The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 5

September 20th, 2024

The great walls of Babylon rose out of the earth like a mirage as they approached. All along the sides of the great roads were signs of the prosperity that had been radiating from this new city, pushing back the desert to beyond the Tigris and Euphrates. Large copses of juniper trees dotted the landscape between the richly-cultivated farmland that spread beyond the city for miles, acting as its breadbasket as it drew water seemingly from barren soil.

Throngs of people lined the road that the caravan now found itself on, a far cry from their exhausting journey through the mostly empty desert. The others in the caravan marveled at the number of people and the prosperity of the city, and Asha could not help but be overwhelmed at the largest gathering of humanity she had seen in nearly two years. Leyla, however, kept his silence.

“This is incredible,” Asha said, looking out towards the great city rising on the horizon. Even at this distance they could see the spires rising from behind the high sand-colored walls. “How many people live here?”

“Tens of thousands,” Leyla said. “Maybe a few hundred thousand, it grows every day.”

“It has to be the biggest city in the world,” Asha said. “Not even Rome has that many people.”

“Who knows,” Leyla shrugged.

“You’ve gone quiet,” Asha said, lowering her tone to keep their conversation between them.

“Wouldn’t you?” Leyla asked. “Remember everything I told you about this place. It’s a trap made by Tiamat, the entire place is run by demons.”

“I don’t see any demons,” Asha said, but quickly laughed it off after Leyla’s scowl. “Don’t worry, I know we’re here on a mission, keep your pants on. My point is there are a lot of people here who aren’t demons. We can’t very well just start blowing things up, can we?”

“True…” Leyla admitted. “Most of the people here aren’t evil, they just want what anyone wants. Safety, shelter, protection. It’s a harsh world outside those walls.”

“Well we know it better than most,” Asha nodded. “But I agree there needs to be a change of regime. We can’t just let a Primordial remain in charge of the city, how exactly does she accomplish that anyway? Aren’t primordial huge scary dragon monsters?”

“In a way…” Leyla nodded hesitantly. “I’ve never actually seen a Primordial in the flesh but…Tiamat is a weird case.”

“Weird how?” Asha asked.

“Well, all the other Primordials, like Typhon, Apep, and Nidhoggr, were sealed away by gods or trapped somewhere or something.”

“Ya, so?”

“Well…Tiamat was killed.” Leyla said.

“Wait what?” Asha asked, incredulously.

“Tiamat was slain by the God Marduk,” Leyla said. “But in her dying breath she unleashed monsters upon the world. Her firstborn, the desert dragons, with poison for blood from whom all others sprang. Something evil is lurking in Babylon, and it has Tiamat’s nature but I’m not sure how.”

“Then who runs the city?” Asha asked. “A dragon can’t do it and definitely not a dead one.”

“You’ll see,” Leyla said ruefully, and her tone made Asha’s stomach twist a bit.
Asha turned back towards the caravan, the small group of wanderers on foot and camelback had made for decent company, but they’d mentioned many times that the city gates were where they would part ways.

“Why do you plan to leave?” Asha asked. “The city sounds fairly safe and it’s still a very long way to Mecca.”

“I have heard tales from others, friends and family I trust,” The leader of the convoy, whose name they had learned was Youssef, said “It is said that for our people at least, Allah has left this place.”

“Well that’s…worrying.” Asha said

“If you truly wish to stay here,” he continued. “I can only wish the two of you safety.”

“We’ll manage,” Asha smiled. “I think we both know how well we can take care of ourselves.”

Youssef laughed with them as they drew ever closer to the city. The central promenade towards the grand gates grew broader, a pair of massive stone towers on either side marking the beginning of the vest Babylonian gate complex. High walls now flanked the roads, beginning at the towers and leading back to the city gates. Along these walls a small community in and of itself had sprung up. Merchants peddled their wares to travelers and farmers, while bartering and trade had become the new standard and they had gotten used to it over the past few months, Asha was surprised to see coins trading hands at some places.

“Seems there’s a coin economy as well,” Asha noted to Leyla.

“Within the city, yes,” Leyla nodded. “I’ve seen them here and there across the desert. But a coin is only as strong as the military backing it. Beyond the city gates it loses value pretty quickly.”

“Well, I’m more interested in how exactly we plan to find a place to sleep,” Asha said flatly.

“Ah,” Leyla’s face went blank, but Asha could see his cheeks redden with embarrassment.

“Well that’s umm…”

Leyla received a sudden clap on the back from one of the caravan goers, who handed him the reins to one of their camels.

“Here,” The Youssef said. “With Ahmed’s passing in the desert we have one more camel than we need. Take it, sell it, and find what fortune you may in this city.”

Both Leyla and Asha were sent into stunned silence before hurriedly bowing in thanks. The camel would have been invaluable to Youssef and his travelers. Even without a rider it was an immense asset to them.

“You saved our lives in the desert, and that is something we shall never forget,” Youssef said. “I only hope that this can begin to repay that debt.”

“You honor us with your generosity,” Leyla said. “We’ll make sure it isn’t wasted.”

“Is this where we part ways?” Asha asked, and Youssef nodded.

“We will be acquiring supplies from these traders, but if you plan to enter the city then this is where we part. It has been an honor and a pleasure to know you both.”

“The honor is ours,” Asha said. “Stay safe in the desert.”

With their last parting words the caravan dispersed into the crowd behind them as Asha and Leyla continued on foot into the great city, now trailing a camel behind them.

The crowd grew denser as they drew towards the massive gates of the city. The gate, styled after the ancient Ishtar gate, was covered in a mosaic of tiles made from semi-precious stones and embellished with the images of tall wingless dragons. The open gates were flanked by armed guards, most carrying spears and swords, though dressed in armored uniforms and with clear authoritarian vibes. This was not a collection of survivors and refugees banding together for mutual success, this was a city-state with power behind its walls. There was no gate checking or stop for them as they passed through the open gates and into the city.

“No check at the gate?” Asha asked. “Seems trusting”

“How would you check identification in this day and age?” Leyla asked. “Show them your passport? Besides, they’re not afraid of what we could do.”

“Why not?” Asha asked. “Not all the guards in this city are human.”

Asha was about to comment, but before she could her eyes met the cityscape beyond the gates, and her jaw all but dropped in shock at the spectacle.

She had expected the city interior to match its more ancient gate and walls with collections of mud-brick houses. And she had been half-right. While the city maintained an aesthetic of ancient prosperity and segmented pyramidal architecture, it did so with a decidedly modern flare. Buildings rose several stories all around them, though leaving the great promenades wide enough to let the sun shine down. Great trees of cypress and juniper rose among them, casting green among the painted white walls. Windows were filled with glass, and numerous glass-plated structures built like greenhouse gardens and conservatories rose all around them from between and atop buildings, catching the light of the sun like golden capstones.

Among even the taller buildings, great spires rose into the sky, many of them with their crowns adorned with metal like satellite arrays, though Asha could only guess at what they were capturing now. From the walls of these towers and spires, as well as painted her and there along every street and building, was the same vaunted image of a beautiful woman, the paintings and posters capturing sublime beauty and benevolent expression. She was ageless, both youthful and mature, and her dark skin contrasted against her pale silver hair and violet eyes.

“Is that the Queen or something?” Asha asked.

“Shadiya, the Beloved Queen,” Leyla said with no small amount of contempt. “She’s the de-facto dictator of Babylon.”

“So she’s the dragon at the top of the pyramid?” Asha asked. “Our direct line to Tiamat?”

“Almost definitely,” Leyla said. “In this city everyone thinks of her as flawless, as a blessed protector of the downtrodden and the weak. But I can almost smell the evil wafting off of her very image, in truth she’s something else entirely.”

“And what’s that?” Asha asked. “Is she some kind of demon?”

“Worse,” Leyla said. “You know all those monsters we’ve been meeting? The malformed ones that didn’t come from natural cacodaemons?”

“Ya, like the one we saved Youssef’s people from.”

Leyla pointed to the closest portrait of Shadiya. “You’re looking at their mother.”

Asha stared in silence for a moment. “You’re kidding.”

“No, I’m…why would I kid about something like that!?”

“I mean…look at her. We fought what looked like a yeti mixed with a deformed bear…this woman is…well I like to think of myself as straight but…”

Leyla slapped his palm over his face. “Did you ever consider that the devil might have a pretty face?”

“Look I get that she’s evil and probably working for dragons,” Asha said quickly. “but you’re telling me that a woman who looks like THAT gave birth to…whatever the hell it was we fought in the desert?”

“Ya, that’s what I’m telling you,” Leyla said emphatically, rolling his eyes as he continued to lead the horse.

“Damn…what the hell is their Dad, some kind of pig…bear…topus?”

“Probably humans,” Leyla said. “Willingly or otherwise.”

“Wow…those genetics just don’t make any sense. How do two humans lead to…something like that?”

“You’re assuming Shadiya is human,” Leyla said. “Those pictures tend to leave out her wings…and horns…”

“Oh, let me guess, she has a tail and cloven hooves to?” Asha asked.

“Well…not hooves as far as I know.”

“Okay now you’re just screwing with me.”

“I’m not!” Leyla insisted. “I’m…heads up, look out!”

Hurriedly he took hold of Asha and pulled her off the promenade and into a side street.

“Huh? What are we hiding from?” Asha asked, her hands curling instinctively as she breathed in power.

“No no, stop that! Dim the lights, spirit girl,” Leyla insisted, pushing his hands over her chest as if trying to put out a fire.

“Oi, paws off,” Asha slapped his hands aside, even as she suppressed her divine energy. “Girl’s mind or not.”

“Ya, well we want to keep a low profile.” Leyla said, and as he did Asha could see that the light of the sacred fire had dimmed behind his eyes. “Especially with that walking around.”

Leyla was watching something over Asha’s shoulder back towards the Promenade, and Asha turned to see what it was almost to barely avoid shouting in surprise.
Patrolling the length of the promenade was a contingent of armored guards, but traveling among them was a massive…well Asha would have called it a minotaur, but it had the head of an auroch rather than a normal bull, and cloven hooves for feet. It too was dressed in armor matching that of the guards around it, and carried an enormous spear in hand.

“Well…” Asha said, “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

“I didn’t think they actually had monsters patrolling the city…” Leyla said. “Damn…”

“Worse than you thought?” Asha asked.

“Probably a lot worse,” Leyla nodded. “Seems we have our work cut out for us.”

When the patrol had passed the two of them moved back onto the promenade, warily looking around as they walked into the city as if unsure of just what else Babylon had to offer.

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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