October 2nd, 2024
“So we’re viewing another memory?” Cat asked, walking alongside Gisela like an apparition.
They were following the two figures of the younger Gisela and her new companion, Noemi.
“Yes, though this is a few weeks separated from what we last saw,” Nodded Gisela. “Noemi and I had been travelling together for some time at this point.”
As they watched, following silently down the thick jungle trail, Noemi stepped lightly onto the high top of a fallen log before turning back to the younger Gisela.
“Come on, sidekick! Can’t fall too far behind now.”
Cat couldn’t help but smirk as she passed her Gisela a sidelong glance. “Sidekick? Really?”
Gisela chose not to get riled. “It was a term of endearment. We both knew I was nowhere near her level, so she took the role of my mentor.”
Cat kept grinning as they followed, but she never stopped watching how the pair in the memory moved.
The past few weeks had not been kind on Gisela. The once somewhat bigger girl had burned off a lot of her excess curve and not in a healthy fashion. Her face looked fairly gaunt and her limbs were thin from a mixture of stress, constant dirty travel, lack of sleep, and borderline starvation. It was a look Cat was thankful she had never worn, but one she’d seen many times over the past few years on the faces of tired refugees seeking shelter. And it only made it harder to watch knowing that from what she knew of Gisela there would be no reprieve. There was no Rome to find here.
Noemi and Gisela stopped for a brief break in a clearing, with Noemi dividing up their rations in the form of an old piece of jerky and a mouthful of water which Gisela hastily devoured. Noemi was more restrained, seeming to savor the water and chew thoughtfully on the dried meat as she looked over a water-stained and torn old highway map.
“We shouldn’t be far now,” Noemi said, glancing around at their surroundings. Beneath their feet was the remnants of an old paved road or highway, but beyond a couple of meters of clearance the trees and undergrowth had grown so thick and so rapidly that it was almost impenetrable. Even walking a little ways beyond the safety of a trail could easily make someone hopelessly lost.
“If I’m reading this map right, there’s a town just a kilometer ahead.”
“And if you’re not right?” Asked Gisela wearily.
“Well, “Noemi smiled ruefully. “That’s part of what makes it an adventure. Now come on, packs up and we can move out, sidekick.”
Gisela groaned but did as she was told, pulling her pack onto her shoulders as she got back on her feet to walk with Noemi further down the path. It seemed this time at least Noemi had been right, as the path soon opened up into a view of a small village amongst copses of trees, with large ones even sprouting up from within houses as their canopies spread over shattered roofs. It was certainly the remains of a small town, but it also seemed completely uninhabited.
“Tch, another ghost town…” Noemi muttered. “Where is everyone…did they all leave? Spirits couldn’t have kidnapped them all somewhere…could they?”
Gisela stuck close to Noemi, looking nervously around as the taller girl muttered to herself in contemplation.
“I-if there’s no one around…” Gisela said. “M-maybe we should move on.”
“Not yet,” Noemi shook her head. “Come on, we need to search these houses and gather anything we can.”
Cautiously the pair began to move through the derelict houses, searching them one by one for food, fresh water, or anything else that might make their survival a little easier. There was precious little to find, however, and the best they did were a few tins of forgotten food, some clothes to be torn up for bandages or extra layers, and a well that had long since gone dry.
What they did find, however, was evidence of what had happened to the towns occupants. Doors on most of the houses had been violently kicked in, Furniture everywhere was tossed aside and broken. There were signs of violent struggle everywhere from shattered windows to bullet holes in the walls. And all of them pointed to a mass of people being dragged or forced at a march out of town by someone else.
“Who did this…?” Gisela asked quietly.
Noemi, however, was walking to the town square. The remains of a ruined church stood at the front of the square. A fire had destroyed it down to the scorched bones of its beams and a single remaining wall. Painted on the wall itself with tar black paint was a large circle, nondescript and entirely black save for what looked like a crudely drawn clawed foot at its base.
“I don’t know…” Noemi said. “But it wasn’t spirits. This was done by people.”
“Why though…” Gisela said. “This is us versus them. Spirits are the enemy, not people.”
“People are always going to be the enemy of people,” Noemi sighed. “And as for why…I think this symbol might have something to do with it.”
“Do you know what it means?” Gisela asked.
“No,” Noemi shook her head. “But…if you’re at war with spirits…then it might be tempting to throw your lot in with the biggest spirits around.”
“Biggest spirits?” Gisela asked.
“The kind of things we’d call gods,” Noemi nodded. “Worship for protection…or maybe they want more than worship…”
Noemi’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of large boots passing through rubble. Gisela whipped her head to look around but Noemi was quicker, drawing her quickly into the scorched ruins of the church to find cover as a group of people rounded the corner into the square.
Cat watched the group approach, and it was one of the strangest looking groups she’d ever seen. They were a mix of men and women, all tall and tense, though with the haggard look of survival on their faces. They were dressed in a mix of camouflage and old world combat fatigues with thick hiking boots. But many of them had been decorated with extra and bizarre flare, on some were large pieces and pelts of jaguar fur, with spot-like markings all over their gear and massive cat skulls or sharpened teeth adorning their helmets and necklaces. Others were bedecked in long brown eagle feathers, tied to their ornaments and clothes to resemble wings and dark plumage. About half of them were carrying guns with bags of ammunition around their waists. The others were carrying spears or what looked to be long maces or axes with heads and edges of hewn obsidian.
“We already came back to check on this place,” One of them complained loudly. “There’s nothing left and the longer we stay the further the prey gets away.”
“There were reports of people of interest in the area,” Another said. “Two of them alone. We bring them in we get rewarded like kings.”
Gisela shivered, a low whine of fear rising from her lungs before being sharply stifled by Noemi’s hand.
“Alright, spread out but stay in twos,” one of them called. “Not about to be caught off-guard again!”
Slowly the group scattered in pairs, with one gun and one spear to a pair as they picked their way through the town ruins. One group moved closer to the church, not noticing them as Noemi slowly drew her revolver from its holster, trying to line up the best shot she could. As she adjusted her position, however, her foot caught on a piece of wood that slid across the ground, loudly enough to catch the attention of the two armed patrollers as it scraped across the dusty tile.
“Hey, you hear that?” One asked.
“It’s a rundown old church, things falling apart.”
“Ya but we should…you know check it out, right?”
“Look, I think this was a waste of time to begin with. If we check a building every time a rat farts in it we’re never going to leave.”
“Ya but…what if it’s something?”
The patroller sighed. “Fine, will it get you to shut up?”
“Ya, I just wanna do a quick check.”
“Fine, let’s do a quick check.”
Cat saw the young Gisela shiver as they stepped closer, boots crunching over ashen wood as they neared closer and closer to their hiding spots, Noemi tensely clutching her revolver as she prepared to leap from cover and fire, knowing that it would bring the whole group down on them.
“Hey,” One of the patrollers called. “Do you-“
His words were cut short as the brief whistle of an arrow sang through the air, and in an instant the long shaft of a white-feathered arrow was rising from the man’s neck as he fell to the ground.
“Huh? Wha-What the-!” The second man turned just in time to see his companion fall, but before he could even raise his gun another arrow caught him full in the chest and dropped him to the ground.
Noemi and Gisela both poked their head out from cover, and heard shouting from elsewhere in town. Several of the patrollers were running back, though not all of them as others left their partners behind where they’d presumably fallen. Several more of them were felled by white arrows before they could regroup, and in desperation the last of them ran for the church in a blind panic for cover. As they approached, however, Noemi stood up, brandishing her revolver as three loud bangs echoed through the ruined town and she shot each of them in turn, one after the other.
“Who’s out there!?” Noemi shouted, chambering the next round.
For a moment things were silent before a figure emerged from the town. This one was entirely unlike the patrollers, dressed in plain but rugged street clothes. His long bow was slung over his shoulder along with a quiver of white-feathered arrows. Despite his dark tanner skin, his hair was a feathered platinum blonde, almost white to the point it looked dyed. As he came into view, another figure ran up to join him, a young girl looking around fourteen, meekly hiding at his side and with no weapons in hand.
Noemi didn’t lower her revolver.
“Who are you? Why did you kill them?”
“My name is Anton,” The man said, his hands raised to show he came in peace. “I killed them because they are raiders, kidnappers, and murderers.”
“Well we already know you’re one of those things,” Noemi said.
“As are you,” Anton nodded. “I didn’t kill those last three.”
“Who’s that?” Noemi gestured with her head to the girl.
“This is Tess, she’s my charge. We mean no harm.”
“…My name’s Noemi,” she said, finally holstering the gun, but not clipping it shut. “I’m travelling with someone as well.”
With a nod, Gisela came nervously out of cover to join them.
“Th-that was some amazing…arrow-shooting.” Gisela said, trying to calm the tension in the air. “Really!”
“Thanks,” Anton smiled warmly. “It was one of many gifts I received from my patron.”
“Patron?” Noemi asked nervously. “You work for someone.”
“More like…something,” Anton said. “I serve a god, one of the great spirits of this land, and one who battles against atrocities like this. Many spirits are demanding blood as payment for protection, but my patron is far more benevolent.”
“And which spirit is that?” Noemi asked, and Catarina saw the fingers of her gun hand twitch.
“I serve the feathered serpent, Quetzacoatl,” He said. “And I work to protect those who senselessly endanger the people of this country in the name of sacrifices to other gods.”
“Well, I guess we agree on that,” Noemi said. “Any problems with us joining in?”
“None at all,” Anton smiled as the two groups moved together.
“H-hello,” Gisela smiled nervously to Tess. “I’m Gisela.”
“I’m Tess,” The younger girl smiled back cheerily, she was round faced and bright eyed with short and wild dark hair, dressed in a yellow blouse with tan traveling pants.
As Cat and the older Gisela watched them go, Cat turned to her. “Seems the group got a bit bigger, that must have helped, right?”
Gisela didn’t answer, and Cat saw she was staring with a hard intensity at the group, her eyes particularly lingering on the two girls in the back. On her and on Tess.
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa