It seemed it didn’t matter where she went these days, Noemi was getting used to being either aboard a rocking creaky ship or running through the underbrush of a jungle. After running off from Nicolas, Noemi had followed the bare markings that made up the trail of a human, doing the best she could with what little she had before her. A footstep in some dried mud, fabrics caught on thorns and bark, or the remains of a campfire here and there kept her going deeper into the jungle.
It seems odd that your sidekick, from what you’ve told me, would go this deep alone, Noemi.
“Well, maybe she found a spirit of her own. I don’t know how she got here but…look, even if it’s not her, we’ve come this far. We should see it through!”
I suppose. Though what will you do if it is not her?
“I don’t know…probably talk to whoever is leaving this trail, I guess. They must be good at surviving. Maybe they’d be willing to travel with us, or at least get us in contact with spirits…”
Yes. The local spirits here feel…oddly tranquil.
“They probably haven’t had much happen to stir them up as of late.”
Noemi hadn’t been paying much attention to the spirits as she ran through the jungle. Most seemed to just shuffle out of her way, scurrying beneath the leaves and vines to hide. Others watched with curious but passive interest as she charged forward, ignoring them. They were certainly less aggressive than the spirits in Tess’s jungle had been, though there she had no idea which ones were spies for the jaguar.
Perhaps she should have paid them a little more attention, though. Noemi’s foot caught on a vine and sent her tumbling to the ground, right beside a number of spirits who swiftly took the form of birds, flocking away together, chattering and calling to one another. She could feel the hair on her arms and neck rising as she pushed herself off the ground, spitting out mud.
In Tess’ jungle, that would have been a death sentence. Here, it was just carelessness. Still, carelessness was unacceptable. Noemi cursed herself silently under her breath, as she started to run again. She could feel Ophidia’s presence pushing her forward, as the previously quiet jungle started to fill with sounds.
All the animals, large and small, joined in the cacophony around her as Noemi winced. That…didn’t seem to be a good sign.
Now they are no longer tranquil.
I would be careful, Noemi. With everything so…active, it is hard to get a sense of what is ahead of us.
“Yeah…can barely hear anything over these screeches. Stupid birds!”
Pay attention, Noemi. You are getting careless…
Noemi shut up and stopped running, moving slowly through the brush. It might have been late, but her instincts and her habits from surviving in the rainforest were starting to return to her as she took a moment to recover. The spirits were active now, sure, but she could use that to her advantage. It means that it would be as hard for others to hear her as for her to hear them.
She drew her machete from her belt. The weight of it felt familiar in her hands, and helped her slide easily back into the cunning survivalist mindset she had before. She pushed her red hair out of her eyes, the strands sticking to her skin, sweaty from the humidity. Noemi swung the blade, clearing a path as quietly as she could, even as the jungle made noise all around her.
The feeling in the back of her mind, that they were being followed and stalked, never went away though, even as she continued along the trail. Eventually, the jungle gave way to a small clearing around a pond. Noemi looked around, but there was no one. No black-haired girl…
Stepping out from the foliage, her machete raised, Noemi slowly approached the pond. The water was flowing into it from a small creek, it seemed to have some fish swimming beneath its surface. Noemi wondered if perhaps the water spirit had seen any other human, if she could tell her where Gisela might have gone.
“Guess we should see if someone’s home…”
I do sense a spirit nearby but…Noemi. We’re not alone!
“What do you—” She didn’t even finish the sentence before she heard the soft twang of a bowstring. Actually, she felt it before she heard it, her instincts warning her of the danger before the arrow had left the bow. Falling to the ground, she rolled forward, raising her machete in front of her as she took a knee.
Men started to step out of the forest, wearing dark greens and blacks, though decorating themselves with the feathers and fur of animals. Most were carrying bows, though some held swords in their hands. They all bore the symbol of the jaguar on their cloak. Servants of Tezcatlipoca, an Aztlan raiding party…they had reached even here.
Noemi swore under her breath, her eyes darting around like a cornered beast. They were all around her, and there was nowhere close enough to take cover from their arrows.
She could hear the sound of a woman laughing. Stepping from the shadows came what seemed to be a priest, dressed in the raiment of the Jaguar, the black skin of the beast draped over her head. The priestess continued to laugh, though there was a deeper, louder chortle underneath her haughty airy one.
“You’ve made it far too easy,” she said, the strange echo on her voice. Noemi’s face blanched.
“That and a thousand other names.”
“How…How did you…?”
“You think my influence so meager, my power so thin, that I cannot reach this far? I told you before that there was nowhere you could go that I could not find you, no shadow dark enough for you to hide from me. Aztlan has no boundaries, -I- have no boundaries. The village was already under my control, before you set your feet upon the sands.”
The priestess grinned, and for a second, Noemi thought she could see the face of the young girl who had once traveled beside her in the priestess’ dark smile.
“Fate, I suppose. The spirits know to keep an eye out for you or your ‘sidekick’. When you washed ashore, it was not long before my priestess was informed. I knew you would not think before rushing off after your precious Gisela.”
“Is not here, girl, and you will never find her. Your search has ended, and I plan to make good on that promise I made you.” The priestess sauntered over and Noemi could almost feel Tezcatlipoca’s power coursing through her body. She ran her finger down Noemi’s chest, eyes dark and burning with divine light. “Your heart will make a fine meal for…what’s this now?”
The skin over Noemi’s heart started to glow a faint white, the color of Ophida’s feathers. The priestess’…no…Tezcatlipoca’s face split into an even wider grin.
“Oh ho, what a treat. So this is how you escaped my forces in the jungle before. You found yourself a patron, just like poor Anton. An imitation god for an imitation hero,” Tezcatlipoca said, wrapping her fingers around Noemi’s throat, cutting off her air. “An ancient shadow of my fallen brother. You’re not even a goddess anymore, little snake. I would hardly deign to give you the honor of sacrifice but…I suppose you’ll make good fodder.”
The long, soft, fingers of the priestess loosened their grip on Noemi’s throat. Noemi sucked back in air, rubbing her throat gingerly.
“Bind her and prepare her as a proper sacrifice. I’ve waited too long to simply devour her here. I want to savor the last beats of her heart.”
Noemi was still gasping for breath as the soldiers started to grab her, throwing her to the ground as they pinned her arms behind her back. They didn’t bother being gentle as they tied her arms together, tightly so that she could barely move them, before slipping a collar and chain around her neck.
Noemi pulled against the collar but as they yanked on the chain, she found herself unable to breathe again and was forced to stumble forward. She glared at them all, even as they led her through the island jungle towards their camp.
“Ophida,” She said silently, thinking it rather than speaking. “Do you think you can get us out of here again?”
I cannot. I’m afraid I’ve grown too diminished, and there are none of my winged serpents here upon which I can call.
Noemi grimaced. Ophida didn’t say it, but Noemi was blaming herself anyway. After all, she had made the choice to come here over helping Jormungandr or even staying behind to build a cult for Ophida and make the spirit stronger. She had bet it all on finding Gisela and now…Well, it had gotten them here. Captured and with no power between them to break free.
“I’m sorry, Ophida…”
I understand, Noemi. It is…unfortunate. But know, that I did enjoy our time together.
“Thanks. I…I haven’t been a good champion for you, but…I really am sorry. I wish I had been able to see it more clearly before now.”
There is nothing we can do now, Noemi.
She felt the tug of the chain on her neck, bringing her out of her inner thoughts. Noemi let out a groan as the metal dug into her neck, glaring at the Aztlan soldier who held her chain.
“No escape for you, not even into your own thoughts, prisoner,” he grinned at her, looking pleased with her capture and degradation. “We’ve got to get you prepared for your sacrifice.”
“Oh, please, don’t let me stop you there,” Noemi said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
They pulled her forward, dumping a bucket of water on her head, scented with some sort of flower she didn’t know. Noemi grimaced from the shock of it. “…You are such a princess, Tess! Perfumed water, really?”
“That’s Tezcatlipoca, slave! He has demanded very specific preparations for you.”
Noemi spit on the ground in front of her, some of the perfumed water leaving her now scented lips. “Thought I was a sacrifice. So just slit my neck already, cut out my heart, and be done with it.”
The guard glared at her, but he continued to prepare her, stripping her out of her worn, raggedy, clothes and giving her a fresh dress. Noemi rolled her eyes, but didn’t struggle as they slipped the dress over her, briefly untying her bonds. She considered throwing a punch and making a run for it, but that was just likely to lead to more torture before they had the grace to kill her.
“There, just as the Jaguar demanded.”
Noemi was dragged towards the altar in the center of the camp, where the priestess stood, a knife in her hand as she voiced the words of prayer to the Jaguar. Noemi sighed as she marched, the crowd parting for her.
As she started to climb the steps up the altar, a loud screech came from the jungle, followed by hundreds of weaker shrieks. Noemi looked up, as dozens, if not hundreds of bird spirits took to the skies above the canopy of the trees, flying above the clearing where the Aztlan hunters had made their camp. She could hear the grunting and snorting of angry boars in the trees, the cracking of snapped bark.
“The spirits, they’ve been disturbed!” The priestess shouted, her voice human again. “Oh, great and mighty Jaguar, pacify these unruly, urgh!”
The priestess’ hands went to her throat, blood pouring through her fingers as her voice failed her. The animal spirits charged out from the trees into the camp in a rush of claws and talons, stampeding over the Aztlan soldiers. People went flying towards the branches, which grabbed those unfortunate few, pulling them into the shadow of the leaves.
Noemi’s jaw dropped open as she watched, her hands still bound together. The soldiers drew their swords and grabbed their bows, trying to fight off the forces of the jungle itself.
Her head whipped around as she heard her name being called. There was Junko, riding on the back of a giant boar spirit, throwing knives at any who sought to block her path. The Asian girl reached down with one hand and grabbed the redhead, pulling her onto the back of the spirit as they continued to barrel into the jungle, leaving the sounds of the chaos behind them.
“…I thought the cavalry was supposed to be horseback. This is one strange looking horse,” Noemi joked, though her voice came out forced.
“Thank god I wasn’t too late. When I heard Nicholas say he sent you into the jungle…”
“What are you doing here, Junko?”
“I told you I had my own business, boss. But…I needed to get out too, hid away on a ship to Cuba. Been here a couple of months.
“…the Dutchman…It must have…”
“Come on, we’ll get you to a port, get you out of here before Aztlan can recover.”
“…No,” Noemi said, with confidence in her voice. “I’m not going anywhere. I said I was going to stop running but…I haven’t been doing that, I’ve still been letting Tess run me through a maze like a rat. We’re freeing this island from Aztlan.”
“Ehh?! Boss…That’s not going to be easy, they’re already here!”
What of Gisela, Noemi?
“I made a mistake! I let my desires get in the way of my responsibility. Things only got worse when I went off searching for Gisela. They’ll only keep getting worse if I don’t do anything and then it will be too late to stop them.”
“So…what are you going to do, boss?”
“We’re going back to the village, Junko. I’ve got a new cult to sell to the people.”
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa