September 12th, 2024
Noemi’s machete cut a swathe through the jungle brush as the two pressed on through the thick foliage. The goddess, Ophidia, walked silently behind her, her steps almost seeming to slide over the rocks and branches that made hiking uncomfortable. Whereas Noemi spent her nights stitching the tears and rips in her clothes, Ophidia seemed utterly untouched by the jungle. It made sense, but it was still irritating to Noemi, who spent much of her time picking twigs, leaves, and bugs out of her red hair.
As the sun rose and set, the two seemed to make less and less progress. Noemi refused to take the main roads, weary of encountering more opposition from Aztlan. On the upside, this meant that they hadn’t encountered any slaver band or Jaguar Warrior unit. On the downside, there was more than one occasion that it felt as if they were wandering in circles. Even Ophidia seemed to notice as they passed by what seemed to be a familiar clearing for the third time.
“Noemi, it seems we are lost.”
“Well, it’s hard to tell where we’ve been when it all looks the same!” Noemi said, leaning up against the trunk of a tree to rest. Her arm had grown tired from swinging. “I’m from the cities, okay? I don’t know this area.”
“Clearly,” Ophidia said, her voice steady. Despite the fact that it lacked much tone, Noemi couldn’t help but hear the disapproval…disappointment?…One of those two emotions in the word.
She scowled. “Well, it’s not like you’re helping too much either, Ophidia!”
“I am not a god of this area. It is as unfamiliar to me as it is to you.”
Noemi frowned as she reached up into the tree, pulling down a fruit she didn’t recognize. Ophidia might not know the region, but she had a knack for identifying things that were poisonous or venomous. It had made meals a lot easier, as Ophidia could easily tell Noemi if a piece of fruit was safe to eat or would leave her convulsing on the jungle floor. Noemi held the fruit out in front of her.
“No,” Ophidia said, wrinkling her nose. She often did this when Noemi held out food. Apparently, the goddess considered these akin to “sacrifices” and “offerings”. The only thing that seemed to please her was the rare nights Noemi caught something with a bit of meat on its bones. The smell of the charred rodents never failed to rouse Ophidia’s interest. “You should dispose of it.”
“Well, guess I’m skipping lunch for now then,” Noemi grumbled, tossing the fruit to the ground. If there was any bright side to this trek, she had never felt more in shape in her life. “But we can’t keep wandering like this. I think we need a guide.”
“Indeed. Though as we are avoiding the roads, it may prove difficult to find such a person, Noemi.”
“Well, yeah! But do you really want to fight more Aztlan soldiers? I know I don’t!”
“They would at least know the way to the coast.”
There were many times that Noemi felt sure Ophidia had a sense of humor, it was simply the driest humor she had ever encountered. The goddess rarely smiled, but at times her suggestions were so patently ridiculous or impossible, that Noemi could only assume Ophidia was attempting to make her laugh. Depending on her mood, and how hungry she was, Noemi would either respond with laughter or with an eye roll.
This time it was an eye roll.
“Great idea, Ophidia. I’m sure the Aztlan soldiers will be so accommodating too,” Noemi said. “Excuse me, Mr. Spirit Hunter, would you mind telling me which way to the coast? I’m trying to smuggle this obvious goddess out of the country.”
“I would expect they are also being told to look for a human matching your description, if you are as wanted as you claim to be,” Ophidia said, continuing to walk just ever so far behind Noemi.
“Yeah, let’s add that to the list of reasons it’s a bad idea. I mean sure, an Aztlaner would probably know the way, but how would we ever get them to help us? Kidnap them?” Noemi asked with a dry laugh. As the words left her lips however, her eyes went wide. “Of course! They’d know the area, and it would help the local spirits anyway! Why not do that?”
“It would be difficult, but it could work. It would make us more progress than we have currently accomplished as well.”
“Well, then at least we have a plan,” Noemi said, drawing her machete from her belt again. “The next patrol we see, rather than run and hide, we’re going to pull off an ambush of our own!”
“Very well,” Ophidia said. Her eyes started to glow as her feathery hair began to ruffle as if there was a strong wind blowing. Her body began to sway side to side, moving as if to some invisible music. Noemi tried not to stare, but her eyes were drawn to the dancing form of the goddess, drawn in by the magic. She could hear the hissing of many snakes around them.
“We will not be without our own forces,” Ophidia said, as her aura started to dim. “And I have perhaps shortened the time between now and our…discovery.”
“Eh?” Noemi grunted. Instinctively, her muscles started to tighten. Her eyes darted around them, but all she saw were the shadowy movements of snakes along the trees. Noemi had long since gotten accustomed to the ever-present presence of snakes around them. “Why is that?”
“Because any spirits loyal to Aztlan surely noticed the flaring of my aura there. If there are any Aztlan bands in the area, they will be moving towards us now.”
“Y-you could have warned me that’s what you were doing! Now I hardly have enough time to plan!”
“And less now for pointing this out,” Ophidia said, her eyes twinkling a little. Noemi grumbled, but the goddess was right. There was hardly time to stand here quarreling.
Noemi started hacking her way forward again, keeping an ear out for the sound of soldiers and an eye out looking for a place where they could truly ambush the Aztlan warband.
Eventually, the pair came across an area where the canopy was thicker, casting a heavy shadow on the jungle below. Noemi pulled herself up branch by branch until she was satisfied that nothing but a jaguar itself was going to spot her. If there was a jaguar, Ophidia’s ‘agents’ would know far in advance. The snakes seemed to have an almost instinctual hatred for the big cats. It had saved Noemi on more than one occasion. Now, however, she wanted Aztlan to find them. Or at least, find Ophidia.
She pulled herself further into the shadows as a small white snake crawled along the bark onto her shoulder, hissing in her ear. Though she didn’t speak snake, when the Goddess wished to speak to her, she often used these smaller snakes to whisper into her ear, or her mind. Noemi still wasn’t exactly sure.
Noemi lost track of how long she stayed in the tree, possibly for hours, her body relaxed but her senses on high attention. The jungle was noisy. This was a good sign, usually. It meant that everything was normal. When the jungle was silent, that always meant that danger was near. Sometimes it was just a simple predator, prowling through the brush. Sometimes it meant an Aztlan column. Noemi never knew until the danger revealed itself. Usually, she’d be praying to whomever she could that it was just a predator. This time she was hoping it would be Aztlan.
She didn’t know how long she sat in the tree, Ophidia hidden in the brush below in her feathered serpent form. Noemi stopped thinking, just listening to the sounds around her. All at once, the noises stopped and Noemi’s muscles tensed.
Her eyes darted to the white scales flashing in the brush. Ophidia wasn’t hiding as well as she normally would. The goal was to draw the column into this tight and densely forested stretch of jungle, where they could then be separated.
Noemi heard the drums before she saw the column. The sound itself sent a shiver down her back. Shadowy figures moved in the dark jungle, but she could tell they were humans. An entire column had come after the rogue goddess. Noemi took a few deep breaths to keep her heart from pounding. This is what they needed. They needed only one alive. She gripped the handle of her machete.
Ophidia was moving in the brush, making noise to draw their attention. The column leader barked out a command and the drums continued to keep the tempo as the column approached. Noemi watched them pass beneath her in groups of twos and threes. Her mind raced as she tried to think of how to approach this.
She almost missed the shouting ahead of her.
The Aztlan soldiers in the rear of the column were shouting out something about downed men. Noemi frowned. The snakes were supposed to wait for her order, not go in on their own!
Her branch shook as a shadow blew in front of her, launching itself down from above into the middle of the column, right on top of an Aztlan soldier. Noemi watched as the soldier screamed in pain and fright, before the shadow moved back into the darkness. The man fell to the ground, clutching at his throat as he choked on his own blood.
There were more shouts now. Noemi’s eyes darted around, looking for the shadow, but every time she caught it, it was gone, leaving another dead soldier on the ground. One by one, the soldiers fell, the column forgotten as they started to move into a ring, their weapons at the ready. They seemed to have as much trouble tracking the shadow as Noemi.
“What is going on?” Noemi hissed to the snake on her shoulder.
It seems we are not alone in seeking to create an ambush. Another has stolen our…operation.
The ring formation served the soldiers no better. Those who were still standing broke, running back the way they came, screaming in the jungle. The shadow followed them for a bit, bouncing from tree to tree before it disappeared into the darkness.
“Damn it!” Noemi said, staring at the carnage below her. While she had long stopped feeling bad about killing soldiers, as they often were trying to kill her, all their patience went unrewarded. “Now where are we going to get a guide!”
“We could try again I suppose,” Ophidia said, stepping out of the brush in her human form. She looked around at the dead bodies with little pity. To her, these humans were just as dangerous a monster as the jaguar was to Noemi.
“Yeah, I guess we’ll have to-oooo…” Noemi dragged out the last syllable as she felt the cold touch of a metal blade to her throat. Slowly she raised her hands up in the air, not daring to turn her head behind her. “H-hello there…”
“Do not move,” an unfamiliar voice said in her ear. “There is…”
“Step away from my champion!”
Ophidia’s voice echoed through the jungle as the branches and leaves on the trees started to move, hundreds of snakes slithering along their limbs towards Noemi and her assailant. The unknown attacker pulled Noemi with her as she slowly backed away from the snakes.
“What, a champion?” The voice said, sounding shaky, almost frightened. Noemi would have been a lot more understanding if it weren’t for the knife at her throat.
“That’s right, I’m her champion, so I’d think twice before you slit my throat, Aztlan assassin,” Noemi hissed through clenched teeth.
“I am not with Aztlan!” The voice said, sounding decidedly feminine. “Look, I-I think this might be a misunderstanding. I thought you were with them. The column was c-coming this way. Please call off the snakes.”
“Take your blade from my neck, first.”
“Right…” The girl said, removing the knife. Noemi quickly spun away, dropping to the ground below. She heard her attacker do the same thing. Ophidia was glowing as she called on her divine power, so for the first time, Noemi got a good look at her assailant.
It was indeed a girl, a rather short one at that, certainly shorter than Noemi which meant Ophidia would tower over her. Her dark hair was tied back in a long pony tail, and she wore a mask over the lower half of her face. By her eyes Noemi could tell she was East Asian,. Her clothes were all dark. Purple, black, blue, Noemi didn’t know. It was just dark.
“Who are you? And what are you doing out here?”
“Probably the same thing as you,” the girl said, pulling off her mask. “My name is Junko. I think we share a common enemy.”
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa