The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 34

 

It was around mid-morning when Cat made her way up the steps of the Capitoline Plaza. While the center of Roman life had moved from the plaza that had once been the humble sanctuary, this was still to many the heart of Rome after the Days of Revelation, not the least because it was still the home of the Capitoline Wolf and her extraordinary pack. Capi had requested Cat personally come meet her there, and by the sound of it she hadn’t been alone in receiving the invitation.

Not wanting to be late, she went up the stairs two at a time before entering the large wooden doors into the dimmer building proper, up another flight of stairs, counting off the rooms, and she found the place where they were supposed to meet. She recognized it as one of the early meeting rooms of the fledgling senate. Now far too small to accommodate them, it was built like a small theatre fit for around thirty people, though now only a small group had gathered there.

On the lecture stage stood Capitolina, the Wolf of Rome, as well as Angel. At least Angel was standing; Capitolina had elected to sit on the edge of the stage, far more relaxed in posture than the stiff-backed winged wolf. Standing before the stage was a gathering of champions, Cat realized with a start.

Rosa was of course easy to spot, being the tallest and with bright red hair. Beside her was her fellow Greek, Nicomede, for once without his signature Hellenic armor. Standing close (but not too close) to him, was Megame, wearing her finest robes of bright red and white, and next to her, electing to sit in a chair, was Torleif.

Cat almost did a double-take as she recognized the last person in the small audience: At her arrival, Gisela turned to look at her. In a flash of alarm Cat thought she had escaped somehow before she reined her panic in. Capitolina was able to access the protective spells on her house. She had doubtless let Gisela out.

“Catarina,” Capi smiled as she entered, bright orange tail waving happily from side to side. “Thanks for joining us.”

“Sure…” Cat said as she moved to join the others, standing at Rosa’s side. “What’s this about?”

“We were waiting for you before we began,” Angel said in her usual flat tone.

“Sorry,” Cat said sheepishly. “Sheh kept me a bit late.”

“No problem,” Capi smiled. “The rest only just arrived anyway.”

Capi hopped to her feet. While her human form was a bit short, the elevation of the stage and her natural spiritual presence made her seem much larger.

“So you probably gathered why I brought you all here,” Capi smiled. “You see, there’s been a lot of talk about making a strike on Nidhoggr. It’s time we made part of it official.”

Cat glanced at the others, and could see the mix of excitement on the faces of Rosa, Nicomede, and Torleif combined with the hesitation of Gisela and Megame. Cat felt a growing sense of anxiety and unease welling up inside her. The encounter with Nidhoggr’s shade was still heavy on her mind, but she still felt that surge of the old exhilaration, the call to adventure.

“As some of you may be aware,” Angel said, picking up for Capi. “Catarina’s sword is one of the few known weapons that can wound a Primordial.”

“Wait seriously!?” Torleif made the loudest response. “What about my hammer!?”

“Your hammer is a potent artifact,” Angel’s expression remained unmoved. “And your patron, Thor, has an affinity for dragon-slaying. But there is nothing of your weapon that could be as critically wounding to a Primordial as Catarina’s sword. The same goes to the rest of you.” Angel’s eyes moved down the line of champions. “All of you have blessings, weapons, or abilities that make you more than a match for most monsters. But Nidhoggr is no mere dragon; it is our duty to get Catarina and her sword as close to Nidhoggr as we can.”

Gisela, to Cat’s surprise, was the first one to speak. “While I’m usually in support of this kind of action, we don’t have a solid plan to imprison Nidhoggr.”

“Because we can just kill the big lizard!” Torleif said before glancing around at the quiet room. “…Right?”

“No, we cannot,” Gisela said. “Nidhoggr cannot truly die, even by something like Catarina’s sword. It needs to be bound, imprisoned, or made dormant.”

“We are still discussing that piece of the operation,” Angel said. “But it is best to prepare any such team while we prepare the plan.”

“So we are putting a team together?” Nicomede said. “The tip of the spear?”

“That’s right,” Capi smiled, taking over again. “The legions will get us north, liberating what isolated settlements we can and crossing the distance between the Alps and Nidhoggr. But from there, once Nidhoggr’s forces are engaged, Cat alone might not be able to make it to Nidhoggr. The dragon will have surrounded itself with powerful monsters, both those under its sway and those simply drawn to its chaotic energies.”

“So, our job is to kill everything between Cat and Nidhoggr,” Rosa said. “makes sense, but there are a bunch of champions you’re forgetting.”

“We might not be able to afford bringing the Night Guard with us,” Capi said. “With all of you and a large legion outside of Italy, we may need them to fill in. Salvatore will be operating as a messenger and working with Hildegard to coordinate the battlefront. The legion will need champions fighting with them as well, after all.”

“You keep mentioning a legion,” Cat said. “Is the first Legion leaving Italy?”

At this, Capi’s smile grew a little broader. “Not quite. He hasn’t announced it yet, but Consul Nassar has pushed forward the legislation necessary to assemble a second legion. It will be the Second Legion that you’ll march with.”

“Alright, then we’re a team,” Rosa said. “That means we need to start training to be coordinated, particularly when it comes to killing monsters.”

“What about Gisela?” Cat asked before glancing at her. “Sorry but…it might be safer to keep you at the house.”

“While I had hoped to prove my good intentions by now,” Gisela said. “I am sure the binding charms can be extended over one of the yards of your estate. We can train there if I need to remain isolated.”

“I think that’s for the best,” Capi said. “For Rome’s protection and for yours.”

“Ugh,” Rosa groaned. “Cat’s mansion is like two and a half hours walk away.”

“I’ll have Alicia set up some more rooms,” Cat huffed, crossing her arms. “You can stay the night on training days. So quit complaining.”

“You put that maid through so much trouble,” Rosa grinned.

“She’s not my maid,” Cat shot back.

“Regardless,” Gisela spoke up, interrupting them. “This group needs a leader.”

“Do we really?” Megame asked, speaking up. “There aren’t many of us. Couldn’t we just…talk things out?”

“Gisela’s right,” Rosa said. “It’s good cooperating when we’re laying down plans. But on the field, in the thick of it, we need a coordinator and a team leader to keep us all going.”

“I have my biases,” Capi smiled. “But I’m going to leave the decision to all of you. You know each other pretty well for the most part, and I think it’s important for a team like this to make that decision themselves. So I guess…who wants the job?”

Cat’s heart skipped a beat. This was her chance to seize control, to be the lead as she took charge against Nidhoggr. That was part of being a hero, right? To be Jason among the Argonauts. But even as she thought about it she felt her rising heart falter. Gisela might have been an ass, but she had made a point. Did Cat want to be leader because she would be the best for the job, or just because she wanted to be seen as the first? She was their chief weapon against Nidhoggr, that needed to be her focus above all else. Could she fight the dragon knowing their lives were directly in her hands, or could she trust someone else to lead while she put everything into battling the dragon?

“I don’t think I’m quite right for leadership,” Megame said. “But thank you for inviting me to join such an auspicious team.”

“I have no right to be a leader of this group,” Gisela said. “I daresay most people here don’t even like me, I imagine there would be a mutiny as soon as I suggested the idea.”

“I should be leader!” Torleif stood up on her chair to be more or less equal in height to the others. “I’m the strongest here and I’ve got more experience of the North!”

There were a couple of nervous glances and a lot of silence. No one wanted to discourage Torleif’s enthusiasm, but she was still a child. Strong enough to fight maybe, but not to lead. Gisela seemed about to speak, no doubt bluntly, but Rosa cut her off with a more placating response.

“You’re right, you have the most experience, short stuff,” Rosa said. “But leader means more than killing the most monsters. Sometimes you even need to be in the back to coordinate people. Plus you need to act as a guide, reading maps and making sure you’re going the right way.”

Any of them could have corrected her that Torleif could simply delegate navigation to someone else, but no one was willing to. Cat and Rosa, at least, knew from her stories that Torleif had a terrible sense of direction.

“Oh…” Torleif’s face seemed to falter. “Mmm…nevermind. Didn’t really want it anyway.”

“That leaves Nicomede, Rosaria, and Catarina.” Capi said.

“I…” Cat spoke up. “…step down.”

There were a few surprised glances her way, Gisela not among them.

“I think it’s best if I keep all my focus on Nidhoggr,” Cat said. “I’m not sure I can manage that and the team at the same time.”

“Good call,” Rosa said, and Cat was surprised to hear the sincerity in her voice, without a hint of sarcasm. “Giant-ass chaos dragon is enough to worry about, we can take care of the rest.”

While Cat did feel a bit crestfallen over giving up the position, at the same time she felt relieved. It felt right, to give one of them command.

“Well I think we’ve wound up where we knew we would,” Nicomede said. “I know I haven’t been here long, but I want to get to know you all better. I have experience leading men through monster-riddled lands, and my patron is chief among the gods. I’d be honored to take the lead, if you all will allow it.”

“You’re good, Nico, I’ll give you that,” Rosa said. “But I know this group, I know monsters, and most of all I know Cat. I’ve been studying strategy and group tactics with Capi, and I’ve been working with the legions for months. You might be good, and you belong on this team, but I’m putting my hand forward to lead it.”

“So…how do we solve this?” Megame spoke up. “Do we vote or…?”

“I have an idea,” Nicomede smiled. “How about a duel, Miss Kokinos? A test of martial skill to see which of us is better?”

“I-I don’t really think violence is necessary,” Megame said. “Surely we can just talk it out.”

“Best to let them,” Gisela said. “Warriors will be warriors, besides a duel can tell much more than who is simply stronger.”

“Do it!” Torleif cheered. “You two fighting would be awesome! I get to fight the winner!”

“Hmmm…agreed,” Rosa said, holding out a hand. “A duel, in…let’s say five days time, to see which of us is leader of this team.”

“Done,” Nicomede took her hand. “Seems I need to double my training.”

“Likewise,” The eager grin never left Rosa’s face, and Cat realized it was distinct from the bloodthirsty smirk or raging scowl that she used to see on Rosa. This expression was more confident, and balanced. It was also, Cat realized, much more attractive on her features.

As the group began to disperse, Cat moved to Rosa. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” She asked “I mean…”

“Please, Cat,” Rosa smiled. “I’ve been fighting you and Hilde for, like, a year. Nico’s tough, and his men love him, but he hasn’t seen the likes of me.”

“Heh, I don’t think anyone has,” Cat smiled. “Knock him out.”

“My pleasure, Cat,” Rosa said. “My pleasure.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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