September 8th, 2024
Before the Days of Revelation, humans had debated and imagined what the world would be like after the “collapse” with reverent yet morbid fascination. Would the world be reduced to a lifeless desert, covered in dust and ash? Would the sea rise up against the earth, swallowing continents beneath its calm surface? Would the dead walk and bring about the end of civilization, leaving hollow decaying shells of buildings as monuments to the once great feats humanity had achieved before its inevitable fall?
After the Days of Revelation, the intellectual discussion born from a world of comfort had an answer at last: “Yes.” In Rome, the dead had walked and demons from hell dug their claws into the city. Darkness swallowed the sun over Egypt, rendering the land into eternal night. The hot burning sands buried the countries from the Levant to the banks of the Indus. All around the world, the Days of Revelation brought forth a different end to the reign of civilization as the magical world awoke.
In the isthmus of Central America, life was flourishing. It just wasn’t necessarily human life.
The jungles had struck back with a vengeance during the Days of Revelation. Centuries of ecological destruction had scarred the spiritual world, leading them to lash out in rage when they first awoke. They moved across the land like a wave of locusts, consuming all in their path. Entire cities were swallowed by the dark canopy and undergrowth, seemingly overnight. Humans found themselves pushed further north and south, struggling to stay ahead of the magical horde. After years of driving species in the rainforest to the brink of extinction, humans found themselves losing their “natural environment”.
Yet humans proved once again to be among the most adaptable of species. As the wave of hostile spirits crashed upon the walls of the human refugees’ villages, they found their momentum break upon the metal weapons of more organized, battle-hardened survivors. Humans pushed back, using every trick and every advantage they had. In the shadows of the rainforest, a new philosophy began to emerge on both sides as the ‘war’ became more a way of life. Man, spirit, monster; whatever you were, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was power. Those who were weak were sacrificed to benefit those who were strong.
It didn’t take long for an uneasy equilibrium to emerge between the humans and the spirits. Having spent so much effort fighting one another with the strongest and best emerging at the top, man and spirit began to work together in the pursuit of more power. Spirits needed humans to worship them. Humans were gifted powers by the spirits. Those weaker spirits and humans found themselves looking to others for protection. Cults rose and fell every week, either subsuming their rivals into their organization or being scattered to the winds.
It was from one of these cults that Noemi Valente found herself fleeing, the red-haired girl looking fearfully over her shoulder as she weaved her way through the jungle. The cultists chased after her, their necklaces bearing the image of a black circle, the emblem of the Sunless.
The Brazilian girl’s breath caught in her chest as she forced herself to run faster, not even able to think as she ran like a rabbit from the hounds. She could almost feel the spirits flying away in panic as well as the cultists chased her with their nets and ropes. Of all the powerful cults, there were few that inspired more terror than the Sunless.
Noemi’s sneakers were caked in mud, the plastic growing slicker as she slid across the ground, her treads worn down to a fine flat surface. She couldn’t remember the last day she hadn’t been chased, but she knew she couldn’t stop running for long. Her ‘nights’ were spent in the treetops until the sounds of her pursuers roused her from her brief naps.
“Can’t keep doing this…” She huffed, leaping over a fallen log. Noemi reached out to grab a low branch, pulling herself up, her tired muscles crying in pain. She could feel them tearing with every day of forced exertion. Her heart thumped in her chest, feeling like it was going to give out any second as her lungs desperately pulled more oxygen to keep her going.
Still, a heart attack was preferable to what the cultists wanted with her. Not every spirit was bloodthirsty, not all liked human sacrifices, but the Sunless was one of the most vicious cults of the Aztec pantheon. If the cultists got her…
Noemi had seen firsthand the horror of their rituals. The blood being drained from the still living victim. The heart being cut out of their chests, leaving them alive for those few agonizing seconds. The patron of the Sunless and their followers reveled in the new order of the jungle.
Pulling herself up through the branches, Noemi looked for a place in the leaves to hide. Crouching against the trunk of the tree, she peeked through the foliage as much as she dared. The cultists were down there, looking around for any tracks of their quarry.
Noemi let out a sigh as she slumped against the tree, her breathing still heavy and loud. The sounds of the rainforest did a good job covering her thumping chest as she fought to keep her eyes opened. Her fingers gripped the branches so hard, they turned white. The cultists circled down below as Noemi did what she could to hold her breath. She could hear their voices down below.
“She couldn’t have gotten far. I saw her stumbling at the end. She’s here, somewhere close.
“Priestess Tess won’t be pleased if this one gets away. Her words were quite specific.”
Tess. Noemi grit her teeth as she tried to stay still. If only she’d never run into that girl, things might have turned out differently. Tess the betrayer and deceiver, Noemi would never forget the moment the snake turned on their group. Noemi had offered herself as bait to draw the forces of Aztlan away from the others. Now…Now her life was a game of cat and mouse.
“I miss being the cat!” She hissed out loud.
“Oh, but you make such a better bird, young one,” a voice growled from above. Noemi’s blood turned to ice as she looked up to the higher branches.
A pair of green eyes looked down at her. A black tail swished between the branches, revealing the presence of a black jaguar perched above her. With its dark fur, it blended well into the shadows.
Noemi didn’t say anything, didn’t even allow herself to breath as she reached for the knife at her belt. Just because it was a jaguar spirit didn’t mean that it was necessarily her enemy. There was still a chance that it was a neutral party. Yet in the back of her mind, she knew this wasn’t the case.
The jaguar was the Sunless’ beast, their servant.
Her only chance was to kill the great cat before the cultists below caught onto the fact that she was here.
She could hear the crunching spring of the branch as the jaguar leapt from the shadows down to her. As it pounced, Noemi swore it formed from the darkness itself, its claws and teeth coming towards her like a storm of pain and terror.
Her whole body tensed as she swung her free hand up over her face to protect her eyes. Her knife hand snapped forward, trying to cleanly find a home in the beast’s neck. At least, she had tried to snap it forward, but fatigue had started to catch up to her, as her arm moved sluggishly and uncontrolled towards the cat.
The jaguar swept its claw at her hand, knocking the knife out of her tired grasp. Noemi watched it fall with a silent horror as she felt the weight, the momentum of the jaguar push down on her, knocking her out from her perch to the forest ground below. She grabbed at its mouth, preventing it from sinking its fangs into her exhausted body, her strength failing her as they fell. They hit the ground, Noemi trying to twist herself to hit the earth in such a way to the end it all cleanly. If she was dead, there would be no sacrifice.
The jaguar wouldn’t let her. When they hit the ground, she felt something snap in her arm, her entire leg getting scraped along the hard dirt. Her ankle twisted. But she was still alive.
Noemi tried to push herself up, but her muscles were too fatigued to move. The jaguar had her pinned.
The emotions started to rush at her all at once as Noemi started to sob. She couldn’t help it, couldn’t hold it back. The cultists surrounded her with their nets. The last thing she saw before the world went black was the symbol of the Sunless, taunting her.
The sound of voices roused Noemi, as light began to flicker behind her eyelids. She squinted, every muscle in her body trying to stretch at once, only to find themselves tightly bound. At once her eyes shot open, nearly blinding herself as she stared right into a large campfire.
“Looks like she’s awake.” Someone said, pulling on her ropes to drag Noemi to her knees. The act drew Noemi’s attention to her legs, as a wave of pain shot through her body, causing her to wince. Her ankle felt swollen as she unconsciously shifted her weight away from her shins to her feet and knees, only to find no relief there.
One of the cultists, a young man with earrings made of gold and onyx, grinned down at her, shoving his face into hers. Noemi couldn’t help but notice that his breath stank, as she twisted her head away from him.
“Finally got you, you little rat. Thought you could get away, eh? Well, you’re not so strong now, are ya?”
Noemi said nothing, her eyes glaring daggers at her captor. Aztlan didn’t show mercy to their prisoners, so begging would do her no good. Her bound hands moved to her sides, instinctively reaching for her knife, but of course…it wasn’t there.
“Ahh, looking for this, little rat?” The man said, pulling her knife out in front of her eyes. Noemi wanted to kick him, but she wasn’t sure her legs would work, tied like they were. “Good knife, but not quite what’s needed to please the Sunless tomorrow.”
“Don’t talk to her, Rodrigo.” Another cultist said, poking at the fire with a stick. “She belongs to the Sunless, you don’t want to do anything to her that would displease him. Or the priestess.”
“After all the trouble she gave us, she should suffer until we drag her to the altar tomorrow! Bah, fine.” Rodrigo said, sheathing HER knife into his belt. “At least I got a trophy to remember the look on her face when she fell to the ground.”
Noemi closed her eyes as she was left alone again. She didn’t trust herself to not show fear as they talked about sacrificing her on the altar to their evil god. During the chase, she had not allowed herself to be paralyzed by fear. Now, she saw little point in holding back.
Her body shivered, even in the warm night air. This was it. After all that had happened, she was going to be killed by Tess after all. Tears welled behind her closed eyes but she refused to let them fall.
As she curled up, her legs and arms still uselessly bound, she could feel something slithering up her body. Noemi prayed that it was a poisonous snake, putting an end to her suffering before the sun rose.
Not a poisonous snake, little one. But I have heard your prayers.
Noemi’s eyes shot open as the soft hissing voice filled her head. Had she imagined it? Had it been spoken aloud? Her entire body fell still as she slowly turned her head. There, crawling up her side was a small white snake, tiny feathers lining its scales. Noemi’s eyes grew wide. The snake looked into her eyes, its tongue licking at the air.
You are in trouble, little one. As am I. These men have defiled this temple, my image. Around the jungle, I can feel the Feathered Serpent being threatened by the Jaguar.”
“Wh-what? I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Noemi hissed as quietly as she could. “Can you help me? Please?”
I can. I will save you, and you will serve me. You will save me from destruction as my champion. Do you agree?
“Y-yes!” Noemi said, not even thinking about what the little snake was talking about. From her position, Noemi didn’t see how she would save anyone, but if it got her away from Tess, then she’d accept any deal. “Please, I’ll be your champion, just get me out of here.”
The little snake flicked its tongue again as it unfurled its tiny feathered wings, dancing in a motion. Noemi could feel her wounds begin to heal. All around the campsite, she could hear hissing filling the air. Noemi saw shapes moving in the darkness. At once, the cultists were on their feet, their weapons drawn. The jaguar that had captured her rose from its place by the fire, growling as it stalked into the jungle.
There was quiet. The cultists looked at each other in cautious confusion.
Suddenly, with a yelp, the form of the jaguar was flung back into the camp, bouncing on the ground twice before rising to its paws, dazed, its leg dripping blood all over the earth. Noemi pushed herself back against the ruin wall, the small serpent coiling around her shoulders.
From the jungle emerged several feathered serpents, like the tiny one resting on Noemi’s arms, but far greater in size. These stood twice the height of man, their green feathers shimmering in the light of the fire, their tails seeming to have no end as they slithered into the camp.
The cultists took fearful steps backwards as the snakes circled around them. Noemi couldn’t look away as the serpents struck, their heads moving faster than she could track, their fanged mouths lashing out at the cultists. The screams of the men drowned out the night sounds of the rainforest all around as the feathered serpents made bloody work of them.
The snakes were merciless, rending the bones of their prey apart, swallowing the pieces of the cultists as they devoured them. Noemi remembered when she was young having seen a snake catch a small bird that had flown too low to the ground, its head shooting out like lightning to snatch the small finch out of its flight, before it unhinged its jaw to consume the whole creature. This, however, was unlike anything she’d ever seen.
The jaguar fled, whining in fear the entire time as it disappeared into the jungle. When the snakes finished, the only thing remaining of the humans were a few scattered pieces. The rest had been consumed.
One of the feathered serpents slithered over to Noemi, causing the girl to scoot back in instinctive fear. It opened its mouth and for a moment, Noemi was sure she was going to meet the same fate. She closed her eyes and whimpered.
Something fell into her lap. Cautiously opening her eyes, Noemi saw her knife lying on her thigh, covered in the snake’s saliva. Her face scrunched up in disgust. “Ewww…Ah, wait…I get it!”
As she sawed at the ropes with the edge of her knife, she could see the little snake on her shoulder move down her arm. Its tongue ran along the hilt of the knife, glowing white like the snake’s feathers.
Your prayers have been answered, Noemi Valente. Now it’s time for you to answer mine.
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa