October 5th, 2024
Noemi wasn’t quite sure how many days passed beneath the thick canopy of the rainforest before the trees started to thin out, the stars peeking through the leaves above. She counted days by meals and breaks from their trekking. When they came to rest, Noemi would try to have Junko teach her what she knew. Sometimes this took the form of combat training. Though she still favored her guns, often starting every morning with practice drawing them with ever increasing celerity, Noemi was getting better at close combat, especially with her ability to duck and roll out of the way of Junko’s strikes.
Other times, particularly after very strenuous patches of terrain, the lessons would take the form of guided meditation, where Noemi was expected to yield control to the spirits all around her. These lessons were more difficult. As she followed Junko’s instructions, Noemi could feel the spirits flittering about her, pushing against her consciousness, her ego. Try as she might, Noemi still struggled opening herself. In fact, the more she tried to open herself to the spirits, the more it seemed to drive them away.
The only spirit she found herself able to open to was, naturally, Ophidia. In fact, Noemi had noticed the snake goddess had been spending an increasing amount of time manifested beside them during their journey through the wilderness, her white dress staying immaculately clean as she seemed to glide over the brush beneath her feet. Noemi took it as a sign that Ophidia had grown stronger just through the act of having a champion. She still envied the winged serpent for looking so put together, so composed, so…beautiful in the hot, sticky, sweaty jungle. It’s not fair, she thought to herself as she pulled the strands of red hair that clung to her forehead.
As the forest started to thin, Noemi could feel her nerves jittering. The rainforest had provided thick cover for the three of them. While it wasn’t impossible for Aztlaners to track them, it was possible to be only a few yards away from an Aztlan patrol and neither group would be the wiser. Approaching the coast, that thick cover would be lost.
“Ophidia,” Noemi said, during one of their lunch breaks, as she turned a lizard over a small spit she had put together. The food pickings had been lean, which had been another sign, Junko had said, that they were approaching civilization once again. “Do you think you can send a snake or two ahead to scout for us? Find out what we’re walking into first?”
“I believe that to be a sensible precaution.” The goddess nodded slowly, stroking the head of one of her tiny feathered serpents, its wings fluttering as it hissed, pleased. She spoke in her serpentine tongue, a series of hisses that Noemi could only vaguely catch if she put her mind to it. She hadn’t asked Ophidia why she was able to understand it, figuring it was part of the benefits of being the goddess’ champion.
The snake slithered down Ophidia’s arm as the goddess knelt down, touching one finger to the earth as the white snake crawled down, its wings folding in to blend with the white feathery scales. As the light danced across its body, it started to turn from green to white.
“Now we wait,” Noemi said, pulling the lizard out of the fire.
“Heh, if I didn’t know better, boss, I’d say you’re just trying to extend our rest time,” Junko teased. Noemi had gotten better at telling when the ninja was smiling even underneath her mask.
“It’s not my fault both of you have insane stamina! Back when it was just me and Gisela, I was the one who had to slow my pace!”
“As my champion, Noemi, you should have stamina to rival any mortal,” Ophidia said. Noemi couldn’t tell if it was just a statement or an admonishment.
“Yeah, well, we are making progress every day. I might be able to push my muscles more, but it’s still not an easy trek. And Junko is hardly ‘mortal’!”
“Hey, I’m as human as you, boss,” Junko said. “But it’s fine, just admit we’re taking a longer rest today.”
“Hmph,” Noemi grunted, taking a big bite of the lizard as she chewed its tough flesh. It had the texture of the driest jerky she had ever eaten. The saddest thing, she felt, was that it wasn’t the worst thing she had eaten over the last few weeks. She had grown accustomed to it. “Trust me, with the prospect of a good meal ahead of us, I’d be whipping you two to get you moving.”
“Oh, how tyrannical, boss,” Junko laughed.
“Shut up and eat your lizard,” Noemi grumbled, smiling.
Lunch was over quick. Rather than sit and do nothing, the trio continued to walk in the direction the snake had slithered off to, as it would have little trouble finding its way back to its goddess. Sure enough, mid-afternoon, Ophidia stopped walking, standing straight and tall.
“Are you alright, Ophidia?” Noemi asked.
“I am fine, Noemi,” the goddess said, reaching her long arms up to a branch hanging down under the weight of vines. “Our scout has returned.”
The snake, still mimicking the colors of the leaves and vines, quickly slid around her wrist, making its way up her arm, its tongue flicking out its message to Ophidia. Noemi could hear nothing but one word: Aztlan.
“Eh?! Aztlan?! What did he say?” Noemi said, her hand falling to the gun at her side.
Ophidia frowned, but ignored Noemi, asking the snake several questions in their secret language. The snake bobbed and weave its head as its wings fluttered agitatedly. Ophidia ran a finger down its spine, soothing it, before turning back to her two companions.
“It seems that the closest inhabited has fallen to Aztlan occupation. Their flags were flying over the harbor.”
“They’re here already? But…but…we should be on the other side of the jungle!”
“Don’t forget, we were traveling on foot, boss,” Junko chimed in. “They have ships. They’ve probably got all the Gulf and most of the Caribbean coast under their patrol.”
“If that’s the case,” Noemi said, rubbing her temples as she thought. “Then we’re going to need a plan to get into the city. If they’re already here, then you’re probably right, Junko. I doubt we’ll have much luck with other cities along the coast. But I can’t just waltz in there. Even if they don’t recognize me, I’m sure they have their priests there to sniff out Ophidia. We need a plan.”
As Noemi fell silent, the only sounds were the noises of the rainforest. Junko and Noemi both seemed deep in thought, while Ophidia merely watched with an almost passive expression on her face.
Junko was the first to speak. “There are some spirits that we could use to…obfuscate our entrance. It would require us to enter the city under the cover of darkness, but we could move unseen.”
“Won’t that draw the attention of the priests though?” Noemi asked.
“Not necessarily. Their priests may sense the spirits themselves, but their magical aura would be masking our own. But…it will require you to let yourself become one with the darkness. Consider it your final test, boss.”
Noemi felt a shiver go down her spine. This was it. “I guess there is not much of a choice, is there? I either do this or it ends here.”
Junko nodded. Ophidia just gave one of her impossible smiles. Noemi sighed. “Alright…then we wait for darkness. Let’s scout ourselves in the meantime. If you hear ANYONE, hide, understand?”
“You don’t need to tell me twice, boss.”
“Good.” Noemi said, as she watched Junko meld into the shadows of the tree. It was as if the other girl had just vanished right before her eyes. Noemi sighed again. “It’s probably best if you dematerialize as well, Ophidia…”
It has already been done, Noemi.
“Alright. Let’s go see how bad the situation really is…”
It turned out, Noemi decided, that the situation was far worse than she had originally imagined. As she had approached the forest line, she had seen the port down below. A wall had been erected around the city, partly woven from the trees themselves by various jungle spirits. The road led to a single gate, which was well patrolled.
Worse, from her position above the valley, she could see a few ships sitting in the harbor, their cannons turned inward. Noemi had not been able to make out their flags, but Ophidia had confirmed they bore the symbols of the Jaguar. It seemed that the harbor truly was under occupation, which meant that it was unlikely any ships would be allowed to leave without an Aztlan search.
As the sun set behind the trees, Junko caught up with Noemi. The ninja appeared out of thin air, as if the shadows themselves pulled back like a cloak to reveal her presence. “It’s not going to be easy to get you onto a ship, boss.”
“I sort of figured that from the Aztlan warships in the harbor,” Noemi grumbled, not even jumping as Junko materialized next to her.
“It’s more than that. All the ships in the harbor have been ‘claimed’ by Aztlan as their property. I managed to find a sailor angry enough to spill the beans. If any of them try to leave, Aztlan will kill them.”
Noemi didn’t even try to hold back her frustration as she groaned loudly. “Well, let’s just get into the city first, then we’ll worry about how to get a ship out.”
“As you wish, boss. Do you need help with the spirits?”
“I think I’ve got this. Be like the shadows, right? Wear them like a second skin.”
Junko chuckled. “Something like that.”
“Well, it’s now or never,” Noemi said. Junko nodded and started doing her katas. Noemi followed suit. The practice they had done meant she no longer had to watch the shorter girl as she went through the motions. Even though Junko was silent, Noemi could hear her voice echoing in her head from their previous lessons.
See the spirits around you. The space between you and them is in your mind. There is no space. There is no you, no them. Let your mind expand out, let the spirits envelop you.
Noemi could feel the spirits around her, swirling like an eddy around her form. There is no form. She could feel them washing over her, curious about this creature that called out to them. They were spirits of darkness, shadows, not real things in their own right. Certainly not real like Ophidia was. Noemi could see the white fire of her patron burning brightly in the distance. It helped give shape to the shadows that circled her, drawing ever closer.
They flew through her. They were inside her, their feelings hers. She was one of them. She could feel her form losing its weight, her skin losing its solidity.
Noemi walked forward through the air, carried by the spirits of wind. The ground whizzed beneath her as she raced across the sky, a shadowy wisp in the dark night. She could feel Junko beside her.
The guards were below her, the gate sealed shut. With the spirits help, it seemed so simply a task to jump over the walls, the spirits of the ground pushing her up as she kicked off the earth. She thought she saw Junko’s shadow merge with the shadow of an owl as it flew across the wall, carrying the ninja into the city proper.
It was exhilarating. Noemi had never felt such power. Nothing could hurt her in this state. The shadows surrounded her, making her insubstantial. She could go anywhere without being seen, run without being caught. The shadows swirled ever faster as her mind raced with the possibilities. Noemi hardly even noticed as her shadow started to lose its shape, unraveling into the darkness from which the spirits came.
Noemi thought she heard Junko calling out to her, but the other girl’s voice was far away. It was probably unimportant. Being a shadow was so freeing. She was having too much fun for such things.
She could see the light of Ophidia’s flame approaching her. Noemi raised her hand to her eyes as the fire blazed around her. Her translucent hand started to get its color back as the flames washed over her, the darkness forced back. Noemi couldn’t hold onto the shadows as they fled her, falling to the ground as her body was given its shape back. She shuttered, pulling herself to her knees. She suddenly felt truly nauseous.
“Boss, are you okay?! I thought we had lost you!” Junko said, helping Noemi to her feet slowly.
“I-I’m fine…What happened?”
“You were losing yourself to the spirits, becoming one of them. I tried calling you back but you were already so far away. If Oph…the goddess hadn’t been there, you might have been gone forever.”
Noemi groaned as her head spun. “She was so bright…I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had-“
She didn’t get to finish her statement, as the bells in the city started to ring. Her stomach fell as her skin turned white. The alarm was sounding, the guards were going to come for them and arrest them. They had come so far only for it to end now.
“Junko, get your sword ready,” she hissed, pulling out her gun. “If we’re going down, we’re going down fighting.”
“Boss, I don’t think it’s us!” Junko said, covering her ears as the shouts and bells were drowned out by the sound of a cannon firing. “The town is under attack!”
Noemi pulled herself up, her gun still drawn as she looked down the streets. The people were running for cover, slamming the doors to their houses shut behind them. Guards were moving through the streets, shouting to one another orders and warnings. Turning down to the harbor, Noemi could see several corsair ships darting between the larger Aztlan warships. Two were moving towards the docks so their crew could begin looting the city.
The merchants that had been kept in the bay by the warships were taking advantage of the confusion to run for it while Aztlan was unable to enforce their claims. They were starting to scuttle out to the open sea, heading for the Caribbean. More and more were pulling up anchors and pushing off, making it even harder for the large Aztlan ships to successfully engage the smaller corsairs.
“I need to get on one of those ships!” Noemi shouted to Junko over the confusion. She turned and started running, grabbing Junko by the hand and pulling her after her. “Come on, let’s get on board!”
“Sorry, boss, but this is where I say my goodbyes,” Junko said, letting her hand fall limply from Noemi’s grasp.
“What?” Noemi said, spinning on her heels.
“I’ve got business on the mainland still. I was just helping you get to the port and to the boats. I’m not leaving.”
“But Junko, Ophidia and I could use your help!”
“Sorry, boss…” Junko said sadly. “But I’ve got to stay. Maybe when you come back, Aztlan will have already fallen if the resistance can get their act together. But if we don’t see each other again…”
Noemi shook her head, cutting Junko off. “No, stop. We will. There are too many people I owe a bullet to the head to not come back.” Noemi threw her arms around Junko and pulled her in for a hug. “You stay safe, ninja. You better believe I’m going to look you up when I return.”
“Ah…heh…I wouldn’t think anything else, boss. But I think you have a ship to catch.”
“Yeah…” Noemi said, pulling herself off Junko. She gave the ninja a quick nod before turning back towards the sea and running headfirst into the chaos of the pirate attack. As she watched Noemi run, Junko could almost see the spirits clearing a path for the red head champion.
Junko sheathed her sword only once Noemi was lost to her sight, before disappearing into the shadows. “See ya later, boss.”
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa