“We’re running out of options,” Asha said, arms folded over her chest. “And we’re running out of time.”
“It’s kind of difficult to make and execute a plan when you’re being hunted,” Leyla said. “How did she track us here anyway?”
“Likely because the two of you dropped the pretense after you let Babylon and lit yourselves up like stars for her to follow.”
Rachel had accompanied them and was now sprawled on one of the over-stuffed ratty armchairs as she chewed on a fig from their supplies.
Asha frowned, even as she knew it was true. The very night they had left Babylon, she had spread her wings and gone for a night flight. A pang of guilt ran through her as she realized this bit of relief might have drawn Freny to them, and then to Eli.
“Not many people leave Babylon,” Hazif said. “Most by choice. I wouldn’t be too surprised if that was the case.”
“Flinging blame around won’t solve our problems,” Asha said. “We need to eliminate Freny. She’s seen our faces, there’s no way we can get back in Babylon if she’s still on the board.”
“Good luck,” Hazif scoffed. “Freny’s a monster, and I don’t mean that figuratively. I don’t know how much dragon blood or whatever else they pumped in her but in a straight fight we’re a bit out of our league.”
“Leyla and I are stronger than we look,” Asha said. “If we catch her where she can’t run, we might have a chance.” She passed a glance to Rachel and Constance. “Maybe you two can even help.”
“You’re still talking about killing one of Freny’s top agents,” Rachel said. “We know her type; there will be reprisals, even if not against you.”
“A security crackdown on the city of Babylon complicates our lives…a lot,” Asha said. “But something has to be done.”
“There is…at least one alternative,” Hazif said, with some reluctance in his voice.
“What’ve you got?” Leyla and the rest of the group looked at him.
“Well…seduce her to our side?”
Asha blinked in surprise. “…really? You’re the one usually nay-saying our plans and you think we can convince her to defect.”
“I might think your plan is nigh-impossible,” Hazif said. “But I know a lot about seduction as well. Half-incubus, remember?”
‘O-oh…” said Leyla. “That kind of seduction. Does that work on…I don’t know dragon women?”
“Well, the usual issue is that these things are molded to love Shadiya,” Hazif said. “But they don’t usually venture this far away. That conditioning might be more flexible with distance and time.”
“So rather than kill the lion, you intend to tame it,” Rachel said. “An interesting proposal.”
“I didn’t go to your meeting,” Hazif said. “So, she didn’t see me. I can get close enough to…engage.”
“Then what, fine wine and a candlelit dinner in Damascus with the dragon-blooded manhunter?” Asha asked facetiously.
“Not my usual style, but whatever works for her,” Hazif shot back smoothly. “I might not have a sacred bow and arrow or a flaming sword, but this is an area in which I excel.”
Asha turned to Leyla. “Thoughts?”
“Well…it might be worth a try. Worst comes to worst…”
“Worst comes to worst, I’m dead,” Hazif said. “But I’m more or less signed up for that at this point.”
“Unfortunately, he’s right,” Asha sighed. “Alright, Hazif, if you think you can do it…”
“Worth a shot,” Hazif shrugged. “Safer than it would be in Damascus…besides, I suppose I’m interested in a challenge. Worst she can do is put her sword through me.”
“Ya, try and get it the other way around,” Leyla smirked.
“Leyla!” Asha scoffed at him.
“I’ll do what I can,” Hazif went to retrieve his coat. “And I have a few tracking skills of my own. If you don’t hear back from me in forty-eight hours…assume I’m dead.”
“You’re sure about this, Hazif?” Asha asked. “You’re a valuable asset and more importantly part of the team, you’re willing to just stick your neck out like this?”
“Well…” Hazif said. “Maybe it’s easier to give it a try then see you hopeless romantics torn to pieces by the sword of a dragon woman.”
“I …mmm,” Asha bit her tongue before saying simply. “Good luck.”
Without another word Hazif went out the door and into the night. There was silence in the room for a few minutes.
“We need to keep going forward,” Asha said, turning to Rachel. “With the plan. How do we contact Ishtar?”
“Like any goddess,” Rachel said. “You need a temple or an altar, along with suitable offerings. Thankfully this isn’t too hard to set up for Ishtar, but it will be difficult communicating.”
“Why?” Leyla asked. “If we got an altar together…”
“Imagine it like cellphone reception,” Rachel said, looking for a simile. “A temple or an altar is like a cellphone tower. You can build a terrible one in your backyard out of wood and copper wiring, but you’re not going to get a very good connection, right? The more towers you build, and the bigger and finer they are, the better the signal. We doubt Ishtar has an established temple within three hundred miles, if at all, so you may not get the best reception here on Earth.
“Will it be enough?” Asha asked. “That’s all we need. Enough.”
“Possibly,” Rachel said. “But we don’t know the kinds of things Ishtar wants in her temple.”
“Wait, you don’t?” Asha asked incredulously.
“Why would we? We’re not an archaeologist,” Rachel huffed.
“So we’ll need to find information on that…” Asha said. “I can try getting in touch with Cat, she has access to a lot of books and resources that could help us. If not we’ll…”
Her train of thought was interrupted by a knock at the door. All of them fell silent as they turned to face it. If it was Hazif returning for some reason he wouldn’t have knocked.
Asha drew her bow as Leyla’s sword appeared in his hand. Constance made a motion that she would open the door as Leyla moved to the side. If someone tried to charge in, then Asha could fire arrows through Constance’s incorporeal form while Leyla’s curved blade could swing in a decapitating strike. They moved into position, Asha at the far end of the room opposite the door, Leyla moving to stand at the edge of the doorway, out of sight of the new arrival but within striking distance. Rachel simply continued to slump in her armchair, eyes on the door as Constance opened it.
“Hello?” Constance asked, sliding the door. “How can we help…ah, Eli? What are you doing alive at this hour?”
Asha almost dropped her bow as Constance moved out of the doorway to reveal Eli standing there, his dirty robes wrapped loosely around him and his feet caked with road dirt.
Leyla lowered his sword as he stared, but kept it tightly in his hands. “E-Eli? Is it really?”
“Yes, it’s me,” Eli nodded, clearly exhausted. “I haven’t eaten in hours; do you guys have anything?”
“We watched you die,” Asha said. “I knew you’d come back before but I wasn’t sure…”
“No, you did the right thing,” Eli nodded. “Sky Burial was necessary for my Fravashi to find me.”
Both Leyla and Asha turned suspiciously to Constance, who had suggested it in the first place.
“An educated guess,” Constance shrugged. “Nothing more, I assure you.”
“So it’s…really you?” Leyla asked. “Well let’s…test that.”
Both Leyla and Asha moved forward, taking Eli’s bare hands in theirs as they reached out with their spiritual presence, testing for any evil or taint that could be lurking in him, but both of them came back pure.
“Seems it’s him,” Asha said. “Or at least he’s not lying about who he is. Still…just coming back from the dead, that’s…an incredible ability.”
“Certainly, one that could prove useful in the future,” Rachel said, looking him over. “You are certain he is not a revenant or a shapeshifter of some kind?”
“Yes,” Asha nodded. “One or both of us would have felt it if he was deceiving us or harboring some kind of evil, but Eli feels right as ever.”
“It’s less useful an ability than you might think,” Eli said. “It takes twelve hours, and I need to be taken somewhere rocky and exposed, and I still feel all of the worst parts of it. It’s not like I’m an immortal soldier who can fight off an army by just resurrecting. I’m not a particularly skilled or strong warrior, on top of that I’m a pacifist.”
“Right,” Asha nodded. “Well we weren’t about to…exploit you or anything but…Eli how do you get an ability like this?”
“Not in a pleasant way,” Eli sighed. “If I had to be honest, dying might have been easier. This is my…well, I’ve been told it’s not a punishment but it feels like one.”
“If you don’t want to talk about it…” Leyla said.
“Mmm, no…I think it’s time. This might help, actually,” Eli said. “Not long after the end of the world started, a lot of people were stranded out in the wilderness. The desert was spreading by the day and lots of towns were simply disappearing as the water dried up, the dunes ate them, or bandits emptied them of people and supplies.
“I was trapped out there with my sister, Delilah. It was just the two of us trying to survive and we were running out of water. And I…well I left my sister to die, hoping that I could make it to safety and save myself. She wasn’t in any condition to stop me, so I left her, taking what I could. Not that it mattered…”
“Mmm…” Asha listened as he spoke. “I…understand, more than you might think. I met someone who went through something similar.”
“Well, did they make it?” Eli asked. “Because I didn’t. I didn’t make it another twelve hours before I went down too. Last memory I had of that life was cursing myself for being such an idiot. I knew none of us would make it, I should have been with Delilah at the end, but instead both of us died alone.”
“But then you came back,” Leyla said.
“Then I came back,” Eli nodded. “I met my Fravashi, and instead of taking me away it told me that I was chosen to try and do some good. That I would get to keep going, and I would continue to keep going as far as any of us knew. I thought I was being punished rather than saved. How could I go back to that, knowing that I was still alive for no reason?”
“Well, you can do some good, maybe whatever brings you back just wants you to make up for it?” Asha asked.
“Probably, but all I wanted at that moment was for Delilah to be chosen instead of me. But she wasn’t…really, I think that might have been my punishment. I’m not being punished by being resurrected every time I die…I’m being punished with the knowledge that I’m alive instead of Delilah. Though honestly that might be for the best…I can’t imagine how angry she’d be if she came back to life…or how she’d take a life like this…”
Asha put a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, take a seat on the bed, Eli, we’ll get you some food.”
“Right,” he nodded, moving to the bed as he sat down, his eyes staring off into the distance.
“You handle it quite well,” Constance smiled at him. “This burden of yours.”
“It gets a bit harder each time,” Eli sighed.
“Stick with us,” Asha said. “And we’ll make sure it’s worth it. You’re going to help us do a lot of good for a lot of people, Eli.”
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa