The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 13

September 27th, 2024

“A pleasure to see you again, Catarina.”

Gisela’s voice was calm and level, her face a mask that Cat couldn’t read as she spoke. She offered no hint at amusement or disappointment, not even the shadow of a smirk on her lips or a glitter in her violet eyes. Cat found it unsettling, like a talking painting.

“I came to talk,” Cat said firmly.

“I imagine so,” Gisela nodded. “What shall we talk about?”

“I want to know how to kill Nidhoggr,” Cat said. “And I know…I know I can’t do it like I am.”

“No, you cannot,” Gisela nodded again.

“I thought I could just train and become stronger…but I don’t know how to train to kill a Primordial.”

“No one else on Earth that could teach you would do so,” Gisela said. “Though it is an astute observation to make.”

“I don’t trust you, and I doubt I ever will,” Cat said. “But I’m willing to listen to you…and take instruction.”

“Very good,” Gisela said, rising from her seat on the bed. “Then we have a place to begin.”

“Good,” Cat said, trying to keep her own face neutral. “Where do we start?”

“With negotiation of my fee,” Gisela said, and with this a flash of a smile did appear at the edges of her lips.

“What!?” Cat reeled. “Fee? You never mentioned a fee!”

“Well, a negotiation then,” Gisela said. “I have to say I’m growing weary of being kept in this cell.”

“You led a religious terrorist attack on the city!”

“As I’ve stated before to your city leaders and your wolves, I act only as Itzpapalotl’s champion and have no affiliation with the Butterfly Shroud, nor did I have any at the time. My only crimes were assaulting Aurelio and the homunculus.”

“It’s not just about that,” Cat frowned. “Itzpapalotl is dangerous.”

“So are most gods,” Gisela said. “Do recall Zeus flooded the entire earth when he thought humans were getting too uppity. I’m not asking for full release, I’m fine with supervision and probation, but I represent no threat to you and living here is…stifling.”

Cat’s frown only grew, lips curling in irritation. Gisela in turn walked up to the glass that separated them and tapped it with her knuckles, creating a ripple as the magic field covering the glass reacted to her touch. On her wrists, Cat could see a pair of bracers made from what looked like bronze inlaid with precious stones and strange calligraphy. Cat recognized them as Albion’s anti-magic shackles, which could be used both for subduing rogue mages and unpleasant teaching devices.

“Come on, I know what your mages can do. Keeping me locked somewhere more comfortable shouldn’t be much of an issue, and your city has made its message clear.”

“What message?”

“That they could bind me up to rot for eternity if they wanted. Consider this a…work release program.”

“Look,” Cat put her hands on her hips. “I’ll…fine I guess I’ll talk to Capitolina for you, but distributing living space is a lot of work, and no one wants to give a home to a criminal when they could be given to a refugee.”

“It’s a big city,” Gisela said. “I’m sure space can be found.”

“Ugh fine, look I said I’ll talk to her okay?” Cat said. “Now do you agree?”

“Absolutely,” Gisela said. “I said I would, after all. However, these will be rather complicated lessons, there is a lot of material to cover, and doing it from opposite sides of this wall would be…inconvenient at the best of times.”

“Ugh fine, hold on a second,” Cat walked away from the room towards the closest guard.

“Is she allowed to leave that cell?”

The guard looked at her, perplexed. “Well, she’s given an hour in the temple of Saturn behind the hill every other day…”

“Fine, we’re going out,” Cat said.

“Well, she’s a champion so she’ll need to be under strict guard…”

“Fine,” Cat said. “I won’t let her out of my sight but bring whoever you need.”

“She’s a champion,” The guard’s face grew stern. “Even for someone like you she can’t be underestimated.”

“Trust me, I won’t,” Cat said before returning to Gisela’s cell. “Come on, we’re going for a walk.”

“How generous,” Gisela said. “I promise, I won’t try to escape.”

“Damn right,” Cat growled.

After clearing it with their supervisors, the guards unlocked Gisela’s cell, double-checked her shackles, and escorted the pair of them out of the building. It was early evening as they walked the path through the ruins of the old Roman Temple of Saturn. Gisela seemed quite at ease, her hands folded behind her back as she walked down the gravel path.

“It is nice to get some fresh air now and then.”

“So talk,” Cat said. “What kind of lessons will we be doing?”

“As it is often said,” Gisela said. “Knowledge is power. You will be reading a great deal in some very old languages, a number of them dead. Your spirit servant will need to help you with them.”

“I’m fine learning old languages,” Cat folded her arms. “I already read Latin, Coptic, and Hellenic Greek, and I’m learning Arabic.”

“We’ll be delving deeper than that,” Gisela said. “I can speak and read Hitite, Peiligang, and Rongorongo to name three of several thousand. I’ll be giving essential texts to your spirit and she can tutor you from there.”

“Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to be the teacher?” Cat asked.

“I am,” Gisela said. “That’s not the focus, its background. We will be focusing on some of the oldest legends ever written by human hands, and some that might not be human at all.”

“So we’re reading legends?” Cat asked.

“That’s a start,” Gisela said. “Know your enemy, as they say. The Primordials are ancient and many of them ruled like gods before they were overthrown.”

Gisela stepped back and gestured to the temple around them. “Take this Temple of Saturn. To the Romans he was a mythic god-king of wealth and agriculture, who ruled over ancient Pelasgium Latium in a lost Golden Age. But when Rome was syncretized with Hellenic tradition, he gained the aspects of the vicious progenitor God Cronus, who devoured his children. Gods and spirits are fluid things, you see.”

“Yes, I know, Megame talks about it a lot,” Cat said.

“Keep her talking then, she could be an excellent resource,” Gisela said.

“Alright, so we’re learning about Primrodials in order to kill Primordials,” Cat said. “That makes sense.”

“Lesson one for you then,” Gisela said. “You cannot kill Primordials, not permanently or in any way that matters.”

“Well then what would you suggest?” Cat asked, growing steadily more irritated.

“Imprisonment, confinement, put them back down where they came from.”

“And then they’ll eventually break out again,” Cat objected, but Gisela simply nodded.

“And the cycle begins anew.”

“That sounds like giving up,” Cat said.

“If it helps at all, I assure you it is not,” Gisela said. “Nidhoggr was bound within the roots of Yggdrassil at the beginning of creation, it can be bound again. So can Typhon, Apophis, Tiamat, and any others that might have been loosed upon the world.”

“Except most of them were imprisoned by gods,” Cat said. “I’m not a god, how do I make that happen?”

“These things, the fall and rise of gods and primordial, are the kinds of forces mandated by fate. And the thing you need to understand about fate is that while you have to play the game, you can fudge the rules a little if you know what you’re doing.”

“And I take it you know what you’re doing?”

“I do indeed,” Gisela nodded.

“Look,” Cat frowned. “I get that you’re the smart one here, that you’re the girl with all the answers, but you’re also being an ass about it.”

“I’m sorry if I don’t have the patience to craft this information specifically to fuel your ego.”

“It’s not about ego,” Cat argued. “I don’t care about my ego, if anything it’s yours.”

“Excuse me?” Gisela turned on her.

“Look, I realize you want to do the dramatic thing and open with a lot of rhetorical questions, but I’m here to learn, and I want to start actually learning something rather than have you tell me over and over I’ve got a lot to learn.”

‘I wonder if you talk to Albion Nassar this way,” Gisela mused. “He is teaching you as well, isn’t he?”

“That’s the thing,” Cat said. “Lord Nassar is an older established mage, an extremely talented one at that, with a long relationship with my family and a lot of experience. You…I don’t know anything about you. For all I know, you could still be a charlatan!”

“What can I tell you?” Gisela asked, and now her own impatience was starting to come through. “What do you want? A degree? There isn’t one for the things I know. A thousand year magical lineage? I haven’t got one of those either, I was born without a trace of magic in me. Everything that I am was born out of experience, the kinds of things that you’ve never witnessed.”

“Then tell me,” Cat said.

“I’ll do you one better,” Gisela said. “I’ll show you.”

“Excuse me?”

“You want to know who I am? What I’m capable of and what I know? Then I’ll show you just how I became the person I am today. Just remember that you asked for it.”

Gisela reached out a hand, placing her palm horizontally over Cat’s forehead until she could feel the cool touch of her skin pressed to hers. The guards, noticing the odd behavior, stepped forward but Cat told them to wait with a raised hand. Cat had beaten Nidhoggr in a battle of dreams, if Gisela wanted to mind-control her she wasn’t going down without a fight.

But she didn’t feel an intrusion of her mind, no sense of Gisela’s thoughts invading her own. Instead she felt almost the reverse, a rush and a feeling like vertigo as her sense of balance was thrown off and her mind was hurled into Gisela’s, her senses twisting and distorting as the world rearranged itself.

As her vision readjusted itself and she began to adapt, Cat realized she was standing somewhere else entirely. As if pulled through a vortex she found herself in the well-kept hallway of some pristine house or mansion. It was unfamiliar, unlike anywhere she had been, and as she regained her composure Cat panicked as she feared that Gisela had displayed some teleportation trick she’d kept hiding.

“Before you begin panicking…” Gisela seemed to almost appear out of thin air beside her.

“Where are we!?” Cat cut her off.

Gisela gave her an annoyed glare before continuing. “We’re in a memory. My memories to be specific.”

“How?” Cat rounded on her. “You’ve got those anti-magic shackles on…”

“These shackles work on the principle of cutting off a mage from their supply of aether. I just told you that I wasn’t a mage.”

“So what’s the point of them, exactly?”

“Well, there are some dangerous things even a non-mage can do with aether,” Gisela said. “This is an old spirit trick from ancient Mesoamerica I picked up.”

“So what, we’re watching a movie of your life now?” Cat asked.

“Something like that,” Gisela said, and as she spoke Cat heard the creak of a door opening behind her. She turned and saw a young woman poke her head out form within the dark room behind the door, calling out into the hallway.

“H-hello? …Is anyone there?”

The young woman had short dark hair held in pigtails, thick red-rimmed glasses over her face, and a fairly ugly pink wool sweater pulled over herself. She was also undeniably Gisela Silva.

Cat stared, her eyes darting back and forth from one Gisela to the other. The new Gisela, peering out from the door, was a bit chubbier, rounder in the face and with much shorter hair. In comparison, the current Gisela with her slim athletic build, sharp cheekbones, and waist-length curtain of black hair looked positively gaunt.

“That’s…you?” Cat asked, almost in disbelief.

“That is me a year and a half ago,” Gisela said. “And on the day everything went wrong.”

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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