A new phenomenon had spread through the city of Babylon like wildfire. From the highest to the lowest, rumors had started to rise of a new cult, a new power, a new lady to worship. For most, they were easily brushed aside. Rumors like this sprang up all the time. Other cities might need their demons or their gods, but the people of Babylon had Lady Shadiya. What more did they need? Others tried to justify their interest. This new goddess, it was said, was the goddess of beauty and of war. Who was more beautiful than Shadiya? Who was more powerful than Shadiya? It stood to reason that Shadiya was an agent of this goddess’ will, and thus there was nothing wrong with showing interest. Still, they kept this growing faith to themselves, meeting secretly at dusk in the hidden spaces where the cult had started to grow.
To URIEL and other forces of the regime, it seemed more like a plague. The new cult, worshipping what they had thought to be the defunct goddess Ishtar, was spreading faster than they could purge it. The cult was organized and developed, using changing password, semi-independent cells, and a constant rotation of temporary worshipping places to keep the hounds forever just behind their heels.
Keeping things that way was Asha’s job. She’d spent the past few months working with Freny and Hazif to determine the best methods for keeping them underground, even in the very heart of enemy territory. She was grateful she had a spirit’s resilience, as she’d often gone days without sleep making sure everyone knew where they needed to go and keeping URIEL and Shadiya’s monsters off their trail.
Freny had proved herself even more valuable than they had hoped. She was their spy and their first contact when it came to determining how to react to URIEL’s movements, allowing them to keep always one step ahead of the monstrous tyrant.
She had been walking down the street, eyes alert but mind lost in thought as she traveled from one task to another, always a little on edge. She whirled around and saw Hazif behind her.
“Hazif?” She asked, but he didn’t stop, pulling her along as the two of them walked down the street at a quick pace.
“Not here,” he said. “It’s bad.”
Asha nodded, going quiet as she followed him with hurried footsteps, fast enough to be quick but not so fast they’d draw attention. Together the two of them walked to an old and shabby looking apartment building and unlocked the door. Through the front room and into an old storage closet they moved, glancing around to make sure curious eyes weren’t following them. Inside the closet, hidden under a false floor mat, was a trapdoor which led into their most recent hideout.
“Welcome back you two,” Leyla said, waiting for them in the small space.
It wasn’t much bigger than their first shrine to Ishtar. It was an old room of carved stone about five meters across in all directions. They wished they could build lavish temples and grand altars to Ishtar, but for the time being, these guerilla temples would have to do. Ishtar wasn’t complaining…much. She turned up her nose at most offerings but it was clear she appreciated the recent explosion in worshipers.
Leyla was alone in the room, which meant Freny, Eli, and Constance were out somewhere else. Asha frowned; she preferred knowing where Constance was at all times.
Leyla stepped forward, pulling Asha in for a quick and affectionate kiss on the cheek before they both turned to Hazif.
“So, what’s the problem?” Asha asked, leaning against Leyla.
“One of ours has been captured,” Hazif said.
The silence was so stiff and so sudden they could have heard a pin drop.
“You’re sure?” Asha asked. “A hundred percent?”
“This is from Freny,” Hazif said. “She’ll be out and keeping her head down for a while since suspicions of a leak are high, but she managed to get word to me.”
“Freny hasn’t been wrong yet…” Leyla said, the worry clear in his voice.
“Then we have to go under the assumption it’s true,” Asha said, voice hardening. “Do we know who it was? Any chance it was Eli?”
“No, I managed to reach Eli an hour ago,” Hazi said. “It’s not one of the higher-ups, just a new guy who got careless…or someone who tried to turn us in.”
“If he or she was that desperate…” Asha said. “But we can’t deal with motive right now.”
“You’re right,” Leyla nodded. “We need to figure out exactly who they were and what they know.”
“The answer to that is ‘too much’,” Hazif said. “We need to spread word to lay low and abandon all sites now.”
“That’s extreme,” Asha said. “If we drop everything now it could take another month to put it back together. It would almost be like they destroyed it to begin with.”
“But the people will be alive,” Leyla said. “It’s hard but…we need to play it safe.”
Asha let out a sigh. A month of work at least, gone. “Alright…spread the word. We’ll-“
She was cut out by the muffled sound of a door being slammed open above them, shouts and screams as heavy boots moved into the apartment above the dimly-lit stone chamber.
“Damn,” Hazif said. “We’re out of time.”
“Are we secure down here?” Leyla asked.
“Not even a little,” Asha said. “They probably have some kind of monster to sniff us out.”
“Then we need to break out swinging,” Leyla said.
“Great,” Hazif muttered. “I’ll just go ahead and die then while you two bravely charge in weapons drawn.”
“Just stay close and we’ll be fine,” Asha said. “We’ve managed to cover for Eli, haven’t we?”
Leyla moved to the trap door, quietly unlatching it as Asha moved to the entrance, letting her essence spread as wings formed on her back.
She waited, poised to jump beneath the hatch as she heard the noise of guards and their chained beasts move through the building above them, followed by the slow creak as someone opened the supply closet. She stood there, one hand against the trapdoor until she felt it depress slightly, the weight of something standing atop it.
Summoning her energy and putting her arms above her head, she launched herself into the air with enough force to slam the trapdoor from its hinges and barrel into the closet, smashing whatever had been standing on it against the ceiling. The inhuman squeal and the sudden scrabbling of claws told her it was one of their monstrous hunting beasts, and Asha wasted no time crushing it against the ceiling.
A URIEL guardsman stood in the doorway, dumbstruck for the briefest second before raising the rifle in his hands. A single hard boot to the chest sent him flying across the hall and crumpling against the wall.
“Let’s go!” Asha shouted down the hall before rushing out of the closet.
Leyla was the first behind her, his flaming sword in hand as he ran into the fray. The sounds of crashing had called in the other troopers, and Leyla and Asha knew they couldn’t get bogged down in an extended engagement. Instead they worked together, pushing towards the back door with Hazif close behind them. Leyla was the close-combat specialist and took the front, his curved sword cutting through anything that got close enough. Asha moved behind Hazif, taking up the rear and using her bow at close range to take down anything in sight.
The backdoor led out into a narrow alley, and waiting for them were three more URIEL troopers and a monster bred for siege. It was huge, barely able to fit in the alley and looked like a stocky two-headed minotaur with scaly skin and sharp teeth. The troopers drew swords, clearly believing Asha and Leyla were spirits or just trying to avoid friendly fire. They were piled tight in the alley, the monster down one end and the troops down the other. Without sparing a word Asha and Leyla split, Leyla rushing for the troopers as Asha struck at the monster.
The barrel-sized fists of the monstrous creature both came down with enough force to shatter pavement. Asha flapped her wings, flying back as she drew her bow, arrow flying to stab through the monster’s chest.
The beast seemed to hardly notice, trying to snatch her out of the air with surprising speed. Asha needed to keep low to avoid being spotted across the city, swerving low to slip through his fingers before pulling back another arrow to fire into his neck.
The second arrow dug deep, calling up a torrent of black blood that sent the beast into a rage, fists swinging wildly as they gouged great holes in the buildings in either side of the alley, scaled hands tearing easily through brick and stone. Spirit or not, Asha had no wish to see what they could do to her.
With the beast enraged, Asha knew she needed to end this quickly. It charged forward, putting Leyla and the other troopers at risk of being trampled. Asha drew back one more arrow, aiming carefully before it flew from the bowstring and dug deep into one of the creature’s four eyes. One head went slack, as did an entire half of its body. The beast toppled, one leg and arm still thrashing as it tried to right itself with only half its body. Another carefully drawn arrow, and Asha put the monster out of its misery just as Leyla had finished the troopers with his sword.
“Well, now that you’ve both shown off,” Hazif said. “Let’s leave.”
“Just stay close,” Asha rolled her eyes, grabbing Hazif by the sleeve as they sped off into the town, the sounds of battle no doubt bringing half the city’s guard down on them.
Both Asha and Leyla were quick to conceal their weapons and pull their essence, trying to blend in among the crowds as the streets swarmed with troopers and beasts, all of them rushing this way and that in a flood like they’d never seen before. People were being pushed off the street and ordered home as a new crackdown began.
It was around dusk when the fires began burning.
“That was the base beneath third street,” Hazif said, watching the light and smoke of a massive building fire rise into the air. “They’re finding more and more of them.”
“Maybe they’re not bothering with capture anymore,” Asha said. “Either it means they think they found them all or they want to intimidate us into staying quiet.”
“They haven’t found us all,” Leyla said. He’d been talking to a young man in a long robe, who hurried off into the darkness as Leyla turned to them. “I’ve got word of another cell making it out. That’s…more than two-thirds of known associates accounted for. This could have been much worse.”
“That’s almost a third unaccounted for,” Asha said. “And a very angry goddess when she learns most of her shrines have burned down.”
“This is the price of rebellion,” Hazif said. “I told you since the start to expect something like this.”
“If we’re going to be a rebellion,” Asha said. “Then it’s time to start acting instead of just waiting and reacting. This hit us badly, and the next one could hit even harder.”
“What would you do then?” Hazif asked. “Challenge Shadiya to single combat?”
“No,” Asha shook her head. “Not yet…but it’s time we started showing URIEL that we’re not going anywhere.”
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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa