The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 38

 

“All I’m saying,” Constance said, the infuriating smile never leaving her face. “Is that you two took an awfully long time to negotiate with Ishtar.”

“She’s a goddess,” Asha shrugged, refusing to give the demon any satisfaction. “It took some time to work things out fully.”

“Certainly, but four hours? I’m surprised she could manifest for so long.”

“I don’t think the particulars are your business,” Asha said stubbornly. “Point is we have it done. We now have Ishtar’s support in taking Babylon.”

“It is a good start,” Rachel said. “Well done, both of you.”

“Well, we definitely couldn’t have done it alone,” Leyla said.

“You two played your parts quite admirably,” Constance said. “one would almost think you were romantic partners.”

“Watch it,” Asha growled, leaving Leyla with a slightly exasperated smile.

“It was a group effort, like he said,” Eli said. “Though again…thank you both for everything…although speaking of group, it’s been a while since we’ve heard from Hazif, hasn’t it?”

A worried silence went through the room.

“He was aware of the risks,” Rachel said. “It was not an unexpected outcome if he failed.”

“We’ll wait another day,” Asha said. “Give him twenty-four more hours before we…decide anything.”

A knock at the door, however, caused them all to glance its way.

“Seems that might not be necessary,” Constance began to glide towards the door before Asha cut her off, moving ahead of her to pull the door open.

Hazif stood in the doorway, his hair and clothes slightly ruffled but seemingly otherwise unharmed, hands idly at his side and his face neutral as Asha’s eyes wandered to the much more noticeable figure behind him.

Freny was slightly crouched, as if hiding behind him with her hands on his shoulders, glancing at Asha and the room beyond with suspicious red eyes. If she was trying to hide it was a failed gesture. Her thick boots, and clawed hands, along with the tall horns and long sinuous tail, were all clearly visible behind Hazif’s slender frame, but the way she was attempting it seemed almost…protective, like a nervous dog.

Asha didn’t hold back, letting her magical energy flow free as she stood barring the doorway, her voice calm as she regarded Hazif.

“Morning,” he said casually. “I’m back.”

“So I see,” Asha said. “With someone in tow.”

“See?” Freny hissed into Hazif’s ear. “She’s getting ready to attack.”

“Calm down,” Hazif sighed. “I told you she’d react like that. It’s only natural.”

He turned back to Asha. “Right…she insisted she come along if I was to negotiate on her behalf. She also just doesn’t like being away from me.”

“I do!”

Hazif gave a brief snort of laughter. “She’s calmed down, she also left her sword behind at her hideout. So she’s unarmed.”

“Still plenty dangerous,” Asha said. “But…for now, come in, better than just standing on the landing with a dragon girl.”

“True enough,” Hazif smile slightly, leading Freny inside as Asha shut the door. As they walked into the main room, all the people waiting regarded Freny with mixed suspicious glares, save for Constance who maintained her usual mischievous and almost vacant smile.

Freny shared the expression, her eyes narrowing as they passed over Eli.

“I killed you,” she said firmly, almost accusingly.

“You did,” Eli nodded. “It just…didn’t stick.”

“That’s…annoying,” Freny settled on. “Dead people normally stay dead.”

“Yes, I’m weird like that,” Eli said. “Sorry to disappoint.”

Before she could respond, Hazif put a hand over Freny’s shoulder and pulled her in. To their surprise, the gesture seemed to send her into a flustered shudder. Her eyes darting away as she sank into his grasp.

“Fine…” She said. “I’ll accept it for now…Hazif said I should be more…accepting.”

“What did you do?” Leyla asked. “She seems almost…”

A glare from Freny caused Leyla to cut his sentence short, but she was soothed again by a gentle stroke of the hair between her horns.

“Freny is hardly ‘tamed’ or ‘fixed’, I just helped her broaden her perspective a little. She’s now a bit more willing to accept that she’s different, and since we’re different too we might have a few things in common.”

“I’m doing it for Hazif,” Freny said. “Not for any of you…but I won’t kill you right now.”

“Brilliant,” Asha said. “I suppose that will be good for now. Do you think she-“ Asha was about to ask Hazif a question before deciding to direct it to Freny herself.

“Freny, we do a lot of dangerous things, and while that might not bother you, we do them in opposition to Shadiya, who you…serve?”

“I know,” Freny said. “I’m not dumb.”

“Well if you want to be here…with Hazif I might add,” Asha continued. “Then we’ll need some kind of assurance you won’t just turn on us the second we get back to Babylon.”

“Mmm…Hazif told me you’d say that,” Freny said. “I can tell you…where the URIEL bases are.”

“We found the base already,” Leyla said, pointing at Constance. “It’s where we picked up this one.”

“You found one,” Freny corrected him. “I know the others. The places where they make monsters. Where they made me. And where they made Shadiya.”

“Wait…” Asha said. “URIEL made Shadiya? I knew they were trying to control her but…”

“Shadiya was human,” Freny said. “So was I. We were taken and…changed, mixed with monstrous blood and magic. I can show you when we get there.”

“It’s still a lot to trust,” Leyla said. “Hazif…will you vouch for her?”

Hazif looked at Freny, who looked back at him with an expression Asha couldn’t quite quantify. Was it desperation? Affection? Fear?

“We can trust her,” Hazif said. “There’s no mind-control on her. And she’s not evil just…raised and taught differently.”

“And you’re willing to fight Shadiya’s forces, Freny?” Asha asked, folding her arms over her chest.

“Shadiya offers me lots of things,” Freny said. “She gives gold but I don’t want gold. She lets me hunt but then gets strict about who or what I can hunt. She offers me boys but none are as nice as Hazif.”

“Well, all we can offer is Hazif,” Asha said. “And a chance to fight URIEL and Shadiya’s mosnters whenever they’re in our way.”

At this, Freny flashed a rather unsettling shark-toothed grin. “That sounds more fun than hunting criminals.”

“Uh huh…”Asha nodded, passing a worried glance at Hazif, who gave Freny another pat on the shoulder.

“We all need to show a little restraint now and then, dear.”

“Unless we’re trying to lure in some deity,” Constance grinned.

“Zip it,” Leyla snapped. “Point is…are you able to hold back unless one of us tells you not to, Freny?”

“Mmm…fine,” Freny settled on, leaning against Hazif. “I suppose I can agree to that.”

“What managed to convince you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Eli asked.

“Hazif,” Freny said. “He managed to convince me that all of you were…good people. Shadiya had told me that she was a good person but it never really seemed that way…”

“No surprises there” Leyla said.

Freny continued. “Mmm…it seems kind of dumb when I say it like that,” Freny shifted nervously from one foot to the other, clearly not used to speaking in front of people, or speaking at all for that matter. “I don’t know…Hazif?” She looked at him with a brief pleading look, clearly relying on him to finish for her.

“Yeah, Freny’s not great on philosophy or public speaking,” Hazif said. “It took me a few hours to work out what she wanted. She’s not dumb, she’s actually quite bright, just with a fairly…unique perspective as I’ve come to understand it.

“See, Freny is basically conditioned to be a pack predator. She thinks in those terms, like a wolf or a lion. She saw Shadiya as a sort of ‘alpha’ I guess you could say, but the thing is Shadiya doesn’t hunt, at least in a way that Freny here is used to.”

Freny nodded along with his words.

“So, I told her about our group; to her, we’re a more…appropriate approximation of a wolf pack or a lion pride. We work together, we cover each other’s’ weaknesses, and Leyla and Asha at least are fighters who regularly go ‘hunting’.”

“I saw as much the last time I met you,” Freny said. “Shadiya said I should expect you to be strong…so you might make better friends than her.”

“Freny doesn’t really have the whole morality thing down yet,” Hazif said. “So she’s not in this for the people or for justice. But I don’t think that should stop us from receiving help from a very valuable woman.”

Freny smiled at him before nuzzling into his neck, and Asha tried to stifle a groan. She and Leyla at least had decided to be subtle about their future relationship.

“Well…that is better than nothing, and I suppose it makes sense,” Eli said.

“Agreed, and now that Hazif is back, with Freny no less, we can start making our plans towards the future,” Leyla said. “Now that we have some backing I think it’s time we made our way back to Babylon.”

“Agreed,” Asha nodded. “We head to Babylon within the next few days. Freny, you’ll travel a bit behind us so you can look like you’re still chasing us. The rest of us will-“

“We will not be going,” Rachel said idly from her chair. Asha paused before asking.

“Umm is that we as in the group or…?”

“That is we as in this person,” Rachel said. “Our place is here in Damascus, though we will continue to offer our support.”

“You’re sure?” Asha asked, receiving only a calm nod in reply.

“Alright, well…” Asha said. “Eli, Hazif, Leyla, Constance…the five of us will go on ahead and set up a new base of operations. Once we’re in the city and we can meet with Freny…I guess it’ll be time to start our rebellion.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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