The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 11

September 22nd, 2024

 

The moment Asha brought Hazif into the small one-bedroom apartment they had rented, Leyla was on his feet.

“Who is this!?” He hissed. “I told you we’re supposed to be undercover!”

Asha could see the fire burning behind his narrowing eyes. She wasn’t sure if it was Leyla or Derya in control at the moment, but either way she moved hurriedly between them.

“This is Hazif,” Asha said quickly. “I know he seems a bit…odd…but he can help us.”

“Or he says he can,” Leyla said. “Did you ever think he might be lying and working for them?”

“I’d know if he’s lying,” Asha said. “Just…trust me on that.”

Her words gave Leyla a moment of pause. The part of Asha’s soul born from her Fravashi seemed to have a knack for sniffing out evil and wrongdoing. She had never really tested to see if she could detect lies or not, but she was positive it would.

Mostly positive.

“I’ll trust you for now,” Leyla settled on. “Because it’s you.”

“I have no love for Shadiya, or URIEL for that matter,” Hazif said, stepping forward. “But I’m also not about to help two people start their idiotic crusade.”

“That’s precisely why we need you.” Asha said, taking a seat on the lumpy old couch as Leyla and Hazif took chairs. “We don’t know enough to overthrow a city, and I doubt even with all the knowledge in the world we could do it on our own.”

“Well if he knows so much,” Leyla said. “How about he starts talking.”

“Very well,” Hazif said. “I see this is the kind of audience where I don’t have much of a choice. I am very much interested in seeing Shadiya deposed, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.”

“And why are you so interested?” Leyla sat in his chair, arms crossed as he eyed Hazif warily.

“Because I live here, and I prefer not living under a feckless tyrant and the shadow operation attempting to control her.”

“You mean URIEL?” Asha asked. “What exactly is it?”

“URIEL is an organization that predates the Days of Revelation…at least I think it does. Keeping the past straight is more difficult these days then it ought to be. Regardless, its purpose is control and domination of both the magic and mundane.”

“And they control Shadiya?” Leyla asked.

Hazif chuckled darkly. “They try. Shadiya is strong-willed and arrogant. She does as she pleases regardless of the wishes of her would-be handlers. They want her to be queen, but she wants to be nothing less than God in Babylon.”

“Still, I guess they’re in her favor enough that trying to replace her would be more trouble than its worth,” Asha said.

“Precisely,” Hazif nodded. “Shadiya tolerates URIEL and lets them perform their experiments and patrol the city. No doubt within a few months they’ll begin expanding outwards to the other surviving cities across the desert. URIEL has the technology and the knowledge, Shadiya has the will and the face for it. She’s a dictator and the people here love her for it.”

“How?” Asha asked. “We watched a man get eaten alive by a monster in the middle of the day! In a crowded bazaar no less! How can people love her when she does things like that?!”

“Because right now people value their safety and security above all else. Months ago, these people were refugees, preyed upon by horrors they couldn’t understand. Now they are in a place that is demonstrably safe, where most of them can get the food and water they need to survive and sleep soundly at night without fearing what might be lurking in the darkness.”

“But that man-“

“He was a thief,” Hazif interrupted her. “As soon as he became a thief, he was unable to defend himself as a man. In the eyes of these people. he was a thief and deserved to die. Breaking the law threatens the order of this place, and that order is all that protects them from the horrors of the desert. People will forgive any amount of cruelty and barbarism levied upon them by the powers that be so long as life is worse without it. Where do these people have to go?”

“There’s Rome” Asha said adamantly. “I have a friend in Rome, she tells me of what a wonderful place it is, free from monsters and ruled by its people, not by dictators and shadow organizations.”

“And how many monsters are between us and Rome?” Hazif asked. “How many miles of desolate waste, how many perils between Babylon and Rome? I can tell you right now that it’s more than most normal humans can survive. They know that so long as they follow the law, even if their rights are trampled and their lives made simply another resource, they will remain alive; and a person will always choose life under tyranny over death at the claws of the unknown.”

Asha sat in a sobered silence for a few moments. It would be Leyla who eventually got them started again.

“Alright, URIEL and Shadiya, what do we know about both? Who are they? Where did they come from? What do they want?”

“Well, Shadiya is simple,” Hazif said. “She’s a megalomaniac, and more monster than human. All she wants is to rule Babylon, and to spread her monstrous progeny as far as she can.”

“Does she control them?” Leyla asked. “Like…telepathically?”

“I’m not sure,” Hazif said. “I haven’t seen much evidence for it but we can’t rule anything out. As for where she came from…I have no idea. She’s not like any human or monster I’ve ever heard of.”

“Well let’s try and work through it” Asha said. “Leyla and I have a lot of background in monsters. Let’s see…Well, Leyla, you said she had wings and a tail?”

“Last I checked. Small horns too,” Leyla said. “She can breed any number of malformed monsters from human fathers.”

“That’s the strangest thing about her,” Hazif said. “And its coupled with…some kind of hypnosis I think. I’ve seen stalwart protestors turn into gibbering slaves in her presence.”

“Wait you’ve seen her in person?” Asha asked. “Like up close?”

“Not exactly in an advantageous position,” Hazif said. “But yes, she has the horns and tail and wings and whatnot. She also pacifies any crowd before her. She doesn’t need to disguise her more monstrous attributes.”

“That’s quite a suite of powers,” Leyla said. “My research hadn’t told me that much.”

“She’s an extraordinary monster,” Hazif said.

“Is it possible she’s a demon?” Asha asked. “Like…well like your father, Hazif?”

“Wait what!? That’s what he is!?” Leyla sprang to his feet, hands curled into fists. “You brought a half demon here!? I knew his essence looked shady!”

“O-Only half!” Asha tried to assure him. “And he’s not a demon himself!”

“Technically full human,” Hazif said. “Just…touched a bit by demonic essence. Incubus reproduction is a bit of a complicated procedure.”

“You’re really risking a lot, Asha,” Leyla sighed. “A city full of potential rebels and you found what’s probably the only half-demon in it.”

“Well…he’s been proving himself helpful so far,” Asha said somewhat timidly. “We’ll just…take things he says with a grain of salt.”

“I wouldn’t blame you…in fact I’d admonish your stupidity if you didn’t,” Hazif said. “But as for your original question, no, I don’t think she’s a demon. I know very little about them but from what I do know Shadiya doesn’t fit the bill. She’s too…fleshy.”

“So by the sound of it, we don’t know much about anything,” Leyla sighed.

“And if you want to know more you’ll need to risk a lot,” Hazif said. “This place is under martial law. Any attempt to subvert the law and the established order will get you both killed.”

“We both know what we’re in for,” Asha said defiantly. “So stop trying to warn us off of it. We keep going forward, no matter what.”

“Fine then,” Hazif sighed. “As for URIEL…I know even less. Their leadership, their command structure, the full nature of their experiments…all I know are their patrol routes and the fact that petty criminals, the ones with crimes too light for execution, tend to disappear.”

“Disappear?”

“I don’t think I need to define that further,” Hazif said. “But while URIEL might be a human organization, their goals definitely cross into the spiritual and magical realms, and with their technology nothing is off-limits.”

“How advanced are they?” Leyla asked. “I haven’t even seen a working engine in nine months, most people are amazed this place has running water, or that the city square has electric lights.”

“They’re far more advanced than they’re letting on, though to what extent I don’t know, they might not have the infrastructure to maintain it all,” Hazif said.

“All I’m hearing is that we have a whole lot of questions and almost no answers,” Asha sighed.

“Well ya, that’s what happens when you want to try and bring down a shadow government,” Hazif rolled his eyes. “This is a lot harder than just assassinating Shadiya…which would be difficult in and of itself, that woman is freakishly strong.”

“Sounds to me,” Leyla said. “Like we need a man on the inside.”

“Well good luck finding anyo-“ Hazif began speaking before he noticed both of them were looking pointedly at him. “Oh to hell with both of you.”

“Come on, Hazif,” Asha said. “You know the city, you know what’s at stake, and you are uniquely suited for the job.”

“And how’s that?” Hazif asked, arms folded over his chest.

“You can both hide your essence, and resist Shadiya’s mind control by the sound of it. You can get close to her and she won’t even know.”

“Ya, it’s that getting close part that I’m not really a fan of,” Hazif said. “I think by now I would have made clear what happens to men who ‘get close’ to Shadiya whether they like it or not. And I can say with some certainty that, otherworldly beauty or not, I do not relish the prospect of being taken to Shadiya’s bed against my will and used as a sire for her monstrous children. Never been keen on being the pet slave of a mass-murdering dictator, and being able to resist her mind-control effect means I wouldn’t even get the benefit of being brainwashed into liking it.”

“I…well you don’t have to get THAT close,” Asha said. “We obviously don’t want that either.”

“That’s a really fine edge you’re sending me to walk on,” Hazif said, “And with no benefit to me save for the promise of maybe having a better future. Call me a cynic, but I want better evidence that you have something real before I put my neck and other dearer parts on the line.”

“Well what would you take as evidence then?” Leyla asked. “What can we do to convince you we’re legitimate.”

“Be more than two people for starters,” Hazif said flatly. “And I’ll be straight with you, you’re not going to find a resistance movement in this city. You’re going to need large and organized aid if you want to start something real here, and that needs to come from outside the city. Somewhere close, and somewhere that has a vested interest in overthrowing Shadiya.”

“Alright, well then where would you start?” Asha asked.

Hazif thought the problem over for a moment.

“I would start in…Damascus.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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