September 17th, 2024
The jungle seemed to go on forever. Every time Noemi felt that they must be nearing its end, that they must be almost out or that the river would finally let out into a delta, it would take another bend or the trees would grow thick and dark once more. Junko did seem to be an amazing tracker and hunter though, keeping the three of them from encountering any other Aztlan forces as well as always managing to have food for Noemi to prepare and cook when the sun set and they made camp.
“How do you do it, anyway?” Noemi asked, as she carefully sliced the scales off a fish Junko had snatched out of the water.
“Get us something new to eat every day, keep us from getting lost…or have we really been going in circles this whole time!?”
“We’re just following the river, boss,” Junko said, her eyes smiling even as her mouth was hidden behind her mask. “It’s hard to get lost along that.”
“You say that, but we’d be fighting a lot more Azzies if that were the case,” Noemi argued, holding her knife out, flicking her wrist as she sent scales into the fire to sizzle. “Speaking of which, I want to learn how to fight like you do.”
The ninja girl’s eyes went wide as she didn’t say anything right away, just looking to the river then back to Noemi.
“Come on, Junko,” Noemi continued. “You took out an entire squadron of the Aztec Jaguar Warriors and they even had a spirit with them! I mean, yes, they were chasing me not you, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone move that fast.”
“Well, the thing is, boss, I’ve been training since I was little. It’s not something you can just pick up overnight.”
“I know how to handle myself in a fight, so it’s not like I’m completely hopeless! I’m not like…Well, doesn’t matter, point is, I’ve been in my fair share of fights, but I feel like I need to stop relying so much on luck to get out alive!”
“I’ll say,” A soft voice said, drawing out the s as the sound escaped from her teeth. Ophidia stepped into the clearing, her feathery cloak draped around her shoulders as she stared down at the two girls. “If I recall correctly, champion, you had lost the fight when I had found you.”
“That wasn’t a fi-!” Noemi started, before shaking her head. “Okay, fine, but that just proves my point! I wouldn’t have gotten out of that one if it weren’t for you, but maybe if I was able to fight as well as Junko, I would have!”
“As I said, boss, I can give you some basic training in self-defense…”
“Sure, but how do I do the neat spirit tricks, like running faster than the wind?” Noemi asked, before turning back to the Winged Serpent Goddess. “You could have at least provided me wings!”
The only response the redhead got from her patron was an audible, yet somehow dignified, snort of disapproval.
“I can’t even get my patron to help me! How do you get the spirits to give you those powers, Junko?”
“I don’t,” Junko said, simply, rising to her feet. She stretched her neck to the side, rolling her head in a circle around it, though keeping her eyes on the other two at all times.
“What do you mean you don’t? You said the spirits make you super fast, blend into the shadows, all of that.” Noemi said, throwing a few jabs rapidly in the air in front of her. Junko winced a little, though Noemi thought she could see the hint of a smile.
“I mean, I don’t ‘get’ them to give me their powers. It’s more than a simple matter of asking them. Spirits are not merely batteries from which you can draw your power,” Junko said. She started to go through various forms that Noemi had seen her perform a few times, usually in the morning before they started on their long hikes.
“These are those…what did you call them, the katas?”
“Mmm, more or less. Do you know why I do these every morning?”
“I figured so you could stretch and get warmed up for the trekking we had to do.”
“No. There are spirits all around us, boss. Their power is there, but most don’t even see it. They feel the breeze on their face and say that they stopped the wind. The spirit of that breeze has no power to move them,” Junko said, closing her eyes, her voice growing steadier. “But that’s not true. They believe it will break against them, that the wind cannot lift them from the ground. Their minds are cluttered, heavy.”
Noemi watched, her eyes widening as Junko started to take steps up into the air, as if she were climbing invisible stairs. Beneath her shoes, Noemi could only just see the air move a bit, carrying detritus from the ground as it passed by.
“Empty your mind, let go of your shape as you know it. Become like the air, light and unseen, everywhere at once. Or become like water,” Junko said as she fell backwards, from her spot floating above the ground, into the river behind them. Noemi bolted forward to try to catch her. The river was too shallow; there was a chance Junko could hit a rock and hurt herself! But even as Noemi stretched out her arm to catch the other girl though, Junko’s body hit the water. Noemi could only gasp as the girl seemed to melt away into the water itself.
Noemi could still hear her voice though, babbling out from the river, distorted by the water. “Become the spirit, let it guide your form, changing you into whatever shape it takes.” Her voice said, as the water started to rise, taking the shape of Junko, before she stepped out looking none the worse for wear.
Noemi just looked the girl up and down eyes wide. While she had seen Junko do some impressive things, melting into water only to reform was new. “I want to learn how to do that!”
“Do you plan to continue to engage with the forces of Aztlan, Noemi?” Ophidia asked, folding one arm beneath her breasts as she rested her head upon her hand, watching the two humans. Her lips pursed together into a frown as her voice carried with it an air of concern.
Noemi shook her head, sliding her knife back into her belt. “I just want to be able to fight better. I can’t fight a war all by myself. Even with you and Junko, that’s just three of us. Besides, there’s…somethings I need to see to first. At the coast.”
“You haven’t actually said what it is you need to do, come to think of it,” Junko said, grabbing some of her hair and wringing it out as the water to fell to the ground.
“Mmm, well, it doesn’t matter too much. I just made a promise to someone that if I survived, I’d head to the coast. Anyway, don’t think I’m going to forgive Aztlan for all this. They’ve caused too much pain, too much suffering to too many people. They’ve brought so much death to this land in the name of their order…Bunch of liars and murderers!”
“You know, boss, you don’t need to be fighting this war alone…” Junko said.
“We are not fighting a war, we are trying to build a cult,” Ophidia said, with some firmness behind her voice. “I did not save you so you could throw your life away.”
“Oh, come on, Ophidia, you must be just as furious with Aztlan as I am. And isn’t part of building your cult to get you more power? Hey, Junko, can you become one with Ophidia? What would happen if you tried that?”
Junko looked down, her face a bit pale as she fidgeted uncomfortably. “Well, ah, the stories say that gods are just more powerful spirits so it might be possible but…It comes down to a matter of ego. Ophidia has…too much of a presence. I’m able to easily pull myself back from the water by focusing, because the water has very simple thoughts. Ophidia…if I were to try to flow into her, well, I can only imagine the noise that would fill my head. I don’t think I’m good enough to do that.”
“I would suggest you not try it,” The goddess said, a smile playing at her lips as she seemed amused for the first time since the conversation started. “Though I don’t forbid it. You are forbidden, champion. I have the most need of you.”
“Hmph, I’d start with the air first, unless merging with you allowed me to fly or something. Anyway, what were you talking about not fighting this war alone, Junko?”
“Ah, well, there are a number of…I suppose they’d be resistance groups now, but they were originally the rivals to Aztlan. Quite a large number of them.”
“Oh? If they’re so many of them, why is Aztlan so powerful?” Noemi asked.
“For one thing, they’re very disorganized,” Junko said. “And so most keep their head down to the ground. I helped one out for a bit, in return for some food.”
“Well, what if they worked together? I bet they could probably at least halt Aztlan!”
“It’s not as simple as that, boss,” Junko said, her tone getting quiet. “Don’t forget, Aztlan has spies everywhere. It’s hard to run a resistance group, let alone five, when you’re never sure who you can trust.”
“I’m sure they hate Aztlan more than they mistrust each other!”
“Mmm, actually, more often than not, the resistance groups will set each other up to take the fall for Aztlan expansion…”
“Many of my missions were sabotage not on Aztlan, but on other groups.”
“Why would you possibly attack anti-Aztlaner forces?” Noemi’s voice was rising to the point where she was very nearly screaming. She felt a hand on her shoulder and a wave of patience wash over her. Her muscles went very still, as if they had been suddenly numbed. “Mrr…Ophidia!”
“You were getting agitated, champion.”
“It’s like this, boss,” Junko said calmly, putting her mask back over her face, tying her wet hair back into a pony tail. “The Aztlan spirit corp runs on the blood of its enemies. Heartblood, if you want to be fancy. Now no one wants to be the one to end up on the chopping block, so when you hear the army coming, you run. And if you’re with others that Aztlan wants dead, well, you make sure Aztlan catches them first. It’s not pretty…it’s why I stopped working for them, in fact.”
“Ah, I see…” Ophidia said quietly. “If it is for the heartblood, then it must be ritualized. It is likely the groups do not even know they are playing into the desires of Aztlan when they think of their own desires.”
Junko nodded. “The Aztlaners call it their Flower Wars, cause it’s not about conquest, it’s just about getting the hearts still beating to their altars.”
Noemi stood up, her eyes alight with anger. “I don’t care what their reason is, they’re never going to stop Aztlan that way!” She reached down, picking up a large rock, before tossing it into a tree trunk so hard the bark splintered a little. Her breathing came faster, but as she took a few heavy breaths, her eyes dulled. “…Damn it, I’m just one person. I don’t know if I can help the resistance groups anyway. But they have to see that that’s just a losing way to fight, right?”
“Does the mouse see it’s already dead when the cat bats it between its paws, keeping it in a corner?” Ophidia asked. “A snake is far kinder. We merely snap its neck immediately, rather than letting it draw itself out in misery.”
Noemi sighed, putting her hand over her eyes as she took a few steadying deep breaths. “It’s not my problem. Right now, we need to get to the coast. Maybe one day, when your cult is strong enough, we’ll knock some sense into the so called resistance. But we’ve spent enough time here already. Let’s get moving.”
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa