The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 8

September 22nd, 2024

The camel had fetched them enough of the local currency to buy a cramped room at an inn in the less affluent part of the city, as well as a little left over. Thankfully neither of them had a pressing need to eat or drink, and the room was mostly there to have a place to meet and occasionally rest. Incredible endurance was a fortunate upside of being not quite human.

A downside however was that Asha had to work constantly to keep a safe distance from the city’s monstrous patrol and make sure her own spiritual essence was subdued. After Leyla’s explanation, Asha was sure that if she called upon enough of her power to make her wings appear, half the monsters in the city would be called down on her.

They had split up in order to explore and learn more about the city and its inhabitants, and Asha had chosen to drop by the local bazaar. The market in this part of the city was indoors, held within a massive open complex where stalls were crammed between pillars, thick rafters and tiled roofs separating them from the blistering sun, with enough openings to fill the area with dim light.

After the empty desert and the confined and quiet nihilism of The Line, a place like the bustling market of Babylon seemed downright alien. Hundreds of people milled about in a tight crowd, people shouting and waving money as merchants sold wares from as far as old Turkey and Egypt. Everything from old human inventions like battery-drained smartphones and laptop charge cords to pieces scavenged from the bodies of beasts. Asha watched from a distance as several men haggled with money worth a hundred camels over what one claimed was a dragon’s tooth with the power to heal any illness. Most people were here for the basics, however, with food and textiles being the biggest sellers by far. Most of the people in Babylon were barely past refugee status after all, and what good was a dragon’s tooth or an old wire to keep you fed?

“Oh Miss! You there! With the lovely blue eyes!” Asha’s attention was grabbed by a nearby jewelry seller. “Sapphires would make those eyes bright as stars I say! And none finer than here! Everyone else in this bazaar sells colored sea glass and old bottles as jewels, but the finest precious stones in Babylon run through my company. We sell to the Beloved Queen herself in fact!”

“Is that right?” Asha smiled as she stepped over, eyes glancing across the gold, silver, and precious stones held under glass in the man’s rather lavish stall.

“Of course! All hand-worked of course, none of that machine-wrought jewelry from the old days.”

“Rather small stall for such an important company.” Asha said, arms folded behind her back.

“We operate out of all the city’s markets! Besides, there’s no need to show off when your name is all you need.”

“Right right…” Asha nodded politely, but as the merchant continued his spiel, her eyes caught movement in the next stall over.

A fruit vendor and a customer were chatting idly over something, from the snippets of conversation she could catch is sounded like there was a bad fig crop this year. But what caught her eye was the young man at the far end of the stall trying to look nonchalant as he pocketed an apple from the pile. Asha found herself about to say something to the stall owner, but taking a second look at the thief she could see how tired and haggard he was, skin stretched across bone and his body lean, clearly on the edge of starvation. While Asha had a strong desire for justice, it was clear the man was starving. A single lost apple wouldn’t kill the seller’s business.

As the thief ran off, an ear-splitting scream echoed through the bazaar, and in an instant Asha saw that she was not the only one who had noticed his act.

A monster leaped from the rafters of the bazaar onto the hapless thief. It had a body like a large cat, but it was hairless and its skin marked with angular stripes like dark tattoos across its taut skin. It had an over-wide jaw lined with teeth and its snout covered in six bulbous eyes. Without hesitation, the beast tore into the thief it had pinned down with long sharp teeth and sickle-like claws as people backed away.

There were a few shouts of surprise and muttered whispers, but what disturbed Asha most of all was the lack of shock from the crowd. Most around seemed bent on ignoring what had happened, looking pointedly away and pretending not to listen as the man screamed until the jaws of the monster silenced him forever.

As the beast feasted, an armored man came running up to it. He was dressed mostly in black and in surprisingly sophisticated gear. While he had a polished silver breastplate, under that he wore the heavy cloth one would expect of an old riot trooper or old world soldier. He had a rifle slung over one shoulder and a sword at his waist. As he hurried to the beast, he slipped a leash around its bloodstained neck as if it were a large dog. On his back, emblazoned in bright white letters was the word: URIEL

Asha’s hand went for her knife as she turned from the confused jewelry seller. It would take only a moment to bring down the monstrous beast and its handler. What had she done over the last few months if not kill the monsters terrorizing humanity?

The creature lifted its head, as if sensing the growing power within Asha. As she began to pull the blade from her waist, however, a hand grabbed her wrist.

Asha whirled around, ready to fight, and came face-to-face with a young man staring at her, brow furrowed and a deathly serious expression on his face.

“Simmer down,” he hissed at her. “Or you’ll just call more down on everyone.”

Asha’s energy began to fade, but as it did she sensed something else in the young man. Her skin burned slightly where he touched it, like the feeling of a blistering sun on bare skin. His eyes had an unnatural silver shine to them, and his face was, Asha had no other way to describe it, impossibly handsome. He was dressed in long robes with a hood drawn up, but beneath the shadows of his hood she could see his smooth thin face and burning eyes over dark skin and smooth chin. In that first moment, Asha wanted to throw herself at him.

A moment later and she had pulled herself back together. “Who are you?” She whispered urgently.

“Not here” he said. “Follow me.”

Quickly he led her away from the bazaar, one hand still on her wrist as he brought her into a dark alley across the road from the complex, glancing this way and that to ensure they weren’t followed.

“That beast just killed a man” Asha said. “And nobody did anything!”

“Because they don’t want to wind up in a monster’s belly either,” He said. “No point stirring the pot if it will get you killed. Theft is a capital crime, like most others.”

“Stealing an apple can get you killed?”

“Stealing anything can get you killed,” the man said. “All coin belongs to the Queen, and all goods are valued by the coin. To steal anything is to steal from the Queen, and that earns you a swift and brutal execution.”

“That’s insanity,” Asha said.

“That’s the law,” The man said. “Not too long ago the punishment for theft was the amputation of a hand.”

“Ya, and that was stopped because it’s barbaric,” Asha said. “We don’t have to go back to that just because we worship old gods.”

“They don’t worship old gods here,” The man said. “They worship the Queen.”

“And who are you?” Asha asked. “Since you clearly don’t count yourself as one of ‘them’.”

“My name is Hazif,” he said. “I’m not exactly a rebel, but I want the Beloved Queen deposed as much as anyone.”

“Well, Hazif, you might not be a rebel but you’re not human either.”

“So you noticed then,” Hazif released her wrist, rubbing his hands together.

“I did,” Asha nodded. “What are you?”

“I’m half…well you could say half-demon,” He said.

“Demon?” Asha asked. “I’ve seen monsters, gods, and spirits of all kinds but none that ever called itself an outright demon. Do you mean a cacodaemon?”

“No, I don’t,” Hazif said, his face set like stone. “My father was an incubus, but my mother was human. That makes me half-incubus and therefore half-demon.”

“Well, that explains some things,” Asha said, still unable to draw her eyes entirely from his face.

“And I can tell you’re more than human, but not in a way I’ve ever seen,” Hazif said. “I take it you’re here to stir up trouble.”

“In one way or another,” Asha nodded.

“Well, I don’t recommend the way you were about to try,” Hazif said scathingly. “That would have gotten you killed.

“I can handle a monster,” Asha scoffed.

“But can you handle three hundred?” Hazif asked. “This city can’t be overthrown by force, at least not by a handful of empowered humans. There are too many monsters and too much collateral damage. Shadiya has had rebels before, and she knows how to deal with them.”

“Then how would you suggest?” Asha asked.

“If I knew how to stage a coup by myself I would have by now,” Hazif snapped. “But I know how to operate in the city. You need to lie low and observe. Just watch from the shadows. If action is a necessity, then it needs to be swift and surgical, not a blunt instrument. Make it so that the monsters and the guards never knew you were there.”

“You can’t overthrow a government like that,” Asha frowned.

“No, but you can survive, and that’s all I’ve managed so far, and if you don’t do that then there will never be change.”

“Are you acting alone?” Asha asked. “Do you have any allies?”

“None,” Hazif said. “They can be a liability if you’re trying to get by.”

“Some rebel you are,” Asha scowled. “But you sound pretty knowledgeable about how power moves in the city.”

“The government keeps its secrets,” Hazif said. “But it can’t keep all of them from me.”

“Then you’re coming with me,” Asha said.

“Where?” Hazif asked suspiciously

“Back to my place, the room I’m sharing with my partner.”

“And why should I do that?”

“Because I’m recruiting you, Hazif,” Asha said. “My name is Asha, and it’s time you learned how to be a proper rebel.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

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