The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 17

October 3rd, 2024

“So what exactly are we doing here again?” Asha asked as she huddled at the edge of a walled compound beside Eli and Leyla.

“I told you,” Eli said quietly. “I think there’s something…bad going on around here.”

The incredulity on Leyla’s face needed to be seen to be believed.

“Bad?” He repeated. “Ya, I can think of about two hundred things off hand that are bad about this entire godforsaken city. You want to be a little more specific?”

Leyla turned to look at Asha. “Where did you find this guy again?”

“Just…trust him,” Asha said. “But please, Eli, if you can be a bit more specific?”

“It’s like…this bad tingling on the back of my neck. I don’t get it often,” Eli said. “Maybe you can feel it too, Asha?”

“Hmmm…”

Asha concentrated, closing her eyes as she tried to feel the power in the gentle air around her. She still needed to be cautious. As Leyla had warned her countless times there was too much at risk to brazenly use her powers in the open. But this, at least, should be enough to see if she could feel what Eli felt.

Asha shivered as something chilled in the air. It was not something that could be adequately described by her normal senses, but it was like the smell of rot and burning copper, or the sight of an optical illusion the brain was constantly trying to define. It was disorienting and unpleasant, a feeling a bit like vertigo.

“Yes, he’s right…there’s something nearby,” Asha said. “And it’s not one of Shadiya’s.”

“Well then, I guess we have our work cut out for us,” Leyla sighed. “You any good in a fight, Eli?”

“No,” Eli shook his head nervously. “Not at all.”

“Then you stay back,” He ordered. “Follow us and let us do the fighting, if things get hairy you get down. Got it?”

“Understood,” He nodded rapidly.

“What’s the plan?” Asha asked, to which Leyla only grinned.

“Give ‘em the usual? It’s been a while since we stormed a monster hole.”

“We should probably try to be a little subtle,” Asha frowned. “Stealthier than the usual.”

“Fine,” Leyla rolled his eyes. “Just keep that bow ready.”

“Y-you’re just going to kill these people?” Eli asked nervously.

Leyla frowned. “Eli, get a pair of eyes, will you? Do you know what this place is?”

“Well…no, not really. But-“

“But nothing,” Leyla cut him off. “Take a second look.”

Eli peeked through the gate into the compound. Past the wall was a large low building sprawled over the yard, surrounded by a few smaller satellite buildings. The structures were all unmarked and deliberately non-descript, though clearly not a residence. The windows were small with all curtains drawn, and the entire place was regularly patrolled by men in black uniforms, the silver letters “URIEL” emblazoned on their backs.

“O-oh…” said Eli. “I see what you mean.”

“Not even getting into how many people URIEL operatives have killed,” Leyla said, pulling his sheathed sword from his back. “Anything they’re hiding under that level of security can’t be good.”

“So what’s the plan?” Eli asked.

“You stay here for now,” Asha said. “Leyla and I will clear the yard and open the gate for you. If something goes wrong, you run like hell, okay? No trying to be a hero.”

“Right. Of course,” Eli nodded. “…good luck.”

Leyla smiled. “Ready Asha?”

“Ready,” Asha nodded.

“Then get to it.”

With ease Asha scaled the three-meter wall, not even needing her wings as she boosted herself to the top. In a second her bow was in her hand as an arrow materialized along the bow string. In one swift motion, she drew it back and released, and across the yard from her a URIEL patrolman fell silently to the ground.

One by one more arrows flew out across the yard like quiet birds. Asha’s eyes flying over the open space for any trace of movement. Another guard fell, his companion reeling wildly, mouth opening to yell, only for a second arrow to fly through his throat and send him falling limply to the ground.

“Well done,” Leyla hopped onto the wall beside her before sliding down, drawing his sword. “I’ll clean up, you let him in.”

As Leyla disappeared into the darkness, Asha quietly slid the gate open enough for Eli to slip through. He looked at the fallen bodies of the guards nervously as he walked in.

“Was all of this really necessary.”

“Look, now is not the time,” Asha said. “When you’re on the mission you keep your head straight and forward. Understood?”

“Yes,” Eli nodded more firmly as he straightened himself up.

A minute later Leyla returned, wiping down the blade of his sword.

“Two in the back,” Leyla said. “Clear now.”

“Good,” Asha nodded. “But if they have this much tech then there are probably cameras too. Which means we don’t have much time.”

The three of them rushed the front door, Eli slightly behind the other two as they threw the double doors open. Hardly a few seconds later a low alarm began to blare inside the building, echoing down the clean white halls as the sounds of warnings and rushing feet filled the area.

“Seems we’re doing this the hard way,” Leyla smiled, the sword in his hands bursting into flames.

Asha sighed. “We always seem to.”

The time for subtlety had ended. As guards rounded the corner, guns raised, a pair of massive blue-gold wings sprouted from Asha’s back, her entire body glowing with an aura of white light. Beside her, the flames of Leyla’s sword had spread to wreathe his entire body.

The guards opened fire, only for their bullets to be harmlessly deflected to the sides by Asha’s divine aura or destroyed against Leyla’s burning skin. Physics had little to do with it, the power of modern weapons waned against the supernatural, and Asha and Leyla were far from ordinary humans.

The URIEL guards apparently knew this as well, as they abandoned their guns and rifles for long combat knives and reinforced metal clubs as the ones in the back radio’d in for backup against the new intruders. In a staggered wave, they charged the group.

The first of them hit the ground in moments as Asha raised her bow and her arm flew over the string, each arrow felling one of the guards while Leyla got close enough to engage. The guards were skilled with knives, but Leyla was much faster, much stronger, and had the advantage in reach not to mention simply getting close to him was like grabbing hold of a bonfire.

The guards fell back and retreated, giving the pair of them a minute to catch their breath as Eli caught up to them.

“Here,” Leyla handed him one of the knives, but Eli didn’t take it from his fire-wreathed hand.

“What? The fire won’t burn you,” She said.

“It’s not that…” Eli said. “I’m sorry but…I’m a pacifist.”

“…oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!” Leyla put his hand to his forehead. “Seriously just…oh forget it. Don’t fall behind!”

The three of them set off again deeper into the facility. Around each corner was another group of guards, all of whom had quickly abandoned their guns as word got out and assaulted them in close quarters combat. Asha tried to be selective with her targets, only shooting with her arrows the ones that charged them while allowing those retreating to flee.

Among the running guards the spotted a scrawny-looking man dressed in a white lab coat trying to get the black-suited patrolmen to defend him as they left him behind. Before he got far, Leyla had him by the collar, burning the white lab coat though leaving his flesh unharmed, though proximity to his intense heat could not have been comfortable.

“Seems we caught a lab rat,” Leyla said. “Good.”

“I won’t tell you anything!” The scientist shouted, even as his eyes went wide with fear at the sight of the pair of them. “Not a thing!”

“Look,” Asha sighed. “We don’t want to hurt you…well we kind of do but we’re better than that. We just want you to tell us what’s at the bottom of this place. What are you people studying?”

“This is a biomedical institute!” The scientist shouted.

“He’s lying,” Asha said. “Crank up the heat.”

She could see the man sweat as the burning aura around Leyla intensified. If it weren’t for his control over the raging fire spirit within him, the scientist likely would have been reduced to a scorched skeleton.

“I-I don’t know!” He shouted, straining to pull himself away. “They wouldn’t tell me where the research samples came from!”

“What samples?” Leyla asked. “What were you studying?”

“I just said I don’t know!” He shouted. “But…b-but I know…it wasn’t human.”

“Where is it being kept?” Asha said. “Tell us and you walk out.”

“Lowest levels!” He said. “B-behind a bunch of vaults. No one can open it without clearance.”

“And no one,” Leyla said. “Is precisely who you saw tonight. Got it?”

The scientist nodded, still clearly terrified.

Leyla dropped him unceremoniously and they moved on at speed, keeping a quick pace to avoid getting pinned down. Ahead of them, the doors for an emergency staircase marked a way down, and with a single might kick Asha knocked it off its hinges, sending the heavy metal door tumbling down the stairs with the three of them just behind.

The facility went deeper than they had expected. There were more than eight levels to the stair system, and the last three were blocked off by reinforced doorways demanding clearance codes and other security measures. But a combination of superheated air and resonating divine energy was enough to blow out most of the security barriers, though it left a long rail behind them.

“We need to be out of here and quick,” said Leyla. “Or else they’re going to trap us down here.”

“Yes,” Asha nodded. “And I already hated being underground.”

“Makes two of us,” said Leyla.

They at last came to the very bottom of the emergency stairwell, and as they blasted the door in they found a vault door waiting for them. Unlike the others this was no simple door with locks and hinges, but built like a reinforced bank vault over two meters in height.

“Wow…” Asha said. “Think we can break it?”

“Only one way I see to find out.”

Both of them pressed their hands to the cold steel of the vault door. Slowly a low whirr began to build that was almost imperceptible among the sirens and the flashing lights that rumbled through the metal under their fingers. The great riveted seems of the vault door began to glow, the metal vibrating as the massive internal mechanisms were shaken apart, softened by the glowing heat to break and snap as the pair of them poured more and more power into the destabilizing bank vault.

Finally, with a loud snap of metal and thud of broken parts falling free the vault door swung partially open, enough for the three of them to slip inside.

Behind the vault door was a large circular chamber. The walls were covered in all manner of advanced-looking scientific equipment and long tubes and wires hung down from every surface to cover the floors.

At the center of the room was a large circular chamber of glass or transparent plastic, brightly lit from above with nothing in it save for a stark white floor and a single figure seated in the center. As Leyla and Asha went up to the edge of the chamber, the figure raised its head to look at them.

The second its pale green eyes met Asha’s she felt something violent and sharp run through her essence. It was like staring at something every facet of her being wished to reject, which made it all the stranger that the figure looked almost perfectly mundane. They were thin-faced, androgynous with chalk white skin and black hair, dressed in what looked like a white straightjacket. But there was no odd detail, no monstrous feature to them.

Asha turned to look at the others, and could see the mixed horror and confusion on their faces.

“What…is it?” Asha asked.

The figure’s mouth opened, and a voice came through from a speaker in the room to let them hear.

“I am what you might call a demon,” They said. “My name is Constance U. Smith. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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