The Snake and the Mirror

Dragon Heart

 

It was about mid-afternoon in the city of Damascus. The sun was getting lower and the clouds had cleared, the market was full of people getting their last-minute supplies for dinner, and Hazif was fairly certain he was going to die.

He had a slight inkling as to where the woman sent to hunt them, Freny, would be. Being half-spirit gave him a number of spiritual senses he couldn’t quite put into words. Freny was an aberration, and he could sense her with something halfway between a keening noise and a smell. Still, being able to track her down was only the first part of a task that would, in all likelihood, see him dead before the sun had set.

He followed what trail he could make out to the ruins of an old sand-clogged apartment building along the edge of the border wall. Normally a place like this, a bombed-out ruin with several remaining stories, would be a haven of vagrants and the desperate just looking for shelter or a place to congregate, but as Hazif clambered up a brief ramp of rubble he found the dark interior was entirely empty. There were signs of past habitation in the graffiti and the ash marks left by poorly-constructed fires, but there was little else. The interior was stark and barren, concrete floors and pillars with large holes here and there in both floor and ceiling. Any walls that existed were also concrete, and the stairwells were nearly falling apart.

More than that, however, was an almost overwhelming sense of dread that poured over him. It was, he realized, what had likely driven out any previous inhabitants. It was like entering a dark forest at night, a place where you had the constant sensation of being hounded by a predator. He was tempted to reach for the knife at his belt, but he kept his hands at his side. Any act of aggression, real or perceived, could be the deciding factor in whether he lived or died.

He started towards the nearest stairwell and began to ascend. If he could avoid it, he didn’t want to confront her in the darkness of the lower levels, particularly when an errant blow from an inhumanly powerful aberrant could bring the whole thing crashing down on them. He moved with slow deliberate steps up the stairs, one at a time, hearing his own footsteps echo in the concrete stairwell around him. He listened, ears ready to pick up the slightest noise, and he paused mid-stride just in time to hear another foot come down on the concrete stairs above him before silence. That wasn’t an echo, there was someone else coming down the stairs.

“Before you attack,” Hazif said loudly. “I would like to talk.”

Hiding would have sent her into a hunting mood; he needed to approach this calmly, and never show her a vulnerable side that would tempt her to attack.

There was silence in the stairwell above him. The view was narrow so he couldn’t see how far ahead she was, but she wasn’t getting closer. For now, he had her attention.

“Talk?” Hazif was surprised, her voice was slightly higher than he would have expected. Almost light and airy rather than the low contralto he had expected of a woman tinged with draconic blood.

“Talk, converse, just you and me,” Hazif said.

There was another long pause before she spoke again. Still she was out of sight, likely one level above him.

“You are alone?” She asked. There was an odd cadence to her voice as well, a slightly stilted and unnatural way of speaking.

“I think you know I am,” Hazif said. “You wouldn’t be talking if you thought this was an ambush. It’s just me, alone and here to talk.”

“And who are you?” Freny’s response came more quickly this time. Hazif allowed himself a smile. He’d made contact and he was still alive. That was a good start.

“My name is Hazif,” He said.

“And why did you come here, Hazif? Did you come to die?”

Hazif’s smile fell a bit. He was far from out of the woods with this one.

“No,” He said back to the echoing stairwell. “I would like to avoid dying, if at all possible. I came to learn more about you.”

“There is nothing to know about me,” Freny said, her voice cold as it bounced off the barren concrete walls.

“Now I don’t believe that,” Hazif said. “There is plenty to know about everyone. I would just like to know a little more about you in particular.”

“And why is that?” Came Freny’s reply. There was no hint of curiosity in her voice, just a cold routine. “To gain some advantage in combat? You will fail.”

“No, that’s not it,” Hazif said more hurriedly. He needed to get closer, to look her in the eyes. “I just want to talk…and I think we can do so more comfortably than this.”

“Comfortably?” Freny asked.

“Yes,” Hazif said. “Facing each other like…well not like human beings, but like people. One on one, face to face, you know?”

There was another long tense silence that hung in the air between them. Hazif waited, holding his breath, wondering if he should move up or flee while he had the chance. He had to focus to keep his heart from hammering. Freny was likely not the most stable of creatures. It was hard to tell what might offend her.

There was the sharp loud sound of a footfall on concrete. Then another. Hazif recognized the sound of someone coming down the stairs with slow deliberate footsteps. Hazif moved to the landing at the base of the stairs and waited until he saw Freny’s dark silhouette come into view at the landing above him, illuminated by the dim sunlight coming down from the second floor.

She was tall…very tall he realized. She had been crouched low or at a distance on the rare instances he had seen her before, but standing straight and this close he could tell that she was above six feet tall, and that was before taking her horns into account. Her skin was the color of chalk, pale and unhealthy and only exacerbated by her coal black hair that hung in unkempt sheets around her head. Her eyes were a smoldering dark red, a color present in the tall curving horns that rose from her forehead and the scaled claws where her fingers should have been. She wore a loose shirt and jacket, both black and with quite a bit of tearing. Combined with a skirt and tall boots that were similarly worn down, Hazif wouldn’t be surprised if the clawed hands didn’t give her some difficulty dressing herself. Slung over her shoulder was the familiar and enormous sword with an edge like a saw blade.

Freny stared down at him with a steady unblinking gaze and he returned the expression, keeping her eyes locked on his as he began to stoke his spiritual essence like a furnace.

What he could do wasn’t mind-control, far from it. Just as a person could light a fire from a candlestick, Hazif could exacerbate the lust in someone’s mind from a glimmering spark into an inferno. But there had to be something there first, that was the tricky part. And even if there was, the less that was there, the harder his job and the more obvious his intentions. If he wanted to seduce this woman, he’d have to do most of it the old-fashioned way.

Hazif took a deep breath, this was not going to be easy. He put on a casual smile, not overly-wide or eager, but just enough to lower the tension and throw her a little off-balance.

“See? Much better, now we can see each other. Makes for much better conversation.”

“Does it?” Freny asked, and again there was no curiosity in her voice. Hazif was going to have to work a little harder.

“Of course,” Hazif smiled. “I can see your expressions, your face, and you can see mine.”

“What has that got to do with anything?”

“Plenty,” Hazif smiled, and he put a step forward onto the stairs. He saw her hand twitch, but he kept his eyes on hers. He couldn’t be timid now, but he needed to telegraph his movements so she wouldn’t be surprised. He didn’t want this dragon on edge. Very slowly he began to ascend.

“Humans don’t always like it. I think that’s half the reason they invented phones personally, but you and I are something different.”

“We are.”

Hazif had to wonder a moment if she had asked a question or not.

“Indeed, we are,” he nodded. “And surprisingly similar. Neither of us human, just…about halfway there.”

“Shadiya says they are halfway to me.”

Hazif was caught off-guard by the casual use of the name. No ‘my lady’ or ‘my queen’ just a blanket ‘Shadiya’.

“Heh, that’s another way to put it.”

Step after step he drew a bit closer. She stayed on the landing but edged aside, leaving him room to pass as he walked until they were on the same level. There was no tension in her stance, but no relaxation either. She was at a perfect neutral, as if waiting for him to do something to respond to.

“Were you made in a lab too?”

The question caught him off-guard, and it was the first question she had asked where he sensed genuine curiosity behind it. Hazif’s smile grew as he continued to walk, and he was pleased to see that she followed him, a long sinuous tail hanging in the air behind her.

“No, I was made the old-fashioned way…well, sort of,” Hazif said. “But I came from a mother’s womb.”

“Oh…” Freny seemed for a moment almost disappointed, though it was only apparent in her eyes.

“But the way I see it,” Hazif said quickly. “Where you were born ultimately doesn’t mean much.”

“It doesn’t?” Freny asked, and more and more he could sense something breaking through her.

“Of course not!” Hazif said, a bit more loudly as they existed the stairwell into the sun strewn second floor. “Life began after I left the womb, and suspect it began for you when you were pulled out of a tube!”

“I…” Freny thought it over, bringing a clawed hand to her chin. “I…can’t remember anything beforehand.”

“Precisely,” Hazif said. “So that just goes to show how little it matters. Sure, it brought you into the world, and I bet you’re as grateful for that as I am, but it hasn’t got a whole lot to do with the rest of your life, does it?”

“…” Freny seemed conflicted, following Hazif almost automatically as he moved towards the great empty windows looking out onto the city. In the light, he could better see her face, the way her pale skin and the shiny scales of her claws gleamed. She was frightening to be sure, and plenty inhuman, but she couldn’t be called…entirely unattractive.

“The tube told me to serve Shadiya,” She said finally. “That makes it important.”

“My mother told me to eat my vegetables,” Hazif said. “I still try to follow that advice from time to time but I’m my own man, you know?”

“Your…own man?”

“It means I own me,” Hazif said. “No one but me tells me what I do. Sure, I can break the law and get arrested, or I can pick a fight and get beaten up, but no one made me do those things. I chose to do them.”

Freny looked at him, more closely than she had. Before she had been watching his movements, looking for an attack or a threatening gesture. Now she was more inquisitive, trying to look deeper into him, to see more. She’d taken the bait.

Still, talking to her, listening to her hesitation and simple speech, he didn’t…despise her. He didn’t like to think of what he was doing as entrapment. She seemed more…confused and naïve than malevolent. She simply didn’t seem to understand him at all.

Hazif was more familiar with that kind of confusion than he was comfortable with. Being inherently attractive with a seductive gaze was all well and good when you were trying to bed a gorgeous noblewoman or entice a lordly man. But no one likes to think about an incubus’ gifts when they’re an uneducated and orphaned teenager, living on the streets with barely any social sense or wits beyond survival. It was the kind of naivety the predatory and the cruel were eager to feed upon.

“So, Freny,” he said, when the silence had gone on long enough. “Are you busy tonight?”

“Busy well…I’m not busy now,” It would have been a coy phrase if she hadn’t delivered it with such straight-faced earnestness. Hazif couldn’t help but smile.

“Then I hope you don’t mind my company for a little while.”

“I…don’t mind.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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