The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 4

September 13th, 2024

“I guess I’m flattered,” Cat said, arms crossed as she looked across the glass at Gisela. “But what does me being a hero have to do with you being here?”

“Perhaps an elaboration is in order,” Gisela said. “You are not just a hero in the literal sense, but I believe you are something much more, an expression of an ancient and powerful archetype that has repeated itself across space and time.”

“…go on.” Cat still regarded her suspiciously, but more than anything she was just confused by the girl’s ramblings.

“In ancient times,” Gisela continued. “Whenever there was a great threat, be it a monster or a foreign state or a rampaging demon, there would always be a hero to rise up and put a stop to them. Achilles, Siegfried, Arjuna, all of them did the impossible and became the center of myths and legends. This wasn’t chance or divine intervention, but the hand of fate at work.”

“Uh huh…” Cat watched her closely. “And you’re saying I’m…what? A new age hero?”

“Of a sort,” Gisela said. “There are things called archetypes…it is difficult to describe in full, but it is sort of…a role, like for an actor, that someone is born into and fated to play.”

“All the world’s a play,” Cat said. “Shakespeare said it first, better to.”

“The concept is similar,” Gisela said. “Everyone has the potential, but some are born with a knack, a talent for their archetype that seems almost preternatural. A dragonslayer might have the instincts to slay a dragon, but without the training and the skill to back it up they’re still just a human being. So too does a potential hero need to be sharpened like a blade.”

“Hmmm…” While Cat didn’t trust a word out of this girl’s mouth, and knew Gisela was likely just trying to inflate her ego, she couldn’t help but imagine the possibilities. Cat had dreamed of being a hero, a great shining knight in a modern age, the dragonslayer and the unifier of nations, the woman who could make a kingdom safe against the monsters and the darkness. She had, after all, always worked to cultivate that kind of image. She had armor, a magic sword, not to mention her own brand of personal magic. She could kill monsters and had helped bring peace to Sicily, she had even saved the soul of her friend, Asha, who was now off being a hero herself. She even wore a cape from time to time!

Megame had once told Cat that fate was not necessarily the future set in stone, but rather the natural progression of events built from our choices, the road that she chose to walk down. Maybe Cat had simply been born with the path of a hero before her, and she had never wanted to stray far off the road. She knew she wasn’t as strong as Hildegard or as magically skilled as Albion, but the thought that she could be, that she could be a hero among people like them, hit something deep within herself. Maybe it was more possible than she had thought.

Gisela seemed to see what she was thinking, and spoke up before Cat fell too deep into her daydream.

“Before you get a head full of fantasies,” She said quickly. “This archetype, this potential, means almost nothing in the real world. You are far from unique, Catarina, there many millions of people alive on this planet, and there’s more than enough chaos to go around. I have been from the Americas to the Azores, I have walked across the African coast and through the forests of Iberia. The path I took is littered with the bones of people like you, Catarina, people who had the potential for greatness but none of what it took to really make it. The gardens of the Primordials are regularly watered with the blood of heroes.”

“Mmm…” Cat frowned. “I don’t have a head full of fantasies…but what does it matter? If anything, that should make me want to trust you less!”

“I want the Primordials dead as much as anyone alive, possibly more,” Gisela said. “If this chaos gets any worse it could destroy any remnants of human civilization, or turn it into something truly unspeakable.”

“Then why do you serve someone like Itz…Itza…” Cat vainly struggled with the pronunciation.

“Itzpapalotl, it sounds like it’s spelled,” Gisela said impatiently. “And trust me that is barely by choice. She follows me where I go and influences things beyond my power.”

“You led the charge against this city!” Cat slapped her hand on the glass. “You didn’t try to stop it!”

“If Rome could not fend off something as paltry as the Butterfly Shroud then it deserved its fate,” Gisela said. “I’ve seen it happen before.”

“That’s terrible logic,” Cat growled. “You can’t make something stronger just by beating it down!”

“I agree,” Gisela said. “And now that you’ve passed the test, I am willing to put all of my effort towards making Rome stronger than it’s ever been.”

“But we can’t trust you,” Cat said. “You’re an enemy of Rome.”

“That is the test for you then, Catarina,” Gisela said, placing her right hand flat against the reinforced glass. Cat could see sparks of magic around her fingertips, reinforcing the glass further in case she tried to break it. “Can you trust me? Even enough to see if I am right?”

Cat frowned. She hated being put in this position. If she trusted Gisela, and the information she provided turned out to be wrong, or worse yet dangerous for Rome, then the fault would be entirely on her. She would be the one who fell for Gisela’s game.

“Responsibility,” Gisela said. “Not a light burden, is it? Will you think this slowly when kingdoms or worlds are on the line?”

“Shut up!” Cat said. “What exactly are you offering?”

“I will teach you everything I know about the Primordials, as well as how to improve yourself as a potential hero. I will do everything I can to ensure that if you go into battle against a Primordial you will have every opportunity humanly possible.”

“Can you ensure I’ll win?” Cat asked.

“No,” Gisela said plainly. “Only you can ensure that what I have to teach is used to its fullest potential.”

“How did you come across all of this information?” Cat asked. “Everything we know we learned from gods or from Angel. It’s not like much of it is written down except for stories.”

“Stories were a large part of it,” Gisela said. “More information than you might think is hidden between the lines of ancient texts, but yes, there is more to it than that.”

“What then?”

“The greatest gift that Itzpapalotl gave me was the gift of knowledge, the kind of knowledge kept secret from all but the most aware gods and spirits. The kind of knowledge that sears itself into your mind like a brand.”

“I’m not sure I believe that was your greatest gift,” Cat said. “Aurelio said he barely managed to beat you in a straight fight, so there’s strength and fighting skill worked in there too.”

“That’s because Aurelio is a rank amateur when it comes to being a champion,” Gisela said. “He has potential like you, but he hasn’t tested the limits of the power Diana gave him. I’ve had to fight to survive every day of being a champion until coming to Rome, and there’s more strength involved than you might think. He’s been getting far too comfortable in Rome, sleeping leisurely and picking off stray cacodaemons. He could be much more than he is.”

“How many champions are there?” Cat asked. “You say you know a lot, tell me that.”

“I’m not clairvoyant,” Gisela said with irritation. “Though I’ve met many. They grow more numerous by the year.”

“I doubt I can keep up with them for long,” Cat said. “Just fighting Rosa is pushing me to my limits…”

“Then you will need to set new limits,” Gisela said. “Being a mage helps, and while you may not have the rawest strength or speed, there is still the potential to match any champion in combat if you have the training and the skills.

“You keep making all these promises.” Cat said. “And I don’t trust any of them. All this ‘help you reach your potential’ stuff could just be a trap! You act and look a lot more like some evil sorceress than a hero’s wise old mentor.”

“You might be approaching this a little too literally,” Gisela said. “But my methods are far from unnatural. I don’t intend to use some dark blood magic to make you stronger.”

“Well there’s one relief I guess,” Cat rolled her eyes.

“I will teach you how to exploit weakness in your opponents,” Gisela said. “From cacodaemons to Primordials I can teach you where to strike and how best to strike it. Weaknesses that not even they know they have.”

It was tempting, it was a very tempting offer, but Cat still needed time to think it over, and more than that run it past her family and friends. This wasn’t the kind of decision one made alone.

As if sensing her hesitation, Gisela spoke up. “Take the time you need, but every day spent is another where the Primordials grow stronger. Seek advice, but do not wait too long.”

“I’ll be back,” Cat said. “One way or another.” With that, she turned and left.

Cat was so deep in thought, head bowed in concentration, she didn’t even notice the tall red-headed wolf woman until she almost crashed into her.

“Ah! S-sorry, Miss Capitolina!” Cat said hurriedly, pulling herself together.

“Don’t worry about it,” the Wolf of Rome grinned toothily at her. “Wanted to check in on you.”

“Because I was speaking to Gisela?” Cat asked.

“Well, you’re the only one she wants to talk to,” Capi said. “It shouldn’t be surprising that we want to know what she said.”

“Well…no I guess not,” Cat nodded. “She…wants to train me.”

Capi blinked in surprise. “Train you? Like a mentor?”

“Ya.” Cat nodded. “She said I had a lot of potential, and she wants to train me to kill Primordials, but…”

“But you don’t know if you can trust her,” Capi finished the thought for her.

“Ya,” Cat nodded.

Capi let out a long sigh, placing a hand on Cat’s shoulder as she walked her out into the plaza, the warm summer breeze a blessing from the interior that Cat realized had been truly stifling.

“Do you know how the Roman Empire got so big?” Capi asked, looking out over the plaza and into the sky.

“Well, conquest and trade mostly,” Cat said.

“Conquest is a bit of a simplified word,” Capitolina said. “You don’t just march a legion into their capital, plant a flag, and say they’re conquered.”

“Sometimes you need to kill a lot of people…” Cat said grimly.

“True, that did happen,” Capi nodded solemnly. “But what makes a conquered nation part of Rome? Well that part’s pretty simple: you make them Romans.”

“What do you mean?” Cat asked.

“Well, in practice it meant giving them the potential to be full Roman citizens, with all the benefits that implied,” Capi said. “But in this case…it means that sometimes the best way to truly beat an enemy is to make them your friend.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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