The Snake and the Mirror

The Shield and Spear

 

The broad map of Europe loomed large before Roman Consul Albion Nassar.  Massive maps covered most of the table before him and were covered in scrawls and markings displaying the supposed movements and strongholds of Nidhoggr’s monstrous hordes. Here and there were marked the bastions of civilization, the holdouts their scouts and refugee reports had told them were still standing even outside of Angel’s protective shield. All combined, it painted a bleak picture of the European continent. Outside of Italy, the world was a dark place.

“You’ve been pouring over these for some time,” The soft, sultry voice of Circe caught his attention. The goddess, in the disguise of his adviser, leaned over the table, seated lightly on its edge. “It almost makes a woman jealous.”

“Not even half the world could take my attention from you,” Albion smiled, but his eyes still scanned the map. “But it demands Rome’s attention.”

“And are you Rome now?” Circe asked. “I thought you were simply its Consul.”

Albion pulled his eyes away, letting them rest on Circe’s impressive form.

“For all intents and purposes,” Albion said. “While it’s my job to guide Rome on its course, it is also my job to keep you entertained. As we decided.”

“It is indeed,” Circe smiled. “Especially seeing as you promised me your student, but I find her attention divided between myself and two other teachers.”

“I never promised exclusive rights,” Albion corrected her, and he saw Circe’s eyes flash dangerously. “But every day new mages come to Rome from near and far. Soon you’ll have an entire generation to train.”

“All well and good,” Circe said. “But how do you plan to entertain me?”

“By putting a city at our disposal,” Albion said. “The greatest city in the world, as I promised.”

“Perhaps one of the greatest,” Circe chided him, but the danger had left her voice. “My vision extends further than yours. But…Rome is adequate.”

“And Rome is growing,” Albion said. “And I think it is time we pushed north. Beyond the field.”

Circe waited a moment before speaking, her eyes looking him over with curiosity. “Why?” She finally asked. “What is in the north save death?”

“Opportunity,” Albion said. “For those bold enough to take it.”

“Ah, so you would gamble the future of Rome,” Circe said. “And here I thought you were so careful.”

“I gamble now and then,” Albion smiled. “Like when I took a gamble to visit an island that shouldn’t exist, to find a witch who turns all visitors into beasts.”

“I don’t always like being toyed with,” Circe said. “What game are you playing, Albion?”

“History is like a wave,” Albion said. “Events that sweep in one after another. And you can either lead the charge, riding the crest of events forward or languish in its wake until the next wave washes you away.”

“A colorful simile,” Circe smiled. “But elaborate.”

“Nidhoggr,” Albion said. “The dragon is Rome’s next great obstacle. It keeps us trapped within Angel’s shield but, more importantly from what I have gathered it is a kind of…cosmic lynchpin.”

“The keystone of chaos,” Circe nodded. “The dragon’s escape enabled the escape and resurrection of the others and tipped the scales of fate towards chaos.”

“If the dragon falls the scale tips the other way, or at least begins to,” Albion said. “And much of western Europe is freed from its influence.”

“And much of western Europe is indebted to Rome,” Circe said, seeing the intent behind his words. “Rome with its heroes and its resources.”

“And with its legions,” Albion finished for her.

“Last I checked Rome had only one legion,” Circe said. “But who is this hero, Catarina?”

“Catarina is a foolish girl with delusions of grandeur and a magic sword,” Albion said. “But she seems to be beloved by fate.”

“It’s always best to be wary of people who are,” Circe said. “But I suppose I sense that…air about her. Not unlike clever Odysseus, though not half as clever and not a tenth as handsome.”

“Nor as duplicitous,” Albion said. This was another of Circe’s games. She enjoyed trying to make him jealous of her legendary exes. Albion knew the dance by now, he needed to dismiss them and bring up their worst properties, but still give Circe the inkling that he was slightly jealous. It was a tentative line to walk.

“But Catarina is still a single small foolish girl as you so accurately stated,” Circe continued, apparently satisfied. “Beloved or not, she isn’t capable of much alone.”

“If we truly want to make an attack on Nidhoggr,” Albion said. “Then Catarina is the bleeding edge of the spear, the diamond point around which the weapon is built. But the edge of the spear without the spear is just a shred of sharp metal.”

“So you build an army to support her?” Circe asked.

“An army to secure our way to the dragon,” Albion said. “Catarina has already been assembling a…team of sorts.”

“The champions your city seems to attract like flies,” Circe nodded. “And backing them?”

Albion moved from the table, going to the window that looked out over the plaza. “The city’s population has more than quadrupled this past year. People pour in from all directions. Legio I Capitolina was meant to be the shield, the force that unites Italy and brings it under the banner of Rome while keeping the monsters at bay.”

“So rather than a shield you want a spear, naturally,” Circe followed him, moving into his shadow. “A second legion?”

“An offensive force, quick and capable.”

“The spear in the darkness,” Circe placed her hands on his shoulders. “Do you intend to be Caesar, Albion?”

Albion could tell she wasn’t just talking about the first Caesar. She was testing his motives.

“Caesar had nations to subdue and half a continent to conquer,” Albion said. “I just have to kill a dragon.”

“I feel you might be exaggerating the simplicity,” Circe said. “But I will grant you this, Albion. You are bold. But I have to ask…why now? Why Rome? Why you?”

“Why?” Albion asked.

“Rome is secure, more so than it has been in years,” Circe said. “You have brought it together and now that you’re consul, you can develop it into greater and greater success. Infrastructure, social development, training. There are less risky paths to success. Gain the ire of the dragon any more than you have and you risk everything. Why must Rome lead the charge?”

“You seem almost hesitant,” Albion turned to smile at her. “I thought you liked a bit of boldness?”

“A little perhaps, in fair measure,” Circe said. “But there is a line between boldness and hubris.”

“Rome is strong,” Albion said. “You can tease other great cities all you like but I have every reason to believe we’re unparalleled on the continent. Nidhoggr must fall, and in all likelihood it must fall first. The conclusion is obvious: Rome must be the nation to do it.”

“Then onto my next question,” Circe said. “Why you, at this moment?”

“I’ve been reading through the Pontifex’s library, and whatever I can pull from the Vatican archives now that the wolf isn’t there to play gatekeeper. Everything points in the same direction, that fate has an inertia of its own.”

“Fate’s inertia?” Circe smiled enigmatically. “Now you have my curiosity.”

“I’m not egotistical enough to try to explain fate to a goddess,” Albion said.

“As well you shouldn’t,” Circe said. “But we think of it in…different terms than you funny little mortals. You always have such interesting ways of seeing things, sometimes interesting enough to catch us by surprise.”

“Well, at the risk of offending you, I’ll give it a try,” Albion smiled, leaning back against her. “The Days of Revelation threw the balance between order and chaos into disarray. Where once order had reigned, chaos sprang forth.”

“And now chaos reigns,” Circe said. “As it did in the days before Zeus.”

“Does it though?” Albion said. “Rome exists, as well as other pockets of stability. Chaos has the advantage, but I’d say the balance is in a state of…flux. If we do nothing then chaos will win, given time. One by one the sanctuaries and cities and holdouts will be stomped out until civilization is crushed entirely. When humans are nothing but clever beasts that hide from the shadows, then it will be as it was before Zeus.”

“A fair assessment,” Circe said.

“That’s the inertia I’m talking about,” Albion said. “The Days of Revelation, combined with the horrors of the spirit year broke the back of the entire world, it was the catalyst that began to tip the scales towards chaos. But the scales are still sliding, the balance is changing and more liable to shift. It could be decades, centuries, before we get another chance like this. Nidhoggr grows stronger faster than we do. Hit back now, when the scales are still tipping, and the blow will be that much more powerful.”

“So that’s the choice as you see it?” Circe asked. She didn’t seem surprised or curious, merely trying to weasel out his objectives.

“It is,” Albion said. “Can Rome survive as the influence and forces of the Primordials grow every year? The question, as I see it, is not if we should strike now, but can we afford to wait?”

Circe was quiet for a time as Albion went back to looking out the window, her arms over his shoulders as she rested against him.

“It is a dangerous plan.”

“Is that hesitation I sense in the goddess?”

“Not for my sake,” Circe scoffed. “But Rome amuses me, and you threaten to send everything you promised me to ruin.”

“I think there might be more to this than that,” Albion said. “You are many things, Circe, but bold might not be one of them.”

“Tread carefully,” Circe’s words were sweet as honey, but there was a very serious edge to them. Albion was closer to death right now, in her arms, than he had been in months. “You are dangerously close to insulting a goddess. Perhaps your barking should be just that.”

“As I said, my love, you are many things. Beautiful and intelligent beyond measure, as cunning as you are fair, and as pleasurable as the sun. But you are a goddess who seemed content to spend eternity on an island all but alone until I came to convince you otherwise.”

“Go on,” Her voice was still hard, but Albion was still alive. That was progress.

“Rome threatens to become your island,” Albion continued. “Bigger certainly, and more populous. But it’s just a bigger island. One nation, cut off from the world, with you at the top. It’s an improvement certainly, Romans are more entertaining than beasts, but if we hide away, and let the wave of history pass us by, then we become just a larger version of Aiaia as the world moves on, for good or ill.”

Albion waited, his eyes staring dead ahead through the window, watching Circe’s reflection in the smooth glass tinted blue by the sky. He saw her sparkling golden eyes, her head moving closer as her arms wrapped around his neck. Gently, teasingly, she gently nibbled at his ear, teeth sliding over it as she bit him with just enough force to bring a wince out of him.

“Mmm, you’re lucky you’re handsome,” Circe said. “And quite talented…in many respects,” She added with a teasing flourish to her words as she pulled away from him.

“Talent is nothing if you don’t work at it,” Albion smiled as he turned to face her. “And neither is luck.”

“So tell me, Lord Nassar,” Circe adopted the speaking habits of his assistant. “What is your grand plan?” She leaned back against the table, hands resting on the edge as she stared him down with smoldering eyes over the slim glasses that appeared on her face.

“First we announce our plan to the senate and whip them into action,” Albion crossed the room to her, placing his hands past hers as he pushed her against the table.

“Then we found our second legion,” He kissed her, passionately as he pushed her hard against the table, enough to send her falling onto her back.

“And then?” Circe asked him, her eyes burning as the top buttons of her dress shirt undid themselves.

“And then we kill a dragon,” Albion said, moving his arms to rest them over his shoulders. “But let’s focus on the present shall we, Lutetiana?”

“Let’s, Lord Nassar.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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