The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 2

September 14th, 2024

“Aaah that feels amazing” Asha said as she felt the cool water pour from her cupped hands and spill over her face and down her neck. After days under the blistering hot sun and wind like furnace bellows, the feeling of even lukewarm water against her skin was positively heavenly.

Leyla didn’t respond immediately, too busy drinking water noisily from between his cupped hands, gulping down large mouthfuls at a time.

“Hey not too fast there.” Asha said “Drink a little and often, we’ll camp here for the night.”

The pair of them had arrived in a small oasis in what had once been called Iraq, and was now merely a part of what people were calling the Great Levantine Desert, as most arable land was stricken with harsh drought and an influx of sand. After days alone in the desert, the shade and water provided by the small oasis was like a spot of heaven to the weary travelers.

“I thought you didn’t need to drink” Leyla said, finally finishing his water “Being dead and all.”

“I’m only…mostly dead you could say” Asha said “I was sent back, along with my Fravashi.”

“And you’re more talkative than she was” Leyla said “I kind of like it.”

“Well that’s because you only knew part of me, I guess.” Asha said “Good to know I’m not a pest.”

“Well you will be if you keep drinking all the water, ghost girl” Leyla smiled “Leave us for some living folk.”

“I thought you were fused with a fire spirit or something” Asha said “water is bad for fire”

“Ya but it’s good for me” Leyla said, taking a long drink.

Though not in appearance, they were perhaps the oddest pair in the desert. Asha was a young Persian woman with deep tan skin and short curly black hair tied back out of her face. She was dressed in a mix of faded desert fatigues and a few padded pieces of leather over her chest, shoulders, and wrists worn under a long hooded coat. There were no apparent signs of her more supernatural nature, save for her eyes which were a brilliant sky-blue.

Leyla was similarly dressed for travel, with thick boots and durable clothing under a long loose travelling cloak, his head wrapped in a long scarf to keep out the wind and sun. Though he had the face and frame of a handsome young man, and Asha referred to him as ‘he’, the peculiarities of Leyla were entirely internal. Leyla’s body was home to three distinct spirits, that of Derya, the young man who was the body’s original owner; his younger sister Leyla who was it’s current ‘pilot’, the one in control of his body, power, and tongue, and an unnamed fire spirit of particularly potent power. The nature of the incident that brought these three into one body was still something Leyla hadn’t decided to share.

After a brief period of confusion, Asha was quick to learn not to ask too many questions about it, and had adjusted quite easily. After all, there were many other things in the desert that demanded her attention.

“How far are we form Babylon?” Asha asked as she laid out her pack alongside Leyla’s. Leyla sat next to his heavy pack and sorted through it before eventually withdrawing a map. It was dated 2019, and was covered in scrawled notes that Leyla had made himself regarding adjustments and new locations. Most of the cities on the map didn’t exist anymore, and there was a staggering number of red “X’s written across what had once been cities and towns bustling with life.

“Well Babylon is right where it’s always been” Leyla pointed to a mark on the map “A bit south of Baghdad near Hillah. As for where we are…”

Asha watched his finger trace southwest “…here, near Zahwah.”

“That’s a lot of desert in every direction” Asha said “Is there anything between us and them?”

“The Euphrates” Leyla said “So we need to cross desert, then river, then we’ll hopefully be back in more fertile land.”

“What are the odds of another oasis?”

“Slim to none” Lela smiled wryly “So don’t get on my case about water.”

“We’ll have to pack light then” Asha said “And most of the weight needs to be water. Kind of wish we’d picked up those camels in Tabarjal”

“Screw the camels” Leyla snorted “They were bad tempered and weak, they would have been dead long before we reached here.”

“Maybe, but then we would have only had to lug our stuff halfway here.” Asha said.

“You’re the one carrying a ten kilo book over your shoulder.”

Leyla said.

“Okay first of all” Asha raised a pointed finger “It’s not nearly ten kilos, it’s magic, remember? Secondly there is no way I am giving up that book.”

“I’m just teasing ya, don’t get all in a twist” Leyla said “I know that’s how you chat with your girlfriend.”

Asha rolled her eyes “Not my girlfriend but ya, it’s the only way to keep in touch with Cat. If it weren’t for her I wouldn’t be here.”

Leyla nodded and looked like he was about to speak before he suddenly froze up. Asha had come to recognize that bit of body language as Derya’s spirit passing some information along to Leyla inside their collective mind. The way Leyla described it, it was like having two separate trains of thought, one always in the background until it suddenly shunted onto the main track to take over.

“What is it?” Asha asked, suddenly alert. Usually fi Derya had something to say it wasn’t good news.

“Others are coming” Leyla said “We’re not about to be alone very long.”

In an instant Asha was on her feet. “How many? Are they friendly?”

“A number of them, Leyla said, standing more slowly” They’re on camel-back and…they’re being chased.

Asha breathed in, her mind searching deep within herself for power as she called upon the spiritual energy of the Fravashi, the guardian spirit that had fused itself with her. In her empty hands formed a pair of long curved knives. The shape didn’t matter, knife, sword, bow, Asha could use most of them with impressive effectiveness. Being dead, it turned out, had given her a number of opportunities to gain new career skills.

Leyla in turn drew a long curved shamshir sword from his waist, and together the two of them hurried to the edge of the oasis. The oasis itself was little more than a few copses of trees around the water pools protected on one side by a short rocky cliff that kept the dunes at bay. So as the two went to the side opening out into the desert, they could see for miles across the arid sandy landscape.

Ahead of them, about half a kilometer out, were the dark shapes of a hurrying camel caravan, about twelve beasts in a rushed line that were kicking up dust and sand as they made a mad dash to the oasis. Behind them, a dark blot against the pale sand and blue sky, was a monstrous lurching shape.

“Could you use a bow?” Leyla asked, one hand shading his eyes as he looked out at the group.

“They’re between it and us” Asha said “It’d be a risky shot unless I went around the long way, and there’s not much time.”

“Then let’s go out and meet them.” Leyla said, and with that the pair of them ran out at breakneck speed to meet the fleeing caravan and the monster on their tail.

The distance between them evaporated in seconds, and Asha could see the monster come into clearer focus. It lacked the defined shape and terrifying proportions of a proper mythological monster, it was instead a different sort of beast. It was a massive asymmetrical thing, looking like a cross between a bear and a gorilla with small legs and a grossly oversized right arm. It ran on all fours, hands and knuckles slamming the sand in great swinging lunges as it tried to catch the caravan. The head was like a jackal’s, maw open to reveal sharp white teeth as it let out its mad baying.

They passed on either side of the caravan, letting them towards the oasis as the stunned sun-scarred faces stared in amazement at the pair that ran out to meet the monster. As they came into range, the beast seemed to prefer keeping its chase on the bigger prey, and Leyla was there first to exploit its lack of attention. With a swing of his curved sword the beast stumbled and rolled over itself as most of its leg was severed, leaving behind the smell of scorched hair and burning flesh as the blade’s edged dance with sacred firelight. It let out a high-pitched doglike whine as it swung its massive arm at Leyla, who threw himself to the sand as the the bulk of muscle ripped through the air like a wrecking ball. However, doing so left its back open and exposed, and Asha made a running start before leaping towards it from behind. Feeling the rush of energy again, a pair of brilliant wings, feathers a blazing blue and gold, sprouted from her back in a burst of light, giving her enough lift to run up the monster’s back and broad shoulders, feet kicking off the fur as she brought both knives down on its neck, burying the white blades into its unprotected hide.

The scream this time was more subdued, and it faded rapidly as dark blood burst from its wounds, covering Asha’s hands where the divine energy coursing through her veins caused it to boil away. The beast made one last lurching stumble before it fell, lifeless, to the ground to rest in a crater of dusty sand.

“Well done” Leyla smiled, turning to Asha as her wings vanished as easily as they had appeared. “Derya agrees. He thinks you’re learning to use that power quicker than he expected.”

“Well, you kind of need to be a quick learner out here” Asha smiled. “I might be dead but I’m not a ghost anymore, not sure how easily something out here could kill me, so I’m not about to give it a chance.”

“Smart thinking” Leyla nodded before turning back to the oasis. “Now let’s check in on them before they drink all our water.”

Asha smiled as the two of them returned to the shade of the trees, where the caravan riders had dismounted as their camels moved to the closest water pool.

It was a mixed group of men, women, and a few children consisting of predominantly older men. They were muttering rapidly to each other and making glances to the pair of them. As soon as they got close, however, the group moved forward to meet them, inclining their heads and thanking them rapidly, a few muttering prayers to God for sending rescuers.

“Ah it’s our pleasure really” Asha said rapidly, nodding her head and shaking hands before she noticed a few men taking a curious look at her back. “A-and before you ask I assure you we’re not angels! Just…talented.”

There were a few laughs as the group moved back into the shade of the trees, and soon the caravan group had unpacked their saddlebags and begun laying out food for all of them. Judging by the lean looks of the camels and the riders this was likely some of the last of their food, so Asha abstained as much as she could while maintaining politeness as the group settled in near the water’s edge.

“Angels or not, you are our rescuers.” One man, likely the leader by his age and dress, spoke up. Though he was the oldest he hardly looked past forty, with only a twinge of grey in his beard, but his eyes were deeply set and his hands withered from effort and the sun. But when he took Leyla’s hand in greeting she could see the strength in his fingers.

The group was predominantly Muslim, judging by their prayers and their greetings, so Asha wasn’t surprised when they didn’t offer to shake her hand as well, but was silently amused at their ignorance of Leyla being a woman’s spirit inhabiting her brother’s body.

“As such” The man continued “I insist that you partake in all we have, for without you we would surely have been killed.”

“Thank you” Leyla said “But we don’t need much, though we’re curious where it is you’re going.”

“Most of us to Mecca, if we can get across this Allah-forsaken desert.” The elder said “It is late in the season for the Hajj, but even if it were winter we would be going. The safe lands for the Prophet’s children grow smaller every day.”

“Of course” Asha said, drawing eyes her way “We’ve seen a number of Muslims heading south, but you’re a far way off the roads.”

“We had hoped for a brief respite outside Babylon” The elder said “Though we dare not enter the city, we cannot reach Mecca without food and supplies.”

“Well if you don’t mind a few extra feet” Leyla smiled “We could offer a few extra hands.” Seems fate drew us together, since we’re on the same road.”

“Nothing would set our minds more at ease than able-bodied protectors” The Elder smiled “You may join us as long as it suits you.”

“Well then” Leyla smiled “Babylon it is then.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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