The Snake and the Mirror

Stepping Out

“So this is a memory we’re in?” Cat asked, looking around the stately decoration of the manor hallway.

“Yes, everything here is set and unmutable, it is not like a dream, and they can’t hear or interact with us.” Gisela nodded, staying by her side.

“Ya I get it, it’s like A Christmas Carol, right?” Cat said “So that makes me…Ghost of Christmas Past then?”

“A good enough approximation” Gisela nodded. “Now then, you wanted a story, so observe.”

Together, the pair of them walked through the hall in pursuit of the younger Gisela. They weren’t intangible apparitions, Cat could clearly see her own hands, but her presence felt…ethereal. They made no sound on the hard wood floor as they walked, and their faces weren’t reflected in the glass of the windows they passed either. Cat was aware and present, but as far as the memory was concerned she simply didn’t exist.

“So was this your house?” Cat asked.

“My parents’.” Gisela said “I was only ever a minor tenant of it. As you can see I wasn’t…particularly healthy.”

Cat nodded as she stepped forward to look closer. The young Gisela that moved with what she apparently thought was stealth through the building was clearly having trouble. Her joints shook and her breath was irregular.

“I was an ill child. There was always one problem or another with my body that kept me at home while my parents were globetrotting. Weak knees, heart arrhythmia, severe asthma, and of course all of that bed rest led to sleep difficulties and weight gain.” Gisela regarded her younger reflection coldly. “Nearsighted as well, I almost forgot…”

“So why are you sneaking around?” Cat asked. “I mean, it doesn’t sound like anyone’s home.”

“This memory takes place during the Days of Revelation. I was only now leaving the little sanctuary I’d made for myself in my bedroom.”

“What pulled you out?” Cat said.

“Hunger” Gisela said “And the screaming had stopped a few days before.”

“Your parents?” Cat asked “Were they…in the house?”

“No” Gisela shook her head “They had been on a plane headed for Argentina when it started…according to news reports their plane was downed by an enormous bat.”

“Wait, Argentina?” Cat asked “Where are we, Gisela? You never told me where you were from.”

“Hmm? Oh right, I suppose you wouldn’t know. We’re in Villahermosa in Tabasco.”

“…Which is?”

“We’re in Mexico” Gisela said “I am Mexican by birth.”

“Wow seriously?” Cat asked “I always too you for…I dunno I guess…”

“Either way it’s largely irrelevant” Gisela said “The locations are different but the dangers are quite similar across the world, though the spirits here wear very different faces.”

“Like what?” Cat asked

“Like you will see.” Came Gisela’s cold reply.

Together the two of them walked in silence acting as the young Gisela’s shadows. Even just watching her attempts at safe movement through the house caused Cat to cringe slightly. She was focusing on corners and dark places while glossing over primary methods of ingress. She was investigating room by room with only partial sweeps and leaving openings behind her. It was very much the movements of an amateur trying to be stealthy and in doing so becoming much more noticeable

“Painful isn’t it?” Gisela asked.

“I wasn’t going to say anything!” Cat said “Besides, it’s not your fault. I can’t say I was much better.”

“Unfortunately I lacked the guidance of someone like Hildegard Jazheil.” Gisela said.

“Who did you have? Your goddess patron?” Cat asked, but Gisela seemed resolute in remaining silent.

After a (markedly poor) sweep of the house for danger, the pair of them watched the young Gisela start packing food into a pack for travel.

“Ugh all that junk food is going to make you sick, not help you.” Cat said warily.

“It’s what I knew…as well as taking advantage of the opportunity.” Gisela said “My parents kept me on a strict diet, but they weren’t around to stop me now.”

“I guess not…”Cat said. “So…tell me honestly, are we just here to watch this? Because I feel I don’t need this vision quest to learn you were…unhealthy and inexperienced at the start of all this.”

“There is more to it” Gisela said.

“Good because…I’ll be honest, I think you might be a bit too hard on yourself.” Cat said “Like…you had the initiative to go out, didn’t you? I heard a lot of people just hunkered down and starved to death. It’s pretty brave to go out unarmed.”

“I wasn’t unarmed.” Gisela said, and she gestured for Cat to follow as her younger self moved out of the kitchen pantry and into the parlor.

Hanging from the wall on a beautiful wooden stand was a collection of very finely-made swords. Most of them were very thin fencing swords, with several epee and sabres. But the young Gisela took hold of the longer and heavier rapier before tying the sheathed blade around the belt on her waist.

“That…” Cat began saying but decided to hold her tongue, however Gisela finished her thought for her.

“A rapier is a poor sword for killing monsters.” Gisela said “It was an ill-fit for the style of combat. That was a duelist’s weapon, not the blade of a warrior.”

“Did you even know how to use it?” Cat asked.

“Yes, to a degree.” Gisela said “I had fencing training for several years as a younger teenager before my heart condition put a stop to that.”

“Color me surprised.” Cat said “Aurelio said you used a bow.”

“I do.” Gisela said plainly, offering no further comment.

“Well…hey there’s something I didn’t have!” Cat smiled “I was a complete novice when I started training with Hildegard!”

“It’s not a skill that served me well.” Gisela said. “Come, she’s about to leave.”

Cat noticed that there appeared to be gaps in the memory, like they were skipping along through a movie and Gisela would occasionally skip a scene or fast-forward. The younger Gisela would sometimes vanish, reappearing elsewhere that Gisela would point Cat too, her pack slightly more full and her slippers changed out for traveling shoes.

“Skipping parts?” Cat asked.

“Not every detail is relevant” Gisela said “Besides, I don’t have the time to show you a year and a half of memory in one sitting.”

“Oh ya…” Cat said “How long is this taking? You know, in the –real- world?”

“When we finish this particular memory” Gisela said “it will have taken about three seconds real time, long enough to hopefully not scare those guards with us too much.”

“Three seconds? Really?”

“Really.”

“Impressive….that could be really useful magic.” Cat said.

“And unfortunately not the kind I can teach” Gisela said. “Now come, more is happening.”

Slowly, the younger Gisela had opened the front door, peered outside, and begun her trek out. As Cat followed her, she had to stop herself in surprise as she took in the sight.

What had once been a fine estate along a meticulously kept boulevard was now overrun with jungle and humid forest. Vast trees rose like towers all around them as their roots consumed pavement, streets, and walls. Massive ferns with man-sized fronds sprouted in every beam of light that came down, and all around them the world was filled with the chittering of sound coming from birds, bugs, and other unseen animals lurking in the dark forest. For a moment, the young Gisela seemed to consider fleeing back inside, and Cat could hardly blame her.

“This is…amazing” Cat said “There’s jungle everywhere!”

“The forest were quick to exact nature’s vengeance” Gisela said. The spirits here are old and powerful and can live off of the pure life essence of the jungle itself. Entire towns and villages disappeared in days as the forests overtook them.”

“The forests back home got bigger as well” Cat said “But nothing like this.”

“Your Italian spirits and Roman gods are more…tame.” Gisela said “The most powerful gods in Mexico are the Aztec gods, and where Jupiter and his brood demanded praise, the gods here take their payment in the most powerful currency of spirits. Blood.”

“They sound vicious…” cat said, recalling Aurelio’s description of the horrific goddess Itzpapalotl.

“Not always so.” Gisela said “There are many benevolent gods in the Aztec pantheon, and they treat their worshippers well. The average person on the street isn’t about to sacrificially murder their neighbor to get by…but there are other forces at play in the world. Fate weaves itself through the threads of time, and just as more and more people begin to worship the gods of Rome and Egypt, so too did the people here begin to put stock in ancient practices, particularly as the world falls apart around them.”

“That still seems a long way to drop” Cat said “I mean…human sacrifice?”

“Understand, Catarina, that Rome was unique in its protections. In the early days people were willing to turn to any power that would keep them safe, keep them fed. But people are good, as you and I both understand. No man, Mexican or Roman or Egyptian, will give up their family or their friend to the hunger of a God unless they were already deeply disturbed. But what about an enemy?

Imagine you had a small stake of land you cared for, in times like these an acre of safe farmland is worth more than gold and may be the only thing that separates you from death. Apocalypse breeds the worst in people, and soon you have raiders and bandits come to your farm and demand your food. They threaten to murder you, enslave your family, and burn all you have in the world if you do not do as they obey. Or another scenario, that same farm is threatened by a powerful and dangerous spirit. A great forest spirit wishes to reclaim your farm for its own and will simply destroy any resistance you make. Both of these are forces the average man cannot stop.

But then an offer is made. A spirit of unrivaled power reaches out to you. It says it can give you strength and weapons, enough to ensure your land is safe and your family protected. Enough to kill the bandits and the spirit that threatens your land. All you need do is offer their blood to these gods, sacrifice your enemies upon the altar you make for them. Would you do it, Catarina? One way or the other blood will be spilled, and all you’ve done is killed a very real threat and ensured your farm and your family’s safety. Is that so monstrous?”

Cat was quiet. She wasn’t sure she had an answer, or could speak truthfully about any idea she came up with. She knew quite well from Sicily and Rosa’s stories that in the Days of Revelation it was kill or be killed.

“I don’t like it” Cat said quietly.

“No one does.” Gisela said “Save the gods.”

The young Gisela had reached the edge of what appeared to be a large pond at the edge of a forested bog. The surface was choked with algae, river plants, and massive lily pads. Even just looking at how hidden the water’s depths were made Cat tense. But the young Gisela didn’t seem to care as she kneeled down to get some of the water into a spare canteen.

“See, this is one of those examples of being smart and idiotic at the same time.” Gisela said idly “I was planning to boil the water later, as I knew it was unsafe to drink…but I never stopped to think about what might be lurking under the surface.”

“Crocodiles?” Cat asked nervously.

“Not quite.”

With an enormous splash the water heaved as a great bulk rose from the pond’s depths. The young Gisela scrambled back as she fell on her rear, eyes wide as she stared up into the hideous face of a colossal frog.

Cat blinked in surprise. The frog seemed, in most respects, to be a normal frog save for the fact that it was nearly eight meters tall. When it opened its colossal mouth, however, she saw the large teeth and whiplike tongue and knew that it was likely as dangerous as it was bizarre.

Gisela clumsily tried to draw her sword, but the angle was bad for the draw and her hands were shaking as her eyes were kept focused on the gargantuan frog.

Before the massive amphibian good bend down to snap her up, however, several loud repeated bangs echoed through the forest. Cat covered her ears with her hands before realizing how little that would help. What kind of noise was that? It took a moment for her mind to register the source of the unfamiliar sound.

It was gunfire.

Several more echoing shots lashed out, and this time Cat saw the strikes hit the frog. Compared to its immense bulk they were tiny, and Cat had learned that most spirits were resilient to firearms. Still, it seemed enough that the great lumbering beast decided Gisela wasn’t worth it, and it lurched back into the dark waters.

The young Gisela got shakily to her feet, head turning this way and that as she tried to find her savior. From the trees emerged a taller, fitter, and slightly older-looking young woman. Her skin was dark, well-tanned and particularly pronounced next to Gisela’s pale skin. Her eyes were a deep brown and her hair was a burnt reddish brown color. She was, even at a glance, far better-equipped than Gisela with a proper traveling pack, sturdy boots and pants, and a working vest over her shirt and a noticeable holster at her hip where she was sliding a long-nosed silver revolver.

“That was a close one” The woman smiled at the still-shaking Gisela. “Almost had you for lunch.”

“Th-th-thank you…” Gisela stammered, and Cat realized it was the first time she’d seen the younger one speak. “I-I’m G-Gi-Gisela…”

“Pleasure to meet you, Gisela” The woman said with a smile “The name’s Noemi.”

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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