The Snake and the Mirror

 

Chapter 21

October 6th, 2024

 

Noemi rested her arms over the railing of the ship, staring out across the sea. It had been a few days out on the open sea, aboard the sleek merchant vessel that had carried her away from the Aztlan port. As the pirates raided the port, Noemi had swum through the water, grabbing hold of the ropes on the side of this boat and pulled herself aboard. Met at sword point, the only reason they hadn’t tossed her overboard was because Ophida had manifested and promised to provide them as much good wind as her meager powers could provide.

That had been just under a week ago. Since then, Noemi had been working to earn her keep on board the ship, tying knots and cleaning the deck more often than not. The work was hard and boring, but Noemi didn’t complain. At least here, she didn’t have to fear having her heart cut out by a crazed priest of that damn girl. Noemi grimaced as her mind turned to the face of her betrayer, her nails digging into the wood of the railing.

“Captain on deck!” One of the sailors hollered. At once, all the crew hustled to their feet, to greet the captain properly.

He was an older gentleman, his skin ruined by the harsh rays of the sun, tan and the texture of old leather. His beard was scraggly and thin, though Noemi had quickly noticed the clear patch on the right side of his face, a dark discolored patch of flesh showing instead. She hadn’t needed Ophidia’s voice in her head telling her that it would have been a poor idea to ask him what had happened to his beard.

His eyes scanned the deck, trying to see if there was anything out of place or poorly done. Noemi stood straight and tall, her eyes following his. After a while, he smiled a little, indicating his approval.

“Alright, men, get back to work. This ship isn’t going to sail itself,” he said, and like that, everyone sprung back to their tasks. Noemi didn’t move, having already done her tasks to help pay her passage.

She heard the captain coming up behind her, felt him slide beside her and puts his hands on the railing, looking across the horizon as well. “Miss Valente,” he said, his voice more jovial than it usually sounded, barking orders across the ship. “I don’t think we have ever had such easy sailing from this port. I must thank you and the Feathered Serpent again for the winds.”

“Mmm, it’s all her, really. If I have any power over the winds, I haven’t discovered it,” Noemi said. It wasn’t quite true. Her training with Junko had left her with the ability to travel on the wind, running across its gusts as if it were a field of grass, but she had no ability to summon it forward like Ophidia. Noemi didn’t think she ever would. Noemi stretched her back as she turned to face the captain. Though she’d already been on the ship for a couple of days, there hadn’t been any time to speak with the man in charge.

He’s in a good mood. Might as well ruin it with talk of Aztlan.

“Is it always that difficult to set off these days?” She asked.

The captain chuckled with a dry bitter laugh. “It is from an Aztlan occupied port, if you don’t fly their colors. The number of free ports are dwindling every month it seems.”

“Mmm, I had been sure that the coast would still be free, but there are so many Aztlan flags flying…”

“Aye,” the captain said with a nod. “And it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. If it were not for those pirates, well…I would not have given much to our chances.”

“While I was swimming, I noticed a red flag on their ship. Do you know whose colors they were flying?” Noemi couldn’t help but think of the old saying: the enemy of my enemy is my friends. While pirates might not be the best company, they might not be bad friends to make if they hated Aztlan as much as she did.

“One of the more famous scoundrels, though given who he fights, I think I’d like seeing his flag more than most,” the captain grinned. “His name is Solomon Redd, Captain of the Crimson Dagger. He’s one of the most wanted men on the sea, but no good-natured sailor is going to turn him in.”

“…They won’t?” Noemi asked, incredulous. She had too many bad experiences with people stabbing her in the back to have much faith in something like honor among thieves. “Why not?”

“’Cause the Crimson Dagger chases only one kind of prey,” the captain said. “Aztlaner ships! Any ship not running for Aztlan need not fear Captain Redd. I’ve heard stories of him coming in the heat of battles to cover for ships being bullied by Aztlan. I never met the man personally, but anyone that will stand up for me is a good man in my book!”

Noemi nodded as she listened. She could feel Ophidia beside her, the divine presence feeling like a wind rushing against her skin. What do you think?

I do not think we should be planning for war. Perhaps this Redd will be useful one day, but for now, we must find a way to increase our own power.

Noemi just bobbed her head up and down as she faked listening to the captain talk more about Solomon Redd. It seemed that the pirate had quite a name for himself on the seas, but Ophidia was right. They didn’t have enough to bring down Aztlan. She needed to just get away.

Hold that thought…

“Say, Captain,” Noemi waited until the captain reached a break in his story about how Redd made off with the Aztlan warship Crimson Dagger and claimed it as his own, using it to fight its former masters. “If Aztlan is up and down the coast, where are we sailing, anyway?”

“Now that’s a tricky question,” the captain said, grinning widely again, though it had a bit of a harsh edge to it. “The short answer is wherever we can make port that Aztlan can’t reach.”

“Not really a destination…” Noemi said, though trying to not sound too curious. This captain seemed to hate and fear Aztlan perhaps even more than she did, and if that was the case, she didn’t want to know why. Though if the captain had as much reason to hate and fear Aztlan as Noemi did, he might hold his talk a little more.

“This region isn’t safe for free ships like mine. We’re going to outfit it to cross the ocean, but we’ll need a safe harbor to prepare.

“Across the Atlantic?” Noemi asked, her eyebrows raising in surprise. “That’s…quite a journey by ship.”

“Well, it’s not like there are many planes to take us there these days!” the captain laughed. “But it’s become too dangerous to sail in these waters, and north and south don’t seem much better from what reports I’ve heard.”

“Has everything really gotten that bad?” Noemi looked back across the water. It looked so calm, with them being the only ship in sight. She thought she saw a whale splashing in the water in the distance.

“Indeed it has,” the captain said. “Aztlan patrols the Gulf waters, looking for ships like mine to seize for their goods and their crew. Those who don’t end up impressed end up on the altar.” His eyes grew dark as he talked, his voice growing harder and quieter. “Follow the coast south and you find yourself at the mercy of the wild spirit courts. While they’re not as bad as Aztlan, it’s not safe for humans. They don’t have anything to trade and they’re more likely to tear this ship to pieces than grant us passage.”

Noemi frowned as she thought back to her early days surviving the apocalypse, trying to get by the best she could with only her two guns and a knife by her side. She knew how scary a wrathful spirit could be to those without the power to fight them. Her fingers wrapped around her guns as she felt them spark with energy at her touch. Snapping out of her reverie quickly, she let go of the grip, though the captain was giving her an odd look.

She crossed her arms back on the railing. “Bad experience with wild spirits s’all,” she said. “Haven’t met many spirits I liked besides Ophidia. Anyway, what about the north?”

“Ah, well,” the captain said, his eyes studying her with a bit more care now than he had before. “To the north of the Gulf, you have Louisiana.”

He said that as if it explained everything. Noemi waited for him to continue for a few long seconds, wondering what was so scary about a place like Louisiana. From what little she knew, it had a lot of swampland. It wasn’t like the Amazon. Or Australia.

“…And?”

“We don’t sail near Louisiana…At least not without an escort. Many a free slaver will sail through there. Aztlan seems to trying to push to take it as well. Not friendly waters, even without the Loa.”

“The Loa?”

“It’s what they call themselves, the rulers of the city. I don’t know if they’re spirits or not…but from what I’ve heard, they’re all crazy.”

“Mmm…”

“Putting aside politics, this region of the ocean has just become too much trouble for a single ship like ours to sail. The dangers are just too large for a single boat to bear.”

“I mean, smugglers have existed forever,” Noemi pointed out. The captain seemed to have a flair for overstatement and stories. “Don’t see why the flags would drive you across the ocean.”

“It’s not just the south that has the wild spirits. Sea serpents, blood gods, cursed pirates of the damned and wretched haunt these waters now. Perhaps the other side of the ocean is the same…but we’ve all had about as much as we can take here.

“Hmmm…” Noemi said. She looked out to where she saw the whale breaking the water before. Looking at the splashes, she could see a series of three appearing at any time. Was it a pod, or perhaps a serpent bouncing in the water?

“But we will take you to the nearest port, as promised. Have no fear,” the captain said, his smile still hanging on his face as he turned, back to shouting at his crew as Ophidia formed out of the wind in his place.

Noemi looked to the goddess, tilting her head towards the captain. “Were you listening to all of that?”

“Most.” Ophidia said, her feathery hair catching the sea spray whenever it was carried by the wind.

“A lot of stories. But I’m worried about what he said about Aztlan.”

“You already knew that Aztlan had begun to encroach on its neighbors, Noemi. It is why we agreed it was best to flee by ship.”

“Yeah, I get that. But I thought we were going to go to like Florida or something. Maybe to the Caribbean. What if the only place to escape is an entire ocean away?”

“It very well may be.” Ophidia said, resting her head in the palm of her hand as she thought. “But I do not like the way you use the word ‘escape’”

“Eh? What’s wrong with it?”

“We are not here merely to leave, Noemi. You are my champion, and I will have my rightful place as the Feathered Serpent restored. This…abomination that is Aztlan will be overturned. To do that, you must build my cult.”

“Well, yeah, but I can’t very well do that anywhere Aztlan controls! They’ll kill your worshippers!”

“People will die. It is inevitable in any resistance, Noemi,” Ophidia said, with surprising calmness. “But the farther we are from the land, the harder it will be to establish a cult. Perhaps…We should look to creating a foothold in the islands here.”

“A foothold?” Noemi furrowed her brow. This was a lot more complicated than just surviving had been. She hadn’t need to think more than two or three days ahead. Ophidia seemed to be thinking in years.

“Yes, a foothold. A safe harbor from which we can establish my cult before heading farther from Aztlan. That way, it will spread behind us, and when we return, it will be a useful tool.”

“While I’m all for creating friends to fight Aztlan, where exactly are we going, Ophidia?”

“Why, did you not hear the captain?” The goddess asked with surprised. “We are going across the Atlantic.”

“Wait, what?! They’re dropping us off at the nearest port!”

“Indeed.” Ophidia said with a smile. “And it is in that port that we will prepare for our own journey across the sea. But we will need some place out of easy reach of Aztlan. His talk of the Loa and Louisiana gave me an idea. I think the winds will guide this ship to the east.” Ophidia started to vanish before Noemi’s eyes as the wind carried her away like feathers.

Wait! You can’t leave me hanging just like that! Where the hell are you sending us?

I told you, my champion, to the islands farther to the east. You will start my cult in safer waters, where Aztlan has more competitions. We will be going to Hispaniola.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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