Noemi woke up early in the morning, sunlight peeking through the corners of her windows, as she had more often as of late. With a yawn and a stretch, she slid out of her bed, grabbing her snake amulet and placing it around her neck. Engraved in the center was the symbol of the Feathered Serpent, Ophidia’s ancient cult. She stumbled out of her bedroom into the common room, where Junko was already eating breakfast.
“Morning, boss,” Junko said, holding out a cup of tea for the still groggy red head. Noemi took it gratefully as she settled down at the table.
Things had settled into a sort of normalcy on the island after Noemi and Junko had led the spirits of the jungle back to the village. Riled up as they were, it didn’t take long to overwhelm the Jaguar priest and with the Tess’s cult cowed and captured, the village had been more than willing to put the would-be-conquerors on a merchant ship bound for the mainland.
“Aztlan will not take this lightly,” Nicholas, one of the locals, had said. The people of the village were gathered by the docks, watching the sails of the trading vessel disappear into the horizon.
Noemi nodded her head, her eye steeled. “No, they won’t. Especially with Tess…Tezcatlipoca knowing I’m here. But she’s not stupid. This island isn’t worth much to her besides…indulgences. I have a plan.”
They would need protection, from the naval fleet of Aztlan and marauding pirates. Lucky for them, their port was a waypoint on one of the larger Caribbean trade routes. Whenever a ship came to dock at port, Noemi greeted them personally, wearing the amulets of the serpent she had made. Ophidia had often stood by her side, in as much divine splendor as she could muster.
Noemi, as representative of the Cult of the Feathered Serpent and with growing influence among the village, often bore with her contracts with her cult’s seal, as well as Nicholas’ signature, offering preferred prices on food and water to restock their hulls. In return, those who bore the letters would offer their protection of the port, keeping the waters around it free of Aztlan ships. While at first, most were skittish, it didn’t take too long before Noemi found captains who hated Aztlan with a fiery passion. Former pirates and exiled merchants gladly offered their protection as privateers, to strike back at the hated power. Soon, there was always at least one ship or so near the small port. While Aztlan had sent raiders from time to time, they found the village far better protected than they had expected and eventually, as Noemi had predicted, the Aztlan sails were rarely seen.
As the people felt more secure, thanks to her efforts, more and more of them started wearing the amulets as well. Noemi led the rituals as Ophidia directed, often just prayers over an offering of some small mammal they had hunted. Ophidia would stand beside her, ready to accept the prayer, before taking to the skies in her Winged Serpent form, the offering in her mouth.
“Do you actually eat the offerings?” Noemi had asked.
“I do. While a simple vole or mouse would not do anything for a spirit, these are offerings. They serve as almost…vessels for the spiritual energy that the prayers give me. Eating these is similar to you eating your dinner. It provides me sustenance.”
“So you literally eat them…like tear them apart and chew?”
“Well, it is the quickest way of breaking them down.”
Things had been going well for Noemi, enough that she had finally started to be able to walk through the town openly without looking over her shoulder constantly. The cult of the Feathered Serpent had gotten a solid foothold and, with Junko’s help, had earned the trust and allegiance of the many minor spirits in the jungle around the village.
“Mm, what’s on your mind, boss?” Junko asked, taking Noemi out of her thoughts.
“Ah, I was just thinking of how Ophidia’s cult is really starting to get some momentum. The people seem so much happier than when we got here. Ophidia has really helped them prosper.”
“Well, you as well. You’re a natural cult leader, boss,” Junko teased, taking a bite of her breakfast plantain.
“Ugh, when you say it like that…” Noemi muttered. “But there’s more food and water than ever, they’ve had great weather, and we’re starting to make real friends with the privateers.”
“The privateers I think are mostly from your efforts, Noemi,” Junko said. “Though it’s amazing this little merchant’s alliance you’ve got assembled, loose as it is.”
“When enough people hate Aztlan,” Noemi said. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as they say.”
“So what’s on your plate today, boss?” Junko asked.
“Going on a fishing trip. The villagers asked for Ophidia to bless the voyage and it’s been a while since I’ve been on the water. I figured I’d join them, Ophidia can fly around a bit, and we’ll come back with a lot of fish.”
“Sounds pretty easy.”
“Should be. What are you doing today?”
“Mm, probably going to explore the jungle some more. Do some survival training,” Junko shrugged.
“I’ve got dinner taken care of, so just enjoy yourself then,” Noemi said with a smile as she finished her tea, grabbing her coat as she stepped out of Nicholas’ home. The innkeeper and sort of mayor had generously offered to house them again, though without any fee, though Noemi and Junko still did what they could to keep his pantry full.
As Noemi headed to the port, she saw Ophidia ahead of her, flying among the clouds in her spirit serpent form. Once, she had been able to fit around Noemi’s shoulder or her arm, now the goddess was almost large enough that Noemi could imagine herself riding on her back. She grinned, not sure how Ophidia would take to the idea, but it would certainly put a fear of them into the heart of any Aztlan patrol or raiding ship they came across.
The fishermen were standing at the edge of the pier, in one of the larger fishing vessels the village had. The children had gathered around, pointing and laughing with joy as Ophidia looped about the sky before diving down, transforming into her human shape. Noemi respectfully bowed to the goddess, as the villagers all rubbed their amulets.
“Ready, Ophidia? Are the winds fair?”
“They are. The sea is calm and the clouds have been sent away. We should have a prosperous yield.”
The villagers all said the prayers and sang her praises, Noemi smiling as she stepped aboard the fishing ship. “Whenever you’re ready, boys!”
The winds were at their backs, filling their sails as they set off from the village, though the mountains of the island were always there on the horizon. Noemi found it easy to slip back onto her sea legs as she walked along the rocking ship, helping out where she could despite the insistence of the fishermen.
“Please, priestess, allow us,” one of the fisherman said, as Noemi moved to help haul the net out of the water.
“Hah! This isn’t the first time I’ve been on a ship, you know!” Noemi said, with good cheer as she tugged on the ropes. “It feels wrong to not be busy and moving about!”
The sun rose across the sea as they continued to slowly drift over the low waves, pulling in yield after yield of fish. The fishermen were laughing and singing, as Ophidia stepped lightly on board, watching with satisfied eyes. Those who felt her gaze upon them said a quick word of praise, rubbing the amulets, before continuing about their work.
Around noon, Noemi felt a cool wind blowing from the east. It bit right through her clothes, sending shivers down her spine. “E-eh? Ophidia?”
…I can see a shadow beneath the water, Noemi.
Noemi took a deep breath to steady her nerves. “Captain, that strange wind…I believe we should turn back.”
“A-aye,” the captain stuttered. The men had suddenly lost their good cheer. “Make for port, men! We have enough fish for weeks!”
With the order given, the fishermen got to work, trying to turn the ship around, sailing now against the cold wind. It began to howl, rocking the ship to the side as the waves started to pick up.
“This is no ordinary wind!” the captain shouted over the gusts.
“No kidding!” Noemi shouted back. “Ophidia, what is…Aah!”
Before the goddess could even reply, Noemi saw the prow of a ship climbing its way to the top of the waves, rotted wood dripping with briny waters. As the waves rolled forward, more of the ship rose, its white, cut sails bearing no markings, but Noemi needed none to know this ship. Her face went white.
“The Dutchman,” she whispered, staring in wide eyes at the familiar man-o-war. It couldn’t be her time already, could it? This was to be an easy voyage. After all that, a simple fishing trip was to be her end?
The men were all whispering, frozen in fear. Noemi hoped they’d stay like that a little longer, though she could feel the tension boiling beneath their white faces. Eventually terror would drive them to panic, and once the first lost it, all hell would break loose.
Noemi gritted her teeth as she stepped to the prow of her ship.
“Jonah! This better be some kind of joke, do you hear me?! There’s no way it’s our time!”
“Hehe, now that’s the kind of spirit I wish all captains showed when we arrive!” A giggling feminine voice said, right below Noemi. The red head blinked, and looked down. There, hanging off a rope attached to the bow, was an elf in a tricorn hat, smiling up at her.
“The one and only! We’re not here for your people, Red, we’re here for you!”
“I-It can’t be, I…how?!”
“Nah, not like that. Cabin Boy needs to talk to you. Almost makes me jealous, but he says it’s the captain’s orders.”
Noemi looked over her shoulder at the faces of the fishermen. Terror had given way to confusion, though their eyes were still flecked with fear. Ophidia stood before them and stepped towards Noemi, nodding.
“…Prepare me a boat, men. The Dutchman isn’t going to take me forever. Still, get yourselves back to port.”
“Yes, priestess!” They said, springing back into action as a rowboat was lowered into the water, Noemi climbing down the ladder to it. Ronny shrugged her shoulders as she saw Noemi rowing away and let go of her rope, falling back into the water and swimming to the rowboat.
“So you’re a priestess now, huh? Guess you got that cult going after all!”
“Yeah, Ophidia is doing a lot better now. She’s definitely…grown as well.”
“Well, Jonah has a few things he wants to discuss. Figure he can explain it better.”
Ronny chattered away as the two of them rowed to the Dutchman, catching Noemi up on what had been going on in the ship, most of it focused on Jonah. By the time they had made their way to the other ship, Noemi was sure the pretty elf was obsessed with the “useless, bossy cabin boy” she was complaining so much about.
Climbing the ladder to the deck, Noemi could feel the unnatural chill settle over her again. She had almost forgotten what it felt like, having spent so much time in the warmth of the sun. Jonah was waiting for her on the deck.
“Good to see you again, Noemi.”
“Sooner than I thought. What’s up?”
“Mm, we’ve been having a lot of trouble with ghost ships. A lot more have been rising up lately, especially in the waters of the North. We’ve been fighting nonstop since we dropped you off.”
“Eh? You don’t think that I have anything to do with that do you? How could I-“
“No, no, it’s not that you’re the cause! It’s just, uh, we’re looking for more help. Want to join back up with our crew?”
Noemi stared at him in confusion for a moment before her eyes went wide. She raised her hands in front of her shaking them emphatically. “Wait, wait, wait…you want me to just pack up everything to sail around on the Dutchman again? But, that’s…It’s a ship of the dead!”
“Please, Noemi…I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t of the utmost seriousness. I know what it must be like for one of the living to sail with us…”
“Besides, what of Ophidia? We just got her cult started and…”
“Actually, I believe it is wise for us to go.”
Noemi jumped as she heard Ophidia’s voice behind her. The feathered goddess stood aboard the deck, looking at Noemi with determined eyes.
“I have gained much strength thanks to your efforts, Noemi. Enough that I can now be both here on the ship with you and on the island, with the cult. You have done well as my priestess, but I need you as my champion once more and I wish to speak with Jormungandr once again. Junko has a way with spirits and while she may not be as much of a leader, I will help her keep the villagers faithful in your absence.”
Noemi folded her arms, giving the goddess a determined stare back, ready to refuse. Still, Ophidia’s words made sense. This was a chance to get her more power, as the World Serpent had offered.
“Fine. I’ll help, but on one condition, Jonah,” she said, turning to the cabin boy. “When I need your help against Aztlan, the Dutchman helps. Deal?”
Jonah sighed. “I suppose I’ll…bring it to the captain.”
“And I want to stop at the village first. I owe it to them to explain it.”
Ophidia tilted her head. “Shall I tell them now? They are starting to gather at the port.”
“Just tell them I’ll be back! Besides…I need to say goodbye to Junko. I’m not going to leave her behind, just like that.”
“I already heard, boss,” Junko’s voice said, making Noemi jump.
“Ophidia’s been filling me in. I get it. I’ll do what I can while you’re away,” Junko said, a spirit of her appearing before Ophidia, dwarfed by the tall goddess.
“Mm…Do you think you can handle it, Junko?”
“It’s fine, just make sure you don’t leave us here for too long, boss. I don’t know how to bully the merchants as well as you.”
“You’ll do okay, I think, Junko,” Noemi said with a smile. “I guess…This is a temporary goodbye.”
“I’ll see you when you’re back, boss!”
“See you, sidekick…”
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa