The Snake and the Mirror

The Obsidian Mirror

 

The lights were on in the Aldobrandini manor as Cat waited with dwindling patience in her family’s study, slumped in a chair as the enticing demon of sleep called to her. It was nearly midnight, meaning she’d be spending the night there anyway, but Gisela had told her that they would be going on another trip into Gisela’s memories…once she had prepared.

That had been four hours ago.

Cat placed the book she’d been reading back off to the side to look at Gisela again. The dark-haired woman was staring out the window into the moonless night. She always had a relatively neutral expression, but there was an… intensity to her tonight that Cat couldn’t place.

“Is it bad?” Cat asked the silence. “The memory?”

“It is the second worst memory of my life,” Gisela said. “And the most…vivid. You know me well enough by now, Catarina, to know that I’m not…fond of who and what I was. But this memory…is the kind of horror that anyone who feels it should be spared.”

“Well…when you’re ready,” Cat said nervously. “Whenever you want to start.”

Gisela took a long deep breath. “Now, I think, is as good a time as ever.”

She turned from the window and moved towards Cat, sitting beside her on the couch. “I will show you, Catarina, just what we found waiting for us in Mexico City.”

 

There was an odd sound in the air as the four of them made it through the edges of the tree cover. The rainforest had given way to more temperate trees and ferns as the climate grew more arid, but the foliage was still thick as the spirits of the world went wild. They had avoided roads as they moved northward, the patrolling bandits and slavers had grown more numerous, and they had grown more anxious about what they might find in Mexico City.

They moved up a tall tree-covered ridge that cut down sharply in a short cliff at the edge, giving a broad look down on the road in the valley below. It would give them a decent view and keep them covered, but Anton and Noemi moved with quiet grace at the front as they scouted it out, Gisela and Tess taking up the slower rear, keeping an eye out for anyone who might be tracking them. The forest and underbrush was so thick, however, that it was impossible to see far.

As they moved to the edge of the rift, they could see that the valley below expanded outwards to the large city itself. Much of what had been Mexico City was underwater, as the waters of the ancient Lake Texcoco had rushed up from the earth to reclaim its ancient beds. But numerous islands covered in a mix of old architecture and new constructions rose all across its surface, connected by a latticework of bridge roads and ferry lines. The road below them was one of the main thoroughfares, leading from the edge of the lake to the city’s heart.

It was more people than Gisela had seen in months. Hundreds were walking towards the city with only a few traveling in other directions. Some were laden with food or supplies to sell or deliver, many more simply walked on their own, urged on by the movements of the road’s patrolling guards, all of whom carried marks of leopard skin somewhere on their uniforms. A number of people, however, were being carried. Their arms strapped to a wooden rod over their shoulders as they were forced by guards to march into the city.

“We shouldn’t have come here,” Noemi said. “Whatever’s happening, it can’t be good.”

“Agreed,” said Anton. “We need to-“

There was a sound of snapping twigs behind them, and all of them turned, readying themselves as they looked around for whatever might be behind them. Even Cat, silent in the memory, had to strain to see it but as she did it sent a shiver down her spine. A pair of eyes from an enormous cat, gleaming in the darkness.

There was a roar that echoed across the ridge, and from the underbrush burst a dozen of the city guard, all of them wielding spears and nets as they rushed forward. The first one fell to one of Anton’s arrows, white-feathered shaft rising from his throat. The next was brought down by a bullet from Noemi, but with it came the alarm. Soon the entire city would descend on them.

“Run!” Noemi shouted, and they broke off back into the jungle, Gisela struggling to keep pace with Noemi as Cat and her future Gisela glided silently behind them like ghosts.

It was a brutal, panting run through the thick vegetation as they leaped over fallen trees and ducked beneath low-hanging branches, all the while the sound of the city’s hunters on their trail. Gisela and Noemi stuck close together, occasionally grabbing each others’ sleeve as they took a running jump, both of them panting heavily as they ran with all the speed they could muster.

“Wait!” Anton shouted through deep breaths. “Tess! Where’s Tess!?”

All of them swiveled their heads, but the forest was thick and they couldn’t afford to stop running. Anton, however, stopped midstride, arrow nocked on his bow as he shouted into the jungle.

“Tess!”

Noemi and Gisela broke to a stop, but Anton turned to them.

“No!” he shouted. “Keep going!”

But before he even had time to turn back a net had been thrown over him as the hunters descended on them. Noemi and Gisela turned to run again, only for more armed men and women to emerge from the trees, spears and a few remaining guns readied as they cornered them. Tentatively, both of them dropped their weapons, raising their hands in surrender.

Before long they were bound like the others they had seen, forced to march by the guards along the great road towards the city. No one else around them would look them in the eye, turning away as if to ignore them at all costs. The three of them moved together, but Tess was still missing.

“As far as we hoped, Tess had gotten away,” The phantasmal Gisela said to Cat. “We didn’t say anything, for fear of tipping off the guards to her presence.”

“Did she get away?” Cat asked, Gisela remained silent.

They were marched across the bridge that spanned the dark waters of the lake to the largest city island, over which a massive step pyramid rose from the dense complex of buildings. Even Cat marveled at the scope of it. It wasn’t an occupied ruin like Rome, but a true massive city, with a population that no doubt rivaled theirs, and this had been months ago. How had people built something like this so quickly?

The sun had begun to set as they entered the city. People moved off in different directions as the roads spread out like a spiderweb. Many of the captured victims were pushed in different directions, but the three of them were kept forward on a march, heading towards the base of the pyramid. As the darkness grew, torches were lit all across the city, and people began to gather towards the pyramid. At the bottom of the stairs they were untied, though the guards pressed in close and gave them a single firm command.

“Climb.”

“Eighty steps,” Gisela said as she and Catarina watched the trio climb. “I counted them.”

“What is this?” Cat asked.

“A temple, of course,” Gisela said. “Rome was lucky. Your wolf spirits demanded nothing and gave you protection. Other gods are not so generous.”

Eighty steep steps lead them high above the rest of the low-built city, the pyramid itself having been built to be a commanding structure on the lake, unchallenged by any other building. At the top, it leveled off into a great open space that looked out over the city, now shining with firelight, and the dark lake beyond.

The space at the top of the pyramid was covered by a stone roof supported by a pillar at each corner. Hanging suspended vertically from the roof was a massive stone disc of pure black obsidian polished to a shine fine enough to clearly see their reflections. Once more they were bound by the guards, this time with their arms clasped tight behind their backs as they were made to stand. Rising from the floor at the pyramid’s center was a large ornate stone altar, covered in what was unmistakably dried blood.

A man walked to the center of the temple, standing on the opposite side of the altar from them, dressed in a blending of old-style fine clothes, in this case a black tailored suit, mixed with odd religious elements such as white feathers and a carved staff in his hand, his face covered in a number of black markings. A medley of music began to rise from the city below, beating drums mixed with the chiming of clay flutes and seashell horns blowing in the night air as the man, the priest, began to speak.

“Oh Lord, Oh Master, Oh Night and Wind, you who are high above us all for we are base before you. You who offer us safety in exchange for our devotion, you who offer strength in return for our sacrifice, you who have made us more than any spirit or weapon or man. We call upon you, Lord of the Night Wind and Keeper of this city and its people. We call upon you, honored lord Tezcatlipoca, to partake in this power and this feast.”

He chanted proudly, reverently as the crowd below began to cheer. The sound of soft footsteps climbing the pyramid steps behind them caused them to turn their heads, even as the guards kept tight hold on them, and Cat saw the shock and terror rise in their eyes as two figures cleared the top of the pyramid.

The first was Tess, unharmed and unbound, dressed in a long dress of black feathers and leopard skin, and behind her was an enormous jaguar.

“Tess!” Gisela was the first to speak. “You’re alive, you’re…” her voice fell to a whisper.

Something had changed in Tess. Her expression was deathly serious, a stripe of blue paint running across her eyes that seemed to give them a supernatural quality, and she paid no mind to the rhinoceros-sized jaguar in her shadow.

Looking more closely, Cat’s own eyes grew wide. The jaguar truly was in her shadow, the feet and claws of the enormous cat blending into the shadow cast by Tess.

The high priest moved away from the altar and Tess moved to take his place. As she moved before the mirrored obsidian, however, it wasn’t her back that they saw. Something enormous, monstrous, and only barely human in shape moved in the reflection, and Cat shivered again as she saw the blood drain from the faces of the three bound prisoners.

“This was a trap,” Noemi hissed. “You lead us here, to this…why, Tess? Why!?”

Anton remained silent, his expression a mix of stunned anguish and resignation.

Tess raised her hands to eye level, looking at her small childlike palms.

“Look at these,” she said, and it was not with Tess’ voice that she spoke. It was as if something much larger, much deeper, and much older was lurking in her lungs, adding its voice to hers. “Paltry, young, weak, feminine. Truly these are dire times when I require this…thing to be my vessel.”

“Vessel…” Anton replied quietly. “This whole time? What are you?”

The creature wearing Tess’ face smiled.

“I am the Lord of the Night Wind, the Bringer of calamity and the Maker of Change. I am He by whom you live and in whose service you belong. I am Tezcatlipoca, the Keeper of this City.”

The being, the deity cast in the reflection shivered, and the jaguar in her shadow bellowed a deep echoing roar.

“Why lie to us?” Gisela asked, still bound, and Cat could hear the desperation in her voice. “What do you want with us?”

“With you two?” Tess, or rather Tezcatlipoca, gestured at Gisela and Noemi. “I want nothing. For you are nothing, save for my entertainment. With him, however…”

She turned her yellow cat’s eyes on Anton, and they shone with an almost predatory gleam.

“For months I was forced to toil, restricting myself in this puerile form purely to evoke your natural chivalry and pity. My power had to be restrained, hidden away in my Nagual so as not to arouse the suspicion of my brother that you served with such devotion.”

“Nagual?” Catarina asked, looking at her Gisela.

Gisela nodded towards the massive jaguar. “A complicated concept. A deity’s nagual is their animal counterpart. Somewhere between a soulmate and a second form.”

“But I needed you, and I needed Quetzacoatl’s influence,” Tezcatlipoca continued. “I needed that power to grow and fester within you, until you carried most of the feathered serpent’s influence on earth.”

Tezcatlipoca spread his arms, and for a moment Cat could almost see him beyond the reflection, as if the night air had shifted.

“I refuse to restrict myself to paltry spiritual form. What these people, what this world needs is a god who rules as a king. But a mortal body, particularly one like this is…weak, needy. It will fall apart in a few months’ time unless certain measures are taken. “

From her belt she drew a long jeweled knife, and gestured to the priest, who called the guards binding Anton forward. He struggled, pushing back against them, but the four guards over powered him and forced him onto his back on the altar.

“Call out to your god, Anton,” The pleasure in Tezcatlipoca’s voice was clear as she cleanly cut open his shirt with the knife. “There is only one god in this city, and I intend to rule it forever. But for that, I need a strong heart, one rich with divine energy. And if it happens to rob power from my hated brother…all the better.”

“Tess…” Anton said quietly. “Don’t do this.”

“There never was a Tess,” Tezcatlipoca said. “There is only the Night Wind, and soon it shall cover the world.”

As Tezcatlipoca raised the knife, Gisela raised her ghostly hand to Cat’s eyes, blocking the view.

“Gisela I-“

“There is no lesson here. There is nothing you can learn by watching this.”

Gisela may have blocked out sight, but she couldn’t stop the sounds. Cat felt her blood run cold and her breath knot up in her throat as the knife plunged into flesh. The sound of the chanting and cheering crowd intermingling with the high-pitched scream of the past Gisela as she was forced to watch, even louder as it filled the memory until it was almost ringing in her ears. Cat didn’t know if being spared the sight but not the sound was mercy or not, she could hear every horrific noise of the dagger through flesh, the sound of rushing blood and mixing screams just as Gisela had heard it. And the nausea in her throat grew as it went on.

Cat was not a stranger to death. She had seen people die, both in combat and innocent. But this ritualized murder was on an entirely different level.

Eventually Gisela lifted her hand to let Cat see. Tezcatlipoca had moved past the altar to face Noemi and Gisela. Her lips, chin and the front of her dress were now covered in blood as she regarded them. The past Gisela was a wreck, hanging limply as she was held up by the guards, sobbing openly with her eyes still wide in horror. Noemi simply stared at Tezcatlipoca with a dead-eyed look, shivering slightly even as she tried to stay standing.

“As I said I want nothing from you two, save for entertainment,” She said. And as she spoke Cat could feel power in her words. Everything about her divine aura had grown, her eyes almost glowing in the night as divine energy coursed through her.

“And your hearts will grant me little compared to his. Besides, I’d like a little time to grow accustomed to it, perhaps find a finer vessel.”

She gestured to the priest, who again gestured to the guards. In a few moments both Gisela and Noemi were cut free.

“Run,” Tezcatlipoca said. “Run wherever you can, as fast as you can. Run knowing that I have eyes in every shadow. Run knowing that wherever you flee and wherever you hide I will find you. Run knowing that when you are captured you will be brought here to die on this slab at my hands. Tell everyone you meet, show everyone you see that the Night Wind is coming. Now run.”

Gisela and Noemi broke down the stairs, running into the night to leave the city and flee into the world beyond.

The memory ended, and once more they were in cat’s study. Though now it seemed much darker than it had before.

“Is she still out there?” Cat asked. “Tezcatli…”

“Tezcatlipoca, and as far as I know,” Gisela said. “Despite her claims her influence does not spread far beyond Central America, but there her power is absolute. She is a God-King, though I wonder if she found a stronger vessel more fitting of a masculine god, or if she is still wearing Tess’ face to mock me.”

“That was…” Cat struggled to find words, still hearing the sounds of Anton’s sacrifice in her ears.

“Horrific,” Gisela said.

“But that’s not the end,” Cat said. “I still don’t know what happened to Noemi, or how you met Itzpapalotl but I…” she trailed off, checking her words.

“You what?”

“I think I understand you a little better now,” Cat said. “At least why you don’t get close to anyone. After seeing that…”

“You know more than that,” Gisela said. “Nidhoggr is my mission now, and after that I intend to remove Itzpapalotl from the board as well. But after that…”

“You want to go back,” Cat said. “Right? You…want to go back there.”

“Assuming by some miracle I survive,” Gisela said. “Yes. Someday I plan to return to the New World, to Mexico City, and I will kill Tezcatlipoca.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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