The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 47

 

“We need to go,” Asha said as the alarms continued to blare outside. “Now, before any questions.”

“Agreed,” Varia, the scientist, said as she walked briskly towards the door. “Standard protocols say it should take them another minute and forty-five seconds to reach this floor. Come along.”

“Er…come along where?” Leyla asked, still holding his sword tightly in his hand.

“URIEL built these bases like rat nests,” Varia said contemptuously. “A dozen ways in and out that they’re actually very poor at keeping track of, as you no doubt realized breaking in here.”

“So you know a secret tunnel out?” Asha said. “Besides the one we took?”

“Several,” Varia nodded. “The one I have in mind leads into the sewers.”

She continued at a brisk jog into the hall and Asha, Freny, and Leyla hesitantly followed. The rest of the huddled scientists traveled with them, none of them keen on remaining there when security forces arrived.

Varia led them down a side hall and into a shaft clearly meant for maintenance crews, if it had ever been meant for people at all.

“And this leads out?” Asha asked suspiciously.

Freny bent down next to the small grate over the shaft, ripping it free before sniffing the air.

“I smell outside.”

“I’ll happily go first,” Varia said, bending down and crawling into the cramped passage.

“I’ll take up the rear,” Leyla said. “In case something’s up…and to make sure that we leave a fiery surprise for URIEL.”

“Alright,” Asha nodded. “If they start shooting get moving.”

“No heroics, got it,” Leyla smiled and Asha followed Varia into the pipe with the scientists behind them.

The shaft extended only a few feet into the wall before opening into a large tunnel dug through the stone beneath the city, the passage’s end blocked only by a filter that Varia easily knocked aside, sliding out before helping the others to do so.

“Well…we didn’t walk right into URIEL security…” Asha said, glancing around. “Why are you so eager to help?”

“Like I said,” Varia placed her hands on her hips. “All I needed to leave this place was opportunity, which you were kind enough to provide. I used to work for URIEL but now I’m all but enslaved.”

“And what did you do for them?” Asha asked, one eye on the passage as the scientists and Freny followed.

“Applied metabiologics and thaumaturgical inheritance…in short, I studied how magic and biology worked together. I used to study mages before I was forced onto this project after the Days of Revelation.”

“And what project is that?” Asha said.

“Shadiya…keeping her alive, keeping her healthy and strong…and in the early days when I still worked willingly, I unwittingly aided in her creation.”

“Creation?” Asha asked, but as she did Leyla slipped in, the last of them to enter the large sewer tunnel.

“We might want to go,” He said. “There’s going to be a lot of smoke coming out of that soon.”

“Right,” Varia nodded. “This way.”

With some trepidation the group followed Varia. Given how the other scientists seemed either cowed or eager to follow her, Asha guessed she had been a lead, or at least admired among the staff. Still, she was wary, her bow ready and Leyla and Freny both tensed for a potential ambush. She had led them this far, but Asha wasn’t about to discount a trap quite yet.

The tunnel connected them into the sewer, as Varia had promised, and the group decided to split up to lower suspicion and divide the refugee scientists among the Cult of Ishtar’s hideouts. Freny and Leyla took several scientists one way, leaving Asha with Varia as they moved towards a hideout near the edge of the city. Now that they were moving through the primary tunnels of the city, Asha could orient herself and more easily lead the way.

“Alright, let’s get talking again,” Asha said, eyeing Varia.

“About what?” Varia said.

“Where we left off. You said you were involved in making Shadiya, like she’s some kind of Frankenstein’s monster rather than a…natural monster.”

“Which would make me Frankenstein,” Varia said. “Not inaccurate…and yes, Shadiya was made into what she is, she was not ‘born’ that way.”

“How? And how can we use that to overthrow her?” Asha asked. “We need any lead we can get.”

“Shadiya is not a mish-mash of random monster parts put into human form. Such a thing would likely never live and would be nigh-impossible to ever control,” Varia said. “No, Shadiya was once a human being like you or…well I guess just like me, seeing as you’re not particularly mundane.”

Asha frowned but said nothing.

“Shadiya was a local refugee dragged into our Babylon compound from the desert. That’s one thing about the end of the world, plenty of the desperate who either won’t or can’t fight back.”

“So you kidnapped people and experimented on them,” Asha glared at Varia.

“No,” Varia shook her head. “I never…I was in the purely theoretical branch. My research was in grafting spiritual essence…healing with mana. That’s all I did, research and reports. I wasn’t allowed anywhere near a lab after…well it’s not important but I would never condone the kinds of things they did with my research.”

“You had to have known how it would be exploited,” Asha said. “If that kind of research could be twisted so easily, you had to have imagined that use. Particularly working for an organization like URIEL.”

“I…” Varia took a moment to remain silent, picking her words. “There were mitigating factors involved. Everyone knew that we were one bad report away from being thrown into the desert…I tried to emphasize the usefulness of my healing data to the organization while…downplaying or leaving out alternative applications. I was hoping no one would be willing to read between the lines and find what I didn’t want them to do, but even if they did…I had no idea they were putting it in practice to such a degree.”

“We’ll get to how guilty you are in all this later,” Asha said. “What is Shadiya? And how do we depose her?”

“Shadiya is a human who has had her spiritual essence merged with that of several potent cacodaemons. While humans can acquire spiritual power similar to that of a monster, as is the case with vampires, forcing this transformation through artificial means is…damaging to say the least.”

“Damaging?”

“Let me think…mmm one way of putting it is…you have an inflatable balloon attached to two pipes. One forces gas in and one forces gas out. You start pouring in more gas, but that makes the balloon inflate to an almost unstable degree, so you take out some gas through the pipe, but you can’t ensure which gas is being taken out, and the mixture that remains isn’t the concentration you need so you force more gas in…you keep doing that and you start to see problems, right?”

“How much of the original gas is left there?” Asha asked. “And what kind of gases were they putting in.”

“Good” Varia nodded. “You’re quick. Yes, that’s one moral issue. I have no idea how much of the woman that was Shadiya still exists in her, but I believe it to be minimal, suppressed under the fused essences of potentially dozens of cacodaemons. All of them compressed into this semi-human shell.”

“That’s…horrible.”

“It’s monstrous,” Varia nodded. “Unconscionable, cruel…and I was a part of it, wittingly or otherwise.”

“Alright…part two of my questions. How do we kill her?” Asha asked.

“Unfortunately, that’s much harder to determine,” Varia said. “I wasn’t privy to her creation, so I can’t say for sure what’s in her, what weaknesses she inherited.”

“What about the other scientists?” Asha asked. “Did any of them work on her?”

“No, they were all focused in other areas,” Varia shook her head.

“Then where are the people who made her? If they can tell us what they pumped into Shadiya…” Asha said.

“They’re dead,” Varia said. “All of them. Shadiya seized active control of URIEL not long after being made. Her first act was to personally murder everyone directly involved.”

“But not you?” Asha looked at her.

“I was safe by a degree,” Varia said. “She broke into my lab, hands and face covered in the blood of my former coworkers and told me, quite explicitly, what she would do to me if I stepped out of line or tried to make a replacement. You don’t need the details but needless to say it would take quite some time for me to die.”

“A replacement?” Asha asked.

“I’m not sure what she meant by that word,” Varia said. “Was she trying to prevent another from suffering the same fate…or simply ensuring she would never have competition? I never learned but I tried to keep as many walls between me and Shadiya as I could.”

“All this is interesting, but I need to know how to beat her,” Asha said.

“One possibility is straightforward. Purge the spiritual essence from Shadiya and only the human will remain…whatever little of that there may be left.”

“Purge the essence?” Asha asked.

“I’m not sure how it could be done, but I don’t know everything that you can do, so it was worth suggesting. The easier thing to do might simply be to kill her. There is still flesh and blood holding her together so while I have no doubt she will have superhuman resilience, a sword through the heart should still kill her.”

“True…” Asha nodded.

“Of course, there are many things between you and her,” Varia said. “A legion of armed troopers loyal only to her. A swarm of monsters she has personally bred to see her as an inviolable mother figure…and finally her own supernatural charisma, which I imagine would challenge even your resistance to the supernatural.”

“Right her…mind control,” Asha said. “I’ve heard of it.”

“It’s very real,” Varia said. “Though it’s not quite control more like…giving you an overriding compulsion, almost an addiction. If she commands something of a person, they develop a psychological need to perform it, and resistance is like going without an extreme addiction. I have seen the more strong-willed under her literally die from withdrawal as they attempted to defy her commands.”

Asha shivered. “And…it will be that strong on me?”

“I have no idea,” Varia said. “You don’t seem entirely human, so you may be more resilient. But the longer you’re exposed the more potent it will be. Whatever you plan to do to her, you need to do it quick.”

“Is there a way to protect me from it? Does she use pheromones or hypnosis or…?”

“Nothing quite so arcane,” Varia said. “It’s a spiritual compulsion, like a succubus but much more powerful.”

“Succubus…” Asha thought over the word carefully. “Does she…control her children the same way?”

“That is…a more interesting question,” Varia said. “I have my ideas, but I will need to look through the city to confirm it.”

“Confirm what?”

“That Shadiya’s power does not have the range to control all of her monstrous brood through the city. She’s using signal enhancers to do it…like boosting a radio signal with towers scattered through a city. There needs to be a physical component that’s keeping her monsters relatively tame…if that is how she’s doing it.”

“I’m not sure if we can have you scouting the city. Trust or not, you’ll be URIEL’s Most Wanted soon.”

“I can tell you and your people what I’m looking for,” Varia said. “And if we find that she does have signal towers…if she does need to boost her power to control her monsters, then we’ve found a hole in her armor we can exploit.”

“I think…” Asha started to say as they came to a ladder, sunlight streaming down through the grate above them and into the tunnel. “That something like that can be arranged.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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