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.

 

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 9

March 19th, 2023
Giovanni had never seen this many people gathered in the Capitoline meeting chambers before. A dozen and a half people could be seated relatively comfortably, but now over thirty people, representatives and elected leaders, had been crammed into the room, most of them surrounding the large table where the established leaders were seated. The chatter was incessant, creating a constant wave of noise that washed back and forth across the room as people prepared their statements and discussed the purpose of the meeting.

There had been several requests to use several of the larger gathering rooms in the Vatican as a civil congregation, but Giovanni had turned them down on principle. The Vatican was for the offices of the church which, while depleted, still had reasonable numbers.

“Ahem.” Capitolina’s growled call for attention quickly silenced the room. She was a diplomatic wolf but could easily be roused to an impatient anger if things moved slowly and most of the people congregated remembered the last time she had barked for silence. None of them were eager to provoke her ire so soon after.

“We called everyone here today for a very specific reason.” She said, her voice as ever retaining its strong and imperious tone, calling the attention of all who heard her. “From the beginning my fellow wolves and I have stated that we were organizing these relief efforts only so long as was necessary and that once the people of Rome were back on their feet we would give the city back to them.”

Giovanni nodded. He had been quick to agree to the decision, as they all had. Capitolina had a strong sense of belief in the Roman government (if perhaps a biased preference for an Empire); Kebechet was a goddess (so she claimed) and unfit to rule on mortal soil; Giovanni had always believed in humans for human rule, knowing his place in the hierarchy of beings; and Angel had expressed indifference as she always did.

“We believe that time has come.” Capitolina said. “Between refugees, wanderers, and sheltered survivors, the latest census points to a population of over four hundred people. Given the number of elected representatives, it’s obvious that the people are recovered enough to govern themselves.”
There was a murmur of assent and approval among the gathered ranks as well as a few heart cheers.

“That said.” Capitolina’s voice cut shore the ebbing murmur. “Organizing a system of government is not one day’s work, and we hope to continue working alongside you on a provisional basis. Before even that, however, there are certain things you must know.”

Giovanni took a deep breath. How this information went over could change the course of the coming government.

“The cause of the Days of Revelations is known.” Instantaneously, there was an uproar. All the usual and expected questions came: “What is it?” “How do you know? “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” “Why weren’t we forewarned?”

Capitolina frowned, letting the people voice their complaints in an almost incomprehensible tide of words and questions before clearing her throat again, silencing the room.

“To answer a few of your questions,” She said, not letting impatience leak into her voice. “We have known for some time, but we only knew well after the events started, too late to stop it or to make any real difference. We kept it from you because there is little to be done with such information and the people’s focus needed to be on survival first and foremost. Now that we’ve reached a measure of sustainability, we can start thinking of the future. As for the cause…I will let Angel explain.”

There was a hushed murmur and even Giovanni glanced at Capitolina in surprise. It was a rarity for Angel to ever speak at meetings, as she seemed content to remain Capitolina’s shadow. But when called upon, the black-haired and winged wolf rose to her feet, all eyes on her, her face an expressionless mask.

“Many of you are familiar with the kinds of spirits that have come to populate your world again.” Angel’s voice was monotone, stark and unfeeling. “Spirits of the land, gods, and monsters. There is, however, another variety of spirit that remains few in number but immense in power. They are older than this world, predating its creation, and until the past year they were trapped in their god-made prisons with relatively little upset. We call these beings ‘Primordials’ for lack of a better term. In ancient times they were described as monsters and dragons, but in reality they are far more than any simple marauding beast. They are the chaos of unmade creation incarnate, anathema to structured reality.”

The room had fallen into hushed silence, all ears on Angel’s quiet and unflinching voice.
“The first to be freed from its prison is known as Nidhoggr. It is said to be a serpent or dragon that gnawed at the roots of the World Tree, Yggdrassil. It is the greatest of all Norse dragons, even above the serpent Jormungandr. Its prison was broken on Samhain last year, its bonds shattered by a renegade goddess the dragon had ensnared. It is said that Nidhoggr would be the harbinger of Ragnarok, the end of the world, and while those events have not come to pass, the release of Nidhoggr unleashed fresh chaos into the world that aided the resurrection and release of other Primordials in a cascading effect.”

Angel’s unblinking deadpan delivery did little to calm the unnerved crowd. No doubt they were remembering that night months ago, when the world seemed to end all around them. Angel’s words were dredging up buried memories. They had all experienced, and buried as best they could, dreams of a being of enormous power and unspeakable evil ripping free of its chains, a predator set loose on a world full of prey.

“The next to awaken was the Primordial known as Typhon, trapped beneath Mount Aetna by the god Zeus. After him, an eternal eclipse over Egypt heralded not only the return of the Primordial Apep, but also his devouring of the sun god Amun-Ra. It is these three Primordials who directly threaten Rome’s continued existence, Nidhoggr above all others. The Dragon of Yggdrassil is a being of death and shadow. Its very breath corrupts the world and re-animates the dead into the abominations that have stalked the continent. These skeletons and zombies are Nidhoggr’s foot soldiers. So long as it remains, the tide of the dead will continue. Typhon meanwhile makes most travel through the Mediteranean impossible. The water is thick with sea monsters at his beck and call and leaves us land-locked and isolated. Apep is the more distant threat, but it is his presence that has led the Egyptian Pantheon into exile and forced the shuttering of Duat, their afterlife.”

There was a long silence when she finished speaking, as if they expected to hear more, perhaps a “But” or “In spite of” to remove the edge and hopelessness from her words.

“What can be done about it?” One brave soul near the back of the room asked, though they all knew the answer that was coming.

“Nothing.” Angel said simply. “All of the Primordials are based hundreds of miles away, with hordes of monsters well beyond the power of those we have encountered between us and them. Even if we could reach them by some miracle, Primordials cannot be killed, and thus far no method has been found for resealing them in their former prisons.”

A dark silence settled on the room, and it did not take the keen senses of a wolf to feel the growing despair in the air. Knowing what had caused the Days of Revelation had not brought them the comfort they had hoped for. There was no solution, and though many of them had accepted it, they now knew without a doubt that the past was not to return.

“The reason we’ve brought this to your attention,” Capitolina’s strong voice broke the silence. “Is because it will be the duty of the new government to decide how best to move forward. We have survived, now we must thrive in a world that is for all intents and purposes ruled by the Primordials. With that said, I am opening the floor to debate. Today we decide the future of Rome and I will open with my own suggestion. With Rome in a crippled state and no allies to rely upon, the people should have a figure to rally around. I suggest a reinstatement of the title of Imperator, an overseer with final word and authority.”

If Angel’s words had silenced the waves then Capitolina’s brought the flood. Giovanni sighed at the sudden uproar that her words brought.

“What I believe the angry mob is trying to say, Capitolina.” The smooth voice of Albion Nassar cut through the rabble and brought a level of silence to the room. “Is that we were willing to stand by and let you reinstate the archaic title of Pontifex Maximus because we agreed that someone needed to be in charge of all the Faiths, new and old, to keep the peace.”

Giovanni frowned. He had been against the title being reinstated, as while it was not technically an official title of His Holiness, it had been associated with him for centuries. But he had bowed to the decision because Nora’s position was more important than squabbling over particulars.

“However,” Lord Nassar continued. “Electing a single person to have unlimited control over the Sanctuary might end in disaster. There are plenty of interest groups who would feel cheated by having a single ruler.”

“I understand that.” Capitolina said, her flattened ears giving away her irritation, though her voice remained calm. “However, Rome is still on new legs, it can easily fall or be crippled. To lead this city out of its infancy requires a strong and efficient hand. I have seen republics strangle themselves in bureaucracy and debate while the city and country starved in need. It could cripple Rome at its peak and it can kill this tiny sanctuary.”

“A fair point.” Nassar nodded, his calm smile doing little to dissuade Capitolina’s distaste. “But it still begs the question of who this potential Emperor would be, as well as selling the idea to the crowd. Without widespread support, any new Emperor could divide the sanctuary into two or three.”

Giovanni sat back in his chair, hands clasped over his lap as he listened to the debate open up. People quickly began to divide into camps, some in support of an Empire, as Capitolina was. The modern man, Giovanni observed, was generally not in favor of dictatorship. A mere glance at recent history, he felt, could explain why.

Despite his early statements, Albion Nassar seemed content to sit out much of the debate once it had started in earnest, merely speaking up here in there to prod the speaker in a certain direction. Giovanni could tell what he was doing. The two of them were the same in many ways. They would let the decision fall where it might so long as their interests were protected. Giovanni’s interests were selfless, the continued support, representation, and respect of the Vatican and a semi-independent entity. Lord Nassar, however, clearly had ulterior motives. He was certainly in favor of the same ideas given to mages, but there was something more to it. He had ambition and a will for power. Giovanni knew Nassar was a snake, but it was up to the people to decide how much power he would take for himself.

The debate raged for hours, and Giovanni rarely spoke save for the odd occasion where someone would throw forward something ridiculous or particularly blasphemous. The gathered crowd meant there was plenty of eccentricity and incompatible beliefs among the more clear-headed and pragmatic, and one after another they needed to be turned down. They had all known that this meeting was to be a slog, but they sat through it regardless. It was more than a debate and they all knew it. In that room, at that time, the future would be decided. The Roman Sanctury had ended its temporary existence. With fewer than five hundred people and a tentative new government, the city was Rome once more.

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=18&sl=838 ))