The Snake and the Mirror

The Rising Dawn

 

“What do you have to show me?” Asha walked with Varia and Leyla through the streets of Babylon, towards where one of the broadcast towers had been torn down. Over the past week, although there was still chaos in the upper echelons, something resembling normalcy had begun to set in.

Signs of the end of Shadiya’s reign were everywhere. The great paintings and murals depicting her benevolent image were being torn down, most of the monsters had fled or been forcibly evicted with the remains of URIEL either captured or exiled as well. The Palace was now being called the City Capitol, and there, hundreds of people gathered each day to debate the future of the city. It was a mess, and one Asha had to help arbitrate, but the city would not be ruled by a supernatural dictator.

“This,” Varia said as they cleared a temporary fence surrounding the tower. “This is how Shadiya’s towers were compelling the monsters.”

Each of the broadcast towers had been topped by a large iron dome, and the dome of this one had been sundered open when it fell. Asha visibly shuddered as she looked at what had spilled out of it and into the streets. It looked more than a little like an enormous brain, slimy and revolting as it lay half-spilled out of its metal shield.

“The hell is it?” Asha asked, not wanting to step closer.

“If I had to guess…this was either a more horrible brood of hers, or another misbegotten URIEL experiment.”

“Disgusting,” Leyla said. “We’ll have to bring all the towers down. Burn it all.”

“Agreed,” Varia said. “One more task for the list.”

Asha sighed. “It gets longer every day. And we’re not making much progress in forming a government.”

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Leyla said. “Didn’t you say it took Rome months?”

“Something like that…” Asha nodded. “But we still have one big problem.”

“Agreed,” Varia said. “Though I might have a solution; shall we go see her?”

“Let’s,” Asha nodded.

Together the three of them made their way deeper through the city, closing the covered fence surrounding the tower until it could be dealt with. They walked to a small building near the palace that Asha and the others had been using as a place to stay, away from the crowds of the Capitol and the rising prominence of the Ishtar Cult’s temples. Most importantly, it was a place with a small secure vault in the basement where a person could be hidden away.

Inside were Eli and Hazif, chatting as they sat beside the window.

“Welcome back, boss,” Eli said as they entered. Hazif merely greeted them with a polite nod.

“Your darling busy, Hazif?” Leyla smiled.

“She’s downstairs,” Hazif shrugged it off. “Though you might want to call her off because the ghost has been pestering her.”

Asha sighed. “Of course she has.”

Asha pulled a rug aside, revealing a small trapdoor with an embedded lock. Unlocking it with a key from her belt, she slipped inside first with Leyla and Varia close behind her.

The trapdoor led down into a cellar, one part of which had been sealed off with a wall and sturdy door to isolate it completely. Standing guard at the door were Constance, floating a little off the ground, and Freny, who seemed at the very edge of her temper.

Given her company, Asha could hardly blame her.

“Freny, you’re relieved,” Asha said. “Hazif is upstairs.”

Freny didn’t need telling twice, brushing quickly past them and all but launching herself up the stairs both to meet Hazif and get away from Constance.

“What have you been doing to her, demon?” Asha said, putting her hands on her hips.

“Absolutely nothing,” Constance smiled.

“Which is also what you were doing when we were saving the city,” Asha growled.

“Be honest with yourself, would you really want me around?” Constance smiled. “I’m good at some things, coup d’états are not on that list.”

“I don’t like having you around at all,” Asha said. “But I also don’t like not knowing where you are.”

“Perhaps that won’t be your problem for very long,” Constance’ smile never wavered.

Asha decided not to take her rise and instead went to the door, unlocking the heavy steel lock as she swung it open.

The room was outfitted much like a prison cell, nothing but a bed, sink, and small toilet without windows or any real distraction. Sitting on the bed, hands on her knees, was Shadiya, or at least what was left of her.

Shadiya looked at Asha inquisitively, with none of the malice that had filled her in their battle at the palace.

“Oh, you’re back,” She said innocently. “I didn’t know I would have visitors today.”

“I see,” Varia said, stepping past Asha to get closer to her. “And you’re saying she remembers nothing? Are you sure it isn’t a ruse?”

Asha moved forward, gently but firmly taking hold of Shadiya’s wrist.

“Do you know who you are?” Asha asked.

“No, I told you already I don’t,” Shadiya said, and Asha didn’t feel so much as a tingle run through her fingers.

“She’s not lying,” Asha said.

“There are more tests I’d like to run,” Varia said. “But if that is the case, then my only guess is that when you purged Tiamat from her spirit, it had some unintended side-effects on her mind. The URIEL conditioning on her must have been rigorous. This is likely what they wanted Shadiya to be, powerful yet suggestible, her old life entirely erased. But Tiamat slithered into that blank slate and made something monstrous.

“Umm…excuse me,” Shadiya said softly. “Can either of you tell me who I am? Am I supposed to just sit here?”

“We’re…working on that,” Asha said, and with a gesture she led the two of them back out of the cell, sealing it and Shadiya behind the door.

“So, we don’t have many options,” Asha said. “People are asking what happened to Shadiya. They want a corpse, though a few just want her back in power.”

“Not surprising,” Varia said. “She’s the only stable thing a lot of them have known the past few years.”

“Eli said if that this truly is all that’s left of her, then executing her does no one any good,” Leyla said. “And I agree. We needed Shadiya overthrown; we don’t need a new city built on the image of her severed head.”

“I’ve stalled the people all I can,” Asha said. “Soon enough, I’ll have to tell them what happened.”

“You could lie,” Varia said. “Say she died in your attack on the palace and was incinerated. How many people know she’s here?”

“Only a handful,” Asha said. “And I…I don’t know, maybe someone could do it but I’m not about to tell that kind of lie, especially not when Shadiya is right here in the city.”

“My, my, such a web you’ve made for yourself,” Constance smiled. “See? Isn’t constantly telling the truth so inconvenient?”

“Shut it,” Asha growled. “What are your thoughts, Doctor?”

Varia sighed, hands on her hips. “Keeping her alive in the city is a problem unless you plan to announce what you’re doing. And if you do that she’ll only become a martyr for the people who still want her in power. And as this entire revolution was built upon destroying her image as a leader, you can’t very well make her your puppet, easy as it might be now.”

“If we did that we’d just be URIEL all over again,” Leyla said.

“There is an alternative,” Varia said, putting her hand to her chin.

“And that is?” Asha asked.

“Exile,” Varia said. “Whether public or just to cover the lie that’s said, banish her from the city, make sure she never returns and she’s going somewhere far away.”

“How can we do that?” Asha asked. “She’s not self-sufficient enough to survive out there. It’d just be a death sentence, sending her out to die of exposure while risking she might be seen or wander back.”

Varia shook her head. “Not if you sent her with someone to look after her, someone you trust who is going far away, with no intention of coming back.”

“…Ah,” Asha said. “Right…”

“Mind filling me in?” Leyla asked.

“I plan to leave Babylon within a fortnight,” Varia said. “I’m going to Rome.”

“Rome is a long way,” Leyla said. “And there’s a lot of evil between there and here.”

“I might look like a lab rat, but I can take care of myself,” Varia said. “Besides, Shadiya might not know her own strength right now, but I have no doubt there’s still a lot of power in there.”

“You’d be willing to do that?” Asha asked. “She’s not going to be easy to look after, and if she relapses…”

“I still remember most of URIEL’s old trigger phrases. I’ll run some tests over the next week or so like I said, but I should be able to have some contingencies. I don’t plan to walk into the desert unarmed in any sense of the word.”

“Alright, but I want to be present for all of these tests,” Asha said.

“Of course,” Varia said. “Good to have a living lie detector…but if she really is a lost soul erased under URIEL’s condition, then maybe this time I have the chance to put it right.”

“Then that’ll be our plan for now,” Asha said.

Later that evening found Asha on the building’s second floor balcony, looking out over the city.

“Surprised you’re not in your book with Cat,” Leyla said as he moved behind her, sliding a hand around her waist. “You two have been talking nonstop recently.”

“Heh, I wish,” Asha smiled. “We just exorcized the ghost of a Primordial, Cat took on a live one by herself.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Leyla said. “We got away with some pretty amazing things there. And we have a city to keep from tearing itself open.”

“I’m worried about it,” Asha sighed. “What if we just wind up with another dictator?”

“If we do,” Leyla said. “Then it’ll at least be a dictator that the people chose, and we can deal with that if we need to. Besides, the city is getting proper divine patrons now. I hear there are shrines of Marduk and Ea being built now, people won’t need a human figure to worship like they worshipped Shadiya.”

Asha leaned on the railing of the balcony. “I suppose…though I don’t think either of us are really cut out for this kind of political work.”

“We’ll just get the ball rolling,” Leyla said. “Make sure it’s safe, make sure it’s a city that helps its people and becomes a proper sanctuary…then you and I can go back out into the desert, hunting monsters.”

“Well we have the others along as well now,” Asha smiled. “I bet Freny would like the hunting life.”

“No doubt,” Leyla nodded, pulling her in closer. “But no matter what, no matter where we go, there’s always going to be you and me, got it?”

Asha smiled, leaning into him. “Heh, that is at least one good thing that came out of this, isn’t it? You know Cat won’t stop teasing me about it.”

“Isn’t Cat dating someone herself now?”

“Mmhmm, her friend Rosa.”

“Well give her hell about that,” Leyla smiled.

“Already do,” Asha said, grinning. “She’s really easy to tease, just like you.”

“I’m not THAT easy to tease.”

“Oh, you absolutely are,” Asha smiled. “But that’s half of why I keep you around.”

“I think I liked you more when you were in that glass box.”

Asha chuckled as she leaned against him. “So…any idea where we’re going next?”

“Not a clue,” Leyla said. “But it’s a big world. I’m sure we’ll find something.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

 

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