grab cacodaemons and pull them howling into the darkness, and great dark birds that kept the skies clear.

With all of them working together, Aurelio was free to aim and fire as fast as his hands could manage. Arrows made of moonlight shot through the dark air like comets, tearing through any cacodaemon or star monster that drew too close and keeping their flanks clear as they moved together through the streets.

The more they fought, the more they worked in tandem together. Elisa was quickly learning the limits of the marionette, keeping it safe from any attack that would get through its slower movements, not to mention defending its master.

“Thanks for the cover!” Evangeline shouted as Elisa’s sword cut through a cacodaemon that had made a lunge for her.

“I should be thanking you,” Elisa said. “That construct is taking the brunt of this.”

With a wave of her hand, one of Sybilla’s horrors launched a cacodaemon high into the air, the creature tumbling end over end only for a silver arrow to cut clean through it, sending its shadowy body trailing across the sky.

“Fine shot, Hunter!” Sybilla smiled at him. “But it seems like you might be showing off.”

“Maybe a little,” Aurelio admitted. “Come on! We’re almost there!”

As the four of them approached the radio tower, more and more of the star demons came down upon them, several never making it to the ground as Sybilla and Aurelio tore them apart with arrows and bursts of magic. The rest, however, crashed around them and pushed forward, the sky darkening as the battle grew more desperate.

Evangeline’s marionette charged the closest one as Aurelio shot arrow after arrow at the ones that had landed around them, Sybilla’s familiars leaping to clamp jaws, claws, and talons around their skeletal bodies.

As they inched closer to the doors of the radio station, the tower looming high above them, a cold laugh seemed to waft in on the music, the lyrics ceasing as a chilling voice spoke to them through the tune.

So this is the bold resistance Rome can offer?” Aurelio felt his blood run cold. The remaining star demons pulled back, mouths agape as the dark voice spoke through them. As the cruel feminine voice spoke, the sky itself seemed to grow darker.

I will say I am impressed.

“Reveal yourself!” Aurelio shouted, bow ready. “Are you the master of the Butterfly Shroud!?”

That I am.” The voice said. “I am the stars behind the sun, the Unseen Hand, Lady of Tamoanchan and She Who Blossomed in the White. I am Itzpapalotl, the Obsidian Butterfly, young hunter, and I have come to claim this city.

Aurelio did not know if it was through sheer power, or something else in her voice, but he knew that they were facing down a deity. The five of them could kill cacodaemons, even her skeletal monsters, but he doubted they could stop a god.

But a god needed a conduit or a shrine, and she couldn’t attack on her own, something was binding her to this place.

“Ignore her!” Aurelio shouted. “We need to stop the music!”

How perceptive, hunter of hunters.” He could hear the laughter in her voice. “But your moon goddess is not the only one with a champion.

The marionette shattered, its chest bursting into a spray of metal as gears and wiring were scattered behind it like shimmering blood.

Aurelio saw the black shaft of an arrow embed itself in the ground behind it, having cut clean through the marionette.

Aurelio’s eyes followed its path and saw a young woman standing atop the gate, a long black bow in hand as she stared down at them, brushing the dark hair from her face.

“Who is she…?” Evangeline asked, staring at the ruined remains of her marionette.

“A champion,” Elisa said. “One that’s standing in our way.”

“She’s an anchor,” Aurelio said. “As sure as the song. Which means we take her down.”

The girl, the champion of Itzpapalotl, hopped down from the roof, bow still in hand as she stood between them and the roof.

“I’m afraid that whatever you’ve brought, it won’t be enough,” she said. “My name is Gisela Silva, and today is the day this city dies.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=63&sl=824