“And this source of yours is trustworthy?” Asha asked, the doubt clear in her voice as their small group maneuvered through the cramped streets of Damascus.
“Exceedingly,” Constance smiled. “In the sense that she will not go back on a deal she’s made. So, you can trust her to keep her word, at least.”
Asha rolled her eyes, but Leyla put a hand on her shoulder.
“Look,” he said. “I don’t like this either but in the world in the state it is, there is a kind of…honor among thieves I guess you could call it.”
“Is that right?” Asha asked.
“Well sure, you keep stabbing people in the back, you’re going to wind up alone,” Leyla said. “If it were just the end of the world that might not be that bad, but in a world full of monsters you need people, and for that you need a level of trust.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Ahsa said.
The four of them were heading towards a meeting point Constance had spoken of. At first, they had been furious upon realizing that Constance had snuck off almost as soon as they had entered the city, but she seemed to be perfectly willing to stay close to them since her return, although she was insistent upon the meeting with her apparent ‘contact’.
“We’re still being played,” Leyla said, a sentiment Hazif (who was keeping watch back at their rented apartment) had shared. “It’s obvious Constance lead us here just to meet this contact.
“Probably,” Eli nodded. “But it seems a lot of trouble just to backstab us somehow.”
“Well, she was the most likely candidate for a good contact,” Constance said. “I had several others who are less reliable, but I think you’ll be impressed when you meet her.”
“Pretty high bar you’re setting there,” Asha said. “Hope they meet expectations.”
Constance smiled her familiar crooked grin. “She always, at the very least, exceeds expectations.”
The four of them arrived at a small single-room building off the main roads made of mud brick with a number of holes in its poorly tiled roof. They entered, Asha taking the lead, to find the space almost entirely empty save for a few decrepit barrels, sacks, and refuse along the walls. The space was dark even in the midday light, lit only by the streams of sunlight that came down through the dozen or so fist-sized holes in the ceiling.
For a moment, Asha thought they were the first to arrive before movement at the far end of the large room caught her eye. A short figure slid from atop a barrel where they had been waiting and came into view, walking beneath one of the rays of light to reveal themselves.
Asha started, mouth opening in surprise as she recognized the crimson-haired beggar that she had given her bread to the day before.
“You…” she managed, still startled as the girl spoke.
“Thank you for meeting with us,” The girl said, and Asha noticed her voice was strong and clear for a relatively slender beggar girl, resounding with authority.
“Us?” Asha asked.
“Our contact has a certain manner of speech,” Constance smiled, stepping to Asha’s side. “But she is alone, as Leyla can confirm.”
“I’ll do a round,” Leyla said, already walking to make sure no one else was joining them. “But ya, it all looks clear from here.”
“Right,” Asha nodded. “I’m Asha, this is Leyla and Eli, and from what we’ve heard you already know Constance.”
“We do, unfortunately,” The woman gained a scowl that gave Asha a brief chuckle. She would have been more worried if the contact and Constance got along.
“You may call us Rachel, if it suits you.”
“That will work fine, Rachel,” Asha said. “Constance said you had a proposition for us, or at least an idea.”
“We do,” Rachel nodded. “We want the same thing. We wish to see the current regime in Babylon fall, preferably without complete destabilization or destruction of the city.”
“Right, we want that obviously enough,” Asha said. “Queen Shadiya is a monster…literally. But why are you invested in it?”
“We have several reasons to be interested,” Rachel said. “Though it is good that you asked. It seems Constance was correct when she said you weren’t fools. Shadiya is a narcissist and power-hungry, a dangerous combination in anyone and terrifying in her. When her power in Babylon is absolute she will spread, and without a doubt, Damascus will be her first major target.”
“And you’re invested in Damascus.”
“We are invested in the region, but Damascus makes a convenient center,” Rachel nodded. “Though we are limited in our ability to learn more about Shadiya.”
“We have plenty of information,” Asha said. “Though not as much as we’d like. But who are you? All I know about you is that you at least pretended to be a beggar on the street.”
“We are…something like you,” Rachel said. “Man and spirit bound together to one form, embracing to be something greater. As per our position…well, for now we are a capable informant and broker of information. Given time, we plan to be much more.”
Asha frowned a bit.
“I’ve spent a lot of time,” she said. “Cutting deals with people who are pretty far from what I considered trustworthy.”
“You will find, Asha, the only people willing to risk their necks for you are those who have something to gain. Altruism is rare in a world past the Days of Revelation, but ambition…ambition is plentiful.”
“I’m just worried,” Asha said. “How far compromise after compromise will take me.”
“If you are lucky and if you are smart, it will take you to a free and independent Babylon.”
“Alright then, Rachel,” Asha said. “What can you offer me that no one else in this city can?”
“A plan,” Rachel said. “We can offer you a plan to overthrow Shadiya, or at least the first half of one.”
“Well…” Asha said, a bit surprised. “That’s…not a bad start. Is it a feasible plan?”
“Doable,” Rachel said. “Albeit difficult. Though far less difficult and far less dangerous than attempting open rebellion.”
“What is it?” Asha asked.
“Before I tell you, I want certain provisions in place,” Rachel said. “This is a deal after all, not a gift.”
“Alright,” Asha said somewhat more bitterly. “What are your demands?”
“Whether you want it to or not, if this mission is successful it will leave you with a great deal of power in Babylon. You can choose to do as you will, but I insist that subverting Damscus’ independence cannot be among your decisions. Babylon will, with luck, continue to stand. And Damascus will stand separately as well.”
“Understandable,” Asha said. “But I wasn’t about to go and declare myself a conqueror. I’ll do my best to make sure Shadiya’s successor government isn’t either.”
“There is also a suggestion we would like to address,” Rachel said.
“Alright, and what’s that?”
“Simply put, we plan to do quite a bit to help you, and even if it is in our personal interest to do so, generous favors should generally be reciprocated.”
“Ah, I see how it is,” Asha nodded. “You want us on call in case you ever need help with something.”
“I’m not sure I like that,” Eli said. “Owed favors rarely seem to go well.”
“That at least is not a demand,” Rachel said. “If we suggested something truly heinous, you are of course free to refuse.”
“I have a feeling we wouldn’t,” Asha scowled a bit. “But these seem relatively fair. Let’s hear this plan of yours and I’ll decide with the others if we plan to go through with it.”
“To supplant Shadiya’s reign over the city you will need more than a replacement government. She is a figurehead with a strong cult of personality, she is an icon of the city and is binding her identity to its existence. It’s dictator 101. If we wish to remove her, we will need to find a figurehead to supplant her.”
“What kind of figurehead?” Asha asked. “One of us?”
“Oh no,” Rachel shook her head. “Your group are ground-level insurgents. Even with all of your powers you will be…at the level of humans in their eyes. And we of course cannot take the position, as we are foreign and relatively unknown.”
“What then?” Asha asked. “Or who?”
“Like any good conqueror, Shadiya wishes to make herself a God-King,” said Rachel. “Her government can be supplanted by people, but her cult must be overthrown by the divine.”
“So, what then, a god?” Asha asked.
“A god,” Rachel nodded. “And there happens to be an entire pantheon in the region waiting to gain a foothold in their ancient lands. One, in particular, is of interest to me and is eager to bring herself into the city.”
“And who might that be?” Asha asked.
“Like most high-level deities she has many names,” Rachel said. “Innanna, Astarte, Astaroth are all examples you might have heard. But we will be evoking her best-known nomen: Ishtar.”
“Ishtar?” Eli asked. “The love goddess?”
“Love and war in equal measure, we assure you,” Rachel said. “And while she is not the pinnacle of her pantheon she is incredibly influential and has a penchant for interfering with mortals. We believe she is most suitable for the role.”
“So, we start a cult,” Asha said. “Along with a revolution.”
“Getting Ishtar’s involvement is our first step, let’s begin there,” Rachel said. “Her answer will determine the course of this coup you wish to attempt. Then we can-“
She was cut off as Leyla, who had been patrolling the building’s perimeter, burst inside.
“Run!” He shouted. “We have incoming!”
“In Damascus?” Rachel asked. “Impossible, URIEL wouldn’t da-“
Her words were interrupted as something smashed down through the ceiling into the center of the room in a cloud of dust and shattered tile. As the dust floated downward, a lone figure hurtled from within at Asha at tremendous speed, giving her barely enough time to draw her knife and catch a long sword blade of black metal against the flat of her knife.
Staring through the dust, eyes shining as she tried to clearly saw the face of the attacker, she caught a brief look at long black hair, red eyes, and a pair of curved horns before it slipped back into the dust cloud.
Asha pulled back, putting distance between herself and the cloud of smoky dust as she looked to see the others. A sudden burst of fire ripped through the room, incinerating much of the dust cloud as Asha saw Rachel, her hands filled with fire, staring down her attacker.
It wasn’t just her hands either, Rachel’s crimson hair was flaming at the tips, and her eyes were burning the same bright orange as the flames.
“So Shadiya sent her dog,” Rachel growled. “Then she has saved us the trouble of tracking you down.”
The attacker’s appearance was clearer now. It was a woman, tall and statuesque compared to the rest of them with chalk-white skin and loose black hair that hung down her back. She was dressed in relatively modern clothing, all carefully preserved, and all of it in black. The horns rising from the sides of her head were long curved, and pointed straight up, and a sinewy scale-covered black tail curled from the base of her spine. All told, the woman looked more draconic than demonic, and in her clawed scaly hands was a long sword with a black blade and serrations on the inside edge.
As she became clearer, Asha recognized the silhouette, the same one Eli had pointed out to her on the day they met: Shadiya’s enforcer, Freny.
There was a brief pause in the air, and in an instant Freny charged Asha, keeping low and whirling about her as she tried to find a weakness with numerous quick jabs. Asha noticed she was also carefully moving to keep Asha between Rachel and herself.
Leyla charged soon after, his sword appearing in a flash of fire in his hands as he swung at Freny, his blade striking against hers as Freny deflected Asha’s knife strikes. Asha pulled back as Leyla fully engaged Freny, hoping to draw her bow in time, but Freny spotted her, and was quick to begin a retreat. Taking hold of Leyla’s arm she hurtled him at Asha with superhuman strength before charging for the wall, dodging more bolts of fire from Rachel’s hands.
Before she reached the wall, Eli moved to intercept her, trying to get between her and an exit.
“Eli, move!” Asha shouted, but too late. Freny was quick on her feet and her sword was quicker. There was a splash of red as her blade cut through Eli’s throat and she continued her charge, a single powerful kicking carrying her through the brick wall and into the street, vanishing into dust and leaving Eli’s fallen body in her wake.
“Eli!” Asha and Leyla rushed to him as Rachel kept a distance, the fire on her subdued. Carefully Asha picked up his body, but saw that the light had already faded from his eyes.
“I-It’ll be alright, right?” Leyla asked nervously. “he came back before, right?”
“Yes but…it’s not like he told me how! Does he just…snap back to it?”
“With that wound, I certainly hope not.” Constance said.
“Well we need to do something for him!” Asha shouted at her.
“We will do what custom demands,” Constance said. “Sky burial.”
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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa