“Copy Lab Rat, this is Blue Angel, beginning our descent.”
Asha spoke into the walkie-talkie before handing it back to Leyla. She hoped her voice could still be heard through the loud wind, as their descent was going to be very literal.
Asha was currently floating several thousand feet above the city of Babylon, able to see the entire city and surrounding desert laid out beneath them, the Tigris River flowing through the city’s multiple walls and making it a source of green in the desert. Asha told herself for the thousandth time, even if she was going to overthrow Shadiya, she’d make sure this green, those walls, and the city survived.
She began to swoop downwards, Leyla carried in her arms as the pair of them aimed for the massive palace complex at the city center, becoming clearer with every passing moment. It had been built in the style of a great Mesopotamian Ziggurat, the outer layer of sun-dried brick supporting a great glass ceiling that made it shine like a jewel during the day. According to plans smuggled from government offices, it functioned as a sunroof for Shadiya’s throne room.
It also made an excellent point of ingress.
Many of Shadiya’s monsters could flap their wings and glide short distances, but none could truly fly, which meant that the sky over Babylon was utterly clear as Asha descended, her brilliant blue and gold wings shining like a falling star as she approached.
“Get ready!” She shouted over the rushing wind as the two of them slammed into the glass feet-first with enough force to shatter one of the large shimmering planes, sending a shower of glittering glass beneath them as they flew down to the ground.
The throne room was a vast circular chamber, built from dark mud with gilded features in a series of arches supporting the glass roof. Long crimson banners fell from above, converging behind the opulent raised throne opposite the grant entrance. On the throne itself, a great seat of polished ebony and gold, sat Shadiya.
For a moment, even Asha was struck by the seated figure. From what Hazif and Leyla had described, she expected something more obviously demonic, the beautiful queen of her propaganda machine a mere artistic invention. Her face, however, was precisely the face seen across Babylon, beautiful and austere, tanned skin and dark hair above glittering gold eyes. It took only another second, however, for her to see the rest. A pair of long horns like those of a ram rose from the sides of her head, her fingers looked particularly sharp, and a long reptilian tail was coiled around the base of her throne. What she had at first thought was simply decoration for the throne soon proved to be an actual pair of draconic wings rising from her back, and they twitched with irritation as she stared down at them.
“And what…” Asha could feel the palpable level of enchantment in her voice. “Is this?”
With a shout, guards rushed into the chamber. These weren’t Uriel troopers, but instead fully armored men in armor and ceremonial clothing, carrying spears and shields in hand as they moved to surround Asha and Leyla.
Asha stepped forward as Leyla drew his sword, unfazed by the guard.
“Shadiya!” Asha shouted at the seated figure. “We demand you step down and hand control of the city to its people!”
Shadiya stared at her, face blank as their eyes met. There was a force like a hand grasping at Asha’s heart, and she felt her wings flutter as her spiritual aura burned around her. If she had been a normal human, she would have been on her knees.
“…Is that it? No threat? No demands for satisfaction? You want me to simply lay down my arms and surrender to…who exactly?”
“The people of Babylon,” Asha said. “And if at all possible, we would want a peaceful transition of power.”
“Ah right, ‘the people’,” Shadiya repeated the words with barely-hidden contempt. “The people whom I plucked from the desert like sand. The people who would be indulging in butchery, barbarism, and destruction of not for my guiding hand.”
“Your guiding hand is keeping them imprisoned and under constant threat!” Leyla stepped forward to join Asha. “You’re a petty dictator who’s cowed the population through fear and violence!”
“And look what I have built,” Shadiya gestured to the palace around them. “My jewel in the desert. My sanctuary in the storm. I have crafted the finest city in the world in which these people might live. Why would they not accept me as their queen? Why would they not love me and all that I do?”
Asha’s knees buckled at the last words, arms shivering as she worked to keep hold of her bow. This wasn’t Shadiya’s charm at work. There was something much more potent in her gaze now. She glanced at Leyla and saw he was struggling just as much as she was, those his eyes were fixed on Shadiya as he quietly hissed.
“Hmm?” Shadiya’s voice had returned to its original enchantment. “I know not the name. Boy. Although…”
She smiled for the first time, and for a second Asha felt the same compulsion of affection, that same desire she’d felt when she saw Ishtar. She shook her head, working to keep her head clear.
“You are a handsome young man to be sure, you could father such fine children.”
“Th-think again,” Leyla’s eyes were burning with fire. “This body’s off-limits, Shadiya!”
Shadiya’s face promptly fell.
“Ah, I see. There is something ugly living in that body of yours. I’ll have to rip that out before I make you mine forever.”
She glanced again at Asha, her eyes utterly void of emotion. “For women I have no use.”
Asha scowled. “People are not your playthings to be used or thrown away, Shadiya!”
“And why not?” Shadiya asked, flippantly waving her hand at Asha. “I am not human, but I provide and give humans all that they desire and demand only worship and the occasional sacrifice of blood. Does that not make me a Queen? Does that not make me a god?”
“You’re not a god, Shadiya, you’re a monster!” Leyla shouted.
Shadiya’s pupils narrowed into slits, her lips parting to reveal sharp teeth as she snarled with a voice that made the very foundations shake.
Vicious child of Ea’s design
Born from mud and blood of Kingu
Who was by godly power made to work the earth
And by my power made no more
At this outburst, even the guards seemed to quake, backing away from the throne as Asha and Leyla stood their ground.
“So I was right,” Leyla said, turning to Asha. “Shadiya might be Queen and URIEL might have made her…but the spirit of Tiamat is using her as a vessel.”
“So it’s not just a power-mad queen we’re dealing with,” Asha scowled. “But the ghost of a Primordial.”
“I don’t know where Tiamat is between life and death, but not even a Primoridal slain by the Prince of the Gods can stay dead,” Leyla said.
Shadiya rose to her feet, voice calming once more as she reclaimed herself.
“This is my city. In my hand, I crafted it from sand and blood. And it will exist in my palm so long as it amuses me, or I shall crush it between my fingers and let it fall to sand once more. Such is my right as Queen.”
“So you won’t step down peacefully?” Asha demanded. “You will hold this city to the very end?”
“It doesn’t have to be this way, Shadiya,” Leyla said. “We know the truth. You weren’t born this way, URIEL made you what you are…you don’t have to separate yourself from humanity.”
Shadiya’s eyes narrowed.
“URIEL…” She said the name with barely disguised contempt. “You drag its name before me like a beheaded corpse. They succeeded and in their success destroyed themselves. They sought to make a weapon and made instead a ruler. They sought to make a servant and instead they made a god. I was nothing before what I am now, and you offer me nothing as though it were gold.”
“Then I suppose there’s nothing left to be done.”
Shadiya raised a hand to signal their guards, who moved towards the pair of them, spears raised.
“No, nothing to be done save…” Her voice trailed off, eyes growing wide, and an instant later Asha and Leyla heard the first of the scattered roars of fear and pain echo from the city beyond.
“What have you done!?” Her fist slammed down on the arm of her throne before she rose to her feet.
“That’s probably our cue,” Leyla said.
“Agreed,” Asha nodded.
Together the two of them dove in opposite directions. Leyla hooked his arm around the spear of the closest guard, using his body as a fulcrum to skillfully disarm him before attacking the other guards, spear in one hand as the second drew his flaming shamshir. Asha took a flying leap over their head, going straight for the raised platform with Shadiya at its center. Hovering in the air, her silver bow formed in the air as she drew an arrow, aiming it straight for Shadiya’s heart before letting it fly.
With a swat of the hand, Shadiya deflected it in a flash of golden light, eyes burning with rage as she snarled at Asha.
“What have you done to my children!?”
Asha took hold of her bow with both hands, feeling the supernatural material reform itself as the bow itself split in two. As she landed in front of Shadiya, the halves of the bow reworked themselves into a pair of shining scimitars. Shooting a bow hadn’t been the only thing Christie had taught her at The Line.
Shadiya didn’t draw a weapon, baring her clawed fingers like an animal, long tail rising and letting Asha see the ornate golden spoke affixed to the end. This wasn’t going to be a civilized fight.
Asha flew forwards, feet skipping across the ground as her wings brought her to Shadiya, blades flashing as she swung at Shadiya’s neck and torso. Asha didn’t know what her weapon was made of specifically, but whatever spiritual material it was wasn’t strong enough, as the hardened bone and claws of Shadiya’s fingers deflected the edge of her swords without leaving a mark. Asha only hoped the rest of her wasn’t as resilient.
Shadiya had the figure that could be expected of a would-be goddess, and it fit her enticing persona, but Asha didn’t expect just how immensely strong she was. When her blade caught a swipe from Shadiya’s hand, Asha could feel herself being forced along the ground from the power of the blow alone.
As they fought, another surge of roars came from outside, followed by another. Even in the thick walls of the palace and the sound of combat the growing cacophony was clear as the monsters lost control.
“Hear that!?” Leyla shouted at the guards, doing his best to disarm them rather than kill. “Shadiya’s monsters are out of control and fleeing the city! Now’s your chance to run!”
A few of the guards hesitated, some near the back pulling away but others pressed forward, forcing Leyla to engage again.
“You’d dare tear children from their mother!” Shadiya roared, seizing the blades of Asha’s sword. “You’d attack them to stab at her heart, you barbarians!”
“Your ‘children’ are man eating monsters!” Asha shouted back, tearing her swords free as she redoubled her assault. “And they need to be expelled from the city!”
Shadiya snarled, and once more Asha saw that terrible glow in her eyes. When her voice came again, it did like a crashing of a thousand ocean waves, resonating with a vast depth.
You seek to free that which is safely contained
To lay ruin to the cradle of the stars
From throne on high we take our place again
Mother, destroyer, protector of all
“The people don’t need your kind of protection, Tiamat,” Asha hissed.
Shadiya seized one of Asha’s wrists and with impossible strength hurled her across the room. Asha managed to catch herself in the air, using her wings to brake herself as she raised her swords again. Taking a deep breath she called up more from the well of power within herself, feeling the light fill her body as it spread from her heart to her eyes and hands, her swords igniting with white fire.
“Surrender or not, I’m going to tear that Primordial out of you, Shadiya! And send it back to the darkness it crawled out of!”
Shadiya roared and leaped into the air after her, bat-like wings flapping as she threw herself at Asha. The two of them came to blows in mid-air, forced almost immediately into a grapple as they rolled through the air this way and that.
The Striking malice takes the North
The Sinuous Chaos to the South
The Father of Monsters sieges the mountain
The resurrection of my great ocean will be done
Shadiya roared at her with Tiamat’s voice, and Asha slammer her hard into a pillar.
“Don’t be so sure on that,” She growled at her. “Nidhoggr falls today, and you’ll go down with him.”
With a great flap of her wings Asha slammed Shadiya into the floor, landing on top of her as she tried to pin her down.
“Leyla!” She shouted. “Help me!”
Leyla rushed over from where he had managed to subdue the guards or convince them to flee. Kneeling down beside her, sword in hand.
“Do we-“ He said, starting to raise his sword as Asha struggled to keep Shadiya pinned despite her immense strength.
“N-no!” Asha shouted. “I want to…ah, let’s burn this thing out of her!”
Asha tossed on of her swords aside, raising a hand as she focused all of her divine energy into it, her palm and fingers glowing white with righteous energy. Beside her, Leyla did the same, the fire spirit within him focusing all of its tremendous power into his hand.
Together, the two of them pressed their hands to Shadiya’s roaring face over her eyes.
Instantly, Asha winced, bracing her arm with her other hand just to keep from having it forced back. They had been right, something terrible and tremendously powerful was lurking in Shadiya’s spirit. She remembered the way her skin had burned slightly when Hazif had first touched her, or the way a liar’s skin felt against her hand. This was like seizing a white-hot fire, the skin of her hand burning intensely as Tiamat’s spirit raged against her.
The sky itself seemed to darken around them, a shadow spreading across the floor around Shadiya.
“Hold onto it!” Leyla shouted, clearly in pain as he struggled to keep his grip.
Asha nodded, keeping herself focused as she tried to burn the corruption out of Shadiya.
Her vision blurred and, for a second, everything went black. Asha was floating in a void, the palace and Leyla gone as she was alone in an infinite blackness. It felt like…floating. Like being deep underwater with no sea bottom or surface, and though she could see nothing, she could feel that she was not alone. The void shifted, and she knew that there was something colossal, larger than even a mountain, lurking in the lightless void.
Tiny light of Ohrmazd
Tiamat’s voice echoed all around her.
The great ocean consumes
Before the split of sky and earth
A world held in dragon’s womb
As it was so shall it be again
Asha could feel the fear grinding in her heart. She was floating alone in the darkness of a primordial sea, surrounded by the bulk of an invisible leviathan.
“N-no…” Asha managed to stammer into the darkness. She steeled herself, bringing forward her resolve. “Not today, not ever again!”
She blinked into the void, and from the darkness she could see its eyes. Great sea-green eyes of light that whirled in the darkness, each larger than any ship as they stared at her with an empty gaze.
“This isn’t your world anymore, Tiamat. There’s sky and land, heat and cold, truth and lies, evil and righteousness, and there are people who will never let you take it back!”
With a burst of light the vision vanished, the void dispersed as she was once more in the palace beside Leyla.
A scream ripped through the air, a monstrous shriek that reverberated across the walls and sent the few remaining guards scattering from the throne room. The shadow beneath Shadiya ripped itself free, sliding across the stone floor before beginning to vanish, unable to hold its form with its vessel destroyed as the terrible spirit was dispersed across the world again.
Both Leyla and Asha let out a long sigh of relief. Shadiya had stopped struggling, apparently unconscious as she lay beneath them, eyes glazed over.
“What do we do with her?” Leyla asked, checking to make sure it wasn’t a trick.
“I don’t want to make this some bloody coup,” Asha said, brow furrowing. “We need to make sure she’s bound and-“
Her words halted as Shadiya began to stir, slowly and weakly as Asha and Leyla both pinned her down. When she opened her eyes, Asha saw that the shimmering gold had changed into a mundane brown.
“Where…who are you?” She asked, her voice quiet, almost meek. “Where am I?”
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa