The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 1

September 13th, 2024

The mid-afternoon sun came down thick and golden through the pulled curtains of the library’s window, casting the tall bookshelves in gilded light and deepening shadows as the hours of the day wound down. The air outside was hot and humid, but within this sanctuary it was always dry and comfortably cool. The tea that had been laid out on the table between the two chaise lounges was still steaming and lending an aromatic fragrance to the thick smell of book paper and library dust.

“This is good tea,” Catarina said as she took a long sip from the steaming cup. “Sheh said it was Turkish.”

“It’s a bit bitter for me,” Megame said, holding the cup with both hands as she took her own drink. “Though I am grateful to your friend for making it.”

“Sheh makes all the best teas,” Cat smiled.

The pair of them had come here to cool off and relax as the afternoon reached its later phases. Thanks to a last minute change in Cat’s lesson plans and Megame’s delegating skill, both of them found themselves free in the golden hours of the afternoon, able to wile them away in the expansive library of Scheherazade.

Cat’s friend, Megame, had quickly grown accustomed to living in Rome. She was a young Japanese woman around Cat’s age, with short dark brown hair she had only recently started growing long again. When they had first met, Megame had been much rougher in appearance, with a thinner face and grungier skin, hair, and clothes. The comforts of sleeping in a bed, eating three meals a day, and regular access to bathing water had softened her considerably, though she never lost the friendly smile on her face nor the bright shine in her eyes. She was dressed in the loose white jacket and a pair of bright red broad pants, apparently the uniform of her position as a miko, a shrine maiden. She sat neatly on the lounge with her legs and back straight as she carried the teacup delicately in her hands.

Cat herself was half a head taller than Megame and a bit broader in the shoulders and hips. Unlike the shrine maiden, she was a trained fighter, and it had become more apparent as the constant training and exercise had given her the toned figure more like her adoptive sister Hildegard. She was seated on her side, half-sprawled over the long lounge chair, and kept the teacup held loosely in one hand after she’d drained it.

“So have you heard the rumors coming in from the North?” Cat asked as the silence began to descend.

“North of where?” Megame asked. “North of the city? North Italy?”

“Northern Europe,” Cat said. “Though a lot of it is trickling down through the alps. They say things are only getting worse up there.”

“Right, that’s where the Primordial lives, yes?” Megame asked. “The…Nido-hogu?” She struggled briefly with pronunciation.

Megame’s accent was a curious thing. Most of the time Cat didn’t even notice it, and it only became apparent with proper nouns and more obscure foreign words. The strangest thing of all was that, according to Megame, she only spoke Japanese and a smattering of English, but had no problem casually conversing with the Italian-speaking Catarina.

“Nidhoggr,” Cat said. “They call it…well a lot of things. The Serpent of the Damned, the Dragon of Yggdrassil, the Striking Malice.”

“A real monster then,” Megame said, putting her teacup back on the tray. “That is the one you fought in the dream, wasn’t it?”

Cat nodded, the memory from several months ago still fresh in her mind. She had faced a shadow of Nidhoggr, a mere fragment of the thing, inside of a dream. She had been victorious, but only barely, and the real thing promised to be more terrible than anything that could be conjured in a dream.

“But Italy is safe behind its barrier, isn’t it?” Megame asked.

“It is,” Cat said. “But we can’t just sit behind our walls and let the rest of the world fall apart, can we? According to the legions, the Alpine settlements come under frequent attack since they live where the border is hazy, and beyond that…well we only know what we hear, but what we hear isn’t good.”

Megame smiled at her. “You care a lot about other people, Cat-chan, I like that about you.”

Cat giggled slightly at the nickname. Megame had started by calling her ‘Catarina’, but Cat had insisted on the Japanese modifier.

“Well, I always try, but there’s not a lot I can do on my own in this case. I can’t just ride out and fix all of Europe by myself; even I don’t think that much of myself.”

“You would be surprised with what you can do when you set your mind to something,” Megame said. “But I do think that task might be better suited to Rome’s Legions.”

“That’s the problem,” Cat said. “Convincing the people of Rome to put themselves and their loved ones at risk to help people outside of Italy.”

“Isn’t it in their best interest?” Megame asked. “With the world falling apart outside without help, Rome might not have neighbors for very long.”

“That’s what I say, but a lot of people are scared and…can you really blame them? When you’re up against things like undead dragons and giants and sun-eating wolves…you don’t really think of it as a fight you can win.”

“I understand that,” Megame said. “But you’re not the type of person to be afraid, and I doubt you’re alone.”

“Well you never seem afraid,” Cat said. “After all, crossing the world’s biggest continent on foot…I bet there isn’t much of anything left that would scare you.”

“Mmm…” Megame didn’t reply, merely taking another long sip of tea before speaking again. “What about this girl…Gisela?”

“Oh, her…” Cat’s mood soured almost instantly, poisoning the taste of the tea in her mouth. “I haven’t been back to see her.”

“Why not?” Megame asked, her face curious. “You said she knew you by name, and her capture was mere days before you defeated the shadow of…that dragon.”

“Coincidence,” Cat said. “Remember she was the one leading the charge in the Battle of the Black Sun. She’s the champion of an evil goddess and should rot in jail where she belongs.”

“But being a champion means she might have knowledge,” Megame said. “Knowledge we can use. Isn’t that what she said to you?”

“In a sense…” Cat said, no longer enjoying where this conversation was going.

“Could it really hurt to go back and talk to her again?”

“I don’t trust her,” Cat said. “She attacked Rome, brought her evil goddess here, and I’m more than willing to bet she’d say anything at the chance of a little leniency. That’s not someone you can trust!”

“Well I am not asking you to trust her” Megame said. “But not everyone you think is evil can be figured out so easily. Don’t forget I came here with a vampire.”

“Ya and I remember the uproar THAT caused,” Cat rolled her eyes, even as she knew Megame had a point. The Shrine Maiden apparently agreed as she continued to press home on the matter.

“Cat-chan, this isn’t something you can just ignore and hope it improves. If she has nothing to offer, if you think she’s lying, then you can just leave and she’s still stuck in her cell. She can’t enchant or hex you through the glass, and you’re not about to just let her out on her own, are you?”

“No, of course not…”

“Then try.” Megame said.

Cat let out a long groaning sigh. “Dammit, why do you have to be so reasonable?”

Megame smiled triumphantly. “Because you and everyone around you can be very unreasonable, of course.”

“Can we finish the tea at least?” Cat asked, eyeing the kettle.

“Of course.”

The afternoon had shifted into evening as Cat climbed the steps onto the Capitoline plaza. The sun was drawing closer to the horizon and the sky was growing a steadily deeper blue in the east as new colors sprang up in the west. Streetlamps were beginning to be lit, most by hand, and the nightlife of the city was beginning. As people moved out of the plaza with the end of work, Cat moved against the flow to find herself in the holding chambers beneath.

For nearly half a year, the girl called Gisela Silva had been sealed away in a holding cell, kept under constant watch and behind a glass panel reinforced with several kinds of magic. A year ago Rome had been too small for prisons to be viable, and even now forced labor and community work was the punishment for most offenders, but Gisela could not be trusted, even under guard, in the city at large. She was a champion, and that made her dangerous.

Being a champion was to be chosen by a god as a vessel for power. Many gods across many religions and mythical pantheons had champions. Most of the ones in Rome were Greek or Roman deities. Her friends Rosa and Salvatore were the champions of Ares and Minerva respectfully; the head of the Night Guard, Aurelio, was a champion of Diana; the Pontifex Maximus, Nora Newstar, was in a way the champion of the entire Egyptian Pantheon; and a professional engineer and masterful artificer, Evangeline, was champion of Hephaestus. Even Megame was a champion to her Japanese goddess Inari.

Gisela, however, was something much more dangerous. She was a champion of the Aztec pantheon of ancient American, and specifically of Itzpapalotl, the Obsidian Butterfly, whose cult had laid bloody siege to Rome last April. Cat had been out of the city when it occurred, but resented everything that Gisela stood for.

Gisela was a tall, slim woman with long black hair and eerily pale skin. Though she seemed to be in her early twenties it was difficult for her to tell. She was dressed in an ugly white jumpsuit, the closest thing to a prison uniform they had, though Cat thought she would be better served in a straightjacket.

“Catarina Aldobrandini,” Gisela’s voice came in clear despite the thick glass, again likely the work of some enchantment. Cat shivered, there was something…wrong when she said it.

“I was hoping you would come back. You left our last meeting rather…abruptly.”

“I’m back, not that I’m happy about it,” Cat said, arms folded over her chest. “But because I think you might be useful to Rome.”

“And how does Rome wish for me to be of service?” Gisela sat back on the stark mattress she had been given. A book resting under her hand. While Rome had decided to keep her in holding indefinitely, they didn’t treat her like an animal. She had decent bedding and books to read (given approval first), and she had apparently never complained save for the occasional request to meet with people, usually Catarina or Capitolina.

“What do you know about Primordials?”

“More than anyone in this city,” Gisela said. “More than even the Capitoline Wolf’s pet Primordial.”

Cat stared. Only a handful of people knew that Angel was a fallen Primordial. It was one of the best-kept secrets in Rome, but apparently this woman knew it offhand.

“If that’s true,” Cat stood her ground. “Then that’s information we need.”

“Oh, I have no doubt,” Gisela said. “Rome and you in particular will be in need of it, and I would be happy to provide.”

“Ya, and what are you asking in return?” Cat wasn’t about to be fooled. “I’m not about to strike a deal.

“I ask for nothing,” Gisela’s face remained steadfastly serious. “I offer my advice and my services freely…save perhaps an upgrade in accommodations. My one condition is that I offer this information only to you.’

Cat slapped her hand against the glass, loud enough to send a resounding slam through the cell. Gisela didn’t flinch.

“What is with you about me?” She demanded. “Why am I so interesting? Why do you know my name? Why will you only talk to me!?”

“That’s simple,” Gisela said. “Because you’re a hero, and I came to Rome to help you.”

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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