The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 14

September 28th, 2024

 

C: What’s up, Asha? It’s been a while.

A: Likewise. Been super busy here in Babylon, sorry we haven’t been able to chat.

C: Cool. I’ve been busy too, so no worries. Even got to hook up with an old friend of mine!

A: Awesome! I’ve been less lucky. Things are pretty bleak here. And we met a new guy who might help but he’s…pretty jaded.

C: I know you, Asha, you can turn things around!

A: Heh, thanks for the support as ever, Cat.

Asha smiled down at the book in her hands. She was sitting on the edge of the window in their tiny studio, legs inside and her back against the frame as she felt the cool late afternoon air pour in, the sunlight glinting on the rooftops as it began to set. People were moving outside in the street below, and Asha would watch them pass as she waited on Cat’s reply in the magic book.

C: The new guy around? I could give him a piece of my mind!

A: Heh, no, he left to do some research, though he thinks we should look into drumming up support elsewhere.

C: Like where?

A: He suggested Damascus.

C: Wow, that’s pretty far.

A: Ya, and I’m hesitant, he might just be trying to get us to leave the city.

Asha frowned. She didn’t particularly like Hazif and she didn’t trust him entirely either. Leyla was out scouting while Asha stayed on watch at their ‘base’, ready to make her escape if Hazif returned with a contingent of monstrous guards and ensure a trap wasn’t laid out for them. On the other hand, while she didn’t trust Hazif enough to think he’d happily work with them, she didn’t believe he would sell them out either. He wasn’t evil, just…jaded.

Though he was also a half-demon, Asha couldn’t forget. She hated the idea of discriminating for that reason but…then again half-demon WAS half-demon. She couldn’t just discount it. It wasn’t like mistrusting him for being Arab or something…was it?

Asha frowned. She didn’t want to think about post-apocalyptic race politics right now.

A: So who’s this friend? They cute~?

C: Jeez, Asha it’s not like that!

A: Fine, fine, I’m just teasing. I know I’m the only girl for you~

Asha smiled, mocking a swooning gesture as the book recorded her appearance in the form of a brief sketch sent to Cat.

C: You’re legitimately the worst sometimes, Asha.

Asha couldn’t help but grin as Cat’s smiling face appeared on the blank page.

A: I do my best.

Her smile faded, however, as she glanced outside and something caught her eye. She saw a young man moving down the street, dressed in a plain tunic and pants, arms at his side as he moved with purpose. He would be entirely unremarkable if it weren’t for one thing: Asha had watched him die, eaten by a monster the day before.

She needed to sit up and do a double take to be sure, but there was no mistaking it. The appearance of the man as he’d been pinned and killed by the monster was scorched into her memory. This man was identical. Was he a twin? An illusion?

Asha couldn’t just let this go.

A: Catch you later, Cat. Gotta run.

She scrawled the massage before shutting the tome and swinging her legs out over the window, dropping lightly on her feet to the street below, surprising a few pedestrians as she did. Asha kept her eyes locked on the young man who hadn’t seemed to notice her, and quickly fell in behind him in pursuit.

There was an itch in her mind, something telling her that something very strange was going on. Like a warning intuition acting as a siren in her mind. She needed to get to the bottom of this. Following this lead might lead to a trap, but her gut told her that ignoring it would be worse.

Asha stalked him quietly from several meters behind, trailing him through the crowded street without ever letting him fully leave her sight for long. She couldn’t just accost him in the street, she wanted to be able to question him without onlookers or anyone who could overhear. So Asha continued her silent pursuit, waiting for the opportune moment to strike.

The moment revealed itself before long, as the crowd began to shrink and she found herself alone on the street with him. He still seemed oblivious, walking with a quick but not hurried step as he moved past the buildings, and Asha saw a dark alley up ahead that would provide them some cover. Quickening her step, her footsteps still all but silent, Asha made her approach, and just as the man passed the entrance of the alley Asha moved in, threw her arm roughly over his shoulders and strong-armed him unceremoniously into the alley.

As Asha pushed him against the wall she kept one hand on his shoulder and another pressed to the wall by his face, keeping him in place.

“We should talk,” She said quietly.

The man was clearly terrified. He was young with short and tousled light brown hair and tan skin, clean shave and with narrow shoulders. His eyes were wide as he looked at Asha, his mouth slightly open as he struggled to find words to react.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Asha said. “I’m not robbing or threatening you, I just want to talk.”

“W-who are you?” he stammered lightly.

“Someone who is very curious,” Asha said. “And intent on learning how it is you’re still alive.”

“I-I don’t understand…” he tried.

“I watched you die,” Asha’s eyes narrowed.

“You…you must have been mista-“ He tried to pull away but Asha’s hand pushed him back against the wall.

“No I’m not,” Asha said, voice still low. “I was in the market the other day. I watched you die, eaten by a monster. You didn’t survive but here you are still walking and talking.”

“I-I wasn’t eaten by a monster, I swear!”

There was a buzzing feeling that moved gently through Asha’s body, a brief flare of her spiritual essence that reacted when he spoke. It was subdued, but not unlike what she felt when she fought a monster or saved someone, that twinge of feeling telling her that the Fravashi spirit was active.

“See, that wasn’t smart.” Asha said. “A better story would have been to claim he was your twin. But it doesn’t matter, because I can tell when you’re lying to me.”

Inwardly, Asha was silently relieved that her powers actually did work that way. At the very least it meant Hazif had been telling the truth…assuming it worked on half-demons.

“Who are you?” Asha asked.

“My name is Eli,” He said.

“Alright, Eli,” Asha said. “Tell me exactly what are you? Spirit? Human Hybrid? Ghost?”

“I-I’m just human!” Eli said. “That’s it, I promise!”

“See, that makes it hard for me to believe you,” Asha said. “Humans generally don’t come back for the dead, not while staying human. Trust me. I know.”

“I-It’s not really like that. I…”

Eli cut himself off as he looked out towards the street, his eyes went wide with fear before he suddenly took hold of Asha’s upper arms.

“Bear with me,” He whispered rapidly, and before she could respond he had pulled her in close for a sudden kiss on the lips.

Mixed confusion and anger filled Asha’s brain as she tried to pull away, but Eli held a tight grip on her shirt and Asha could see his eyes were still focused out of the alley. Asha followed his gaze and saw a dark figure, silhouetted by the evening sky, walking along the rooftops across the street. A sheathed sword was slung over their shoulder, and what were undoubtedly a long pair of horns rose form their head, combined with a sinuous reptilian tail that coiled around their legs.

The figure walked along, briefly passing a glance down the alley at them. In that instant, Asha felt a chill run through her spirit as if ice water was running down her spine. The figure didn’t stop and continued on to the edge of the roof before leaping with inhuman grace and speed to the next roof and continuing on before soon falling out of sight.

The second Eli’s grip slacked, Asha pulled herself away. Her fingers curled into a fist before a moment’s consideration, and a second later she settled for slapping him hard across the face.

“Okay…I deserved that,” Eli said, rubbing his cheek where it turned red.

“Damn right you did,” Asha said.

“Look I didn’t like it either,” he said. “I just did that to make us seem less conspicuous.”

“Why would that matter, you were terrified of me,” Asha said, though she did lower her hands to her sides.

“That figure out there?” Eli said. “That’s Freny, one of Shadiya’s lieutenants and her chief enforcer.”

“Aha, so you want to avoid Shadiya’s attention as well?” Asha asked.

“Wouldn’t you?” said Eli, still rubbing his face. “Either way, I didn’t think you were aligned with her to begin with, and I wouldn’t call her wrath down on anyone.”

“Wait…how did you know I wasn’t working for Shadiya?” Asha asked.

“Because you didn’t try to kill me,” Eli said, lowering his hand. “And I’m kind of hoping you don’t.”

“I don’t plan on it,” Asha said. “But I still want answers.”

“I can’t give you answers until I know who you are and I know I can trust you,” Eli said, more stubbornly.

“I’m Asha,” She said. “Now start talking.”

“What…no that’s not how it works!” he said.

“Well if you’re not giving answers and neither am I,” Asha said. “One of us has to give in and trust the other. And I’m not the one who tried to lie.”

“No you’re just the one who pulled me into a dark alley alone,” Eli said. ”But…I guess I see your point…But I’m not that special. I can’t fly and I can’t jump a hundred meters in the air. I can’t heal the sick or shoot lasers from my eyes or anything.”

“But you can come back from the dead.” Asha said.

“Maybe!” Eli said. “Just…maybe. I know I can heal. I don’t get sick or starve or suffocate. I hadn’t died before and I don’t really want to test it again!”

“Why?” Asha asked. “Why can you do these things?”

“I don’t know,” Eli said. “I don’t know how I was given these powers…just that I have them now.”

Asha didn’t feel that same buzz that told her he was lying.

“Well…I suppose you’re telling at least a little of the truth,” she said.

“I am, I swear,” Eli nodded vehemently.

“And you seem to be terrified of Shadiya, so that’s a good start.”

“Who isn’t…” Eli said.

“Well we can use that kind of feeling,” Asha said, looking him over thoughtfully.

“I-I think you might be looking at me the wrong way,” Eli said. “I’m no kind of freedom fighter or rebel.”

“Then what are you?” Asha asked him, hands on her hips.

“I’m just trying to get by, that’s all,” Eli said. “That’s all anyone here wants. To just get by.”

Asha sighed, it was like dealing with Hazif all over again.

“Look I get that…” Asha said. “I do. You don’t want to put yourself at risk or anything but…how about you move with us for a while?”

“Move with you? Where?” Eli asked.

“Well we’re staying in the city for now” Asha said. “We’ll see how that goes…but we’re not making any active moves yet. You can listen to what we have to say then make up your own mind.”

“I have to say…” Eli said. “Given how you grabbed me…I’m surprised your recruitment pitch isn’t more…forceful.

“Don’t tempt me,” Asha smiled. “But it’s not just you and not just for your powers. To make a change we need people, but we need people to want that change as well.”

“Right,” Eli nodded, more confidently this time. “I suppose…I can at least take a look.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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