The Snake and the Mirror

Okami

September 22nd, 2024

 

Megame had returned to the shrine to think. There would be no easy reconciliation between these kami, so she had cleared the bridge and come here to consider her options as Rome watched its primary source of water thrash and bite at itself. Amnis and Adversum would not stop fighting until one of them was victor, but neither of them seemed fit to take control of the entire river. Cooperation would be the ideal solution, but that was looking more and more unlikely.

When it came to situations like these, Megame needed the advice of an expert.

She sat, legs folded under her, in the central shrine of the Roman Shrine Complex. The secluded room was dedicated to Inari Okami, one of the few spirits that had a permanent residence and dedicated shrine within the overall complex, and easily the most powerful spirit that called it home. Nora had even offered to give her a cellae in the Roman Temple, a place more suited for a god, but both Megame and Inari had declined. Inari Okami preferred a more naturalistic setting, and her authority could keep the rowdier lesser spirits in line. While the official name was the Roman Shrine Complex, the nickname “The Inari Shrine” was already beginning to catch on.

Inari’s personal shrine room was dimly lit, with the light of the sun shuttered away. The air was still and thick with the scent of incense. Flanking the altar on either side was a pair of stylized stone fox statues with bright red bibs tied around their necks. On the altar, itself was a number of prayers wrapped into scrolls and an offering of rice, some of Megame’s last from Japan. Megame herself lowered her forehead to the floor, prostrating herself before the altar as she waited for divine contact.

“Megame, my dear child, you seem troubled. Lift your gaze”

Megame lifted her head from the floor as she heard the voice. No longer was Inari the semi-tangible echo of a spirit that had followed her across Eurasia. Here, in a proper shrine with proper worshippers, she could take full form.

In this case, Inari had taken her favored appearance as a beautiful young woman in the prime of her health. Her hair and eyes were both brilliant gold, and her long hair fell in great tumbles down her back and shoulders. Her skin was ivory pale, her thin eyebrows raised in amusement. She was dressed in a brilliant kimono of gold and vermillion that was wrapped around her with a loose elegance. She radiated light in the dark shrine, casting an amber glow around the room. Flanking her, the two stone foxes had come to life as pure white fox spirits, moving protectively to either side of their goddess.

She sat on the shrine, reclining slightly with a sake vessel balanced in one hand as she regarded Megame. “What is it that burdens your thoughts, my loyal shrine maiden?”

“Inari-Okami, I seek your aid in resolving a matter that might jeopardize this city.”

Inari smiled at her, taking a brief sip of sake before replying.

“Of course, dear Megame. I promised to be your adviser in all things, did I not? What counsel can one of the Okami provide.”

“I am humbled by your generosity, Inari-Okami. The two spirits of the Tiber River, Amnis and Adversum, are refusing to cooperate in any way with one another. The river grows fierce, and it is unfit for travel and soon may be unfit to drink.”

“That is worrisome,” Inari said casually, lacking urgency in her voice. “A river is the lifeblood of a city. Without access to the river for trade and freshwater the city itself may wither. I take it you have spoken to both spirits and tried to resolve their quarrels?”

“I have, Inari-Okami. They refuse to speak on level terms. Both believes the other to be inferior, and that the entirety of the river should be theirs.”

“Why has this only just begun? Surely they must have had quarrels before?”

“Indeed they would have, Inari-Okami, however, there was once a third spirit who commanded all the river. He was known as the god Tiberinus, and he kept the other spirits in line so that the river flowed as it was meant to.”

“And where is this god Tiberinus now?” Inari asked, eyebrow raised.

“No one knows, Inari-Okami.” Megame said. “They say he is dormant, or perhaps simply…gone. The spirits at least feel safe enough that he is to fight over his position.”

“And with so much to gain and so much to lose, neither side will be willing to cede power.” Inari said, a smile growing at the edges of her lips. “My this is a difficult negotiation.”

“The river cannot function without both of them.” Megame said. “Neither of them respects the purpose of the other enough not to neglect their domain. Adversum does not care for the river floor, or the purifying and nurturing it provides. Amnis doesn’t care for the surface water or the current, the flow that we need for transport and drinking. Without both in control of their domains, the river and Rome will suffer.”

“An astute observation, my dear shrine maiden,” Inari said. “You are becoming better at weighing a situation before you act. You are a clever girl and good with words, but sometimes it takes more than words to put a spirit back in line.”

“Would intimidation lead to a prosperous result, Inari-Okami?” Megame asked. “I am not sure if forcing a spirit will aid us, or if I am even capable.”

“These spirits are attempting to expand their domains.” Inari said. “This by itself is not unusual or despicable. I myself have expanded into many domains over my long existence. However, an attempt to openly subjugate an equal spirit to expand one’s own power is…vulgar. It is unbecoming behavior on the part of both of them, and it needs to be stopped. Occasionally the hand of force is needed to keep the overly-ambitious in line.”

“I see,” Megame nodded her head. She didn’t like the idea of bullying spirits back into line. But this quarrel between equals was putting the entire city at risk. “Though I am not sure if I am capable of bullying a spirit…” Megame said reluctantly.

“You have neither the height nor the strength to do so on your own,” Inari said, still smiling. “Nor do you yet have the authority. You could in theory call upon one of your native Okami to assist you, but…?” She left the statement deliberately open-ended, testing Megame to hear her reply.

“But…such an act of cultural aggression would not be taken well.” Megame finished the statement. “The Roman gods would resent a Japanese Okami bullying the spirits of their domain…. though by the same measure they will be difficult to coax into intervention.”

“And why is that?” Inari asked, her smile broadening as she was clearly pleased.

“Because the powerful Roman gods, those with the authority to punish the river spirits, show too much disdain for lesser spirits to govern them.”

“As you eliminate all unfeasible solutions, the workable ones present themselves” Inari said, “This is how you should approach the problem. Find the method by which they can be coerced, and find a spirit fit to apply it. It may require a good deal of effort, but I am confident my shrine maiden can accomplish it. You are, after all, what the western Okami refer to as my ‘Champion’.”

Megame bowed her head deeply again. “I will not disappoint you, Inari-Okami.” She said, and as she spoke the amber light began to fade. The fox spirits once more turned to stone, and the beautiful image of Inari faded away.

Megame waited for a few moments in the darkness before rising again, breathing in the scent of incense as she focused her thoughts. It was Inari’s way to never give her a direct answer unless she was issuing command. She much preferred it when Megame discovered a solution for herself. No doubt if she failed and Rome was truly imperiled she would give her a solution, but neither of them wanted that to happen. She may not have given Megame everything, but she had set her down the right path. Inari might be her adviser, but it was up to Megame to solve this problem.

 

The sun was beginning to set when Megame returned to the river, bathing the sky in oranges and reds as it painted the chopping waves of the Tiber gold and white with the dimming sunlight catching in the swells. People still gathered at the river, watching the waters churn nervously as they waited for a solution to arrive, or perhaps for the chaos to stop.

As she stepped towards the bridge, she saw she was not the only specialist on the scene Nora was still there, talking now with Sybilla Musil. Sybilla was a witch of some kind employed with Rome’s Night Guard, and by the expression on their faces, the situation had not improved.

“Ah, welcome back, Megame.” Nora said, spotting her as she approached. “Did your goddess have any answers.”

“None directly,” Megame said. “Though I believe she may have given me the inspiration for a solution.”

“You can stop this?” Sybilla asked, turning to her as well. “It didn’t sound as if you had much luck beforehand.”

“I was unprepared, now I am better informed.” Megame said. “But if the Night Guard has its own solution.

“Nothing yet,” Sybilla sighed. “We’re better at hunting or dealing with angry ghosts and lesser spirits where they become an issue. This is a bit beyond our capabilities at the moment.”

‘If you have a solution, Megame,” Nora said, “The floor is yours.”

Megame bowed her head. “I will do my best.”

Once more the bridge was cleared, and Megame walked out onto it alone. She walked to the center and sat down, legs folded beneath her as she took several long deep breaths. She closed her eyes, hands on her legs, and after one long breath she cleared her mind.

As Megame focused herself, her mind wiped of distraction and emotion, she could feel something else around her. She could feel the flow of spiritual energy winding around her like river, flowing past her in great waves as it filled the air. It was the aether, mana, chi, the breathing air for spirits and the fuel for mages the world over. With proper meditation and a practiced mind, even a mundane human can feel the spiritual energy that radiates from everything. Now that she was in an almost trance-like state, Megame could feel the push and pull of the energy around her as it flowed through her, through the people in the crowd, and gathered like whirlpools in the spirits of Amnis and Adversum.

Megame could feel the flow moving through them all, but the was only the surface. She needed to dig deeper, to feel the current that pushed the eddies and the flow of tides, to sink down into the primal forces that shape the world. There was the mortal Tiber River, the water that flowed through its banks. Beneath that there were the two spirits, Amnis and Adversum, fighting for control. But below that still was the spiritual heart of the river, the power that the two spirits battled for. It was the core of the river, the heart of its power inaccessible to all but a few. To feel the energy moving through it, Megame had to reach out with her own spirit and throw her mind outward into the spirit world around her.

It was not unlike Astral projection, the separation of the spirit from the body. But while astral projection could allow someone to easily communicate with spirits and the spirit world, Megame needed to send herself deeper, to mingle her essence with the primordial spirit of the Tiber River and stir up whatever slept there. She was so deep in the spiritual realm, so far removed from the material plane, that she couldn’t speak or see or sense anything with perception as she knew it. There was only her spiritual sense to guide her.

Megame’s spirit sank below the bridge and into the spiritual waters, diving below the battling whirlpools of Amnis and Adversum. As the flow of energy began to steady around her, growing dark as it neared the chaotic depths, she sent out the closest thing she could to a summons. Megame let loose a pulse of her own spiritual energy, a vibrating echo of power that rippled through the aether to reach whatever could hear it so deep below the mortal world.

For a moment she sensed noting but the slow flow of energy. Then something powerful flowed past her body, another pulse much larger and more sluggish than the one she had sent out. It was probing, questioning why she was there.

Hurriedly Megame sent out another pulse, trying her best to weave her thoughts and emotions into the wave of spiritual energy. Worry, concern, fear, combined with the feeling of the flowing waters of the Tiber. There was another silence before the entity pulsed again, this time she felt its own feelings of concern flow through her body. They communicated like submarines bouncing signals through the abyss, two whirls of energy pulsing at one another through the sightless spiritual realm. Finally, Megame focused herself, putting all of her effort into the one single message so that the precise meaning came through.

“Come with me.”

With that last message, her spirit flew upwards towards her body. She sucked in a deep gasp of air as if she had been holding her breath, eyes fluttering as her vision cleared. She could hear the muttering of the crowd and the slapping and crashing of the water. Now all she could do was wait, and hope that her message had been heard.

Moments after the churning began to slow, and soon it ceased entirely as an unnatural stillness overcame the water. The crowd watched nervously, a silence descending on the bridge as everyone waited for something to happen.

With an immense splash of water something huge launched itself from the river’s depths, a great serpentine shape that rose into the air, its aqueous body coiling around the bridge several times over like a tremendous python. There were several terrified screams and cries from the crowd as they backed away, the guards moving between them and the new monstrous entity, but Megame simply rose to her feet as the head of the serpentine water creature began to form.

Water coalesced into azure scales, churning foam into a mane of white hair, and the great head of the entity solidified into the head and muzzle of a lion-like creature. As the entity took full form, Megame saw now that a long sinuous dragon had wrapped itself around the bridge, its tail still lost in the depths of the harbor.

Megame bowed her head. “Lord Tiberinus, I presume”

“It has been long since I last heard that name,” The dragon’s mouth did not open as it spoke. “I have forgotten the face it wore and the faces of the people it spoke to.”

“I hope this one will suit you.” Megame bowed her head again. “I think it is quite regal.”

“And how did you find me, little mortal? How did you know where to look?”

“So long as there is a Tiber River there is spirit of the Tiber.” Megame said. “When you disappeared I realized you must have simply sunk back into the waters from which you were birthed. But please, Lord Tiberinus, will you let the river flow as it always has?”

“I will ensure it,” Tiberinus said. “It shall flow from the mountains to the sea. It shall chop in the storm and flow calmly under the sun. So it has been for thousands of years, so it shall be again.”

“And Amnis and Adversum?”

“Spoiled children to be dealt with. There is but one Tiberinus.”

Megame bowed once more, this time to her knees, forehead to the ground. “Thank you, Lord of the River.”

 

Nora and Sybilla watched in relative quiet from the river’s edge nearby as Megame spoke to the great water dragon.

“I’ve never seen a river spirit quite like that,” Sybilla said. “Granted I’ve only met a handful.”

“They tend not to look like that around here.” Nora said, a nervousness growing in her voice.

Sybilla quickly took notice. “Is something wrong?”

“That’s not what Lord Tiberinus looked like in any depiction…that’s what a Japanese river spirit might look like.”

“Japanese?” Sybilla looked at the serpentine dragon again. “Do you think…?”

“That Megame altered the nature of the spirit itself using nothing but her own spiritual influence?” Nora finished her question. “It can happen with gods and spirits but…it takes hundreds or thousands of people all believing the same thing to change a spirit like that. Not a single Japanese girl.”

“Then perhaps we should keep an on this one.” Sybilla said, a slight smile growing on her face. “There might be more to her than we first suspected.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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