Gisela glanced at the candle still burning on the collapsible desk she worked on. The wick was down to very last strands and the wax was now more puddle than candle. Rosa liked to joke it was her ‘midnight candle’ and Gisela had been burning it for weeks. Gisela hadn’t mentioned how right she was.
It was part of being a Champion. Two hours of sleep every three days was the most Gisela could get away with while still remaining completely functional.
Gisela shook her head. It was too early in the morning to consider the ramifications of treating her body and mind like machines, and she had too much work to do. She’d wasted many long nights psychoanalyzing herself. When all this was over, she could publish a book on it.
By Gisela’s reckoning, it was about three hours past midnight. A few hours had passed since Evangeline’s reckless tampering with the runestones had woken up half the camp. No doubt Evangeline would eventually come to her for translation help. Evangeline was smart, a better engineer than Gisela could ever conceivably be, but tongues were not among her many gifts.
Gisela’s finger continued down the page of the book as her eyes wandered from line to line. It was Old Norse, very old considering it was still in the original Runic script. She’d told Catarina that her patron, Itzpapalotl, had given her the ability to read and understand every language ever known by humans. This was not technically the truth in two respects. Gisela could not literally ‘read’ the Runic script in front of her, and not all the languages she knew were made by humans.
What Gisela could do, her primary gift, was the ability to siphon literal and contextual information directly from any words or written script. It was, in Itzpapalotl’s words, the “Language of the Gods”. What Gisela could do wasn’t reading, it was so much more useful than that. By simply seeing the line of runes before her, Gisela’s mind could understand not only their literal meaning but the intent of the author, a key difference that gave her invaluable insight. Language is ninety-percent context, and what she could do was the dream of centuries of archaeologists and philologists: The ability to peer into the mind of the speaker or writer and understand not only what they said, but what they meant.
The book she read was fascinating in and of itself, a transcription taken from the personal memoirs of a member of the Byzantine Varangian Guard, supposedly of tales passed down through his mother’s line from a people unidentified save for being some elusive ‘other’, which Gisela believed to be some kind of fae or pre-historical autocthonous being. What was written, however, was more troubling than fascinating.
It had much to say on the primeval entities of the Norse World, on the frost giant Ymir (not only deceased but blessedly dismembered like its Mesoamerican cousin Cipactli), and on Jormungandr, the World Serpent. Jormungandr’s description had been surprisingly placid, she (Gisela noted the specificity of femininity) was seen as like the Spine of the World, part of Midgard and its life-cycle. Though Thor and Jormungandr would destroy one another come Ragnarok, this was seen as more necessity than malice, the world must die to live again. But of the most terrible dragons, the document saved its vitriol for Nidhoggr. While Jormungandr was part of the world and its fate, Nidhoggr was the “Great Other”, an alien force form the depths of Helheim that will rend through the borders of the Realms in an act of utmost chaotic destruction.
Gisela put the book down. Reading for hours about the destruction of civilizations was not going to be of any help. As she shut the cover of the book, hand sliding over the aged leather, the candle in front of her shuddered.
Gisela’s eyes narrowed. The flame’s movement was not in time with her shutting of the book. It was an innocuous detail, and one that she would have been certain to notice.
“So you’re here,” She said quietly to the shadows, and the shadows smiled at her.
Itzpapalotl wasn’t strong enough to take full form around her anymore, but she didn’t need to. A cold wind rattled through the tent, extinguishing the candle and filling the air with the sound of hissing snakes and rattling bones. Gisela turned and stared into the darkness, the only light coming from the muted starlight that peered through the slight opening in the tent. She stared, and a pair of stars stared back at her.
“You’ve been at this some time and yet nothing has helped, has it?”
The voice shivered through the air, as if carried on ice into her ears, the same rattling sword-breath she’d become familiar with.
“It doesn’t need to help,” Gisela said. “Any knowledge on these creatures is invaluable.”
“And they keep saying the same thing. Cut and run, flee while you can. The end is nigh.”
Gisela ground her teeth together. She hated when Itzpapalotl decided to ‘test’ her.
“I don’t need a plan or a stratagem from some old text. We have a plan. It will work.”
Itzpapalotl’s laughter filled the tent. The book flipped open, pages shuffling wildly back and forth.
“A plan? A witch’s word, the promise of a powerless Primordial, and a foolish little girl with more idealism than sense. Tell me, child, you’re so clever with numbers and facts, what do you think about the odds.”
Gisela scowled. She knew the odds, but she didn’t like being mocked.
“Have you told Catarina how much like the others she is?” Itzpapalotl’s voice ran down her spine like cold water. “Like the hopeful boys and girls in Morocco, France, Portugal and Algiers. All of them so like Catarina, all of them dead now. The soil of the Old World is rich with the blood of dead heroes, is it not?”
Gisela stood up.
“You,” She hissed. “Are my shadow, my patron, my cross to carry around with me, but I will not have you insult the people around me.”
“Oho, what’s this?” Itzpapalotl laughed. “Empathy? Caring? You defend the people you once groomed like lambs for slaughter. Tell me have you forgotten so quickly the reason you shut all that away, forgot how to care and to feel to simply keep yourself sane?”
Gisela’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you dare…”
“You weren’t the only ones watching those memories again,” She laughed. “I was right there with you. It was, after all, my eyes through which we saw them. From the beginning I was watching you, your shadow as you said. I know what you are, Gisela, and I know that when the time comes, you always choose to run.”
Gisela took a long deep breath. “You’re right…I know you’re right.”
Itzpapalotl remained silent, expecting more. Gisela obliged her.
“I ran from my home, from my fear. I ran from Tezcatlipoca and from all the monsters he sent after me…I ran from Noemi, I ran from the continent just to get away. I ran from death right into your arms and when I found others…people who could help, people who could make a difference, I ran from them. I ran from the potential because I was afraid of failing, and they all failed perhaps in part because of it.”
Gisela stood her ground, staring at the rogue stars peering at her through the night air,
“But I will tell you the same thing I will tell Tezcatlipoca. I’m not running anymore.”
“And where did this newfound courage come from?” Itzpapalotl asked, the mocking jeer still in its voice. “Do you have that much confidence in your plans? Are you this assured of the odds?”
“It’s not about the odds, it’s not about the plan. It’s about faith,” Gisela said plainly. Itzpapalotl laughed again. This time Gisela did not flinch.
“Faith? Where is your faith, Gisela? When have you ever had faith in anyone or anything?”
“I had…I have faith in Noemi,” Gisela said. The name itself hurt to say, but she pushed on. “But more than anything now I have faith in Catarina where I never thought I would.”
“And what makes her so different? What makes this child worthy of your faith?”
“Nothing at all,” Gisela said. “She’s no more special than anyone else could be. Sure she has magic, but so do I and so do others. Nothing sets her above the heroes I met before, or any other legionnaire in this camp…”
“Then what is it?”
“She isn’t worthy of my faith,” Gisela said. “That’s not how faith works…how it should work. I have faith in her because I want to, because what hope does she have if I don’t? And…because she has faith in me.”
“Does she now?”
“She believed me, heard what I had to say, brought me with her, took me into her home. Begrudgingly yes, more often reluctantly than not…but she has only ever been kind, kinder than I ever deserved. She has faith in me not to run when she needs me, and I need to honor that faith.”
“So what does this mean?” Itzpapalot said, her tone becoming calmer, more quiet. “When the moment comes to choose, when you find that threshold of no return?”
“I’m all in,” Gisela said. “No more running, no more hiding. No more hating myself for being a coward. I’ll be with Catarina, and we’ll succeed together, or we’ll all die together.”
“How bold…I must say, child, you are not the drowning girl I pulled up from the embrace of the deeps.”
“You saw to that,” Gisela said. “When you scorched my mind and set me on this path.”
“I did do that,” Gisela could hear the smile even if she couldn’t see it. “But that made you a machine, my harbinger of destruction. Something has changed in you since you failed to conquer Rome.”
Itzpapalotl did always have to phrase it in the most demeaning way.
“No, I think that Catarina has done something to you. She’s affected you far more than you’ve changed her.”
“Perhaps that’s for the best,” Gisela said. “If she were more like me she’d be a terrible hero.”
Itzpapalotl chuckled, less coldly this time. “That would be true, my child. Though I wonder if you plan to take that role yourself one day.”
“I’m not preoccupied with ‘one day’ at the moment,” Gisela said. “I have a world to save tomorrow.”
The tent seemed to empty, the shadows falling away and the candle lighting itself once more. The stars past the tent fold faded into the darkness, and Gisela felt distinctly alone again. She stayed standing a few minutes longer before taking her seat again, hands resting on the pages of the book she had been scouring, but her eyes staring into the tent wall before her.
Itzpapalotl was never truly gone, she knew that. It was true Gisela did not often have her full attention; no doubt she had plenty to do in her homeland where she belonged. Still, even when she was alone like this she knew that the Obsidian Butterfly’s presence was never too far away, lingering in a shadow somewhere.
Gisela stared at the smoldering remnants of the candle, the light starting to fade as the last of the wick began to burn away.
“She would be proud of you.”
Gisela sat bolt upright. The voice had been right in her ear, like a whisper over her shoulder, but it hadn’t been the cold mirthless voice of Itzpapalotl she knew. It had seemed warmer, kinder, spoken through human lips rather than the pointed teeth of the hollowed skeletal face. Gisela stared into the darkness for a long time, but nothing moved, and no new voice came.
Unsure what it meant, Gisela leaned down onto to the desk, head resting on her folded arms as she pushed the book away. She didn’t need the sleep, but tomorrow would be a long day.
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa