The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 23

 

With the rising security after the near-disaster at the URIEL research facility, all of them had decided that the ideal time had come for them to temporarily leave the city in favor of striking out for Damascus to see what support could be found there. Between them all, they had enough to trade and sell to acquire three camels and supplies for the trip. One camel carried their supplies while the other two carried Hazif and Eli, the two who still only had the stamina of an average human. Leyla, Asha, and Constance could walk unhindered for an entire day, even across scorched ground and over sandy dunes.

None of them were particularly happy about their newest companion. Hazif had seemed as baffled as they were on what manner of creature Constance was, and Leyla had only gone along with it because their options were running short. Eli was cautiously optimistic about her presence, and Constance herself seemed downright chipper.

They traveled mostly by dawn and dusk, stopping to rest where they could during scorching midday and freezing night. Although the going was slower, Asha found herself enjoying traveling in a larger group than moving with only Leyla for company. Hazif and Eli both seemed more open to talking now that they were out from under Shadiya’s gaze, and Leyla had relaxed somewhat as well now that the constant tension of the city was behind them.

Together they made camp in the shadow of a ruined and desiccated skyscraper that rose from the sand dunes like a worn tombstone, lighting a fire as they prepared their meager dinner beneath a brilliant and high full moon.

“You know, as bad as the desert can be,” Leyla said. “There are a lot more stars you can see. The sky feels so much bigger.”

“It’s true,” Eli nodded. “In Babylon, you always feel sort of…boxed in. It’s almost claustrophobic. Out here there’s just miles and miles to see.”

“Miles and miles of sand and monsters,” Hazif said, before gesturing to Asha and Leyla. “Thankfully we have our stalwart protectors here.”

“Mm, I didn’t really like leaving,” Asha said. “Felt like leaving a job half-done.”

“Oh, we’ll be back,” Constance said brightly, choosing to sit slightly apart of them on a bent piece of steel like a looming bird. “We’ll be back with a plan and allies to make that revolution a reality.”

“You know it’s not going to be a bloodless coup, right?” Hazif asked Asha, Eli noticeably stopping his eating. “There’s no path to go down that has a smooth transition of power.”

“That’s probably true,” Asha said. “But it has to be done, and while minimizing civilian casualties. This needs to be a city that works for its people, and we can’t afford to kill them to make it that way. It defeats the point.”

“Shadiya needs to be destroyed, or at least permanently removed from the picture,” Leyla said. “And URIEL needs to be ousted from the city as well. They’re two different poisons from the same source. If we want to free Babylon we need to eliminate Tiamat’s hold on the city.”

“You’ll find no such poison in Damascus,” Constance smiled. “You’ll find a host of other ills that plague that city, but they are human vices, not Primordial influence.”

“What do you know about Damascus?” Eli asked, looking up at Constance.

“Oh, I’ve been once or twice before I was…interred,” Constance said. “I thought it was lovely. Though you humans might call it a ummm…’wretched hive’ seems apt.”

“Lovely,” Hazif said. “Out of the fire and into the oven.”

“Just be on your guard,” Leyla said. “None of us are particularly naïve. We can handle a bit of roughness, I think.”

“I’ll…stick to you guys,” Eli said hesitantly. “I’m not great in that kind of environment.”

“Oh, you’ll be fine,” Constance smiled. “It’s the kind of place that has endless possibilities.”

 

 

It took them a little over a week to reach the city of Damascus. And even from a distance they could see that it was a city that was entirely unlike Babylon. There were walls, as most cities required, but they were ramshackle things of wood and brick manned by a half-armored militia of undisciplined layabouts, chatting and drinking among themselves as they occasionally tossed out a glance towards the horizon. The gates were open, and here as well a throng of people moved out of the city, many of them trying to sell cheap and useless goods, or buy the excess of traders at extortionate prices.

It took them nearly an hour to find a reputable place to keep their camels, and it took a great deal of convincing and a few veiled threats to make it clear that they would be back for them in a few days. But soon enough they were able to set off on foot into the city itself.

Inside the walls was even worse. Gone were the gleaming spires and glass mixed with the spotless walls. Here everything was half-built and supported by a mix of permanent scaffolding and the building next to it, creating a haphazard maze of buildings that seemed at once squat and precipitously high, all of it looking as if it were a stiff breeze away from collapsing in on itself.

The place was intensely crowded, the five of them having to push forward as a group in order to make any forward progress at all, save for Constance who seemed to slip through the masses like a trout through a stream, guiding them along into the city.

Everything here was several shades dirtier than it had been in Babylon, dirt and dust were kicked up everywhere. Loose sand from the dunes crept in among alleys and street corners, and the stench in some places was almost overwhelming, indicating that the plumbing of this city was only semi-functional. The people seemed a few degrees seedier as well. The peddlers here were largely hawking either overpriced counterfeits, or charging exorbitant prices for even basic necessities. Thieves and pickpockets seemed to lurk around every corner, and beggars and homeless lined a number of streets, or made their homes in smaller shanties built within narrow alleys.

Everywhere eager merchants and criers tried to corral the obvious newcomers into ‘luxurious’ and expensive apartments, restaurateurs tried to lure them in with strange and delicious scents of food, alchemists and amateur pharmacists tried to sell them the body parts of monsters that could cure any illness, and heavily perfumed and beautiful women tried to lure them into dens of pleasure.

“Thi-this is certainly…different,” Eli stammered after managing to extricate himself from the silken shawl of one such woman. “From Babylon at least.”

“Keep close, kid,” Leyla said, chuckling a little to herself as she pulled Eli in with an arm around his shoulder. “This is a bit more like what I’m used to.”

“Where do we even get started in a place like this?” Asha asked, trying to keep her head from being on a swivel as she tried to take it all in.

“Same as before. We find a place to stay that’s not absurdly overpriced, then we start reconnaissance”.

“Right but…” Asha’s eyes caught the gaze of one of the city’s many homeless beggars. She was a woman, or rather a young girl looking a few years younger than Asha herself, clutching a wooden bowl in hand that was empty save for a few loose coins. Her eyes were bright amber, and her filthy red hair hung loose over her shoulders as she looked up at Asha with a silent pleading expression.

Asha felt her heart twist up in a knot. Knowing it was a foolish thing to do, she surreptitiously gave the girl some of the flat bread she had saved, stealthily enough not to catch the eyes of other beggars, but not escaping Hazif’s gaze, and he quickly took her wrist as he pulled her along.

“That was a stupid thing to do,” He said, getting her back in line with the others as they moved through the city.

“It was just the one, and it was some of my own rations,” Asha said stubbornly. “Doesn’t affect you.”

“She was probably a panhandler” Hazif said “And has you marked as a sap.”

“I’m not a sap,” Asha shot back, pulling her wrist free. “Heaven forbid someone show a little humanity now and then.”

“Come now, you’re both right,” Constance stuck her face between them, causing Asha to jump a little as she was sure that the demon had been ahead of them.

“Hazif, you should learn to care a little more about your fellow man on an individual level,” She said, placing a hand on his shoulder, which caused him to recoil slightly at her touch. “After all, if you forget them, then you might miss the forest for the trees during your little revolution. Societies are made up of people, and that touch of humanity could be the saving grace of nations.”

Asha smiled triumphantly for a moment before she too felt Constance’s hand on her shoulder.

“And you, my dear Asha,” she said, smiling toothily. “Should know better than to take anything here at face value. For your own safety and prosperity, assume everyone around you has some ulterior motive. Everyone is two-faced, and in a place like Damascus that becomes more apparent than ever.”

“Two-faced,” Asha frowned. “Like you?”

“Like everyone,” Constance smiled. “But most people don’t understand the expression. You see, they think it means you have a good side and a bad side. In truth, we all have two faces and the trick is finding out which one is the real one. There’s the face we show people, the social mask that defines us. But there is also the face in the mirror, the one by which you define yourself. None of these faces are inherently evil or inherently good. The trick is knowing which one you’re working with.”

“And what’s the trick then?” Asha asked. “Since I assume knowing which face you’re dealing with means you’ll know if you’ll get betrayed.”

“The trick is knowing that the face you’re working with, the face that might betray you, isn’t the face you can see, but the one that they choose.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

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