The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 16

October 1st, 2024

“You’ll be staying here for now,” Cat said to Gisela, her hands on her hips and a frown on her face.

“I must say this is quite a bit lovelier than what I had expected,” Gisela said, eyes looking around the sitting room as they entered.

“It’s my family’s ancestral home, of course it’s nice,” Cat said, moving her arms to fold them over her chest. “But don’t get comfy. This place was warded to the gills by a half-dozen mages, including Albion Nassar so you’re not setting a foot off this property.”

“I’ve no intention to,” Gisela said. “And I will say…thank you, Catarina.”

Cat blinked, taken aback “Er…for what?”

“You didn’t have to do this. I could still be in my cell, and there was no reason to offer the Aldobrandini manor as a place to stay.”

“It was open,” Cat tried to shrug it off. “And the place is much more magically secure than most. You couldn’t escape or get where you weren’t wanted even if you tried.”

“I imagine a number of rooms are off-limits,” Gisela said. “Fair enough, I have no reason to try and test my boundaries. I’m in this city for you, after all.”

“Right, me,” Cat said, still a little apprehensive. “We can do our training here as well. Do Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays work?”

“My schedule is overwhelmingly free,” Gisela said. “I’m sure we can make that work.”

“Good,” Cat took a seat on the couch and Gisela moved to sit gently in an armchair across from her, legs folded and hands in her lap.

The difficulty of finding a place for Gisela had not been easy to overcome. There were not only her own abilities to take into consideration, but also the response of any neighbors she might have. Rome was a crowded city and while Gisela’s face was not well-known, if who she was and where she was living got out there could be a riot. She had needed to be sent somewhere isolated, somewhere that could be easily wrapped in a network of wards and blessings that even Gisela, with her god-given gifts, would not be able to escape. So, it had been Catarina who had offered her home. It had a multitude of spare rooms and with a reason to visit, Cat could have a reason to begin cleaning the old place up with Alice’s help.

Of course, exile in a comfortable manor was not Gisela’s only punishment. Her training of Catarina was considered part of her community service, but on top of that Pontifex Nora had requested the use of her knowledge and her lingual skills as well. Already piles of boxes full of books were filling the entrance hall of the Aldobrandini Manor. Nora had been amassing an enormous library of all the books she could fine on ancient lore, religious cults and practices, and most things with any hint of the occult. After being scanned to ensure they didn’t contain any actual magic, they were packed up and shipped for Gisela to read and interpret, as well as aid Nora in creating a new system for organization. It was a light punishment as far as Cat was concerned, but as Gisela had pointed out she had committed no real crime in Rome other than assaulting Aurelio and Elisa. The blame for the Battle of Black Sun feel squarely on her patron, Itzpapalotl and her mad cultists. Most of the cultists had been executed or imprisoned with much more stringent punishments, and without her worshippers the goddess herself had all but vanished from Rome.

“So about the training,” Cat said. “I take it you’re going to show me more of those memories of yours later?”

“When I get my thoughts in order, yes,” Gisela nodded. “These are memories I have tried very hard not to think about for the past. They take some time to get in order and ensure I haven’t…altered them.”

“So…this girl,” Cat said after a brief pause. “Noemi…your memory ended right after you met her.”

“It did…it’s difficult to think about,” Gisela said. “I needed time just…even imagining her face was hard for me.”

“She was important to you, huh?”

“She was…important, yes,” Gisela said. “As were all the others you’ll see in my memories.”

“You can just tell me,” Cat said. “If it’s that hard and if we need to focus elsewhere.”

“No,” Gisela shook her head. “There’s more reason to it than just needing to get things off my chest or show you what matters to me. It is important that you know what you’re facing out there, beyond Nidhoggr. There are other things in this new world that demand a hero’s attentions. I want you to do again what you did when you faced Nidhoggr. To see what evil is and stare it in the eye.”

Cat shivered, her mind going back to those massive pale blue eyes of Nidhoggr staring through her body and into her soul. “Alright, I get it,” Cat said. “But what else will we be doing.”

“Well it is a good thing that the Pontifex sent us so much reading material,” Gisela said. “While I’m doing my duty translating, I will be creating summaries and translations for you to read and giving you lessons on their content. As has been said before, the most important thing is to know thy enemy.”

“Right,” Cat nodded. “But there can’t be that much literature on Nidhoggr, can there?”

“Not as much as I’d like specifically,” Gisela said. “But we will be looking at all Primordials. Typhon, Apep, Tiamat, Nidhoggr, and several others. They are all the same class of being and share common traits, so that is what you will be studying.”

“Alright,” Cat nodded. “What else?”

“Small-scale battlefield tactics,” Gisela said. “You’re good with a sword from what I hear and I imagine Miss Jazheil is teaching you more. But you will need to learn how and where to apply that strength.”

“I don’t think I follow,” Cat said.

“Alright let me put it this way,” Gisela said patiently. “You, right now, are a knife. You are a well-forged and impressive weapon. But having a good knife does not win a knife fight. You need to know when and where to thrust, otherwise no matter how good your knife is you’ll only ever scratch their arm when you need to get that first and most strike to the heart.”

“Ah…” Cat nodded. “So knowing how best to move on a battlefield?”

“Yes, and not just you,” Gisela said. “The destruction of a Primordial in the field will require armies, and you will need close allies.”

“Well I can rely on Hilde,” Cat said. “And Rosa I guess.”

“Not just people strong in a fight. You need skilled people to get as broad a range of assets as you possibly can.”

“Right,” Cat nodded. “A wide skillset for any situation.”

‘Good, you’re catching on,” Gisela said. “Start taking those considerations into account, as well as the fact that anyone who joins you will likely die in the effort.”

“Right…” Cat frowned. Gisela had a way of sobering any kind of heroic buzz, even though she knew it wasn’t unfounded. While the thought of gathering her friends and family in an attack on Nidhoggr was spirit-lifting, she knew that recruiting them for that would both be pulling them away from Rome’s primary army, and putting their lives at extreme risk. It was not something to be taken lightly.

“You will also need to learn how to endure more than just physical pain,” Gisela said. “Nidhoggr will attack you on all fronts, body, mind, and soul. It will inflict pain upon your spirit and lash your mind with fear. This isn’t rosy language either, Nidhoggr is a Primordial and has access to a deeper form of magic than most mages can even approximate. Able to directly and deliberately tap into your human primal fears.”

“What do you mean primal fear?” Cat asked, recalling just how much her encounter with Nidhoggr had shaken her over the past few months.

“Primordials are chaos, but that doesn’t quite do them justice,” Gisela said. “When the chaos serpents were overthrown by the gods, cast beneath the world by the great powers of the pantheon, it was symbolic of the conquest of civilization. Zeus is the fledgling Greek states that rose up out of the ash and smoke of the Primordial’s reign. Do you think it was simply the symptoms of their coming that caused civilization to collapse? The relationship is a symbiotic one. When the gods and man are triumphant, the Primordials are imprisoned and we exist in a relatively enlightened time of civilization.

But when the Primordials rule, as they rule now, that is when you can see them for what they are. They are the darkness that humans banished with fire. The fear of the night and the predator, the tooth, the claw, the hunter. So long as they control the world, so long as that chaos reigns, there will be nothing but war, darkness, and death as humans and gods do what they can to cling for survival.”

“Jeez, I get it, the pressure’s on,” Cat groaned. “I already knew my odds were long in trying to beat an unkillable dragon monster from before the dawn of time, but could you soften the blow a little?”

“No,” Gisela said. “Because I’m not choosing you for your personality or your skills. If I needed that I’d just kill Nidhoggr myself. No, I’m choosing you because your existence and a potential hero gives you a substantial handicap in this race. I’m not starting at zero with you.”

“You say that,” Cat said. “But are you really sure I’m even a hero you’re looking for? That I have this ‘aspect’ of me as you like to call it?”

“No, I’m not sure,” Gisela said bluntly. “In fact, I’m only around forty percent sure I’m right with you.”

“Wow, you’re terrible at reassuring people.”

“That’s the game we’re playing, Catarina,” Gisela said. “If you go in there thinking you’re going to succeed because you’re a hero then a hundred to one says Nidhoggr turns you to dust before you even get in sight of it. These are the highest stakes in human history. Get with the picture.”

“Ya well,” Cat grumbled. “Stop treating me like a child who doesn’t get it and start treating me like a goddamn adult. Maybe then we’ll get something done.”

“Alright then,” Gisela said. “Then think of this less like a class lesson and more like survival training. Start planning your resources and think…and I mean really think about what you’re doing and what you can use to your advantage. You don’t get marks for a passing grade, and I’ll need you to be an adult and take initiative on this. Everything you do, everything you learn, everything at your disposal must be assessed in this context ‘Can this help me against Nidhoggr?’”

“Right,” Cat nodded. Much as she disliked Gisela, she knew there was some truth to it. She had been regarding Gisela like one of her teachers, like Albion or Schehera or Hilde, when that wasn’t really her job. Gisela was more like a boot camp instructor, making her assess her way of thinking and how to achieve a singular goal. It was less about passing on knowledge and more preparing Cat for what was to come.

“Though I do want to clear one thing up,” Cat said. “You’re a guest in my house. Ya, you’re my mentor and instructor when it comes to killing Primordials…but you’re also a guest living under my hospitality.”

“Of course,” Gisela nodded simply. “During meals and other such time, I will be the pinnacle of politeness. I’m not unaccustomed to etiquette, as you can imagine.”

“Fine,” Cat said grumpily, wanting more than ever to find someone actually enjoyable to talk to. “Maybe with that in mind we won’t wind up killing each other within a week.”

“One can only hope,” Gisela said.




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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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